Top Players to Watch on Day 5 of NCAA Tournament

Jake CurtisFeatured ColumnistMarch 22, 2013

Top Players to Watch on Day 5 of NCAA Tournament

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    Sixteen teams survived Thursday's second-round games, setting them up for third-round matchups on Day 5 of the NCAA tournament Saturday.

    The early jitters should be out of the way, and this year's postseason stars should begin to establish themselves.

    Some teams advanced Thursday without getting outstanding games from their standout players. To get to the Sweet 16, however, their stars need to shine.

    We present a dozen players on Saturday's schedule who are worth watching, either because of their impact or their entertainment value. 

Wesley Saunders, Harvard

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    When to Watch: Harvard vs. Arizona at 6:10 p.m. ET

    Why He's Critical Saturday: Wesley Saunders is Harvard's leading scorer and provides a low-post scoring threat. With Arizona focused on Harvard's outside shooting, Saunders must have a big game against Arizona's big frontcourt for the Crimson to have a shot at an upset.

    Top Showing: Saunders had 27 points in a Feb. 10 victory over Columbia. He hit eight of 11 shots, made his only three-point attempt and converted all 10 free throws while playing 40 minutes. He had 18 points in Harvard's stunning upset of New Mexico on Thursday.

    Best Asset: Despite being just 6'5", Saunders has a good low-post game. He has a variety of moves, including a nice hook shot, and has a knack for drawing fouls. He can move away from the basket out to the three-point line, although he does not attempt many shots from beyond the arc. He provides a perfect complement for a team that relies heavily on outside shooting. Bottom line: He can score, leading the team in that category at 16.5 points a game.

    Pro Potential: At this point, Saunders is not a pro prospect. He plays like a power forward, but at 6'5", his game would not translate to success at the NBA level. He improved dramatically from his freshman year, though, and if he continues to elevate and expand his game, perhaps he will get a shot to make a pro roster in a few years.

    One More Thing: Saunders averaged just 3.3 points as a freshman, when he was not a prominent part Harvard's success. The Crimson were considerably better last season, when they were ranked nationally on several occasions. But the graduation of some players and the loss of two key players because of an academic scandal thrust Saunders into a starring role. This Harvard team, unlike last year's, won an NCAA tournament game.

Colton Iverson, Colorado State

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    When to Watch: Colorado State vs. Louisville at 5:15 p.m. ET

    Why He's Critical Saturday: The 6'10" Colton Iverson is an outstanding rebounder and must hold his own inside against Louisville's 6'11" Gorgui Dieng for the Rams to have a chance.

    Top Showing: Iverson went 12-of-12 from the field and scored 29 points while adding eight rebounds in a road victory over Wyoming on March 6. His worst offensive showing came on Thursday, when he had a season-low four points in the victory over Missouri. However, he had 13 rebounds, just five fewer than the entire Missouri team.

    Best Asset: Iverson is an outstanding rebounder, averaging 9.9 boards a game. He's a tough, physical force in the middle who is hitting nearly 60 percent of his shots from field.

    Pro Potential: DraftExpress.com ranks him as the 90th-best NBA prospect in the country, which means he's a borderline pro prospect. He has the size and strength to play a power forward spot and could be a backup center.

    One More Thing: Iverson had a promising freshman season at Minnesota, but when his numbers and minutes didn't increase the next two seasons, he transferred to Colorado State for his final season.

Dwayne Evans, St. Louis

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    When to Watch: St. Louis vs. Oregon at 7:10 p.m. ET

    Why He's Critical Saturday: Dwayne Evans is one of the hottest players in the nation, averaging 20.5 points and 10.5 rebounds over the last eight games. He needs to keep that up against Oregon.

    Top Showing: Evans had 24 points on 7-of-10 shooting and added 11 rebounds in St. Louis' March 16 victory over Butler. He had 24 points on 11-of-16 shooting in Thursday's victory over New Mexico State. Evans' scoring totals are more impressive considering the Billikens don't score a lot of points.

