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#pounditTuesday, October 3, 2023

Each Sweet 16 team’s most important player

Marvin Bagley

We’re down to 16 teams left vying for the national championship in college basketball, and each one has charted a very different path to get here. In a tournament filled with upsets, stars have emerged in unexpected places, and some teams now have dreams of playing in the Final Four that they might not have had last week.

Here are 16 key players — one for each team — who will have a big say in who makes it to the Elite Eight later this week.

1) Marvin Bagley III, Duke

After Rhode Island was bludgeoned 87-62 by the Blue Devils, Rams coach Dan Hurley remarked that going up against Duke was like facing an NBA team. That’s because Duke has a handful of NBA players, chief among them being Bagley. Out of all the players left in the tournament, the freshman may well have the most ability to take over any game he’s playing in.

Though he has yet to put up one of his notorious double-doubles in the tournament, Bagley has been remarkably consistent. He has scored 22 points in each game so far, adding seven rebounds against Iona and nine against Rhode Island. The Syracuse bigs are going to have a very tough time dealing with him.

2) Tyus Battle, Syracuse

Syracuse does not score a lot. They’re playing defense at a historic level, but the points have to come from somewhere, and Battle is probably the best candidate. He did little against TCU and started slowly against Michigan State, but got things going to the tune of 17 points. He hasn’t shot particularly well in the tournament. He’ll have to be more efficient against Duke, but he’s capable of getting hot, as evidenced by his five games this season of 28-or-more points.

3) Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kentucky

Unjustly forgotten in the realm of freshmen point guards, Gilgeous-Alexander has reminded everyone that he deserves some recognition as well. After a solid season, Gilgeous-Alexander has turned it on in the tournament, particularly in the second round win over Buffalo that saw him score 27 points on 10-of-12 shooting. He’s maturing before our eyes and doing a lot for his draft stock. If he keeps playing like this, a Final Four may be in his future.

4) Dean Wade, Kansas State

Kansas State’s leading scorer suffered a stress fracture in his foot in the Big 12 Tournament and hasn’t played since. He has said he expects to be good to go against Kentucky on Thursday, and the Wildcats will badly need him. Wade averaged 16.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game this season, and his team will need all the help they can get against the uber-athletic Kentucky freshmen. Wade should provide a major threat in that matchup.

5) Caleb Martin, Nevada

While it was twin brother Cody who stole the headlines in Nevada’s stunning comeback win over Cincinnati, their star player is undoubtedly Caleb, who had an off-day against the Bearcats. He certainly showed it in the team’s opening round win over Texas, scoring 18 points in the overtime victory. Still, this is a guy who went off for 28 against tournament team Texas Tech earlier in the season. There’s more in the tank here, and if he finds it, watch out.

6) Clayton Custer, Loyola Chicago

Much as we were tempted to put Sister Jean on here, it was Custer’s shot that hung on the rim and ultimately fell through to beat Tennessee and send the Ramblers to the second weekend of the tournament. The Loyola floor general has provided a steady hand in the team’s methodical offense, putting up 24 points and seven assists total through the team’s first two tournament games. Nevada will be a tough matchup, but against a team that isn’t elite defensively, Custer may find plenty of opportunities to spread the ball around or score himself.

7) Devonte’ Graham, Kansas

The Wooden Award contender shined in the opening round against Penn, scoring a game-high 29 points in the win. He found it tougher in the second round, scoring eight points on 1-of-7 shooting as the Jayhawks fought off Seton Hall. It was no coincidence that Kansas had some issues as Graham struggled. With a tougher battle against Clemson looming, the senior will need to step up his game to keep the Jayhawks rolling.

8)Gabe DeVoe, Clemson

After averaging a little under 14 points per game during the regular season, DeVoe has stepped up his game in the NCAA Tournament. He put up 22 points against both New Mexico State and Auburn, going a combined 18-of-28 from the field over the two games. That mark included a 6-of-9 outing from three against Auburn. If he replicates those performances, Clemson could absolutely give Kansas a game — he just has to keep the hot streak going.

