NCAA Tournament 2019: Game-Changing Stars to Watch in Every Sweet 16 Game

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistMarch 26, 2019

NCAA Tournament 2019: Game-Changing Stars to Watch in Every Sweet 16 Game

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    Sean Rayford/Associated Press

    After a whirlwind weekend of basketball, we finally have a brief moment to catch our breath. The second round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament has concluded, and Sweet 16 matchups won't begin until Thursday. 

    Late Sunday night, we learned which 16 teams would advance with a chance to cut down the nets in Minneapolis on April 8. 

    Not many surprises survived.

    All four No. 1 seeds—Duke in the East, Virginia in the South, Gonzaga in the West and North Carolina in the Midwest—will dance in the Sweet 16, as will all No. 2s (Michigan State, Tennessee, Michigan and Kentucky). 

    Each of the No. 3 seeds (LSU, Purdue, Texas Tech and Houston), a pair of No. 4s (Florida State and Virginia Tech), fifth-seeded Auburn and the surprise of the bunch, No. 12 Oregon, are also alive. Even without star center Bol Bol, the Ducks entered the tournament hot and have since knocked off the No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers in the first round (72-54) and cruised past the No. 13 UC Irvine Anteaters in the next by a nearly identical score (73-54).

    Ahead of the Sweet 16, we'll take a look at the player upon whom each team will lean to carry it into the Elite Eight and beyond, ranging from Duke's Zion Williamson to Texas Tech's Jarrett Culver. To earn consideration as a game-changer, these athletes must either lead their teams in scoring, provide stout defense or serve as the emotional centers for their squads.

South Regional: No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 12 Oregon

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    Virginia: G De'Andre Hunter

    Finally, De'Andre Hunter has the opportunity to make a difference for his team in the NCAA tournament. The talented two-way player missed the Cavaliers' spin in the Big Dance last season with a broken wrist; now, he's tearing it up with 33 points and nine rebounds on 13-of-25 shooting through the first two rounds.

    Virginia needed to replace the contributions of 2018 ACC Defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Wilkins, and head coach Tony Bennett challenged Hunter to take up the mantle this season. He's delivered. The 2019 ACC Defensive Player of the Year has been tasked with guarding some of college basketball's best weapons this year while also averaging career highs in points (15.2) and assists (2.0).

    During the postseason, Hunter's two-way play has made him the Cavaliers' game-changer. Against ninth-seeded Oklahoma, he may not have bested his scoring average (10 points on 4-of-9 shooting), but he was part of a stout defensive effort. On the whole, the Cavaliers held the Sooners to 36.5 percent shooting from the field. 

    In this year's NBA draft, Hunter should become Bennett's first-ever lottery pick out of Virginia. Until then, he helps give these Cavaliers a legitimate shot at going all the way to Minneapolis. 

         

    Oregon: G Payton Pritchard

    With center Bol Bol out for the season, Payton Pritchard took on more responsibilities and became one of the Ducks' leading scorers by averaging 13 points.

    He's also a centerpiece for the team's stout defense, which has been among the best in college basketball (No. 15 in KenPom.com's defensive efficiency). The vocal guard sets the tone and receives help from Kenny Wooten, who tied a career high with seven blocks against UC Irvine in the second round, and Ehab Amin.

    Pritchard leads Oregon players in steals per game (1.8), including two in the first-round triumph over fifth-seeded Wisconsin. He also added 19 points, nine assists and five rebounds in that game. 

    Though the team misses Bol's three-point shooting, Pritchard at least contributes easy points on free throws—his 84.8 percent is second-best on the squad. These Ducks may be stout defensively, but they need to find points wherever they can. 

    But what Pritchard brings to this team goes beyond the stat sheet. He's the only member left from a 2017 March Madness bid. He was a freshman then. Now a junior, he's become a locker room leader as Oregon continues to push its way deeper in the tournament. 

South Regional: No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 3 Purdue

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Tennessee: F Grant Williams

    Like many other players on this list, Williams is Tennessee's emotional leader.

