Ranking the Top 20 Players in the Sweet 16

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterMarch 21, 2017

Ranking the Top 20 Players in the Sweet 16

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    The second round knocked out National Player of the Year candidate Josh Hart and Duke’s loaded roster, but there’s no shortage of quality talent in this year’s Sweet 16.

    The mix is perfect. It includes seniors who have become household names—like Wisconsin’s Bronson’s Koenig and KU’s Frank Mason III, and then a loaded younger NBA draft class, headlined by UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and KU’s Josh Jackson.

    Simply look at the caliber of players who only made the honorable mention list below to get an idea of how good we have it this year.

    This has been one of the most entertaining college basketball seasons in recent memory, and while the first round lacked drama, the second round was as good as it has been in years and likely a preview of more fun ahead. And typically the years when the talent level is up—see 2015, for example—the tournament delivers the goods.

    Honorable mention: Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin; Jevon Carter, West Virginia; Devonte' Graham, Kansas; KeVaughn Allen, Florida; Devin Robinson, Florida; Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga; Zach Collins, Gonzaga; Kelan Martin, Butler; Andrew Chrabascz, Butler; Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina; Vincent Edwards, Purdue; Bryce Alford, UCLA; Tyler Dorsey, Oregon; Jordan Bell, Oregon; Moritz Wagner, Michigan; Manu Lecomte, Baylor

20. Allonzo Trier, Arizona

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    What he’s done

    Allonzo Trier had one of the most difficult tasks of this college basketball season. He was suspended for the first 19 games of the season and he had to figure out a way to blend in to a team that was successful (17-2) without him.

    Trier did so seamlessly, helping the Wildcats knock off UCLA in his debut. He has done what was expected of him coming into this season, leading Arizona in scoring at 17.1 points per game.

    Why he’s here

    Trier has always been able to get buckets. He’s one of the best slashers in the college game and has become a more consistent shooter this season, upping his three-point accuracy from 36.4 percent as a freshman to 40.3 percent this year. He’s also become more of a facilitator this season, averaging 2.6 assists per game compared to 1.1 per game as a freshman.

    What to expect

    Trier could end up matched up against Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett in the Sweet 16, who has been red hot in the tournament, averaging 25 points per game. Trier has better talent around him, so he doesn’t need to outperform Bluiett for his team to win, but it should be one of most entertaining matchups to watch this week.

19. Derrick Walton, Michigan

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    What he's done

    Derrick Walton is having the best season of his career and he's saved the best basketball of his life for the end. In the postseason (Big Ten tournament plus NCAAs), Walton is averaging 19.7 points, 7.0 assists and shooting 41.7 percent from beyond the arc and 93.8 percent at the free-throw line. He also had 18 points and 16 assists in Michigan's regular-season finale win at Nebraska.

    Why he's here

    Walton has Michigan's offense operating at a level not seen since Trey Burke was at the controls. He has a good sense for where to go with the ball and he's never been better working out of the pick-and-roll. Adding in how well Michigan big men D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner are playing right now will only give a coach a headache trying to figure out how to slow the Wolverines.

    What to expect

    You can pretty much throw out how Michigan played in the regular season. This is a different team. The Wolverines probably underachieved for much of the year considering what their talent looks like now. Point guard play has always been key for John Beilein's teams in March, and if he can get Walton to keep playing well, this team has a realistic shot at getting to the Final Four. Heck, Michigan proved Walton can just be OK—as he was against Louisville—and his teammates can pick up the slack.

18. Trevon Bluiett, Xavier

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    What he’s done

    Bluiett has redeemed Xavier’s season by leading his team to the Sweet 16. The Musketeers, ranked seventh in the preseason, barely made the NCAA tournament upon losing six straight games late in the season after point guard Edmond Sumner tore his ACL. Bluiett also missed two of those games.

    But the Musketeers looked more like what everyone expected for the first two rounds of the tourney, and Bluiett was a big reason why. He averaged 25 points in the two NCAA games and outshined Florida State’s more-celebrated NBA prospects Jonathan Isaac and Dwayne Bacon.

