Ranking the Top 20 Players in the Sweet 16

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterMarch 20, 2018

Ranking the Top 20 Players in the Sweet 16

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    The left side of the bracket is a mess, and in the wreckage we've lost some of college basketball's biggest stars. (Bye-bye Deandre Ayton, Trevon Bluiett and Trae Young.)

    But there's still plenty of star power left in the bracket, even on the left side, which placed eight players on this top 20 list.

    To compile this list, season-long production was the No. 1 factor, but how these stars have played lately influenced the rankings more so than the pre-tournament list. The biggest climber this past weekend was Kentucky freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And even though 52 teams have been eliminated, it's still not easy to just pick 20 players.

    Apologies to Florida State's Terance Mann, Loyola-Chicago's Clayton Custer, KU's Malik Newman and Svi Mykhailiuk, Texas Tech's Zhaire Smith, Clemson's entire backcourt, Gonzaga's frontcourt and West Virginia shot-blocking machine Sagaba Konate. I could have easily justified including any of those guys, but they didn't make the cut.

20-16: Brown-Williams

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    20. Barry Brown, Kansas State: In a league full of dynamite guards, Brown got slightly overlooked, but he's been a star all season on both ends of the floor. He had 18 points in both K-State's first two tourney wins. His defense could be important in the Sweet 16, especially if he gets tasked with guarding Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.


    19. Kevin Knox, Kentucky: When he's rolling, Knox is one of the toughest covers in college basketball because of his ability to shoot off the bounce at 6'9". When he scores 20 or more points this season, Kentucky is 8-2.


    18. Grayson Allen, Duke: Allen has never quite lived up to expectations after his breakout sophomore season, but he's still one of the most feared scorers in the country. When he's cooking from distance, he's tough to stop because of his ability to slash as well. He's also a good fit in Duke's zone defense because it hides some of his weaknesses and allows him to anticipate where passes are going and rack up steals.


    17. Tyus Battle, Syracuse: Battle is not an efficient scorer—he averages 19.3 points on 39.8 percent shooting—and that's partly because Syracuse asks him to take a lot of tough shots. But if you need a bucket and simply want to run an isolation play, Battle is one of the best options in college basketball.


    16. Robert Williams, Texas A&M: We're getting to see why NBA scouts love Robert Williams. Even when he's not scoring, his length (6'10") and athleticism have a huge influence on the game. In two NCAA tourney games, he's grabbed 27 rebounds and had four blocks, and he's changed a lot of shots at the basket. Williams also has a decent mid-range jumper, and if he gets the ball at the rim, he's finishing with authority.

15-11: Davis-Wade

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    15. Tyler Davis, Texas A&M: The ground-bound 6'10" big man gets it done differently than his frontcourt mate. Davis is all about footwork in the low post as a back-to-the-basket scorer. He's averaging 16 points and 12 rebounds in the tournament.


    14. Udoka Azubuike, Kansas: To give you an understanding of the value of Azubuike for Kansas, take a look at his plus-minus stats. Kansas was plus-21 in Azubuike's 22 minutes against Seton Hall. During Big 12 games this year, the Jayhawks were plus-14.5 points per 100 possessions with Azubuike on the floor and minus-11.0 per 100 possessions without him, according to HoopLens.com data. The 7-footer leads the nation in field-goal percentage (77.5 percent) and is irreplaceable on both ends for the Jayhawks.


    13. Vincent Edwards, Purdue: Edwards is a matchup problem as a small-ball power forward at 6'8". He's a solid three-point shooter (40.5 percent) and can also score off the bounce. He's been at his best in the NCAA tournament the last two years, scoring 20 or more points in three of five games.


    12. Mortiz Wagner, Michigan: Wagner is the perfect weapon in the middle of John Beilein's two-guard offense because of his ability to pick-and-pop. Wagner, who is 6'11", shoots 40.3 percent from the three-point line and is one of the best shooting big men in the country. That could be a problem for Texas A&M, especially if the Aggies decide to guard Wagner with Tyler Davis. Wagner hasn't played his best so far in the tournament, but I'd expect that will change in the Sweet 16.


    11. Dean Wade, Kansas State: Wade sat out the first two games of the tournament with a foot injury, and it's surprising K-State is still alive without the All-Big 12 First Team forward. Wade can score from all three levels and with his back to the basket or facing up. He's efficient, averaging 16.5 points on 44.0 percent three-point shooting and 58.8 percent inside the arc. Wade told the Wichita Eagle he's "98 percent sure" he'll play against Kentucky.