    As the No. 10 Iowa Hawkeyes outscored the Volunteers by 21 points in the second half of Sunday's second-round matchup to force overtime, Williams and his squad could have gotten stuck deep inside their own heads. Instead, he turned the burners all the way up and put together a terrific overtime performance that left his teammates giddy. 

    Late in the second half, Williams had the game's defensive highlight with a block on Iowa's Tyler Cook. He then added two jumpers and a massive assist for a Jordan Bone three-pointer. The Hawkeyes could try to double-team Williams all they liked; he was having none of it. 

    Now, the two-time SEC Player of the Year will need to help his team keep that momentum going into its Sweet 16 matchup against No. 3 Purdue. Williams is the Vols' leader in points (18.8 per game) and rebounds (7.5 per game), and he's right up there in blocks (1.5 per game) and steals (1.2 per game).

    He can do it all, but is that enough for Tennessee to march all the way to Minneapolis?

         

    Purdue: G Carsen Edwards

    It's always good to be the team that sends the defending men's NCAA champion packing during the following year's tournament. Purdue has that distinction after defeating No. 6 Villanova 87-61 on Saturday. But becoming the player who drops an astounding 42 points against the defending champion might be even sweeter, and junior guard Carsen Edwards has that distinction. 

    That was the second time this season he's topped the 40-point mark (40 against Texas on Dec. 9). 

    Edwards is a do-it-all player for Purdue, and he's asked to do a lot in 34.9 minutes per game. As a result, his efficiency numbers haven't been great this season. For example, he scored 26 points on 23 shots against Old Dominion in the first round. 

    But that wasn't the case against Villanova, which should scare Tennessee. Edwards was scorching Saturday, and the Boilermakers go as he goes. 

West Regional: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 Florida State

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    Gonzaga: F Brandon Clarke

    Brandon Clarke isn't the biggest name on Gonzaga's squad this season. That honor goes to junior forward Rui Hachimura, who has become one of the top prospects ahead of this year's NBA draft. 

    But Hachimura struggled in the second round of the tournament, and Clarke is quickly proving himself the Bulldogs' game-changer. 

    Against Baylor, Hachimura ran into foul trouble early and ultimately scored only six points in 23 minutes. But Clarke happily took up the mantle and outproduced everyone with 36 points, eight rebounds and five blocks on 15-of-18 shooting.

    Clarke has been solid all season for the Bulldogs, leading the team with 8.4 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game. He's undoubtedly one of the best defenders in college basketball...and he also shoots 69.9 percent from the field.

    That kind of two-way play is pretty much the definition of a game-changer.

         

    Florida State: F Mfiondu Kabengele

    Florida State is riding high after sending Ja Morant and Murray State home in the second round of the tourney. And after dropping 22 points off the bench in the showdown, sophomore forward Mfiondu Kabengele is feeling pretty good, too.

    Kabengele and the rest of the team had rallied around senior Phil Cofer, whose father, Mike, passed away Thursday. Cofer sat out the second-round game, but his teammates seemed to play a little harder on his behalf. 

    Kabengele has been a rock for the Seminoles through two March Madness outings. In their game against Vermont, he racked up 21 points. As the clock ticked down, he really came alive, scoring 10 points in the final 10 minutes and besting a Vermont triple-team for a dunk with less than four minutes to go.

    Senior guard Terance Mann's play has been nothing to sneeze at this season. He's a crucial part of Florida State's hopes of advancing. But Kabengele has thrived during the postseason and dramatically exceeded his regular-season scoring average (13.1) as teams struggle to contain his 6'10", 250-pound frame. 

West Regional: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3Texas Tech

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Michigan: F Ignas Brazdeikis

    A handful of players are essential to Michigan's success this season.

    The defense runs through center Jon Teske, and junior guard Zavier Simpson is the soul of this team. But if we're talking about game-changers, the conversation must begin and end with Ignas Brazdeikis—the stellar freshman forward who averages 15.1 points.

    The Wolverines have an elite defense and rank No. 2 in Sports Reference's defensive simple rating system (DSRS). But stellar work on that end hasn't always led to titles in prior seasons; according to NCAA.com, the average DSRS ranking for national champions is 38.2, and only six fell inside the top 10 during their victorious seasons.

