Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports
While there is still much to be decided in advance of next week’s NCAA Tournament – conference champions and seeding included – we have a pretty good grasp on which teams will be among the 64 competing in the NCAA Tournament when the games begin on Thursday afternoon.
For some teams, making the NCAA Tournament is an incredible accomplishment and any tournament success thereafter is just gravy. But for others, making the tournament is a fait accompli – a means to accomplishing the ultimate goal of winning the entire thing.
Each of those teams has at least one player that will have a major effect on their team’s fate. The guy that takes the last shot or makes the big play. These are the guys you need to know and get excited to watch before the NCAA Tournament begins in just a few short days.
10. Perry Ellis – Kansas Jayhawks, F – While Ellis is far from the flashiest and most exciting player you’ll see during tournament play, he’s the most important player on the nation’s number one ranked team. Ellis likely would have gone to the NBA last year if it weren’t for an unfortunate late-season knee injury, but has proved thus far that returning to Kansas was a good call. Ellis is averaging 16.5 points per game along with 6.0 rebounds per game as well. He’s a high-percentage shooter who’s having his best season to date, and he’s going to be a major factor if the Jayhawks are going to make a long run through the NCAA Tournament.
9. Grayson Allen – Duke, SG – Grayson Allen’s follow up performance to last year’s NCAA Tournament has been tremendous by any metric. The same way most had no idea who Allen was when he came off the bench in the finals of the tournament last year to spur Duke on to victory over Wisconsin, most hardly expected Allen to continue on the path to super stardom as he has. Allen has become a force in the ACC this year. He’s fast, unafraid of getting physical and has a silky smooth jumper that makes him a threat all over the floor. Headlines have painted Allen as “the next hated white player from Duke,” but in reality, he’s the next up and coming star at guard and Duke’s best chance at repeated as NCAA Tournament champions in 2016.
8. Georges Niang – Iowa State, F – After a tough loss to Buddy Hield and Oklahoma in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament, the Cyclones are looking at a No. 5 or 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament in all likelihood, but they’ll still be a force to be reckoned with thanks to Georges Niang. Iowa State’s power forward has run roughshod over college basketball this year. He’s averaging 19.4 points per game, 6.7 rebounds, and sports a field goal percentage of 54 percent. If his defense (along with the rest of Iowa State’s) wasn’t so spotty, he’d be a serious contender for player of the year honors.
7. Gary Payton II – Oregon State, PG – It’s far too early to say that the sequel is better than the original, but Gary Payton II is doing enough on the court to step out from behind his father’s shadow. The son of NBA Hall of Fame point guard Gary Payton has spearheaded Oregon State’s run towards an NCAA Tournament berth and just locked up his second straight Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year award. But Payton’s prowess isn’t just limited to defense as he can score with the best of them as well. Plus, he routinely does things like this.
Yeah, he’s worth keeping an eye on.
6. Melo Trimble – Maryland, PG – Early in the season the Maryland Terrapins found themselves in the top five in the polls but have slowly slipped down the ladder as they year has worn on. After breezing through their non-conference schedule they succumbed to a deep Big Ten conference and lost four of their last six games, including an 18-point drubbing at the hands of the Indiana Hoosiers. So what’s the ‘bright side’ to all of that? It’s that star point guard Melo Trimble has seemingly found his form once again after a mid-season slump. For the Terps to make any noise in the tournament, it’ll be incumbent upon Trimble to raise not just his game, but the game of his teammates throughout March, which he’s more than capable of.
5. Brice Johnson – North Carolina, F – Brice Johnson recorded his 20th – yes, 20th – double-double of the season against Pittsburgh in UNC’s quarterfinal win over Pittsburgh. If that’s not impressive enough for you, consider that Johnson averages an impressive 16.9 points per game while still sporting a field goal percentage over 60 percent. Johnson is a difference maker at both ends of the floor and is the key to UNC making a deep run this March.
4. Josh Hart – Villanova, F – Kris Dunn (see below) had an impeccable season, but still wasn’t the runaway winner for the Big East Player of the Year award. That’s how good Josh Hart has been and that’s how important he is to the potential No. 1 seed Wildcats. Plus, Hart has thrived on a big stage in the past, as evidenced by the fact that he won the Big East Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award last year. Even though Nova’s tournament ended unceremoniously at the hands of N.C. State in the third round of last year’s tournament, Hart is now a year older and more seasoned, which means he could key that elusive March run that the Wildcats are looking for.
3. Kris Dunn – Providence, PG – Adding Big East Player of the Year to Kris Dunn’s resume was just a feather in his cap. Dunn has been stellar all season long and is widely regarded as one of the most complete players in college basketball. He can defend, eat major minutes, rebound (5.6 rpg), he’s one of the best passers in college ball (6.4 apg), and he can score (16.3 ppg). Oh yeah, and he can score in the clutch, not a bad attribute to have when it gets late in the second half of an NCAA Tournament game.
2. Buddy Hield – Oklahoma, G – Breaking team and conference records has been the story of Hield’s season this year. Well, that and his absurd 25.1 points per game (second in the nation) along with 5.5 rebounds per game as well. Now Hield looks determined to carry his absurd score-at-will ability straight into the Big 12 and NCAA Tournament. Hield put up 39 points in Oklahoma’s 79-76 victory of Iowa State in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament last night and has emerged as one of, if not the best player in the nation. Now, the rest of the country gets to enjoy watching this budding superstar on the national stage.
1. Denzel Valentine – Michigan State, F – Buddy Hield may well end up winning the Wooden award for the player of the year, and he’ll be as deserving as any past winner to be sure. However, a big reason he may win the award will be because of Denzel Valentine’s injury. Otherwise, Valentine would probably be the sure fire winner, which is why he’s the No. 1 player you have to know going into the NCAA Tournament. Valentine is averaging 19.5 points per game to go with 7.5 assists and rebounds per game. His stat line proves that what Valentine does better than any player in college basketball is bring up the level of play of his entire team. He make those around him that much better, and that’s why he’s the most important player in the NCAA Tournament this year.
Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for any of his other three teams.
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