My Sweet Sixteen

March Madness

After an absurd – and absurdly entertaining – four-day span of college basketball, full of shocking and not so shocking upsets, overtime nail biters, and boatloads of unexpected weirdness, we’ve had a little bit of a respite to catch our collective breath. Let’s be real for a minute, though. Your bracket is toast, and your team is probably already out of the tourney. There’s a chance your interest is waning a little bit. Do you need something to pull you back in before the MADNESS picks back up tonight? Half of you are mad I even asked, but the other half of you are nodding silently. I thought so. That’s why I came up with a little list of sixteen guys to pay attention to (for various reasons) over the next two nights of basketball. This is my sweet sixteen.

Scottie Wilbekin – Florida

Pittsburgh v Florida

With a team as loaded as the top-seeded Gators, there are plenty of worthy candidates. Florida has four different guys that average double figures. Casey Prather is the leading scorer, but senior leader Scottie Wilbekin gets my pick. Wilbekin broke team rules last summer (and the summer before that), and was suspended to begin the season. Obviously, he could have been the disappointing cautionary tale that everyone is tired of hearing, but in March, all of that is a distant memory. Wilbekin is a dependable scorer, top-notch defender, and has a devastatingly quick first step. He’s coming off a 21-point performance against Pittsburgh, his first 20-point game in over a month. He will be crucial in Florida’s Sweet Sixteen matchup with UCLA – and in the rest of the tournament, assuming they advance.

Kyle Anderson – UCLA

Anderson

The Bruins have been tasked with stopping Wilbekin and the rest of the highly touted Gators, so that’s been the talk of the week leading up to the game. But perhaps the better question is, how is Florida going to stop Kyle Anderson? To say Kyle Anderson has the size advantage is burying the lede. Anderson, like Wilbekin, is a point guard, but he’s 6-9 to Wilbekin’s 6-2. He possesses admirable vision and a grace that guys that big typically aren’t blessed with – particularly in college. He also has a pretty nifty pull-up jumper. Most of you expect Florida to roll over the Bruins. If that’s not the case, it’s a pretty good bet that Kyle Anderson has something big to do with it.

Archie Miller – Dayton

Archie Miller

Okay, so this one isn’t a player; however, I never said all of these had to be. Archie Miller is the head coach of the Dayton Flyers, and he also happens to be the brother of Arizona head coach Sean Miller. They look quite a bit alike, and their mannerisms are fun to compare and contrast. Spoiler alert: they’re pretty much the same. He also has an, um, photogenic wife, who wears “Dayton High Life” T-Shirts, which is something that I think we can all support. But beyond that, Miller has been called the breakout coach of the tournament, has been referred to as “this year’s Andy Enfield,” and netted a presumably lucrative contract extension. I’m all about the Archie Miller experience. I mean, his name is Archie; how can you not be? Go Dayton!

Chasson Randle – Stanford

Randle

Chasson Randle, Stanford’s leading scorer, is an indefatigable killer. First, he killed New Mexico, then he killed my team last Sunday, and I’m not ready to talk about it yet, but let’s just say they’re fully aware of who he is now. Watch out for this dude, Archie!

Anthony Gill – Virginia

Gill

Virginia’s head coach is named “Tony Bennet,” which was pretty tempting, but I resisted. Virginia is a 1-seed that gets no respect. They’re somehow the underdog in their matchup against surging Michigan State. My Virginia pick is Anthony Gill, a sophomore forward who played his first season two years ago for South Carolina.  Gill is stocky, yet he manages to do a little bit of everything, and he’s remarkably efficient. So far this tournament, he’s averaged 15 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, while shooting over 70%. Gill might be someone to watch, not just this weekend, but also in the next couple of years. Also, that picture is just awesome.

