Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports
After a stellar second and third round of NCAA Tournament basketball we’ve successfully trimmed the fat and are down to the best 16 teams in college basketball. In order to make it this far in the tournament you need to not only have a solid team that plays well as a unit but you need a player that can rise above everyone else on the floor at any given moment and take over a game. Here are the guys who can change the entire course of a game and the season for their team and are must-watch players in the Sweet 16.
(Note: Rankings are done in order of tournament seeding)
(1) Kentucky – Willie Cauley-Stein (Center) – Picking only one great player on Kentucky is like trying to decide what your favorite flavor of ice cream is – they’re all awesome (at least in my opinion). While Cauley-Stein is a specimen defensively he can still change a game offensively – for proof look no further than this dunk against Cincinnati where it looks like he’s wearing a jet pack as he launches his 7-foot frame towards the rim with the power of a locomotive.
(1) Duke – Jahlil Okafor (Center) – Okafor can do it all offensively. He can penetrate a defense and get to the basket, he has one of the best post-up games of any big man in college and he has the touch with the basketball you don’t typically see out of centers. Okafor averaged over 18 points per game this year and has already set a Duke school record for most points in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament with 47.
(1) Wisconsin – Frank Kaminsky (Center) – Kaminsky seems to be in the driver’s seat for the Naismith Player of the Year award and it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t deserve it. Kaminsky and Okafor’s stats are nearly identical plus Kaminsky has the outside shot that Okafor lacks.
(2) Arizona – Stanley Johnson (Forward) – Johnson is another one of those bigger guys who can seemingly do it all on offense. He has the outside range as evidenced by his .373 three-point percentage this year and is averaging 14 points per game as a freshman. He was pretty close to awful in the team’s round of 32 game, going 1-12 shooting the ball but Johnson can be a force when his shot is going right.
(2) Gonzaga – Kyle Wiltjer (Forward) – It’s been an interesting collegiate experience for Wiltjer who started his career with Kentucky and coach John Calipari in 2011. Wiltjer has taken advantage of being the go-to player for the Zags and lead the team in scoring, averaging over 17 points per game and was second on the team in rebounds. Wiltjer has really redefined his game under coach Mark Few and will be the deciding factor in whether he gets to show his old coach how much he’s grown in this tournament.
(3) Notre Dame – Pat Connaughton (Guard/Forward) – Pat Connaughton had one of the best five minutes of his college basketball career in a huge spot against the Butler Bulldogs in the round of 32. He swatted away a last-second Butler three-pointer that would have given Butler the victory and then hit a clutch three-pointer late in overtime himself that gave his team the lead for good. He’s also averaging 12.5 points per game, is shooting over 40 percent from three-point land and is a top-rated prospect in the Baltimore Orioles farm system as a pitcher. Basically, he’s just as athletic and hungry as they come and could be a key performer down the stretch.
(3) Oklahoma – Buddy Hield (Guard) – The most impressive thing about reigning Big-12 Player of the Year Buddy Hield is that even when he’s a little bit off, he’s able to help his team in big ways as we saw when he made a crucial block on Dayton’s Darrell Davis with a 1:05 remaining in their game. Hield was just 4-13 from the field against Dayton but came up big when it counted – an important quality of any team’s star player.
(4) Louisville – Terry Rozier (Guard) – The sophomore guard is impressive all over the court. We all know he can score as he’s averaging 17.2 points per game and put 25 on Northern Iowa, but he can rebound and get his teammates involved too. He’s averaging 5.2 boards and 3 assists per game and is a major reason why a Louisville team that coach Rick Pitino has said isn’t his most talented is doing some pretty special things.
(4) North Carolina – Marcus Paige (Guard) – If you’re going to pick a half to miss 7-8 shots in, the first one would be the one to do it in. That’s exactly what the Tar Heels’ guard did against Arkansas but he made up for it with 20 of his 22 points in the second half to spur his team to the Sweet 16.
(5) Utah – Delon Wright – (Guard) – Wright might just be the best guard in the country, and while he didn’t have a great shooting performance against Georgetown, he made plays happen, got to the foul line and converted. He was 8-10 from the free-throw stripe and had five assists and five rebounds to go with his 12 points.
(5) West Virginia – Juwan Staten (Guard) – Staten lead his team in points per game and assists per game this season and is the engine that makes the Mountaineers’ offense run. He wasn’t as sharp as usual from the field against the Terrapins but still had six assists and will certainly be a force in the next round.
(6) Xavier – Matt Stainbrook (Center) – Stainbrook’s game isn’t always pretty but he can be as bullish as anyone around the basket. He lead the Musketeers in both scoring and rebounds this season and makes over 60 percent of his shots.
(7) Wichita State – Ron Baker (Guard) – Kansas’ Bill Self admitted he should have recruited the Kansas-native Baker before the Shockers beat the Jayhawks and he was reminded why as he unloaded deep threes against his squad. Baker lead the Shockers in scoring and along with Fred VanVleet will have to continue to shoot the lights out if the Shockers will continue their amazing run.
(7) Michigan State – Travis Trice (Guard) – The senior Trice clearly has the admiration of coach Tom Izzo and is the guy who will have the ball in his hands when the game is on the line. Trice was huge in the Spartans’ upset of No.2 seed Virginia with 23 points and shows no signs of slowing down in the Sweet 16.
(8) North Carolina State – Trevor Lacey (Guard) – Their win over No. 1 seed Villanova took a herculean team effort but it was spearheaded by team leader Lacey. Lacey’s 17 points and clutch shooting towards the end of the game will have to be repeated for the rest of the tournament if the Wolfpack hope to stay alive.
(11) UCLA – Normal Powell (Guard) – The senior guard is a weapon at both ends of the floor. He’s been shooting around 50 percent from the field thus far in the tournament and has been taking advantage of the tournament chance many thought his team didn’t deserve.