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2018 NCAA Tournament Players to Watch – Part 1

March 13, 2018 Columns No Comments

Another NCAA Tournament is in front of us, and one thing that invariably happens every year is a few players not previously in the limelight enter the public’s consciousness. It could be a clutch shot, a big defensive play to preserve a win, or a big game, but one way or another, we don’t just see the stars we know about come up big. We also see previously unknown players do that as well.

The first day of games is Tuesday, with two of the four play-in games, and winners advance to Thursday’s first round. Here is a look at a player to watch from each team that plays on the day.

Donta Hall, Jr. F, Alabama
The Crimson Tide’s big inside presence is among the SEC leaders in rebounding and blocked shots and does a great deal to balance out the dynamic perimeter duo of Collin Sexton and John Petty. When he gets post opportunities, he’s dangerous, since he converts 72 percent of his too-limited field goal attempts.

Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Sr. G, Arizona
He’s far from the best or most well-known player on his team, but he’s a point guard who has won a lot of games. At times, he’s done so with a big shot, so don’t be surprised if the ball is in his hands at a key moment.

C.J. Massinburg, Jr. G, Buffalo
He’s been a solid player or better every year in college, and this is the best one yet. He has produced all year, including 29 points and 10 rebounds against Cincinnati early in the season, so he can do it against good teams.

Jon Axel Gudmundsson, So. G, Davidson
While Peyton Aldridge and Kellan Grady were the award winners on the Wildcats, Gudmundsson made a big leap from his freshman year and should become one of the go-to guys the next two seasons.

Wendell Carter Jr., Fr. F, Duke
Marvin Bagley III isn’t the only Blue Devil who has put up a lot of double-doubles – Carter has as well, but has naturally been overshadowed. He posted 15 double-doubles, which puts him behind only Bagley and North Carolina’s Luke Maye among ACC players.

Egor Koulechov, Sr. G, Florida
The graduate transfer from Rice has always been able to shoot, and he’s done that to the tune of 40 percent from long range, but he’s also quietly led the team in rebounding.

Rui Hachimura, So. F, Gonzaga
An unheralded holdover this season, he had to wait his turn and is now taking advantage of his chance. He’s improved markedly since the beginning of the season and is an X-factor for the Bulldogs.

Rob Gray Jr., Sr. G, Houston
Quietly, he has put up solid scoring numbers for a couple of years, but this year he also finished fourth in the American Athletic Conference in assists and fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio.

Rickey McGill, Jr. G, Iona
A very capable scorer and passer, the Gaels need him to be more like the player who scored 40 points in a tough loss to MAAC regular season co-champion Rider than the one who scored just 12 points on under 20 percent shooting in three conference tournament games.

Svi Mykhailuik, Sr. G, Kansas
Devonte’ Graham’s perimeter sidekick has steadily improved from being a bit player to a 15 point per game scorer, as well as a 45 percent shooter from deep.

P.J. Washington, Fr. F, Kentucky
He’s not as heralded as others in the Wildcats’ freshman class, but he won a lot of games in high school and surged late in the year. Perhaps not coincidentally, as his play picked up and he scored in double figures in eight straight games, the Wildcats snapped out of a funk they were in.

Joel Hernandez, Sr. G, LIU
After redshirting a year ago, he bounced back in fine fashion to be the Northeast Conference’s second-leading scorer. He did plenty of that in the conference tournament, scoring 83 points in three games including 32 (on 10-16 shooting) in the title game.

Clayton Custer, Jr. G, Loyola-Chicago
On a team known for its defense, the Missouri Valley Player of the Year also shines offensively as the team’s top scorer and assist man, while also shooting by far a career best from the field (52.3 percent).

Lonnie Walker, Fr. G, Miami
When Bruce Brown went out with an injury that would end his season, the Hurricanes had to change their offense, and Walker’s rise was a big part of that. The potential has always been there as he is the most highly-touted recruit they have signed.

Charles Matthews, Jr. G, Michigan
The Kentucky transfer has found a much better fit in Ann Arbor, where he played much more and had a bigger role on a team that looks poised to make a run.