10. Caleb Martin, Nevada

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    What he’s done 

    Martin played a great all-around game in the first-round win against Texas, filling the box score with 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Martin has not been quite as effective late in the year because of a foot injury, but luckily for the Wolf Pack, his brother has picked up the slack in the tournament. For the season, Martin has put up great numbers, averaging 18.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists.


    Why he’s here 

    As a 6’7” guard who can shoot the three (40.1 percent), Martin is a matchup problem. Nevada doesn’t have great size up front but makes up for it with its positional size on the perimeter.


    What to expect 

    For the second straight game, Nevada is going to face a great defensive team that will try to slow the pace. Martin and the Wolf Pack could be in trouble if they build themselves a huge deficit again, because Loyola-Chicago is a great execution team offensively and is not likely to get induced into a track meet.

9. Wendell Carter Jr., Duke

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    What he's done 

    Carter is averaging close to a double-double (13.6 points and 9.2 rebounds) along with 2.1 blocks per game. He's averaging just 11 points in the tournament, but he's been efficient, making 10 of 13 twos and knocking down both his free-throw attempts. For the season, he's making 44.2 percent of his threes and 59.0 percent of his twos.


    Why he's here 

    Carter has taken a backseat to Marvin Bagley III, but he would likely be the All-American candidate for the Blue Devils if Bagley wasn't around. He's that talented. He's one of the toughest covers in the country on the blocks, and he's also improved his face-up game this year. Defensively, he was a weak link for the Blue Devils earlier this year, but he's been effective as a shot-blocker in the middle of the zone.


    What to expect 

    Carter had 16 points, 10 rebounds and four assists against Syracuse earlier this year, and he'll be an important part of Duke's attack as a facilitator in the middle of the zone. He could also play a big role in the Elite Eight if Duke faces Kansas. When Udoka Azubuike is off the floor, the Jayhawks will likely struggle to guard Carter, similar to what happened in the second round against Seton Hall's Angel Delgado. Carter could also have an advantage against Azubuike with his ability to float to the perimeter. Look for him to be a go-to guy that night if both teams make it out of the Sweet 16.

8. Carsen Edwards, Purdue

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    What he's done 

    Edwards has been an All-American-caliber guard this season as the go-to guy for the Boilermakers. He's averaging 18.2 points and 2.9 assists, but he's been in a bit of slump, making just six of his last 21 threes over the last three games. From the field, he's gone just 8-of-29 shots in the NCAA tournament.


    Why he's here

    Even though he's slumping, Edwards always seems to have confidence in himself, and he should because of his abilities. He's the one guy for the Boilermakers who can get his own shot whenever he wants. You have to respect his jumper, and then if you crowd him too much, the 6'1" guard will slash to the rim, where he's one of the best little-man dunkers in the game.


    What to expect

    Texas Tech is not a great opponent to face when in the middle of a slump. The Red Raiders have an army of perimeter defenders they can throw at Edwards. His matchup with Tech star Keenan Evans will be a huge one. Both teams need their stars to score.

7. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kentucky

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    What he's done 

    Gilgeous-Alexander has taken his game to another level in the conference and NCAA tournaments. In five postseason games, he's averaging 21.8 points, 6.6 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game while shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc and 58.8 percent inside it.


    Why he's here 

    One of the knocks on Kentucky this year was John Calipari didn't have his usual lottery pick point guard who could carve up a defense off the dribble. Well, that's no longer the case. Gilgeous-Alexander is likely lottery-bound with the way he's developed. At 6'6" with quickness and length, he's a two-way weapon that is moving up draft boards. One could argue he's playing better than anyone in college basketball right now.


    What to expect

    If Gilgeous-Alexander keeps playing like this, expect Kentucky to reach the Final Four. He will have his toughest challenge of the tourney so far in Kansas State. The Wildcats have a few talented defenders they could throw at him, including Cartier Diarra (likely to get the first crack), Barry Brown and Xavier Sneed.

6. Keenan Evans, Texas Tech

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    What he's done 

    Evans has made big shot after big shot this season, and he was at it again on Saturday against Florida, knocking down a late three-pointer that gave Tech the lead for good. He was slowed by a late-season toe injury, but he looks to be back to his old self in the tournament, averaging 22.5 points per game thus far.


    Why he's here 

    Evans is another strong two-way guard. He's not a great outside shooter, but he seems to make them when it counts. His biggest strength is slashing. He's tough to stay in front, and then he does a good job of contorting his body to avoid charges and finish at the rim. He's also a savvy cutter in Tech's motion offense.


