NCAA Tournament: 25 Players We Know Will Step Up in the Big Dance
The most exciting time in sports is around the corner: March Madness.
Bracketologist Joe Lunardi is virtually everywhere on ESPN discussing what team is in and what team is out of the NCAA Tournament. With an extra four at-large spots up for grabs, more teams will be rewarded for their efforts during the grueling season.
What's lacking when talking about the bubble, aside from one's sanity, are the great players on the bubble teams along with the players on teams who have already locked in a berth. In a year when there were no returning All-Americans from this past season, many players have taken up the slack left by their predecessors and delivered on what have been some fantastic performances.
However, what most people remember about players typically does not take place during the regular season, but during the Madness. We all remember how Stephen Curry took the tournament by storm a few years back and how Gordon Hayward guided us through a memorable run that almost culminated in the greatest shot in college basketball history last year.
Here are 25 guys who have the potential to do something similar. A couple things to note: First, I excluded most of the bubble teams and focused more on the players who at this moment are solidly in the tournament. There are a few players whose teams are on the bubble, but not many. Also, these players are listed by conference with the mid-majors coming last. There are three teams who have two players mentioned, as I view them as the favorites to cut down the nets.
Kyle Singler, Duke
Has his season been disappointing? Yea, a little. But it would be ludicrous not to include last year's Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four on the list. Singler has had the luxury of deferring to teammate Nolan Smith throughout the majority of the season while staying consistent. However, don't count this veteran senior out for a big game in the tournament. He could just be biding his time for the right game to explode.
Nolan Smith, Duke
Ask me who should win Player of the Year right now, and I'll have a hard time not choosing Nolan Smith. The kid has been unbelievable since the Dukies lost Kyrie Irving to injury. It may have taken him longer than expected, but Smith has finally lived up to the potential everyone was buzzing about when he came out of high school.
Tack on the fact that, well, it's Duke, and Smith should have plenty of games to put up big-time numbers.
Tyler Zeller, North Carolina
Want to know something crazy? With Larry Drew's departure, Zeller is now the only player on the roster who made significant contributions to the 2009 championship squad. Add the fact that the Tar Heels missed the tournament last year, and this team is about as experienced at playing in the NCAA tournament as I am.
Zeller, however, provides something not many teams possess: a skilled seven-footer. A 20-20 game against a smaller team (Washington, perhaps) would not be a shocker.
Austin Freeman, Georgetown
Let's be honest, the Hoyas can't do much worse than they did last year when they got massacred by a "happy to be here" Ohio team.
The man who will refuse to let another early exit happen will be Freeman. He's one of the best scorers in the country and will have the motivation (along with the rest of the team, one hopes) to not take inferior teams lightly like they did last year.
Ashton Gibbs, Pittsburgh
Gibbs came out of nowhere last season to lead the Panthers in scoring. This season, even with his new star status, Ashton has improved on every level. Pitt is now one of the favorites to win the national championship in April and Gibbs will be counted on to make major contributions if they actually win it all. Given his track record and the talented team he has with him, this man could be the next Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four.
Brad Wanamaker, Pittsburgh
Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce you to the homeless man's Evan Turner. Wanamaker does everything well and helped carry Pitt to one of the most impressive wins of the season: a road victory at Villanova in a gym where they hadn't lost in their last 46 games all without their leading scorer (Ashton Gibbs).
Unlike Turner last year, the Panthers have much higher expectations. This looks like the year they finally break through and make it to a Final Four. As a star on arguably the most balanced team in the country, Wanamaker will be called upon to fulfill any deficiency the Panthers may run into during their run, whether it's scoring (if Gibbs gets into foul trouble), playmaking (if Woodall is ineffective), rebounding (if the forwards need help on the glass) or more importantly, leadership in the face of an opponent's 10-0 run.
Tim Abromaitis, Notre Dame
Everyone knows little Hansbrough, and I fully expect opposing teams, with such little time to prepare, to focus on stopping Ben from controlling the tempo and scoring.
