Ranking the Top 10 Players to Watch in the 2017 Final Four

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2017

Ranking the Top 10 Players to Watch in the 2017 Final Four

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    The four teams remaining in the hunt for college basketball's national title got there by making the most of what they had at their disposal. That includes some of the best players in the country, which means the Final Four will make for a great display of both team performances and individual efforts.

    While Gonzaga, Oregon and South Carolina aren't considered "blue bloods" like fellow Final Four qualifier North Carolina, they aren't lacking in star power. That trio touts seven of the 10 best players in action Saturday, so it's possible some of them will be cutting down a net Monday night.

    One thing you won't see among the best players at the Final Four are freshmen, particularly those expected to be in the NBA in a few months. None of the 17 one-and-done prospects DraftExpress projects to be drafted in June are still active.

    The following 10 players are ranked based on talent, statistical production and importance to their respective teams.

10. PJ Dozier, South Carolina

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    What he's done: PJ Dozier's breakout sophomore campaign has extended into the postseason, as the 6'6" guard has averaged 15.3 points per game on 53.1 percent shooting during March Madness. He came into the NCAA tourney scoring 13.6 points per game and making 39.1 percent of his field-goal attempts.

    Why he's here: South Carolina's run to the Final Four, at least on the offensive end, has been mostly a one-man show from senior Sindarius Thornwell. Dozier has been the closest thing to a sidekick to Thornwell, and that extends to his play on defense, notching six of the Gamecocks' 30 steals in the tourney.

    What to expect: Gonzaga will likely focus on keeping Thornwell from erupting on offense, which puts extra pressure on Dozier and others to shoulder more responsibility. He was 7-of-11 from the field against Florida in the Elite Eight, so he's plenty capable of taking on a larger role.

9. Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina

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    What he's done: North Carolina's season-long rebounding dominance is due in large part to Kennedy Meeks, a 6'10" senior forward who has averaged 9.3 rebounds per game in just 24.2 minutes of action. He's also scoring 12.3 points per game on 54.2 percent shooting.

    Why he's here: Meeks had 17 rebounds in the Elite Eight win over Kentucky, including five offensive boards. In the comeback victory against Arkansas in the second round, seven of his 11 boards were on his team's misses. In the NCAA tourney, he's averaging 10.3 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks.

    What to expect: UNC has an abundance of scoring options, so Meeks' main responsibilities against Oregon will be to protect the rim and clean up the glass. That will be a tall task against Oregon's Jordan Bell, who has a similar role for the Ducks, but Meeks is coming off an Elite Eight performance in which he outplayed Kentucky big man Bam Adebayo. 

8. Johnathan Williams, Gonzaga

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    What he's done: A 6'9" junior forward who sat out the 2015-16 season after playing two years at Missouri, Williams had a solid regular season. But since the NCAA tournament began, he's become a different player. He had 14 rebounds in the first-round win over South Dakota State and averaged 16 points and seven boards in wins over West Virginia and Xavier. 

    Why he's here: Williams is the man who bridges Gonzaga's offense and defense together, which he's shown in the tourney. He's averaging 11.5 points on 55.9 percent shooting, 7.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.

    What to expect: The semifinal matchup with South Carolina figures to be a gritty, low-scoring affair in which defense stands out most. Williams' 84.8 defensive rating is the best of Gonzaga's starters, so he could be the Bulldogs' X-factor against the Gamecocks.

7. Joel Berry, North Carolina

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    Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

    What he's done: Despite a nagging right ankle injury which he suffered during the first-round NCAA tournament win over Texas Southern, Joel Berry hasn't played like someone with only one good leg. He's averaging 15.7 points in the past three games, just above his season average of 14.6, which helped the Tar Heels get back to the Final Four after last year's heartbreaking loss to Villanova in the championship game.  

    Why he's here: The ankle problem has affected the junior point guard's shooting, which is down to 32.6 percent overall and 23.1 percent on three-pointers throughout the tourney, but his ability to drive and get to the rim remains intact. Berry has taken 20 free throws in the past three contests, shooting 70 percent at the line, and he's 9-of-13 on twos in the past two games.

    What to expect: UNC head coach Roy Williams is "scared to death" over Berry's health, per Yahoo Sports' Henry Bushnell, but nothing short of amputation will get in the point guard's way. If Berry can't shoot well, look for him to contribute in other ways, such as through his 3.6 assists or 1.4 steals per game.

6. Dillon Brooks, Oregon

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    What he's done: By overall standards, Dillon Brooks has enjoyed a strong NCAA tournament thus far. He's averaging 16.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, numbers similar to what he put up while helping Oregon win the Pac-12 regular-season title. His shooting numbers are down, though, as he's shooting 40.3 percent overall in the tourney compared to 51.3 percent prior to March Madness.

    Why he's here: Teammate Tyler Dorsey's tremendous play in the postseason has temporarily moved Brooks to second fiddle on the Ducks' pecking order. Though his talent is such that he could be featured much higher here, he's been less assertive during the tourney. Dorsey failed to get to the foul line in both the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight after taking 37 free throws across the previous eight games.

