Final Four 2014: Ranking the 20 Most Important Players
As we continue anxiously counting down the hours to Saturday's Final Four showdowns, we've ranked the 20 most important players still competing in this year's tournament.
The top four players won't surprise anyone, but No. 5 on the list (pictured above) is flying well below everyone's radar.
Ranking players based on importance is pretty vague—hence the need to develop a stat like WAR in baseball or PER in the NBA—but it really came down to comparing players head-to-head and asking which one we would trust more to do what he does best with the game on the line.
Season and tournament stats were helpful nuggets of information, but a quantitative statistic like points per game didn't factor anywhere near as much as something qualitatively hypothetical as, "How would the rest of the team fare if he had an off night?"
So come along for the ride, and get to know where these 20 players excel, as well as what opposing teams will need to do to have any hope of slowing them down.
20. Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
Season stats: 7.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 0.9 APG, 0.9 SPG
Tournament tallies: 6.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.0 APG, 1.0 SPG
Bread and butter: Drawing fouls. Hayes ranks 21st in the country with 7.3 fouls drawn per 40 minutes. The only other remaining player in the top 200 in that category is Julius Randle at 6.6.
Key to containing: Make him actually shoot the ball. Hayes is pretty deadly when he gets to the rim, but his mid-range game is weak. In his last three games, Hayes is 2-of-9 on jumpers and 2-of-5 from the free-throw line.
Why he's here
Hayes has been an incredibly valuable sixth man for the Badgers, but there's a reason he's coming off of the bench and averaging less than 18 minutes per game.
He provides a nice spark, speeds up the game and plays great defense when he's in there. But between his poor shooting and his relatively high rate of committing fouls and turnovers, he can be a liability at times.
19. Niels Giffey, Connecticut
Season stats: 8.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.5 BPG
Tournament tallies: 6.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.0 SPG
Bread and butter: Three-point shooting. Even after Sunday's 0-of-5 effort, Giffey is shooting 49.1 percent from behind the arc this season.
Key to containing: Keep a hand in his face. I'm almost ashamed to admit I looked through 28 play-by-play logs to confirm this, but there was an assist on each and every one of Giffey's 56 three-pointers this season. He's a pick-and-pop guy who will rarely beat you off the dribble. Stick someone on him like glue.
Why he's here
Giffey almost didn't make the list because he has made just one of his last nine three-point attempts, but he has stepped up the rest of his game in the absence of his deep ball.
He set a new career high with 11 rebounds against Villanova, also adding two assists, two steals and a blocked shot. It was nice to see that he doesn't need to be draining shots to be effective.
18. Dakari Johnson, Kentucky
Season stats: 5.1 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 0.6 BPG
Tournament tallies: 6.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG
Bread and butter: Offensive rebounding. Johnson grabs 16.8 percent of possible rebounds when he is on the court. If he played enough minutes, he would be ranked fifth nationally in that department.
Key to containing: Force him to play physically. Johnson averages 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes, which is the highest rate on the team.
Why he's here
With Willie Cauley-Stein unlikely to play again this season, Johnson will be a critical cog in the Kentucky machine. Marcus Lee got some quality minutes against Michigan after Johnson committed a pair of turnovers in the first 150 seconds, but Johnson had 15 points and six rebounds in relief of Cauley-Stein against Louisville.
He might have been higher on the list if we had any legitimate idea what to expect out of him or his playing time. That game against Louisville was the first time all season that he logged more than 25 minutes in a game. He was a top 10 recruit in this year's class, though, so there's no good reason to doubt his abilities.
17. Josh Gasser, Wisconsin
Season stats: 8.9 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.9 APG, 0.6 SPG
Tournament tallies: 7.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 2.8 APG
Bread and butter: Free-throw shooting. Gasser is an 87 percent free-throw shooter and has thus become one of their go-to ball-handlers when preserving the lead at the end of close games.
Key to containing: Force him inside. Gasser is a quality three-point shooter, but he almost seems lost inside the three-point line. He is shooting 43.9 percent from two-point range and has attempted 54 fewer two-point field goals than free throws on the season.
Why he's here
Not everyone can score 20 points per game. As such, every team needs a glue guy who logs a ton of minutes (33.2 per game for Gasser) without being a liability.
Gasser doesn't take a ton of shots—he is responsible for just 11.7 percent of the field-goal attempts when he's on the court—but is an efficient shooter when he does take them. Being a great free-throw shooter certainly doesn't hurt his case, either.
