In today’s one-and-done culture, seniors have become the endangered species of the college basketball climate. But the following seniors are not just relevant participants for their programs, they’re difference-makers, especially as they prepare for their final postseasons.
Draymond Green (Michigan State): He’s set to collect Big Ten Player of the Year honors with averages of 15.6 ppg, 10.3 rpg and 3.6 apg and a 40 percent clip from the 3-point line. With transfers, youngsters and veterans all merging, things could have fallen apart for the Spartans. But Green has been a star who’s led this crew to a slice of the Big Ten title. If the Spartans win at Indiana Tuesday night, they’ll own the championship alone. Few teams in the field of 68 will be able to match Michigan State’s toughness, which has fueled Final Four chatter in East Lansing, Mich. Green can lead Tom Izzo’s team to New Orleans.
Tyler Zeller (North Carolina): North Carolina has had its struggles this season in a year that was expected to involve fewer obstacles. But the Tar Heels have won five in a row and they’ll earn the ACC title if they win their next two games (against Maryland, at Duke). Zeller has been the consistent force who has positioned the talented Tar Heels to enter March with a mountain of momentum. Zeller is averaging 15.7 ppg, 9.3 rpg and 1.4 bpg. He’s made a strong argument for ACC Player of the Year. Austin Rivers’ buzzer-beater over Zeller’s outstretched arms Feb. 8 could have defined the rest of North Carolina’s season. But Zeller has put that episode behind him and continued to play the high-level basketball that his team has demanded.
Scoop Jardine (Syracuse): In March, point guard poise is crucial. A team’s talent pool means little if it doesn’t have a floor leader who can stay under control. Jardine has a 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio in Big East play (5.8 apg, 2.3 tpg). The senior might not make large contributions to Syracuse’s offensive output in the NCAA tournament (8.9 ppg), but his playmaking and leadership will prove vital for a Syracuse team that’s capable of winning another national title for Jim Boeheim. And he’s also been a crucial leader off the floor. Throughout the Bernie Fine drama, Jardine helped his team remain focused.
Darius Johnson-Odom (Marquette): Soon, Marquette will dance -- in the NCAA tournament, not like Buzz Williams after last week’s win over West Virginia -- and the Golden Eagles have put together an impressive run (12 wins in 13 games) that’s raised their March Madness stock and seeding. Johnson-Odom’s production (18.4 ppg, 40 percent from beyond the arc) has helped this undersized Marquette squad vie for the Big East title. He’s a star. And in a league that’s full of them, he’s been overlooked at times this season. But the underrated game-changer is one of the most talented players in America. He’ll prove it next month.
Drew Gordon (New Mexico): With two Mountain West games remaining, New Mexico can seal a piece of the conference crown if it wins its upcoming matchups. But the Lobos might not stop there. They’re capable of making noise in March. Gordon, who transferred to the program from UCLA, is a savvy veteran with the tools to lift the Lobos in the NCAA tournament. He’s averaging 12.5 ppg and 10.9 rpg. He recorded 44 points and 37 rebounds combined in New Mexico’s recent upsets of UNLV and San Diego State.
Jorge Gutierrez (Cal): He’s a feisty defender (1.35 steals per game in Pac-12 play). He’s a talented offensive player, too (13.0 ppg). And he’s the leader of one of the most talented backcourts in the country. This senior has helped second-place Cal, a team that’s shot 49 percent from the field in conference play, compete for the Pac-12 title. Cal has finished strong (six wins in its last seven games). And with Gutierrez leading the way, the Bears can continue to build momentum as they prepare for a likely bid to the NCAA tournament.
Jeffery Taylor (Vanderbilt): This senior has been a gem for a Vanderbilt team that’s given Kentucky two tough games in recent weeks. He’s averaging 17.3 ppg and shooting 46 percent from the 3-point line. The Commodores have been overlooked because of a shaky start and Kentucky’s success. But they’re talented enough to compete with elite teams in March. And Taylor’s hot hand has a lot to do with that potential.
Garrett Stutz (Wichita State): He’s a 7-footer with range (14.1 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 33 percent from beyond the arc). The 14th-ranked Shockers have the talent to ruin a lot of brackets next month. Stutz will have to be consistent for Wichita State to fulfill that potential. But the senior could be a matchup nightmare for the field.
Marcus Denmon (Missouri): Twenty-eight points. Six-for-10 from beyond the arc. Ten-for-15 from the field. One turnover. Denmon’s stat line from Saturday’s classic battle against Kansas was another freakish performance for the Tigers senior who’s capable of leading Frank Haith’s team to the Final Four. He’s scored 14 or more in six of his last seven games. He’s just a stud.
Jordan Taylor (Wisconsin): Wisconsin scored a big upset at Ohio State Sunday, after Taylor finished with 19 points, five rebounds and four assists. The senior hit some big shots down the stretch. He got off to a rocky start this season, and his numbers have not equaled his All-American stats from last year. But Taylor is a veteran who can take the Badgers on a ride in March. As much as he’s been knocked for some of his so-so performances (see nine points in loss to Iowa last week), Taylor is as courageous as any player in the country. He never shies away from the big moment. And that quality could give the Badgers a serious boost in March.
(Sorry, Kansas fans. Tyshawn Taylor (17.1 ppg, 4.9 apg) certainly deserves a slot on this list, too. He was clutch in the Jayhawks' win over Missouri on Saturday and has been especially good in the second half of the season. He's made a strong case for Big 12 player of the year honors with teammate Thomas Robinson and really should've been a Cousy finalist. Definitely a senior game-changer. Apologies for the inadvertent omission! --MM)