    Michigan needs to put points on the board, and Brazdeikis is their guy. The freshman adds 5.2 rebounds and 0.9 assists to his team-best 14.8 points per game, and his three-point percentage (40.6) ranks second on the squad. 

    During Michigan's 64-49 drubbing of Florida in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Brazdeikis was uncharacteristically quiet on the scoring front despite a big dunk to start things off. But the role he's assumed as the Wolverines' heel will serve them well as they head deeper into the tournament. 

         

    Texas Tech: G Jarrett Culver

    Texas Tech and Michigan make for an interesting matchup, simply because they're so similar. Like the Wolverines, the Red Raiders are a defensive team.

    But sophomore guard Jarrett Culver is their top offensive weapon. 

    Projected as a top-10 pick in this year's NBA draft, Culver leads his troops in points (18.8), rebounds (6.5) and assists (3.8). During this breakout season, he's had 21 games with four or more assists and always seems to set up his teammates when he's not putting points on the board himself.

    In the Red Raiders' 78-58 triumph over the Buffalo Bulls in the second round, Culver showed off with 16 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals. He has a tendency to turn the ball over (five against Buffalo) but has so few overall deficiencies in his game that might decide an upcoming battle.

    What might decide one, however, is his playmaking ability. 

East Regional: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 4 Virginia Tech

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    Duke: F Zion Williamson 

    Forget about just the Blue Devils. Zion Williamson is the biggest game-changer in all of college basketball right now. 

    This season, Williamson has averaged 22.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists while playing just 29.5 minutes per game. But the impact of a valuable player is sometimes displayed best by how the team looks without them, and the Blue Devils' 3-2 record during games in which Williamson nursed a knee injury showed that clearly—3-3 if we include the loss to North Carolina that saw him blow out his shoe and suffer the aforementioned injury in the opening moments. 

    But Williamson and Co. got a scare Sunday night as No. 9 UCF mounted an admirable upset bid in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

    Duke hung on to win 77-76 as Williamson squared off against Tacko Fall. Though the latter was able to limit him in the paint, the Duke superstar still put up 32 points, 11 rebounds and four assists on 50 percent shooting. Teammate R.J. Barrett was also instrumental in the narrow victory, but it's clear Williamson's efforts are necessary if Duke wants to cut down the nets in the championship game.

         

    Virginia Tech: G Justin Robinson

    Hokies sophomore guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker did a phenomenal job taking on more responsibility as senior guard Justin Robinson sat out 12 games with a foot injury. But the latter's triumphant return in a first-round matchup against No. 13 Saint Louis was clearly a beacon around which his teammates could rally.

    During Virginia Tech's second-round win over No. 12 Liberty, Robinson really started to find his footing. Though his stat line in his first game back didn't jump off the page (nine points, three rebounds, two assists, four turnovers), he shined Sunday. In the 67-58 victory, he had 13 points, four assists and two rebounds. 

    Teammate Kerry Blackshear Jr. called Robinson the Hokies' "engine for the past four years," per Michael Phillips of the Richmond Times-Dispatch

East Regional: No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 3 LSU

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    Michigan State: G Cassius Winston

    If a game-changer is a player who can do whatever his team requires and constantly finds another level, then that's exactly what Cassius Winston has become for head coach Tom Izzo's Michigan State squad. 

    Winston has built himself a reputation as a premier facilitator over the last two seasons. But his scoring has skyrocketed during his junior year, rising from 6.7 in 2016-17 to 12.6 last season to 18.9 in 2018-19. 

    But the guard does more than put points on the scoreboard. He's a gutsy player whose teammates trust him to set the tone each game. And so when the Spartans' lead over the Minnesota Golden Gophers began to slip midway through the closing half of Saturday's second-round matchup, Winston didn't have a problem. He dropped seven points in the blink of an eye—not to mention a defensive rebound and a steal—and helped seal Sparty's 70-50 victory. 

    Now he'll get to play in his first Sweet 16. Senior Kenny Goins will provide veteran leadership, but Winston will have LSU desperately game-planning to stop him. 

