For college players looking for one last chance to earn a juicy NBA paycheck next season, the NCAA tournament has been a saving grace for years.
Each year, some team goes on a surprisingly deep tournament run because their star player steps their game up to the next level.
NBA scouts overreact to those players' NCAA performances, throw buzz words like "potential" and "athleticism" around, and those kids get drafted higher than anyone would have expected before March. (See: Mike Conley in 2007, Joe Alexander in 2008, Stephen Curry in 2009.)
Now that Selection Sunday has passed and the 2010 NCAA tournament bracket is set, it's time for this year's crop of college stars to dream of leading their team to the "One Shining Moment" and playing their way into top-10 lottery picks.
But the NBA scouts will be scouring NBA prospects these next few weeks, looking to dissect their games and pick apart their flaws. For some of the players on NBA scouts' radars, a shorter-than-expected NCAA tournament run could be the difference between being a lottery pick or an early second-rounder.
Some guys like John Wall and Evan Turner are locks to be lottery picks; you won't find their names on this list.
Instead, these players' draft stocks have fluctuated throughout their college careers, but all 10 of them could play their way into the lottery with a sensational tournament run.
Here's your chance to check out 10 of the guys who will be looking to make a name for themselves and play their way into the NBA Draft lottery in this year's NCAA tournament.
In the Kentucky B.C. (Before Calipari) era, junior forward Patrick Patterson made up one half of the Big Blue Dynamic Duo (alongside lights-out guard Jodie Meeks).
Now, with Kentucky under Calipari's reign, Patterson is often the upperclassman afterthought on a Wildcat team led by freshmen phenoms John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. (Not to say that Cal hasn't stretched Pat's game—he's been asked to take three-pointers for the first time in his Kentucky career this season.)
Patterson's overall stats have dropped from last season (17.9 PPG, 9.3 RPG vs. 14.7 PPG, 7.4 RPG), but with many more talented, hungry mouths to feed on Kentucky, scouts can't be too alarmed with the difference.
Patterson has shown flashes of his NBA potential (there's that word again) all year—he dominated the opening minutes of the SEC championship game against Mississippi State on Sunday, and he's posted nine double-doubles on the year—but he's also had the tendency to let his freshman teammates take over in clutch situations.
For a perceived leader on a college team brimming with NBA talent, Patterson's reluctance to demand the ball late in games may cause his draft stock to dip slightly.
That is, unless he plays a pivotal role in a Final Four run for Kentucky. If Patterson drops three straight double-doubles in the NCAAs, helping Kentucky advance deep into the tournament, his draft stock will surge up NBA teams' big boards.
With Wall and Cousins all but locks to declare for the draft, there's little doubt that Patterson will be leaving the Wildcats and joining them.
If Patterson can bring the type of energy to the NCAA tournament that he had going during the first five minutes of the SEC championship game, the Kentucky Wildcats become that much more of a national championship contender. And Patterson becomes that much of more of a lottery lock and possible top-10 pick.
ESPN's Chad Ford says it best: "Monroe has seen his draft stock jump around wildly this season."
Monroe, the most talented passing big man in all of college basketball, has been slammed by scouts all year for a purported lack of "motor." (That's secret basketball code for "night-in, night-out killer instinct.")
If Monroe keeps playing like he did during the Big East Tournament as the Hoyas enter the NCAAs, that "motor" question will soon go the way of the dodo. (i.e., die out...fast.)
Monroe, in a 23-point, 13-rebound, seven-assist, one-steal, and two-block performance against Marquette on Friday night in the Big East tournament semifinals, posted one of the most dominating performances of any college player this season.
No matter where the Golden Eagles would turn, Monroe would be killing them. A two-minute sequence with Monroe notching a bucket, a block, an
assist, and a three-pointer in the second half put Marquette away for good.
Monroe's a southpaw who will be the best passing big behind LeBron James in the NBA, whenever he declares. He entered college presumably as an one-and-done player, but after Georgetown sloughed through a painfully disappointing season last year, Monroe opted to come back for his sophomore year.