    What to expect

    The matchup between Purdue's Carsen Edwards and Evans will be one of the best of the Sweet 16. If Edwards ends up guarding Evans, look for the 6'3" Texas Tech senior to try to wear him down with his movement off the ball.

5. Jevon Carter, West Virginia

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    What he's done

    Carter has been a rock for four years at West Virginia, and he's ending his career with a bang. For the season, he's put up great numbers, averaging 17.4 points, 6.6 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 3.0 steals. For the tournament, he's been a stud, averaging 24.5 points, 6.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 5.5 steals per game.


    Why he's here

    Carter is the best defensive guard in the country, and he can also get buckets. With his pressuring ability and quick hands, he's a point guard's nightmare.


    What to expect 

    Carter looks to be on a mission after his shooting struggles in last year's Sweet 16 loss to Gonzaga, when he went 6-of-17 from the field. He's likely to keep gunning this week, but it will be his defense that could propel his team into the Elite Eight. His assignment on Friday is All-American and potential Wooden Award winner Jalen Brunson.

4. Devonte' Graham, Kansas

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    What he's done

    Graham helped the Jayhawks avoid making history before Virginia by carrying his teammates against Penn until they loosened up and cruised past the Quakers. Graham had 29 points and six assists in the opening round and then followed that up with possibly his worst game of the season against Seton Hall.


    Why he's here

    The senior point guard is a terrific leader—so good, in fact, that Bill Self rarely takes him off the floor. He's in the conversation for the Wooden Award, averaging 17.4 points, 7.5 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game.


    What to expect

    Graham faces one of the best defensive teams left in the tournament in Clemson. The Tigers just held Auburn point guard Jared Harper to five points on 2-of-12 shooting and just one assist. Kansas needs Graham to play better to keep advancing. In the Elite Eight, Kansas would face a zone defense whether it's Syracuse or Duke.

    KU played two zone teams this year (Syracuse and Washington). Against the Orange, Graham had 35 points and KU won. Against Washington, Graham had three points and KU lost. Great Graham could mean a Final Four for KU; mediocre Graham could mean KU goes home.

3. Mikal Bridges, Villanova

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    What he's done 

    Bridges got hot in the second half against Alabama and showed why he's expected to be a lottery pick. He scored 23 points against the Crimson Tide and nailed 5-of-8 threes. For the tourney, he's 8-of-14 from deep, bumping his three-point percentage up to 44.2 this season.


    Why he's here

    Bridges is the best two-way wing in college basketball. He's a great defender, and his improved jump shot has made him a reliable scorer for the Wildcats. He averages 18.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.6 steals per game.


    What to expect

    The Wildcats may end up playing a bit faster than they usually do in the Sweet 16 because of West Virginia's press. The player best suited to play an uptempo game for Nova is Bridges. West Virginia also doesn't have a player who matches up well with him. Look for Bridges to have a big night.

2. Jalen Brunson, Villanova

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    What he's done 

    Brunson has just been solid in the tourney, averaging 14 points and four assists per game thus far. He picks his spots when to take over and hasn't needed to yet.


    Why he's here 

    Brunson's season-long numbers (19.1 PPG, 4.7 APG, 53.5 FG%, 42.0 3P% and 80.3 FT%) show his value. He controls the pace for the Wildcats, and when he wants to score, he can pretty much get where he wants to go on the floor even though he doesn't have tremendous quickness. He's just strong and crafty like an old man playing with kids.


    What to expect

    A war against West Virginia's Jevon Carter. Those are two bad dudes who are not scared of anyone. For me, that's the best game of the Sweet 16. Hopefully, it'll be close down the stretch and we'll get to watch Carter and Brunson trading shot for shot.

1. Marvin Bagley III, Duke

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    What he's done

    Bagley is giving NBA folks confirmation that he belongs near the top of the draft in June. He's just been too big and too athletic for Duke's first two tourney opponents, scoring 22 points in both games and shooting 75 percent from the field.


    Why he's here 

    It's pretty much a given every night that Bagley will rack up a double-double and no one on the floor will be equipped to guard him. He averages 21.2 points and 11.3 rebounds per game, which is the most impressive statistical season ever at Duke. Ever. That's saying something.


    What to expect 

    More domination. Bagley scored 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting on Feb. 24 in a comfortable 60-44 win over Syracuse. Neither Kansas nor Clemson has a player who matches up well with Bagley. He's going to get his numbers and make Duke a tough out.