When Western men's basketball guard John Allen was asked his thoughts on the Vikings having two days off following their NCAA Division II Tournament opening-round win against Chaminade, Allen said with a laugh: "I mean, we're old. We got an old team. Two days rest is nice."
Allen's lighthearted words provided comic relief during the postgame press conference, but his response did spotlight an important fact about the Vikings.
They're old. Western is a seasoned, veteran group. To say they're experienced is an understatement.
Western's starting five of Allen, Richard Woodworth, Paul Jones, Chris Mitchell and Austin Bragg are an average of 22.6 years old. Allen, Mitchell and Jones are seniors, and Woodworth and Bragg are juniors. That's 22 years of collegiate basketball experience between the starters.
Add in 24-year-old Rico Wilkins and 23-year-old Cameron Severson, who are both seniors, and 20-year-old sophomore Anye Turner, and WWU's eight-man rotation averages to be 22.5 years old with a total of 34 years playing in the college ranks.
There are few game situations the Vikings aren't familiar with.
"It's huge," said WWU coach Tony Dominguez of Western's age and experience in a phone interview from Louisville, Ky, the site of the Elite Eight. "When you have older guys, they understand because they have been through those years when they don't make it. You've been through the war. You appreciate where you are at."
Right now the Vikings are only two wins away from playing for back-to-back national titles. Western opens the Elite Eight against 27-5 Florida Southern at 3 p.m. Thursday, March 28, at Freedom Hall. The Moccasins won the Southern Regional with a 90-88 win against Alabama-Huntsville.
This time last year, Western was enjoying for the first time everything that comes with making a trip to the national quarterfinals.
Dominguez said his team is still enjoying the experience, but he added his group has a distinct focus. Western will need it. Every team the Vikings has played this year has been hungry to upend the national champs. Opponents' intent to eliminate WWU is higher than ever now that only eight teams remain.
Western is one of three Elite Eight teams who were in the final eight last year. Dominguez believes the experience gained can work in the Vikings' favor.
"They're definitely pretty serious," Dominguez said of his players, "but we are still trying to take everything in. You never know when you are going to get back. You want to get to the final four and win it all, but getting to the Elite Eight is a really big deal."
Being back in the final eight also has brought added focus on the WWU program.
"It can be a lot more difficult, too," Dominguez said of repeating last year's result. "When all eyes are on you, you're not creeping up on anyone. Everyone wants to knock you off."
Western's veteran roster, team stability and understanding of individual roles is perfect for combating the additional pressure WWU faces as it ventures deeper into the tourney.
The same starting five have started all 32 of Western's games
"It's a microcosm of life," Dominguez said. "Anytime you have stability, you're going to have success behind that. We have five guys who've started every game. There are no adjustments needed."
Such stability allows Wilkins to focus on his role as an energy player/defensive specialist off the bench. It also allows Severson and Turner to focus on how they can best impact the game when their numbers are called.
Dominguez has credited WWU's success to standouts like Wilkins, Severson and Turner for their willingness to play reserve roles for the betterment of the team. When asked how much their maturity factors into them accepting their team role, Dominguez had one word.
"Everything. It's also the overall character of the kids we have coached," Dominguez said. "We try to (find mature players) the best we can, but two years ago we didn't really know where everyone was. Veteran guys fell into roles, and the new guys coming in, Austin and Anye, have blending in with Rico and Cam."
The Vikings' goal of winning another national title will undoubtedly be a tough task, but the Vikings' experience and veteran leadership is working in their favor.
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862.