6 Players to Watch in the Sweet 16

Superstars and wildcards to watch during the Sweet 16.

This year’s NCAA Tournament has already brought us some excellent individual performances, both by players who have kept their teams advancing, and others who have now gone home despite their best efforts.

Adreian Payne’s 41-point performance against Delaware set a Michigan State single-game tournament record, and solidified their status as a multi-position threat in the tournament. Marcus Smart demonstrated the versatility that makes him so coveted among NBA scouts with a 23-point, 13-rebound, 6-assist, 6-steal game against Gonzaga. Cleanthony Early quieted doubts about Wichita State as a team, and himself as a talent, with his 31-point, 7-rebound contest against an NBA-bound frontcourt in the Shockers’ close loss to Kentucky.

Beyond these efforts by team superstars, we've also seen some lesser-known players step up their contributions and post impressive performances. Josh Richardson of Tennessee is averaging 18.3 points per game in the tournament, well above his 10.1 average on the season, and scored a season high 26 against Mercer in the Round of 32. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the Arizona sixth man, scored a season high 18 points in the Wildcats’ win over Gonzaga to advance. These wildcard players become particularly important as the tournament progresses, and teams are matched up against better defenses that are capable of identifying and limiting opposing superstars.

The Sweet 16 will continue to provide noteworthy individual performances, there's no doubt. And to get you prepped on who those players could be, I've identified a few players to watch. Three of these players are superstars, and few folks will be surprised to see big numbers out of them. Based on matchups in the Round of 16, however, you can expect them to outperform the already impressive statistics they have posted on the year.

In addition to those guys, I considered three potential wildcard players who are not as well known, but who may exploit mismatches against their opponents, becoming critical pieces to advancing their team to the next round.

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The Superstars

DeAndre Kane, Iowa State (vs. UConn)

DeAndre Kane has been a superstar all season. The senior does it all for the Cyclones, averaging 17.1 points per game to go along with 5.8 assists and 6.8 rebounds. In the first round game against NCCU, Iowa State lost their third leading scorer, Georges Niang (16.7 ppg).

In his absence, the Cyclones needed Kane to step up in order to advance. He didn't disappoint against North Carolina, posting a 24/10/7 stat line, which included a drive and layup in the final seconds to secure the 85-83 victory. A 6'4'' physical guard who often slides over to play the point, Kane will present a matchup problem for a much smaller UConn backcourt, and is in line for another stellar performance.

Shabazz Napier, UConn (vs. Iowa State)

On the other side of this same matchup we have Shabazz Napier. Despite the talent of the Iowa State guards, Napier is matchup proof, and he's making a strong case for tournament MVP so far. In UConn’s two tournament games, Napier is averaging 24.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists. All of the UConn offense runs through him, and he is as capable of taking over a game as any player in the country.

The Cyclones play at a furious pace (14th in the country in adjusted tempo) compared to UConn (235th in adjusted tempo), so this game will likely end up being played somewhere in the middle. But that only means more touches, opportunities, and stats for Napier.

Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee (vs. Michigan)

Jarnell Stokes is a physical force. The anchor of the Volunteers frontcourt, he's averaging better than a double-double on the season (15.2/10.7). This impressive baseline of production has paled in comparison to his play in Tennessee’s three tournament games, however, where he's averaging 20.3 points and 15 rebounds per contest.

For his awesome efforts in advancing the Volunteers, Stokes gets a matchup with Michigan, the worst team remaining in the tournament in terms of adjusted defense (95th in the country). The closest Michigan comes to a true post defender is Jordan Morgan, who is foul prone and is outweighed by Stokes by more than 10 pounds. Nobody in the country can stop Jarnell Stokes the way he is playing right now, and Michigan seems ill-equipped to even slow him down.

The Wildcards

Patric Young, Florida (vs. UCLA)

If you have not physically seen Patric Young on the court, it may be hard to understand how a 6'9'' center can be so important to the defense of a basketball team. His length carries with it 240 pounds that looks like it was carved out of granite though, and athletic abilities that can only be described as elite. He is the type of presence that can legitimately make opposing players think twice about whether driving the lane and initiating contact is really worth it. Despite his elite talent, however, Young’s offensive game has remained somewhat underdeveloped. He averages 10.9 points and 6.2 rebounds per game for the Gators.

A matchup against UCLA in the Sweet 16 causes us to think it may be time for Young to break out on offense. Florida is balanced offensively, with Guard Scotty Wilbekin coming into the game as the hot hand. But the Bruins have an often underrated perimeter defensive unit anchored by Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams. Where the Bruins struggle defensively is in the frontcourt, which is staffed by the Wear twins, and around 20 minutes per game of Tony Parker.

It’s no secret that early in the season the UCLA frontcourt couldn’t guard a piggy bank with a machine gun. While this has arguably improved as the season has progressed, no UCLA frontcourt player has an individual defensive rating below 103. Look for the Gators to try and exploit this weakness to get to the Elite Eight, and Young could very well be the beneficiary of this strategy.

DeAndre Daniels, UConn (vs. Iowa State)

This game will likely be the highest scoring of the round, and it could very well turn into a duel between Kane and Napier. The wildcard for UConn could be Deandre Daniels, however. Daniels has averaged 12.6 points per game this season, and is second on the team behind Napier in rebounds per game (5.7). In the two tournament games, Daniels has averaged 14.5 points and 4.5 rebounds.

Like UCLA, Iowa State is subject to being attacked from the forward position, as illustrated by Kennedy Meeks’ 15-point, 13-rebound performance against them last round. Iowa State is undersized, without a contributor above 6’6” following the injury to Niang. While UConn will undoubtedly be led by Napier, they will likely need a second contributor to defeat the Cyclones. Daniels has an excellent opportunity to be that player.

Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin (vs. Baylor)

Nigel Hayes is a bit of an outlier among our players to watch because he hasn't gotten consistent minutes during the tournament. In Wisconsin’s last matchup against Oregon, he played only 10 minutes, and posted a stat line of 6/2/1. He makes our list of players to watch as a true wildcard because Coach Bo Ryan typically goes with what works based on matchups, and Hayes’ talents are suited to find the holes in Baylor’s amorphous zone defense. Oregon, who lacked a true big man at the rim, was exploited by starters Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Baylor is a much different animal.

Baylor’s zone defense is an oddity, and one that changes from play to play. Because of this, there's always a risk in trying to predict how it will look from game to game. Much like Creighton, who Baylor was able to effectively stifle, Wisconsin looks to score a lot of their points from three-point shooting. Based on this, we could see a similar zone strategy from Baylor, who will make shutting down the outside shot a top priority. Despite Isiah Austin’s tendency to drift away from the paint, Baylor also does a good job of protecting the basket on defense which can cause traditional big men to struggle.

This is where Hayes comes in. The 6'7'' freshman has the ability to play in the post, but is also a very good mid-range jump shooter. As our friends in the analytics movement often remind us, the mid-range jump shot is highly inefficient, especially when contested. However, if Baylor comes out against the Badgers with the defense they did against Baylor, it may be the only shot available and you want your better mid-range shooters taking them. Hayes has flashed some upside, scoring in double figures eleven times this season. While you shouldn’t expect a huge performance, his ability to find points against Baylor may be the difference in the outcome of the game.