16. Ben Brust, Wisconsin
Season stats: 12.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.8 SPG
Tournament tallies: 12.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.5 APG
Bread and butter: Defending without fouling. Brust doesn't force a ton of turnovers, but he has nearly as many steals (29) as personal fouls (33) this season. Only LIU-Brooklyn's Jason Brickman has averaged fewer fouls committed per 40 minutes than Brust.
Key to containing: Put a taller defender on him. Two of Brust's best games this season have come against Minnesota and its 5'9" point guard, Deandre Mathieu. In two games against Purdue's trio of guards who are 6'4" or taller, though, he struggled to do much of anything.
Why he's here
(Quick memo to Wisconsin fans: Before you freak out about having three guys in the "bottom" five, please note that the Badgers are the only team that got six players in the top 20.)
In each of the past three seasons, Brust has been a very reliable three-point shooter and a more-than-capable contributor to Wisconsin's "Bend, but don't break" defensive style.
Similar to several of the next guys on the list, Brust can really hurt you if he's feeling his long-range shot. It wasn't there against Arizona, but he was 11-of-20 from three-point range in his first three tournament games.
15. James Young, Kentucky
Season stats: 14.1 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.7 SPG
Tournament tallies: 10.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG
Bread and butter: Shooter's amnesia. Even if he has missed five shots in a row, Young is confident that the sixth will go in. Sometimes it's painful to see him brick multiple consecutive shots, but if anyone on this team is going to score 10 points in a span of three minutes, Young's the guy to get hot and do it.
Key to containing: Let him shoot. Obviously you don't want to leave the man wide open, but his drive is more dangerous than his jumper. He's only a 34.6 percent three-point shooter and hasn't made more than three triples in a game since Feb. 1.
Why he's here
For a little while there in January, it looked like Young was fixing to become Kentucky's primary scoring threat. In a span of nine games, he attempted at least 14 field goals five times, but has only done so once in his last 11 games.
Young is still a very important part of the team, but he has really taken a backseat to the Harrison twins in Kentucky's backcourt.
14. Dorian Finney-Smith, Florida
Season stats: 8.9 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.1 APG
Tournament tallies: 8.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 2.0 APG
Bread and butter: Defense. Finney-Smith is perhaps the best 6'8" on-ball defender in the country. He doesn't get a ton of steals or blocks, but there's no such thing as an uncontested shot if he is guarding you.
Key to containing: Make him shoot. As was the case with Nigel Hayes, Finney-Smith gets a lot of his points from dunks and layups. He's a 30.0 percent three-point shooter on the season, and is 3-of-18 from long range in his last six games.
Why he's here
Finney-Smith's point output is about as inconsistent as they come. In his last 13 games, he has scored 10 or more points six times and has been held to five or fewer in the other seven.
But what he lacks in shooting consistency, he makes up for with court awareness. Despite averaging just 25.8 minutes per game, Finney-Smith leads the team in rebounding and has the best assist rate among non-point guards on the team.
13. Michael Frazier II, Florida
Season stats: 12.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.1 SPG
Tournament tallies: 10.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.5 APG
Bread and butter: Three-point shooting. Frazier set the Florida single-season record for made three-pointers this year. Because of his long-range efficiency, his O-rating of 125.6 is more than 11 points better than the next-best Gator.
Key to containing: Find him in transition. Frazier loves to run the court and put the ball in the net before you've even had a chance to set up your defense.
Why he's here
In his last 12 games, Frazier is shooting 48.2 percent from the field and 50.6 percent from three-point range. At 44.8 percent on the season, he is one of the most accurate three-point shooters in the country.
In a perfect world where players actually stay for four years, I can't wait to watch Frazier and Oklahoma State's Phil Forte take part in the three-point shooting contest in 2016.
12. Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
Season stats: 12.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.6 BPG
Tournament tallies: 9.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.8 APG
Bread and butter: Versatility. Dekker is a smaller version of Frank Kaminsky. He fights and scraps for rebounds and steals and is capable of scoring from anywhere within 25 feet. Whatever you need, Dekker can be your guy.
Key to containing: Put a big body on him. Against the three-forward lineups of Baylor and Arizona, Dekker never looked comfortable. He has the height (6'7") of a power forward, but doesn't have the weight (220 lbs) to bang with the big boys down low.
