The overall quality of play in this year’s NCAA tournament hasn’t quite lived up to expectations, but don’t be mistaken—there are a bevy of elite players still dancing.
Every remaining Sweet 16 squad has at least one player to keep an eye on in the final rounds of the tournament. From senior forwards to electric young guards, there’s enough talent to make the remaining games worth watching.
The Big Dance is a big stage, and it takes a special player to shine under its bright lights. We’ll highlight three of those players who are poised to dominate in Friday’s action.
Russ Smith, Louisville
Matchup: No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 12 Oregon (7:15 p.m. ET on CBS)
Junior guard Russ Smith is an early candidate for tournament most outstanding player, and if Louisville manages to run the table, there really isn’t a better choice.
Smith has been incredible through the first three rounds of the tournament, averaging 25 points per contest on 5-of-11 shooting from behind the arc. Efficiency has been the key to his game, and he’ll look to continue the trend against Oregon on Friday.
Despite holding opponents to an average of 56 points in the second and third rounds, the Oregon Ducks is allowing 63.2 points per game this season. At 73.9 points per game, the Cardinals’ offense won’t be so easy to neutralize.
Smith’s tournament numbers haven’t deviated far from his regular-season stats. The 6'1" guard averaged 18.4 points in the regular season, though his tournament shooting percentage (54.8 percent) is certainly impressive.
With all due respect to Oregon and its terrific tournament run, the Ducks don’t have a player capable of stopping Smith in this contest. He’ll continue building on a strong tournament performance with another 20-plus-point game and lead the Cardinals to a decisive Sweet 16 victory.
Mason Plumlee, Duke
Matchup: No. 2 Duke vs. No. 3 Michigan State (9:45 p.m. ET on CBS)
Winning in the final rounds of the Big Dance is all about experience. Duke certainly has plenty of it, and senior forward Mason Plumlee is a big reason for that.
The 6'10" forward has been terrific in the first three rounds, averaging 16.5 points and 6.5 rebounds through two contests. Against Albany in the second round, Plumlee tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in leading Duke to a decisive 73-61 victory.
Senior forward Derrick Nix and junior forward Adreian Payne will have their hands full with Plumee and 6'11" forward Ryan Kelly. While both Spartans have the physicality to bang with Duke in the paint, Kelly’s ability to play a quality inside-out game will keep them on their toes.
With Kelly spreading the floor (as the 45.9 percent three-point shooter does so effectively), Nix and Payne will face several potential mismatches in and out of the paint.
Plumlee is at his best when he has room to move without the ball and find breaks in opposing defenses under the hoop. As long as Kelly remains effective from mid-range and beyond, Plumlee will have an opportunity for a huge game on Friday.
Glenn Robinson III, Michigan
Matchup: No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 4 Michigan (7:37 p.m. ET on CBS)
Don’t let anyone tell you Kansas has an easy path to the finals. The Michigan Wolverines aren’t playing like a No. 4 seed.
Michigan has been a wrecking ball in the first three rounds, dismantling South Dakota State in the round of 64 and dispatching VCU last weekend with surprising ease. The Wolverines’ 20-point average margin of victory in the tournament will have Kansas on upset alert.
Point guard Trey Burke is Michigan’s best player, but he hasn’t been forced to carry the offensive load in the Big Dance. Junior guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. and freshman forward Glenn Robinson III have handled that duty, each averaging 17.5 points per contest.
Hardaway will be a player to watch in this matchup, but it’s Robinson who presents big matchup problems for the Jayhawks. With a good blend of athleticism, natural ability and instincts, the 6’6” forward has proved to be absolutely unguardable at times.
With a hot hands and a lot to prove, the freshman shot 15-of-19 from the field in the last two games. Expect Robinson to keep the momentum rolling against Kansas with a 20-plus-point effort in a down-to-the-wire contest.
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