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Sunday, March 30, 2003
Updated: March 31, 12:59 PM ET

Seniors deserve 'winning' title even in defeat

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

Arizona's flight home Saturday night from Anaheim to Tucson was understandably quiet. Seniors Jason Gardner, Luke Walton and Ricky Anderson were among those still stunned over losing to Kansas in the Elite Eight.

The Wildcats spent a year only talking about winning the national title, beginning with last May's trip to Australia. That's right, not the Pac-10 title or a Final Four berth. Arizona's only discussions about March centered around winning the national title.

Oklahoma may not have been as single-minded as Arizona, but Hollis Price and Quannas White certainly saw a homecoming week ahead -- not the end of the season Sunday. And that's what made it so hard to watch the seniors lose before New Orleans.

Saturday's loss to Marquette was also especially tough on Kentucky's Keith Bogans and Jules Camara, while Pittsburgh's Brandin Knight and Donatas Zavackas are done playing college basketball. Maryland's Steve Blake, Drew Nicholas and Tahj Holden won a national title last season, so not getting back to the Final Four isn't as heartbreaking, but still would have certainly been a significant story.

And, before we get into what could have been, this class of seniors should be commended for what they accomplished over a four and in some cases five years in school.

Too often, we discuss the underclassmen as they relate to the NBA draft, or the simple week-by-week buzz about freshmen like Dajuan Wagner last season or Carmelo Anthony this season.

But it's the seniors who all fell a game or two short of the Final Four who were the poster players for what is right with the sport. Each of the seniors who lost this weekend got better each season, and only two tried to leave early for the NBA. But Gardner and Bogans were smart enough two years ago to realize they weren't ready when they declared for the draft after their sophomore seasons.

Each showed tremendous leadership in their programs, helping underclassmen and junior college transfers become better players. Some won awards for being the best players in the game over the past two seasons, but all proved that hard work and determination can equal success.

Sure, none of them won a title, save the Maryland crew. But they shouldn't feel short-changed or sorry about their careers. They shouldn't be judged on whether they earned a ring. These seniors could end up being the bridge between today's exodus of stars to the NBA to a likely 20-year old age limit that will keep even more players in college (if it gets adopted into the NBA's collective bargaining agreement for the 2004 draft).

Arizona's trio was a part of a team that lost to Duke in the 2001 title game. Walton, Gardner and Anderson were class acts on and off the court. They played with passion and provided Arizona faithful as many winning memories as probably any threesome who passed through Lute Olson's program. They were an extension of Olson, three players who he could trust every time out on the court.

Price and White were two of the toughest players to play college basketball over the past 10 years. And, that's not an exaggeration.

The pair of high school teammates was denied the chance to go home to New Orleans and play in front of their family and friends. But, they were two of the hardest working players, each of whom would play with nagging injuries and always seemed to make the right decisions at the right times.

It would be hard to find a more clutch player than Price. He was simply one of the best when Oklahoma was down or needed a bucket. Neither Price or White was highly touted, but both made themselves exceptional players. They, like the Arizona threesome, were all class and should be celebrated as two of the best to put on an Oklahoma jersey. The pair was the perfect compliment to Kelvin Sampson and will be missed more than maybe any other senior tandem because they defined Sooner basketball the past four seasons.

Bogans and Camara had their issues throughout their Kentucky careers, but came around as seniors and were as selfless as any pair that has played for the Wildcats. Bogans was too caught up in the NBA talk his first two years. He had a solid junior season, but the Wildcats were "Team Turmoil". Yet, Bogans emerged as a stronger leader and helped make the Wildcats this year's team to beat from New Year's forward.

Camara had to deal with the embarrassment of a year's suspension for an alcohol-related school offense. But he didn't sulk, or wallow in self-pity. Instead, he became one of the better defensive players in the SEC, a quiet leader in the locker room and someone Tubby Smith could count on when he needed a role player to answer his call.

As for Knight and Zavackas, they were simply a part of two of the greatest seasons in Pittsburgh basketball history. They were stars, yet equally hard-working, blue-collar players who wouldn't quit. Each played hurt, and gave Ben Howland the type of nightly effort that was needed to survive in the rugged Big East. Without these two, the Panthers probably don't win the Big East last season, or the conference tournament this season. They were the heart and soul of this team, and as a result, Howland is one of the hottest names in the coaching carousel.

College basketball is usually dominated by coaching personalities. But without the seniors, it wouldn't matter how much we talked about Olson, Sampson, Tubby or Howland. They wouldn't have won as much without these seniors the past two seasons.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.



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