While it often takes a team effort to succeed in the NCAA tournament, sometimes a handful of players stand head and shoulders above the rest and permanently shape the bracket in the process.
While some star players are already sitting at home, like Jabari Parker of Duke, and a few are sidelined by injury, like Joel Embiid of Kansas, others are stepping up to leave their mark on March Madness.
So far, both Tennessee and Florida have looked like teams that could do a whole lot of damage, and there’s a pair of key players who can help ensure they keep advancing.
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The Tennessee Volunteers have barreled from their First Four play-in game against Iowa into the round of 32, and Jordan McRae is a big reason why.
The senior guard scored 20 against the Hawkeyes, then added 21 against Massachusetts to help pace the offense.
The Vols are a heavily defensive team, ranking 17th in points allowed, and they need the spark McRae provides on offense.
But make no mistake, McRae plays well on defense too. He blocked a shot in each game, and it’s hard to forget his other big plays in transition, like this one against Florida in the SEC tournament.
He’s gotten some scoring and rebounding help from forward Jarnell Stokes, but McRae is the motor for this offense.
"We just wanted to keep our foot on the gas the whole time," McRae told the Associated Press’ Aaron Beard via ESPN after downing UMass.
If he can keep this electric play up on both sides of the court, he could help carry the Vols into the Sweet 16 and beyond.
As the tournament’s top seed, it’s no secret that Florida’s got talent.
But while a lot of observers might focus their attention on Scottie Wilbekin for his scoring ability, it’s important not to forget the impact Patric Young can have on the game.
Young had an up and down game against the Pittsburgh Panthers in the round of 32, but he totally shifted the complexion of the game.
He chipped in only seven points, but his four blocks and threatening interior presence made a huge difference.
And look at what happened once Young started finding the bottom of the net.
In the first half, the Panthers stayed pretty even with Florida in a defensive struggle. Young couldn’t find his touch at the basket, and the Panthers were still close at halftime, 27-22, as the AP’s Mark Long observed.
Then, in the second half, Young found his rhythm around the net, as CBS Sports’ Jeff Borzello noticed.
All of a sudden, Florida caught on fire offensively, outscoring the Panthers 34-23 in the second half.
Young made a big impact on the Gators, particularly with big dunks like this one.
If Young can play more consistently on both ends of the floor in the Gators’ ensuing games, Florida might be unstoppable.
The Gators have the talent up and down the roster to be solid contenders. But when Young is on his game, they have to be considered the favorites to win it all.
He still might not be as refined as Billy Donovan might’ve hoped, but Young has the ability to help this team run the table in the tourney.
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