With many of the top teams in the nation still in the running for a national championship, it is only natural that many of college basketball's best players will do battle in the Sweet 16.
It is one thing to excel over the course of the season, but doing so in a pressure-packed situation with an Elite Eight berth on the line is the stuff of legends.
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Many superstars with Sweet 16 games looming are good enough to make big plays in the clutch, but only a handful of them will be able to. Here are three stars that will shine brightest in an effort to take their teams one step closer to a championship.
DeAndre Kane (Iowa State)
Although Iowa State enjoyed an outstanding season and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Cyclones haven't received the respect that they deserve. After beating North Carolina in spectacular fashion in the round of 32, though, that may be changing.
Iowa State has a strong roster from top to bottom, but there is no question that guard DeAndre Kane is the straw that stirs the drink.
Kane dropped 24 points, grabbed 10 boards and dished out seven assists in a virtuoso performance against the Tar Heels. With Georges Niang out for the remainder of the tourney with a broken foot, the onus will fall on Kane's shoulders even more moving forward. That likely won't bother him, however, as he always seems to rise to the occasion.
The Connecticut Huskies are well aware of what Kane brings to the table as evidenced by comments made by head coach Kevin Ollie, according to Bobby La Gesse of The Ames Tribune:
"Our whole team is going to guard him." Kevin Ollie on DeAndre Kane.— Bobby La Gesse (@BobbyLaGesse) March 27, 2014
That would seem to suggest that UConn will do anything possible to take Kane out of the game, but that is easier said than done. Kane is so skilled at creating his own shots that it's tough to imagine the Huskies keeping him in check.
This game has all the makings of shootout between Kane and UConn guard Shabazz Napier, which should be a sight to behold for college basketball fans.
Adreian Payne (Michigan State)
There aren't many players in college basketball quite like Michigan State forward Adreian Payne.
The polished senior has gotten better with each passing year, and things have truly reached a fever pitch at this point. Payne is averaging nearly 17 points per game this season, and he has raised his game to another level in the NCAA tournament as evidenced by his 41-point performance against Delaware in the round of 64.
The competition gets much stiffer as March Madness continues, though, and that will be quite clear on Friday when the Spartans face top-seeded Virginia. The Cavaliers are among the best defensive teams in college basketball, so don't expect to see Payne drop 41 points again.
With that said, he is undeniably motivated to push his team to victory. Per Tom Leyden of WXYZ-Detroit, Payne wants to reach the Final Four with every fiber of his being:
Adreian Payne on drive to go to Final Four: "I think about it all the time. I pray about it every night." @MSU_Basketball— Tom Leyden (@TomLeyden) March 27, 2014
Beating Virginia would be a huge step in the right direction. Some of Payne's teammates may struggle to score against the Cavs, but Payne is versatile enough to hurt Virginia in a number of different ways. If he gets stifled in the paint, he is more than capable of stepping out and hitting jumpers.
In fact, Payne's three-point percentage has soared to nearly 44 percent this season, so he can hit open shots if Virginia lays back. All of that points to a big showing from Payne in the Sweet 16.
Russ Smith (Louisville)
He may not be quite as flashy as some of the other elite players in college basketball, but it can be argued that there is no more complete player than Louisville guard Russ Smith.
He surprised a lot of people when he decided to return for his senior season after winning a national title last year, but he has somehow managed to become an even better player.
Which player will perform best in the Sweet 16?
His scoring average is down just a tad to 18 points per game, but he is dishing out nearly five assists per contest and has a career-best field goal percentage of nearly 47 percent.
Perhaps even more important than that is Smith's status as one of the best defensive guards in the country.
That should come into play during Louisville's Sweet 16 clash with Kentucky as the Wildcats rely on a talented but young backcourt. The Harrison twins have really raised their level of play during the NCAA tournament, but their experience pales in comparison to Smith's.
Smith has had such a fantastic season in all facets that he rates as respected college basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy's top player in the country, according to Eric Crawford of WDRB in Louisville:
#UofL’s Russ Smith, named one of four Naismith Award finalists today, is now No. 1 on Ken Pomeroy’s statistical player of the year listing.— Eric Crawford (@ericcrawford) March 24, 2014
Most of the talk entering the Sweet 16 is focused on Kentucky's fabulous freshmen, but Smith will get the last laugh.
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