If this year’s NCAA basketball tournaments look a little bigger — a little older — your eyes are not deceiving you.
Call it a silver lining of the pandemic.
Before the pandemic intervened, college students had five years to complete four seasons of play. For various reasons — among them injuries, one-time transfers or competition waivers — athletes were always able to find ways to extend their eligibility. But after the pandemic eliminated many conference tournaments and the entire 2020 national tournament, the NCAA added a special bonus year: Any athlete who lost playing time during the 2019-20 season could extend their college career by a full season.
Now, every team heading into the Final Four this weekend, both in the men’s and women’s tournaments, will include players who have taken advantage of this option.
The additional season was meant to even the playing field, but some rosters are more stacked with super seniors and graduate students than others, and the trickle-down effect may linger for years.
“I don’t think there’s any question that any of us in college athletics would see the benefits of a more experienced squad,” said Tom Burnett, the commissioner of the Southland Conference and the chairman of the Division I men’s basketball selection committee.
A handful of athletes this year are older than their NBA counterparts. Just look at Kansas. Last Friday against Providence, Mitch Lightfoot, 24, a veteran bench player and sixth-year student, had four blocks, and Remy Martin, a 23-year-old Arizona State transfer, came off the bench to lead the Jayhawks in scoring with 23 points. Both wouldn’t have returned to college if not for the pandemic, Coach Bill Self said last weekend, adding, “I actually think Mitch is the best he’s been.”
Jalen Coleman-Lands, a super senior guard for Kansas, is 25. So is Devin Booker, who is in his seventh season with the Phoenix Suns.
And there are more seasons remaining. “If you look at just our starters, those starters have eligibility left,” Self said. “Even though we’re an old team, they technically could all come back next year.”
Self noted that Providence also had a handful players who were playing past the standard eligibility period.
“If they didn’t have those four cats, they would look a lot different,” Self said. “If we didn’t have Remy, we’d look a lot different. If Villanova didn’t have Gillespie, they’d look a lot different.”
Collin Gillespie, a 22-year-old guard, is the youngest of the three Villanova graduate students playing this weekend.
But, parity concerns aside, Self said the bonus year had contributed to the “great quality of ball this year.”
That was the case in the Horizon League, where Macee Williams, 23, a super senior center for Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, won her third straight league Player of the Year Award in the 2020-21 season. She chose to come back for the 2021-22 season — her fifth year — and once again won the award.
“That’s an example of how our women’s basketball programs really capitalized on that opportunity,” said Julie Roe Lach, the commissioner of the Horizon League.
IUPUI, a No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament, lost by only 6 points in the first round to No. 4 Oklahoma.
Depending on who you ask, the additional year of eligibility can be viewed as a glass half-full, half-empty issue. It allows college athletes to reclaim their lost year of play, and a bigger, older team can mean an extra layer of cohesiveness.
“Once athletes are upperclassmen, there’s a certain maturity that comes with leading the team and handling the pressure once you are in those end-of-season moments,” Roe Lach said, adding that “younger students and their teammates can benefit from their senior leadership.”
But some officials are worried about the long-term effect of padded rosters will have on recruiting. If athletes choose to use their extra year of eligibility, that could limit spots for fresh faces.
“A lot of us are asking that question: Are the opportunities still there for high school student-athletes?” Burnett said.
That’s exactly what worries Adam Berkowitz, the associate executive director of New Heights Youth, a sports-based youth development nonprofit in New York. The additional season of eligibility added to an already complex system in light of the NCAA’s 2021 decision to eliminate the rule that had required athletes to sit out a season upon transferring, which had the effect of “doubling and tripling” the number of players in the transfer pool, Berkowitz said.
Both those factors have created a “changed landscape” when it comes to college recruiting, he added, resulting in an all-out “scramble.”
“Last year was the most difficult year I’ve ever experienced placing students at schools,” said Berkowitz, who has worked with transfer students for 20 years. “If you have an offer on the table, you have to strongly consider it, because it otherwise may not be there.”
As a result, Berkowitz said, students are increasingly feeling “under-recruited” and opting to attend lower-ranked schools, both in Division I and Division II, before attempting to transfer. Berkowitz said that when he spoke to college coaches last year, many were not even looking at high school students, preferring to turn to the transfer portal and then junior colleges.
Berkowitz said he anticipated this being the case for several more years, as athletes’ option to play an extra year lingers. High school sophomores will be the first class not affected by the change.
“It’s just logjam at a lot of places,” he said. “If 200 guys are taking their fifth year, that’s 200 fewer spots for high school graduates.”
mitch smith contributed reporting.