Two of the best teams in the nation from two of the best conferences in the nation will face off when the Big East's Syracuse Orange take on the Big Ten's Indiana Hoosiers in the Sweet 16, and certain players are going to have to play the role of difference-maker so that their team can advance to the Elite Eight.
No. 1 seed Indiana just barely made it this far after pulling off some late fireworks against No. 9 seed Temple in the round of 32, while No. 4 seed Syracuse made relatively short work of No. 13 seed Montana and No. 12 seed California.
This game is going to be close from start to finish, and it's going to be important for a small group of players to be at their best throughout the game so that their respective teams may win. All it takes is for one of them to have a bad night and the pendulum will swing in the other squad's favor.
So long as this small handful can maintain pace and continue to play well or, in some cases, start showing up, then they will surely be able to punch their ticket to the Elite Eight.
Watford was great for the Hoosiers during the regular season and is averaging 12.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game on the season. He has solid size at 6'9", 232 pounds and managed to shoot 43.5 percent from the field as well as 48 percent from long range.
However, Watford has essentially been a non-factor in the tourney. Through Indiana's two games, he has posted just nine points and 6.5 rebounds per game while shooting 36 percent from the field.
While it's great that he is managing to be solid in the paint, Watford needs to demand the ball more and incorporate his jumper. Syracuse is a balanced team with a balanced offense, and that means the Hoosiers need to be able to keep up and have multiple weapons at their disposal.
On Watford's end, that means demanding the ball from start to finish and not limiting himself to putback shots or layups. So long as his long and mid-range games can be present, Indiana will have a definite chance at making the Elite Eight.
One of Syracuse's strongest assets this season has been Carter-Williams, whose pass-first mentality and excellent on-ball defense played a big role in the team getting this far. At 6'6", 185 pounds, he has unique size for his position and can create mismatches on both sides of the floor.
Carter-Williams is averaging 7.6 assists and 2.7 steals to go with 11.8 points this season, though he is shooting just 39 percent from the field and has been solid in the tournament as well. He's averaging eight points, five rebounds, six assists and two steals per game over the Orange's two games.
It is absolutely critical that Carter-Williams be in top form against Indiana, who will surely look to shut him down from the get-go. Nothing takes the wind out of a team's sails like having the quarterback of their offense taken out of the game, so Carter-Williams must be sure to use his size to fight past defenses and find open teammates, not to mention contribute in the scoring department as necessary.
Otherwise, Syracuse could be sunk from the opening tip.
I don't know how else to say this—Indiana winning this game hinges on a strong game from Zeller. The 7'0" sophomore is averaging 16.7 points and eight rebounds per game, but he has visibly struggled against stronger interior players like Trevor Mbakwe.
That said, he cannot allow players like Baye Keita and Rakeem Christmas to push him around. Zeller has posted just 13 points and five rebounds per game in the tournament and has shot 53 percent from the field.
Zeller simply needs to demand the ball every single possession against Syracuse. That isn't to say he needs to be a ball hog and score every single basket, but he needs to use his size to control the paint and man it with authority.
This means going after every rebound and playing aggressively, even if he isn't the strongest of athletes. Zeller is the leader of the Hoosiers for a reason, and it's time for him to assume that role on a whole new level against Syracuse.