March Madness: Players who MUST Rise to the Occasion
The NCAA Tournament kicks off this week, and this year’s field has a star-studded cast of players that should provide us with great individual play during March Madness. In previous tournaments, players such as Steph Curry, Carmelo Anthony, and Kemba Walker placed their stamp on the month of March and in our memories forever with their performances. This year the headlines have belonged to UCLA’s freshman Lonzo Ball, Kansas’ duo Frank Mason and Josh Jackson, Duke’s trio of stars Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen and Jayson Tatum, and Villanova’s senior Josh Hart. These players have had great seasons, but they play on teams with a strong enough supporting cast that a bad performance or two, early in the tournament may not cost their team the game. This next group of players carry the burden of their team’s fate on their shoulders, one bad game and their season is likely over. However, a string of great performances could land their team in the Final Four.
Dillon Brooks – Oregon
A broken left foot kept pre-season All-American Dillon Brooks out of Oregon’s first two games. After starting out slow, coming off the bench, Brooks returned to form during Pac-12 conference play. The Mississauga, Ontario native averaged 17.9 points in conference games on his way to Pac-12 Player of the Year honors. The versatile, 6-7 wing, also averaged 7.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in conference play and he nailed 43% of his attempts from behind the arc. During the Pac-12 tournament, Oregon lost its third leading scorer, Chris Boucher, to a torn ACL. His absence will force Brooks to take on an even larger role in the month of March. With a few game-winners and numerous big-time performances under his belt already this season, the added responsibility should be no problem for Brooks.
Donovan Mitchell – Louisville
After being banned from the 2016 NCAA tourney, Louisville has bounced back in 2017 as a legitimate Final Four contender. If the Cardinals are going to make it through a tough Midwest Region, Donovan Mitchell must continue to take his game to new heights. A role player in 2016 behind Damien Lee, Mitchell has emerged as the primary scoring option for Rick Pitino’s squad. The Cardinals have one of the best defenses in college basketball but the offense goes through its share of extended droughts, Mitchell included. In Louisville’s eight losses, Mitchell has averaged just 12.7 points. During ACC play, Mitchell averaged 18 points and knocked down his threes at a 40% clip. If he can sustain the play that earn him First Team All-ACC honors, Louisville could return to its first Final Four since their 2013 National Championship run.
Malik Monk – Kentucky
Kentucky’s championship aspirations will again rest on the shoulders of a freshman. The brightest star this year for John Calipari’s freshman class has been Malik Monk. Monk put the nation on notice back in December with a 47-point explosion against North Carolina in Las Vegas. He was unstoppable, displaying an array of pull-up and step-back jumpers, including the game-winner. Monk may be the best scorer in all of college basketball and he’s had other scoring outbursts of 33, 34 and 37 to prove it. He has struggled with inconsistency at times throughout the season so he will need to be at his best if Kentucky wants a chance at its first national title since Anthony Davis called Lexington home. With potential rematches against UCLA and North Carolina on the horizon, Monk may need a few more 30 point games to get the Wildcats into the Final Four.
Caleb Swanigan – Purdue
In a tournament historically dominated by guards, Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan can potentially change that narrative this year. Arguably the best player in college basketball, the unanimous Big Ten Player of the Year is a matchup nightmare. Swanigan averages 18.7 points and 12.6 rebounds on the season. He led the nation with 26 double-doubles and he posted four games of 20 points and 20 rebounds. At 6-8, 250 pounds, Swanigan is too strong for most opponents but he can even step out behind the arc where he has made 43% of his attempts on the season. To advance, Purdue will potentially face Iowa State and Kansas, two teams that lack an answer for the dominant big man. If they can’t slow down Swanigan, the Boilermakers may ruin a ton of brackets this March.
Allonzo Trier - Arizona
When the college basketball season started, the elephant in the room was the absence of Arizona’s Allonzo Trier and the speculation as to why he was being held out of games. Later in the year, we found out Trier tested positive for performing enhancing drugs during the offseason (Trier has stated that he unknowingly took PEDs). Since returning, Iso-Zoe has been looking for revenge with averages of 17.3 points and 5 rebounds a game. Thus far, his road to redemption has led to a Pac-12 regular season and tournament championship, as well as Pac-12 tournament MVP honors. Trier is one of the most complete two-guards on the college level. He can score from the outside, in transition and he’s lethal in isolation situations. With super-freshman Lauri Markkannen struggling entering the tournament, Allonzo Trier must be the catalyst for the Wildcats if they want the advantage of playing in their backyard of Glendale, Arizona in the Final Four.
Justin Jackson – North Carolina
After North Carolina’s loss to Duke in the ACC tournament semi-finals, Justin Jackson took the blame stating, “I’ve got to play better for us to win. So I take responsibility for that.” Jackson shot 6-22 from the field and North Carolina fell 93-83. The Tar Heels are as well balanced as any team in the field of 68 but they desperately need Justin Jackson’s production in every game in the tournament. Coming into the season, many wondered if Jackson could step up and become a go-to scoring option for the Tar Heels. He’s answered that question and many more during a breakout season. The ACC Player of the Year averages 18.1 points a night and he’s made 90 threes on the season, five short of a school record. Sixteen times this season Jackson has scored 20 points or more, including a career-high of 34 against Kentucky. The Tar Heels are the #1 seed in a loaded South Region and Jackson must be the best player on the floor every night if North Carolina wants to avenge its heartbreaking ending in last year’s championship game.