The NCAA tournament is said to make stars, and that fact only becomes more evident as the tournament goes along. While Andy Enfield and his No. 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast captured the nation's attention and may go down as the most memorable stars of the 2013 Big Dance, their ouster on Friday leaves a major opening this weekend.
Saturday's Elite Eight contenders will get the first crack at becoming the new in-vogue storyline heading into the Final Four. Syracuse and Marquette will do battle in their final game as Big East rivals in the East Regional final, and the lone remaining Cinderella darling, ninth-seeded Wichita State, will face a formidable Ohio State squad out west.
While each of those four teams have had their runs overshadowed a bit, there are a few individual players who stand out as game-changers on Saturday. They have already been emerging in the Big Dance—now is just their time for recognition.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of a few tournament stars who need big games for their teams on Saturday.
Michael Carter-Williams (G, Syracuse)
It may not be the way Jim Boeheim wants his point guard to play, but Carter-Williams' change up to a shoot-first-ask-questions-last player helped ascend Syracuse to the Elite Eight. Carter-Williams scored a season-high 24 points on 9-of-19 shooting, propelling an otherwise stagnant Orange offense to an 11-point victory over Indiana. The sophomore guard used his 6'6" size and athleticism to get around the Hoosiers'
All told, the performance is not repeatable—nor shoot it be. Carter-Williams is shooting below 40 percent for the season, has made half or more of his three-pointers only seven times this season and seven of Syracuse's nine losses have come in games where he had double-digit shot attempts. The very few remaining strands of Jim Boeheim's hair remaining on his head begin cascading to the ground with every Carter-Williams jumper.
While his greatness on Thursday was certainly well-received, Carter-Williams will need to re-emphazise his distribution ability against Marquette. The Golden Eagles are a smart, well-disciplined defensive squad that likes throwing zone at players like Carter-Williams, whose game is mostly predicated on a slash-and-kick NBA style.
With Syracuse's shooters struggling once again during the Big Dance, it will be critical that Carter-Williams finds holes and gets his teammates solid looks early. Neither side is an especially strong offensive force, and whichever squad gets into a rhythm from distance should be at a distinct advantage.
Look for Boeheim to emphasize a two-man game early with Carter-Williams and James Southerland, who has been the Orange's most consistent shooter from distance. Whether or not it works remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: If Carter-Williams has just one assist for a second consecutive game, Syracuse won't be headed to the Final Four.
Vander Blue (G, Marquette)
Arguably Marquette's best and most consistent player during the regular season, Blue has taken his game up a notch during March. His last-second layup kept the Golden Eagles from being upset in the round of 64 by Davidson, and he followed that performance with 29 points in Marquette's 74-72 win over Butler.
While he was only average in the Sweet 16, scoring 14 points on 7-of-12 shooting against Miami, Blue has stood out by increasing his efficiency in the postseason. He's made half of his shots during the NCAA tournament thus far, up from 46 percent during the regular season, and has knocked down a higher-than-average amount of three-pointers.
Those subtle increases in efficiency have helped lead Marquette to the Elite Eight, but Blue will face his greatest obstacle on Saturday—Syracuse's elite zone defense. A regular fixture for the Orange during Boeheim's tenure, the 2012-13 bunch have been among his best ever at executing the 2-3 scheme.
Syracuse ranks eighth in defensive efficiency, seventh in effective field goal percentage against and force teams to turn the ball over at a top-20 rate. Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche are an expert defenders on the outside, and Rakeem Christmas provides an interior presence that helps the Orange block shots at the highest rate in the nation.
In the teams' first matchup, Blue struggled to get anything going against the zone. He settled for bad, long jump shots en route to finishing with a season-low six points on 2-of-7 shooting. Davante Gardner's 26 points and eight rebounds bailed Blue out in that matchup, but it's impossible for the Eagles to expect a similar performance.
They will need Blue to ascend again to have a chance.
Malcolm Armstead (G, Wichita State)
Among Wichita State's top rotation players, Malcolm Armstead was perhaps the least likely to become a tournament darling. He was good, not great as a scorer in the regular season, averaging 10.4 points per game on 41.1 percent shooting. Rather than taking over the offense himself, he would defer to Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall, the two interior forces that kept the Shockers' offense running like clockwork.
However, it seems Armstead's mindset changed once the bright lights of March started shining. The Oregon transfer is averaging 16 points per game in Wichita State's three victories, eschewing his distribution responsibilities to carve up opposing defenses.
Armstead had 22 points against Pittsburgh and 18 against La Salle, leading the way in both of those contests—especially in the second half. Taking over the Shockers' effective transition offense, Armstead scored nine straight points during Wichita State's
The fear with Armstead's shot-heavy stylistic change is consistency. He disappeared against Gonzaga in the round of 32, making just 2-of-9 shots en route to an eight-point, three-assist performance. It's not coincidence that the Bulldogs were not only Wichita State's best opponent thus far, but its closest game.
The Shockers' offense has become increasingly predicated on Armstead in March—and that could be their undoing against Ohio State or their catalyst. The second-seeded Buckeyes have arguably the nation's best on-ball defender in Aaron Craft looming on the perimeter for Armstead. Craft has locked down Trey Burke twice this season, and has made a habit out of pick-pocketing opposing guards.
Armstead has nowhere near the national clout of Burke or most other Big Ten point guards Craft has flustered this season. But without another fantastic performance from its lead guard, Wichita State's offense may crumble.
All advanced stats are via KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.
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