Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer 250d

More March joy for Wisconsin's seniors; sudden end for Villanova's



BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Toting two NCAA placards he'd snatched from the walls in and around the KeyBank Center, Nigel Hayes walked into the Wisconsin locker room Saturday, the floor sticky wet from the remnants of a Sweet 16 celebration, and spied a teammate attempting to peel down a big NCAA banner.

"Hey," he said. "That's mine. I called it. You can't have it. I'm a senior."

Maybe 60 steps away from the Badgers' locker room, three other seniors sat in a funereally quiet locker room, positioned beneath their NCAA-issued name cards.

They had no interest in souvenirs.

"It sucks," Villanova's Kris Jenkins said.

This is March at its realest, best and cruelest form. NCAA tournament losses are always painful, NCAA wins always euphoric, but the feelings on either side are especially magnified when there are seniors involved.

Four seniors from Wisconsin surprisingly move on, eighth-seeded upset winners advancing to the Sweet 16, while three seniors from top-seeded Villanova stunningly saw their dreams of a repeat national championship evaporate in a 65-62 Badgers victory.

"It's like what Barack Obama said about having kids," Wildcats coach Jay Wright said. "It's like having a little piece of your heart running around the world. That's how it is with these guys. When they hurt, we hurt. This is just crushing."

College basketball has become a young man's game, highly regarded freshmen stealing the show as soon as they step the tip of a sneaker on campus. But March remains the domain of the old man. Rare is the team that wins a national title without a senior to show it the way: Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu in 2016, Quinn Cook in 2015, Peyton Siva in 2013, and even to an extent Darius Miller with Anthony Davis and Kentucky's freshmen in 2012.

Villanova's trio of seniors -- Josh Hart, Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds -- won 129 games in their careers and lost only 17 (Hart and Jenkins played in all 146, too). They collected one national title, four Big East regular-season crowns and three league tournament titles.

They will graduate Villanova having never lost back-to-back games.

Yet this was their last taste of college basketball: Jenkins, whose winning 3-pointer made him the hero in 2016, going 0-fer from beyond the arc in his final two NCAA games, and Hart, the national player of the year candidate, losing the ball on a would-be tying drive with under five seconds to play.

"I honestly don't even know what to say," Hart said. "I don't know what happened."

The box score says it was simply a Vitto Brown steal that sealed the Badgers' victory.

The reality is, Hart was boxed in by Brown and Ethan Happ, his own career snuffed out while theirs charged on.

Wisconsin's four seniors -- Hayes, Brown, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter -- have had their own share of successes. These Badgers will make their fourth consecutive Sweet 16, aiming for their third Final Four in four seasons.

But they've endured their fair share of upheaval, too. In the middle of last season, their Hall of Fame-candidate coach quit suddenly, Bo Ryan walking away in mid-December and giving the keys to his unassuming assistant, Greg Gard. Gard coaxed the fractured Badgers from a 9-9 start to a 13-4 finish but wasn't assured of the full-time gig until March.

Wisconsin didn't make his life a waltz this season, either. The Badgers rolled to a 21-3 start and promptly lost five of their next six. The stumble to the finish, coupled with the NCAA selection committee's low opinion of the Big Ten, stuffed Wisconsin into a No. 8 seed -- an unfair seed, really, for both the Badgers and Villanova.

The Badgers took the seed as an insult, naturally, and used it to fan the flames of disrespect.

"All of these games, we've been the underdog," Hayes said. "You have all types of your ranking systems, statistic, analytic guys. The thing is with those algorithms, they don't calculate heart, will to win, toughness, desire."

In other words, they don't calculate what it is to be a senior in the NCAA tournament, staring cold into the face of what could be the final game of your career. That's how Hayes saw this entire tournament. That's how he has played this entire postseason. Known more for his social awareness than his hoops for much of the season, Hayes has found a new purpose since the Big Ten tournament. In those three games and the two here, he's averaging 15.4 points and 9.6 rebounds, a man with a purpose.

The purpose was to keep Wisconsin afloat when Koenig and Happ hit the bench with foul trouble. Hayes answered, scoring eight points in the pair's absence.

Once Happ and Koenig returned to the lineup, Hayes' senior sting operation had reinforcements: Koenig knocking down a go-ahead 3 off an assist from Brown; Happ making the decisive trap; and Hayes scoring the winning points on a muscle drive to the basket.

"As a senior, you come into the tournament less nervous because you know what to expect, but you also know any game can be your last game," Hayes said. "And you do whatever you can to make sure that doesn't happen."

That, of course, was Villanova's plan, too. Before winning it all last season, Hart, Jenkins and Reynolds sat in three different locker rooms watching seniors face the reality of the end. No one ever sees it coming, but it snuck up on the Wildcats particularly this year.

They forgot. Six games, six wins and one title have a way of chasing away the bad memories, leaving only the feeling of a celebratory locker room.

Hart said he cried more in the years prior than when he faced his own finish. "Too stunned," Wright surmised later.

As Villanova came to grips with the end, Hayes marched back up the hallway from his postgame interview obligations. He carried the souvenirs in his right hand before setting them on a chair inside the locker room. He said he'd take them home to his apartment until his parents came by to take them back to his native Ohio.

"You know, us Wisconsin guys, we have a lot of NCAA stuff from over the years," Hayes said.

And the Badgers just might be on the way to collecting more, thanks to four seniors who know the joy of March.

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