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Column: Appreciating the four-year players

Let’s take a moment and think about the impact veteran talent has had on the college hoops landscape. 

Illinois v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The relationship between college basketball and its professional counterpart is not unique in its structure, which allows players to leave after one year of college. However, when compared with the much stricter requirements of college football and NFL eligibility, you certainly have a lot of folks in basketball leaving programs so early you barely have time to learn their names before they move on to the NBA.

Since the one-and-done rule was established ahead of the 2006-07 NBA season, some schools and coaches have made their names as one-and-done institutions. Kentucky comes to mind, especially under John Calipari, as does Duke under Coach K (who, it should be noted, has openly opposed the rule despite the obvious benefits it’s had for the Blue Devils).

Of course, not every college basketball player will go pro, just as every FBS football player won’t find his or her (how exciting is it that we can add the “her” now?) way onto an NFL roster. The reality is that the NBA is a small league in terms of its player pool, and there are nearly 350 college basketball programs with a dozen players each vying for a chance to play. With just two rounds in the NBA Draft, a mere 60 players will hear their names called for a shot to play at the next level.

Competing every year are sets of renowned international players, the aforementioned one-and-done players — and another group we often forget: the four-year players.

Sure, at face value, it’s easy to dismiss these players as simply not being good enough for the league. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they have left for the NBA earlier? Iowa’s Luka Garza, a finalist for the Naismith Trophy and the Big Ten’s and nation’s leading scorer at the close of the regular season, had a lot of question marks after an outstanding junior season about how his talents would translate to the next level. And yet, Garza has been the anchor of the Hawkeyes’ team for literally years. But he’s not alone. Jordan Bohannon has been playing for half a decade in Iowa City. And Joe Wieskamp has been a major contributor for three seasons.

Ohio State, meanwhile, has simultaneously cultivated talent internally while leveraging transfers at different stages. Kyle Young developed in Columbus, and was part of Chris Holtmann’s first season as head coach at Ohio State. C.J. Walker has spent the last two seasons in Columbus after his first two at Florida State. Seth Towns came to Ohio State just this season as a grad transfer from Harvard. More broadly speaking, the transfer portal certainly has an effect on players sticking around, since players have the option to leave for another school that more fits their situation rather than giving in to the obliging pull to the professional ranks.

One might argue that this group has a disproportionate impact compared to their recognition as potential NBA talent. Like the unsung interior lineman, the four-year player has been part of the program for years, with an impact spread over that time.

While that impact might not translate to the NBA, these players become part of the storied history of the college programs themselves. Iowa is set to retire Garza’s number after the big man became the school’s career leader in scoring. Bohannon finished the season as the career leader in assists. Players who don’t stay four years don’t get to have that kind of recognition.

When it comes to Ohio State, where do players like Evan Turner, who played through his junior season, and Keita Bates-Diop stand in program lore? And what of Aaron Craft?

It’s sure easy to dismiss players who are not NBA prospects, but we need to take a minute to appreciate what players do for the college game. Four-year players bring veteran leadership that might otherwise be lost. Sometimes teams can get this veteran talent via transfers (Walker, Towns). But how much more does it mean when the talent comes up through the program?

Speaking of Garza in his post-game analysis, CBS analyst and former Ohio State great Clark Kellogg stated, “[Garza] epitomizes what you want to see in growth and progression and achievement when you start looking at a young man enrolling as a freshman and working his way into being a consensus college player of the year and doing it in a way that you can greatly respect and admire and hold up for those that’ll follow.”

There is far more parity in college basketball than football. Part of that is due to the fact individual players can make more of an impact. That dynamic means that you see less of individual schools being havens for NBA talent the way Ohio State and Alabama have managed to be for the NFL.

It doesn’t always work out for the teams. Sometimes, the players don’t manage to gel or reach their potential even given four full seasons. But look at what the Big Ten has managed to do this season. The Buckeyes have just three freshmen on the roster, none of whom proved to be consistent starters. Michigan won the Big Ten with one freshman in its starting lineup. Illinois earned a second-place finish with two freshmen contributors. Iowa has no freshmen in the starting lineup, and finished third in the conference. That means the top-three teams succeeded mostly with veteran talent.

Compared to the Dukes and Kentuckys of the college basketball landscape, it has felt rarer to have one-and-done players in the Big Ten at large, let alone at Ohio State. Sure, Ohio State has had its own history with one-and-done players: D’Angelo Russell, Greg Oden and Mike Conley come readily to mind. Since the rule change in 2006, there have only been two other one-and-done lottery players out of the Big Ten: Noah Vonleh and Eric Gordon, both from Indiana.

Comparatively, the Big Ten has had many more notable veteran players who have landed in the NBA. Cassius Winston, a four-year player for Michigan State, went in the second round of last year’s draft. Two other Big Ten players (Daniel Oturu, Minnesota; Xavier Tillman, Michigan State), while not seniors, also got selected as non-freshmen in the 2020 draft.

As a player, it might be easy to get frustrated, knowing that the progression to the next level had probably passed by, especially when looking at young “hot shots” who will make up the majority of lottery picks. But there’s a benefit to being in the moment. There’s something special about being part of a program for a long time, and not simply looking ahead to the next level.