NCAA Tournament: 16 Role Players Who Could Determine the Final Four
The NCAA tournament is generally billed as an opportunity for star players to rise to the occasion and lead their respective teams to glory.
While star power is extremely important in the tournament, it's also vital for a team to get good production from its role players if it's going to make a run to the Final Four.
Many tournament games are decided by a few key plays that can mean the difference between bowing out in the second round or putting together a four or five-game winning streak.
Players like Brian Zoubek, Korie Lucious and Joe Mazzulla were all role players for their respective teams last season, but their inspired play in the tournament helped carry Duke, Michigan State and West Virginia to the Final Four.
Whether it was Mazzulla's 17-point effort against Kentucky in the Elite Eight, Korie Lucious stepping in for an injured Kalin Lucas or the relentless rebounding of Brian Zoubek, all three players helped support the stars on their teams and became vital pieces on three of the Final Four teams.
At this point in the college basketball season, I think it's safe to say that we've identified who the best players in the nation are. With good reason, guys like Jared Sullinger, Nolan Smith, Jimmer Fredette and Kemba Walker (just to name a few) have been talked about for months now.
But instead of belaboring the point and continuing to shower praise upon some of the nation's best, let's give a little love to the role players out there who could potentially turn the tide for their respective teams much like Zoubek, Lucious and Mazzulla did just a year ago.
Generally speaking, the top four seeds in any region are the best bets to make the Final Four.
So I've chosen to highlight one role player from every top-four seed in this year's bracket who just might take that crucial charge, dive on that loose ball, block that shot or have the game of his life that propels a team to the Final Four or beyond.
Ohio State: Aaron Craft
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In a season that has seen so much instability from the best teams in the nation, Ohio State has emerged as one of the favorites to take home a national championship.
While Jared Sullinger, David Lighty, Jon Diebler and William Buford comprise the four-headed monster that makes the Buckeyes a serious tournament threat, the play of Aaron Craft at the point has been invaluable.
Unlike Diebler, Buford and Lighty—who are generally more comfortable playing on the wings—Craft is a true point guard who excels at setting up Ohio State's offense and leads the team in assists.
The 6'2'' Ohio native is very smart with the ball. Not only can he easily penetrate against most defenders, but he's capable of finishing at the rim.
Everything Craft does for Ohio State on offense has been very important, but defense is probably the most crucial part of the youngster's game.
Craft is extremely adept at generating turnovers with his quick feet and great instincts, but he's also a lock-down defender who is capable of shutting down some of the best scoring guards in the country.
When Ohio State avenged one of its two losses on the season by crushing Wisconsin 93-65 a few weeks ago, Craft played some incredible defense against one of the Big Ten's best players when he held Jordan Taylor to just eight points on two-of-nine shooting.
Craft barely gave Taylor enough room to breathe when Wisconsin was on offense and he effectively shut down one of the best scoring guards in the country.
Craft's hustle and tough play have been a spark for the Buckeyes all season long and it wouldn't be very surprising to see him make a few plays in the tournament that propel this Ohio State team to the Final Four and beyond.
Kansas: Thomas Robinson
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Thomas Robinson has to be the most talked-about and well-known player in the nation who only plays 15 minutes per game.
But such is life for a 6'9'' sophomore who plays behind Marcus and Markieff Morris on an extremely talented Kansas squad that has serious national championship aspirations of its own.
Despite the fact that Robinson generally never sees more than 20 minutes of action per game, he makes his time on the floor count and, thanks to his awe-inspiring blend of size, strength and athleticism, he is one of the most efficient players in the country.
Robinson is simply a force of nature in the paint. Whether he's utilizing his impressive frame and length to finish around the basket or grab every rebound in sight, there are few players who can impact a game the way he does.
Because of how physically gifted he is, Robinson doesn't need more than 15 or 20 minutes to have a huge effect on the outcome of a game.
Jayhawk fans have seen him turn the tide of many contests this season.
