Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were supposed to live up to the hype. Marcus Smart was supposed to put the team on his back. Pressure is, and always has been, a huge part of NCAA tournament for college basketball's biggest names.
But which players in the Sweet 16 are under the most pressure to perform? Which players have to put forward a huge showing for their team to advance?
Keep in mind, this isn't necessarily about expectations.
Sure, teams like Florida, Arizona or Michigan State are expected to advance, but there isn't one individual player that will absorb the blame if they don't. Yes, Julius Randle is one of the top prospects in the country, but Kentucky is absolutely loaded with other young talent as well. Russ Smith is Louisville's top scorer, but they're a deep, experienced side that can overcome a mediocre scoring night from him.
No, this is about those players that have to put the team on their back and lead them to victory. Let's break them down.
Shabazz Napier, G, UConn
Guess who leads UConn in points, rebounds and assists this year? That's right, it's Shabazz Napier—probably the player most responsible for his team's success in this entire tournament. But consider just how heavily this team relies on Napier, via Ted Keith of Sports Illustrated:
Napier, who suffered a bruised shin against ‘Nova but should be ready to go at the Garden, isn’t necessarily the overwhelming one-man show you might expect. Still, he has yet to get consistent help from his teammates. While Napier uses 28 percent of the Huskies’ offensive possessions two of his teammates—Ryan Boatright, a 6-foot guard and DeAndre Daniels, a 6-9 forward—use over 22 percent themselves.
Napier has been brilliant in the tournament thus far. Against St. Joe's, he scored 24 points and added eight rebounds, six assists and three steals. Against Villanova he scored 25 points and tallied five rebounds and three assists.
If he doesn't step up again, UConn won't get past Iowa State. It's really that simple for the Huskies.
Xavier Thames, G, San Diego State
Xavier Thames is averaging 17.4 points per game this season. But in San Diego State's four loses, he's put up just 13.5 points per contest. On a team that is excellent defensively but doesn't exactly light it up on the offensive end, Thames' offensive production is key.
Thus far in the tournament he's stepped up. Against New Mexico State he scored 23 points, dished out five assists and added three steals. Against San Diego State he really blew up, scoring 30 points and again notched five assists.
But Thames isn't a me-first guy, either. He scores within the offense, not in spite of it, and would be the first to credit his teammates for finding him open looks. His head coach, Steve Fisher, chose to focus on his intangibles rather than his skills on the court when praising Thames to Chantel Jennings of ESPN:
After that 63-44 win over North Dakota State that allowed SDSU to reach the Sweet 16, one of the first sentiments out of Fisher's mouth was "X will get a lot of the accolades. He has been special and fantastic.
"But we have a team."
It's what so many of the players and coaches say. But it's what Thames and Fisher actually mean.
"What has set X apart from so many is his sincerity," Fisher said. "He cares about others, and it shows in everything that he does. He's very sensitive to other people's feelings, and I think that's what has made him so good."
He's been good, alright. Maybe even great. And he'll need to be even better against a very tough Arizona team. San Diego State may indeed be a team, but Thames is the straw that stirs the drink.
Nik Stauskas, G, Michigan
The Wolverines are going to absolutely have their hands full with Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon down low. The Volunteers will likely win the battle on the boards, so Michigan is going to have to hit their shots from the perimeter if they are to win this game.
That means Nik Stauskas has to step up in a big way. The Big Ten Player of the Year has been solid yet unspectacular in his first two tourney games, averaging 16 points per game and hitting seven of the 15 shots he's attempted from beyond the arc. He also added eight assists versus Texas, tying a season high.
But Tennessee is a different beast. The Vols have won eight of nine and are long, athletic and really tough inside. It's time for Stauskas to have his signature NCAA tournament game and lead the Wolverines to the Elite Eight.
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