Top Players to Watch on Day 9 of NCAA Tournament

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistMarch 29, 2013

Top Players to Watch on Day 9 of NCAA Tournament

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    The stakes have been raised, as two teams will earn berths in the Final Four on Saturday.  

    Syracuse takes on Marquette in a matchup of Big East foes who have faced each other many times before, and Wichita State plays Ohio State in a battle of tough, physical teams.

    Each team needs standout performances from its stars to get to the national-championship stage in Atlanta.

    We count down eight players likely to have an impact on Day 9 of the NCAA tournament. These are the players to watch.

8. Carl Hall, Wichita State

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    Wichita State power forward Carl Hall came up with his best postseason game against La Salle, collecting 16 points and eight rebounds.

    That was against an undersized Explorer squad, though. In the matchup with a rugged Ohio State team from the Big Ten, he must put up similar numbers.

    Hall had just eight points and one rebound against Gonzaga, which has a strong frontcourt, but he will need to be a physical inside presence against the Buckeyes.

    He leads the team in rebounding (7.0) and is second in scoring (12.7), and the Shockers are counting on him to duplicate those numbers on Saturday.

    Wichita State's strengths lie in its toughness and ability to rebound. Hall needs to exemplify both for the Shockers to advance.

7. Davante Gardner, Marquette

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    Marquette forward Davante Gardner had the game of his life against Syracuse last month, and the Golden Eagles would love for him to replicate that effort on Saturday against the Orange.

    Gardner went 7-of-7 from the field and 12-of-13 at the line, scoring a career-high 26 points to go along with eight rebounds in the Golden Eagles' 74-71 victory over Syracuse on Feb. 25. He was able to solve the Orange's complicated zone defense that day. Presumably, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim will tweak his defense to try to prevent the 6'8" Gardner from doing so much damage in the paint again.

    Gardner has been a force off the bench all season for Marquette. Although he has not started a single game and averages just 21.1 minutes a contest, he is the team's No. 2 scorer (11.4 points per game) and No. 3 rebounder (4.7 boards a game).

    He has not put up big numbers in the postseason, but he had his best game of the tournament against Miami, collecting 14 points and four rebounds in the surprisingly lopsided victory over the Hurricanes.

6. Aaron Craft, Ohio State

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    Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft just seems to be in control of things when he's on the court.

    When he had to sit after committing his second foul in the first half against Arizona, the Wildcats stretched a five-point lead to 11. When he returned, the Buckeyes immediately began cutting into the lead, eventually overcoming the deficit.

    Craft has been more aggressive offensively in the postseason, looking to drive to the basket more often than he did in the regular season.

    He had just four points in the blowout of Iona when his offense was not needed. But he had scoring outputs of 18 and 13 points in the next two games, both of which were decided in the closing seconds.

    His three-pointer with two seconds left beat Iowa State, and he delivered the assist that led to LaQuinton Ross' game-winning three-pointer against Arizona.

    Craft is also averaging 6.0 assists in the NCAA tournament.

    Nonetheless, Craft's greatest value is on the defensive end. He held Arizona's Mark Lyons in check for the middle portion of Thursday's game. But Lyons helped get Arizona back in the game in the closing minutes and finished with 23 points, more than Craft typically allows. 

    Presumably, Craft will defend Wichita State point guard Malcolm Armstead, who is averaging 16.0 points in the Big Dance.

5. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State

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    Cleanthony Early probably will be matched up against Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas much of the game. That individual battle could decide the outcome.

    The 6'8" Early and Thomas are both stretch 4's, which is the label for power forwards who can stretch defenses with their ability to hit three-point shots.

    Early has been coming off the bench for the most part recently, but he was a starter against La Salle.

    Early was Wichita State's only first-team all-conference selection this season and he is a prototypical streaky shooter. When he gets hot, it's difficult to shut him down. If he's cold from long range, he tries to find other ways to score.

