Senior class has rare depth, breadth and quality
After two seasons of freshman-filled frenzy, the 2008-09 season looks like a throwback to the 1990s, when the nation's best players were seniors.
The Class of '09 is certainly noteworthy for its combined skills. There's a returning national player of the year, a number of leading men from this season's Final Four and a plethora of big-time scorers. There is a surprising number of quality bigs and, perhaps more important in a year when the 3-point line is moving a foot farther out, a host of experienced guards who know how to orchestrate.
Somehow, this class stayed together in an age that the phrases "NBA-caliber" and "college senior" have become almost mutually exclusive. Injuries, draft question marks and a simple love of college have combined to create a class with breadth, depth and quality.
Here's a look at some of the different senior stories that will resonate throughout the upcoming season:
The face of the game
But although being the de facto face of college basketball might seem like enough to at least consider shunning first-round NBA draft status and the guaranteed millions that come with it, Hansbrough's decision to return to Chapel Hill was the result of more time-honored (and, in this era, archaic) thinking.
"I really enjoy going to school and being around my teammates, so it wasn't necessary for me to leave, and I didn't feel like I needed anybody or anything," Hansbrough said. "I love the situation here. It's going to be tough to beat that, so I figure I can wait one more year and improve on a lot of different things and hopefully be in a better situation next year for when I do have to go."
Disarmingly self-aware for a guy who averaged 22.6 points and 10.2 rebounds a game, Hansbrough explained that he wants to continue to extend the range on the face-up jumper he started to show last season. He also wants to work on improving his passing, defensive footwork and shot-blocking presence. At the college level, this is like nitpicking a brushstroke on a masterpiece, but it makes sense for his pro hopes.
Hansbrough is also driven for one more chance at team glory after Carolina suffered disappointing regional final and Final Four losses the past two seasons. To that end, he received big news on Monday when running mates Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green all withdrew from the NBA draft and announced they'll return for the upcoming season. With virtually everyone back, the Tar Heels should be the strong preseason favorite to win it all.
Before his teammates made their final draft decisions, Hansbrough laughed at suggestions that he was Carolina's version of Corey Brewer, who orchestrated the surprising return of Florida's core for another national title run in 2006-07. That the Heels will now face that same type of title-or-bust pressure, though, should suit Hansbrough just fine. Although winning the Naismith Award again would be a historic accomplishment, it's not why he came back.
"It seems like, at the end, no matter what individual award that you win, there's always that dissatisfying feeling at the end when you don't win the whole thing," he said. " A lot of people would say, 'What else do you have to accomplish?' For me, I've always wanted to win a national championship."
The path to redemption
Four years ago, the odds were far greater that Price would be nearing his third season in the NBA at this point. Instead, he didn't even get on the court until his third year in Storrs. A brain hemorrhage cost him his first season; involvement in a laptop theft his second. Then, after a rusty and inconsistent debut season in 2006-07, Price finally started to shine last season as he led the Huskies to a 24-9 record before shredding his knee. Now, instead of already having millions in the bank and living the NBA life, he spends his days launching a handful of flat-footed shots and taking cues from Kalana Greene and Mel Thomas, two UConn women's players who also tore their ACLs and are a bit ahead of him in the healing process.
It's not exactly how Price envisioned things would go, but he seems to have come to terms with the path he's taken.
"Earlier, as [the brain ailment] happened, it was very difficult [to be away from the game]. I think that led to a lot of other problems," he said, treading gently around his legal woes. "After maturing and growing up, the time off has really helped me. It's opened my eyes to a lot of different avenues and made me the person I am today."
It's easier for Price to have that attitude after his solid 2007-08 campaign. After the Huskies went a disappointing 17-14 in the 2006-07 season, UConn head coach Jim Calhoun fixed a solid portion of the blame on the team's inconsistent point guard play. That basically was a finger pointed right at Price, who was going through significant self-doubt as well.
"I absolutely felt like [Calhoun] wasn't sure anymore," Price said. "At one point, I did feel like that. Yeah, he's the coach and he's going to try to keep my spirits high, tell me what I need to hear. But it wasn't transferring on the court, so it made things kind of cloudy. Things just weren't clear for me at that time."
Things cleared up nicely last season when Price averaged 14.5 points and a team-best 5.8 assists a game, but they might get a little fuzzier again this season. The arrival of heralded freshman point guard Kemba Walker likely means Price will spend some time playing off the ball, even though his pro future clearly is at the 1. For Price, though, that's OK. He feels fortunate to have the chance to help UConn re-establish itself among the nation's elite, and showcasing his off-ball game won't hurt his prospects.
"For the next level, I've already proven I can play point guard," he said. "I played point all last year. I played point all throughout high school. I've played point forever. They know I can play that position. Right now, it's just focused on the bigger goal at hand. If that's what it has to take to do it, I'm going to have to play some 2, but they know I can play the 1."
