Seniors a rare thing in college basketball

Earnest Ross is one of two Missouri seniors to be honored prior to tonight’s game against Texas A&M at Mizzou Arena.

Earnest Ross is one of two Missouri seniors to be honored prior to tonight’s game against Texas A&M at Mizzou Arena. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — They’re about as unique as a four-leaf clover or a double rainbow.

Four-year seniors have become a luxury in NCAA Division I college basketball, thanks in part to a steady rise in transfers, early departures to the NBA and the influx of one-and-done players that jet to the NBA after just one year in college.

“There’s not a lot of college teams that have it (four-year seniors),” Missouri head coach Frank Haith said Tuesday.

The Tigers don’t have any. Earnest Ross and Tony Criswell are the lone seniors on the roster, but both are in just their second season playing at Missouri.

According to ESPN, a whopping 455 Division I men’s basketball players made the decision to transfer after the 2012-13 season. The NCAA estimates about 40 percent of all players who enter the Division I ranks straight out of high school decide to depart their initial school by the end of their sophomore year.

There were 48 underclassmen who decided to forego their remaining eligibility and enter the NBA Draft after last season, including nine one-and-done players.

“Florida will be very unique in that they have four of those guys,” Haith said of four-year seniors. “We’re hopeful that with the class we have that we’ll start to build some of that here. In our third year we feel like we have that in Torren (Jones) and Wes (Clark) and (Johnathan Williams III) and Shane (Rector). Hopefully we can build on that. It is a great luxury. You’re hopeful that guys stay in your program that long, but you don’t see that that often.”

With four-year seniors becoming a rarity, Haith and his staff have created a name for Missouri by going after transfer students. In fact, six players on this season’s roster started their careers elsewhere. Ross (Auburn), Jabari Brown (Oregon), Jordan Clarkson (Tulsa) and Danny Feldmann (Columbia) transferred in from other Division I programs, while Criswell and Keanau Post were junior-college transfers.

“The transfer thing is part of college basketball,” Haith said. “I was listening to (Duke) coach (Mike) Krzyzewski talk today about his team and he was talking about seniors and the first person he mentioned was their captain, Rodney Hood, who’s a transfer (from Mississippi State). … There’s such a misconception about transfers. (Alex Oriakhi, a transfer from Connecticut who played for Missouri last season) embraced this university, he embraced being here, he loved being here. Jabari, where he’s not as emotional in terms of verbal as Alex, he feels the same way. It only helps us with other prospective student-athletes that we recruit here, that those guys have success.”

Haith felt it necessary to hone in on transfers following his first season at Missouri, a 2011-12 campaign that featured a roster with six seniors including Kim English, Marcus Denmon and Ricardo Ratliffe.

“We didn’t want to take a dip in our program during that time because we had all those seniors,” Haith said. “It allowed us a chance to really establish ourselves in the recruiting game. Now you’re seeing the fruits of our labor.”

Haith then pointed to a pair of top-100 recruits in Jakeenan Gant and Namon Wright as proof.

But it’s not as if Missouri is getting out of the transfer game. In fact, three more transfers are set to become eligible at various times next season. Zach Price (Louisville) and Deuce Bello (Baylor) will be eligible at the beginning of next season, while Cameron Biedscheid (Notre Dame) will have to wait until the second semester.

“Those guys should learn from the way Jabari, the way Earnest and all those guys made some great strides in their games when they sat out. You hope that Cam and Deuce and Zach are able to do that for us.”

The blueprint has been laid. Transfer students have allowed Missouri to compete for NCAA Tournament berths the past couple seasons, including this one.

“Absolutely,” Ross said. “To play in the tournament, win games, play at the highest stage (is why I came to Missouri). I think it’s everything that I’ve wanted.”

With a strong recruiting class set to join the fray next season and a quartet of freshmen Haith expects big things from in the next few years, the third-year head coach hopes they’re the four-year cornerstones for bigger and better things to come.

And it’s all because of transfers.

“We’re building a program and now you have the foundation,” Haith said. “And that’s what an Earnest Ross, a Jabari Brown, a Jordan Clarkson has allowed us to do.”

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