Yesterday I covered some exciting players and matchups, along with previewing the first four games that are taking place tomorrow and Wednesday. Today we'll take a tour of the two regions on the left side of the bracket, the West and South. There will be an additional post today about more new players and coaches to watch, and then tomorrow a look at the East and Midwest regions. And so, without further ado...
Best Player: Anthony Davis, Kentucky - Possibly the best player in the nation, and certainly the top selection in this summer's NBA draft, Davis is like a force field around the rim, blocking almost five shots a game and affecting plenty of others. Every opponent that attempts a layup against the Wildcats is thinking about him in the back of their mind. But Davis is not just a typical shot-blocker who is shackled to the basket support; he is one of those guys who had a mega-growth spurt from guard height to center height in high school, and he still runs the floor like a guard. On the offensive end he is an ever-present threat for alley oops and putbacks off of offensive rebounds, but he has some good post moves despite his skinny frame (6'10", 220) and can step out for the occasional jump shot. At this point the only truly ugly thing about his game is his unibrow.
Most Important Player: Cody Zeller, Indiana/Ryan Kelly, Duke (tie) - Without Zeller, there's an argument to be made that Indiana would be basically the same team that won just 12 games last year. Zeller is the youngest of a trio of basketball-playing brothers, and probably the best at this stage in his career. He has a collection of refined post moves for someone so young, and is a good shooter both from the floor (63%) and the line (75%). He could stand to rebound a little better for his size (6.4), but his mere presence has transformed the Hoosiers from an ordinary collection of jump shooters into a team capable of, for example, knocking off Kentucky. As for Kelly, Duke badly needs him to be healthy and effective. A decent enough rebounder and defender, Kelly is the most consistent three-point threat on the Blue Devils, and when he struggles to score against good teams, Duke typically loses. In their five losses that he played in, he totaled all of 25 points, including a goose egg in their shellacking at the hands of Ohio State. Since guard Andre Dawkins is so inconsistent (thirteen double-figure games and six scoreless ones), the Devils need Kelly to stretch the floor and give them another solid offensive option. Otherwise, they could lose in the first weekend.
Most Interesting Player: Royce White, Iowa State - It is very unusual (unheard of, even) for the primary ballhandler under pressure to be 6'8" and 270 pounds. But that's what White does, at least when he's not also playing center. White leads the Cyclones in everything except free-throw shooting (a worse-than-Mason-Plumlee 49%) and three-point shooting (he's 4 of 12). But having a guy like that who can play all over the floor is going to create some interesting matchup problems for Alex Oriakhi and/or Andre Drummond in their opening tilt with UConn. I am really looking forward to the unconventional use of a "point center."
Most to Prove to the Scouts: Andre Drummond, UConn/Perry Jones III, Baylor/Terrence Jones, Kentucky (tie) - All three of these guys have similar issues: they're all referred to as soft, or unfocused, or playing below their potential, etc. Drummond is the most perplexing of the three; at an extremely athletic and mobile 6'10", 270, there is no reason that he can't dominate every game he plays in. Yet he averages less than eleven points and eight rebounds a game, and has scored in double figures in three consecutive games just twice this season. Jones III, Baylor's leading scorer, gets the "soft" tag thrown at him a lot, as he has failed to produce in several of the Bears' losses. A future super-sized pro small forward (6'11", 235), Jones III plays more power forward in college, but his talent suggests he should do better than the 14 points and 7.7 rebounds a game he averages. Kentucky's Jones, meanwhile, is a smooth lefty with a versatile all-around game and size (6'9", 252), but a propensity to check out for long stretches. In the Indiana game, for example, he took all of three shots and collected a single rebound while turning the ball over six times. All three of these gentlemen are almost certainly lottery picks, but all can boost their status by staying focused and having big games on a big stage.
Most Exciting Unknown Player: Nate Wolters, South Dakota State/C. J. McCollum, Lehigh (tie) - We already covered Wolters in this space, so let's look at McCollum. He's another high-scoring (21.9 ppg), do-everything (6.5 rpg, 3.5 apg) guard like Wolters, but has shot a full ten percentage points better from behind the arc (36%). McCollum, a 6'3", 190-pound junior, now gets to strut his stuff in front of the NBA scouts in a big matchup with Duke. He is an athletic finisher (although not a supreme athlete), and he guards well too (2.6 steals). It will be a lot of fun to watch him and Austin Rivers go head-to-head on Friday.
Coach With the Best Chance to Land a Bigger Job: Gregg Marshall, Wichita State - It won't be too long before Marshall is changing addresses and upgrading to a quality big-six job, but that call could come as soon as April. After building Winthrop from ground zero into a Big South powerhouse during his nine seasons there, he has rebuilt the Shockers since the departure of of Mark Turgeon five seasons ago (for Texas A&M and then Maryland). Marshall's Wichita State teams have improved every season, from 11-20 in his first year to 29-8 and an NIT championship last year, and are currently 27-4. Given that Wichita State is an easier place than most to succeed at the mid-major level (it's a state school in a basketball-crazy state), Marshall shouldn't leave unless it's for a fairly prestigious major job (in other words, not Nebraska).
Second Round Selections
1 Kentucky over 16 Western Kentucky - The Hilltoppers should be back next year, but with a much better seed.
9 UConn over 8 Iowa State - If anyone can come up with a way to contain the do-everything White, I'm sure three-time champion Jim Calhoun can.
5 Wichita State over 12 VCU - Despite last year's Final Four run, the Shockers are actually more seasoned.
4 Indiana over 13 New Mexico State - The Aggies won't have enough of an answer for Zeller inside, and the Hoosiers have a coach with Final Four experience who will keep his young team focused.
6 UNLV over 11 Colorado - The Runnin' Rebels are talented, with a pair of UCLA transfers playing major roles, and more dangerous than the Buffs.
3 Baylor over 14 South Dakota State - The Jackrabbits are just too small to keep pace with Baylor's size and athleticism
10 Xavier over 7 Notre Dame - The Musketeers will have the best (Tu Holloway) and biggest (Kenny Frease) players on the floor, and are more athletic than the Irish.
2 Duke over 15 Lehigh - McCollum and the Mountain Hawks don't have enough long-range shooting or size to beat the Blue Devils.
Third Round Selections
1 Kentucky over 9 UConn - Davis outplays Drummond, and a talented but inconsistent Huskies team loses to an even more talented (and more motivated) Wildcats team.
5 Wichita State over 4 Indiana - Garrett Stutz can neutralize Zeller, and the Shockers' efficient offense will wear down a Hoosiers team missing the injured Verdell Jones III.
3 Baylor over 6 UNLV - UNLV has size and athleticism, but Baylor has more of both, and should win this track meet of a game.
2 Duke over 10 Xavier - Very few coaches are better at preparing for a team on short notice than Coach K, and the Flying Plumlees should take advantage of the much less mobile Kenny Frease.
Sweet 16 Selections
1 Kentucky over 5 Wichita State - The Shockers may have a 7-footer, but Kentucky has Davis, whereas Gregg Marshall won't be able to counter both Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
3 Baylor over 2 Duke - Scott Drew will have his team motivated for a rematch of the 2010 regional final, and Duke will not have an answer for both Jones III and Quincy Miller.
Elite 8 Selection
1 Kentucky over 3 Baylor - Calipari, the best coach without a national title to his name, will prove it by having his young Wildcats prepared to handle a team that's almost as talented as they are.