It is time for every college basketball fan’s favorite time of year – March Madness and the NCAA Tournament. While very few teams will rely on just one player to make a run in the Tournament, there are players whose play can be the difference between going home the first weekend or making it to the Final Four. I am going to look at one player from each team in the Tournament, and what they will need to do, or not do, to help their team advance. First up, the South region led by #1 overall seed, the Kentucky Wildcats. Here are 16 players who can make a big difference in the South:
16) Western Kentucky – Derrick Gordon (Freshman, G, 6’3, 185)
While many know Gordon as the high school teammate of Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, he has put together a somewhat impressive freshman year of his own. With a quick first step, he is fearless going to the rim, but his offense can be one-dimensional. He has improved as a defender as the year has gone on, and he is a fantastic rebounder for his size. Watch for Gordon to be involved in the Hilltoppers’ game plan early and often.
15) Lehigh – C.J. McCollum (Junior, G, 6’3, 180)
One of the top scorers in the country, McCollum will be a handful for the Duke guards in the first round. He has a well-rounded offensive game, and he also has the ability to act as a distributor if necessary. A very good on-ball defender, he uses his quick hands and feet to get Lehigh moving in transition, so the Duke guards will need to make sure they rotate back after their perimeter shots.
14) South Dakota State – Nate Wolters (Junior, G, 6’4, 193)
Wolters may be the best point guard in the country that no one has heard of…yet. A good athlete with an excellent sense of court awareness, Wolters finds ways to not only create space for his own shot, but he does a very good job getting his teammates the ball where they can make a play. While he isn’t a great shooter, he finds ways to score and keep the Jackrabbits’ offense moving. An average defender, he will need to be much more aware of the quickness and shooting ability of the Baylor guards in Round 1.
13) New Mexico State- Wendell McKines (Senior, F, 6’6, 230)
McKines, who redshirted with an injury last season, made up for lost time this season. With the ability to post up, hit the perimeter jumper and a tenacious offensive rebounder, McKines is a one-man dynamo for the Aggies. McKines is not a great defender, but he is very tough and will make the offense work for everything they get. Indiana will need Zeller and the other bigs will need to make a big effort to keep him off the boards or he will keep the Aggies in the game.
12) Virginia Commonwealth – Darius Theus (Junior, G, 6’3, 200)
A valuable reserve on last year’s VCU Final Four team, Theus made the transition to starting point guard easily this year. On the offensive end, Theus does a great job keeping the Rams’ moving, but his real strength lies on the defensive end where he has the ability to pressure the ball full-court. The Wichita State guards will need to do a good job spreading the court and not allowing Theus to interrupt their offense.
11) Colorado – Andre Roberson (Sophomore, G/F, 6’7, 210)
After a very good freshman season, there was a lot of pressure on Roberson to breakout this season, and while I’m sure people expected more, he showed some great growth as a player. He is not particularly skilled as an offensive player, but by being active, he makes plays and scores points. Roberson has also improved a lot as a defender this season, with the ability to guard multiple positions. UNLV will need to keep an eye on Roberson on the offensive end, putting a body on him and keeping off the boards.
10) Xavier – Tu Holloway (Senior, G, 6’0, 190)
Holloway was a hot name heading into this season and he had a reputation as one of the most exciting scorers in the NCAA. While he had some great games, and he helped propel Xavier back into the Tournament, his season has been very inconsistent. Defensively, he is going to need to be very active and make sure to get out against the Notre Dame perimeter shooters to keep them from getting hot. On the offensive end, he will need to be patient and look to break down the Notre Dame defense to get his teammates easy looks.
9) UConn – Andre Drummond (Freshman, C, 6’10, 270)
Drummond is a freak athlete and has shown flashes of potential that made every NBA team take notice, but he is still very raw. Fundamentally, he is still a work-in-progress, and he is at his best on both ends right now when he can rely on instincts and athletic ability. In the first round, he will need to deal with one of the toughest big men in the country, Iowa State’s Royce White, and Drummond will need to show that he can be just as tough to keep UConn in this game.