    What to expect: The junior wing could rediscover his flair for the dramatic during the Final Four if the situation presents itself. If Oregon needs one big shot down the stretch, there's little doubt Brooks will want to take it, much like he did to beat UCLA and California during the regular season.

5. Jordan Bell, Oregon

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    What he's done: Jordan Bell was Oregon's leading rebounder during the regular season. He's been even more dominant in the NCAA tournament, particularly on the offensive glass. The junior big man is averaging 12.5 points and 12.5 rebounds in the tourney, having pulled down 24 of the Ducks' 39 offensive boards. Bell is also responsible for 11 of their 15 blocks, including eight in the Elite Eight win over Kansas.

    Why he's here: The loss of "Swatterboy" Chris Boucher to a knee injury in the Pac-12 tournament hasn't affected Oregon's interior defense too much because of Bell, whose 8.4 percent block rate is the best of any player in the tourney. His ability to chase down his team's misses makes for few empty possessions.

    What to expect: North Carolina's big men will be a major challenge for Bell, but he's up to the task. If he gets his hands on an offensive rebound, he can go right back up and score, as evidenced by his 73.3 percent shooting (22-of-30) in the tourney. 

4. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    What he's done: On a team led by transfers from other power conference programs, Nigel Williams-Goss has been the most effective of the lot. The ex-Washington guard is Gonzaga's leading scorer (16.7 points per game) and assist man (4.6), and his average of 1.8 steals per game is also tops on the team. His 88.2 percent free-throw rate is best of any player left in the NCAA tournament.  

    Why he's here: The 6'3" junior is averaging 15.5 points per game in the tourney, with a pair of 20-point efforts against Northwestern and Xavier. His shooting efficiency is down, but he has improved his numbers elsewhere, such as 7.5 rebounds per game along with 14 assists (against just nine turnovers) and eight steals in the four tourney contests.

    What to expect: Williams-Goss is taking more than 15 shots per game in the NCAA tournament, and he isn't going to see his season end without a fight. The 19 field-goal attempts he had in the Elite Eight tied his most since his sophomore season at Washington, but don't be surprised if he tops that number against South Carolina if given the chance.  

3. Justin Jackson, North Carolina

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    What he's done: A former top-10 recruit whose first two seasons were relatively average, Justin Jackson finally lived up to his potential as a junior. The 6'8" forward leads North Carolina in scoring (18.2 points per game) and three-pointers (101), both of which are massive increases from 2015-16. After shooting just 29.7 percent from deep over his first two seasons, he's converting at a 38.0 percent rate this year. 

    Why he's here: Jackson is averaging 19.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game during the NCAA tournament, although his efforts outside of scoring are the real eye-catcher. He's dished out four or more assists in three tourney outings after doing so only 10 times prior to March Madness, which has forced opponents to reassess how to guard him. 

    What to expect: Jackson's 564 field-goal attempts this season are 138 more than any other player left in the tournament field, so he's going to get his shot off. His shot selection has improved as the year has progressed, so look for him to remain discerning when deciding whether to hoist it or dish it. 

2. Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina

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    Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

    What he's done: Reigning SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell hasn't buckled under the pressure of his first NCAA tournament. If anything, it's caused him to flourish. He's averaging a tourney-best 25.8 points along with 7.5 rebounds, 2.8 triples, 2.5 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.0 blocks per game, accounting for more than 31 percent of the Gamecocks' scoring.

    Why he's here: South Carolina's defense has been its best overall asset in the tournament. But without Thornwell's scoring, that wouldn't be enough. Three of the Gamecocks' best shooting performances of the season have come in the NCAA tourney, with Thornwell shooting 50 percent from the field after coming in with a pedestrian 44 percent rate.

    What to expect: Considering how wobbly South Carolina looked late in the regular season, the Gamecocks' first Final Four appearance is already the stuff of legend. After carrying them this far, Thornwell is not going to stop now, regardless of how strong Gonzaga's defense is.

1. Tyler Dorsey, Oregon

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    What he's done: Tyler Dorsey has enjoyed two strong seasons at Oregon. But when the calendar flips to March, he becomes an entirely different player—one who has proved unstoppable this season. The 6'4" sophomore guard is averaging 24.5 points per game on 66.7 percent shooting in the NCAA tournament, and he's made 17-of-26 three-pointers.  

    Why he's here: While junior Dillon Brooks was the Ducks' regular-season hero, having hit a pair of game-winning shots to beat UCLA and California, Dorsey has taken over as the go-to player during the postseason. This has been the case over each of the past two years, as his March scoring average (17.9) in 17 career games is more than three points better than in any other month.

    What to expect: Look for North Carolina to swarm Dorsey on the perimeter and make him drive rather than pull up. But since he's shooting 68 percent inside the three-point line in the NCAA tourney, he's fine with looking elsewhere. The Ducks won't be out of it as long as Dorsey's shot keeps falling.


    All statistics courtesy of Sports Reference unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information courtesy of Scout unless otherwise noted.