In the tournament, Robinson will likely see his usual 15-20 minutes of action, but he's already proven this season that he can give Kansas the production of a guy who sees much more time on the court.
The Kansas Jayhawks look to have all the pieces to make another Final Four and, if that's the case, Thomas Robinson will no doubt be giving them some extremely efficient and inspired play in the paint.
Pittsburgh: Travon Woodall
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Everyone knows that the Pittsburgh Panthers have one of the most dynamic backcourt duos around in Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker, but Travon Woodall is the only other guard on Jamie Dixon's roster who plays a prominent role.
The 5'11'' sophomore from Brooklyn might not have eye-popping numbers, but Woodall has shown that he can step up when necessary. He helped Pittsburgh post a 3-1 record (including wins at West Virginia and at Villanova) when Ashton Gibbs was hurt.
Woodall's shooting percentages leave something to be desired, but because of his quickness and above-average ability to distribute the ball, he can make an impact on this Panthers roster without scorching the nets.
At the same time, Woodall has shown that he can hit the open jumper and, when you combine that with his ability to penetrate, there's no doubt that he can help the Panthers carry the load on offense.
Woodall played a modest 20 minutes per game off the Pittsburgh bench this season, but his time on the floor was crucial because it allowed Wanamaker and Gibbs to rest while keeping the Panthers competitive at both ends of the floor.
An extremely talented Pittsburgh team is absolutely a threat to make a run to the Final Four and the play of Travon Woodall off the bench might give the Panthers the lift they need to get it done.
Duke: Ryan Kelly
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Perhaps the biggest issue that could prevent Duke from repeating as national champions is the team's inside play.
The Blue Devils certainly have some size on their roster, but if they are going to make the Final Four and go beyond, they will need more than just Mason Plumlee giving them production around the basket.
Enter 6'11'' Ryan Kelly, who has started most of the season for Duke. While he's not much of a threat with his back to the basket, his ability to shoot from distance can cause some serious matchup problems.
As Duke begins its quest for another national championship, you can bet that opposing defenses will be focusing on Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and Seth Curry.
That should leave Kelly relatively open from behind the arc.
If he's able to convert these opportunities, it will give an already-potent Duke offense another weapon. Kelly will undoubtedly frustrate opposing big men who will be forced to step out on the perimeter and play defense.
Kelly's 3.8 rebounds per game are certainly underwhelming for a player of his size, but he's had moments during his sophomore season when he's made a difference on the glass and he could do so again in the tournament.
Because of his size, Kelly is also one of Duke's best shot-blockers. His 1.5 swats per game rank second on the team and allow him to erase easy looks for Duke's opponents around the basket.
Ryan Kelly certainly isn't one of the first players who comes to mind when you think of this year's Duke team, but his long-distance shooting, shot-blocking and size just might allow him to make a few plays during the tournament that could help the Blue Devils achieve greatness once again.
Notre Dame: Eric Atkins
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Lost amid the great season that Ben Hansbrough has had for Notre Dame is the solid freshman campaign that Eric Atkins has put together.
Atkins has shared the point guard duties with Hansbrough in his first season with the Fighting Irish. Although young point guards can struggle, Atkins performed admirably.
The 6'2'' Maryland native is more of a true point guard than Hansbrough and he generally looks to get others involved first before thinking about his own shot.
This mentality has served him well on a Notre Dame team that has plenty of capable shooters. Atkins averaged 3.2 assists while turning the ball over just 1.2 times per game.
Even though Atkins has made a habit of setting up those around him, the young guard has also shown that he can be a scorer when necessary. Atkins 36-percent success rate from behind the arc is nothing to scoff at, and his scoring has helped Notre Dame notch quite a few quality wins this season.
Atkins reached double figures in close victories over Gonzaga, Wisconsin, Cincinnati and Marquette, proving that he can be more than just a distributor.
The Fighting Irish have some extremely high expectations for this season's tournament after earning a No. 2 seed, and although Atkins isn't one of their star players, he just might be able to get them over the hump and deep into the tournament.
