March Madness game-changers: Players to watch in the Midwest Region
Team basketball is a sight to behold, but when an individual player is in a zone, sometimes the best strategy is simply to get the heck out of his way and let him dominate.
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As the NCAA tournament nears, we’re identifying five players to watch in each region. Here is the Midwest.
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G Frank Mason, Kansas
Kansas has played with fire all season long. But whenever the Jayhawks appear down and out, Frank Mason does something like this:
The truth is, Kansas probably isn’t as good as its 28-4 record – heck, Wichita State has a higher KenPom ranking (which heavily weighs point differential) than the Jayhawks. But Mason (and to a lesser extent, Devonte’ Graham) are simply better than the opposing backcourt in the final five minutes. Advantage, KU.
Mason looks like the frontrunner in the Naismith race going into the dance. Once just a speedster, the wily veteran is an all-around stud these days – he’s making almost half of his 3s while launching at will. He’s also developed a nice pick-and-roll chemistry with Landen Lucas. Mason will go down as one of the most beloved Jayhawks of all time.
G Monte Morris, Iowa State
For a long time, Morris flew under the radar of elite point guards. Not anymore. Iowa State is a trendy Final Four pick – the Cyclones are playing their best ball of the season. Morris has been particularly effective – and consistent. The senior has reached double figures in scoring in every outing since Jan. 31.
The biggest reason why Iowa State has such an efficient offense is because it rarely turns the ball over. The Cyclones cough up the rock on just 14.1 percent of their possessions; that ranks third in the nation. Translation: Morris orchestrates just about every Iowa State set, which means ISU is in good hands.
F Dillon Brooks, Oregon
Brooks was hobbled to start the season, so Oregon struggled. Brooks got healthy, so Oregon found its way. That’s no coincidence.
Brooks is only averaging 24 minutes, but he’s been outstanding. The per-40 numbers: 27.1 points on 51.3 percent shooting. Last year, Brooks was regarded as one of the best scorers in the country; he averaged 20.4 points per 40 minutes. He’s been clutch, too:
The burly forward is a matchup nightmare for foes; he’s too quick for opposing fours and too strong for enemy wings. Brooks is sinking a career-high 41.4 percent of his triples for an Oregon squad that heads into the tournament undermanned.
F Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
Nobody disputes the hard work Swanigan has put in to reach this point:
Matt Painter has committed to a four-out, one-in style. Swanigan has been the primary beneficiary. The sophomore bruiser is averaging 18.5 points, 12.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists… all while draining 43.1 percent of his 3s.
There’s no easy way to contain Swanigan. He slices up double-teams. Playing with his back to the basket is his bread and butter. He’s an excellent pick-and-pop man. Swanigan has work to do on the defensive end; that’s the next step in his evolution. Regardless, he’s a transcendent talent that promises to entertain.
C Justin Patton, Creighton
Patton is a freak athlete. When in doubt, Creighton guards throw the ball in the general vicinity of the rim in hopes that Patton will flush it home. While that may sound reckless, it’s a smart strategy.
The redshirt freshman is raw, but he has all the tools to be a rim-protecting, 3-point shooting center. Those are rare. Patton ranks fourth in effective field goal percentage (71.2) and true shooting percentage (69.1); he’s only launched 14 3s, but has drained eight of them. Patton has a feathery touch out to 17 feet; without Mo Watson, we’ll see if Greg McDermott unleashes his talented center from long range. Creighton is a perimeter-oriented team, but without Watson, Patton is its best player. He’ll need to have a big game against Rhode Island in order for the Bluejays to avoid the upset.