While it takes an entire team working together to make it far in the NCAA tournament, the struggles of one key player could end any run.
A number of stars have already carried their squads with fantastic performances in the opening rounds. Adreian Payne of Michigan State scored 41 against Delaware, and Jarnell Stokes totaled 17 points and 18 rebounds in Tennessee's third-round win over Mercer.
Those players are clearly important to their team, but a less-than-stellar showing could allow others on the roster to pick up the slack.
On the other hand, there are a number of other key contributors who must have big showings if they want to remain in the tournament. Here is a look at the schedule of games, followed by the most important players remaining in the NCAA tournament who must have big games to keep their teams alive.
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|March 27||Stanford (10) vs. Dayton (11)||7:15 p.m.||CBS|
|March 27||Wisconsin (2) vs. Baylor (6)||7:47 p.m.||TBS|
|March 27||Florida (1) vs. UCLA (4)||9:45 p.m.||CBS|
|March 27||Arizona (1) vs. San Diego State (4)||10:17 p.m.||TBS|
|March 28||Michigan (2) vs. Tennessee (11)||7:15 p.m.||CBS|
|March 28||Iowa State (3) vs. Connecticut (7)||7:27 p.m.||TBS|
|March 28||Louisville (4) vs. Kentucky (8)||9:45 p.m.||CBS|
|March 28||Virginia (1) vs. Michigan State (4)||9:57 p.m.||TBS|
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
It is impossible to not come away impressed after watching Shabazz Napier. The senior scored 25 points in an upset win over No. 2 Villanova, and he did most of it through a great deal of pain.
As he explained to Adam Zagoria of SNY.tv:
I was trying to get open for the ball, and I think (Darrun) Hilliard was playing me aggressively, and he kicked me or kneed in my shin area. The pain was excruciating. I couldn’t really put pressure on it.
Still, none of this stopped him from making key plays down the stretch as he has all year long. During the regular season, the point guard led his team in points, assists, rebounds and steals per game while hitting clutch shots when he was needed, like this play to beat Florida:
If Connecticut is going to advance, it needs more fantastic performances out of the senior. Things will not be easy in the next round against Iowa State and more specifically against DeAndre Kane. The fellow point guard has a decent size advantage to go with great strength and a wide skill set.
Napier has to be able to use his quickness to get into the lane and either score or distribute to teammates with consistency.
Obviously, the Huskies have plenty of talent besides Napier. DeAndre Daniels has become a quality secondary scorer, and Niels Giffey can hit any open shot.
However, they will only succeed when the attention is on Napier and he picks up most of the slack. Otherwise, UConn will be headed home before the Elite Eight.
Xavier Thames, San Diego State
There were other players on the court when San Diego State took on North Dakota State in the third round, but the only person you could keep your eyes on was Xavier Thames.
He totaled 30 points and five assists in the win, almost single-handedly leading his team to victory as noted by this statistic:
Xavier Thames scored or assisted on more points by himself (45) than the entire North Dakota State team scored (44).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 23, 2014
Brad Evans of Yahoo Sports was even more impressed with the performance, comparing him to another basketball legend:
You can't contain Xavier Thames. Threes. Mid-range jumpers. Basket drives. Man is channeling MJ.— Brad Evans (@YahooNoise) March 23, 2014
While Thames has a long way to go to reach Michael Jordan's level, he has truly been fantastic for San Diego State. The squad plays a great team defense to keep the score low, and then the point guard is able to take over offensively to put his team ahead.
If you thought he could only do this against mediocre competition, remember that he had a game-high 16 points in a road win against Kansas earlier in the year.
Unfortunately, it gets even tougher in the next matchup against Arizona, which is rated by KenPom.com as the No. 1 defense in the country.
He will have to keep the ball away from the opportunistic backcourt of T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson and instead make sure it ends up in his teammates' hands or in the basket. If the Wildcats are able to force turnovers and slow down Thames, San Diego State has little chance of victory.
Unlike the other names on this list, Kyle Anderson is not his team's leading scorer. That honor goes to Jordan Adams, who has stepped up his game with 40 points in two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
However, Anderson is the catalyst for the UCLA offense, contributing in multiple ways to help things run smoothly. Matt Norlander of CBS Sports describes the player's ability:
Kyle Anderson is the irregularity. He is unique. He has no match in college basketball. Standing 6-feet-9 and playing point guard—and doing it damn well—he's the closest thing to Magic Johnson since Magic Johnson. No, he's not the next Magic Johnson, nor is he approaching to be as good as Magic Johnson. But a player so tall, lengthy and commanding never gets trusted to run an offense in contemporary college hoops. Yet Anderson has, and you could easily make the argument he deserves mention on any All-America first team list.
Anderson is usually listed as a small forward, but he can really fill in at any position for the Bruins. He usually has the ball in his hands at some point in an offensive possession and he is able to contribute well on the defensive end as well.
His versatility could end up making him a matchup nightmare for Florida. He is likely too tall for either Michael Frazier or Casey Prather to defend, but the Gators do not want Patric Young and Will Yeguete standing around the perimeter. In reality, Dorian Finney-Smith will likely be used often off the bench to slow down Anderson.
The truth is that no one has been able to contain the sophomore all year. When he is not scoring, he is distributing so his teammates can score.
You can guarantee that if UCLA is able to pull off the upset against the No. 1 overall seed, Anderson will be a key contributor in the win.
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