The NCAA Tournament's Final Four Is Loaded With Upperclassmen

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 4, 2009

DETROIT, April 3 -- Connecticut guard A.J. Price shares a common bond with several other starters on the four men's basketball teams gathered here to decide the national championship: No one, including himself, thought he would last this long at the collegiate level.

One of the top-rated guards in the class of 2004, Price was expected to spend one or two seasons honing his craft in Storrs, Conn., under Coach Jim Calhoun and then move on to a financially rewarding professional career.

"Honestly, no, I didn't think I would make it to my senior year," Price said. "But everything happens for a reason, and here I am now."

On Saturday night, Price will be one of 10 seniors and one of 18 upperclassmen to take the court as starters at Ford Field. Buoyed by the experiences generated from decisions made -- and not made -- during their time on campus, these players believe they are in better position to lead their squads.

Take Price, for instance. As a freshman in 2004, he survived a brain hemorrhage that forced him to miss the season. He was suspended the following year for his role in the thefts of laptop computers. Then he tore a knee ligament and needed extensive surgery.

"I've been through it all," Price said. "I've persevered and continued to push and continued to tell myself I would get through it."

But that only covers Price's personal journey. Connecticut advanced to the region finals before falling to George Mason in 2006. The Huskies didn't even earn an NCAA tournament bid in 2007, and last season, they bowed out in the first round.

Now, Connecticut finds itself in the Final Four, college basketball's grandest stage, and no players appreciate the accomplishment more than the ones who endured the entire ride. Senior forward Jeff Adrien said he still talks about the loss to George Mason, about how talented that 2006 Huskies team was and about what was missing.

"I told them you have to stay focused," Adrien said. "That [2006] team might have lost focus a little bit. But if we stay focused, we will be okay. That's really the difference right now."

A similar theme echoed throughout the North Carolina locker room. Tar Heels guard Wayne Ellington said players are being more assertive this year and that they have a better understanding of what is at stake this weekend.

North Carolina took part in last season's Final Four as well, though according to Coach Roy Williams, the Tar Heels were "just happy to be here." Consequently, Kansas throttled North Carolina, 84-66. For a team stocked with future NBA draft picks, the result -- even in retrospect -- was jarring.

"We've watched tape of that game [against Kansas], and it doesn't seem real," North Carolina forward Deon Thompson said. "Ty [Lawson] was hesitant to push the ball and attack the basket. Wayne [Ellington] dribbled the ball off his feet. It just didn't seem like things this team would do."

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