March Madness game-changers: Players to watch in the East 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 East.
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G Josh Hart, Villanova
Based on the season he’s had and his NCAA tournament pedigree, is there anyone you’d rather have in March than Josh Hart?
The senior is averaging career-highs in points (18.9), assists (3.1) and steals (1.5) for a team that’s needed every ounce of his production, with Phil Booth sidelined and Darryl Reynolds banged up. Hart has never shot worse than 50 percent in his four years in Philadelphia. For someone who’s attempted 526 career 3s, that’s remarkable.
Beyond the numbers, Hart makes winning plays. Just ask Seton Hall:
Hart is the dude who gets to every loose ball, something that can’t be said about most stars. Enjoy him while you can, college basketball fans.
G Luke Kennard, Duke
The sophomore came into this season as something like Duke’s fifth option, but it quickly became apparent that he’s the best player on the team. When Jayson Tatum, Grayson Allen, Harry Giles, Amile Jefferson and Frank Jackson are your teammates, that’s saying something. (Yes, Tatum is starting to give Kennard a run for his money.)
Pegged as a shooter coming into college, Kennard has improved as an off-the-bounce creator. He's averaging 20.1 points on 50 percent shooting. He's canning 44 percent of his 3s, but his nifty floater has become his trademark:
When Kennard is on the floor, Duke scores a whopping 128.1 points per 100 possessions. Amile Jefferson ranks second on the Blue Devils with a 122.3 offensive rating.
F Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
South Carolina is dancing for two reasons: defense and Thornwell. The SEC Player of the Year props up a Gamecock offense that desperately needs propping up. South Carolina scores 117.3 points per 100 possessions with Thornwell on the floor. As a team, its offensive rating is a lowly 105.5.
Thornwell’s 21 points per game are impressive enough, but given the double-teams he sees on a nightly basis, they're even more telling. The senior is draining 39 percent of his triples (easily the highest mark of his career) and his 7.2 rebounds a night shatter previous figures.
F Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
At first glance, Happ looks like an interior bruiser that dominates the paint -- a college Zach Randolph, if you will. That undersells Happ’s game. The redshirt sophomore is a 6-foot-10 power forward that averages 1.8 steals and 2.8 assists, both best on the Badgers. Happ is an expert passer out of double-teams and the biggest reason why Wisconsin has a top 10 defense.
And, of course, he’s a prolific scorer and rebounder. Happ averages 20 points and 13.1 rebounds per 40 minutes, all without any semblance of a jump shot. Something to keep an eye on: Happ makes only half his free throws. Even so, Happ is simply too dominant to leave on the bench late in games.
C Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Motley is averaging career bests in just about every statistical category. He’s a legitimate go-to-guy for a Baylor team that’s greater than the sum of its parts. The Bears needed Motley to take a leap as a junior. It’s safe to say he’s answered the bell.
Motley is a post hub for Baylor, but he’s also developed a smooth mid-range game. Part of the reason for his scoring uptick: Motley is getting to the free-throw line more than ever (5.6 attempts per game) and is draining 71.4 percent of his freebies. (Last season, Motley hovered around 60 percent from the line.) The junior was the best rebounder in the Big 12 this season (9.9 a game), and he rivals Happ as the best rebounder in the East Region. Motley won’t allow Baylor to go down easily.