In the NCAA tournament, story lines often surround prolific performances from individual players: athletes who rise to the occasion with a strangely steadfast desire to cut down a nylon net with a pair of scissors at the tourney’s end. You may remember a certain baby-faced assassin, his name was Curry or something, who brought his team, 10 seed Davidson I think it was, all the way to the Elite Eight as he countered every “change your diaper” or “where’s mommy?” jab with a three-point bomb and irresistible charm. In 2015’s March Madness, we’ve already seen Bryce Alford hit nine threes (well, eight and a goaltended attempt for the salty fans out there) to will UCLA over SMU and R.J. Hunter hit a three that left his father, head coach Ron Hunter, literally floored. The following is a look into the players in the Sweet 16 who need to put forth their best game possible in order for their respective teams to have any shot at continuing to march through the madness.
For West Virginia, going up against Kentucky is rather literally a tall order. Infamous to opponents, the twin towers of Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein are about as menacing to a player driving into the key as properly placing the hyphens in their respective names is to a journalist. Averaging a combined 4.1 blocks per game (2.4 for Towns and 1.7 for Cauley-Stein), the tag team makes sure that no basket is easy, and almost makes sure there are no baskets at all. West Virginia needs a big man to be able to match up against Cauley-Stein or Towns at any given time, and that big man is 6-foot-9-inch sophomore forward Devin Williams. Although Williams does not possess the same height as Towns and Cauley-Stein, who are 6’11” and 7’0” respectively, he does have the best chance. He is tied for second tallest player on West Virginia behind only senior forward Kevin Noreen, who measures in at 6’10” but has been out for the entire season with a torn labrum. Williams has been hot his last four games, putting up 22 points and 18 points in his two games leading up to the NCAA tournament and averaging 16.5 points per game and 9.5 rebounds per game so far in the tournament. Coming off a double-double in the win against Maryland, Williams will have to remain the most active in the rebound category, as Towns, Cauley-Stein, and fellow big man Trey Lyles will make sure to leave some room in their diet for eating glass. If Williams can continue his stellar play, and the rest of the West Virginia team can continue it’s passionate, unrelenting run, look for the Mountaineers to give undefeated Kentucky a real run for their money (NCAA warning: I am not implying that any money is involved with the players, I promise).
Kennedy Meeks went through limited practice today for #UNC. Tomorrow's practice depends on swelling after today. Sprained left knee
— Jeff Gravley (@jgravleyWRAL) March 25, 2015
It is less about watching Kennedy Meeks, and more about watching his status for Thursday’s matchup against one seed Wisconsin. Meeks suffered a knee injury in Saturday’s win over Arkansas, and the injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Tar Heels. At 6’9″, 280 pounds, Meeks is North Carolina’s only real contributing big man, and unfortunately the Tar Heels are going up against a big man who is arguably the best in the NCAA this season in Frank Kaminsky. Frank the Tank seeks no mercy in times of war, bulldozing his way to an average of 21.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game so far in the tourney and currently possessing an objective to conquer the base known as Staples Center where Sgt. Williams is said to be plotting an upset along with his Chapel Hill Army. If Kennedy Meeks is indeed out for the game, as all signs point to as of now, expect a flag bearing a badger red “W” to be waving after the battle at Fort Staples.
Picture this: You are in Los Angeles the night before Thursday’s Sweet 16 games at Staples Center, and looking forward to a night out on the town to take in L.A. and all its assumed glory. Maybe you plan on drinking, or maybe your driving skills just aren’t up to par for the land of perennial traffic, so you elect to take an Uber car for your wild night in the city of angels. Upon requesting your UberX car, which you only were able to get after first accidentally requesting a black car and subsequently canceling when told that the black car would be a million times more expensive, you receive a notification that your Uber driver is on the way. His name? Matt. His rating? Perfect five stars. The Uber driver arrives, and boy does he make for quite the arrival. He appears to be nearly 7 feet tall, looks like he could chop down a tree with a swing of his arm and displays an exuberant smile while saying, “Hi, I’m Matt, where are we going tonight?”. A Xavier fan in town for the week notices the man in the car, runs up, asks for an autograph, receives the man’s signature and walks away beaming leaving the people taking the Uber to wonder who the hell this man who will be driving them around for the night is.
— Mashable (@mashable) March 23, 2015
Ladies and gentlemen, that man is Matt Stainbrook, the starting center for the Xavier men’s basketball team who gave up his scholarship to pay for his brother’s tuition and elected to become an Uber driver to pay his own way through school. No, Stainbrook, most likely won’t be navigating a Lincoln through the streets of Los Angeles in the days leading up to Thursday, but the 6’10”, 263-pound senior will most definitely be driving through the lane for some skillful left-handed finesse finishes when facing two seed Arizona. Stainbrook needs to show up in order to negate the size and skill of Arizona’s 7’0” center, junior Kaleb Tarczewski. Also, funny business aside, Stainbrook is a much more troublesome presence than his goofy blonde hair and beard make him out to be, averaging 14.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.0 block per game throughout the tournament. Arizona may be quite the challenge with the likes of Stanley Johnson, T.J. McConnell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Gabe York and Kaleb Tarczewski, but it should be nothing to Stainbrook, who has had to deal with the likes of intoxicated passengers demanding that he take the Uber car to Taco Bell for a 3 a.m. meal that will be more than regrettable come morning time.
