Nothing changes the complexion of a game quite like an elite scorer, and there will be plenty of them featured in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Strong guard play fuels the nation’s top teams, and while balance and defense are important to success, sharpshooters and elite perimeter scorers make advancing through the tournament a much easier task.
Kansas, Oklahoma State and Ohio State have the opportunity to build a great deal of momentum with wins in the round of 64. We’ll take a look at a playmaker from each squad who has the potential to light up the scoreboard in the second round.
Ben McLemore, Kansas
Redshirt freshman guard Ben McLemore is arguably the best player in the nation, and he’ll look to boost his Kansas Jayhawks past the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers on Friday night.
How far will Kansas advance in the tournament?
McLemore is an athletic, pure shooter with the ability to make shots from anywhere on the floor. Averaging 16.4 points per game this season, he’ll be the key to Kansas escaping the second round unscathed.
At 6’5”, McLemore has the length and quick release to put up points in bunches throughout the tournament. He’s shooting 43.7 percent from behind the arc this season, and the Hilltoppers are 111th in the country in three-point defense (32.8 percent). Expect McLemore to tally several of his own in the second round.
With tremendous balance on the offensive end of the floor, Kansas won’t need McLemore to score 20-plus points (as he did 10 times during the regular season), but he’ll certainly get his share of looks. Western Kentucky doesn’t have a player on its roster who can slow him down if he gets hot.
Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State
Junior forward Deshaun Thomas has been Ohio State’s only dangerous offensive weapon this season. If the Buckeyes are to escape the second round in hopes of a deep tournament run, Thomas will have to continue to fill up the stat sheet.
The Iona Gaels can put up a lot of points, but they have been atrocious at the defensive end of the floor this season. Ranked No. 331 in scoring defense, Iona will have a hard time stopping Thomas both in the paint and beyond the arc.
Thomas’ most dangerous asset is his versatility. At 6’7” and 225 pounds, he has the size to hold up at the four and five in Ohio State’s smaller sets, but he’s equally effective from three-point range. The Big Ten’s top scorer (19.5 PPG) has connected on 33.7 percent of his three-point attempts this season.
Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. are nice complements to Thomas, but neither can be expected to be consistent scoring threats. Ohio State’s offense runs through Thomas, and he’ll run through Iona in the round of 64.
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
The Oklahoma State Cowboys boast one of the best guard combos in the country, and both have the potential to go off in the tournament.
Freshman guard Marcus Smart edged out teammate Markel Brown in scoring during the regular season by a slight margin, but Smart is the more electric player to watch early in the tournament.
Which team will advance to the round of 32?
While Brown is a much better shooter from behind the arc, Smart has the explosive athleticism and ball-handling skills to be a highlight reel in the Big Dance. Averaging 15.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game this season, he’s Oklahoma State’s best hope for a deep tournament run.
Oregon has been enigmatic this year, and defense hasn’t exactly been its strength in recent weeks. Ranked No. 92 in the country in scoring defense, the Ducks won’t have an answer for Oklahoma State’s combo of exceptional guards.
Brown will get his looks against Oregon, but Smart’s slashing ability is what creates shots for his running mate. Expect Smart to get on the board early and often en route to a 20-plus-point performance and a Cowboys win on Thursday afternoon.
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