Nolan Smith, G, Duke
Duke has survived a season-long injury to PG Kyrie Irving and a prolonged shooting slump from F Kyle Singler largely because of Smith. Not a natural point guard, Smith slid over from the two and has done an admirable job of running the team (5.2 assists/game) while supplying the scoring they so desperately need from him (21.3 points/game). He’s a phenomenal slasher, a competent shooter and an excellent defender. He gave North Carolina PG Kendal Marshall fits yesterday with his tenacious ball pressure. Duke has to hope that his extended minutes (34.2 per game) don’t catch up with him in the tournament like they have for so many other Blue Devils over the years.
Kemba Walker, G, Connecticut
Walker, along with Smith and BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, has been one of the premier guards in the nation this year. Like Smith, Walker’s team relies heavily on him and he has shown the ability to carry the load. He’s a great scorer and a good distributor, but he can’t do it all on his own. UConn is much better with him off the ball than at the point, which puts a lot of pressure on freshman PG Shabazz Napier to handle the PG responsibilities. Watch out for tired legs here though. Just like Smith, Walker plays a ton of minutes (37.5 per game) and though winning the Big East Tournament was quite an accomplishment, UConn had to play five games in five days to do it.
Derrick Williams is a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches.
Derrick Williams, F, Arizona
The media has fawned all year over Smith, Walker and Fredette, yet somehow Williams has remained out of the spotlight to some degree. Don’t be fooled. In my opinion, he may be the best player in the nation. At 6’8’’ and a chiseled 240 lbs, he’s a sight to behold. Williams is great scorer (19.1 points/game), ferocious rebounder (8.1 rebounds/game), solid defender and underrated shooter (61.5% FG%, 60.3 3PT%!). He’s extremely long and athletic and creates matchup problems for any defender that tries to guard him.
Jordan Hamilton, SF, Texas
Hamilton played sparingly in his freshman season, but the tools were always evident. He broke out in a big way this season, showing the scoring ability that made him such a highly coveted prospect coming out of high school. He’s a very good shooter and a solid rebound. At 6’7’’ he’s a matchup nightmare as he can shoot over smaller defenders and take larger ones off the dribble. A potential matchup with Arizona and Williams in the second round would be extremely intriguing.
Others to watch:
Kawhi Leonard, F, San Diego State; Keith Benson, C, Oakland; Scotty Hopson, SF, Tennessee; Marcus Denmon, SG, Missouri; Talor Battle, PG, Penn State
Potential Sleeper (11+ seed that could make some noise): Oakland (13)
This is not your father’s mid-major team. When most think mid-major, they picture 13 white guys hustling, playing with good fundamentals and shooting threes. That’s Belmont, it’s not Oakland. The Golden Grizzlies have a great inside-outside tandem with senior C Keith Benson and junior G Reggie Hamilton. Benson, at 6’11’’ and 230 lbs, is a legitimate NBA prospect who is long, athletic and skilled. He’s a good scorer (18 points/game) and rebounder (10.1 rebounds/game) and an excellent shot blocker (3.6 blocks/game). When he plants himself in the paint, he and the Grizz are tough to handle. However he tends to drift to the perimeter sometimes and that’s something that he can’t do against Texas. Hamilton is an excellent scorer (17.4 points/game) and playmaker (5.4 assists/game), but needs to keep the turnovers (3.7 per game) under control. Texas better not take this team lightly, or they could find themselves sitting at home after their first game.
After winning five games in five days to take the Big East Tournament crown, Kemba Walker and the tired Huskies could make an early exit.
Potential Early Exit (1-3 seed that could go down early): Connecticut (3)
I’ve heard experts who are worried about Connecticut going up against the deliberately slow attack of the Bucknell Bisons, but I think they will handle their business in that first round game. The second round, I’m not so sure. If Missouri is able to knock off Cincinnati, UConn will have a tough matchup on their hands. Missouri plays a very frenetic style that they refer to as “40 Minutes of Hell”. They will employ a full-court press for virtually the entire game and push the ball up the court on offense. With the Huskies coming off their Big East Tournament Championship, including five games in five days, it’s tough to see them hanging with the Tigers, who go ten deep, in such an up and down game. Missouri is vulnerable inside, but UConn really doesn’t have the offensively minded bigs to hurt them there.
Best Potential Matchup: Duke vs. Texas
Assuming the Longhorns can get past Oakland in their inaugural game (no easy task), probable matchups with Arizona and Duke should be dandies. Texas and Duke can both shoot the ball extremely well from the perimeter and there are some very interesting one-on-one matchups like Kyle Singler on Jordan Hamilton and guards Nolan Smith and Seth Curry against Corey Joseph and J’Covan Brown. Brown is really the key for Texas. He’s an incredibly talented player, looking like an All-American for stretches. However, he also shows his immaturity at times and can be frustrated to the point where he will play out of control.
Duke will probably send the Pirates packing for Davey Jones’ locker faster than you can say “shiver me timbers”.
Best Mascot: Hampton Pirates
It’s a weaker field of mascots in this region, but I had to go with the Pirates. With a million possible battle cries like “Avast ye matee!” and “Land lubber!”, there’s some fantastic material to work with here. And just look at this guy. He’s got an eye patch and everything! If they had given him a peg leg, this would have been a slam dunk, but he’s still an excellent choice in this region. It is however a curious choice for the school’s mascot. I don’t think there were too many pirates running around that Hampton bowling alley when Allen Iverson was arrested back in the 90’s. They might have been more accurate with a mascot like Fat Albert.