Players to Watch in 2014 NCAA Tournament's First Four

Thad NovakCorrespondent IMarch 17, 2014

Players to Watch in 2014 NCAA Tournament's First Four

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    Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

    Since it became the new first round of March Madness in 2011, the First Four has managed to turn a bubble team into an upset winner against a No. 4, 5 or 6 seed seed every year. For the 2014 NCAA tournament, the matchups feature plenty of impressive individual talent, and some of it can even be found among the No. 16 seeds vying for a meeting with Wichita State or Florida.

    One player in the latter category is three-point marksman Peter Hooley of Albany. The 6’4” Australian will get a chance to join countrymen such as Andrew Gaze and Andrew Bogut on March Madness highlight reels when his team challenges Mount St. Mary’s.

    Read on for more on Hooley and nine more of the most intriguing stars to be found in Dayton for the First Four on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

Chris Eversley, Cal Poly

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    Chris Eversley knows something about challenges on the Mt. Everest scale.

    In order to get his underdog Mustangs to their first-ever NCAA tournament, the 6’7” senior had to lead them to an upset win over UC Irvine, the Big West favorites led by 7’6”, 290-pound Mamadou Ndiaye.

    That’s not a bad lesson for a 16 seed hoping for a chance at Wichita State in the second round. Eversley, with his team-leading 13.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game, will have to continue to play a lot bigger than he is if Cal Poly hopes to advance.

Dee Davis, Xavier

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    One of Xavier’s top assets against physical Big East defenses was that the Musketeers have two top-notch ball-handling options. Semaj Christon gets more of the headlines, but for pure dribbling skill, even he can’t match junior Dee Davis.

    The 6’0” Davis took over Christon’s role as primary distributor this year, leading the team with 4.7 assists per game. He’ll do his share of damage on D, too, where he grabs 1.2 steals a night.

Peter Hooley, Albany

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    When Peter Hooley gets hot, there isn’t a shooter in Dayton this week who will be able to match his long-range production. The Albany sophomore led his team in scoring (15.7 points per game) largely on the strength of 40 percent three-point accuracy.

    Facing a Mount St. Mary’s offense that averages 10 more points a game than they do, the Great Danes will need to feed Hooley frequently to keep up.

    Hooley will be feeding them, too, considering that his 2.6 assists a night are the second-best figure on coach Will Brown’s roster.

Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee

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    In the category of “Imposing Physical Specimen,” nobody in the First Four can approach Jarnell Stokes. The Tennessee junior is built like a particularly intimidating defensive lineman at 6’8”, 260 pounds.

    He’s learned to translate that power into big-time production, finishing just behind Julius Randle for the SEC lead in rebounding. Even without elite quickness, he’s a valuable shot-blocker (1.0 per game) and the Vols’ second-best scorer (14.7 points a night).

Rashad Whack, Mount St. Mary’s

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    Besides having the First Four’s best name by a considerable margin, Rashad Whack is also the most dangerous of many impressive scorers on the Mountaineers roster. The 6’3” senior leads the team at 17.7 points per game.

    Whack is also the top three-point threat for Mount St. Mary’s, hitting 81 treys at a .373 clip. And while he’s at it, he leads the team in steals (a contribution to the offense in its own right on this up-tempo squad).

Aaric Murray, Texas Southern

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    Having already been an Explorer and a Mountaineer, well-traveled Aaric Murray found himself in an out-of-the-way place indeed for his senior season.

    The former LaSalle and West Virginia center landed in the little-watched SWAC, where his 6’10”, 245-pound frame made him the terror of the conference.

    On the year, Murray averaged 21.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. He’ll be the best individual talent on the floor in the Tigers’ game with Cal Poly, but as Texas Southern’s 12-6 conference record proved, that hasn’t always been enough.

Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa

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    Being the best asset of a terrible Iowa defense is a backhanded compliment at best, but Roy Devyn Marble accomplishes a lot more for the Hawkeyes than amass 1.8 steals per game.

    Indeed, blocking shots is about the only thing the 6’6” swingman hasn’t done with regularity. 

    He leads Iowa in scoring (17.3 points per game) and three-pointers made (52). He’s second in assists behind rising young point guard Mike Gesell. He’s a productive perimeter rebounder.

    Now if the senior could go out and help Fran McCaffery recruit another guard who can play at his level, that would be an achievement.

Jordan McRae, Tennessee

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Tennessee will be desperately hoping not to get into a track meet with the stacked Iowa offense. If it does, though, the one chance the Vols have is Jordan McRae’s ability to score in bunches—and that’s not such a bad chance.

    The 6’6” senior propelled the Tennessee offense with his 18.6 points per game, and he also dished out 2.5 assists a night to tie for the lead on this point guard-poor roster.

    He’s the rare guard who can translate his long arms into legitimate production as a shot-blocker—a career-best 1.0 blocks per contest—and he's a fine rebounder, too.

     

Semaj Christon, Xavier

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Semaj Christon has the best shot at NBA success of any player in the First Four this year. As a sophomore, he’s already shown that he can handle himself at the point guard spot to which his 6’3” frame makes him ideally suited as a pro.

    Christon has drastically improved his shooting this year (including a leap from .250 to .383 long-range accuracy), giving him a small boost to his current 17.1 points per game.

    He’s just behind Dee Davis for the team lead in assists with 4.2 a night, and he knows how to use his length and reach on defense, too (1.3 steals per contest).

T.J. Warren, North Carolina State

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    In the space of one season, N.C. State changed from one of the most balanced offenses in the country to a complete one-man show. ACC scoring leader T.J. Warren rang up 24.8 points per game for the Wolfpack, 35 percent of the entire team’s output.

    In addition to finishing third in the country in putting points on the scoreboard, Warren did some damage on the backboards with 7.2 rebounds a night.

    He was also one of the few playmakers on a conservative Wolfpack defense, doubling up his next-best teammate by averaging 1.7 steals per contest.