- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

DETROIT (AP) - They took their lumps and came back for more.

Anyone grousing about the here today-gone tomorrow nature of the modern college basketball player will get a kick out of this year’s Final Four.

North Carolina and Villanova, Michigan State and Connecticut _ these are senior-laden teams with plenty of experience at school. And the school of hard knocks.

“When we knew everybody was coming back, our team had high expectations to get back to the same position we were last year,” North Carolina senior Tyler Hansbrough said. “That was kind of our mind-set the whole year.”

There are two seniors and three juniors in North Carolina’s starting lineup. All five could end up in the NBA _ but only when the time is right.

Hansbrough came back for all the “right” reasons: he loved college, had unfinished business, etc. No doubt he wanted a better ending to his college career than the semifinal loss to Kansas last year. The game where North Carolina fell behind 40-12 in the first half.

Danny Green, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson might have left if the NBA scouts had told them they were good enough. None were projected to go high, however, so the return seemed like the only thing to do. Coach Roy Williams said he’d only take them back under certain circumstances.

“Please understand, if you decide to come back, it’s not going to be about you,” Williams said of his conversations with the players. “I’m not going to get you 30 shots. I’m not going to figure out how to make you the leading scorer.”

But the Tar Heels were old enough to have learned that what was good for all would be good for one. Ranked No. 1 for much of the season, North Carolina (32-4) is back right where it wanted to be, playing Villanova in the semifinals.

In the other semifinal, it’s UConn (31-4) against Michigan State (30-6). Of the 10 starters, all but two are juniors or seniors. All have seen their share of rough times.

Last year, Tom Izzo’s Spartans looked like they were rounding into form, winning their first two tournament games easily. Then they ran into Memphis. Trailed 50-20 at halftime in the regional semifinals.

Senior Drew Neitzel needed a 3-pointer that bounced high off the rim twice and went in with 1:47 left to avoid a shutout in his last collegiate game. The rest of the players, including Travis Walton, Goran Suton, Marquise Gray and Raymar Morgan, got to come back for another shot.

Ditto for Kalin Lucas. The Big Ten player of the year is only a sophomore, but he plays much older.

“Remember, those guys are still young,” Izzo said last month after a loss in the Big Ten tournament. “We’re in an era where we think a sophomore is old because everybody should be leaving school. That’s the rare air, the rare breed that do that. Most guys have to mature. And I think we have some guys that have to do that.”

UConn has been through some drama, on and off the court. There was A.J. Price’s near-fatal brain hemorrhage in 2004, then his torn ACL last year. Jim Calhoun had his third bout with cancer last May. There’s been talk of recruiting violations and censure from the governor after Calhoun shouted down a reporter asking him about his salary. A 17-14 season two years ago had some people wondering if the luster had left a program that had won two championships since 1999.

Apparently not.

This team is, like the others, full of juniors and seniors and the rough times have made this trip that much sweeter.

“This team has given me incredible joy this season,” Calhoun said. “They were the tonic, quite frankly, the best medicine I could ever possibly receive.”

The Villanova players have stayed in school, largely because they have no other options.

Senior Dante Cunningham averages 16 points and seven rebounds but doesn’t have the size that NBA scouts like. Junior Scottie Reynolds has his end-to-end dash for that winning basket against Pitt, but one play does not get you into the pros.

The Wildcats have all upperclassmen in their starting lineup _ sound familiar? _ who have benefited from playing together for two or three years. Or more if you count those who played together in high school.

This is a team, not a collection of stars, seasoned in the toughest conference in the country. No big surprise, then, that they moved from back-to-back eighth-place finishes to fourth in the Big East this season.

And now, the Final Four.

“I couldn’t have scripted it any better, coming here, being able to play as a freshman, being with these guys that are basically from the same area,” Reynolds said. “Just growing as a Villanova basketball player, growing as a man. Hopefully that’s going to continue, not just the rest of this year, but next year as well.”

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