See Nos. 9-16 on Page 2

Jalen Brunson

9) Jalen Brunson, Villanova

Arguably the frontrunner for Player of the Year, Brunson hasn’t even had to be at his best to lead Villanova to the Sweet Sixteen. He took a back seat in the Wildcats’ blowout win over Alabama, scoring 12 points and taking just seven shots, deferring to his teammates with four assists. West Virginia may force him to aim higher, and we know he’s capable of it — he did score 31 in the Big East tournament final. He’ll carry Villanova as far as he can.

10) Jevon Carter, West Virginia

The Mountaineers were picked by some as a potential first weekend upset victim. Carter stuffed the stat sheet to make sure that didn’t happen. After a 21-point, eight assist showing against Murray State, Carter stepped up and eviscerated Marshall with 28 points on 10-of-18 shooting, including 5-of-7 from three point range. Carter appears to be playing his best basketball right now, and that could take West Virginia quite far.

11) Vincent Edwards, Purdue

With Isaac Haas out for the remainder of the tournament, the Boilermakers need some guys to step up more than they have all season. It was Edwards who picked up the slack in the win over Butler, overcoming foul trouble to score 20 points on 6-of-8 shooting. While he doesn’t have the size of Haas, he’s no joke at 6-foot-8, and he can score from the inside and outside. Purdue still has weapons, but they’ll all need to raise their games to make the Final Four — Edwards especially.

12) Keenan Evans, Texas Tech

Evans was hindered by turf toe in late February, and while he may not be 100 percent, he certainly looks like he’s back to his best. He tormented Florida with 22 points in 8-of-14 shooting, including three three-pointers in four tries. In his team’s first round win over Stephen F. Austin, he augmented his scoring with six rebounds and five assists. An immensely gifted player, Purdue will have to work hard to contain him.

13) Moritz Wagner, Michigan

Michigan gritted out an ugly win over Montana in their tournament over, and then relied on Jordan Poole’s answered prayer to escape the tournament’s first weekend. Both wins could have been more comfortable with more production from their best player. Wagner is a matchup nightmare, but he’s struggled to get things going in the tournament, going an underwhelming 7-of-15 with 17 total points through two games. This is a guy who averaged 14.2 points per game and shot 40 percent from beyond the arc this season. He’s capable of more, and if he can step it up, Michigan’s Final Four dreams may be realized.

14) Tyler Davis, Texas A&M

Davis has come up with two big-time performances as the Aggies have made their way into the Sweet Sixteen. He beat up Providence on the interior, scoring 14 points along with 15 rebounds in that victory. Against the Tar Heels, he scored 18 with nine rebounds, going 7-of-9 in the victory. Davis will provide a tough matchup for Michigan — at 6-foot-10, they’re going to have to find a way to neutralize his post presence.

15) Terance Mann, Florida State

Plagued by a groin injury, Mann wasn’t even expected to play against Xavier. He managed to gut out 24 minutes of action, scoring ten points on 4-of-5 shooting and adding a pair of rebounds. They’re below his season averages, but his contribution did not go unnoticed.

Mann will have a few days to heal up further and be ready for Gonzaga. The guard scores 12.6 per game regularly and adds 5.5 rebounds as an active presence out of Florida State’s backcourt. He’s a vital piece of the puzzle, and if he’s healthy, he could have a big impact on the Seminoles’ Sweet 16 performance.

16) Killian Tillie, Gonzaga

The Bulldogs have made it this far despite Tillie not playing up to his potential. The sophomore forward averaged upwards of 20 points per game during the WCC Tournament and looked poised to star in the Big Dance, but thus far, Tillie has managed just nine total points in his first two tournament games. It’s no coincidence that the Bulldogs have had to gut them out.

Tillie is capable of much more, and if he reaches his ceiling, Gonzaga is a legitimate Final Four contender. They may be anyway, but the big Frenchman has it in him to be a star — he just needs to step it up.

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