NCAA Tournament 2014: Stars You Need to Know
There is no bigger stage than the NCAA tournament.
The country's most talented college basketball players tend to use the Big Dance as a way to improve their draft stock, but it also serves as an opportunity for underrated stars—the youngsters who have quietly been putting up numbers or helping their highly publicized teammates win games all season long—to come out of the shadows.
Remember Mitch McGary's relentless style and crippling screens captivating the country last year? What about Khalif Wyatt's old-school offensive game? Or Luke Hancock's threes?
Those were just a couple of under-the-radar stars who put on shows in March, and Bleacher Report was able to talk to several players who are ready to fill that role in 2014.
Let's take a look.
James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina
Easily one of the most important players next week and beyond, North Carolina's James Michael McAdoo shows a bit of a lighter side in the above video, discussing everything from his must-see winning-streak beard to the kitten he rescued from the Dean Dome.
On the court, things haven't always been nearly as positive for the Tar Heels' emotional leader.
A top-10 recruit out of high school, he erased an inconsistent freshman season when he stepped in for an injured John Henson during the 2012 ACC tournament and played well enough to skyrocket his NBA stock.
He chose to stay on campus, however, and the following two seasons in Chapel Hill have fallen well short of expectations.
Jimmy Mike Mac, as I'm guessing no one else calls him, averaged a healthy 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds during this year's regular season, but his inefficiency on the offensive end—although an improvement from his sophomore campaign—once again left much to be desired. His 48.7 true-shooting percentage, per sports-reference.com, is seventh among significant Tar Heels contributors.
Still, there's little question that McAdoo, whose dad is a second cousin of UNC legend Bob McAdoo, will be crucial for a Tar Heels squad that can become stagnant offensively.
At times, when he's controlled and knocking down his mid-range jumper, you can see the immense talent. At others, he plays perhaps a bit too aggressively and becomes inconsistent.
North Carolina's run through the tourney will rely heavily on whichever McAdoo shows up during the Big Dance.
Marcus Paige, North Carolina
As you can see in the video, Marcus Paige is a confident young man. He believes he is one of the best guards in America and has expectations of having his number eventually hung in the rafters—a lofty potential accomplishment considering North Carolina's storied history.
Well, he has reason for that confidence.
While McAdoo hasn't quite developed like many have hoped, Paige has put this team on his shoulders as a sophomore.
Standing just 6'1" and weighing 175 pounds, Paige is fearless getting to the rack, where he has a knack for finishing, drawing the foul or finding an open teammate. He has also turned into the Tar Heels' most consistent outside shooter, knocking down just under 40 percent of his 6.3 three-point attempts per contest.
Put it all together, and he's averaging 17.4 points, 4.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game total.
Those stats still might not even do him justice. Notoriously a second-half player—he jokingly attributes that to the one-hour naps he takes before games—Paige is capable of single-handedly taking over any game at any time.
Don't be surprised if he does that a time or three in the coming weeks.
Naadir Tharpe, Kansas
You may have heard of Andrew Wiggins or Joel Embiid. They are very talented, sure, but Kansas wouldn't be nearly as good without Naadir Tharpe.
The galvanizing junior point guard is a smart, unselfish player. He can stretch the defense with his shot, he can penetrate, he can knock down late free throws, he can distribute, he takes care of the ball and, perhaps most importantly, he dances and pokes fun at Wiggins when the freshman forgets to put his jersey on.
Tharpe's numbers—8.7 points, 5.2 assists, 0.7 steals per game overall—probably aren't going to jump off the page, but he's a reliable role player who often comes up big when it matters most.
Take the late February game against Oklahoma for example. Tharpe hit all six of his free throws in the final two minutes, finishing with 19 points (on seven field-goal attempts), five assists and one turnover as the Jayhawks clinched the Big 12 title.
Head coach Bill Self put it simply to reporters in his postgame press conference after that one:
"Naadir Tharpe was great. We're a lot better when he's not in foul trouble."
Wiggins is going to command most of the attention during March Madness, but if Kansas is nursing a late lead, the ball will be in Tharpe's hands.
Wayne Selden Jr., Kansas
Often the "forgotten" freshman of Kansas' rotation, Wayne Selden Jr. serves as the tenacious sidekick.
You can see why he was a McDonald's All-American. Offensively, he has the athleticism to put down a show-stopping dunk, and he can also heat up from long range with his silky stroke, although he's still inconsistent from there.
Selden's size (6'5", 230 pounds) and athletic ability makes him a tremendous defender, too, and that's where he might make his biggest impact come the Big Dance.
It won't always be sexy, but odds are at some point in March, you'll see him face-guarding the opposing team's best player, diving on the floor for a loose ball or doing other little things to help the Jayhawks win.
Cleanthony Early, Wichita State
Unflappable point guard Fred VanVleet may have earned Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year—and for good reason—but an awfully solid case could have been made for Cleanthony Early as well.
The athletic, explosive power forward leads the undefeated Shockers in both points (15.8 per game) and rebounds (5.9). A physical presence inside who's also capable of stepping beyond the three-point line and knocking down shots from the perimeter, Early is one of the more versatile big men in America.
Early, a junior college transfer, exploded onto the national scene last year with 24 points, 10 rebounds and zero turnovers against Louisville's elite frontcourt in the Final Four, but he has only continued to progress as a confident, go-to option as a senior.
As he continues to show the ability to rebound, score from every level and protect the rim on the interior of Wichita State's stingy defense, he will only see interest from the NBA continue to grow.
But first, he looks set to be at the center of another deep tourney run for Wichita State
Ron Baker, Wichita State
Ron Baker does a little bit of everything.
First and foremost, he can shoot. He tends to be a little inconsistent from long range (36.8 percent shooter from deep this year), but if he gets an open look, it usually goes down.
He can score. His 13.1 points per contest are second on this undefeated Wichita State squad.
He can defend. He may not be nearly on the same level as teammate Tekele Cotton, who is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, but he's a hard-nosed, sneaky athletic kid who is capable of shutting down some of the best guards in America.
He can handle the ball. Although he typically plays on the wing, he also serves as the backup point guard to VanVleet.
There are times when Baker is the fourth player mentioned on this Shockers team, but make no mistake about it: He's a well-rounded burgeoning star.