Why he's here
You hear about five-tool athletes in baseball, but Dekker is a five-tool basketball player; a jack-of-all-trades, but master of none, if you will. If he could just combine last year's shooting efficiency with this year's minutes, he likely would have been an All-American.
Dekker is long overdue for a big game. He scored at least 13 points in 17 of Wisconsin's first 28 games, but has failed to reach that mark in any of the last nine games.
11. Andrew Harrison, Kentucky
Season stats: 11.0 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 3.9 APG
Tournament tallies: 12.3 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 5.3 APG
Bread and butter: Dribble drive. It took a while for Harrison to really embrace the point guard mentality, but he has averaged nearly six assists per game over his past seven. Kentucky has played its best basketball of the season during those seven games, thanks to Harrison's ability to drive and dish.
Key to containing: Turn him over. Of the 31 players in the Final Four who play at least 20 percent of his team's minutes, Harrison has the highest turnover rate at 23.7 percent. I'm not a big fan of that stat—Ken Pomeroy even writes in his definition "It can be highly dependent on context"—but the fact remains that Harrison commits his fair share of turnovers.
Why he's here
After four months of the nation lazily referring to them as the Harrison twins and not really knowing which was which, Aaron has emerged as a scorer and Andrew has emerged as a leader.
He isn't quite on the level of a Scottie Wilbekin or a Shabazz Napier just yet, but he's getting there. With Harrison at the helm and tapping into his full potential, Kentucky is a much different team than it was a month ago.
10. Casey Prather, Florida
Season stats: 13.8 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.6 BPG
Tournament tallies: 10.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.0 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.3 BPG
Bread and butter: Short game. Prather is something of a rarity in today's game. Whereas we've grown accustomed to seeing 6'8" players live on the wing, the 6'6" Prather prefers to live in the paint. He does have a nice mid-range jumper, but Prather does the bulk of his damage right at the hoop.
Key to containing: Deny the entry pass. Once Prather gets the ball down low, you might as well just start jogging back down the court. He did have two shots blocked in the first game against Connecticut, but shot 8-of-11 on the rest of his attempts.
Why he's here
Prather is the Gators' leading scorer on the season. He is used on the highest percentage of possessions and attempts 23.1 percent of the team's shots when he is on the court.
And that percentage doesn't include all of the shots where he gets fouled and the ball doesn't go in, which happens quite regularly. Prather leads the team in free-throw attempts, with 34 percent more than any other Gator.
However, he just barely cracks into the top 10 because he hasn't been nearly as effective or efficient in the tournament as he was during the season. A better than 60 percent shooter on the season, Prather has made just 51.8 percent of his field goals in the last four games, leaving Michael Frazier II and Scottie Wilbekin to pick up the slack.
9. Aaron Harrison, Kentucky
Season stats: 14.1 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.1 SPG
Tournament tallies: 16.0 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 0.5 APG, 1.3 SPG
Bread and butter: Three-point shooting. Harrison was pretty hit or miss for most of the season. At the end of the regular season, he was a 30.6 percent three-point shooter. But he has been an assassin since the start of the SEC tournament. In his last seven games, Harrison is shooting 50.0 percent (22-of-44) from downtown.
Key to containing: Pray he's missing shots? Despite poor three-point shooting for most of the season, Harrison maintained a solid scoring average by being an excellent penetrator. If you get right up in his face to deny the three-pointer, he'll blow right past you to the hoop.
Why he's here
Harrison has caught fire in the tournament, but he's still pretty much buckets or bust. He has committed more combined fouls and turnovers (14) in the tournament than combined rebounds, assists, blocks and steals (12). During the stretches of the game when he's not scoring, his only real function is as a decoy to stretch the opposing defense.
Still, his scoring average in the tournament ranks fifth among players still dancing, so he's definitely providing a lot of value.
8. Ryan Boatright, Connecticut
Season stats: 12.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.5 SPG
Tournament tallies: 13.8 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.8 SPG
Bread and butter: Three-point shooting. Compared to Niels Giffey (49.1 percent), DeAndre Daniels (43.2 percent) and Shabazz Napier (39.9 percent), Boatright almost seems like a liability as a 37.7 percent shooter. However, he has been an exceptionally reliable source of about two three-pointers per game.
Key to containing: Note his tendencies. Whether it's intentional or not, Boatright almost never attempts field goals on successive possessions, yet he very consistently attempts between seven and 12 field goals per game. If he shot it the last time down the court, slack off him a bit. If he hasn't shot it in five minutes, get right up in his grill.