    He had just eight points in the victory over La Salle and missed his only three-point attempt. But he was 4-of-7 from beyond the arc against Gonzaga, when he had 16 points.

    Early missed all six of his three-point shots in the opening win against Pittsburgh, but still found a way to score 21 points.

    He also added seven rebounds in each of the Shockers' three postseason games.

4. C.J. Fair, Syracuse

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    Syracuse forward C.J. Fair had one of his best games of the season in the 74-71 loss to Marquette back on Feb. 25. He had 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting and added seven rebounds that day on the Golden Eagles' home court.

    Syracuse will need him to have a similar game to produce a different outcome against Marquette on Saturday.

    The 6'8" Fair is the team's top scorer (14.4 points per game), top rebounder (7.0 boards per game) and best three-point shooter (48.3 percent).

    He has scored in double figures in all three tournament games while averaging 14.0 points in the postseason.

    Fair took a back seat to teammate Michael Carter-Williams against Indiana in terms of scoring, collecting just 11 points. However, Fair added eight rebounds, two blocks and a steal as one of the linchpins of the Syracuse zone defense that shut down Indiana's potent attack.

3. Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State

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    Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas is a scorer, and the Buckeyes desperately need him to put up points to get past Wichita State. 

    Thomas averages 19.7 points, but only one other player on the team averages double figures—Aaron Craft, who is only putting up 10.1 points per game.

    The Indiana native has been outstanding in the postseason, scoring at least 20 points in each game, averaging 22.0 points and hitting 8-of-13 three-point shots.

    Thomas is a 6'7" power forward who does most of his damage from the perimeter, making him a tough matchup for most teams. 

    If he doesn't score close to 20 points, Ohio State probably can't win. But he has been remarkably consistent this season. Thomas has scored in double figures in all 36 games during the 2012-13 campaign and has contributed at least 14 points in all but one game.

2. Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse

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    Point guard Michael Carter-Williams had the best game of his career in Syracuse's biggest win of the season on Thursday. 

    He had a career-high 24 points to go along with six rebounds, four steals and just two turnovers in the Orange's 61-50 victory over No. 1-seeded Indiana.

    The most significant aspect of his performance was his outside shooting. He is just a 29.3-percent three-point shooter and was 5-of-24 (20.8 percent) from beyond the arc in his previous 14 games. But he went 3-of-5 from long range against the Hoosiers and every one seemed like a backbreaker.

    He also drove to the basket effectively, even though Indiana's Victor Oladipo, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, was guarding him for much of the game.

    Typically more of a playmaker than a scorer, Carter-Williams had just one assist against Indiana after totaling 12 in the first two games. But his scoring was a major reason Syracuse not only beat Indiana, but dominated the Hoosiers.

    If he is as productive against Marquette, the Orange have a good shot to advance to the Final Four.

    The versatile 6'6" point guard is averaging 13.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists in the three tournament games.

    Carter-Williams had 14 points and five assists in Syracuse's 74-71 loss to Marquette on Feb. 25.

1. Vander Blue, Marquette

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    Guard Vander Blue is Marquette's unquestioned star, and he has been outstanding in the postseason.

    However, he has struggled against Syracuse's trademark zone defense in the past.

    He scored just six points on 2-of-7 shooting in the Golden Eagles' 74-71 victory over Syracuse on Feb. 25. Last year, he scored nine points in a seven-point Syracuse win. Two years ago as a freshman, Blue totaled two points in two games against the Orange.

    Blue needs to solve Syracuse's zone on Saturday and continue to put up big numbers. He's averaging 19.7 points in the Golden Eagles' three NCAA tournament games and has added a perimeter threat. Known mostly as a slasher, Blue made just 29.3 percent of his three-pointers during the regular season. But he is 5-of-10 from long range in the postseason. 

    He hit a big three-pointer in the closing moments of the victory over Butler, and his layup with one second left was the game-winning shot against Davidson.

    No one has provided more clutch shots in the postseason than Blue, who also has seven steals in the NCAA tournament.