If Monroe keeps producing like he did in the Big East tournament, Georgetown fans will not have the luxury of Monroe in a Hoya uniform next season.
That's because if Monroe keeps producing like he did in the BET, the Hoyas are Final Four dark horses, and Monroe can easily play his way into the draft's top 10.
A presumed one-and-done like Monroe, Henry's the sensational Jayhawk freshman that has more riding on the NCAAs than most of the guys on this list.
Henry's draft stock has slid all over the place this year. He started as a likely lottery pick, jumped up to top-10 lock in the early season when he couldn't miss a shot if he wanted to, then plummeted in the early part of Big 12 play when Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins assumed more control of the team.
Henry became one-dimensional in January, and his shot (45.2 field goal percentage overall, 41.3 from three) stopped falling as readily.
Since then, Henry has turned it around, finding a niche as the third banana on the NCAA championship favorite. Aldrich will man the boards, Collins will run the offense, and Henry, a shooting guard at 6'7", 220 pounds, will be asked to knock down open threes on screens.
Henry obliges, much more often than not.
If Xavier can roll off a few hot rounds of shooting, making Kansas' march to the Final Four a bit easier than expected (in the gauntlet that is the Midwest Region), he'd move up to the top-10 draft pick conversation once again.
With a strong frame (he won't get pushed around by NBA shooting guards), solid height for his position, and a beautiful jumper, Henry will make some NBA team very, very happy when he falls to them this June.
Da'Sean Butler, the senior forward out of West Virginia, just announced his NBA legitimacy by winning Big East Tournament MVP honors this week.
Butler channeled his inner Gerry McNamara, knocking down winning shots against Cincinnati and Georgetown to cement WVU's first-ever Big East tournament championship.
While some believed WVU deserved a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, their strong season and Big East title drew them a No. 2 seed in the East region with Kentucky.
If Butler can keep the last-second magic going a few more weeks, he could play his way into being a high NBA Draft pick.
Butler's production hasn't been a surprise for West Virginia—after all, he's averaging 17.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game this season. But after the Big East tournament, the rest of the country is on red alert for Butler.
Kentucky coach John Calipari is already lamenting the NCAA selection committee for placing WVU in Kentucky's region, and Butler's heroics will be haunting the Kentucky coach in his sleep in the nights leading up to the Elite Eight (assuming both teams make it that far).
At 6'7", 230 pounds, Butler's got an NBA body and an all-around game that would translate well to the next level. If he continues to elevate his game in the next few weeks (taking home an East Regional MVP trophy in the process, perhaps?), he could easily vault himself into first-round/lottery discussion.
ESPN calls him "a poor man's Evan Turner." If Evan Turner is a National Player of the Year and No. 1 overall draft pick candidate...isn't a poor man's version of that still pretty 'effin good?
That's the question NBA scouts have been asking themselves about Darington Hobson, the star of the third-seeded New Mexico Lobos.
Hobson averaged 16.2 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game this season for New Mexico, helping them jump to No. 8 in the AP poll (the highest final AP ranking for the school since 1967-68).
Despite losing in the Mountain West Tournament semifinals to San Diego State (which could be a handful for Tennessee in the first round of the NCAAs), New Mexico still earned a No. 3 seed and a relatively easy road to the Sweet 16.
That should give the country a verrrrrrrry good chance to familiarize themselves with Mr. Hobson.
While Marquette or Washington could prove to be a landmine in the second round, that's exactly the kind of opportunity Hobson needs to capitalize on, if he's got hopes of being a high draft pick.
Hobson has the extraordinarily rare ability to be able to play three separate positions (point guard, shooting guard, small forward), and he can play all three extremely well. Considering that most scouts haven't had the opportunities to see Hobson (playing for a mid-major) as they have some of the high-major players, Hobson's official NBA audition begins this weekend.
The one part of Hobson's game that stands to improve the most is his long-range shooting (less than 37 percent on the year); the NCAAs should give Hobson a great chance to prove that he's an intelligent decision-maker with a high basketball IQ.