Why he's here
I didn't originally have Boatright anywhere near this high on the list, but I kept moving him up and up as I directly compared him against the players ahead of him. And frankly, it was tempting to move him even higher.
Most of the shooting guards in the Final Four (Aaron Harrison, Michael Frazier II and Ben Brust) are good for three-point shooting, and that's it. But Boatright is no stranger to putting up helpful periphery numbers.
On the season, Boatright trails Scottie Wilbekin by 1.4 PPG and 0.3 APG, and has him beat by 0.9 RPG. More often than not, opposing defenses are more focused on stopping Napier and Daniels. That's no reason to detract from what Boatright has accomplished this season.
7. Patric Young, Florida
Season stats: 10.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.7 SPG, 1.1 BPG
Tournament tallies: 8.3 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 2.0 BPG
Bread and butter: Commanding the paint. Young doesn't put up the eye-popping numbers in the paint of a Julius Randle, but there's no questioning that he is the man in charge down there. If he isn't getting rebounds, he's perfectly content with just making sure his man isn't getting them, either.
Key to containing: Drive at his body. It's hardly uncommon for Young to get into foul trouble. If you go right at him early and often, you can contain him by making him spend half of the game on the bench.
Why he's here
Young is a force down low. He's not the type of guy to take over the game with a flurry of highlight-reel plays, but, rather, gradually controls the flow of things inside the three-point arc from the outset.
Young is also one of the best "angry dunkers" in the country. It's not an official statistic, but when he throws it down, it fires everyone else up.
6. Traevon Jackson, Wisconsin
Season stats: 10.7 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 4.0 APG, 0.7 SPG
Tournament tallies: 12.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.5 APG
Bread and butter: Setting up teammates. Jackson registers an assist on 25.5 percent of his teammates' made field goals while he is on the court.
Key to containing: Make him defend the ball-handler. Jackson does a great job of controlling the flow of the game on the offensive end of the court, but he commits a good (bad) number of careless fouls at the defensive end. He has committed four fouls in four of Wisconsin's last eight games. In the game against Minnesota, he committed all four of his fouls in a span of less than four minutes.
Why he's here
Outside of Frank Kaminsky, the point guard is the most important player on the court for the Badgers. There are more efficient and effective scorers, but Jackson is the link that holds everything together.
If and when he's turning the ball over, the Badgers struggle. In the 12 games in which he has committed three or more turnovers, Wisconsin is 8-4 with an average scoring margin of plus-1.7 points per game. When he commits two or fewer turnovers, the Badgers are 22-3 with an average scoring margin of plus-13.3 points per game.
5. DeAndre Daniels, Connecticut
Season stats: 13.0 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 0.7 SPG
Tournament tallies: 17.0 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 0.8 SPG
Bread and butter: Sheer athleticism. I'm patiently waiting for the day when Daniels blocks a shot directly to a teammate and takes off sprinting down the court for an alley-oop dunk. He and Kentucky's Alex Poythress are probably the only players remaining in the tournament who are even physically capable of pulling that off.
Key to containing: I have no earthly idea. Daniels has evolved into the lite version of Kevin Durant. During a stretch of 13 minutes that spanned halftime, Daniels scored 20 of Connecticut's 26 points against Iowa State and grabbed four of their nine rebounds. Of those nine made field goals, there were four mid-range jumpers, two three-pointers, two layups and a tip-in.
When he puts his mind to it, he's virtually unstoppable.
Why he's here
Like Wisconsin's Sam Dekker, Daniels does a little bit of everything. Only, he's better at just about all of it than Dekker.
On the season, Daniels is shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 43.2 percent from three-point range. He is two made three-pointers away from having 50 three-pointers and 50 blocks.
He was pretty inconsistent throughout the season, but he has developed into a reliable source of just about whatever you want over his past eight games.
4. Julius Randle, Kentucky
Season stats: 15.1 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.8 BPG
Tournament tallies: 15.8 PPG, 12.0 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.8 BPG, 0.8 SPG
Bread and butter: Crashing the glass. Randle has 17 offensive rebounds in the tournament and nearly twice as many rebounds as anyone left standing.
Key to containing: Deny and then give a little bit of space. If Randle gets the ball with room to work and you're then reaching to stop him with a full head of steam, you've more than lost the battle. But if you can attempt to deny him the entry pass well enough to keep him out of the paint and then almost dare him to shoot rather than drive, you can limit him in the scorebook.
