The Sweet 16 of the 2013 NCAA tournament gets underway on Thursday evening as four teams look to punch their tickets to the regional finals.
All but one of the squads in action had to overcome serious adversity in the third round to pull through to this stage of March Madness. It will certainly be interesting to see how the star players respond, and which ones once again stand and deliver on the big stage that the Big Dance fosters.
Here is a projection for the players likeliest to be the biggest stars of the evening based on tournament trends and what their matchups dictate.
Kenny Kadji, F/C, Miami (FL) Hurricanes
The versatile 6'11" senior gives the Hurricanes formidable size in the paint as a decent shot-blocker, but what makes him so dangerous is his ability to stretch the floor and shoot three-pointers.
With that length, few defenders can even bother Kadji when he pulls the trigger from mid-range or beyond the arc. That also opens up driving lanes for Miami's dynamic backcourt featuring Shane Larkin and Durand Scott.
Center Reggie Johnson will miss the Marquette game due to injury, and didn't make the trip to Washington, D.C. with the team. That should open up more opportunities for the Hurricanes to get spacing and play a smaller lineup more suited to getting Kadji involved.
The Golden Eagles don't have the size to combat Miami up front outside of Chris Otule, and Johnson's absence as the team's leading rebounder will force Kadji to crash the glass more and establish his post game.
Look for Kadji to be a bigger part of the game plan due to Marquette's personnel, and be the key that pushes Jim Larranaga's squad into the Elite Eight.
Projected numbers: 20 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks
Aaron Craft, PG, Ohio State Buckeyes
Deshaun Thomas may lead the Buckeyess in scoring, but Craft should have yet another sensational game on both ends of the court.
Facing a matchup with Arizona Wildcats star Mark Lyons—who has been among the hottest players in the tournament—Craft will have his hands full on defense. Thankfully, he's arguably the best perimeter defender in the country.
Craft is coming off of a game-winning three-pointer against Iowa State in the third round, clearly proving he can come through in the clutch by creating his own offense. When he looks for his own offense, Ohio State is a different team.
In order to advance, Craft will have to continue seeking out his own shot as opposed to differing.
After playing in the friendly confines of Dayton in the first two games, Ohio State has to travel to Los Angeles—much closer to Wildcat territory. That should be a factor, but Craft is one of the toughest players in the country and a big key to why the Buckeyes have one of the best defenses in America.
Projected numbers: 17 points, four rebounds, 10 assists, five steals
Victor Oladipo, G, Indiana Hoosiers
A strong finalist for the Naismith Award, Oladipo is staggeringly efficient on the offensive end, shooting nearly 60 percent from the field and 43.3 percent from beyond the arc. The junior also pulls down 6.4 rebounds per game and is a capable ball-handler.
Not only that, but Oladipo won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award, and is constantly matched up on the opponent's top scoring option from the outside. He even broke Isiah Thomas' 32-year-old school record for steals in a single season.
Which game is the most exciting on Thursday?
That should provide problems for Syracuse guard Brandon Triche and the Orange. The versatility that Oladipo has on offense and his ability to get into the paint should gash even the stout 2-3 zone defense of Jim Boeheim.
Plus, the Hoosiers have so many good shooters on the outside in addition to Oladipo, and he should get plenty of looks on the perimeter as the Orange attempt to shut down Cody Zeller in the paint.
Whatever happens, any chance that Indiana has of winning depends on how well Oladipo performs. Whether he is matched up with Michael Carter-Williams or Triche, the Orange backcourt seems destined to struggle.
Projected numbers: 22 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals
Cleanthony Early, F, Wichita State Shockers
Shockers head coach Gregg Marshall proclaimed that there isn't a more beautiful player to watch above the rim in the NCAA than Early, as reported by Kelli Anderson of Sports Illustrated.
He's certainly in the conversation, and against an undersized La Salle squad, it should be on full display.
Although he is only 6'8" and a wiry 215 pounds, the dynamic junior forward can leap with the best of them, as he snags an average of five rebounds per contest. Early also has legitimate three-point range, although that is not necessarily his strength.
In fact, outside shooting is not the strength of Wichita State, but that didn't stop the Shockers from stunning Gonzaga in the round of 32 with a barrage of threes down the stretch.
Early was a key part in that, pouring in four shots from deep en route to 16 points and seven rebounds against the Bulldogs.
Despite the size of Pittsburgh in the tournament opener, he managed to wade his way into the paint and get to the free-throw line eight times. His length on the wing will also bother the smaller Explorers rotation.
Even with center Steve Zack returning for La Salle, the quickness Early has off the dribble and ability to finish at the rim should provide the ninth-seeded Shockers enough magic to keep dancing against the fellow mid-major upstart Explorers.
Projected numbers: 25 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks
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