    Why he’s here

    Bluiett can play multiple positions, which is valuable, but he’s here because of his scoring ability. Bluiett has a quick release on his jumper, is an excellent spot-up shooter and can catch and release on the move.

    What to expect

    The loss of Sumner gave Xavier’s offense less room for error and placed more importance on Bluiett playing well. If he keeps shooting it like he has thus far in the tournament, the Musketeers have a chance to get to the Final Four. But if he has an off-game, it's going to be tough for Xavier to win. He has averaged 21.7 points in Xavier’s eight wins since Sumner went out and only 14.2 points per game in the losses.

17. Bam Adebayo, Kentucky

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    Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    What he's done

    Bam Adebayo has been the anchor on both ends that Kentucky was missing a season ago. Adebayo averages 13.3 points on 60.9 percent shooting and also grabs 8.1 rebounds per game. His numbers don't entirely capture his value to the Wildcats. Take any of UK's big three freshmen away and it's a much different team.

    Why he's here

    Adebayo is known for his intimidating physique, but he's got some skill as well. Everything starts with that body and athleticism. He knows how to position himself to get easy buckets, whether it's sealing his man deep under the bucket or as a target for lobs. He also has a nice jump hook and he's evolved throughout the year with his back-to-the-basket game.

    What to expect

    UCLA has plenty of skill on the interior, but reserve big man Ike Anigbogu is the only guy on the roster who has the size and strength to match up with Adebayo. If the Wildcats are smart, they will force feed Adebayo and make UCLA decide whether to play him one-on-one or double-team him. Adebayo had success in the first meeting, scoring 18 points and shooting 13 free throws.

16. T.J. Leaf, UCLA

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    What he's done

    T.J. Leaf has been overshadowed by Lonzo Ball this season, but on just about any other team, he'd be the star. And it's Leaf, not Ball, who has led the Bruins in scoring at 16.2 points per game. He's also the team's second-leading rebounder (8.2 per game) and a good passer (2.5 assists per game).

    Why he's here

    Leaf is one of the most skilled big men in the country with the ability to score from the blocks or step away from the bucket and show guard-like skills. He shoots 45.6 percent from deep and his versatility is almost as valuable to the Bruins as Ball's passing and feel for the game.

    What to expect

    Leaf was the best player on the floor back in early December when UCLA and Kentucky met up. He went for 17 points, 13 boards and five assists that day. Kentucky's weakest position is the power forward, and Leaf has a chance to once again be the difference in the Sweet 16 rematch.

15. Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin

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    What he's done

    Bronson Koenig has been at his best in the NCAA tournament, burying big shot after big shot in two pressure-packed games. He's averaging 22.5 points and has made 11 threes in the tournament.

    Why he's here

    Koenig is one of the best shot-makers in this tournament, and he's effective both off the bounce and as a spot-up shooter. That's as valuable as it gets in Wisconsin's offense. When the Badgers get late in the shot clock, Koenig has no problem creating his own shot off the dribble.

    The Badgers have also been deadly in the tournament by putting Koenig on the same side of the floor as either Nigel Hayes or Ethan Happ. When Hayes or Happ get the ball on the block, the defense has to decide whether to let them go to work one-on-one or help off and leave Koenig open for three. It's a no-win situation.

    What to expect

    The Badgers are going to keep riding Koenig and his jumper as long as they can. Florida has the guards to throw at him in the Sweet 16 with Kasey Hill, Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen. All three are solid defenders. But Villanova also had excellent perimeter defenders, and Koenig managed to score 17 points on an efficient 7-of-11 shooting day.

14. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona

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    What he's done

    Lauri Markkanen is one of the best shooters and most efficient scorers  in college basketball, and he just so happens to be 7'0” as well. Markkanen is averaging 15.8 points per game with an offensive rating (130.2 per KenPom.com) that's extremely high because of his ability to shoot from outside (43.3 percent as a three-point shooter).

    Why he's here

    The combination of size and skill that Markkanen possess is rare. Back to that high offensive rating…

    In the 13 years of available data on the advanced statistics site KenPom.com, no player 7'0” or taller who has used at least 20 percent of his team's possessions has ever had a higher offensive rating than Markkanen. In fact, he ranks third among players with at least a 20 percent usage rate and only two other 7'0”-plus bigs have ever finished in the top five: Frank Kaminsky (126.2) in his 2014-15 National Player of the Year season and former Georgetown center Roy Hibbert (130.8).