In the SEC finals against Florida, Randle was 1-of-7 from the field on entirely jump shots.
Why he's here
With the possible exception of Shabazz Napier, Randle is the most consistently unstoppable player in the Final Four. He is an absolute animal in the paint and now has 24 double-doubles on the year.
However, we kept him out of the top three because Kentucky has so much additional talent on the team that it can still get by without him having a great game. The Wildcats came within one point of beating Florida in the SEC finals despite a four-point, seven-rebound effort from Randle.
Do you really think Connecticut or Wisconsin would have a prayer against the Gators if Napier or Frank Kaminsky put up a dud like that?
3. Scottie Wilbekin, Florida
Season stats: 13.4 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.6 SPG
Tournament tallies: 17.3 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.5 SPG
Bread and butter: Momentum-killing daggers. Think you're going on a run to take the lead against Florida? Then Wilbekin has you right where he wants you.
Key to containing: Force him to settle. Wilbekin can beat you three ways to Sunday, but you'll at least have a chance if you can get him to take jump shots inside the three-point arc. For the tournament, he's 6-of-16 in his mid-range game.
Why he's here
The problem with ranking Wilbekin are his darn intangibles. Florida's intentionally slow pace doesn't do much to help his per-game figures, either.
Wilbekin is a clutch player who rarely commits turnovers (1.7 per game) despite almost always having the ball in his hands. His last turnover came with 8:49 remaining in the first half against Pittsburgh. That was 109 minutes ago. He has three times as many steals as turnovers in the tournament and twice as many assists as steals.
And let's not forget his propensity to start a fast-break opportunity or make a nearly impossible basket with the shot clock winding down to completely deflate the opposing team.
2. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
Season stats: 14.1 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.7 BPG, 0.7 SPG
Tournament tallies: 18.5 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.8 BPG, 0.8 SPG
Bread and butter: Versatility. Kaminsky can and will shoot it from anywhere on the court. At 7'0" tall, he's both a matchup nightmare as a three-point shooter and very difficult to keep off the glass.
Key to containing: Stay in his hip pocket. Like Michigan State's Adreian Payne, Kaminsky has range for days, but he looks like he's running in slow motion when he tries to beat someone off the dribble. Rather than matching up center for center on defense, Kentucky would be wise to defend him with an athletic forward like Alex Poythress or Marcus Lee.
Why he's here
For the season, Kaminsky is ranked nationally in the top 350 in nine different KenPom categories: O-rating (124.3), percentage of possessions used (25.3), percentage of shots taken when on the court (27.5), effective field-goal percentage (57.8), true shooting percentage (61.2), offensive rebounding percentage (9.8), defensive rebounding percentage (18.8), turnover rate (9.5) and block percentage (6.2).
And there's no question that Kaminsky has stepped up his game even further for the tournament. His individual efforts against Arizona (28 points and 11 rebounds) and Baylor (19 points and six blocks) were simply incredible.
If it weren't for someone attempting to outdo what Kemba Walker did three years ago, Kaminsky would be at the top of the list.
1. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
Season stats: 18.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 4.9 APG, 1.7 SPG
Tournament tallies: 23.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 4.5 APG, 2.0 SPG
Bread and butter: Basketball. Aside from blocking shots, tell me one thing Napier doesn't do well, and I will be forced to call you a liar. Forget about Final Four players. Napier is the best two-way player in the entire country.
Key to containing: Dumb luck. If you type "How to stop Shabazz Napier" into a search engine, one of the only results you'll get is my pre-Elite Eight "analysis" that Michigan State needs to figure out how to do exactly that. Save for Louisville making a complete mockery of Connecticut on senior night, there's no evidence of a team shutting down Napier.
Even when his shots aren't falling, he does a great job of finding other teammates—Napier records an assist on 31.0 percent of his teammates' buckets—and contributes greatly in the rebounding and steals departments.
Why he's here
If you're even remotely questioning Napier in the top spot, then you clearly haven't watched any of Connecticut's games in the tournament.
Napier's legend is already on par with that of Kemba Walker. If Connecticut wins it all, he may very well go down as the most outstanding individual tournament run since Carmelo Anthony carried Syracuse to the 2003 national championship.
After Connecticut's win over Michigan State in the Elite Eight, the Spartans' Gary Harris told reporters, "His will to win—you could just see it. He wasn't going to let his team lose."
When opponents are saying that about a player, how can he not be the most important man remaining?
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.