NCAA Tournament 2012: 10 Most Inspirational Players of Sweet 16

Daniel O'Brien@@DanielO_BRFeatured ColumnistMarch 22, 2012

NCAA Tournament 2012: 10 Most Inspirational Players of Sweet 16

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    The 2012 NCAA Tournament has already provided a heap of exciting games, cinderella stories and hardwood heroes.

    There are a handful of captivating players in this year's bracket who we simply love to root for.

    They're the kind of competitors who overcome odds, disadvantages and pressure while leading their teams through the rigors of March Madness.

    Here's a look at the 10 most inspirational players of the Sweet 16.

Aaron Craft, Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Saturday's win over Gonzaga proved just how valuable Aaron Craft is to the Ohio State Buckeyes.

    His 17 points, 10 assists and three steals are the fruits of his efforts on both ends of the floor. Buckeye nation loves his tenacity on defense and his ability to run Ohio State's offense with a mix of fundamentals and creativity.

    Craft plays shut-down perimeter defense, is a sharp-shooter from the outside, and attacks the rim fearlessly against bigger players.

    What's not to love?

Yancy Gates, Cincinnati Bearcats

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    No player has been a bigger poster boy for Cincinnati's turnaround than center Yancy Gates.

    After his disgraceful showing in the brawl against Xavier, Gates was able to come back after suspension and be a force in the middle for the Bearcats.

    It's not as if he was playing poorly before the brawl. It's just inspiring to see how he was able to return and do everything his team needed him to do in order to win.

    Once left for dead in the Big East, Gates and Cincinnati are now among the nation's best.

Draymond Green, Michigan State Spartans

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    Draymond Green is Mr. Everything for the Michigan State Spartans, and the senior leader has been called upon to carry the team all season long.

    His opening-round triple-double performance against LIU Brooklyn was a one-man show, but he followed it up with another superb game against the St. Louis Billikens.

    Without Green, Tom Izzo's crew wouldn't be anywhere close to the Sweet 16, let alone a top seed.

    His play since the beginning of February has been nothing short of spectacular.

Casey Prather, Florida Gators

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    Florida's big four of Bradley Beal, Patric Young, Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton might be Billy Donovan's premiere group, but a different Gator is their most inspiring player of the tournament.

    Sophomore wing Casey Prather came into Friday's game against Virginia averaging two points per game. His 14-point surprise outing helped Florida trounce Virginia.

    Was it a one-hit wonder? Yeah, probably. But it was enjoyable for Gator fans and fans across the country, and it's the stuff that March Madness is made of.

Jae Crowder, Marquette Golden Eagles

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    Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder has been a monster on the glass in this tournament, and it's the x-factor that helped Marquette advance to the Sweet 16.

    First, he scored 25 and snagged 16 boards in the Golden Eagle's win over Brigham Young, then he battled his way to 17 and 13 against Murray State Saturday.

    The undersized forward is counted on to produce in the paint and also knock down outside shots. Luckily for head coach Buzz Williams, Crowder is up to the task and has Marquette poised to make a run at the West Regional title.

Brady Heslip, Baylor Bears

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    When the regular season ended and conference tournaments began, Baylor Bears guard Brady Heslip has kicked it into a higher gear—a gear that generates 15-20 points or more per game.

    Waco's favorite long-range shooter provided a fantastic show Saturday, as he drilled nine three-pointers against Colorado. His perimeter shooting sank the Buffaloes and propelled Scott Drew's squad to the round of 16.

    On a team that's chock-full of high-flying dunkers and talented forwards, Heslip provides a different dimension to the game that stretches the defense and makes life difficult for opponents.

    Let's see if he can continue his hot shooting against Xavier Friday.

Kenny Frease, Xavier Musketeers

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    10th-seeded Xavier finds itself in the Sweet 16 by way of some good fortune and a generous helping of Kenny Frease.

    The senior center almost single-handedly pulled the Musketeers past Lehigh Sunday, scoring more than a third of Xavier's points and ripping down 12 rebounds.

    Frease converted on 11 of his 13 shot opportunities on the offensive end and protected the rim on the defensive end.

    His team and his coach called upon him to have a standout game, and he answered the bell in a big way.

Elijah Johnson, Kansas Jayhawks

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    Before the postseason, Kansas guard Elijah Johnson was averaging single-digit scoring.

    In the Jayhawks' conference tournament and NCAA Tournament games, Johnson is putting up 18.5 points per game and has been a headache for opposing guards.

    His late-season surge has kept Kansas afloat, especially Sunday night. Johnson's 18 points and go-ahead basket helped the Jayhawks avoid a major upset at the hands of the Purdue Boilermakers.

    Let's see what kind of damage he can do against N.C. State.

D.J. Cooper, Ohio Bobcats

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    At the center of Ohio's remarkable underdog run to the Sweet 16 is pint-sized guard D.J. Cooper.

    The 5'11" dynamo has been playing extremely well for the past month, and his success continued into the big dance, where he's averaging 20 points and six assists per game for the Bobcats.

    When a little guy takes over the national tournament, it's always a great story. It's even better in this case because it's a MAC star helping his team take down high-seeded opponents from the Big Ten and the Big East.

Lorenzo Brown, N.C. State Wolfpack

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    The feel-good story in the ACC is the N.C. State Wolfpack's run to the regional semifinals by virtue of a pair of upsets.

    Sophomore guard Lorenzo Brown has been a key piece in the team's impressive run.

    He did it all against San Diego State, scoring (17 points), creating shots for teammates (eight assists), and crashing the boards (nine rebounds).

    He then delivered a solid 12-point, seven assist outing against Georgetown that included draining the game-winning free throws.