Top Players to Watch as NCAA Conference Tournaments Take Center Stage

Doug BrodessCorrespondent IMarch 10, 2013

Top Players to Watch as NCAA Conference Tournaments Take Center Stage

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    Championship Week is here, and five teams have already punched their tickets to the 2013 NCAA tournament: Creighton (Missouri Valley), Liberty (Big South), Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun), Harvard (Ivy League) and Belmont (Ohio Valley).

    By next weekend, we will know all 68 teams that make up this year's March Madness.

    With so much going down between now and Selection Sunday, here are 10 top players to watch as we progress through the week.

10. Kendall Williams (New Mexico): Mountain West

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    Step aside, Big East. Watch out, Big Ten.

    The Mountain West finishes up the 2012-13 regular season as the top RPI conference in the nation.

    As the MWC tourney heats up, New Mexico’s Kendall Williams will help the Lobos compete for the league’s tournament title after winning the regular-season championship.

    Williams leads UNM in scoring (14.0 PPG) and assists (5.0 APG)

    Recently, Williams demonstrated his insane scoring potential when he dropped a conference-record 10 three-pointers on his way to scoring 46 points on the road against Colorado State.

9. Joe Jackson (Memphis): Conference USA

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    Joe Jackson patiently paid his dues over his first two seasons at Memphis, waiting for the time when he could shine as the Tigers’ go-to guy.

    The 6’1” hometown hero leads UM in scoring (13.8 PPG) and assists (4.9 APG).

    Jackson has become a poised floor leader who takes care of the ball and a confident shooter who can consistently bury shots.

    Memphis went through the Conference USA season undefeated (27-4, 16-0). Could this be the year that Josh Pastner’s squad breaks through?

    With Jackson performing at a high level, it is more than possible that the Tigers could advance to the second weekend of the 2013 NCAA tournament.

8. Khalif Wyatt (Temple): Atlantic 10

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    Temple needs its main man, Khalif Wyatt, to come up big in the Atlantic 10 tourney.

    The 6’4" senior guard was the conference’s leading scorer, dropping in 19.9 points per game (No. 15 in the nation).

    In past seasons, Wyatt has made a good showing in the conference tournament, averaging nearly 17 points per contest. But Temple head coach Fran Dunphy needs his leader in every way possible. 

    If Wyatt busts out in Brooklyn, he can unquestionably secure the Owls' place on Selection Sunday.

7. Mark Lyons (Arizona): Pac-12

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    Mark Lyons has been a welcome addition to this year’s Arizona Wildcats team.

    His ability to take the ball and execute when the game is on the line has translated into more than a few victories in close ballgames.

    Lyons has added toughness and swagger to a team that needed someone to confront its West Coast nonchalance. The 6’1” combo guard leads Arizona in scoring (14.9 PPG).

    Sean Miller’s talented squad must quickly rediscover the midseason mojo that helped it beat Florida, Miami and San Diego State in the month of December.

6. Nate Wolters (South Dakota State): Summit

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    Nate Wolters is one of the best-kept secrets in college basketball.

    All that the 6’4” senior from St. Cloud, Minn., has done this year is average 22.7 points (No. 4 in the nation), 5.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game.

    In early February, Wolters torched IPFW for 53 points and followed that up by dropping 36 on Oakland two days later.

    Someone made the great decision to include him among the 2013 Wooden Award finalists.

    Wolters needs to help South Dakota State win the Summit League so we can see a special player do his magic during March Madness.

5. Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss): SEC

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    Ole Miss is having a roller-coaster season, and Marshall Henderson’s gunslinger mentality has helped the Rebels clinch a double-bye in the upcoming SEC tournament.

    Henderson shoots now and doesn’t bother asking questions later.

    It’s nothing for him to put up multiple three-pointers in a game. In fact, he has launched at least 10 bombs in 21 games this season.

    Henderson’s 19.7 points per game and 87.7 percent free-throw accuracy lead the SEC.

    If the 6’2” junior from Hurst, Texas, catches fire this week in Nashville, the Rebels could cut down the nets next Sunday.

4. Peyton Siva (Louisville): Big East

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    Peyton Siva, last year’s Big East tournament MVP, is ready to lead Louisville to a repeat performance at Madison Square Garden.

    In speaking about what Siva brings on and off the court, it was recently noted that coach Rick Pitino links Siva with Florida coach Billy Donovan as "the two best men of character he has coached" (via C.L. Brown of Louisville's Courier-Journal).

    That's no small statement.

    In last year's conference tourney, Siva averaged 13.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game as the Cardinals took care of Seton Hall, Marquette, Notre Dame and Cincinnati.

    The 6'0" point guard from Seattle does not need to score in large quantities this year, but he must control the Cards on both ends of the court.

    If Louisville faces Georgetown in the championship game, Siva needs to redeem himself for his zero points and two assists in his outing against the Hoyas in D.C. back in late January.

3. Shane Larkin (Miami): Atlantic Coast Conference

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    Shane Larkin is the engine that drives Miami's postseason train.

    Though Larkin has a full arsenal of weapons, head coach Jim Larranaga needs the 5’11” sophomore to create and deliver on both ends of the court in Greensboro.

    When Larkin (13.7 PPG, 4.4 APG, 2.0 SPG) is at his best, so are the ‘Canes.   

    When Miami hits the court this week as the ACC's regular-season champs, Larkin will push the ball and make his opponents pay attention...or else.

2. Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State): Big 12

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    No Big 12 player will bear a bigger burden for his team’s success in Kansas City this week than Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart.

    The 6’4”, multitalented point guard kicks off most of OSU's production. He relentlessly drives the lane, effectively gets to the line or finds teammates spotting up. 

    Whether it is through scoring, distributing or defending, Smart’s execution is crucial to the Cowboys.

    One of the areas of his game that is undervalued is his on-ball defense. Smart averages three steals per game (No. 3 in the nation).

    If the freshman PG gets on track shooting-wise, the Cowboys can win the conference tourney and build some good momentum for the rest of March Madness.

1. Victor Oladipo (Indiana): Big Ten

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    As good of a year as Victor Oladipo has already had in the 2012-13 season, his biggest Hoosier opportunities are still ahead of him.

    Oladipo’s game has improved radically as the year has progressed.

    Last year, the 6’5” junior wing played a secondary role on IU’s 2012 Sweet 16 team as its No. 4 scorer.

    This year, he is not only a 2013 Wooden Award finalist, but ESPN.com’s Andy Katz now considers him a contender for the National Player of the Year award and a first-team All-American.

    While Oladipo is a slasher extraordinaire, he has proven throughout the current campaign to be a dangerous shooter from downtown. Last year, he hit 20.8 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. This year, he has knocked down 46.4 percent of his threes.