Top Players to Watch on Day 3 of NCAA Tournament

Tyler Donohue@@TDsTakeNational Recruiting AnalystMarch 21, 2013

Top Players to Watch on Day 3 of NCAA Tournament

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    The college basketball season continues its crescendo Thursday as a slate of 16 NCAA tournament games takes center stage throughout the day. Bosses can expect employees to call out "sick," college professors will walk into empty classrooms and basketball fans across the country will be committed to a long day on the couch. 

    A quarter of the bracket will be eliminated by evening's end, so it's now or never for a number of standout performers. Some will rise to the occasion and advance to play another day. Others are sure to stumble and fall by the wayside without making their marks in March Madness. 

    While you're flipping through channels trying to keep track of each matchup, take some time to keep an eye on these players. Each one is part of his program's foundation and may be on the verge of a memorable NCAA tournament run.

Keith Appling, Michigan State

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    No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 14 Valparaiso; Midwest region

    Why You Should Watch

    Keith Appling enters the tourney seeking some redemption. Last March, he nearly matched turnovers (four) and total points (six) while converting just one field goal during a loss to Louisville in the Sweet 16.

    The junior guard journeys into the 2013 tournament playing well, but he must shake shooting inconsistencies. He's averaging 16 points in the past four games and hit a season-high four three-pointers in a narrow Big Ten tournament defeat against Ohio State.

    Appling's long-range shooting touch has been a hot topic in East Lansing. After draining just 25 percent of his three-point attempts as a sophomore, he is now shooting 31 percent.

    That percentage indicates an improvement, but he is still prone to clunkers. 

    Appling shot 1-of-13 from long distance in a pair of March matchups against Ohio State and Iowa. Despite those duds, the Spartans' star remains unwavering with an optimistic outlook.

    "Going into the tournament around this time, I feel like it's the perfect time with my shot falling," Appling told reporter Diamond Leung. "So hopefully, it will continue to fall. You'd be surprised how much a difference one year can make. I feel like I worked harder, and I got a lot better in certain areas. I feel like that one year has helped me."

Russ Smith, Louisville

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    No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 16 North Carolina A&T; Midwest region 

    Why You Should Watch

    Russ Smith rose to the occasion during the Cardinals' run to a conference title. He led the team in scoring as Louisville claimed its third Big East tournament championship since 1999.

    Smith stepped up as a leader in the limelight at Madison Square Garden.

    Many people point to Peyton Siva as the player who puts the Cardinals over the top, but Smith provides the offensive fuel on the road to the Final Four.

    The junior is in prime position to steal the show this spring.

Colton Iverson, Colorado State

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    No. 8 Colorado State vs. No. 9 Missouri; Midwest region

    Why You Should Watch

    Colton Iverson is among the nation's most underrated post players. The 6'10" center averages a double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds) and shoots 60 percent from the floor. 

    Iverson, who transferred from Minnesota in 2011, is a load to cover inside and continues to heat up in March. He is shooting a combined 34-of-45 through five games this month. That's right, 34-of-45.

Trey Burke, Michigan

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    No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 13 South Dakota State; South region

    Why You Should Watch

    The Wooden Award finalist is a prodigious point guard talent. Trey Burke, a sophomore, slices through defenses with elite speed and court vision.

    He leads Michigan in points (19.2 per game), assists (6.7) and highlight plays. The Big Ten recognized Burke as the conference Player of the Year.

    His matchup against high-scoring South Dakota State guard Nate Wolters is one of the most compelling elements of Thursday's action. Burke is a disruptive defensive presence along the perimeter, averaging three steals per contest this month.

    Defenders can't afford to back away from Burke because he buries 40 percent of his three-point attempts.

    “He’s that good of a player, where you can’t really stop him, because he makes tough shots,” Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson told New York Times reporter Pat Borzi. “You’ve just got to hope that he misses and make him take tough shots every single time.”

Vander Blue, Marquette

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    No. 3 Marquette vs. No. 14 Davidson; East region

    Why You Should Watch

    Vander Blue was arguably the most improved player in the Big East during the regular season. The junior drops 14 points per game on 46 percent shooting, leading Marquette's offensive charge.

    The Madison native is a monster in the paint and plays bigger than his 6'4" frame would suggest. Blue was arguably the Big East's defender this season.

    Davidson is a very dangerous matchup for Marquette. Blue must pace the Golden Eagles early and often to avoid a disappointing early tourney exit. 

Mike Muscala, Bucknell

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    No. 11 Bucknell vs. No. 6 Butler; East region

    Why You Should Watch

    Mike Muscala may be the best college basketball player you've never heard of. His anonymity could end if the Bison boot Butler from the tournament.

    The 6'11" senior leads the NCAA with 22 double-doubles and is the only Division I player to post an average of 18 points and 11 rebounds this season. He is able to attack a defense in so many ways, from elite finishing moves near the rim to a dangerous mid-range game.

    Bucknell isn't the most athletic bunch in the Big Dance, but it could pull off an upset if Muscala is able to establish himself inside and set up teammates.

Nate Wolters, South Dakota State

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    No. 13 South Dakota State vs. No. 4 Michigan, South region

    Why You Should Watch

    Nate Wolters is a wildly entertaining guard who can light teams up from anywhere on the floor. The 6'4" senior is the real deal, averaging 23 points, six assists and six rebounds per game.

    Wolters has scored 30 points or more on four occasions this season, including a 53-point outburst in early February against Summit League rival IPFW. His efforts landed him on the list of Wooden Award finalists. 

    He goes toe-to-toe with Big Ten Player of the Year Trey Burke in the tournament opener. Make it a point to catch this clash.

Dwayne Evans, St. Louis

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    No. 4 St. Louis vs. No. 13 New Mexico State; Midwest region

    Why You Should Watch

    Dwayne Evans leads St. Louis in points (13.7 per game) and rebounds (7.7). Those numbers pale in comparison to the way he's dominated in the postseason.

    The 6'5" forward averaged 22 points per contest during the Atlantic 10 tournament. Evans put on a show against an accomplished Butler team in the conference semifinal.

    He scored 24 points, pulled down 11 rebounds and swiped three steals .

    Butler defensive stalwart Roosevelt Jones heaped praise on the Billikens' leader after the showdown in Brooklyn.

    "He's probably the most physical player that I've ever played in my life," Jones told Sporting News reporter Ryan Fagan. "I really thought that he should have been player of the year in the conference. He's a real good player."

Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga

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    No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Southern; West region

    Why You Should Watch

    The seven-foot center has become the face of one of the season's best stories. Kelly Olynyk averages more than 17 points per game for a Gonzaga squad sitting at No. 1 in its regional bracket for the first time in school history. 

    He leads the Bulldogs in points and rebounds, while ranking second in rebounds and free-throw percentage. Olynyk anchors a team that still has its share of doubters.

    A strong effort from him would go a long way toward proving Gonzaga's legitimacy as a No. 1 seed.

    "My comfort level is probably at an all-time high right now," Olynyk told CBC Sports reporter John Chick

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