By Todd Singer @breakingbadfish on March 25, 2014
As the NCAA Tournament progresses to the Sweet 16, the best players remaining in the field are making their mark. While many quality players have already been eliminated, there is no shortage of talent left on the remaining 16 teams which should come as a surprise to no one. Which one of the players on the following list steps up could be the difference between advancing to play another game and going home.
As goes Scottie Wilbekin, so go the Florida Gators. Wilbekin is the heart and soul of the No. 1 overall seeded Gators and proved as much with a 21 point effort in the win over Pittsburgh in the round of 32. With the Sweet 16 now upon us, Wilbekin is going to have to step up his game even more to get the Gators to the Final Four and beyond.
Joe Harris is a sweet shooting wingman for the No. 1 seed out of the East, the Virginia Cavaliers. While Harris' impact has been lessened this season by the Cavaliers' improved depth, he's still the go-to guy on offense and for shots down the stretch. In order for Virginia to knock off a very difficult Michigan State team, Harris will have to be on top of his game.
Jordan McRae is a high scoring guard for one of the tournament's upstart double digit seeds, the No. 11 seeded Tennessee Volunteers. McRae played an integral role in the second round defeat of UMass, but he didn't have to have the same kind of impact in the next round as the Volunteers whitewashed Mercer. McRae will have to play a key role if Tennessee is to advance past Michigan.
Aaron Harrison played a crucial role in Kentucky knocking off the top seed in their region, Wichita State, as he knocked down 4-of-7 three-pointers and tallied 19 points. Harrison, like many of the other young Wildcats, seems to be peaking at the right time, and that's key because Kentucky will need all the help it can get to beat in-state rival Louisville.
No, you're not seeing double. Andrew Harrison is Aaron's twin brother and also played a large role in defeating Wichita State in the round of 32, scoring 20 points. Andrew is more of the floor general, and with a freshman running the show, it's imperative that he keep his wits about him in the face of the intense full court pressure he'll see from Louisville.
Jarnell Stokes has been arguably the MVP of the tournament thus far, imposing his will on Iowa, UMass and Mercer. Stokes has recorded double-doubles in each of the three tournament games Tennessee has played thus far and has looked like a man amongst boys. With Michigan missing their best big man, Mitch McGary, Stokes will likely be a key factor in Tennessee's bid to upset Michigan.
Frank Kaminsky is more of an offensive oriented center, as evidenced by his 19 points compared to only five rebounds in Wisconsin's win over Oregon. Kaminsky is very adept at scoring over smaller interior defenders, but he'll have to go up against Baylor big man Isaiah Austin in a matchup that could ultimately decide which team advances to the Elite Eight.
Kyle Anderson is one of the more well-rounded players still remaining in the tournament, and that was on full display in UCLA's first two games against Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin. At 6-foot-9, Anderson is a lot bigger than a traditional point guard and uses his length and size to confound smaller defenders. In order for UCLA to defeat Florida, Anderson will likely have to outplay No. 16 on this list, Scottie Wilbekin.
Montrezl Harrell has posted a double-double in each of Louisville's tournament wins and has been a key cog in their recent resurgence. Harrell will have his hands full with Kentucky's impressive front court, and how he handles the likes of Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress could ultimately decide which powerhouse from the state of Kentucky advances to the Elite Eight.
Even after losing Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Trey Burke to the NBA and Mitch McGary to a season ending injury, Nik Stauskas has carried Michigan on his shoulders and led them to the Sweet 16. Stauskas is one of the best shooters in college basketball, as he's racked up at least three thre-pointers in each of his first two tourney games, but he also had an impressive eight assists against Texas, an aspect of his game that will be key to beat Tennessee.
Shabazz Napier has been one of the best players in the nation this season and garnered a nomination for the James Naismith Player of the Year. Napier carried Connecticut to an upset win over the No. 2 seeded Villanova Wildcats, scoring 25 points and pulling down five rebounds. Napier is the engine that makes the Huskies run, and if he and his teammates are to advance, he'll likely need to outplay the No. 5 player on this list in the next round.
DeAndre Kane has carried the upstart Iowa State Cyclones for most of the season, and never was that more apparent than in their Round of 32 victory over North Carolina. Not only did Kane hit the game-winning layup with two seconds left, but he also posted a ridiculous line of 24 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, bringing Iowa State back from a late deficit. Kane's play will continue to be the deciding factor in how far Iowa State goes.
Aaron Gordon has arguably been the best player all season for the No. 1 seed in the West, the Arizona Wildcats. Gordon's a Jack-of-all-trades, which he showed against Gonzaga, posting an impressive 18 points, six rebounds and six assists in the Wildcats' win. Gordon's play will be a significant factor in whether or not Arizona can handle a difficult San Diego State team as well as advance beyond that.
While Gary Harris' shooting percentage sagged this year, he's picked up the pace as of late, shooting the ball at a much better rate when the games matter the most. Harris had 18 points in Michigan State's win over Harvard in the Round of 32 and he'll likely have to replicate that performance if Michigan State is to knock off the No. 1 seed Virginia Cavaliers.
Adreian Payne had the game of the tournament thus far, posting 41 points in Michigan State's second round win over Delaware. Payne's production came back to Earth in the Spartans' win over Harvard, but they'll likely rely on him heavily against a smaller Virginia squad. If Michigan State is to get to the Elite Eight, Payne has to have more games like the one against Delaware, not the one against Harvard.
Julius Randle is the best player remaining in this tournament even though he's just a freshman. Randle already looks like a seasoned vet out there, posting double-doubles in each of his first two tournament games. Randle didn't have a great shooting night, but his six assists played a key role in Kentucky taking down Wichita State. To upend bitter rival Louisville, Randle is going to have to take center stage again.
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