Players to Watch in 2014 NCAA Tournament's First 4

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistMarch 18, 2014

Players to Watch in 2014 NCAA Tournament's First 4

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    Xavier's Semaj Christon (center) and Iowa's Roy Devyn Marble (right) highlight the NCAA tournament's First Four in Dayton.
    Xavier's Semaj Christon (center) and Iowa's Roy Devyn Marble (right) highlight the NCAA tournament's First Four in Dayton.Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

    The NCAA tournament's First Four shines the spotlight on eight teams that not only earned tickets to the Big Dance but also got the "bonus" prize of getting to play an extra game just to get into the tourney's main field.

    Each of these teams got to this point because of the effort of one key player, a guy who night in and night out provided the kind of balance, consistency and leadership necessary to lead their schools into the postseason. Each has his own story, and we're here to tell them.

    Check out our look at the players to watch from Tuesday and Wednesday night's First Four from Dayton, Ohio.

     

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

Semaj Christon, Xavier

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Position: Guard

    Year: Sophomore

    Dimensions: 6'3", 190 lbs.

    Semaj Christon was one of the most decorated freshmen in school history last season, but Xavier struggled to a 17-14 record and failed to make the postseason. That was in the Atlantic 10, and the move this year to the Big East offered a chance for the Musketeers and Christon to get a fresh start.

    The guard responded, upping his scoring from 15.2 to 17.1 points per game while improving his shooting from 44.4 to 47.7 percent. More aggressive this season, he's getting to the line at a better rate and looking to create his own shot.

    The Musketeers have struggled down the stretch, but Christon has continued to contribute at the same level, averaging 17.3 points per game since Feb. 1.

Chris Eversley, Cal Poly

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    Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Forward

    Year: Senior

    Dimensions: 6'7", 229 lbs.

    Chris Eversley began his college career at Rice, recruited there by the just-resigned Ben Braun for the 2009-10 season. He averaged less than five minutes in 16 games, scoring just 25 points before deciding to transfer to Cal Poly.

    Since becoming eligible for the Mustangs in 2011-12, Eversley has gradually increased his role with the team, and as a fifth-year senior, he is the leading scorer at 13.6 points per game. His numbers are down slightly from last year, but as Cal Poly's leading rebounder as well, he remains the hardest-working player on the court.

    Eversley dropped 25 on Stanford in a loss in December, and in Saturday's Big West finale, he scored 18 to help Poly earn its first-ever NCAA bid despite a 13-19 record.

Peter Hooley, Albany

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    Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Guard

    Year: Sophomore

    Dimensions: 6'4", 200 lbs.

    By way of Adelaide, Australia, Peter Hooley is a very mature 22-year-old sophomore who had to take a medical redshirt in 2011-12 after suffering a stress fracture in his foot after three games. He averaged 8.0 points per game in his first full season, helping Albany reach the NCAA tournament.

    This year has seen Hooley become a much greater factor in the Great Danes attack, nearly doubling the number of shots he takes and upping his three-point frequency by 250 percent. As a result, he's now scoring 15.7 points per game and hitting 40.1 percent of his three-pointers.

    Hooley averaged 23.7 points in Albany's three-game run through the America East tournament, including a career-high 30 in the opening-round win over UMBC and then 26 against top-seeded Vermont. In the conference final against Stony Brook, he had seven of his 15 points in the final 1:44, including a huge three to build a five-point lead with just over a minute left.

Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa

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    Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Guard

    Year: Senior

    Dimensions: 6'6", 200 lbs.

    Roy Devyn Marble was part of Fran McCaffery's first recruiting class at Iowa, and during his tenure, he has seen the Hawkeyes improve from 11-20 as a freshman to 25 victories last season. Marble was an integral part in Iowa's stellar 15-3 start to this year, though his production remained solid even during the late tailspin that saw the team finish 5-9 and fall into this play-in game.

    Marble is averaging a career-best 17.3 points per game, and with 1,687, he ranks fifth on the school's career scoring list. The all-time Hawkeyes scoring champ is Marble's father, Roy, who had 2,116 points from 1986-89.

    Back in January, McCaffery told HawkCentral.com's Rick Brown that Marble has the "green light" to create his own shot, and the senior has taken that to heart. His 421 field-goal attempts are nearly as much as any other two Hawkeyes combined.

Aaric Murray, Texas Southern

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Position: Center

    Year: Senior

    Dimensions: 6'10", 245 lbs.

    Aaric Murray is a well-traveled man, having played for three Division I programs during his college career. The Philadelphia native began at nearby LaSalle, averaging 12 points as a freshman and 15 as a sophomore before deciding to transfer to West Virginia.

    Murray's time with the Mountaineers wasn't ideal, as he had a marijuana arrest in 2011 while sitting out a year and was also suspended for disciplinary reasons in 2012 by Bob Huggins. He then left the team after averaging 8.8 points and 5.9 rebounds.

    As a graduate student, Murray was able to play right away when he transferred to Texas Southern, where he immediately made an impact and led the SWAC in scoring at 21.2 points per game. That included a 48-point outburst in a homecoming win at Temple and then 27 in the SWAC tourney title game victory over Prairie View A&M.

Julian Norfleet, Mount St. Mary's

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Position: Guard

    Year: Senior

    Dimensions: 6'2", 165 lbs.

    Julian Norfleet has seen his role and production fluctuate throughout his four years at The Mount, but as a senior, he's established himself as the Mountaineers' floor leader and go-to scorer. He's averaging 17.5 points per game and upped his shooting to 46 percent despite taking more shots per game than at any point in his career.

    Norfleet has thrived this season under coach Jamion Christian's "mayhem" style of play, which emphasizes pressure defense and three-point shooting. It's similar to the "havoc" approach used by Shaka Smart at VCU, where Christian was an assistant before taking the MSM job two seasons ago.

    Norfleet hit three three-pointers and helped force 13 Robert Morris turnovers in the Mountaineers' win in the NEC final, sending his team into the NCAA field for the first time since 2008.

Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Position: Forward

    Year: Junior

    Dimensions: 6'8", 260 lbs.

    Jarnell Stokes was one of the highest-rated players in Tennessee history when he signed with the Volunteers in December 2011. A 4-star big-man from Memphis, according to 247Sports, he graduated early from high school and joined the Vols midseason, scoring nine points in 17 minutes against eventual national champ Kentucky in his first college game.

    Stokes has increased his production each season, and as a junior, he is second in scoring at 14.7 points per game while leading the Vols with 10.3 rebounds. He is also shooting better than 52 percent from the field.

    His best presence is on the offensive boards, where he averages 4.15 per game, fifth-best nationally and the most of any player in the NCAA tournament.

T.J. Warren, North Carolina State

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Position: Forward

    Year: Sophomore

    Dimensions: 6'8", 215 lbs.

    T.J. Warren was a key reserve as a freshman for North Carolina State's NCAA tournament team last season, averaging 12.1 points while shooting 62 percent from the field. With the Wolfpack losing its entire starting five from that team, Warren was expected to take on a bigger role this year.

    He also took on a smaller frame, dropping more than 20 pounds in the offseason. The slimmer, swifter Warren has been absolutely dominant in his new body, winning the ACC's Player of the Year award while averaging 24.8 points and 7.2 rebounds on better than 52 percent shooting.

    Warren has been on an absolute tear the last month, including back-to-back 40-point games. He's a matchup nightmare because of his ability to play either the 3 or the 4, which allows him to get open for 18.5 shots per game.

     

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