NCAA Tournament 2018: Ranking the Top Performers Through the First Round

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2018

NCAA Tournament 2018: Ranking the Top Performers Through the First Round

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    After two eventful days, the first round of the 2018 NCAA men's tournament is in the books. If there's one thing that will be remembered, it's No. 16 Maryland-Baltimore County's stunning, history-making upset of the No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers in the South Regional, but that's not all that happened.

    There were a few more upsets, but most of the top-seeded teams rolled in the first round. A play-in team advanced to the round of 32. And there was no shortage of outstanding individual performances.

    For the purposes of this list, players from losing teams were not considered—sorry, Terrell Miller. Also excluded are players on Nos. 1 and 2-seeded teams because of their level of their competition. With one unforgettable exception, those squads won easily. There will be plenty of time to celebrate them later.

    With that in mind, here are the 10 best individual performances from the first round of the tournament.

10. Shelton Mitchell

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    By the numbers

    Shelton Mitchell led the Tigers with 23 points, hitting a pair of three-pointers and shooting 8-of-13 from the field. He also had five assists as the No. 5 Clemson Tigers took down the No. 12 New Mexico State Aggies in the Midwest Regional.

                                    

    Buzz factor

    Clemson hadn't reached the NCAA tournament since 2011 and hadn't advanced further than the round of 32 since 1997, when it reached the Sweet Sixteen. The Tigers will fight to get back there Sunday, when they face No. 4 Auburn.

                                                              

    Why he's here

    Mitchell helped keep the Tigers in control as the Aggies made a late push. With roughly six minutes remaining in the second half, New Mexico State cut Clemson's lead to six, but Mitchell knocked down a three-pointer to put an end to the run. It was his most crucial bucket on a night when he tied his career scoring high.

9. Jevon Carter

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    By the numbers

    Carter filled up the stat sheet, scoring 21 points on 9-of-17 shooting and putting up five rebounds, eight assists and six steals as No. 5 West Virginia blew out No. 12 Murray State, 85-68.

         

    Buzz factor

    West Virginia handled its business on Friday, helping to set the stage for the real drama: a second-round matchup with No. 13 Marshall. The in-state rivals played each other every year until 2016, when West Virginia pulled out of the annual game due to concerns about travel distance. This has led to no shortage of tension between the two programs, and they meet again with the highest stakes in the rivalry's history: a trip to the Sweet 16.

         

    Why he's here

    Carter was instrumental in the Mountaineers' second-half run and was productive at both ends of the floor. He scored 13 of his 21 points over that time and led a defense that held the Racers' leading scorer, Jonathan Stark, to nine points on 1-of-12 shooting.

8. Keita Bates-Diop

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    Otto Kitsinger/Associated Press

    By the numbers

    Forward Keita Bates-Diop made an impact all over the court as the No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes handled the No. 12 South Dakota State Jackrabbits, 81-73, in the West Regional. The redshirt junior finished with a team-high 24 points and led all rebounders with 12 boards.

                       

    Buzz factor

    Bates-Diop endured a disappointing, injury-plagued 2016-17 season and appeared in just nine games for the Buckeyes. This campaign, he was the Big Ten Player of the Year and showed why in the first round of the tournament.

                                                                                        

    Why he's here

    Bates-Diop was one of three Ohio State players to score at least 20 points (guards Kam Williams and C.J. Jackson had 22 and 20, respectively). But he was a monster on the glass, which was just as crucial to the Buckeyes' winning effort.

7. Miles Bridges

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    By the numbers

    Miles Bridges led all scorers with 29 points on 12-of-22 shooting along with nine rebounds, four assists and only one turnover as the No. 3 Michigan State Spartans defeated the No. 14 Bucknell Bison in the Midwest Regional.

                     

    Buzz factor

    Bridges surprisingly opted against turning pro last year to return to Michigan State for his sophomore season in pursuit of a national championship. After this performance, it would be surprising if he did that again.

                             

    Why he's here

    Bridges scored of 19 of the Spartans' 38 second-half points as they kept pace with Bucknell and staved off several runs. He took 10 of their final 11 shot attempts, refusing to let the Bison back in the game.

6. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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    Otto Kitsinger/Associated Press

    By the numbers

    Freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander played a strong all-around game in the first round, finishing with 19 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and five steals as Kentucky beat the No. 12 Davidson Wildcats, 78-73, at Taco Bell Arena.