    What to expect

    Xavier mixes defenses and will likely throw some different looks at Markkanen. He's handled the stage of the NCAA tournament well so far, averaging 18 points on 61.1 percent shooting.

13. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin

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    What he's done

    Happ has not been Wisconsin's best player in the NCAA tournament—he's been outshined by seniors Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes—but he's been the team's star this season because of his unorthodox effectiveness on both ends. He fills up the stat sheet across the board, leading the Badgers in every major statistic except scoring. He averages 13.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.2 blocks per game.

    Why he's here

    Offensively, Happ puts on a clinic from the blocks with his footwork and assortment of moves. He's an efficient scorer, shooting 58.5 percent from the field.

    On the defensive end, Happ uses his anticipation, quickness and length to wreak all kinds of havoc. No big man in the country is a bigger threat to steal the basketball.

    What to expect

    Villanova lacked the size inside to match up with Hayes and Happ, but the Gators are more equipped to do so. Florida does, however, miss the rim protection of John Egbunu, who tore his ACL late in the year. The Badgers have won so far in the tournament by playing inside-out and it's fair to expect them to keep trying to play through Hayes and Happ.

12. De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky

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    What he's done

    De'Aaron Fox has been one of the best point guards John Calipari has coached, which is a huge compliment considering the lead guards who have come through his programs. Fox is averaging 16.1 points and 4.6 assists per game this season, and is also a nuisance on the defensive end, where he averages 1.4 steals per game.

    Why he's here

    Speed. No player in the country has wheels like Fox. He has helped convince Calipari to push the pace this season, and he makes offense pretty easy by putting the defense in recovery mode as soon as he decides to drive.

    Fox is not a great shooter, but he has a soft touch around the rim and his pull-up jumper is unguardable when he's hitting it.

    What to expect

    Another entertaining battle against UCLA's Lonzo Ball. Ball got the win, but Fox got the best of Ball in the individual matchup the first go-round, scoring 20 points and dishing out nine assists. He needs to clean up his game a bit for the Wildcats to get to the Final Four. He has just four assists to eight turnovers in the NCAA tournament.

11. Joel Berry, North Carolina

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    What he's done

    Joel Berry has smartly run the show for one of the most efficient offenses in college hoops the last two years. The Heels ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency last year and rank sixth this year, per KenPom.com. That's a testament to Berry, who gets the ball where it needs to go and then hits big shots.

    Why he's here

    Berry was arguably UNC's MVP during last year's tournament run to the title game. He is off to a slow start in this year's tourney—13 points on 3-of-21 shooting in two games—but he's been steady most of the season, averaging 14.4 points, 3.7 assists and burying 40.3 percent of his threes. Roy Williams still has to feel pretty good about his chances to get back to the Final Four with Berry at the controls.

    What to expect

    Butler is the type of team that does not mess up and will capitalize if its opponent gets sloppy. The Bulldogs also are effective at cutting off transition opportunities. So Berry is going to have to be sharp in getting the Heels into their offense and setting up his teammates. If UNC wins, he should get to have some fun in an up-and-down game against Kentucky or UCLA that is more fitting to his and UNC's style.

10. Justin Jackson, North Carolina

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    What's he done

    Justin Jackson has become a knockdown three-point shooter after struggling from beyond mid-range his first two seasons. That's made him one of the best wing scorers in college basketball. He leads the Heels at 18.1 points per game. He was in a mini-slump with his jumper late in the year but he has heated back up in the tourney, knocking down 8-of-14 threes.

    Why he's here

    Jackson can score from all three levels and is a throwback in the sense that he just knows how to play the game and gets many of his buckets thanks to his work away from the ball. He's also one of the best wing passers in the college game. He had five assists in UNC's scare against Arkansas in the second round.

