Sweet 16 2014: Ranking the Most Clutch Players

Thad NovakCorrespondent IMarch 24, 2014

Sweet 16 2014: Ranking the Most Clutch Players

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Last-second heroics have been the order of the day in the 2014 NCAA tournament, which has already featured six overtimes and a wealth of buzzer-beaters on its way to the Sweet 16. With so many games coming down to one all-or-nothing play, there’s a serious edge to be had for those teams who already know which players they can count on in crunch time.

    Second-seeded Wisconsin, for example, has plenty of scoring options, but when the game is on the line, it turns to point guard Traevon Jackson. The junior has spent the past two seasons showing that he knows how to find an opening when his team has to have a basket.

    Read on for more on Jackson and where he ranks—for frequency and versatility—among the dozen most accomplished late-game stalwarts remaining in this year’s Sweet 16.

12. Keith Appling, Michigan State

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    Several of Michigan State’s close games this season have been the product of the Spartans collapsing down the stretch.

    One of the few players who has avoided that syndrome is Keith Appling, who’s gone from a looming liability in the 2013 tourney to the team’s most consistent contributor this season.

    Against Ohio State in January, Appling's 20-point effort helped offset a late collapse by the Spartans’ D.

    After the Buckeyes had rallied to force overtime, the senior point guard buried a three-ball in the final minute of the extra session and sent then-unbeaten OSU to its first loss.

11. Russ Smith, Louisville

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    Russ Smith mostly specializes in making sure Louisville doesn’t need last-second heroics.

    When called on, though, he’s shown that his ability to get shots up against multiple defenders doesn’t get any less impressive as the game clock winds down.

    On the road against the stifling Cincinnati defense, Smith had managed just eight points while Montrezl Harrell dominated the Cards’ scoring.

    When Louisville needed one last basket to save the game, though, it was Smith who fielded a Terry Rozier pass and drained the game-winning jumper with 2.2 seconds to play.

10. Cory Jefferson, Baylor

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    Sniper Brady Heslip is the more traditional pick for a last-second hero on the Baylor roster, and he’s done his share of damage (including a game-saving trey against Kansas State).

    Cory Jefferson, though, has been even bigger for the Bears when they’ve needed him most, including when they were forced to bounce back from surrendering a buzzer-beater of their own.

    In overtime against Oklahoma State (after the Cowboys' Leyton Hammonds had forced the extra period with a trey), Jefferson opened the scoring with a three-pointer to put Baylor back on top to stay.

    His biggest play, though, came against Dayton at the Maui Invitational, when he grabbed Kenny Chery’s miss and laid in the offensive rebound for the decisive score in a 67-66 thriller.

9. Chasson Randle, Stanford

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    Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    When Aaron Bright went down for the season in November, backcourt mate Chasson Randle went from a complementary scorer to the main man for Stanford.

    Among his 18.7 points per game have been plenty of key scores at the ends of contests, such as the seven points he racked up in OT to beat USC in January.

    Even better for the Cardinal, Randle knows how to make big plays without the ball in his hands.

    In a March clash with Utah, the defensive ace (who gobbled up six steals against Kansas) pressured the Utes' Brandon Taylor into the crucial turnover that preserved a 61-60 win in Palo Alto.

8. Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia

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    Point guard Malcolm Brogdon quietly emerged as Virginia's leading scorer this season, overtaking senior marksman Joe Harris. The sophomore has similarly grabbed the lion's share of another former Harris specialty, the game-saving shot.

    If defense-minded UVA needs to hold a lead, Brogdon—with his .875 accuracy from the foul line—is the first place the Cavaliers look, but he's also proven he can win games himself.

    At Pitt on February 2, Harris became a decoy to set up Brogdon, who circled off a high screen to nail the decisive three-pointer in a 48-45 victory.

7. Glenn Robinson III, Michigan

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    The Wolverines were sorely in need of someone to take over the late-game hero’s role with Trey Burke gone, and Glenn Robinson III has been the one to step in.

    The sophomore forward has played with much-increased confidence in the latter part of the season, and it’s especially shown up with the game on the line.

    Against Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament, it was Robinson’s foul shooting that put the Maize and Blue on top to stay in a hard-fought finish.

    Two weeks earlier at Purdue, Robinson had averted a disastrous upset when he capped a 17-point night by banking home the game-winner in a 77-76 overtime squeaker.

6. Devin Oliver, Dayton

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    When Tyler Ennis missed his last two jump shots in preserving Dayton’s upset of Syracuse, the Flyers didn’t just let him walk into the paint.

    Instead, they got a pair of key defensive plays to contest the star point guard, with the first coming from big man Devin Oliver on a switch.

    Oliver has also shown that, like teammate Vee Sanford in the round of 64, he can knock down a shot of his own with the clock ticking down.

    On the road against Ole Miss in January, the senior banked in a three-pointer in the final second of overtime to steal a win over the Rebels.

5. Traevon Jackson, Wisconsin

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    It’s not that big of a stretch to say that Wisconsin owes its No. 2 seed to Traevon Jackson. When the Badgers were in free fall in Big Ten play, with five losses in seven games, he pulled out a heart-stopping home win with a jumper to beat Michigan State.

    The junior, son of former NBAer Jimmy Jackson, has seen plenty of close contests in two seasons as a starter, and he’s won plenty of them, too. He drained buzzer-beaters against both Penn State and Minnesota to salvage Badgers wins in 2012-13.

4. Nick Johnson, Arizona

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    Last year, Mark Lyons was so dominant in the final seconds of games that it was tough for any other Wildcats player to get noticed. Now that Lyons is gone, Nick Johnson—already a crunch-time force—has a chance to get his due.

    Johnson’s free-throw shooting (including six in 25 seconds against Michigan) has sealed several close wins for top-seeded Arizona this season.

    His most spectacular game-winning play, though, came a year ago at the Diamond Head Classic, when his last-second blocked shot saved a win against upcoming Sweet 16 opponent San Diego State.

3. Xavier Thames, San Diego State

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    Thrust into the primary scorer’s role for the Aztecs as a senior, point guard Xavier Thames has been enjoying the spotlight.

    A second-round win over New Mexico State was the second OT contest SDSU has played and also the second in which Thames has scored the go-ahead bucket in the extra period.

    Any opponents who want to know how difficult Thames is to handle at the end of a game can just ask Boise State.

    In the first meeting between the two teams, he beat Broncos rebounding expert Ryan Watkins to a defensive board to ice the win. In the second, he drew the defense’s attention only to flick a game-winning assist to Dwayne Polee II.

2. DeAndre Kane, Iowa State

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    Having already done everything else Iowa State asked of him on Sunday night, DeAndre Kane (who finished three assists away from a triple-double) came through one more time in the waning seconds. His runner in traffic found the net with under two seconds to play to put the Cyclones in the Sweet 16.

    It wasn’t the first time this year that ISU has leaned on the ex-Marshall floor general in a similar situation.

    In a pair of OT wins over Oklahoma State, Kane iced one with five late points in the extra session and saved the other with an offensive rebound and an assist to set up Naz Long’s game-tying trey.

1. Shabazz Napier, UConn

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    Florida, the top overall seed in this year’s tournament, has lost just twice all year. One of those losses has Shabazz Napier’s name all over it, as the Huskies senior converted a four-point play with 33 seconds left to set up his own buzzer-beating jumper for the victory.

    That December game had been the most prominent instance of Napier saving UConn this season—at least until he willed the Huskies to an OT win over St. Joseph’s in the round of 64.

    The former apprentice to national champion (and clutch icon) Kemba Walker is looking like a worthy successor to one of UConn’s all-time best crunch-time players.