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The “Wait, He’s Still in College?” Stars of the 2017 NCAA Tournament

Perry Ellis may no longer be a Jayhawk, but his spirit lives on in these six old souls

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In an era when the best college basketball players leave for the NBA after only one season, the ones who stick around can end up feeling like they’ve been on campus forever. The poster child for this phenomenon is Perry Ellis, the former Kansas forward who finally graduated last season after he became an internet sensation for a college career that seemed like it would never end. A college senior with the hairline of a senior citizen (a joke I can make because I began to go bald at 23), Ellis played as many seasons at Kansas as teammates Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Kelly Oubre Jr., and Ben McLemore combined.

Ellis is an undrafted free agent currently playing in the D-League, but the sheer length of his college career meant he had a much bigger impact at Kansas than his more talented peers. In the NCAA tournament, experience and maturity can go further than talent, and older teams filled with seniors routinely beat younger and less disciplined teams filled with future NBA stars. Frank Kaminsky outplayed Karl-Anthony Towns in the 2015 Final Four, which will become only harder to believe as the years go by.

There are players in this year’s tournament who were playing college basketball when Lonzo Ball and Josh Jackson were in middle school. Some are college stars whose games don’t translate to the next level; others have transferred multiple times over the course of their careers or had to take a redshirt season because of injuries. There’s no guarantee that any of them will end up playing in the NBA, but they could all have an outsize impact in what happens over the next few weeks. Here are this year’s Perry Ellis All-Stars:

Phil Forte III, Oklahoma State

Forte was a high school teammate of Marcus Smart, and Oklahoma State’s decision to recruit him on his own merits played a huge role in convincing Smart to come to Stillwater. Smart is now in his third season with the Celtics, and Forte is still running off screens and hoisting 30-footers at OSU. He’s pretty much the exact same player he was when he came to college, except five years in the weight room have transformed his body and made him one of the most jacked shooting specialists you will ever see.

An elbow injury last year caused him to miss all but three games of what would have been his senior season, and the team imploded in his absence, costing head coach Travis Ford his job. Forte has been a stabilizing force in the Cowboys’ first season under former Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood, and his ability to stretch the floor has helped sophomore point guard Jawun Evans become a star. Forte will probably follow in the footsteps of Keiton Page, another sub-6-foot volume shooter at OSU who is now an assistant coach at the school, but he’s won’t end his playing career without going down shooting.

Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga

At 7-foot-1 and 300 pounds, Karnowski is one of the biggest players in college basketball, and it’s almost unfair that he’s one of the oldest as well. He first made a splash at Gonzaga all the way back in 2012, when he was a freshman sensation backing up Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. In the five years since, the NBA game has changed so much that a player of his hulking stature is no longer all that desirable, giving Karnowski little incentive to leave the friendly confines of college.

Like Forte, Karnowski had his senior season cut short by an injury last year, allowing him to return as a 23-year-old fifth-year senior. He’s averaging 12.6 points and 6.0 rebounds on 60.1 percent shooting in only 23 minutes a game this season, and his combination of size and skill makes him almost unguardable. Whoever faces Gonzaga is going to have to figure out some way to force him into guarding on the perimeter and getting him in foul trouble, because if he’s allowed to plant himself at the rim there’s not much anyone can do about it.

Amile Jefferson, Duke

Jefferson is the Forrest Gump of Duke basketball. As a fifth-year senior, he has played with a dizzying number of current or future NBA players: Seth Curry, Ryan “The White Raven” Kelly, all three Plumlee brothers, Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones, Brandon Ingram, and this year’s crop of Grayson Allen, Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, and Luke Kennard. For as talented as his teammates are, though, Jefferson is the glue holding Duke together, and his ability to play at a high level on both ends of the floor has forced Giles and fellow five-star big men Marques Bolden and Chase Jeter to the bench.

At 6-foot-9 and 224 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, Jefferson has more than enough size for a college center, with the strength to anchor Duke’s defense in the post and the quickness to switch screens and guard on the perimeter. He will turn 24 in May, and his physical and mental maturity gives him a huge edge over most of the younger and rawer big men he faces. Jefferson is a very smart player who plays within himself and doesn’t make many mistakes, and he’ll need to be instrumental if Duke wants to win another national title season.

Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin

Hayes and fellow senior Bronson Koenig have had Perry Ellis–like careers at Wisconsin as four-year players who have played big roles on a number of elite teams. Hayes was a freshman in 2014 when Wisconsin faced Kentucky in the Final Four for the first time, going up against guys like Julius Randle, James Young, and the Harrison twins. He turned himself into a legitimate NBA prospect as a sophomore next to Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, but as is often the case, the longer a player stays in school, the more scouts fall out of love with him.

At 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, Hayes is still a mismatch nightmare who can take smaller players into the post and bigger players out on the perimeter. However, his game hasn’t taken the step forward many expected following Kaminsky’s and Dekker’s departures, and he has slipped all the way to the end of the second round in most mock drafts. He has taken a backseat to sophomore Ethan Happ this season, but he’s more than capable of taking over games, and Wisconsin’s imposing frontline could provide an interesting challenge for defending champion Villanova in the second round.

Katin Reinhardt, Marquette

Reinhardt was in the same recruiting class as Anthony Bennett at UNLV, and his freshman season featured shot selection that would make Steph Curry jealous. Dave Rice sold Reinhardt on being the second coming of Jimmer Fredette, and the green light that Rice gave Reinhardt helped poison the well for him in Las Vegas. He wound up transferring to play for Andy Enfield at USC, where he had two up-and-down seasons in which he showcased a unique ability to score the ball and drive his coaches crazy.

He seems to have found a home as a grad transfer at Marquette under Steve Wojciechowski, who has given his guards license to shoot from anywhere. Reinhardt, Markus Howard, and Andrew Rowsey all attempt at least 4.8 3-pointers a game, and they can shoot their team in and out of the game in the span of a few seconds. You have to respect any shooter with an arm-sleeve tattoo, and Reinhardt could have his chance for One Shining Moment if Marquette can get by South Carolina in the first round to face Duke.

Spike Albrecht, Purdue

Albrecht has already had his moment in the sun as a freshman, when he scored 17 points for Michigan in the 2013 national championship game and then asked Kate Upton out on Twitter. He barely plays as a fifth-year senior at Purdue, but I couldn’t write this article without at least mentioning him. He’s still hanging around college, and if one of Purdue’s guards gets injured or in foul trouble, Albrecht is capable of playing off Caleb Swanigan and exploding for a big game. We’ve seen it happen before, albeit many, many years ago.