Coaches want the NCAA to allow senior basketball players to return next season, but it’s a complicated issue

Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton recalls exactly where he was the day his college career ended.

“I could walk into [Kansas City’s] Kemper Arena and walk to the exact spot I was sitting when I took my jersey off for the last time,” Boynton said. “I remember exactly where I was. I don’t think that’s a unique deal. That’s typical for a lot of kids.”

For Boynton, the memory is bittersweet, but it’s something he’d like seniors to be able to experience if they choose, instead of having so many of them remembering their career ending with an NCAA announcement that the NCAA Tournament was cancelled. 

Sixteen years ago Boynton, then South Carolina’s senior point guard, did not score in a 59-43 2004 first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Memphis. His career ended with a thud. Familiar memories come flooding back now that the NCAA Tournament ended all at once for the entire country. 

“I just sat there for 15 minutes,” Boynton recalled. “I didn’t want to take my jersey off. I just knew that was it. That’s kind of the perspective I have, how valued that moment is.”

This season, Boynton’s Cowboys were one of the last teams to play a college basketball game. Less than 24 hours following a Wednesday first-round Big 12 Tournament win over Iowa State, the NCAA Tournament was cancelled due to concerns over the coronavirus.

The Cowboys were getting ready to make their way to Sprint Center last week to play No. 1 Kansas in the Big 12 quarterfinals. By the end of the day, they had driven back to Stillwater, Oklahoma. 

“Most kids will remember the end of their careers not being a situation like that,” Boynton said. “[Our guys] didn’t take their jerseys off. They didn’t get to put them on for the last time.”

All of it makes Boynton qualified to speak on college basketball’s next big hurdle. On Friday, the NCAA acted quickly in allowing an extra year of eligibility for all athletes participating in spring sports.

That made sense. Athletes in some of those sports weren’t halfway through their seasons before it was essentially shut down. A larger, more complicated decision looms for the four winter sports with championships remaining – hockey, swimming, wrestling and … men’s and women’s  basketball. The NCAA said it “will also discuss issues related to seasons of competition for winter sport student-athletes who were unable to participate in conference and NCAA championships.”

Boynton endorses a widely-supported adjustment (by coaches) that would allow all senior basketball players to get an extra year of eligibility. 

“If we don’t give serious thought to that, I’m not sure we’re honoring our word,” Boynton said. 

The complications begin here:

Who would be able or even want to return?

More than 60% of Division I teams (214 out of 350) would have finished their seasons if the conference tournaments had been completed. 

That means 136 teams would be alive in the postseason – 68 in the NCAA Tournament, 32 in the NIT, 16 in the College Basketball Invitational and 20 in the Tournament. 

Either way, it’s not exactly clear which seniors would have completed their careers and which would still be alive this week. 

“I think all of [the seniors should be allowed an extra season],” Boynton said.  “I don’t think they can separate them out … I’ve heard Coach K and Tom Izzo speak positively about it. I would guess those guys are pretty strong voices. If those guys were against it, that would make it more challenging I would think.”

Boynton estimates the move would impact approximately 1,000 seniors, total, at the 350 DI schools.

“Five hundred of them won’t want to come back to school,” he said. “The rest of this stuff will kind of play itself out.”

What about roster size?

The NCAA may have to expand roster limits beyond 14 for men (15 for women). For example, Boynton would have four seniors returning in 2020-21 plus a new recruiting class of up to four.

 “Texas didn’t have a senior,” Boynton noted. “Is it totally fair to them? Probably not.”

What factor with the NBA Draft be?

The deadline for underclassmen declaring for the NBA Draft is April 26. The draft is June 25. That is, if the NBA calendar stays intact. Players who declare for the draft are allowed to return to college after playing in rookie camps. 

“I know we also have to find out what they’re going to do with the NBA …,” Baylor’s Scott Drew said. “If they cancel all that then I think you have a lot more kids that want to come back.”

Baylor has three seniors who could return, one of them walk-on Obim Okeke. Redshirt senior Freddie Gillespie would be looking at a sixth year of eligibility after transferring from Division III and sitting out a year. Gillespie is the team’s leading rebounder, shot blocker and its most accurate shooter. 

The other senior is guard Devonte Bandoo, the Bears’ fifth-leading scorer. 

And the likes of Lamar Stevens and Penn State have to be considered. For now, Stevens’ career ended seven points short of the school’s scoring record. The Nittany Lions were about to make their first NCAA appearance in nine years. 


Penn State senior Lamar Stevens was seven points short of becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer. 

Where will the money for extra scholarships come from?

Someone would to have to pay for those scholarships next season. 

“For me, it comes down to, ‘What’s the negative?’ — other than it costs a little more,” Boynton said. “For one year in this unprecedented circumstance, I think it’s well worth it.”

Kansas’ Bill Self agreed.

“Obviously it’s a great thought and something worth considering,” Self said. “I’ve sat in a lot of those NCAA meetings over the years and realized what appears to be an obvious answer isn’t always that way … 

“It would certainly also give the NCAA a chance from an appearance standpoint to be very, very pro student-athlete.”

Would seniors returning improve the quality of play?

A perceived talent drain in college basketball might have been a factor in a season where there were few dominant teams. Think how the quality of play might improve next season with all those seniors coming back. 

“We talk about our game being so young, maybe if there’s a couple of fifth-year guys around maybe the game is better,” Boynton added. 

If it’s just seniors allowed to return, No. 1 Kansas probably wouldn’t be impacted. Self has recruited well even while the program has been under NCAA investigation. 

National player of the year candidate Udoka Azubuike, a senior, is almost certainly headed to the NBA. But when is the NBA going to start?

If he stays in school, Azubuike could get an extra year simply by applying for a medical hardship waiver through normal NCAA channels. He played in less than 30 percent of Kansas’ games 2018-19 (nine games) because of a thumb injury. 

“It hit Doke unbelievably because he all but sacrificed the bad times,” Self said. “Sitting out two seasons [partially, because of injuries] … putting himself in this position to be on this stage. It hit Doke harder than anyone else.”

The Jayhawks most likely will begin next season ranked in the top five. It’s what might have been this season that not only bothers Self, but all of college basketball. 

“This team fought,” Self said. “I do think this team was built for this … “Nobody in America had a better season than we did.”

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