March Madness 2014: Players with Most to Gain in Sweet 16

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2014

Kentucky forward Julius Randle (30) grabs the ball against Wichita State during the first half of a third-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament Sunday, March 23, 2014, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

When all the eyes of the sports world are focused on you, it can be a transcendent time where your name gets etched into the annals of college basketball history. It can also be an eye-opening experience where one's true ability doesn't match the hype. 

We have already seen two instances of the latter, with Duke's Jabari Parker and Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, struggling in their respective NCAA tournament losses. Both players have tremendous potential and will go very high in the NBA draft if/when they decide to leave school. 

For the players still alive, there is a lot more at stake than just impressing NBA scouts. They have a chance to lead a team to a championship and be part of something historic. Here are the stars with the most at stake in the Sweet 16. 


Julius Randle, F, Kentucky Wildcats

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 23:  Julius Randle #30 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates after defeating the Wichita State Shockers 78 to 76 during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 23, 2014 in St Louis, Miss
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

One of the advantages Julius Randle has over fellow freshman who are potential lottery picks is that he's still playing. Parker, Wiggins and Joel Embiid (who didn't play in Kansas' two tournament games) are on their way home. 

Randle, on the other hand, was dazzling against Wichita State. He overpowered the Shockers on the low block and earned raves for his all-around play in the Wildcats' 78-76 victory. 

After Randle scored 13 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dealt six assists, Ohio television and radio personality Kenny Roda made this observation.

Props to Julius Randle of #Kentucky as he played the best of the top freshmen in this year's class in tourney 13pts-10reb-6ast-1blk today.

— Kenny Roda (@TheKennyRoda) March 23, 2014


That was the first game all year where highly touted Kentucky looked like the team that was ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press in the preseason. 

Randle is a difference-maker in the middle for the Wildcats because of his size (6'9", 250 lbs) and ability to impact the game by scoring, rebounding, passing and defending. No team left in the tournament has a player who can match Randle inside. 

He hasn't been perfect this season, mirroring the Wildcats with some games to forget, most notably the SEC championship against Florida (1-for-7, four points). But now that he's hot, Kentucky has taken off. 

Aaron Gordon, F, Arizona Wildcats

Denis Poroy/Associated Press

If there's been a knock against Aaron Gordon this season, it's that he lacks the shooting ability to be a consistent scoring threat. During the regular season, the freshman certainly wasn't an impact offensive player, averaging just 12.4 points per game. 

He's also a dreadful free-throw shooter at 42.9 percent, which makes Dwight Howard look like Reggie Miller. 

Through two tournament games, however, Gordon has been more assertive with the ball, scoring 34 points and shooting 15-of-21 from the field. 

Just as impressive as Gordon's ability to put the ball in the basket has been his passing ability. The forward averaged two assists per game in the regular season, but has increased his distribution rate, averaging 4.5 dimes in two tournament games. 

Gordon hasn't sacrificed the spectacular defense that made him the 15th overall pick in B/R's Pre-Tournament Mock Draft, recording five blocks in the second round against Weber State and four steals against Gonzaga. 

As long as Gordon is able to keep his high level of offense going throughout the tournament, we will be talking about one of the best all-around players in college basketball and a national championship will be possible for the Wildcats. 

Jarnell Stokes, F, Tennessee Volunteers

RALEIGH, NC - MARCH 23: Jarnell Stokes #5 of the Tennessee Volunteers reacts after a basket in the first half against the Mercer Bears during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at PNC Arena on March 23, 2014 in Raleigh, North Car
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

While Randle and Gordon have the luxury of projecting as elite NBA talents and star college players, Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes has to "settle" for being one of the best power forwards in college basketball. 

It's probably because Stokes plays for Tennessee, which doesn't get as much national attention as other SEC schools, that it's taken this long to notice him. He's been a monster in the middle for a team that underachieved in the regular season before hitting its stride in the tournament. 

Of course, for those paying attention, Stokes has been just as valuable to his team as Randle has for Kentucky.

Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee): got his 22nd double-double of season yesterday, tying Julius Randle for most in Division I

— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 24, 2014

After helping Tennessee dispose of Iowa, Massachusetts and Mercer, Stokes will get the chance to prove himself on an even bigger stage when the Volunteers take on Michigan in the Sweet 16. 

Another double-double may not be enough to convince NBA scouts that Stokes, undersized at 6'8", 250 pounds, belongs in the first round of June's draft. But it could be the thing that pushes Tennessee into the Elite Eight. 

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