    Best Asset: His best asset at the moment is that he's on a roll, and that's big deal in the NCAA tournament. A player brimming with confidence can carry a team in the postseason, when momentum is so important. He does nearly all his damage inside the three-point line and gets to the foul line often. He has attempted 64 free throws over the past eight games.

    Pro Potential: Evans is not considered a pro prospect at this point, although his recent performances could change that projection. He does not have the shooting range needed for a 6'5" small forward in the pros, but he could excel overseas.

    One More Thing: Evans scored in single digits in 11 of the Billikens' first 17 games, but he has scored 11 points or more in all 17 games since. The Billikens are playing the season in honor of coach Rick Majerus, who died Dec. 1. They were 3-3 before he passed away but are 25-3 since.

Keith Appling, Michigan State

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    When to Watch: Michigan State vs. Memphis at 2:45 p.m. ET

    Why He's Critical Saturday: Keith Appling's point-guard matchup against Memphis' speedy Joe Jackson will be pivotal. Plus, when Appling has a bad game, the Spartans often struggle. He's the team's leading scorer, but he scored just six points, three points and nine points in consecutive games against Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan, respectively, late in the season. Michigan State lost all three.

    Top Showing: 24 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals in a Jan. 31 victory over Illinois. He had 15 points and no turnovers in Thursday's victory over Valparaiso.

    Best Asset: Appling has a team-first mentality and he does what is needed in given situations. He is the team leader in scoring and assists but does not have eye-popping numbers in either category (13.6 points, 3.5 assists). His best asset may be his defense.

    Pro Potential: The point guard has borderline pro potential and is unlikely to be a first-round pick unless his production improves significantly next season. DraftExpress.com projects him as a second-round pick in 2014. Several other players on the Michigan State team have greater pro potential, including Gary Harris, Brandon Dawson and Adreian Payne.

    One More Thing: Appling has struggled against fast point guards like Michigan's Trey Burke and Indiana's Yogi Ferrell. And Memphis' Joe Jackson may be the fastest of them all. Jackson and Appling are good friends, according to an MLive.com article, so they know each other well.

D.J. Stephens, Memphis

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    When to Watch: Memphis vs. Michigan State at 2:45 p.m. ET

    Why He's Critical Saturday: Michigan State prefers to go inside on offense, and D.J. Stephens' shot-blocking skills may help thwart that even though he's listed as a guard-forward. His monster dunks and blocked shots make him entertaining as well.

    Top Showing: Stephens' eight blocks in Thursday's game against St. Mary's on Thursday may have been his most important performance. His best all-around showing was a Feb. 2 game against Tulsa, when he had 15 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks.

    Best Asset: The 6'5" Stephens is an outstanding leaper with good timing. His dunks can be spectacular and exciting. However, his shot-blocking may be his most important skill. He has blocked 19 shots in Memphis' past three games.

    Pro Potential: Stephens is unlikely to be drafted by the NBA because his offensive game is limited. He might catch on if a team needs his particular skill set. He could play overseas, where his high-flying act would play well.

    One More Thing: Stephens suffers from severe asthma and uses an inhaler while he's on the bench. As such, he has increased difficulty when playing games at high altitude.


Rotnei Clarke, Butler

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    When to Watch: Butler vs. Marquette at 7:45 p.m. ET

    Why He's Critical Saturday: Marquette is a strong defensive team, and Butler will need Rotnei Clarke's long-range threat.

    Top Showing: Clarke, who played his first three seasons of college ball at Arkansas, hit six of 10 three-point shots while scoring 28 points in Butler's six-point victory over St. Joseph's on January 9. He was only 2-of-8 on three-pointers on Thursday against Bucknell, but he made some key long-range shots under pressure and finished with 17 points.

    Best Asset: One of the best long-range shooters in the country, Clarke can hit them while under pressure. Jeff Goodman of CBSSports.com rated him the nation's best shooter in his preseason rankings. He's hitting 41.2 percent of his three-pointers this season.

    Pro Potential: The 6'0" Clarke is unlikely to be drafted because he may be too small to play shooting guard, yet does not possess sufficient point-guard skills. His game is limited, but he could latch on with a team in need of a perimeter threat.

    One More Thing: Clarke had a scary fall on Jan. 9 this season that left him with numbness and tingling from the neck down. He missed three games but returned at full strength.

