NCAA Tournament 2014: Underrated Players Who Will Shine in Round of 64

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NCAA Tournament 2014: Underrated Players Who Will Shine in Round of 64
Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

You've heard about the upsets, the potential upsets and the upsetters most bound to upset your bracket. And just about the moment you've finally realized that, at one point or another every double-digit seed has been backed by some pundit, the inanity of the process starts to set in. 

So, for once, let's just...not. If you haven't filled out your bracket by now—or at least have a reasonable structure in place that will be finalized before Thursday's tip-off—it's likely you've decided to eschew the whole process. Good on you. Given the hundreds (OK, thousands) of dollars I've poured into brackets and betting on individual games, there's something to be gained from watching the Dance with nothing on the line. 

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Namely, you can watch star players ascend in the biggest moment without wanting to throw a shoe at their forehead for ruining your bracket. (And your bank account. And marriage. And relationship with your family.)

It almost goes without saying that stars are made in March. The NCAA tournament is college basketball's biggest showcase, increasing the regular-season audience tenfold while NBA scouts and general managers watch intently. Last season, Mitch McGary went from also-ran on the Michigan roster to potential lottery pick before returning to school. Folks learned that the name Cleanthony exists.

With so many touted freshmen stars scooping the headlines, this season may be the most star-heavy tournament in recent memory. Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Jabari Parker will likely be the top three picks in June's NBA draft in some order, and likely half of the lottery will consist of freshmen. You've also very likely heard of a kid named Doug McDermott.

Not a bad time to be a college basketball fan.

That said, on the eve of the round of 64 getting underway, there are still a few star-level players going under the radar. Let's take a look at a few and discuss how far they can take their teams the next couple weeks.

 

Kyle Anderson (G-F, UCLA)

Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

Maybe it's a West Coast bias thing or perhaps his style of play doesn't engender flashy adjectives, but Anderson is quietly one of the most fun players in the nation to watch. Equipped with an old-man game that makes Andre Miller swoon, Anderson spends most of his time playing under the rim, shooting, creating and doing about everything else for the Bruins.

Though only a sophomore, Anderson might have the highest basketball IQ in college basketball. He grew up a point guard, and at 6'9" he has an innate understanding of spacing concepts and where he can fit passes into tight windows. No other player matches Anderson's averages of 14.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game, per Sports-Reference.

More impressively, only eight players nationally average even 10 points, five rebounds and five assists per game, per Sports-Reference. Anderson is the only lowerclassman on that list. At least on the offensive end, Anderson knows where he needs to be on the floor at all times and makes sure he gets there.

While not known as a great athlete—OK, he's a below-average one—Anderson has acquitted himself quite well in isolation this season. His 0.918 points per possession on isolations ending in a shot attempt, foul or turnover ranks in the 71st percentile nationally, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). After struggling a bit with his jumper as a freshman, Anderson has also improved to 46.1 percent on jump shots, though he still mostly prefers mid-range twos to threes.

What makes Anderson interesting is his unique style. No one plays like him anymore. His lateral quickness is concerningly slow for someone just 20 years old, and that's largely hampered his NBA draft stock. Despite his multiple gifts, ESPN's Chad Ford (subscription) ranks him as only the 33rd-best player in this draft. I'm not sure I buy that evaluation, but if it gives Anderson another year in the college game, all the better.

Watching UCLA play when Anderson is cooking is really to understand smart team basketball. He shot only 5-of-12 in the Pac-12 tournament championship game against Arizona but took advantage of his ability to get inside and attempted 13 free throws. Finishing with 21 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, Anderson is one of the few players who isn't bothered by the Wildcats' defensive length.

It will be interesting to see how Anderson handles VCU's attacking defensive style in the round of 32. Shaka Smart's havoc defense has made plenty of ball-handlers seem foolish, and Anderson has a propensity for turnovers. Either way, that's one of the subtle matchups everyone should be excited for—assuming both make it to the weekend.