San Diego State: James Rahon
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Say what you want about the San Diego State Aztecs, but a team this big and athletic that has the fortune of playing so close to its fan base for the first few rounds should be taken seriously in the tournament.
Unfortunately for Steve Fisher, San Diego State isn't a great outside shooting team, and that is generally a big part of any March Madness run.
However, this is where James Rahon comes into play.
While he's been inconsistent in his first season with the Aztecs, this Santa Clara transfer has shown that he can be deadly from behind the arc.
Rahon is shooting a team-best 42 percent from three and he has really boosted a San Diego State team that doesn't boast a great stable of long-range shooters.
Because he's such a potent long-range shooter, Rahon is the perfect complement to players like Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas, whose play around the basket generally draws plenty of attention.
Rahon's ability to stretch opposing defenses is certainly an important factor for San Diego State as they enter the tournament. Although he's been slumping a bit recently, the 6'5'' reserve has proven himself during the regular season and he could come up huge for the Aztecs when they need him the most.
North Carolina: Leslie McDonald
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North Carolina's resurgence in the second half of the season has many people thinking that this team could make some serious noise in the tournament.
The play of Leslie McDonald could turn these thoughts into reality.
McDonald is most valuable to the Tar Heels on defense and as a long-range shooter. His efforts have already helped this team recover from its disappointing early-season start.
When you consider that there are only two North Carolina players besides McDonald who see more than 10 minutes of action and shoot over 30 percent from three, his proficiency from long range seems even more important.
McDonald's three-point accuracy (40 percent) makes him by far the best long-range shooter for North Carolina. Because players like John Henson and Tyler Zeller command extra attention inside, this 6'4'' guard should be seeing plenty of open looks in the tournament.
McDonald's defensive prowess on the perimeter has also been very helpful to UNC and his play at that end of the floor in the ACC tournament helped the Tar Heels narrowly defeat Miami and Clemson.
There's plenty of talent on this North Carolina squad. Leslie McDonald's ability to hit the three and defend could be the extra boost that helps players like Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson take this team to the promised land once again.
Florida: Patric Young
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Although Patric Young has had to sit behind talented big men like Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin during his freshman season, it's hard to deny how much potential the youngster has.
Young has an athletic 6'9'', 245-pound frame that is as NBA-ready as any in the college game today.
Even though these physical gifts haven't quite translated into big production during his freshman season at Florida, he has the ability to make a difference in the tournament around the basket thanks to his size and explosiveness.
Young is a great finisher at the rim who can do his share of damage when given the opportunity.
Most recently, Young has done a very nice job on the glass. During Florida's last four games, he's averaged over six rebounds per in helping the Gators defeat Vanderbilt twice and Tennessee once.
Florida is a veteran team that relies heavily on its upperclassmen to lead the way, but if Macklin and Tyus should find themselves in foul trouble over the next few weeks, Young will undoubtedly be getting the call to step in and fill the void down low.
Brigham Young: Charles Abouo
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The Brandon Davies saga has left a once-confident BYU team searching for answers, but the play of Charles Abouo has certainly helped the Cougars move on and get back to business.
Even before Davies was suspended, Abouo was coming into his own. The 6'5'' junior was beginning to make his presence felt after he was reinserted into the BYU starting lineup.
Abouo possesses an extremely versatile game that allows him to make a difference for BYU, whether he's playing tough defense, fighting for rebounds or helping Jimmer Fredette carry the scoring load.
On offense, Abouo can take it to the basket or utilize a solid shooting stroke to make opposing teams pay for focusing too much on Fredette. This swing man also has great athleticism that allows him to play bigger than his size and get to the free-throw line.
Abouo's 18-point, nine-rebound performance against San Diego State in late February and his 14-point, eight-rebound game against TCU during BYU's hotly-contested first game in the MWC tournament show the kind of impact he can have for the Cougars.
Things certainly don't look as promising for BYU as they did before Brandon Davies was suspended, but Charles Abouo is capable of making a difference for BYU and could potentially help this team surprise everyone in the NCAA tournament.
