Winning may mean “everything,” but it doesn’t help players sign shoe contracts, get drafted in the NBA lottery or Most Outstanding Player Awards for their trophy case—not even in the NCAA tournament.
For star players who perform poorly in early rounds, that puts them under an even closer microscope going forward. One bad tournament run can be the difference between the lottery for a prospect and the D-League for future NBAers—just as Perry Jones. Even for players destined just for collegiate stardom, struggling in March is a one-way ticket to Pariahville—just ask, well, you name him.
Luckily for some players who struggled in the 2013 tournament’s round of 64, they will have another crack. Their team advanced despite their woes, and now they will have 48 hours to fix what’s wrong with their shot and come back a superstar.
Will they do it? Only time will tell, but here are a few guys who have the best shot in the third round.
Trey Burke (G, Michigan)
One game into his NCAA tournament journey as a National Player of the Year favorite and Burke is already setting season records—just not in a good way. The sophomore guard scored a season-low six points and dished out seven assists in Michigan’s 71-56 victory over South Dakota State in the round of 32.
Burke’s shooting was so wildly inconsistent that the Wolverines needed ascendant performances from Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III to survive. The two namesakes of former NBA greats combined to shoot 16-of-22 from the field and score 42 of Michigan’s points, with Mitch McGary chipping in 13.
With all of his teammates looking fantastic, Burke’s struggles were even more pronounced. He made only two of his 12 shots, including missing all five from distance. Burke’s tournament livelihood even seemed in jeopardy after he took a hard fall going for a rebound and was taken back to the locker room for tests in the second half.
Everything checked out and Burke returned, but Michigan’s next opponent may make him take a sabbatical. The Wolverines will take on the fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth Rams on Saturday after they mopped the floor with Akron in their round of 64 matchup. Jumping ahead with a quick-strike attack, VCU doubled up Akron in the first half at 50-25 en route to a 88-42 victory.
The Rams’ impressive victory wasn’t as concerning for Burke as the way they went about it. Employing Shaka Smart’s “Havoc” defense, VCU trapped Akron’s ball handlers and flustered the ill-prepared Zips with suction-cup-level on-ball pressure en route to forcing 21 turnovers.
Smart’s defense, which is a full-court, diamond press that emphasizes corner traps and jump presses in man-to-man situations, is a point guard’s nightmare. There won’t be room to get a head of steam after a bucket, nor will there be any time to set up a half-court offense initially. Burke will need his secondary ball-handlers, specifically Hardaway, to help bring the ball up the floor and then reset in the half court.
Whether they can do that is anyone’s guess. VCU has made a habit of flustering even the nation’s most elite players since Smart took over. But if there is any guard in college basketball equipped to handle “Havoc,” it’s Burke. He’s smart, has an explosive first step and knows where to go with the ball at all times.
While Burke may not have the game of his live versus VCU, look for him to impress scouts with his handling of the press on Saturday.
Rotnei Clarke (G, Butler)
Butler was able to overcome Bucknell in its East Region round of 64 matchup thanks to an ascendant individual performance, but not by whom you may expect. It was center Andrew Clark, locking up Bucknell’s Mike Muscala and putting up 14 points and 12 rebounds, who really stole the show for Brad Stevens’ side.
Rotnei Clarke, on the other hand, played a large part in the Bulldogs’ 36.4 field-goal percentage. The senior guard shot just 5-of-14 from the field, including a paltry 2-of-8 from distance, en route to 17 points. Clarke’s performance was saved in the box score thanks mostly to his solid performance from the line, where Butler had 20 more attempts than Bucknell.
It was another inconsistent line in a season full of them for Clarke. Most remember the Arkansas transfer for his heroics earlier this season in the Bulldogs’ upset of Indiana, but he’s shooting just 41.2 percent this season and has plenty of clunkers clogging up his game log.
What’s so great about Clarke is the can re-shift the paradigm at any moment. Prior to playing Marquette in the third game of the regular season, Clarke has just seven points and shot 3-of-11 in a loss to Syracuse. He wasn’t much better shooting-wise against Marquette in the following game, still managing 20 points—including a buzzer-beater that gave the Bulldogs a one-point victory in Hawaii.
Circumstances will once again necessitate Clarke rising to the occasion on Saturday. Marquette survived its own upset-minded opponent in Davidson, and Buzz Williams is not the type of coach to allow his team consecutive bad performances. The Golden Eagles will fly versus Butler—Clarke will just determine if they’re flying caged or free to the next round.
If his first performance is any indication, it’s hard to bet against Clarke again climbing the proverbial mountaintop.
Gary Harris (G, Michigan State)
Tom Izzo has to be pleased overall with his team’s effort and its result versus Valparaiso, but he’s also a forward-thinking coach. He knows that basking in the moment is the calling card to an early defeat in the NCAA tournament, and that preparing for the next opponent starts when the clock strikes zero in the previous game.
Most importantly, Izzo knows the squeaky wheel begets the attention. For the Spartans, the squeaky wheel in an otherwise stellar performance is guard Gary Harris.
On a night where Derrick Nix had 23 points and 15 rebounds and Keith Appling continued his recent streak of improved shooting, Harris faltered. He scored 10 points, grabbed four rebounds and dished a team-high four assists, but missed seven of his 11 field-goal attempts, starting the game on a one-man rampage tour that included two turnovers and four missed shots in the first six minutes.
For a player who was getting plenty of NBA buzz toward the end of the regular season, Harris is faltering at the worst time. He’s made just five of his past 18 attempts from the field and seems a long way from the guy looked to be ascending in early February.
Look for Harris’ performance to be the impetus of Michigan State’s fate against Memphis in the round of 32. Harris is a strong athlete who matches up exceedingly well against the Tigers’ group of boundless athletes and is the one Spartan who can keep up in transition without breaking a sweat. Neither Michigan State nor Memphis is an especially prolific offensive squad, so points and possessions will be at a premium on Saturday.
If Harris starts with his guffaw soufflé like he did in the round of 64, then Michigan State could be in trouble. But if he wants to prove to NBA scouts he can handle pro-level athletes, Harris will make sure that doesn’t happen.
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