                   

    Buzz factor

    In a season in which the Wildcats were uncharacteristically light on star power, Gilgeous-Alexander continued to shine on the way to a projected first-round selection in June's NBA draft in Brooklyn, New York.

                 

    Why he's here

    Gilgeous-Alexander wasn't Kentucky's leading scorer on Thursday—that would be Kevin Knox, who finished with 25 points. But he filled up the stat sheet and made an impact on the game in a variety of ways at both ends of the floor, showing why his profile has risen steadily as the season progressed.   

5. Jon Elmore

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    By the numbers

    Jon Elmore led the way as No. 13 Marshall upset No. 4 Wichita State, 81-75, in the East Regional, scoring 27 points and shooting 4-of-8 from three-point range along with four rebounds, four assists and two steals.

                       

    Buzz factor

    Friday's game was Marshall's first tournament win in school history. Until Maryland-Baltimore County made history later by beating Virginia, the Thundering Herd appeared to be the best Cinderella candidate of this year's tournament thus far.

                   

    Why he's here

    Elmore scored in a variety of ways, showing off his three-point range while also getting to the foul line 15 times. He proved once again that he's the perfect guard to lead head coach Dan D'Antoni's fast-paced offense.

4. Collin Sexton

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    By the numbers

    Collin Sexton led all scorers in his game with 25 points as the No. 9 Alabama Crimson Tide defeated the No. 8 Virginia Tech Hokies, 86-83, in the first round of the East Regional. He also had six assists three rebounds, and 22 of his points came in the second half of the back-and-forth affair.

           

    Buzz factor

    The Crimson Tide hadn't won a tournament game in 12 years. After Thursday's win, they'll face their toughest challenge yet, taking on the No. 1 Villanova Wildcats on Saturday at Pittsburgh's PPG Paints Arena.

                    

    Why he's here

    Sexton's second-half takeover got Alabama to the second round while solidifying his status as one of the best guards in the country. If he keeps up that level of play, the Tide may be able to give Villanova a scare.

3. Wes Clark

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    By the numbers

    Wes Clark led the No. 13 Buffalo Bulls to a stunning 21-point upset of the No. 4 Arizona Wildcats, 89-68, in the South Regional on Thursday in Boise, Idaho, scoring 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting. He also knocked down three three-pointers and added seven assists, four rebounds, two blocks and a steal.

                                                   

    Buzz factor

    Buffalo's win Thursday was the biggest surprise of the day: a mid-major not just beating a higher-seeded major program, but also blowing it out. Where Arizona goes from here will be a major discussion topic in the coming weeks, but the Bulls deserve huge credit for pulling out this win. They will be worth keeping an eye on in their second-round game Saturday against the No. 5 Kentucky Wildcats.

                         

    Why he's here

    Clark turned around his career at Buffalo after transferring from Missouri. On Thursday, he showed that his new home is a perfect fit with one of his finest performances of the year.

2. Rob Gray

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    By the numbers

    Gray powered No. 6 Houston to a 67-65 win over No. 11 San Diego State on Thursday, leading all scorers with 39 points on 12-of-25 shooting, including 4-of-6 from three-point range. He also logged eight rebounds.

           

    Buzz factor

    The last time Houston won a game in the NCAA tournament was 1984, when they were led by Hakeem Olajuwon. Gray, in his fifth and final year of eligibility, is playing in his first March Madness after beginning the season serving a suspension over a $5 entry fee to a rec-league game. It's as good a story as you'll find in this year's tournament.

                                             

    Why he's here

    Gray turned in the best individual performance of the first day of the tournament to extend a solid season in which he averaged 19.2 points per game. Houston needed every one of his 39 points to pull out the win, and he delivered.

1. Jarius Lyles

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    By the numbers

    Lyles put up 28 points on a hyper-efficient 9-of-11 shooting, including 3-of-4 from three, to help No. 16 UMBC make history, beating No. 1 Virginia 74-54.

         

    Buzz factor

    In the 79-year history of the NCAA tournament, no No. 16 seed had ever upset a No. 1 seed in the first round. Until Friday night. That the Retrievers beat the top-seeded Cavaliers by 20 points makes it even more astonishing (Virginia's only two losses on the season were by a combined eight points). Whatever the rest of the tournament holds for them, what UMBC did on Friday won't be forgotten anytime soon.

         

    Why he's here

    The senior guard couldn't miss in the second half as UMBC pulled away. Lyles was playing through cramps that caused him to leave the game multiple times, but he gutted it out and put on a performance that will stay in the history books forever.