5 players who need to step it up in the Sweet Sixteen
A one-and-done tournament like the NCAA Tournament can be so difficult because one bad night ends your season. Pressure is on star players to bring their best every night if they don’t want to go home far earlier than they would have hoped. Teams who want to get to the Final Four need big performances from their star players, and a few of them have failed to deliver that as of yet. The Sweet Sixteen, as the competition gets tougher, would be the perfect place to do that.
Here are five players who are capable of stepping it up for the Sweet Sixteen, and whose teams badly need them to.
5) Allonzo Trier, Arizona
Trier didn’t score a point in the first half of Arizona’s second-round game against St. Mary’s, a game the Wildcats were losing by one at halftime. Arizona ended up winning by nine, and Trier put up 14 in the second half. He woke up, and so did Arizona, and those two things are not coincidental.
Arizona has a lot of good players — Lauri Markkanen is of enormous importance to them as well — but Trier is something of an engine for Arizona. The good news is he stayed aggressive even when he wasn’t shooting the ball well, and he was rewarded for his efforts.
The second weekend will pose new challenges for Trier and his teammates, and if he can shoot the ball well, Arizona is in good shape. If he has another half like he did against St. Mary’s, Arizona will probably find themselves in trouble.
4) Dillon Brooks, Oregon
Brooks is so good that he got Coach K all flustered during last season’s tournament, but Rhode Island’s tough defense had the star Oregon forward tossing up bricks on Sunday.
Brooks managed 19 points as his team squeaked out a 75-72 win, but it came on 7-for-20 shooting — an extremely inefficient performance in a game that it looked like Oregon was going to lose for much of it.
Things only get tougher from here.
Oregon is slated for a matchup with Michigan, the hottest team in the country, and Brooks will have to match the red-hot Wolverines shot-for-shot. He’s been prone to the occasional scattered shooting performance — see a foul-prone 3-for-12 performance against Cal in the Pac-12 tournament — but the guy who has knocked down every other shot he’s taken this season can’t really afford one here. If Brooks wants to pick up an Oregon team facing a hot opponent without Chris Boucher to help on the defensive side, he needs to get hot and knock down his shots.
3) Joel Berry, North Carolina
It’s probably a bit unfair to include Berry here, considering there is a perfectly understandable reason for his tournament struggles so far. That said, the Tar Heel guard will have had a few days to rest his ankle, and we’re expecting him to be raring to go when the Tar Heels square off with Butler.
Berry played in North Carolina’s second-round comeback win over Arkansas, but he certainly didn’t play well. He had just three assists and was only 2-for-13 from the floor, a far cry from the star guard who eviscerated Duke earlier in the month and averaged 14.4 points per game on the season. Berry gave the Tar Heels next to nothing in the near-upset, and had they been unable to come back, he definitely would have looked back on his performance, injury or not, with regret.
Butler is better than Arkansas, so Berry will need to step up his game, as Justin Jackson can’t do it alone.
2) Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga
Gonzaga’s Polish anchor in the post has been the target of double- and triple-teams in the Bulldogs’ first two NCAA Tournament games, and the numbers he put up showed. He scored a combined 19 points in the two games, being limited to 17 and 19 minutes, below his season average of 22.8. The Zags are deep and can afford to do this, but Karnowski is so talented and such a load inside that the team would no doubt like to see more from him.
Gonzaga rode Karnowski hard down the stretch during the WCC tournament — he played 35 minutes in the final — but as the competition starts getting better, they’ll need more from him. Karnowski along with point guard Nigel Williams-Goss gives Gonzaga a unique inside-outside threat. 19 points and seven rebounds is the sort of line Karnowski is capable of putting up in a single game, not a total for two tournament games, which is exactly what it is so far.
If Gonzaga is serious about a Final Four run, they’ll need more from him.
1) Malik Monk, Kentucky
The Wildcats’ star freshman has shown the ability to light it up from the floor. He averages 20 points per game and shoots nearly 40 percent from deep, so you know he has it in him. Though Kentucky has managed to survive their first two games, Monk hasn’t brought that shooting prowess to the Big Dance yet.
Monk is shooting a miserable 28.5 percent from the floor in the tournament so far, with just six made field goals in 21 attempts. That includes a dreadful 2-for-11 mark from beyond the arc, just over 18 percent. He’s been effective from the free throw line, where he has picked up most of his points, but he simply hasn’t posed a consistent threat from the floor yet.
That could very easily change at any point — he’s a 45 percent shooter overall, so his small tournament sample size has plenty of room to grow — but his Kentucky team barely got past Wichita State without him posing a huge threat.
Lonzo Ball and UCLA will be much more capable of punishing offensive dry spells. The Wildcats have a ton of talent, but to be really comfortable, they need Monk to get back to something resembling his best.