The second week of the 2014 NCAA tournament brings the premier matchups, with mostly Goliaths facing off against each other after disposing of plucky underdogs. As such, the margin for error becomes significantly thinner for top teams.
Consequently, the importance of role players becomes magnified. With multiple top stars and future pros on championship contenders, it is often the unheralded contributions that propel a team over the top.
But who are the most likely candidates to fulfill that role next weekend? Below is the full Sweet 16 schedule, as well as a few players who stand out as the round's biggest X-factors.
|Game||Date||Time (ET)||TV Info|
|Dayton vs. Stanford||Thu., Mar. 27||7:15 p.m.||CBS|
|Baylor vs. Wisconsin||Thu., Mar. 27||7:47 p.m.||TBS|
|UCLA vs. Florida||Thu., Mar. 27||9:45 p.m.||CBS|
|San Diego State vs. Arizona||Thu., Mar. 27||10:17 p.m.||TBS|
|Tennessee vs. Michigan||Fri., Mar. 28||7:15 p.m.||CBS|
|UConn vs. Iowa State||Fri., Mar. 28||7:27 p.m.||TBS|
|Kentucky vs. Louisville||Fri., Mar. 28||9:45 p.m.||CBS|
|Michigan State vs. Virginia||Fri., Mar. 28||9:57 p.m.||TBS|
Andrew Harrison, G, Kentucky
The much-heralded recruit was once a consensus NBA lottery pick, but season-long struggles have seen his pro stock drop significantly. However, with a strong tournament showing thus far, Harrison could vault his name back up the boards with a standout performance against in-state rival Louisville.
Harrison was arguably the top performer in Kentucky's upset win over Wichita State, with 20 points on 6-of-9 shooting and several clutch free throws down the stretch. Against a standout Shockers backcourt led by Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, it was a display that caught the eyes of some draftniks:
Shame someone had to lose that. Props to Kentucky for the way they came out this afternoon. Andrew Harrison was a different player today.— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) March 23, 2014
However, the freshman guard has been far from perfect. Harrison has turned the ball over six times in each of Kentucky's first two contests, something that could spell doom against a Louisville team with the nation's second-highest defensive turnover percentage.
The Wildcats' frontcourt is their biggest advantage and must stand as the biggest reason they win the game. However, going up against Russ Smith and Chris Jones, Harrison must give his frontcourt mates a chance to steal the contest.
Kenny Chery, G, Baylor
The junior guard was never much of a long-distance threat during the regular season, shooting just over 32 percent from beyond the arc and hitting about one three-pointer per game. However, Chery exploded for four threes in Baylor's upset victory over Creighton and now stands as one of the Bears' most important bench contributors.
Chery has battled turf toe for much of the season, and his shaky health depleted Baylor's depth in the backcourt. However, he showed signs of recovery with three straight double-digit performances in the Big 12 tournament, and his 14-point performance in the round of 32 has some buzzing about his play:
I can't think of another point guard in America playing better than Kenny Chery is right now, and 3-3's to open the game, on fire.— David Smoak (@DavidSmoak) March 24, 2014
Against Wisconsin, Chery's steady ball-handling and distribution skills will be more important than whatever he may provide as a shooter. The Badgers utilize a three-guard attack, and Bo Ryan's squads have always prided themselves upon stingy man-to-man defense.
Chery must not only take care of the ball on the offensive side, but also work through endless screens defensively to prevent Wisconsin from setting up the mismatches it so frequently exploits. Baylor is once again the underdog, but with a significant advantage in frontcourt length, another standout performance from Chery could catalyze a second straight upset.
Jarnell Stokes, F, Tennessee
It's a bit fallacious to call Stokes an X-factor, as he has been Tennessee's top steady contributor amid an erratic season in Knoxville. However, Stokes has also been one of the primary reasons in the Vols' emergence as a dark-horse contender and put up a historic performance against Mercer:
Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee): 1st player with 17 Pts, 18 Reb, 5 Ast in an NCAA Tournament game since Ed O'Bannon for UCLA in 1994— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 24, 2014
The junior forward racked up 18 double-doubles during the regular season, third most in the nation, and has put up monster stat lines in all three of Tennessee's tournament victories. In those trio of wins, Stokes is averaging an eye-popping 20.3 points and 15 rebounds per game.
Stokes will get another opportunity to shine against Michigan, whose strength lies in a deep backcourt. Since Mitch McGary's season-ending back injury, the Wolverines only have two true big men in Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford.
If Stokes can dominate underneath and get Michigan's big men in foul trouble, that would put extra pressure on the Wolverines to shoot well from three-point range to keep up. In a battle of contrasts, Stokes is Tennessee's best hope towards upsetting the Big Ten regular-season champs.