    What to expect

    Jackson's scoring will be important in the Sweet 16, especially if Butler is able to slow the game down. If the Heels win, they should expect a more open game against the winner of UCLA-Kentucky. Jackson had one of his best games of the season against Kentucky, when he scored 34 points in an epic 103-100 loss in Las Vegas.

9. Malik Monk, Kentucky

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    What he's done

    Malik Monk has been one of the most lethal scorers in college basketball this season, but he's been in a bit of a slump lately. Monk is averaging just 11.8 points per game on 31.3 percent shooting in the month of March. But he's a candidate to catch fire at any point, and when he does, look out. He hung 47 points on North Carolina earlier this year and had eight other games in which he scored 25-plus.

    Why he's here

    While Monk might be slumping, it doesn't take much for him to get on a roll. It helps that he can make tough shots. He's shooting 44.6 percent on guarded catch-and-shoot attempts, according to Synergy Sports. Wichita State was in his face throughout the second-round game and he had no rhythm, yet he rose up for a difficult face-up three from the left wing late in the contest and buried it with a defender right in his face.

    Monk has also made strides as a playmaker for others this season. He had four assists against the Shockers, and his ability to throw soft lobs for Bam Adebayo when he's driving at full speed is unfair for opposing defenses.

    What to expect

    Monk has the perfect get-right pill coming in UCLA's defense. The Sweet 16 should be the type of uptempo battle that Monk loves. He got up 19 shots and scored 24 points the first time the teams met. Expect him to be chucking early and often against the Bruins. 

8. Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina

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    What he's done

    Sindarius Thornwell has been one of the best players in South Carolina history, and he's capping off his career by getting the program back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004 and to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1973.

    Thornwell won SEC Player of the Year and has been one of the hottest scorers in the country late in the year. He has averaged 24.9 points per game over South Carolina's last 11 games and has bumped that average up to 26.5 per game in the NCAA tournament.

    Why he's here

    Thornwell can obviously get buckets, but the guy just oozes toughness. At 6'5", he leads the team in rebounding (7.3 per game), and head coach Frank Martin asks him to play multiple positions. It doesn't matter where he's playing or who he's guarding; he's usually effective. That defensive versatility gives Martin the flexibility to mix lineups depending on the situation. That ability was critical in the upset round-of-32 win over Duke, as Thornwell dominated every phase, scoring 24 points, grabbing six boards and dishing out five assists.

    What to expect

    Thornwell will once again be key on both ends in the Sweet 16. Baylor plays a zone defense, and Martin will likely move Thornwell around to create scoring opportunities for him and his teammates. He'll also need to bring it on the defensive glass, as Baylor is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country.

    Thornwell has faced Baylor twice before—during his freshman and sophomore years—and lost both games. He did have individual success, scoring 20 points in the first meeting and going for 16 points, four assists and three rebounds in the second matchup.

7. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga

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    What he's done

    The Zags have great balance—five scorers average double digits—and that's a testament to the point guard play of Nigel Williams-Goss. He's the leading scorer at 16.7 points per game, but he could dominate the ball more if he wanted.

    Instead, Nigel-Goss does whatever the Zags need of him and has been a terrific leader for a team that has lost only one time all season despite the fact six of the main rotation players did not play for Gonzaga last season.

    Why he's here

    At 6'3", Williams-Goss is a big point guard who doesn't have blow-by quickness but is slithery with the ball, always finding a way to get where he wants to go on the floor. He fills up the stat sheet, averaging 5.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.7 steals per game. He wisely picks and chooses his opportunities to be aggressive for the Zags.

    What to expect

    No point guard left in the Sweet 16 has a more stressful upcoming game than Williams-Goss. He has to face West Virginia and its never-ending pressure. Williams-Goss typically is solid with the ball in his hands, but he did struggle some in the second round when Northwestern applied pressure. He'll need to be sharp for the Zags to get past the Mountaineers.

6. Johnathan Motley, Baylor

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    What he's done

    Motley has gone from an inconsistent player who always had "potential" tagged to his name to living up to the billing this season and transforming into one of the most consistent bigs in college hoops.

    The redshirt junior averages 17.3 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.1 blocks per game for the Bears. He's coming off an impressive performance against USC's talented front line, scoring 19 points on 9-of-12 shooting and grabbing 10 rebounds in 27 minutes.