8) Iowa State – Royce White (Sophomore, F, 6’8, 270)
College basketball fans waited a few years and a couple of schools, but they all finally got to see Royce White in action, and in many ways, he has been better than advertised. Most knew about his strength and his ability to score and rebound around the rim, but he has also showed a good understanding of the court, and how to get his teammates involved from the post. He isn’t a great athlete, but he will keep going at you with his wide body, and the UConn big men will need to make sure they hold their ground or White can dominate this matchup.
7) Notre Dame – Jerian Grant (Sophomore, G, 6’5, 195)
Grant is a versatile guard who can attack the basket, hit from the perimeter, and handle the point for the Irish. He is extremely confident and has a basketball IQ way beyond his years. Defensively, he can guard either backcourt position and does a very good job defending passing lanes. ND is going to need him to be a tough on-ball defender against the Xavier backcourt duo of Holloway and Mark Lyons. On the offensive end, he should be able to use his good size to get good looks on the perimeter.
6) UNLV – Chace Stanback (Senior, G, 6’8, 215)
While Mike Moser garnered most of the attention for UNLV this season, it was the perimeter shooting of Stanback which often determined the Rebels’ fate in a lot of games. One of the best 3-point shooters in the country, Stanback’s athleticism makes defenders respect him. Colorado has an active defense and UNLV will need Stanback to hit some perimeter shots early to spread the defense and give Moser and the guards room to work.
5) Wichita State – Garrett Stutz (Senior, C, 7’0, 255)
His development has taken some time, but this season was when Stutz finally made a major impact. An improved low-post came coupled with a relentless pursuit of offensive rebounds gave Shockers’ opponents one more thing to worry about when playing them. While he is still not a great defender, and he could learn to use his size more to his advantage, Stutz will need to be at his best to help Wichita State advance through a tough bracket. First step, he has a big size advantage over anyone on VCU, and the Shockers will need to get the ball into him to try and slow the VCU pace down.
4) Indiana – Christian Watford (Junior, F, 6’9, 225)
Though the same impact wasn’t there, as he made in his sophomore year, Watford is a vital part of the Indiana offense with his ability to score from all parts of the floor. He has great size and a strong body and when his energy is consistent, he can be a big mismatch for the opponents. New Mexico State will look to pressure the perimeter and make it tough for the ball to get into Cody Zeller, so Watford should have plenty of opportunities to make his mark in the first round, and he may be the difference between advancing and a first round upset.
3) Baylor – Perry Jones III (Sophomore, F, 6’11, 235)
Which Perry Jones are we going to see in the NCAA Tournament? The Jones who sleepwalked through parts of the season, or the Jones who could be a Top 5 Draft pick and who dominated the Big 12 Tournament? Obviously, we know what Baylor wants, and the matchup with South Dakota State may give him the stage to show that he is the real deal. He has great athleticism, so a quick pace won’t bother him, and there should be no one person who can defend him alone. If the effort is there, Baylor will win this matchup easily.
2) Duke – Austin Rivers (Freshman, G, 6’4, 200)
There was a lot of hype going into Rivers’ freshman year, and by the time the ACC season came around, Rivers did not disappoint. Possibly the only player on the Duke roster who can create his own scoring opportunities, the Blue Devils need Rivers to be in attack mode if they hope to go far this year. Lehigh will look to push the pace, and Rivers should thrive in an up-and-down battle. However, it may be on the defensive end where he could be most valuable. C.J. McCollum may be tough a matchup for any of the other Duke guards, so it may fall on Rivers to step up and put pressure on the Lehigh perimeter.
1) Kentucky – Terrence Jones (Sophomore, F, 6’9, 252)
The talent on Kentucky can be overwhelming, but as was seen in some close games for the Wildcats down the stretch, they need Jones to have his head in the game. When the effort is there, Jones is a tough matchup for almost anyone with his ability to score inside and out, but as college basketball fans have been accustomed to seeing, you don’t know which Jones you will get. The freshmen, as impressive as they are, cannot carry this team. If Kentucky hopes to win it all, they need Jones to be at his best.
Check back later as I move through the rest of the regions before Thursday’s tip-off. Next up, the West region led by Michigan State, Missouri and Marquette. Remember, leave any comments below, follow me on Twitter – @NBADraftBlog, or feel free to email me at the link up top.