 

Bryce Cotton (G, Providence)

Nati Harnik/Associated Press

It's hard to essentially average 20 points per game for two straight seasons without garnering national attention, but Bryce Cotton has managed to pull it off. A two-time All-ACC team member, Cotton helped outduel Doug McDermott in the Big East tournament en route to winning the MVP award.

While Anderson is endlessly entertaining because he's constantly doing the right thing, the opposite can be said about Cotton. Of the roughly 15 shots per game he takes, at least five make one wonder how coach Ed Cooley hasn't just walked off the court at certain points. Cotton plays every bit the role of the consciousless scorer, and it shows in his 41.3 field-goal percentage.

Of course, it'd be entirely unfair to chalk Cotton up as an inefficient gunner and move on. That was last season's version of the score-first guard. In 2013-14, he came back as a senior with a renewed sense of how to help the Friars win, and that includes flashing increased passing ability. Cotton more than doubled his assist total from last season, manifesting itself in a far more efficient offense.

Providence was 77th nationally in offensive efficiency a year ago. The team is all the way up to 28th this season, averaging nearly eight points more per 100 possessions. Cotton isn't entirely responsible. LaDontae Henton and Kadeem Batts give the Friars solid secondary options and have stepped up at different points when Cotton couldn't.

The fearlessness with which Cotton plays pervades though this team and arguably makes them a quietly solid bet to defeat North Carolina. The Tar Heels have one of the most schizophrenic resumes in the nation, boasting wins over Duke, Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky—along with losses to Miami, Wake Forest and UAB.

Marcus Paige presents an interesting one-on-one matchup for Cotton, as does Roy Williams' propensity to switch in and out of zone. Knocking Cotton's game means stifling his aggressiveness, and Williams could implement half-court traps to get the ball out of his hands. Avoid fouls and force Cotton into some mid-range jumpers, and North Carolina might score a blowout.

If Cotton starts getting some momentum going, though, he can detonate and single-handedly lead an upset at any time.

 

Sam Dower (F-C, Gonzaga)

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

One of the stranger pervading storylines heading into the round of 64 is Oklahoma State's seemingly inevitable advancement. Boasting likely lottery pick Marcus Smart and the quietly stellar Markel Brown, the Cowboys are seen as a potential No. 3 seed masquerading as a No. 9. There's so much talent here that it seems impossible for Gonzaga to prevent Oklahoma State challenging top-seeded Arizona.

One problem: It's entirely feasible that Gonzaga wins. This is far closer to a 50-50 matchup than what most casual fans are assuming. Simulations run by Accuscore (subscription required) give the Bulldogs a 48 percent chance of advancing, with Nate Silver's calculations coming up with a similarly close number. Ken Pomeroy, the ayatollah of college basketball advanced stats, actually favors Gonzaga. 

Oklahoma State is still the same team that was going through a seven-game losing streak a month ago. Though it rectified some of its foibles and was missing Smart for three of those contests, only one of the Cowboys' five wins in their last seven games came against a tournament team. They can't pick how their schedule shakes out, but Gonzaga is a dangerous team led by a solid big man in Dower.

Finally getting his opportunity to be a primary scorer in his senior season, Dower has taken advantage. He's averaging a team-high 15 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while hovering around the 59 percent field-goal rate. Kevin Pangos is probably Gonzaga's best player and the guy you'll hear about most heading into Friday's matchup.

Pangos has been dealing with turf toe and ankle issues for much of the season and somehow attempted just two field goals in Gonzaga's WCC title game win over BYU. His pain level and consistency are one of the few legitimate reasons being thrown around why Oklahoma State is an overwhelming favorite, which makes Dower's presence all the more important.

Oklahoma State prefers playing small, boasting only three players 6'10" and above on its roster, each of whom play sparingly. Sophomore Kamari Murphy, playing undersized at center, is the team's leading rebounder at just barely more than six per game. Dower is going to have a size advantage for almost the entire 40 minutes, and expect Mark Few to go to his big man in the post early and often.

As for whether Dower can help Gonzaga advance past the round of 32, though, let's just say no and move on. Arizona is winning the West, and neither Oklahoma State nor Gonzaga are going to stop that. 

 

All advanced metrics via KenPom unless otherwise cited.

 

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