    LSU: G Tremont Waters

    If LSU wants to match Michigan State (No. 5 in KenPom's offensive efficiency) blow for blow on offense, it will look to sophomore guard Tremont Waters in the big moments.

    Waters' final-seconds layup clinched LSU's two-point victory over Maryland in the second round, even if the discussion has seemed to center around whether he traveled on the clutch play. But no matter. The Tigers are headed to the Sweet 16, and advancement wasn't guaranteed before his controversial heroics.

    They blew a 15-point lead and traded the lead back and forth with the Terrapins. But they've grown to count on Waters for buzzer-beater magic. After all, he does this kind of thing pretty frequently

    Waters had 12 points, two rebounds, five assists and two steals against Maryland. 

Midwest Regional: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 5 Auburn

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    North Carolina: F Nassir Little

    Nassir Little's play has been mercurial for the Tar Heels this season. The freshman forward averaged a pedestrian 9.5 points on 46.9 percent shooting during the regular season, but he's figuring it out at the right time. 

    In two NCAA tournament games, Little has totaled 39 points—19 against Iona followed by a team-high 20 in UNC's second-round victory over Washington. He's also been working to add a reliable outside shot and sparked celebration when he drilled one against the Huskies right in front of the Tar Heels bench.

    His ability to put the pieces together makes Little the game-changer for North Carolina.

    The team has no shortage of talent, ranging from Luke Maye to guards Cameron Johnson and Coby White. But those are the players for whom opponents have game-planned all season. Little's emergence in the tournament throws another wrench in Auburn's plans.

          

    Auburn: G Bryce Brown

    Many game-changers featured in this article have kicked their games into high gear and stepped up to lead their squads in front of national audiences just in time for the Big Dance. Auburn's Bryce Brown qualifies.

    "I didn't see myself being in the spotlight that I am in now," the senior guard said, per Jake Weese of the Auburn Plainsman. "Just like the rest of my teammates, this isn't what we predicted coming out of high school."

    The spotlight is bright.

    Brown's 25 points on 7-for-11 shooting from downtown helped lead the Tigers past the Kansas Jayhawks. What's more, he set the Auburn standard for three-pointers in an NCAA tournament game. His nine through the first two rounds give him another team record, per Weese.

    Contributors who start playing their best ball in the tourney pose a unique challenge. How do you defend against such an unpredictable opponent? The Tar Heels will now have to deal with the game-changer that is Brown's stellar ability from beyond the arc. 

Midwest Regional: No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 3 Houston

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Kentucky: G Tyler Herro

    Tyler Herro wasn't supposed to be Kentucky's game-changer heading into the Sweet 16. That honor was meant to belong to sophomore forward PJ Washington, who has missed the early action with a sprained foot. 

    But Herro will play whatever role his Wildcats need as they look to contend for this season's championship. In the first two rounds, that role has included shutting down key operatives for the opposition. Against Herro and the Wildcats, Wofford Terriers star Fletcher Magee—one of college basketball's premier outside shooters—didn't stand a chance and missed all 12 of his attempts from beyond the arc. 

    Herro was named the AP SEC Newcomer of the Year this season, so his emergence in the tournament isn't a total surprise. He's also climbing NBA draft boards and now falls just outside the lottery in Jonathan Wasserman's most recent mock draft for Bleacher Report. 

           

    Houston: G Corey Davis Jr. 

    Like a few other players featured in this article, Houston guard Corey Davis Jr. has set some new marks during early tournament action. He made seven threes against Georgia State in the opening round, which broke a school tourney record.

    Davis Jr. helped the Cougars dismiss the Panthers with 26 points, seven rebounds and six assists.

    Houston is also positioned to foster his tournament breakout because it experiences immense success in the paint—a 40-20 advantage over Georgia State, for example. That first-round advantage allowed the guard to do his thing and complement the play of teammates such as Fabian White Jr. (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Breaon Brady (13 points, eight rebounds).

    While Houston has plenty of talent on its squad, the player with a 38.1 three-point percentage on eight attempts per game can blow contests wide open for his squad.