The NCAA tournament is college basketball’s brightest stage, and the participants share a common goal – to win the national title. But an intriguing subplot emerges late in the tournament.Once players reach the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, they have a chance to really elevate their national stature. In other words, stars can blossom.
Throughout his entire career at Wisconsin, forward Sam Dekker was known as a remarkable talent that was plagued by inconsistency. Dekker was brilliant in the 2015 NCAA tournament – particularly in later rounds. As a result, his outside perception reached new levels.
Here are five guys that can achieve a similar feat in the Sweet 16 and beyond.
F Jake Layman, Maryland
Watch a Maryland game these days, and there’s a persistent rhetoric when it comes to discussing Layman. Analysts put him on their ‘All-Airport Team.’ In other words, Layman looks the part. At 6-9 with a wiry build, good athleticism and a jump shot that looks like it was manufactured in a basketball laboratory, the Terps’ small forward should be a star.
And Layman is a star. Sometimes. Melo Trimble and Diamond Stone get a lot of the accolades for Maryland, but nobody on the Terrapins’ roster can do as many things on the court as Layman can. But he’s struggled with consistency.
The first two games of the NCAA tournament illustrate that trend. In Maryland’s first game against South Dakota St., the senior had 27 points on 11 shots. Against Hawaii, he was fine – he scored 10 points on eight shots. But make no mistake, Layman is going to have to be assertive against Kansas if Maryland wants to move onto the Elite Eight. Perhaps Thursday night’s clash is just the springboard he needs to vault into a new category among college basketball players.
G/F Malachi Richardson, Syracuse
Like Layman, Richardson has plenty of tools in his arsenal. The next step is channeling those tools more effectively.
Richardson is only shooting 37 percent from the floor this season for the Orange. That figure is skewed downward due to his affection for shooting 3’s (56 percent of Richardson’s shot attempts have come from 3-point range this season), and his effective field goal percentage looks better than the raw number.
Richardson has a pretty stroke, but given his athleticism and handles, he makes the game harder than it needs to be for himself by jacking bundles contested jumpers. The freshman will show flashes of greatness; he scored 21 points against Dayton in the opening round of the tournament and got to the free throw line nine times. Against Middle Tennessee St., he scored four points.
Despite all of the mountains and valleys, there aren’t many players in college basketball with Richardson’s blend of size, athleticism and shooting ability. A good showing in Chicago this weekend could make a lot of people realize everything he has going for him as a player.
G Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia
Yes, this seems obvious, and perhaps even a bit out of place. The guy is a finalist for the Naismith Award, and people who follow college basketball closely know he’s a superstar.
But does the casual college basketball fan know Brogdon is a superstar? That’s debatable. You never hear Brogdon’s name in the Buddy Hield-Denzel Valentine conversation, but perhaps it should be.
The advanced metrics love Brogdon. In KenPom’s Player of the Year Standings, he ranks first ahead of Brice Johnson, Hield and Valentine. Brogdon averages 18.6 points per game, which is nothing to scoff at. But when you consider the fact that Virginia plays at the slowest pace in the country, it really is remarkable. Imagine what kind of numbers he’d put up if the Cavaliers even played at an ordinary pace.
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Against Butler, Brogdon showed that his best attribute might be as a defender. He’s a chess piece on a basketball court – Butler forward/center Andrew Chrabascz was lighting up Virginia to the tune of 25 points midway through their game in the second half. And then Tony Bennett had Brogdon guard Chrabascz. And that was that. The Cavaliers cruised to victory.
Any wing who can function as the primary option on offense while shutting down the other team’s CENTER that’s in the midst of a career night needs to be celebrated. People know Brogdon is good; the Sweet 16 will allow him to showcase just how good.
F OG Anunoby, Indiana
It’s funny to think back to Indiana in the Maui Invitational. It couldn’t stop UNLV or Wake Forest from scoring at will, and the entire time IU had a 6-8 forward with a 7-2 wingspan that’s drawn (albeit premature) comparisons to Kawhi Leonard sitting on the bench.
Anunoby has emerged as a key piece for Tom Crean’s Hoosiers, and while he’s been really good in Indiana’s first two tournament games, he could have a real coming out party against North Carolina.
The freshman can guard four positions (he’s matched up with everyone from Jamal Murray to Jarrod Uthoff this season, and has been fantastic in doing so). Anunoby is also shooting 44.8 percent from deep, albeit in just 29 attempts, and has an offensive rebounding tenacity that the Hoosiers need.
Anunoby has only logged 449 minutes this season, but with each passing game, folks are starting to realize how good this guy is. A big-time showing against North Carolina would make a huge statement.
Joel Berry II, North Carolina
Marcus Paige gets most of the publicity from the Carolina backcourt, but the truth is, Berry has been the more effective player this season. He’s been especially dynamic lately.
Since UNC’s loss to Virginia on February 27, Berry has scored in double figures in every game. He’s averaged 15.8 points on 51 percent shooting from the field and 39 percent from deep.
When both Berry and Paige are shooting the ball well, the Tar Heels are virtually impossible to beat. But in reality, they’re still extremely hard to hold down when either of Berry or Paige is clicking. If Berry keeps up his solid play moving forward, UNC could be Final Four bound, and their sophomore point guard could be a major reason why.