Adreian Payne – Michigan State

Payne

Michigan State’s star forward Adreian Payne has a really annoying name to type out – three vowels in a row? — but I’ll try not to hold that against him. He’s a senior, who hasn’t been to the Final Four, which, if you play for Tom Izzo you get to hear about a lot, so you know he has something to prove. Some have put him on the fence as a top pro prospect. Okay, sure. Whatever. For the next four games, though, he might have exactly the tools that the Spartans need. He’s physical and versatile on the offensive end, working hard over the course of this season to become an outside threat. He was among the numerous Spartan players who had injury issues, missing seven games in the middle of the season, but he’s been hitting his stride this past month. In the second round of the tournament, Payne went off, scoring a career-high 41 points, shooting a perfect 17-for-17 from the field.

Oh, and if you’re looking for a sentimental reason to appreciate this guy, there’s this:

DeAndre Kane – Iowa State

Kane

The Cyclones’ point guard, DeAndre Kane, had a rough time at Marshal before transferring to Ames. He didn’t qualify academically his freshman season, and then led the nation in technical fouls – twice. He punched a teammate before finally getting kicked off the team. From just that, he sounds like a head case you wouldn’t want to have on your team. But it’s not that simple and never is, really. Kane had a rough upbringing on the streets of Pittsburgh, surrounded by gang culture and violence. His close friend was shot in front of him when he was just 16 years old, and his father died of a brain aneurysm two years ago. This season, though, Kane has put his troubled and tragic past behind him and played the best basketball of his career. He averaged 17 points and 5.8 rebounds per game this season. On Sunday, Kane led the Cyclones over North Carolina, recorded 24 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. And he made the game-winning layup (pictured above). Look out.

Shabazz Napier – UConn

Shabazz

UConn senior guard Shabazz Napier has been compared to Kemba Walker hundreds of times; not just this past week, but all season. Both were/are fun-to-watch guards, who put their teams on their back and led the Huskies to a National Championship. Maybe; it’s a nice narrative, at least. But the comparisons exist for reasons other than sports writers and media pundits being really lazy. Napier has been a force in the first two games of the tournament, scoring 24 and 25 over St. Joes and Villanova, respectively. However, that’s pretty much par for the course for Napier, who averaged 24.5 points, 6.5 assists and 4.5 assists in the regular season. He hasn’t scored 90 points in three games as Kemba did in 2011, and he’s not very likely to, but if the Huskies get by Iowa State, who’s to say that can’t happen?

Aaron Gordon – Arizona

Aaron Gordon

Much has been said of Arizona’s freshman sensation Aaron Gordon – and rightfully so. He hasn’t necessarily been the Wildcats’ best player – that would be Nick Johnson – but he’s definitely been its most watched. He’s explosive and averages 12.5 points per game, but he’s especially strong on the defensive end, as are all of the Wildcats. Against Gonzaga, Gordon went 8-for-10 from the field and scored 18 points, hit a three, recorded six assists and four steals. After Kansas’ and Duke’s early exits, he’s one of the only phenoms left, and he seems to be elevating his game at precisely the right time.

Xavier Thames – San Diego State

Thames

Senior guard Xavier Thames is San Diego State’s best player, and the key to the game. If Arizona’s top ranked defense can shut him down, they shouldn’t have much trouble advancing to the Elite Eight. But if Thames gets in the zone as he did against North Dakota State, when he dropped 30 of his team’s total 63 points, San Diego State could be a handful for the Wildcats. He also scored 23 in the Aztecs’ win over the New Mexico State, and is shooting a scintillating 89% from the field. It’s going to be fun to see if he can handle Arizona’s pressure.

Brady Heslip – Baylor

Brady Heslip

March Madness was made for guys like Brady Heslip. The senior guard is the team’s second-leading scorer. He can also pick pockets and pass well, though what Heslip does better than anything is shoot. He’s shooting 46% from the floor and 47% from three-point range. With 112 threes made, Heslip ranked fourth in the category during the regular season. He hit five threes against Creighton and made five or more seven other times this season. He’ll shoot from anywhere on the floor and if he catches fire against Wisconsin or another time during this tournament then we just might get to see something special.