The endless burden
That's how Greg Paulus, the lightning rod for all things Duke, has spent much of the past two seasons since J.J. Redick left his title of America's Most Hated-on Player. As Paulus was a much-more-heralded football recruit, the expectations placed on his hardwood career may not have been completely fair, but the over-the-top attention -- positive and negative -- is part of being a Blue Devil.
"I definitely learned a lot from J.J.," Paulus said. "He was a senior [my freshman year] and took a good majority of us and kind of passed it down. Just watching him how he dealt with [the attention], how it made him focused, how it made him concentrate harder. Just his reaction and response to the things and how he handled himself was a great example he set for me."
Paulus has been a key part of Duke teams that have failed to reach the Sweet 16 the past two seasons, but he's also been a member of some of the youngest Duke teams in recent memory. After Redick and fellow All-American Shelden Williams left after the 2005-06 season, the next two Blue Devils teams had a combined total of one contributing senior -- guard DeMarcus Nelson last season. For a program that has thrived on upperclassmen molding each new wave of Blue Devils, underclassmen's departures have had an impact.
Now Paulus is one of those seniors. He said he never wanted anything other than to be a four-year player, to get his degree, to experience playing for Mike Krzyzewski. But he knows that his legacy will be determined by how far next season's team goes. Duke has a lot of talent back from last season's club, which rose as high as No. 2 in the polls before fading down the stretch. Expectations are high. He says he's ready for all aspects of that challenge, even the road games at which opposing fans show little tact.
"I don't know that I can appropriately say some of the things you hear," he said with a chuckle. "I just don't feel like that would be suitable."
Others in this category: Dominic James, Marquette
The unassuming leader
So why did forward Sam Young barely even ponder leaving the program after his junior season?
"I decided the best thing for myself would be to go back to school, get my degree and have something to fall back on," he said. "Become a man. My mom always preached about getting a degree and stuff like that, so I definitely wanted to do that for my mother. Just becoming a Pitt alumni, that's priceless."
"When I do go into the NBA, I want to have polished every aspect of my game," added Young, who averaged only 7.2 points a game as a sophomore. " When the time comes next year, I feel like I'll be more ready -- physically, mentally -- to compete. I don't want to be one of those guys that goes to the NBA and sits on the bench."
Young's rise didn't come as a surprise to Dixon, who said the staff spoke to Young before last season about his presumptive role as the team's new go-to scorer. Dixon said the staff had to work with Young more on the off-court stuff -- both in the locker room and with the media -- that comes with being a star.
"For some [time], he'd rather do other things than talk, but now I think he embraces it and likes it," Dixon said about Young's leadership role. "It was part of being who he wanted to be. You can't pick and choose."
Asked whether he's worried about entering this season as a proven marked man, Young quietly noted that he saw plenty of double-teams down the stretch last season. He also notes that having returnees like point guard Levance Fields and big man DeJuan Blair makes him and Pitt a well-rounded threat. The Panthers' status as a Big East favorite definitely helped keep Young around.
"We have a lot of pieces to the puzzle, and I preach on them every day," he said. "My goal is to win a national championship, and I think it's possible. I think it's very possible."
The proving ground
The Eagles' 14-17 campaign is a large reason that Rice, who averaged 21.0 points and 5.0 assists last season, is back in Chestnut Hill for his senior season. Rice said he didn't want his college career to end with a losing season, especially after experiencing the highs of a top-10 ranking his freshman year. Another part of it is that he might not have had too much of a choice. The NBA doesn't exactly have a long track record of loving diminutive scoring point guards.
"It's always going to be tough for a small guard to make it to the next level, so you want to make sure you present the best possible package, and he just has not done that yet," said BC head coach Al Skinner. "He's more than capable of doing more than what he's done so far, and he has to demonstrate that."
Skinner went on to note that BC's problem last season wasn't Rice but rather the lack of consistency from the rest of the roster that often left Rice as the team's sole offensive hope. Still, Rice agrees with his coach's assessment about what he needs to do to attract pro attention, and he feels he can make the Eagles a better club in the process.
"I have to be more efficient, both offensively and defensively," Rice said. "Maybe instead of averaging 21 and 5, maybe it will be something like 18 and 8 with higher percentages, a better assist/turnover ratio. Just do a more effective job on the floor."
Given his prodigious production, it's hard to believe Rice is not more of a mainstream name. After all, BC plays in a premier conference and is located in a major media market. It just goes to show how important winning is, especially for a point guard. One thing's for sure: Skinner is glad that Rice stayed.
"Our guys are going to improve, and it is extremely helpful that Tyrese has stayed around because he gives us the leadership and makes the difference in bridging the gap for us between experience and talent where we lie right now," Skinner said. "He's going to be the bridge for that. If he's successful, he'll get his share of recognition."
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at email@example.com.