Purdue: D.J. Byrd
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I initially intended this slide to be about Kelsey Barlow but with the breaking news that he will be suspended for the tournament due to conduct detrimental to the team, I'm going with D.J. Byrd instead.
D.J. Byrd definitely isn't the flashiest player on Purdue's roster, but this undersized forward has been effective at times for the Boilermakers during his sophomore campaign.
Despite the fact that Byrd stands just 6'5'', he's often asked to support JaJuan Johnson around the basket because Purdue lacks any real frontcourt depth to speak of.
There's no doubt that Johnson is one of the best players in the country, but even he will need help around the basket if Purdue is going anywhere in the tournament.
This makes Byrd a very important player on Purdue's roster who could easily find himself logging heavy minutes in the paint during the tournament.
Because players like Lewis Jackson, E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson draw plenty of attention, Byrd's outside shooting can also be a major factor over the next few weeks. Byrd will no doubt see open looks from behind the arc. If he's able to capitalize on these opportunities, it could help a very talented Purdue team string together a couple of wins in the tournament.
Syracuse: C.J. Fair
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If you've been wrapped up in the virtual uselessness of Fab Melo (his performance in the Big East tournament excluded) or the outstanding play of Rick Jackson, you might have missed what C.J. Fair has done for Syracuse since the middle of January.
Fair wasn't as highly touted as Melo or Dion Waiters, but the rangy, 6'8'' forward has arguably been the team's best freshman this season.
Since Fair's January 17th performance against Pittsburgh—when he exploded for 16 points and nine rebounds—he has been one of the most productive players off Jim Boeheim's bench and he has seen his share of minutes in big games.
Fair's length and nose for the ball have been huge assets for Syracuse on both the offensive glass and in the team's 2-3 zone.
The Maryland native isn't the biggest, fastest or strongest player on the court, but he always seems to be in the right place at the right time and his activity on both ends of the floor makes him a valuable player.
Even though Rick Jackson is certainly Syracuse's best threat on the offensive glass, Fair has made a living collecting his teammates' missed shots and he has become a master of the put-back.
His seven offensive rebounds against St. John's in just 14 minutes of play were key in Syracuse's 79-73 win over the Red Storm in the Big East tournament. Fair's ability to collect offensive rebounds and finish at the rim could allow the Orange to make another Final Four appearance.
Connecticut: Shabazz Napier
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Kemba Walker is the driving force behind an extremely dangerous Connecticut team, but plenty of young players have also stepped up to make UConn a contender.
One of those talented young players is Shabazz Napier, who has played a crucial role for the Huskies coming off the bench. Although Napier plays behind perhaps the best guard in the country, he's still managed to have a very productive season taking care of the ball for Jim Calhoun.
Because of his quickness and great ball-handling, Napier is always a threat to penetrate and he possesses the ability to break down even the toughest defenders off the dribble.
Napier is a great creator on the basketball court and whether he's setting up his teammates for easy scoring opportunities or getting himself a shot, good things seem to happen when he looks to create.
Napier has also proven to be a very pesky defender who constantly harasses his man and who is very adept at generating steals.
As a freshman, Napier has been asked to play the role of distributor and he's done a solid job of spreading the ball around and running UConn's offense.
At the same time, it's pretty clear that he can also be a dangerous scorer. Napier's performances against Notre Dame, Texas, Louisville and West Virginia showcased his ability to take over a game.
The Huskies are riding high after winning the Big East tournament, and although Napier was relatively quiet during their amazing five-game run, he has shown the skill and fearlessness to help them play deep into March.
Wisconsin: Josh Gasser
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On a veteran Wisconsin team, freshman Josh Gasser has been a pleasant surprise for Bo Ryan this season.
As most freshman do, Gasser has certainly struggled at times, including a 14-game stretch in which he failed to hit double-digit points and made his share of mistakes due to inexperience.
But as the season has progressed, Gasser's play has improved and he's become a valuable contributor for the Badgers.