If he starts chucking threes in a close game, scouts will turn their noses; if he drives to the rim, draws contact, and finishes strong, Hobson could vault up draft boards.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I listed Lucas as one of my 10 NCAA Players Sure To Be NBA Busts only two weeks ago.
The NCAA tournament is his chance to prove doubters like me wrong.
Michigan State, which was upset by upstart Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament, has only gone 5-5 in its past 10 games, earning a No. 5 seed for that mini-slump. If the Spartans can advance past New Mexico State in the first round and either Houston or Maryland in the round of 32, they've got a hot date with Kansas in the Sweet 16.
That's where Kalin Lucas comes in.
Lucas, the point guard of the national finalist Spartan team last year, comes into the NCAA tournament with the perception that he's too small to be anything more than a backup NBA point guard. He's not necessarily the strongest guard either, which would leave NBA coaches queasy thinking about him guarding guys like Derrick Rose or Rajon Rondo.
But the NCAA tournament has been especially kind to guards and their draft statuses the past couple of years.
In 2007, with Greg Oden manning the middle, Mike Conley Jr. exploded in the NCAA tournament, guided Ohio State to a ritualistic massacre at the hands of Florida in the championship game, and earned himself the No. 4 spot in the draft for his efforts.
Rose also surpassed Michael Beasley as the No. 1 pick in 2008 after a memorable NCAA tournament run to the finals with Memphis.
If Michigan State gets to the Sweet 16 and faces off with Kansas, Lucas would have the opportunity to upset the tournament's No. 1 overall seed—and prove his worth against NBA talent (Sherron Collins).
Lucas doesn't record a huge number of assists per game (3.9), especially for a point guard, but he more than compensates with his slashing and scoring ability.
At 6'0", 180 pounds (according to ESPN), Lucas could use the tournament to prove that he's the next undersized superstar NBA guard, along the lines of Chris Paul or, perhaps more aptly, Allen Iverson.
If he leads the Spartans to an upset of the No. 1 overall seed in the Sweet 16, Lucas' name will fly up the draft board like Conley and Rose in years past.
But if Michigan State gets sent packing in the first round in a dreaded 5-12 upset, Lucas' draft status likely goes plummeting as fast as the team's back-to-back Final Four dreams.
In this corner, at 5'11", 200 pounds, Lucas' likely Sweet 16 opponent...member of the 2008 national championship team...Sherron...Collins!
Collins will enter the NBA as one of the most experienced point guards coming into the draft this year, but not without conditioning questions. Collins had the tendency to balloon in the offseason, only to start sluggishly in the early parts of the season while he got into game shape.
When he's in game shape, though, he's one of the deadliest point guards in all of the NCAA. At 5'11", 200 pounds, he's small enough, quick enough, and has the court vision to lead fast breaks almost as efficiently as Kentucky's Wall.
Collins already shoots well from NBA three-point range, and he's been an effective three-point shooter throughout all of college.
The questions remain with his conditioning and his size; like Lucas, will his small stature limit his NBA starter potential?
If Collins can lead Kansas, the prohibitive title favorite, back to the NCAA championship game, his name will shoot up the draft board like Mario Chalmers' did after his miracle three-pointer against Memphis two years ago.
But if a guy like Lucas, or potential Elite Eight opponent Chris Wright (Georgetown) forces him into a high-turnover, poor-shooting performance in a earlier-than-expected KO of Kansas, Collins will be struggling to crack the first round of the draft.
James Anderson is one of those guys who you may not have heard of if you don't live somewhere in the Midwest or South, but he's a guy who could single-handedly carry his team into the Sweet 16.
Anderson has been Oklahoma State's superstar this year, averaging 22.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game. (OK State is one of the only two teams to beat Kansas this season.)
ESPN suggested that if Cole Aldrich or Sherron Collins didn't earn the Big 12 Player of the Year award, Anderson would be a more than worthy POY.
Anderson, a 6'6", 195-pound shooting guard, came into college as a shoot-first scorer who rarely created off the dribble. Now, in his junior season, he draws enough fouls to average eight free throws per game.
