Top Players to Watch on Day 8 of NCAA Tournament

Thad NovakCorrespondent IMarch 28, 2013

Top Players to Watch on Day 8 of NCAA Tournament

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    Friday is Day 8 of NCAA tournament action, and this year’s Sweet 16 has no shortage of star power. The high-pressure games of the second weekend of March Madness provide the perfect stage for a great player to show just how dangerous he can be.

    Kansas scoring leader Ben McLemore has played his way into the discussion for the NBA’s top draft pick in his redshirt freshman season. After two quiet tournament games, he’ll need to pick up his offensive pace as the Jayhawks tangle with hot-shooting Michigan.

    Read on for more on McLemore and the other key players to keep your eye on for every team in action on Friday night.

8. Johnathan Loyd, Oregon

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    Louisville’s relentless ball pressure forces every opposing point guard into a key role in trying to beat the Cardinals.

    Although freshman Dominic Artis is getting the starting nod at PG for Oregon, the lion’s share of the minutes have been going to junior Johnathan Loyd off the bench.

    Loyd is coming off a spectacular all-around game against St. Louis (nine points, five rebounds, six assists, three steals), and he’ll need to be in top form again on Friday night.

    If he can force a few turnovers as a defender, he’ll counteract some of the transition offense that Louisville depends on so heavily for its scoring punch.

7. Erik Murphy, Florida

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    One of the best ways to slow down a high-powered offensive player is to make him play defense.

    Florida’s Erik Murphy is in an ideal position to do just that as he faces off with Florida Gulf Coast’s dunk-happy forwards, Chase Fieler and Eric McKnight.

    Murphy, a 6’10” three-point shooter, can force the fleet-footed Eagles to burn off some of their energy chasing him off screens or battling his 25-pound weight advantage in the low post.

    On the other end, Murphy will be one of many Gators shouldering the burden of hustling back in defensive transition to minimize Dunk City’s opportunities for momentum-changing slams.

6. Gary Harris, Michigan State

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    Freshman Gary Harris is coming off a career game. He lit up Memphis for 23 points, including shooting 4-of-7 from three-point range.

    Against Duke’s prolific offense, another hot night for him would be a huge boost for a Spartans team that doesn’t often put up big-time scoring totals.

    Harris is also a terrific defender, and at a physical 6’4”, he’ll have size in his favor against most of the Blue Devils’ high-scoring guards.

    Look for him to get a share of the tall task of slowing down Duke senior Seth Curry and his 17 points per game.

5. Brett Comer, Florida Gulf Coast

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    Although he’s scored an unremarkable 22 points in two tournament games, no one player has been more important to Florida Gulf Coast’s electrifying offense than Brett Comer.

    The sophomore point guard dished out 24 combined assists against Georgetown and San Diego State, many of them on momentum-grabbing alley-oops.

    Comer won’t have an easy time duplicating that kind of show against an athletic (and well-prepared) Florida defense.

    In addition to setting up the Eagles scorers, he’ll also need to worry about holding onto the ball against the Gators’ aggressive backcourt defenders.

4. Ben McLemore, Kansas

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    As impenetrable as Kansas’ defense has been this season, even the Jayhawks are going to need to put some serious points on the board to beat Michigan.

    Freshman sensation Ben McLemore, KU’s scoring leader on the year, will have to be at the center of that effort. McLemore has struggled away from Allen Fieldhouse, but his combination of three-point shooting and rim-rattling dunks still makes him the most dangerous weapon in Kansas’ arsenal.

    The one-on-one showdown between him and Michigan’s Tim Hardaway, Jr. will be one of the best games within the game to be seen on Friday night.

3. Mason Plumlee, Duke

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    For all the attention Ryan Kelly has drawn since his return to the Duke lineup, Mason Plumlee is still the team’s leading scorer for a reason.

    The hard-charging senior will need to earn his points on Friday, as he will square off with one of the few players who can make a 6’11”, 240-pound center look small: Michigan State’s 6’9”, 270-pound Derrick Nix.

    Plumlee, who averages nearly twice as many rebounds per game as any of his Blue Devil teammates, will have to work especially hard on the defensive glass.

    Michigan State loves to crash the offensive boards, and Duke can ill afford to help out the up-and-down Spartans offense with second-shot opportunities.

2. Russ Smith, Louisville

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    Oregon has gotten as far as the Sweet 16 on the strength of two terrific defensive performances. If Louisville is going to score enough points to knock out the Ducks, Russ Smith will have to lead the charge.

    The Oregon backcourt has ample depth, but no one with the speed to contain Smith in the open floor. If he can stay sharp defensively after racking up 10 steals in two games, he’ll create plenty of transition baskets and carry the Cards to the Elite Eight.

1. Trey Burke, Michigan

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    Trey Burke may or may not win national Player of the Year honors, but he’ll never get a better chance to prove he deserves them.

    Facing the No. 1 field-goal defense in college basketball, Burke has to create enough points for the Wolverines offense to earn a victory over top-seeded Kansas.

    The sophomore star has as favorable a matchup as he could ask for, facing one of the Jayhawks’ weaker defenders in Elijah Johnson.

    He’ll also have a chance to make big plays when Johnson has the ball. The KU senior’s sometimes-shaky handle makes him vulnerable to a quick-handed defender like Burke, who averaged 1.6 steals a game for the season.