HOUSTON -- The 2016 Final Four is lush with dynamic scorers, passers, shot-blockers and guys that are simply a joy to watch play basketball.
Choosing the best of the bunch in each category is no easy task, but a fun one nonetheless. Here are NCAA.com’s 2016 Final Four superlatives.
Best scorer: Buddy Hield
No contest here. Hield has been the most explosive offensive player in college basketball this season, turning in brilliant performance after brilliant performance each night. In the NCAA tournament, he’s averaging 29 points per game and has shot no worse than 46 percent from the floor in an outing.
Hield has gravity as a scorer, meaning his mere presence creates plenty of opportunities for his teammates. The senior Sooner can do it all on offense -- he’s improved his slashing game immensely throughout his college career, and his shooting ability is obvious. As a freshman, Hield shot 23.8 percent from 3-point range. As a senior, he’s draining 3s at a 46.5 percent clip.
“Just like Steph Curry, they can’t guard him. They can’t guard Buddy either,” – basketball legend Oscar Robertson said at Media Day in Houston.
Asked to respond to The Big O’s praise, Hield had a humble, yet confident retort.
“What he said,” Hield laughed.
Best shot-blocker: Daniel Ochefu
Ochefu has steadily improved as a rim protector each season at Villanova, and though there are other viable candidates for this distinction (Khadeem Lattin, Tyler Lydon and Kennedy Meeks come to mind), the burly Wildcat veteran tops our list.
Villanova plays an aggressive style of defense; head coach Jay Wright demands constant on-ball pressure from his guards. That’s how the Wildcats create turnovers, but gambling for steals isn’t going to fly unless the guards know the rim is sealed behind them.
In other words, Ochefu’s defensive prowess strays well outside of the paint.
“If you're ever going to have a chance to win a national championship, you better have a big guy that can control the paint, defensively protect the rim, offensively be a go-to guy that can score, make good decisions, meaning not turn the ball over, and make free throws,” Wright said on Friday. “That's what Daniel Ochefu is.”
Best rebounder: Brice Johnson
Anytime a player has length paired with divine instincts, you know he’s going to be a devastating force on the glass. Johnson possesses both of those qualities, and the UNC forward gobbles up 10.5 rebounds per game for the Tar Heels.
Johnson is a huge asset on the offensive glass for North Carolina; any shot is a good shot when Johnson is there to clean up the mess. It’s as if the Tar Heels are playing volleyball at times, and No. 11 in white and baby blue is their star outside hitter.
Best perimeter defender: Mikal Bridges
With quick feet, solid defensive instincts and a wingspan that exceeds seven feet, Bridges is the prototypical lockdown defender.
In the Elite Eight, Bridges put the clamps on Perry Ellis, who went 1-for-5 with four points on the evening. He spearheads Villanova’s press, which has been an asset for the Cats all year long, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Bridges guard Hield for long stretches of Saturday night’s showdown.
Time will tell how Bridges fares, but if Wright entrusts someone to guard both Ellis and Hield, that’s the ultimate compliment. Bridges is just a redshirt freshman, and the Final Four could serve as a springboard to an illustrious career at Villanova.
Best passer: Michael Gbinije
Oddly enough, Gbinije might double as the most underrated player at the Final Four. He’s a college basketball star and should be treated as such.
As a 6-7 point guard, Gbinije is Syracuse’s best player on offense and wreaks havoc with his length in the 2-3 zone.
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Outside of Malachi Richardson heat checks (more on that later), Syracuse’s offensive bread and butter is utilizing Gbinije in screen-and-roll action. The senior is notching 4.4 assists per game on the season and consistently keeps his teammates involved. When Gbinije is facilitating and Richardson, Trevor Cooney and Tyler Lydon are hitting shots, the Orange are a chore to stop.
Gbinije's off-the-court growth is showing up in his play, and he even said as much in Houston.
"As I've been at Syracuse, I think I learned a lot both on and off the court," Gbinije said. "I think from a maturing standpoint, I matured into a young man."
Best heat check guy: Malachi Richardson
The Virginia game was the ultimate display of Richardson’s heat check prowess – after starting the game 0-for-5, he finished with 23 points and put the Orange on his back for lengthy stretches.
At times, Richardson’s shot selection can serve as a headache for Syracuse fans. But you take the good with the bad with a player like Richardson, and when the Orange are stalling on offense, it’s nice to have a guy that can create isolation offense in a pinch and can nail daggers at the end of the shot clock.
Having someone who can go off at any moment is a key ingredient for a team looking to pull off a major upset. If the Orange are going to hang with the Tar Heels on Saturday, they may need some more Richardson heroics.
Head coach Jim Boeheim has worked with his freshman starter all season to diversify his offensive attack. It's paying off at the perfect time.
"I think once [Richardson] goes and gets to the basket, gets to the foul line, I think it loosens him up a little bit," Boeheim said. "He starts to feel better about his 3. After he got to the basket [against Virginia], he hit a couple 3's."
Highlight reel waiting to happen: Khadeem Lattin
There might not be a more athletic player in the Final Four than Lattin, who is a dynamite pick-and-roll finisher and a threat to send a shot into the third row all rolled into one. Lattin’s numbers won’t overwhelm you – he’s averaging 5.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game for OU this season – but he’ll take your breath away at least once per game.
“When we've played our best, Khadeem has been a big factor blocking shots, right handing the ball, defensively in the low post,” Lon Kruger said.