Starting with the triple-double he notched against Northwestern, Gasser hit double digits in points in six out of Wisconsin's last 13 games, and he hit a game-winning three-pointer against a feisty Michigan squad in late February.
The 6'3'' guard is an above-average rebounder considering his height, and his ability to set up teammates while limiting turnovers makes him a perfect fit in Wisconsin's system. His production has spiked in all major categories since the end of January.
Of particular importance is the fact that the young guard is shooting nearly 50 percent from three since the Northwestern game. That only increases his chances of making a difference for Wisconsin in the tournament.
Gasser certainly won't outshine Jon Leuer or Jordan Taylor, but he's already shown the ability to make a clutch shot if necessary, and his all-around game could provide just the lift the Badgers need to make a deep tournament run.
Texas: Dogus Balbay
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As usual, there's plenty of talent on Rick Barnes' roster. Although Dogus Balbay doesn't get much attention, he can be a very important player for Texas.
Balbay isn't a scorer and the fact that he takes under three shots per game should tell you that he's not going to make a difference for the Longhorns by putting the ball in the basket.
But his role as the team's pass-first point guard could help the Longhorns make a deep run through the tournament.
This Turkish import has actually seen his minutes and production decrease from a year ago, but he's still an athletic playmaker who does the little things to help this team win games.
Balbay's toughness, hustle and defensive intensity are all very valuable commodities come tournament time.
Although players like Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Thompson will be hogging the spotlight, it just might be Balbay—playing lock-down defense or taking a critical charge—who could allow the Longhorns to put together a winning streak in the tournament.
Some people have said that Balbay's inability to shoot could be one of the reasons why Texas goes down early. Although his lack of scoring is certainly a weakness, what he can do for this team in other aspects of the game more than makes up for his shortcomings.
Balbay isn't a box-score stud, but the brand of basketball he plays can absolutely make the difference down the stretch in a hard-fought tournament game and allow Texas to avoid another early-round loss in March.
Louisville: Gorgui Dieng
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On a Louisville team that lost both Jared Swopshire and Rakeem Buckles to injury this season, a big man like Gorgui Dieng may be the key to a deep tournament run. Dieng has been forced to step up and help Terrence Jennings support Louisville around the basket.
It's certainly been an up-and-down season for the freshman from Senegal, but he's flashed the ability to be a dominant shot-blocker, solid rebounder and adequate finisher.
Before suffering a concussion against West Virginia in late January, Dieng cracked the starting lineup and he was beginning to play a major role for a Louisville team that was one of the biggest surprises in the Big East.
Even though he missed four games and he was demoted to the bench, Dieng is the Cardinals' leading shot-blocker (at nearly two per game) and is third on the team in rebounds.
The 6'10" Dieng is still a raw player offensively, but his impact on the glass and as a shot-blocker could be a huge boost for a talented, guard-oriented Louisville team that has its sights set on a deep tournament run.
Kentucky: Josh Harrellson
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Josh Harrellson wasn't much more than a guy who took up space during his first few seasons at Kentucky. But, as a senior, he's blossomed into one of the team's most important players around the basket.
When it comes to Harrellson, the old cliche, "you can't teach size," definitely rings true.
Standing 6'10'' and sporting a 275-pound frame, Harrellson is a load to handle under the basket. Although he's not a polished offensive weapon, he's definitely a difference-maker on the glass and as a shot-blocker.
A player like Harrellson, who is happy to do the dirty work around the basket, has been an excellent complement to players like Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb all season long.
He doesn't need the ball in his hands to make a difference on the court, but Harrellson has become a solid finisher around the basket and he is the Wildcats' best offensive rebounder.
Harrellson has also displayed a knack for playing his best against some of the toughest teams on Kentucky's schedule, posting breakout games against Washington, Louisville, Tennessee and Alabama this season.
There are plenty of very talented players on this Kentucky squad, but the Wildcats will definitely need Josh Harrellson's physical play around the basket if they're going to make another deep tournament run.