    Why he's here

    Baylor's other scorers have been inconsistent this year, but Motley has been the team's rock. He's gifted as both a back-to-the-basket and face-up scorer. Scott Drew does a good job of finding creative ways to get Motley scoring opportunities, and it helps that Motley has great hands and is usually either too quick or too long for most defenders.

    What to expect

    Motley will likely match up against South Carolina's Chris Silva, a sophomore equipped with the size and strength to present a challenge. Expect the Gamecocks to try to be physical with Motley and push him off the blocks. If Motley is able to get his touches, it could be a game where he gets to the free-throw line frequently. Silva commits 7.4 fouls per 40 minutes.

    The most similar team to South Carolina stylistically in the Big 12 is West Virginia, and the last time Motley played the Mountaineers he scored 23 points and shot 11 free throws.

5. Dillon Brooks, Oregon

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    What he's done

    Dillon Brooks battled a foot injury early in the year and wasn't the same player in the first month of the season, but he's played at an All-American level the last two months.

    Since the start of February, Brooks is averaging 20.2 points and shooting 52.2 percent from the field, 46.7 percent beyond the arc and 76.6 percent at the free-throw line.

    Why he's here

    Brooks is a matchup problem as a small-ball power forward. He plays angry and downhill, and traditional big men just cannot keep up. Smaller defenders usually get overpowered. He's becoming even more difficult to defend this season as his outside shot improves.

    What to expect

    Brooks loves the big stage and is surely motivated by the way his season ended last year, watching Buddy Hield go nuts in the Elite Eight while he struggled and scored only seven points in an Oregon loss. He's one win away from getting back to a regional final, but first he'll have to go up against Michigan and the much-improved D.J. Wilson.

    Wilson is one of the few bigs in the country with the speed to keep up with Brooks. His combination of length and quickness could present a real challenge for the Oregon star, but expect Brooks to go right at him.

4. Josh Jackson, Kansas

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    What he's done

    Josh Jackson is one of the best talents in college basketball—a big reason why he'll likely be a top-three pick in June—and he keeps getting better as the season progresses.

    Take a look at his three-point shooting numbers through the course of the season:

    • Nonconference: 26.9 percent
    • Conference: 43.5 percent
    • Postseason: 50.0 percent

    The postseason is an incredibly small sample size, but when lumped with the conference numbers, it's enough to show he's now a consistent three-point shooter.

    Why he's here

    Jackson's outside shot was the one hole in his game early on in the year. Now he helps the Jayhawks in every way imaginable on both ends. He's averaging 20 points and five rebounds in two tourney games and also has three blocks and three steals. Bill Self can get him the ball just about anywhere, including post-ups, and he's effective. He's also a versatile defender; while you wouldn't think of a 6'8" wing as a rim protector, he often fills that role for the Jayhawks as well.

    What to expect

    Jackson will square off against one of the hottest players in the tournament, Purdue's Vincent Edwards. Edwards, like Jackson, has slid from the wing to the small-ball power forward spot. He's scored 21 points in each of Purdue's tourney games and also dished out seven assists in two games.

    If the Jayhawks win, Jackson could have another big-time matchup with either Oregon's Dillon Brooks or Michigan's D.J. Wilson. It's hard to imagine KU can get to Phoenix if Jackson doesn't play at a high level in Kansas City.

3. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue

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    What he's done

    Caleb Swanigan has put himself in elite company by joining the 600 points/400 rebounds/80 assists club this year. He's only the sixth player to get there since the 1992-93 season, and the other major conference players were Blake Griffin, Andrew Bogut and Tim Duncan. All three won the Naismith Award and were eventual No. 1 picks.

    Swanigan is one of the top candidates for the Naismith. While future No. 1 pick is not in the cards, he has been the best big man in college hoops, posting 18.5 points, 12.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game.

    Why he's here

    "If this were the '90s, that guy would be the fifth pick in the draft," an Eastern Conference scout told Bleacher Report earlier this month. "The game is different now."