Meet scoring option number two: Tim Abromaitis. With defenses focused so heavily on Hansbrough, it should allow this guy to put up some big numbers. Maybe not Harangody-type numbers, but a couple 20-10 games wouldn't be out of the question.
Kemba Walker, Connecticut
Anyone who thought Kemba would be able to keep up his torrid start through conference play was either a UConn fan, or delusional. Big East teams knew what Kemba could do, and were able to contain him pretty well.
Now, did he still have big games? Absolutely, but his shooting percentages came back down to earth.
Here's the good news: virtually every non-Big East team does not know how to contain Walker, or at least not as well. So, Walker should be salivating over the idea of going up against teams who aren't familiar with him. Granted, half the NCAA tournament teams will probably be from the Big East, but Walker's good enough to figure out how to drop 30 points regardless.
Corey Fisher, Villanova
First there was Randy Foye, then Scottie Reynolds. Now comes the next in the line of great Villanova guards in the NCAA tournament: Corey Fisher.
He'll be determined to leave a lasting imprint on his Wildcat legacy and not end his career in disappointment like Reynolds did last year.
Fisher is one of the streakiest shooters in the country, and if he's able to get hot for multiple stretches, that may be all Nova needs to make it back to the Final Four.
Peyton Siva, Louisville
Not going to lie, I did not see Louisville being as good as it is when I previewed the Big East Conference back in November. The principal error: not realizing Siva would be a far better fit at point guard than Edgar Sosa was last year. Nothing against Sosa, but Siva is a truer point guard who has sparked the Cardinals into one of the better passing teams in the country.
It's hard to find a possession in which the ball remains stagnant during a Louisville game, which therefore produces better looks.
William Buford, Ohio State
The best guard on a top team no one talks about. Buford is a complete offensive player on the Buckeyes and has the ability to get his shot off against anyone. He's limited his poor shot selection from previous years and has expanded his range. Moreover, he's the second best ball handler on the team and starts out at point guard before freshman Aaron Craft comes in.
While everyone is talking about how good Sullinger is, and opposing teams will figure out how to contain him, Buford will be the benefactor and could easily explode for 20-30 points in each game.
David Lighty, Ohio State
Many teams need that one guy who simply knows how to win and makes the unsung plays. David Lighty fits the role for the Buckeyes. He's currently the winningest player in college basketball and is the last remaining player from the Thad Five that went to the 2007 championship game.
He won't amaze anyone offensively, but he'll be one of the best defenders in the tournament. Should the Buckeyes run into a team with an explosive scorer (BYU, UConn, Duke), Lighty will be the guy making life a living hell for those scorers.
E'Twaun Moore, Purdue
While teammate JaJuan Johnson made the headlines early in the season, Moore has caught fire and has become the best pure scorer in the Big Ten. Any doubters should look at what Moore did to Ohio State on Saturday, scoring 38 points in handing the Buckeyes just their second loss of the season.
Besides, in the NCAA's, every team needs that elite guard who can score when the shot clock runs down or make a tough shot in crunch time. Moore is undoubtedly that player for the Boilermakers. Now if only Robbie Hummel didn't get hurt...talk about a scary team.
Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin
Taylor finally gained the attention he's deserved all season when he carried Wisconsin to a victory over then-unbeaten Ohio State. He had become one of the best point guards in the country, though no one had any clue who he was until that game.
Even though teams will know who Taylor is now, it isn't going to stop him from making a major impact for a team that has the ability to make it to the Final Four.
Thomas Robinson, Kansas
The reasoning behind this choice is simple: the Morris twins WILL get into foul trouble during points throughout the tournament, and Robinson will be counted upon to come in and equal their production, something he is definitely capable of doing.
The Jayhawks clearly have something to prove after their second round exit last season when many people (including myself) projected them to win it all. Redemption will be sweet.
Jordan Hamilton, Texas
Arguably one of the best pure scorers in the country, Hamilton is a more than able to score 30 points against anyone. His shot selection has dramatically improved since last year when he was not much more than a gunner. Now, he's able to pick his spots or dish it off to one of his skilled teammates.
