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.
As the NCAA tournament nears, we’re identifying five players to watch in each region. Here is the South.
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G Lonzo Ball, UCLA
The most exciting player in the tournament, if not the best. Ball has completely changed the culture of UCLA basketball – last season, the Bruins were an isolation-oriented team that underachieved. This year, UCLA is a pace-and-space machine; Ball deserves the bulk of the credit for the transformation.
The freshman floor general is averaging 7.7 assists; as a team, UCLA leads the nation in helpers. Coming into college, we knew Ball was a whip-smart passer. What we didn’t know was if he could shoot... spoiler alert: he can. Ball has been lethal from distance – he’s canning 41 percent of his treys on a healthy 5.4 attempts per game.
Ball plays with a calm confidence that trickles down to the rest of the Bruins. That could prove to be useful in a pressure-packed tournament environment.
G Malik Monk, Kentucky
College basketball’s microwave. Monk is as streaky as they come – he scored 47 points against North Carolina in December – but he’s prone to the occasional clunker. In an effort to get his shot back after a 1-for-7 outing, Monk arrived early to pregame warmups the next day. It didn't go so hot:
Monk got stretched, resumed shooting, bricked six straight and then just walked away, straight to the locker room. Everyone else shooting.— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_AJC) March 11, 2017
When Monk is rolling, so does Kentucky. The Wildcats have the talent to win a national championship, but that hinges on Monk shooting well for six games – Kentucky’s role players are primarily defenders and slashers. The rookie is averaging 20.4 points and has made 95 3s on the year; Derek Willis is second on the Wildcats with 43. Monk is particularly lethal in transition, so if Kentucky gets stops, it will give its leading scorer opportunities for easy buckets that build confidence.
F Justin Jackson, North Carolina
Since Monk hung 47 on North Carolina, it’s easy to forget that Jackson played out of his mind against the Wildcats. He’s been brilliant all season – Jackson is averaging a career-best 18.1 points on 37.7 percent from 3. As a sophomore, Jackson made 29 percent of his 3s. He knew he had to improve as a sniper, and he did; when a defender ducks under a ball-screen these days, Jackson immediately lets it fly. The Tar Heel offense is better for it.
Jackson has turned into the go-to scorer everyone thought he would be when he arrived in Chapel Hill – it just took a tad longer than expected. UNC is a national title threat thanks to its stud small forward.
F Gary Clark, Cincinnati
Clark is rare in this sense: he’s such an effective role player that he transcends the label. Clark does the little things really, really well; he’s an ace interior defender, can switch out onto smaller players in a pinch, rebounds and can adapt to any offensive environment.
Clark’s numbers won’t jump out at you, but he’s a vital cog on a Cincinnati team that’s trying to shed its reputation as an offensive brick factory. Clark is a defensive-minded player himself, but the Bearcats score 124 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor – as a team, Cincinnati's offensive rating is 114.2. Clark and Jacob Evans are the only Bearcats to register a figure above 118.
C Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
Delgado played 13 games between Jan. 16 and March 9 - he posted double-doubles in all 13. Delgado is relentless. The junior crashes the offensive glass from all angles; he’s able to anticipate which way the ball will bounce better than anyone. He lets his size and athleticism finish the job.
Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan is getting well-deserved Naismith recognition – Delgado is a notch below Swanigan as a scorer, but he does everything else just as well. One area of concern for Seton Hall: its star big has to stay out of foul trouble. Delgado has fouled out of the Pirates’ last three games – the Hall can’t afford for him to rest for an extended period of time.