NCAA Tournament: 25 Players We Know Will Step Up in the Big Dance

Andy BrownAnalyst IIFebruary 22, 2011

NCAA Tournament: 25 Players We Know Will Step Up in the Big Dance

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    INDIANAPOLIS - APRIL 05:  Kyle Singler #12 of the Duke Blue Devils celebrates their 61-59 win against the Butler Bulldogs during the 2010 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 5, 2010 in Indianapolis, In
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    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

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    WINSTON SALEM, NC - JANUARY 22:  Kyle Singler #12 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts to a play during their game against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Lawrence Joel Coliseum on January 22, 2011 in Winston Salem, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Ge
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    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

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    DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 09:  Nolan Smith #2 of the Duke Blue Devils against the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 9, 2011 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    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

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    NEW YORK - MARCH 30: Tyler Zeller #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels dunks the ball against Rhode Island Rams at Madison Square Garden on March 30, 2010 in New York, New York.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
    Nick Laham/Getty Images

    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

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    WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 5:  Austin Freeman #15 of the Georgetown Hoyas takes a jump shot during a college basketball game against the Providence Friars on February 5, 2011 at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC.  The Hoyas won 83-81.  (Photo by Mitchel
    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    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

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    PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 27:  Ashton Gibbs #12 of the Pittsburgh Panthers looks to make a pass against the Connecticut Huskies at Petersen Events Center on December 27, 2010 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Pittsburgh defeated Connecticut 78-64.  (Photo by
    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    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

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    MILWAUKEE - MARCH 21:  Brad Wanamaker #22 of the Pittsburgh Panthers moves the ball against the Xavier Musketeers during the second round of the 2010 NCAA men's basketball tournament at the Bradley Center on March 21, 2010 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  (Photo
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    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

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    LOUISVILLE, KY - DECEMBER 08:  Tim Abromaitis #21 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish is pictured during the game against the Kentucky Wildcats in the 2010 DIRECTV SEC/BIG EAST Invitational at Freedom Hall on December 8, 2010 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    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

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    PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 27:  Kemba Walker #15 of the Connecticut Huskies pulls up for a three against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Petersen Events Center on December 27, 2010 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    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

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    ROSEMONT, IL - FEBRUARY 19: Corey Fisher #10 of the Villanova Wildcats walks off of the court after scoring a game-high 34 points against the DePaul Blue Demons at the Allstate Arena on February 19, 2011 in Rosemont, Illinois. Villanova defeated DePaul 77
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    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

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    LOUISVILLE, KY - FEBRUARY 18:  Peyton Siva #3 of the Louisville Cardinals shoots the ball during the Big East Conference game against the Connecticut Huskies at the KFC Yum! Center on February 18, 2011 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    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

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    COLUMBUS, OH - FEBRUARY 15: William Buford #44 of the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrates after dunking the ball during the first half against the Michigan State Spartons on February 15, 2011 at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Get
    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    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

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    COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 26: David Lighty #23 of the Ohio State Buckeyes goes up for two of his game-high 21 points against the Miami RedHawks at Value City Arena on November 26, 2010 in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State won 66-45. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Ima
    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    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

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    WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - JANUARY 09:  E' Twaun Moore #33 of the Purdue Boilermakers brings the ball up court against the Iowa Hawkeyes during the Big Ten Conference game at Mackey Arena on January 9, 2011 in West Lafayette, Indiana. Purdue won 75-52.  (Photo
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    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

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    LAS VEGAS - NOVEMBER 20:  Jordan Taylor #11 of the Wisconsin Badgers brings the ball up the court against the UNLV Rebels during their game at the Thomas & Mack Center November 20, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. UNLV won 68-65.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty I
    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    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

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    LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 29:  Thomas Robinson #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks dunks during the game against the Kansas State Wildcats on January 29, 2011 at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    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

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    GREENSBORO, NC - DECEMBER 18:  Jordan Hamilton #3 of the Texas Longhorns shoots over Reggie Bullock #35 of the North Carolina Tar Heels at Greensboro Coliseum on December 18, 2010 in Greensboro, North Carolina.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    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

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    COLUMBIA, MO - FEBRUARY 15:  Marcus Denmon #12 of the Missouri Tigers controls the ball as Javarez Willis #3 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders defend during the game on February 15, 2011 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Ima
    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    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

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    LAS VEGAS - NOVEMBER 27:  Markieff Morris #21 of the Kansas Jayhawks fouls Derrick Williams #23 of the Arizona Wildcats during the championship game of the Las Vegas Invitational at The Orleans Arena November 27, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Kansas won 87-7
    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    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

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    LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 03:  Terrence Jones #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Penn Quakers at Rupp Arena on January 3, 2011 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    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

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    GAINESVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 16: Guard Erving Walker #11 of the Florida Gators plays against the Ohio State Buckeyes November 16, 2010 at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center in Gainesville, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    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

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    LAS VEGAS, NV - JANUARY 05:  Jimmer Fredette #32 of the Brigham Young University Cougars shoots a technical free throw during a game against the UNLV Rebels at the Thomas & Mack Center January 5, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. BYU won 89-77.  (Photo by Ethan
    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    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

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    LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 12:  Kawhi Leonard #15 of the San Diego State Aztecs drives against Tre'Von Willis #33 of the UNLV Rebels during their game at the Thomas & Mack Center February 12, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. San Diego State won 63-57.  (Photo by
    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    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

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    PROVIDENCE, RI - MARCH 20:  Mickey McConnell #32 of the Saint Mary's Gaels points to teammate Ben Allen after he scored in the first half agaisnt the Villanova Wildcats during the second round of the 2010 NCAA men's basketball tournament on March 20, 2010
    Elsa/Getty Images

    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

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    BOISE, ID - MARCH 20:  Forward Tai Wesley #42 of the Utah State Aggies dunks the ball over forward Lazar Hayward #32 of the Marquette Golden Eagles in the first round of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at the Taco Bell Arena on March 20, 2
    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    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

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    DAYTON, OH - MARCH 17:  Kenneth Faried #35 of the Morehead State Eagles takes a shot against the Alabama State Hornets during the opening round of the Men's NCAA Tournament on March 17, 2009 at the University of Dayton Arena in Dayton, Ohio.  (Photo by Ja
    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    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?"

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