Ahmaad Rorie, Jr. G, Montana
The one-time Oregon Duck has found a home in Missoula as the leader of the Big Sky champions. He had 30 points in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament and was no smaller in the final with 15 on 5-9 shooting and five assists.

Omer Yurtseven, So. C, NC State
He declared for the NBA Draft, but returned, and both he and the Wolfpack were better for it. He’s a solid inside presence but can also hit the timely three-point shot as well.

Keita Bates-Diop, Jr. F, Ohio State
One of the most improved players in the country, he has doubled his scoring average from a year ago and is third in the Big Ten in rebounding.

Christian James, Jr. G, Oklahoma
He had to wait his turn on a stacked veteran team as a freshman, but still contributed. Now he’s a key player who is shooting better than a year ago and has cut down on his turnovers.

A.J. Brodeur, So. F, Penn
Solid, skilled and unspectacular, his scoring numbers are down a bit from last year but most other key numbers are not. He came up big in the Ivy League Tournament with two double-doubles while going 18-27 from the floor.

Ed Polite Jr., Jr. F, Radford
The Highlanders’ leading scorer and rebounder has emerged the past two seasons as one of the best players in the Big South.

Jeff Dowtin, So. G, Rhode Island
On a team full of senior guards, Dowtin has shined as the primary playmaker and also a good defender. He built nicely on the promise he showed as a freshman and has by far the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the Atlantic 10 (4.4).

Devin Watson, Jr. G, San Diego State
The San Francisco transfer came in and made an impact right away for the Aztecs. Although he’s underrated, he came up big in their upset of Nevada in the Mountain West semifinals, scoring 20 points and going 4-7 from long range along the way.

Myles Powell, So. G, Seton Hall
The Big East’s winner of their Most Improved Player award has always had the ability to light it up from long range, and he did that more this year while being a better overall player for the Pirates.

David Jenkins Jr., Fr. G, South Dakota State
He doesn’t get nearly the acclaim as many freshmen nationally, or teammate Mike Daum, but he’s an integral part of this team that has a lot more than just Daum going for it. He wasted no time making an impact, including in the Summit League Tournament, where he scored 24 in the semifinals and 29 in the championship game and shot 20-34 from the field.

Courtney Stockard, Jr. F, St. Bonaventure
The stellar backcourt of Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley rightly gets a lot of press, but Stockard’s emergence has been a difference-maker. Fresh off an injury that took a long time to heal, he’s worked his way to becoming a consistent double-digit scorer and has posted four double-doubles as their second-leading rebounder.

Shannon Bogues, Jr. G, Stephen F. Austin
The junior college transfer made an instant impact for the Lumberjacks as part of their fast-paced play. He had 27 points in the Southland semifinals and leads the team in scoring.

Grant Williams, So. F, Tennessee
The best thing Tennessee can do is run their offense through him, as he built nicely on his promising freshman campaign and is the biggest reason the Volunteers have had the season they have.

Zhaire Smith, Fr. G-F, Texas Tech
This very athletic wing has a bright future ahead after helping the Red Raiders in a promising campaign. He scored 20 points in the close loss to Kansas late in the season.

Aaron Holiday, Jr. G, UCLA
Playing late at night out west, he doesn’t get nearly the attention he deserves, but the Pac-12 scoring leader and second-leading assist man emerged this year as the leader of the Bruins and did a lot at both ends of the floor to get them here.

Francis Alonso, Jr. G, UNC Greensboro
A one-time starter for the Spanish national team, he’s had three solid years of college thus far and is skilled enough to play both guard spots for the Southern Conference champions.

Donte DiVincenzo, So. G, Villanova
While he can fill a stat sheet, the best thing to do is just watch him play. A top reserve who could start for just about any team, he competes as hard as anyone and does so many things to help this team win games while being overshadowed by Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges.

Justin Robinson, Jr, G, Virginia Tech
The Hokies’ leading scorer is second in the ACC in assists and among the leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio. He is hidden away in a deep ACC, but a very solid floor leader all the same.

Grant Benzinger, Sr. G, Wright State
The son of former Major League Baseball player Todd has been the go-to guy for the Raiders, and he came up big not only in the Horizon League final, but earlier this year when he scored 31 points on 8-13 shooting in a win at regular season champion Northern Kentucky.

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