While only a sophomore, Hamilton has stepped up in big games this season and the Longhorns are determined to make sure their massive amount of talent translates into something more than a first or second round exit. If they do, Hamilton will be the reason.
Marcus Denmon, Missouri
For being a pretty good team, not many people are talking about Missouri, probably because they don't have a single great player, but a bunch of very good ones. Denmon has become their go-to-guy, scoring 20 or more points in nine games, but I could have chosen other players from this ball club.
However, as I've said, in crunch time teams need to rely on their guard play, and Denmon is simply the team's most dangerous shooter.
Derrick Williams, Arizona
And who said the Pac-10 didn't have any threats for the Final Four? Those people look pretty stupid right now. Oh wait, I thought that. Well, I'll just pretend I have amnesia for the next paragraph then.
Williams is the key player to what has turned from a bubble team to what looks like an elite Arizona team of the past. He's one of the more efficient players in the country and plays well on both ends of the floor. Being one of the few elite big men in the country, hardly any teams have the ability to contain this monster of a basketball player.
Terrence Jones, Kentucky
Jones is an absolute matchup nightmare for pretty much every team. He's too big for guards to stop and too quick for big men to contain. He has the size of LeBron James when he was Jones' age (6'8", 240 pounds), only he's not quite as athletic and hasn't quit in a big game. Hopefully that doesn't happen and Jones puts on some spectacular performances before taking his talents to the NBA.
Erving Walker, Florida
The smallest player on the list (5'8") is also a pretty good one. Walker is a tremendous shot maker, and the fact that he can get his shot off while being as small as he is makes his shooting percentages (42 percent from the field and 39 percent from three point range) that much more impressive.
The Gators were expected to be better than they have been, but with Billy Donovan at the helm and an elite guard like Walker running the show, a deep run in the NCAA's would quell those feelings.
Jimmer Fredette, BYU
Remember Adam Morrison's performance in the NCAA's a few years ago when he led his team to the Elite Eight before losing in the final seconds to a superior UCLA team? This is what Jimmer and BYU can do, only Jimmer has better range and pretty much has to score 30 points a game for his team to win. Should be exciting to see if he can do it and not manage to cry on the court (only kidding about the last part).
Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State
It's pretty uncommon for a non-BCS school to be considered for a top seed, let alone get one, and the Aztecs certainly have an opportunity to do so. Leonard is SDSU's best player and is viewed as a late lottery to mid first round pick should he declare for the NBA Draft.
Of the great mid-major teams of recent memory (Davidson, Gonzaga, Saint Joseph's, Butler), each of them had at least one NBA caliber player. And if I remember correctly, those NBA caliber players all had phenomenal NCAA Tournaments. Leonard has the ability to keep that trend going.
Mickey McConnell, St. Mary's
One of a few guys whose team is not viewed as a lock to make the NCAA tournament. I expect the committee to not have forgotten how St. Mary's was able to win a couple games last year in the tourney, and McConnell was a key factor in those victories. A year later, McConnell is better and more capable of carrying the Gaels to another Cinderella-like run.
Taj Wesley, Utah State
Probably the least well-known player on the list, Wesley is the key player to an Aggies team that has lost all of three games. As a senior, Wesley has the experience (the Aggies have been in the NCAA's during his tenure) and skill to make some better teams worry.
Kenneth Faried, Morehead State
Those that have read other pieces of mine know of my man crush on Kenneth Faried. I still find it astounding he is not getting the amount of publicity he deserves for his incredible accomplishments. ESPN finally did a piece on his journey from unknown to future NBA player and acknowledged that he passed Tim Duncan (ever heard of him?) for grabbing the most rebounds in a college career since 1973 (when college freshmen were allowed to play varsity).
As of now, Morehead State is projected to make the NCAA's, albeit as a 15 or 16 seed. I would love to be in the room of players and coaches when they find out they have to up against Faried. Whether it be Duke, Ohio State or any other powerhouse, they had better not underestimate Faried and co. Otherwise, they may become the answer to the trivia question: "Who was the most recent number two/first number one seed to lose in the first round?"