Frank Kaminsky – Wisconsin

NCAA Basketball 2013: North Dakota vs Wisconsin NOV 19

Wisconsin junior forward Frank Kaminsky averages 13.6 points per game for the Badgers. Wisconsin is known for slowly working the ball around the perimeter until they find a hole. Like pretty much everyone who has ever played for Wisconsin, he isn’t afraid to take an outside shot. In his first two seasons, Kaminsky was mainly used on the perimeter. But this year, he’s become the team’s leading scorer by becoming a more imposing presence in the post, as he should be – he’s 7 foot tall, for crying out loud. His versatility and his range could bother Baylor’s highly touted zone – the zone that they used to stop Creighton’s Doug McDermot.

Aaron Harrison – Kentucky 

Ron Baker, Aaron Harrison

The Harrison twins came in to this season, along with Julius Randle and the rest of their recruiting class, with a lot of hype. They were called “The Best Recruiting Class Ever” by a bunch of idiots like me who write about these kinds of things (not me, though, just like me). They have talent and athleticism in spades, but they’ve been much maligned for not living up to expectations, particularly the Harrison twins. Despite the fact that the Wildcats were the top-ranked team in the preseason, they struggled throughout the year and entered the tourney as an eight seed. It’s undoubtedly a lot of weight to put on the shoulders of two 19 year olds; however, the Harrison twins are coming around, particularly Aaron. He scored 20 against Kansas State and 19 in last Sunday’s fantastic slugfest against Wichita State. His defense has noticeably improved as well. The Wildcats will need all of the defense they can muster for the next installment of their inter-state rivalry with Louisville.

Russ Smith – Louisiville

Russ Smith!

Russ Smith is absolutely electrifying to watch. You’re generally afraid he’s going to take an ill-advised shot or try a little too hard to make something happen, but like Rajon Rondo, when he’s on his game, he’s out of this world, especially in the open floor. Although he’s a little undersized, if he finds the right team, I could see him having a fun NBA career as being a cross between a heat-check scorer and an irrational confidence guy. As it stands now, he’s a scorer with a very underrated passing game. And he plays for Rick Pitino, so he knows how to play defense. The Louisville Cardinals are an experienced bunch and a pretty complete team, but I think they’ll go as far as Russdiculous will take them. (Side note: I’m not sure if that nickname is either the best thing ever or evidence that we just need to stop with nicknames in general. It’s an indecipherable feeling, quite familiar to Louisville fans versed in Smith’s sometimes-questionable shot selection.)

Jarnell Stokes – Tennessee

Jarnell Stokes

The Tennessee Volunteers, along with the Dayton Flyers, are the surprise team of the tourney. A lot of people didn’t even have them getting past their “First Four” matchup with Iowa, let alone make it to the Sweet Sixteen. Their next opponent isn’t the Iowa Hawkeyes or the UMass Minute Men or the Mercer Bulldogs, though; it’s the Michigan Wolverines, a team with poise and experience. But the Vols have been on a roll, and it’s largely been due to their glass-eating junior forward Jarnell Stokes. Stokes averaged 15.2 points and 10.7 points per game during the season, but in the tournament, he’s taken his game to another level, averaging 20.3 points and 15 rebounds per game. Over the weekend, he pulled down 18 against Mercer. It’ll be interesting to see what he can do against a better team.

Mitch McCary Nik Stauskas – Michigan

Stauskas

Sorry, Michigan fans; I couldn’t resist. Last year, when Trey Burke and Mitch McGary led the Wolverines to the National Championship, freshman sharpshooting winger Nik Skauskas was, at best, a third or maybe fourth banana. This year, he’s a first team All-American (even though he’s Canadian). He’s averaging 17.1 points, 3.3 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting a stellar 45.1% from three-point range. In the tournament, he’s made 7-of-15 three-point attempts. Watch him this weekend as Michigan attempts to make a second straight run to the Final Four. Expect him to be in the Player of the Year conversation by the time he graduates, if not next year.

Well, that was kind of exhausting, but fun– and hopefully, sweet. Enjoy the games.

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 9.44.56 AM

Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.

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