We’re this close to yet another pulse-pounding, heart-stopping NCAA Tournament. So, what (and whom) can we count on? Where is our Cinderella hiding? We continue by traveling through the Midwest.
Frank Mason III, Kansas
The Jayhawks superstar guard is on the short list for National Player of the Year. Averaging 20 points per game, Mason is the leader Bill Self needs to help him get back to the Final Four. Mason rarely, if ever, leaves the floor. In the Jayhawks’ past seven games, Mason has sat a mere nine total minutes.
With Josh Jackson—the Jayhawks other star and likely top 10 pick in the draft—being a bit of a loose cannon, Mason’s leadership is key. He isn’t a future NBA star like Jackson, but he is one of the best guards Kansas has ever had. Teams who are led by freshmen can succeed, but having a four-year star player lead you is much more ideal.
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
Another member of that short list for National POY is the Boilermakers’ big man Caleb Swanigan. Averaging 18.5 points and 12.6 rebounds per game, he has surely surpassed any and all expectations that were thrown his way coming in last year as a freshman. His improvement in three-point shooting is what has made him a monster. Now that he has a more consistent outside shot, he is a nightmare to guard at his size (6’9″, 250 lbs.).
He has transformed himself into a first round NBA draft pick; he was projected to go in the second round at the start of the year. Purdue will need big performances out of Swanigan in one of the tougher regions in this year’s tournament.
Dillon Brooks, Oregon
Brooks broke onto the scene in last year’s tournament when then top-seeded Oregon took out perennial power Duke, adding 22 points in that affair. Most people remember him draining a late three-point shot that did not sit well with Coach K. And he’s continued his great play this year, leading the Ducks in scoring at 16.3 points per game.
With the injury to big man Chris Boucher, who averages 11 points per game, Brooks’ scoring will be needed even more when the tournament begins. If Oregon gets over the hump and reaches the Final Four, Brooks will likely be one of the main reasons why.
E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island
After suffering a season-ending knee injury in the first ten minutes of the Rams 2015-2016 season, Matthews returned this year—helping lead URI to their first tournament appearance since 1999. A highly-touted recruit coming out of high school, Matthews likely would have gone pro after last season had he not been injured.
URI Head Coach Dan Hurley was surely thrilled to have his leading scorer back this season. And quite simply, they would not be here without Matthews.
Donovan Mitchell and Quentin Snider, Louisville
Rick Pitino teams usually don’t have stand out stars. Yes, Russ Smith was fantastic back in 2012-13, but Peyton Siva was just as important to the team as Smith was. The same could be said For Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell from 2014-15. That’s the case again, as the backcourt duo of Mitchell and Snider are leading the way for the Cardinals.
If Pitino wants to get back to the Final Four, he’ll need Mitchell and Snider to continue their productivity from the regular season as the team’s leading scorers.
Searching for Cinderella
The double-digit seed with the best chance of becoming Cinderella
The Catamounts are the hottest team in the country. Not just the hottest mid-major, but the hottest team in all of Division 1 basketball. Their last defeat was on December 21st when they lost by 11 on the road at Butler. Since, they have ripped off 21 straight wins heading into their matchup with Purdue.
The Boilermakers have been knocked out of the tournament in the first weekend in their previous four appearances, so this matchup has upset written all over it. The Catamounts are no stranger to upsets either. Back in 2005, this happened.
Legendary coaches like Rick Pitino, Tom Izzo and Bob Huggins usually do very well for themselves during NCAA tournaments. No matter what seed they are or how much talent they have. That obviously speaks to how good they are at their jobs. This year, Pitino’s Cardinals are a two-seed, so the expectations are high.
The backcourt tandem of Snider and Mitchell, along with talented forwards Deng Adel and Jalen Johnson, should give Pitino enough firepower to reach the Final Four. The x-factor will be the play of big men Mangok Mathiang and Anas Mahmoud, who split time at the center spot. One of them must become somewhat of a legitimate low post scoring threat to make Louisville a truly complete team.