March Madness 2014 Preview: The Big Men on Campus (Part 1)
By: Josh Wasserman.
March Madness may have a syllabic pattern, but its results have no pattern whatsoever. Performances fluctuate weekly over the course of the year and very rarely does a player remain on top of his game the entire season (except maybe the doge Doug McDermott and a few select others). That being said, some players are coming into the tournament at the height of their game, while other stars have fallen fast into ongoing slumps. As a guide for a handful of these possibilities, here’s a list of a few stars who will maintain their prowess, a few who will shadow themselves when it’s time to shine, and a couple of relatively unknown players who will break through amidst the madness (a la Stephen Curry).
The Big Men on Campus
Cleanthony Early, F, Wichita State
Early has been the centerpiece of this undefeated Wichita State team. Every night, his relentless energy manifests itself in voracious rebounding, tenacious defense, and nearly unstoppable offensive presence down low. Regardless of the opponent, Early shows up to play and in the Shockers’ miracle run last year through the tournament, he was at the center of it as well, anchoring the team on both sides of the ball. The Shockers are out to prove to the country that they are a veritable contender, and Early’s performance will directly correlate with their success.
Sean Kilpatrick, F, Cincinnati
There’s a pretty simple analogy that can be used to describe Kilpatrick’s importance to Cincinnati: Kilpatrick is to Cincinnati what Doug McDermott is to Creighton. Without him and his unstoppable scoring ability, Cincinnati would be nowhere near where they are now. Senior Joe Jackson is also a leader on the team, but when you look at the stat sheets for Cincinnati’s games, you’ll notice that Kilpatrick is always the scoring leader. Cincinnati has scored some impressive wins this year, most notably conference victories over UConn, Louisville, and Memphis. In those wins, Kilpatrick tallied 26, 28, and 34 points respectively. When the big games roll around, he relishes in the limelight and accepts it with an emotional grace, and a scoring grace that very few can sport at such high stakes.
Kyle Anderson, G, UCLA
By defeating Arizona in the finals of the Pac-12 Tournament, the Bruins have affirmed their formidability. Led by an indefatigable backcourt of freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, one guard stands out among the rest: point guard Kyle Anderson. All respect to the admirable Jordan Adams, no player has been more influential in UCLA’s success than Anderson. He has seamlessly orchestrated the offense all year en route to a season with averages of 14.1 PPG, 8.7 RPG, and 6.6 APG. Furthermore, he never faltered on the Bruins’ trip to the Pac-12 Championship, while saving his best performance for last (he finished the game against Arizona with 21 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists). Anderson’s draft stock has shot up this season, and for good reason. Watch for him to command UCLA all the way to an elite eight spot.
Xavier Thames, G, San Diego State
An intense and incredibly appealing rivalry has emerged out of the Mountain West Conference this season between San Diego State, Kawhi Leonard’s alma mater, and New Mexico State. New Mexico State has just entered the AP poll recently, but San Diego State has been a mainstay in the poll throughout the season thanks to the outstanding play of Xavier Thames. Though the rest of the conference isn’t great, the Aztecs have still knocked off Kansas, Creighton, and New Mexico State this year, with Thames heading the charge. Leading the team with 16.9 PPG, 3.2 APG, and 1.7 SPG, his energetic play on both sides of the ball makes him a great catalyst for a team that will need a spark to start off the competition with a bang. Thames is always working to put the team on his back against big opponents, scoring 16 points and 26 points against Kansas and Creighton respectively. He’s a fun scorer to watch and he should go to work against the various opponents he encounters this March.
Shabazz Napier, G, UConn
UConn has been up and down this season, in and out of the top 25 repeatedly. But the play of star senior guard Shabazz Napier has remained at another level all year. Unquestionably the key cog of the UConn team, any chance of their success hinges upon his play. In an early season win against Florida (when UF was #15), Napier dropped 26 points while swiping 3 steals. In a win against #17 Memphis a few weeks after New Year’s, he scored 17 points while compiling 10 rebounds. Even when they lose, he often shines, as exemplified by his 30-point performance in a tough loss to Louisville. On the whole, he has failed to eclipse double-digit points in just four games this year and has put up 10 20+ point outings from the point guard role. UConn should be given a relatively good seed and if they want to put together a deep run in the tournament, they’ll have to be riding Napier’s coattails the whole way there.
All stats courtesy of espn.com