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Seniors sticking around? Let's hope it's a trend

The University of Maryland completed one of the most exhilarating three-day runs in its rich basketball history on Sunday. The Terrapins upset Wake Forest on Friday, came from 19 points down to beat North Carolina State on Saturday and then rallied from 12 points down on Sunday to upset Duke in overtime for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship.

This is a poignant snapshot of March basketball. Until its loss on Sunday, Duke hadn't lost an ACC tournament game since 1998; this was Maryland's first ACC tournament championship in 20 years.

One of the stars for Maryland on Sunday was Jamar Smith, a senior forward. Duke was led by guard Chris Duhon, another senior. Hopefully, this is part of a trend.

As you look around the country at tournament games this season, a trend is emerging: senior leadership. The top four seeded teams -- Kentucky, Duke, Stanford and St. Joseph's -- are not loaded with pro prospects. What they have is solid senior leadership. That's the good news of this season, that college basketball has found its level. Not the CBA, not the NBA. College teams can't beat Olympic-caliber foreign teams, and they struggle against touring teams like the Harlem Globetrotters. What these teams do is play pretty exciting basketball among themselves.

After years of watching players go to college for three years, then two, then one, with other players skipping college altogether, college basketball has come into its own. No rule changes or lawsuits were needed, just common sense. College is not such a bad place to be, a college degree is not such a bad thing to have and these tournaments are not such bad events to be a part of. I think we're turning the corner.

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"I really hope so," Maryland coach Gary Williams said Sunday. "I wish I could tell every high school player right now the feeling of being out there on the floor, not because we've won, but just to compete at this level with the fans, with the teams in our league this season."

A lot of us became intoxicated over the last 15 years with the idea of sending kids off to the fire of pro competition and writing about the next prodigy. Sebastian Telfair will play in Madison Square Garden as a high school star this year, then may play there next year as a pro.

But I hope we're beginning to pull back.

Prodigies will still skip college and jump to the pros, and we'll all marvel. I look at it as one less leader who could have spent four years at a university.

Come to enough of these tournaments, talk with the parents of players, and you realize that college basketball is really not the minor league for the pros that we make it out to be. Maybe that's how college basketball has come to be used, but that's not how a majority of the people involved view the enterprise.

"You can go to the pros and you can make all that money," Williams said. "But I've been around the pros; I hear them talk. They're always talking about their college teams versus the other guy's college team, who was the best team, who was the best conference. That's part of your life. No matter how much money you make, you can never get that back, and I'm not sure everybody realizes it at the time because they're young and the money's there."

Chris Duhon led Duke this season and Jamar Smith spurred Maryland. Duhon, a tremendous college player, may not be a great NBA player, but he will go to the NBA well prepared for whatever happens. Smith is Maryland's only senior. He was born in Sicklerville, N.J., attended Overbrook High School in Philadelphia and then went to Allegany College of Maryland in Cumberland.

Kentucky may reach the Final Four under Tubby Smith with a team that will not have a surefire first-round draft pick.

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"You see a guy like Duhon with the class that he has," Williams said. "Hopefully he'll be an influence on as many players as LeBron James."

I like the sentiment, but don't count on it. Reality is reality, and millions of dollars are millions of dollars. The LeBron model is difficult to resist because the quick-fix lottery mentality is part of the American ideal.

"Everybody sees LeBron James and how well he's doing his first year out of high school," Smith said after Sunday's game. "Everybody's going to try to follow his lead."

What that has left is a distinctive college game with most teams competing with relatively equal talent in an electric atmosphere. Smith attends a lot of NBA games. "I go to a lot of Washington Wizards games and when I'm in Philadelphia, I go see the 76ers," he said. "You watch the crowds there compared to the crowds in college, it's totally different. If you think an NBA crowd is better than a college crowd, you got to be crazy."

Smith had a chance to be in on history yesterday. His team upset a rival that had dominated this conference for five years. Now Maryland is embarking for what its hopes is an extended run.

What a fantastic way to kick off the tournament.

William C. Rhoden is a columnist for the New York Times.

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