Louisville’s Terry Rozier showed up big time against Northern Iowa in the Round of 32, scoring 25 points, dropping 7 dimes and grabbing 5 rebounds. Rozier, a 6’1” sophomore guard, plays with a sort of tough resiliency that makes it almost impossible to not like him. Perhaps that resiliency stems from his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, a town that has often been listed as one of the most dangerous places to live in America. Overcoming obstacles is second-nature to Rozier, whose had to deal with his father serving a thirteen-year jail sentence for robbery related charges, and subsequently being moved to Shaker Heights, Ohio to live with his grandmother in order to escape the treacherous trials and tribulations of life in Youngstown. Rozier’s Twitter bio tells you what he is all about: “From a small city (Youngstown) but got the biggest dreams! I will make you a fan!” Going up against an NC State team that just upset one seed Villanova, Rozier is going to need to continue his incredible play in order to defeat the red-hot Wolfpack. On Friday, look for Rozier to show up big and make everyone in the Carrier Dome realize why he is so confident that he will make you a fan.
— Tim Dwyer (@T_Dwyer) March 21, 2015
Ron Baker is one of the most March Madness savvy players competing in this year’s tournament. Baker has made the tournament with Wichita State in all three of his seasons at the school, leading the team along with fellow junior guard Fred VanVleet. The Shockers often do just as their name implies, including making a surprise run in the 2013 tournament that had the ninth seeded squad making it all the way to the Final Four. Once again, Baker and the Shockers are the underdog against Notre Dame, despite having a better regular season record than the Fighting Irish. Baker will spend a lot of the night going head to head with Jerian Grant, Notre Dame’s 6’5” senior star guard who is looking to keep the Irish alive and improve his ever-fluctuating draft stock in the process. However, Grant faces a nemesis in an equally hungry, equally draft-stock minded kid with the best flopping blonde mop in the NCAA since Kyle Singler played at Duke.
With an incredible game and an arguably more incredible name, Buddy Hield is looking to keep the hopes of two entire nations alive. Hield, who was born in the Bahamas, has to put on a show for his home country and for the Sooner Nation that has passionately backed the 6’4” junior guard. Bahamians are known to be some of the kindest people in the world, but Hield won’t be Mr. Nice Guy Friday against the red-hot Michigan State Spartans, led by arguably the greatest coach in March Madness history in Tom Izzo. The Spartans have three consistent stars in Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine, and Branden Dawson, a combination of players that is finally healthy and playing we beyond their seven seed status. However, Hield is really the only consistent star for the Sooners, and in terms of scoring, the team will fully rely on Hield to record a point total somewhere in the twenties or thirties. Fortunately, Hield has the skill level to do exactly that, and also may be just about the only person in the world not yet looking to return to the Bahamas.
To recap SFA's last three possessions: Delon Wright steal, Delon Wright out of nowhere for rebound, Delon Wright block.
— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) March 20, 2015
Delon Wright is the undeniable star of arguably the best Utah Utes team since the Andrew Bogut era in Salt Lake City. Averaging about 15 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game, Wright is a consensus first-round draft pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. As a 6’5” senior point guard/shooting guard, Wright poses a major matchup issue for just about any collegiate guard, and needs to take advantage of his size and skill set in order for the Utes to have any chance against the one seeded Duke Blue Devils. So far, Wright hasn’t had any major scoring games, but he really doesn’t have to in order to have a major impact on the game do its his ability to dish and grab boards. If Wright can take down a Blue Devils team featuring Jahlil Okafor, arguably the best offensive player in the nation, he will prove to basketball fans exactly why NBA scouts are seeing first round potential for the first time in a long time Salt Lake City.
No, the phenomenal Frenchman is not doubling as a collegiate big man, but yes, you are reading that name correctly. However, this Tony Parker is a massive 6’9”, 260-pound junior forward/center that just played the greatest game of his collegiate career, scoring 28 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, and blocking three shoots in UCLA’s victory over UAB. Also, Parker’s incredible post-game flirtation with reporter Allie LaForce made buzz on Twitter after the game, with Parker making sure LaForce knew he was a fan of her bracelet. Maybe Parker is just as smooth as his namesake after all. A McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school and part of the same UCLA recruiting class that brought in Kyle Anderson and Shabazz Muhammad (both now in the NBA), Parker has been frustratingly inconsistent for the Bruins, struggling to make the major impact that was expected from him upon his arrival at Pauley Pavilion. After spending much of his first three seasons struggling to stay on the court and provide consistent play, Parker looks to have found his groove at the most ideal time possible for Bruins, a team who made the sweet 16 much to the chagrin of college basketball experts such as Doug Gottlieb. If Parker can play anywhere near the same level he showcased against UAB in the round of 32, look for the Bruins to keep their Cinderella run alive against two seed Gonzaga. Also, it should be known that Bruins have historically made certain Gonzaga players very, very sad (sorry, Morrison, I had to bring it up. At least I’m not linking any pictures).