Allen Crabbe, California

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    When to Watch: California vs. Syracuse  at 9:40 p.m. ET

    Why He's Critical Saturday: Teams must hit perimeter shots against Syracuse's zone defense, and Allen Crabbe's ability to score from long range is pivotal.

    Top Showing: Crabbe scored 31 points in Cal's road victory over Arizona on Feb. 10. He made 12 of 15 shots, including four of seven three-pointers. That game was one of the prime reasons he was named Pac-12 player of the year. He had 19 points, eight rebounds and four assists in Thursday's victory over UNLV.

    Best Asset: Crabbe can score. Known mainly as an outside shooter in the past, Crabbe has also shown he can beat a defender off the dribble this season. An outstanding finisher on the break, Crabbe excels at coming off a screen and hitting the three. He's also an able rebounder.

    Pro Potential: The 6'6" Crabbe is prototypical NBA shooting guard. His length and offensive skills fit perfectly with the pro game. DraftExpress.com projects him to be taken early in the second round of the upcoming draft. NBADraft.net projects him as a late first-round pick in 2014.

    One More Thing: Crabbe was involved in a controversial moment when coach Mike Montgomery shoved him during a timeout against USC on Feb. 17. Crabbe responded by hitting some big shots in a comeback win. Montgomery later apologized and was not faced with disciplinary action.

Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse

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    When to Watch: Syracuse vs. California at 9:40 p.m. ET

    Why He's Critical Saturday: Point guard Michael Carter-Williams needs to control the pace of the game against Cal's strong backcourt in what will be a heavily pro-Cal crowd in San Jose.

    Top Showing: Carter-Williams had 17 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in a road victory over Arkansas on Nov. 30. He scored only four points Thursday in the blowout of Montana, but took only two shots while collecting seven rebounds and nine assists.

    Best Asset: Carter-Williams is obviously a long way from being as good as Magic Johnson, but his style is similar to Johnson's. The 6'6" Carter-Williams can do a little bit of everything. He's not a good shooter, but Magic was not a great shooter in college, either. Carter-Williams is an outstanding passer, averaging 7.8 assists a game, and he rebounds very well for a guard. His biggest asset is making the Orange's offense productive.

    Pro Potential: Carter-Williams is projected as a mid-first-round pick by NBADraft.net and DraftExpress.com. He has all the ingredients needed to be a solid NBA point guard, except for the ability to hit outside shots. That's a skill he can develop with time.

    One More Thing: Although he's a star as a sophomore, Carter-Williams didn't do much as a freshman, averaging just 2.7 points, 2.1 assists and 10.3 minutes last season.

Mark Lyons, Arizona

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    When to Watch: Arizona vs. Harvard 6:10 p.m. ET

    Why He's Critical Saturday: Mark Lyons has been outstanding in some games and mistake-ridden in others. He needs to have a good game against Harvard.

    Top Showing: 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting and six assists with just two turnovers in a 73-66 victory over Stanford on Feb. 6. Lyons hit two key baskets in that game, including a three-pointer, in the Wildcats' come-from-behind win. Lyons came up big in Thursday's victory over Belmont, scoring 23 points.

    Best Asset: Lyons has the ability to hit big shots late in games or in pivotal situations. He's not a true point guard, because he prefers to score rather than create for others. But he seems to come through in the clutch, as he did when he hit the game-winning shot against Florida in December. "He loves all the pressure on him," Florida guard Mike Rosario said, via Jeff Goodman of CBSSports.com.

    Pro Potential: Unfortunately, Lyons is not expected to be taken in the NBA draft. However, he could have a productive pro career overseas because of his ability to score. He lacks the playmaking skills needed to be an NBA points guard, but at 6'1", he may not be tall enough to play the shooting guard spot. Plus, he does not have an NBA-caliber outside shot. Lyons has plenty of confidence, though, and could will his way onto an NBA roster.

    One More Thing: Lyons played his first three college seasons at Xavier, but decided to transfer to Arizona for his senior season, following head coach Sean Miller to Arizona. Lyons had already graduated from Xavier when he transferred, so he was eligible to play immediately. Lyons scored 16 points in Xavier's loss to Baylor in last year's NCAA tournament.