    The NBA is certainly different and going away from post-ups, but the great thing about college basketball is there are so many different styles and ways to win. The Boilermakers are old school in that they have not abandoned the post-up. They use it more than any team in the country, per Synergy Sports.

    Swanigan is the perfect big man to build that kind of offense around. He's excellent at establishing position and then has a combination of moves and touch that make him efficient scoring when double-teams don't come. When they do, he's also a skilled passer, and Purdue surrounds him with shooters. If he cannot get his looks on the blocks, he can also step away from the basket and make a jumper. He's shooting 43.2 percent from beyond the arc.

    What to expect

    The Jayhawks have struggled to guard elite big men this season, and Swanigan could be in line for a big Sweet 16 performance.

    The game could turn into a chess match between coaches Bill Self and Matt Painter with Swanigan as the key piece. With both teams' starting lineups, the matchups are clear inside with Swanigan likely guarding and being guarded by KU center Landen Lucas.

    But when Purdue goes big with Isaac Haas next to Swanigan, Self will either have to counter by also going big—not preferable for KU—or abandon KU's typical man-to-man, likely switching to either a triangle-and-two or straight zone defense.

    Painter might also have to get creative because he's not going to want to put Swanigan on KU small-ball power forward Josh Jackson. Swanigan got torched in the second round when he had to guard Iowa State's Deonte Burton.

2. Lonzo Ball, UCLA

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    What he's done

    Ball has transformed the Bruins from a middle-of-the-pack Pac-12 team—6-12 in conference play last year—into one of the best offenses in the country and, at the very least, a Sweet 16 team.

    Ball has also brought the fun back to Westwood with a tempo-pushing, unselfish style that makes scoring the basketball look easy. He averages 14.7 points and an NCAA-best 7.6 assists per game. He had one of his signature performances Sunday night, delivering nine picturesque dimes and scoring 18 points to help UCLA run away from Cincinnati.

    Why he's here

    Ball is the best table-setter in the country. His vision and ability to make high-degree-of-difficulty passes look easy haven't been seen at the college level since Jason Kidd was at Cal. Ball is so good that comparisons to Kidd are justified.

    What makes Ball different than Kidd is he's a much better shooter at this stage in his career. He drills 42.0 percent of his threes, many of which come from well beyond the arc.

    What to expect

    As strange as this may sound considering UCLA won the first matchup, Ball gets a shot at some individual redemption against Kentucky in the Sweet 16. He scored 14 points and had seven assists in the first matchup, but he also turned the ball over six times, and his shot selection was questionable. It was almost like he was trying too hard and out to prove himself in front of scouts going up against De'Aaron Fox. Ball got picked up by his teammates that day, particularly fellow freshman TJ Leaf.

    Ball will need to be better for UCLA to win again. His play and decision-making early might determine what kind of night it's going to be for the Bruins.

1. Frank Mason III, Kansas

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    What he's done

    Frank Mason III has put together a season worthy of national player of the year honors. (He was our pick at Bleacher Report.) Mason averages 20.8 points and 5.2 assists per game while shooting 47.2 percent from beyond the arc. He failed to make a three against Michigan State for the first time since the second game of the season, and he still scored 20 points.

    Why he's here

    Mason is constantly in attack mode and puts defenders on their heels. In the past, the goal was to try to keep him out of the paint. Now if you go under a ball screen, he drills a three-pointer. It has made him almost unguardable and extremely consistent.

    He's scored 20 or more points in five straight games and eight of KU's last nine contests. He's also averaging 6.8 assists per game over the last five.

    What to expect

    Mason has yet to make a Final Four in his career, and he's a man on a mission. Bill Self is going to put the ball in his hands as much as possible and try to ride him to a national championship.

    Expect a lot of two-man game between Mason and Josh Jackson in crunch time going forward. Self had Jackson set ball screens late against Michigan State; Mason rejected them every time, but it opened up driving lanes to get to the bucket or draw help and kick out to an open shooter. Considering Kansas shoots 40.6 percent from deep, that action is difficult to defend and makes KU tough to beat in close games, which is usually when Mason is at his best.

    C.J. Moore covers college basketball and football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @CJMooreBR.