A few freshmen have hogged the spotlight in recent seasons, Kentucky's John Wall this year's example.  But it's senior leadership that pays off in the end.

It's time! Time for college basketball teams to begin conference tourney play, also known as separating the contenders from the pretenders. It's important to understand and closely examine the schedule of college hoop teams. Some teams start off the season playing a bunch of cream puffs, while others face a mixture of good and bad teams.

Scottie ReynoldsWhat has taken shape the last few months, though, is largely conference play. Since conferences are purposely made up of schools with a similar level of talent, you need to pay attention to how teams start the season and what their schedule was like. Some schools want to get a few cheap victories over smaller schools and fatten up their won/lost record early in the season, while others want to test their teams early to toughen them up for conference play.

Now it's time for conference tournament play, essentially the third season of college basketball. The first season was November and December, non-conference games, plus coaches trying to figure out their personnel and strengths and weaknesses. The second season has been conference play the last two months, and now it's tourney time. This is where the weak links drop off, while the better and more motivated teams advance.

So this time of the season, is it important to have senior leadership? The last three years, college basketball's champions, Kansas, Florida and North Carolina, had a combined 13 of 15 starters who were juniors or seniors. Last season North Carolina had three seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup when they whipped Michigan State for the title, 89-72. Clearly, having that kind of an edge in experience can be an important factor, though it isn't everything, especially with more college athletes leaving earlier for the pros.

The two years prior to those teams, Florida and North Carolina had starting fives with no seniors. Seven years ago, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim combined with a gifted group of freshmen and sophomores to win the NCAA title. The Orangemen upset Kansas in a thrilling finale, 81-78, with a starting five of two freshmen (F Carmelo Anthony, G Billy Edelin), two sophomores (C Craig Forth, F Hakim Warrick) and only one senior (G Keith Duany).  The kids played like veterans for the Orangemen and note that Syracuse was 9-3 SU, 8-3-1 ATS on the road. No nerves away from home for the kids, straight up and against the number!

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In the final three tournament games they were a +3, +3 and +5 dog to Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas and won them all straight up (+200 in the title game on the money-line). We are in an era with fewer seniors in college hoops, but let's not downplay the value of veteran leadership, as the Tar Heels showcased last season.

One characteristic that successful handicappers possess is perspective. In the world of 11-to-10, it's essential to maintain an even keel: one can't get too high over a big point spread victory, or too low when lady luck drops a curveball on a game you have isolated from every angle as a strong play. Perspective is important as college basketball tournament play gets underway, because what Syracuse did in 2003, with so many youngsters, is not that common.

The 2006 Florida team had four junior starters who had been together for a while, then came back the next year and repeated. North Carolina in 2005 had three rock solid juniors in Ray Felton, Sean May and Rashard McCants. In 2004, UConn had senior guard Taliek Brown and star junior center Emeka Okafur.

If you're looking for a team that might win it all, history suggests talent, depth, good coaching AND experienced leadership are four key ingredients for success in March. So, yes, generally speaking, junior and senior leadership are important assets to have during conference tournament play and the upcoming Big Dance.

NCAA Champions:
2009 North Carolina (3 senior starters, 2 juniors)
2008 Kansas (2 junior starters, 2 seniors)
2007 Florida (4 junior starters, 1 senior)
2006 Florida (4 junior starters)
2005 North Carolina (3 junior starters, Felton, McCants, May)
2004 UConn (1 key senior, Taliek Brown, junior Emeka Okafur)
2003 Syracuse (Starters: 2 frosh, 2 soph, 1 senior)
2002 Maryland (2 key seniors, Lonnie Baxter, Juan Dixon)
2001 Duke  (1 key senior, Shane Battier)
2000 Michigan State (Starters: 3 seniors, 2 juniors)
1999 Connecticut (Starters: 2 seniors, 2 juniors)
1998 Kentucky (Starters: 2 seniors, 3 juniors)
1997 Arizona (Starters: 3 juniors)
1996 Kentucky (Starters: 2 seniors, 2 juniors)
1995 UCLA (Starters: 3 seniors)

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