Seven players capable of carrying their teams to the Final Four
The NCAA Tournament earns the nickname “March Madness” every single year. With wild finishes and crazy upsets, the tourney never disappoints. Navigating through that “madness” to the Final Four or even a championship is no easy feat. Teams are not accustomed to playing twice in one weekend, especially not with an escalating spotlight and such difficult opponents awaiting at every turn. Coaches do their best to prep for this crazy scenario and every team thinks they have a plan in place, but sometimes things break down.
When push comes to shove, great teams often look to one player to carry the load and lead them to victory. This is endlessly true in March, when great players rise to the occasion.
This season, these seven players stand out as being capable of shouldering their team to the Final Four.
1. Josh Hart, Villanova
On last year’s Villanova team that won the championship, Josh Hart succeeded under the radar. Ryan Arcidiacono was the vocal leader and the face of the team. Daniel Ochefu was a senior and the defensive anchor for the Wildcats, with Jalen Brunson coming as a big name recruit, and Kris Jenkins soaking in the glory of the championship winning buzzer-beater. All the while, Josh Hart was the best player on the team, playing elite perimeter defense, posting ungodly rebounding numbers for a guard, and scoring when he needed to.
This year, with another season under his belt, Hart has been nothing short of extraordinary. The favorite for National Player of the Year, Hart has averaged 18.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.6 steals per game.
He is the absolute lifeblood of the Wildcats, without dominating the ball or hampering any of his teammates. Despite his impeccable numbers, he ranks outside the top 200 nationally in usage rate and only takes 28 percent of his team’s shots when on the floor (176th most in America). He’s as steady as they come, scoring at least 11 points in every game this year. Playing for a Villanova team with a shallow bench, Hart is asked to help in all areas of the game, and he’s shown himself capable of doing so without fail.
2. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga
When he transferred from Washington to Gonzaga, Nigel Williams-Goss was expected to contribute, but no one could have reasonably expected him to play like an All-American in his first season in a Zags uniform. Mark Few’s staff has earned a reputation for developing players during redshirt seasons. Kelly Olynyk took an unexpected year off and came back as one of the best players in the nation. Kyle Wiltjer transferred to Gonzaga and learned how to be much more than an outside shooter during his year off the court.
Williams-Goss has improved as a shooter, creator, and defender during his redshirt season. On a per-40 minute basis, this season with Gonzaga, Williams-Goss has matched or increased his points, rebounds, assists, steals, field goal and three-point shooting percentages, while decreasing his turnover output, compared to his time at Washington.
Gonzaga’s rotation is a mash-up of last year’s team, three transfers, and two freshman, with Williams-Goss at the center, meshing everything together. Say whatever you want about the Zags’ schedule; in march Nigel Williams-Goss will outplay any point guard on both ends of the floor.
3. Malik Monk, Kentuckky
Kentucky recently got stuck in a bit of a rut, losing three of four games. Throughout the good times and bad for the Wildcats this season, one thing has been clear: Kentucky goes as Malik Monk goes. His splits in wins and losses are stark.
Monk shoots over 45 percent from outside the arc in wins, but a dismal 30 percent in five Kentucky losses, which included a 1-7 and a 1-9 in Kentucky’s two biggest games this year (against rivals Louisville and Florida). Monk has averaged almost a full turnover more in losses compared to wins, and reaches the free throw line at a lower rate.
Unlike the first two players on this list, who are rock solid and lead their teams no matter what, Monk is capable of shooting Kentucky to the Final Four or to a first weekend exit.
4. Luke Kennard, Duke
Duke was billed as a super-team early in this season, with big name recruits like Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles on board with Grayson Allen returning after his hot shooting season last year. Other Dukies have made the headlines at times with a host of injuries and on-court incidents, but it’s been Kennard pacing the Blue Devils on offense.
Kennard is scoring 20 points per contest, on only 12.7 field goal attempts per game. He has been crazy efficient, posting the second best effective field goal percentage in the loaded ACC. He takes what the defense gives him. He can get to the foul line or create for teammates. If need be, Kennard is able to have a scoring explosion, topping 34 points in three games this season.
5. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
Stop me if you’re sensing a theme here, but entering this season, no one figured Ethan Happ would be the best player on the Wisconsin Badgers. Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes both earned All-Big Ten honors last season and returned for their senior season.
Happ, however, as a sophomore, has been simply magical.
He’s notched 8 double-doubles, playing an old school game. The 6-foot-10 center has yet to attempt a three-pointer this season, doing all of his damage with a bevy of post moves. Defensively, Happ is brilliant ranking 10th in the Big Ten in blocks per game, but wildly leading the Big Ten in steals, an anomaly for a big man.
The only drawback to Happ’s game? He leaves a lot to be desired from the free throw line, shooting only 51 percent. Despite his obvious value on both ends of the floor, Happ finds himself on the bench during crunch time in certain spots this season. In order for the Badgers to make a real run into March and even April, Happ needs to be reliable for 40 minutes.
6. Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
Florida State has blitzed the ACC with energy and athleticism, led by the shooting touch of Dwayne Bacon.
Despite being 6-foot-7 and 210 pounds, Bacon is most effective with the ball in his hands as a playmaker. Opposing guards struggle with his size and strength in the paint. Bigger players simply can’t stay in front of Bacon, particularly in the pick-and-roll, where he can find the open man or score himself.
Especially in a conference tournament or the Big Dance, where teams are worn down and don’t have time to gameplan, Bacon’s size and athleticism will cause tons of match-up problems for any team. He’s currently averaging 17.4 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting this season.
7. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
Matt Painter’s sophomore big man has been an absolute beast in the paint and on the glass.
Swanigan leads the nation in rebounding, snagging an absurd 13 boards per game. He grabs the highest percentage of defensive rebounds for a power conference player, a huge bolster for Purdue’s defense and their ability to get one-and-done stops down the stretch. Swanigan has as many 20 point and 20 rebound games as games in which he failed to post a double-double (four of each).
Purdue’s struggle in the tournament will come as they try to match-up with smaller, faster teams. The Boilermakers’ backcourt is improved this season, though still struggles to create offense. Conversely, no team wants to deal with Caleb Swanigan in March. His ability to push around any big man can carry Purdue to win after win.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about college basketball and the NBA at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.