Anderson's an explosive scorer who can knock down shots from damn near anywhere on the court. While his three-point percentage has dropped this season (40.8 percent last year, 35.1 percent this year), Anderson only responded by starting to score five more points per game this year.
Anderson's Cowboys find themselves in one of the tougher 7-10 matchups of the tournament, locked up with Derrick Favors' Georgia Tech in a first-round matchup of elite college talent.
If Anderson's 'Boys can escape Favors and the Yellow Jackets, they've got a date with Evan Turner and the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes in the second round.
Needless to say, Anderson's got the opportunity to prove himself against sure-fire NBA lottery picks this week. If he can guide Oklahoma State to an upset or two in the NCAA tournament, Anderson will jump up draft boards into guaranteed top-10 pick status.
Much like teammate Patrick Patterson, the NCAA tournament could prove to be freshman Eric Bledsoe's official coming out party.
Kentucky's got four sure NBA talents—John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patterson, and Bledsoe—and seeing as Bledsoe sits behind Wall on the depth chart, it's impossible to put up ridiculous stats every night.
What Bledsoe can do, almost to a fault, is try to take over a game. Most of the time, Bledsoe can slash to the basket like no guard in the country besides Wall, but he also does make more "freshman mistakes" than an NBA team would like from its starting point guard.
But when Wall needs some minutes to rest up on the bench, a team could do much worse than turning the keys over to Bledsoe. In fact, he could end up being the second point guard selected in the draft this season, depending on Kentucky's NCAA tourney run.
The Kentucky team lives and dies by the inside-outside combo of Wall and Cousins, and Bledsoe shouldn't try and mess with a good thing in the Big Dance. Instead, Bledsoe needs to continue picking his spots, and he needs to find his early season three-point shooting stroke.
Against Tennessee, Bledsoe drilled five of eight three-pointers, and Kentucky smoked the No. 14 ranked team in the country by nearly 30 points.
Bledsoe also knocked down two of the four three-pointers for Kentucky in the SEC championship game, a game in which Kentucky needed every one of those points against a never-say-die Mississippi State team playing for its NCAA tournament life. (Miss State lost in overtime and ended up outside the NCAA bracket.)
If Bledsoe turns into Kentucky's three-point specialist, someone who can stretch the defense with his threes, then use his quickness to flare into the lane for easy buckets...he'll fly up the NBA Draft board. It's conceivable that Wall and Bledsoe could be the first and second point guards selected this June.
But if Bledsoe ends up making a crucial mistake or two for Kentucky (against WVU in the Elite Eight, perhaps?), teams may question his leadership abilities, and Bledsoe may be forced to return to Kentucky for his sophomore season.
Of everyone on this list, I'd say junior point guard Jimmer Fredette of BYU has the largest opportunity to raise his NBA Draft stock in the coming weeks.
According to ESPN's John Hollinger, Fredette was the seventh most efficient offensive player in the country this season. (He's two spots below OSU's Evan Turner.)
At 21.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game, it's not too difficult to see how. Fredette led a BYU squad that hovered in the mid-teens of the AP poll for most of the season, a team that fell to a bracket-busting No. 7 seed in the NCAAs after a loss in the Mountain West Conference semifinals to UNLV.
BYU drew No. 10 seed Florida in the first round, a team that was very much on the NCAA bubble in the hours leading up to Selection Sunday. Assuming they advance past the Gators, they'll likely meet No. 2 seed Kansas State in the second round.
But say BYU pulls the upset and moves on to the Sweet 16...guess where they'd go? Salt Lake City.
Underrated mid-major plus star player plus home-court advantage plus Final Four dark horse?
BYU will be living and dying by Fredette, their leading scorer and best three-point shooter (at 44.8 percent), in this NCAA tournament.
If Fredette can guide BYU to a miracle Elite Eight run like David Robinson once did for Navy, his draft status would skyrocket, likely into the low-to-mid 20s.
If BYU falls victim to Florida in the first round, and Fredette shrinks in the spotlight, he'd likely drop to second-round/undrafted status, and he'd have to seriously weigh coming back to BYU for his senior season.