NCAA Tournament 2014: Breakout Stars from Wild March Madness

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NCAA Tournament 2014: Breakout Stars from Wild March Madness
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Only one team finishes the NCAA men's college basketball tournament with its one shining moment, outlasting 67 others to the finish line in sports' most grueling one-and-done competition.

But the long, chaotic road to the Final Four created many lasting memories while cementing a few players as guys to watch amid their quest to realize their NBA dreams. As much as college basketball is a collective forum where balanced, well-coached teams thrive, a superlative individual effort can go a long way.

These players willed their squads deep into the tournament, stamping their college legacies on the grand stage.

 

Shabazz Napier, G, Connecticut

Who else would get top billing other than the championship team's star player?

Shabazz Napier concluded his collegiate career in style, averaging 21.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game through Connecticut's six tournament victories. After a relatively quiet Final Four opener against Florida, during which he mustered a tournament-low 10 points, the guard led the Huskies with 22 points during the Huskies' championship victory over Kentucky.

His scorching shooting and unrelenting defense earned the 22-year-old Most Outstanding Player honors.

This sizzling stretch was hardly a flash in the pan for UConn's star senior. His March Madness success vaulted him to the top of Sports-Reference's wins share leaderboard at 7.9.

A scorer with untapped range, a ball distributor, a stout rebounder at the guard spot and a ferocious defender on the other side. Napier did it all to secure his second championship with UConn, yet he always shifted the attention to his teammates.

"I see my guys enjoying it," Napier said after the game (h/t ESPN.com). "That's the most special feeling ever."

While he'll have to leave those guys behind, Napier will soon receive a new batch of teammates on the pro level.

 

Frank Kaminsky, C, Wisconsin

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Frank Kaminsky capped off his transformation from role player to star during Wisconsin's Final Four run.

Last year, the 7-foot center scored a mere 4.2 points per game while afforded 10.3 minutes of playing time. This year, the junior averaged 13.9 points per game on 52.8 percent shooting along with 6.3 rebounds.

He became unstoppable over a three-game stretch spanning the round of 32 into the Final Four, scoring 66 combined points with 20 boards. His 28-point, 11-rebound effort ousted No. 1 Arizona in the Elite Eight.

Unfortunately, he fell back down to earth during Wisconsin's Final Four bout with Kentucky, posting eight points and five boards in the Badgers' 74-73 loss. The disappointing finish may be part of the reason why he plans on staying in school.

According to ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman, the big man will return for his senior season. He told Goodman, "I'm not going anywhere."

It must have been awfully tempting to parlay his tournament success into an NBA draft selection, but Kaminsky is now looking at a full season as Wisconsin's go-to scorer. If he continues to craft his interior scoring game, he'll become an even bigger draw in 2015.

 

Julius Randle, F, Kentucky

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Julius Randle may have done more harm than good for his draft stock during Monday night's championship game, but the top prospect deserves an overall passing grade for his tournament performance.

The freshman averaged 14.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game while shooting 49.2 percent. He earned four straight double-doubles leading into the Final Four, giving him 24 on the year, second all-time among freshmen behind Michael Beasley's 28 in 2008.

Yet all the attention will be devoted to a subpar Final Four. He broke the double-double by only grabbing five boards against Wisconsin before managing to muster just 10 points and six rebounds against UConn.

Randle attempted just seven shots and needed a breather two minutes into the contest. CBS Sports' Gregg Doyel derided his passiveness and sluggishness. 

That's not Julius Randle. The Julius Randle who terrorized college basketball this season, who had double-doubles in the first four NCAA Tournament games -- 19-and-15 vs. Kansas State, 13-and-10 vs. Wichita State, 15-and-12 vs. Louisville, 16-and-11 vs. Michigan -- would have dribbled right at Giffey, spun around him, then dealt with whoever was waiting under the basket. The Julius Randle we've seen all season doesn't take Niels Giffey seriously. The Julius Randle we've seen all season doesn't take any defender seriously.

Yet as ESPN Stats & Info noted during the game, the offense still flowed better when Randle touched the ball.

Randle wasn't his best during the biggest game, but he still deserves credit for guiding No. 8 Kentucky that far down the bracket. Don't seclude the 19-year-old from the draft's top five because he can't dominate every game yet.

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