Russ Smith, Louisville

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    When to Watch: Louisville vs. Colorado State at 5:15 p.m. ET

    Why He's Critical Saturday: Guard Russ Smith needs to push the pace both offensively and defensively against Colorado State. He is a key part of the Louisville press, and the Cardinals rely heavily on his scoring. He''s averaging 18.1 points and is the only Louisville player averaging better than 10.0 points. He makes questionable decisions sometimes and must minimize those against the Rams.

    Top Showing: Smith hit four of six three-point shots and scored 28 points in a 19-point victory over Villanova on Mar. 14. He had 23 points and eight steals in just 25 minutes of action in Thursday's blowout over North Carolina A&T.

    Best Asset: Smith is a scorer. His ability to push the ball up the court and finish is unmatched. He's fast and aggressive, making him a perfect fit for the Louisville system. But he takes bad shots on occasion.

    Pro Potential: DraftExpress.com rates him as a second-round pick, although the 6'0" Smith is really a shooting guard who will have to play the point in the NBA. Whether he can handle the playmaking chores at the pro level remains a question.

    One More Thing: Coach Rick Pitino nicknamed Smith "Russdiculous" for his penchant of making some great plays and some very bad plays. "I have a player who could be the MVP for either team," Pitino said of Smith in an article by Sports Illustrated.

Trey Burke, Michigan

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    When to Watch: Michigan vs. Virginia Commonwealth at 12:15 p.m. ET

    Why He's Critical Saturday: Virginia Commonwealth relies on full-court defensive pressure to create havoc. It's up to Michigan point guard Trey Burke to handle that pressure and contribute more on offensive than he did on Thursday.

    Top Showing: Burke had 27 points on 12-of-16 shooting to go along with eight assists and five rebounds in a Dec. 15 victory over West Virginia. His worst showing may have come in Thursday's victory over South Dakota State, when he was just 2-of-12 from the field and scored a season-low six points. He did have seven assists with just two turnovers, though.

    Best Asset: Burke has the ability to dominate games as both a scorer and a playmaker. He was the Big Ten player of the year and is a contender for national player of the year. No player combines the ability to shoot, score off the dribble and pass as well as Burke.

    Pro Potential: The 6'0" Burke, a sophomore, is projected as a mid-first-round pick by DraftExpress.com and NBADraft.net. His game is tailor-made for success as a point guard in the pros. The only question is his size.

    One More Thing: Burke had a scary fall in the second half of Thursday's game. He had to leave the game and was taken to the locker room. Trainers checked his injured arm and made sure he had no symptoms of a concussion. He returned to the game and is expected to be fine for Saturday's game.

Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga

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    When to Watch: Gonzaga vs. Wichita State at 8:40 p.m. ET

    Why He's Critical Saturday: Wichita State is one of the nation's best rebounding teams and is strong on the interior. The presence of the 7'0" Kelly Olynyk in the paint will be important to offset that.

    Top Showing: Olynyk showed his poise by scoring 17 of his 21 points in the second half of Thursday's surprisingly close victory over No. 16-seeded Southern on Thursday. His best game came against archrival St. Mary's on Jan. 10, when he poured in 31 points with eight rebounds in a five-point Gonzaga victory.

    Best Asset: Versatility is what makes Olynyk so dangerous. The fourth-year junior can score from the low block. He can face up and beat a defender off the dribble. He can hit the three. Olynyk is also a willing passer who is particularly effective at making the high-low pass to Elias Harris. 

    Pro Potential: A year ago, Olynyk was not even on the NBA radar. However, his dramatic improvement has made him a likely first-rounder. The pros want a 7'0" player with a polished game. He's not a quick jumper, but he makes up for that with his sound game.

    One More Thing: Olynyk took the unusual step of redshirting his third college season in 2011-2012. It was done partly because the Bulldogs already had considerable frontcourt talent and Olynyk's playing time would have been limited. But it was also done so Olynyk could bulk up and improve his inside game after hanging out on the perimeter his first two seasons.