CBB's Biggest Star Sidekicks Who Will Make or Break March Madness Runs

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 4, 2021

CBB's Biggest Star Sidekicks Who Will Make or Break March Madness Runs

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The best players in any sport draw the most attention. Obvious, right? But the disparity between stars and key teammates is even greater in men's college basketball, where praise is scattered among the best players on 350-plus teams.

    No matter how hard you try, some excellent non-star players will be left out of the national spotlight.

    In 2020-21, some of the biggest names are Luka Garza, Ayo Dosunmu and Cade Cunningham. But none of them can win a championship alone. Even when Connecticut rode Kemba Walker to the 2010-11 national title, Jeremy Lamb averaged 16.2 points in the NCAA tournament.

    There isn't a better time than March Madness for complementary pieces to excel. Although the headlines still may feature Garza, Dosunmu and the others, the further a team advances, the more likely a secondary option is thriving, too.

R.J. Cole, Connecticut

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    James Bouknight is one of the nation's most electric scorers, putting up 20.5 points per game for the bubble-dwelling Huskies.

    They could be dangerous if Bouknight and R.J. Cole catch fire together. Cole, who earned MEAC Player of the Year honors in 2018-19, averaged 22.5 points and 6.2 assists in two seasons at Howard, but he's finally settling into a complementary role.

    During the first six games, Cole averaged 9.7 points on 31.5 percent shooting. Bouknight missed eight games, pushing Cole into a lead role where he averaged 14.0 points. And in five games since Bouknight's return, Cole has held at 15.0 per night.

    If he can sustain that production through the Big East tournament, UConn would be a strong upset candidate in March Madness.

Avery Anderson III, Oklahoma State

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    Garett Fisbeck/Associated Press

    The undisputed star at Oklahoma State is Cade Cunningham, the front-runner for No. 1 pick of the 2021 NBA draft. He's averaging 19.5 points and recently dropped a career-high 40 on Oklahoma.

    Cunningham has the ability to carry the Cowboys far into the tournament. To make a deep run, though, they'd need a consistently large impact from Avery Anderson III. He's the most dynamic creator other than Cunningham.

    Anderson has played a key role in OSU's 6-1 record since Feb. 6, averaging 12.4 points and 2.4 assists. Before then, he'd provided 9.1 and 1.8 per game, respectively.

    Factor in his contributions as a defensive rebounder (3.6 per game), and Anderson is a crucial piece of unlocking Oklahoma State's upside.

Justin Smith, Arkansas

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    Michael Woods/Associated Press

    Arkansas is excelling mostly because of star freshman Moses Moody, who's averaging 17.0 points. He's a certain All-SEC selection and potential top-10 pick in the 2021 NBA draft.

    Justin Smith, meanwhile, is elite at the dirty work.

    While scoring 12.6 points per game, he's collected 7.0 reboundsincluding 3.0 on the offensive glass. During the Razorbacks' last six contestsfeaturing wins over NCAA tournament-bound Missouri, Florida, Alabama and LSUSmith racked up 12 steals and four blocks. Smith's defensive impact is unmistakable.

    Perhaps it's this simple: Arkansas is 19-2 with Smith and 1-3 without him. The program is eyeing its first Sweet 16 trip in 25 years, and the trends suggest it cannot happen if Smith isn't available.

Jordan Bohannon, Iowa

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Luka Garza is the likely National Player of the Year, and Joe Wieskamp usually nets 15-plus points irrespective of the result. They're the foundation of the nation's No. 2 offense, per KenPom.com.

    But the Hawkeyes tend to falter when Jordan Bohannon does.

    Iowa is 13-2 when he notches four-plus assists but is otherwise 5-5. In the Hawkeyes' 18 wins, he's knocked down 42.9 percent of his threes. In seven losses, Bohannon has a 26.1 three-point clip.

    Garza is incredibly difficult to stop when he, Wieskamp and Bohannon are all playing well.

Davion Mitchell, Baylor

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    Kathy Batten/Associated Press

    Jared Butler is Baylor's best player, but sidekicks can hardly be more influential than Davion Mitchell.

    After earning a place on the Big 12's All-Defense team last season, Mitchell has increased his offensive production in 2020-21. He's averaging 13.8 points and 5.6 assists, hitting 47.4 percent of his threes while attempting 4.8 per game.

    Mitchell has swiped two-plus steals in 12 of the Bears' 20 games but has registered season highs of 31 points and 12 assists, too. On any given night, he's capable of carrying Baylor on either end of the court.

    It's no coincidence Baylor is one of the nation's top three teams.

Kofi Cockburn, Illinois

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    There's a decent argument for Trent Frazier or Adam Miller based on their volume of shots from the perimeter. Both are attempting five-plus threes per game alongside Ayo Dosunmu, who is headed for first-team All-American recognition.

    Since the Illini use a guard-heavy rotation, they primarily rely on Kofi Cockburn to control the interior. And with 17.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game, he certainly does it often.

    The rare moments he doesn't, though, are problematic.

    Cockburn has 6.9 defensive rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game in 19 wins. In six losses, his averages are 4.8 defensive rebounds and 0.7 blocks. When opponents manage to pull Cockburn away from the basket, they are far more productive offensively.

    But there are few, if any, college players who are more powerful down low than the 7'0", 285-pound center.

Joel Ayayi, Gonzaga

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    Joel Ayayi is the epitome of a glue guy. And on a roster with top NBA prospect Jalen Suggs and 18-plus-point-per-game scorers Corey Kispert and Drew Timme, it's hardly fair.

    The redshirt junior has amassed 11.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.3 steals per game with a 36.9 percent three-point clip. Ayayi has season-high marks of 21 points, 18 rebounds and 14 assists. And he's the best backdoor cutter in college basketball.

    Not terrible for a fourth option, right?

    Ayayi is so valuable because he operates in a low-usage capacity yet is both highly efficient and versatile. Gonzaga's championship dreams don't hinge on Ayayi, but he can solidify them.

Franz Wagner, Michigan

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    Michigan has leaned on star freshman Hunter Dickinson and senior wing Isaiah Livers to reach 18-2. Take it from Livers, though, on the impact Franz Wagner can provide the Wolverines.

    "When he's aggressive and he's locked in, we definitely are the best team in the country," Livers said, per Andrew Kahn of MLive. "When Franz is aggressive, we're unbeatable."

    Wagner has flipped that switch recently, posting three of his four 20-point games in late February. He's averaging 12.8 points and 2.9 assists as Michigan's third option. But that's not all he offers; Wagner has 2.5 combined steals and blocks per game.

    At his usual level, Wagner makes Michigan a very good team. At his best, the Wolverines are a legitimate threat to Gonzaga.


    Statistics courtesy of KenPom.com or Sports Reference unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.