Ranking the Top 10 Players to Watch in the 2019 Final Four
The 2019 men's basketball Final Four is upon us.
One of Auburn, Michigan State, Texas Tech or Virginia will be the NCAA tournament champion this season.
Before the festivities kick into gear, we've highlighted the top 10 players to watch in this year's Final Four based on season-long performance, NCAA tournament performance and overall importance to their team.
Let's get right to it.
10. Matt McQuaid, Michigan State
Matt McQuaid was a lanky 6'5", 175-pound three-point specialist when he first stepped onto campus at Michigan State.
Four years later, he's added 25 pounds of muscle. While he's still a lethal deep threat with 70 made threes at a 42.2 percent clip, he also earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Defensive Team.
McQuaid is averaging only 8.5 points per game during the NCAA tournament, but he'll be as important as anyone to his team's success as the Spartans look to advance past a tough Texas Tech squad.
Honorable Mentions: Mamadi Diakite (Virginia), Matt Mooney (Texas Tech), Davide Moretti (Texas Tech).
9. Tariq Owens, Texas Tech
Jarrett Culver (18.9 PPG), Davide Moretti (11.6 PPG) and Matt Mooney (11.0 PPG) are all more prolific scorers for Texas Tech than Tariq Owens, who averages a modest 8.9 points per game.
However, his impact stretches beyond his offensive contributions.
The 6'10" senior leads the Big 12 and ranks seventh in the nation with 88 blocks. He's accumulated 10 of those blocks during the NCAA tournament, and his swat of Rui Hachimura's three-point attempt late in the Red Raiders win over Gonzaga in the Elite Eight stands as one of the highlights of the tournament.
Owens will be a crucial factor in slowing down Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston.
8. Xavier Tillman, Michigan State
Xavier Tillman has improved his stock as much as anyone in the nation as the season has progressed.
The stats tell the story:
- Nonconference: 24.3 MPG, 9.1 PPG, 7.0 RPG
- Big Ten Conference: 24.3 MPG, 10.4 PPG, 6.5 RPG
- Big Ten Tournament: 25.0 MPG, 11.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG
- NCAA Tournament: 28.3 MPG, 15.3 PPG, 8.5 RPG
The 6'8" sophomore has stepped into a bigger role since Nick Ward has been forced to the bench with a hand injury, and he matched a season-high with 19 points against Duke in the Elite Eight.
On top of his offensive contributions, he'll also be tasked with helping to slow down Big 12 Player of the Year Jarrett Culver in the Final Four.
7. Bryce Brown, Auburn
Bryce Brown will need to have a big game on offense for Auburn to get past Virginia.
The 6'3" senior leads the Tigers in scoring at 16.0 points per game, and he's knocked down an impressive 137 threes at a 41.0 percent clip for a team that relies heavily on the three ball.
He's averaging 18.3 points during the NCAA tournament, including a 25-point outburst against Kansas where he buried seven threes and a 24-point game on 8-of-12 shooting in the Elite Eight against Kentucky.
The Tigers are 4-3 (.571) on the year in games where he's been held to single digits, compared to 26-6 (.813) when he logs double figures.
6. Jared Harper, Auburn
Bryce Brown might be Auburn's leading scorer, but point guard Jared Harper is its most important player.
The 5'11" junior is averaging 15.4 points while shooting 37.1 percent from beyond the arc, and he's also dishing out 5.8 assists per game against only 2.4 turnovers.
Harper tested the NBA draft waters last summer before returning to school, and there's a good chance he'll make the leap this time around.
He's undersized, but his abilities as a scorer and distributor could land him a role as a backup point guard capable of providing an offensive spark off the bench.
His faceoff with Virginia's Ty Jerome will be one of the best head-to-head matchups of the Final Four.
5. Kyle Guy, Virginia
When Kyle Guy is dialed in, he's as dangerous as any shooter in the nation.
The junior guard is Virginia's leading scorer at 15.2 points per game, and he's connected on 114 threes at a scorching 42.7 percent rate.
The basket has looked a little smaller in the NCAA tournament, though.
Guy shot only 3-of-26 from long range through the Cavaliers' first three games before going 5-of-12 from deep and scoring 25 points against Purdue in the Elite Eight.
Guy is the kind of player who will try to shoot his way out of a slump, so Virginia will need him to be sharp in the Final Four to advance to the title game.
4. Ty Jerome, Virginia
While De'Andre Hunter and Kyle Guy generate more national attention, Ty Jerome might be the biggest X-factor for Virginia.
Aside from averaging 13.3 points per game and shooting 39.9 percent from beyond the arc, he also dishes out 5.4 assists per game and averages 1.6 steals.
Jerome's ability to facilitate the offense and take care of the basketball makes him an integral piece of the puzzle for the Cavaliers. His 3.24 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks sixth in the nation and is tops among players still standing in the tournament.
A strong finish to the NCAA tournament could also solidify his standing as a late first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft.
3. De'Andre Hunter, Virginia
After redshirting his first season at Virginia, De'Andre Hunter came off the bench last season and averaged 9.2 points per game in 19.9 minutes of action.
What a difference a year makes.
After coming on strong down the stretch last year, Hunter stepped into a starring role for the Cavaliers this season, averaging 14.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists. If not for the slow tempo Virginia plays at, those numbers might be even more impressive, as one opposing coach told Sam Vecenie of The Athletic:
"He can score it, he can shoot it, I think the biggest thing for him is composure. He has a great pace. That's a credit to him, but also to Tony [Bennett] who has taught him how to be more patient and in a structure.
"One of those guys where if he was playing at Duke or somewhere else that allows someone to have more freedom, he'd probably be averaging 25 a game somewhere. His ability to get it off the bounce, to read screens, all the fundamental stuff."
He'll be the best player on the floor in the Virginia vs. Auburn matchup.
2. Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech
Jarrett Culver has the most upside of any player remaining in the NCAA tournament from an NBA standpoint, and he could be a top-three pick in the 2019 draft.
He won't be the best college basketball player on the floor in Minneapolis this weekend, though. More on that momentarily.
Culver has been fantastic all season, but he's taken his game to another level of late. In Texas Tech's last 12 games, he's averaging 21.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.2 steals while shooting 44.0 percent from the floor. The Red Raiders have gone 11-1 during that stretch.
The Spartans will have their hands full trying to guard Culver, and he's equally disruptive on defense thanks to his length and athleticism.
1. Cassius Winston, Michigan State
Jarrett Culver may have the brightest NBA future, but Cassius Winston is the best player in this year's Final Four.
The Associated Press first-team All-American is averaging 18.9 points and 7.6 assists on the year while shooting 40.4 percent from beyond the arc.
He's performed right at that pace during the NCAA tournament with 19.0 points and 7.8 assists per game, and he's fresh off his seventh double-double of the season with 20 points and 10 assists in Michigan State's upset win over Duke in the Elite Eight.
It remains to be seen whether Winston will generate NBA buzz after this run. As a result, there's a good chance he'll return for his senior season as a result.
Regardless of what the future holds, one thing is certain: No player means more to his team's chances of winning an NCAA title in 2019 than Cassius Winston.
All stats courtesy of Sports Reference unless otherwise noted.