March 14, 2014

NCAA March Madness: Favorite Players to watch this season

It's the most wonderful time of the year. March Madness is upon us. So many emphases were placed on this season in college basketball with regards to the super freshman class, deservingly. This list includes the players I enjoyed watching this season, some for much different reasons than others. This not my top overall players list, nor is this in any particular order. These were my favorite players to watch this season who I had the chance to watch, all of which will likely be participating in the madness after Selection Sunday.

Doug McDermott - Creighton, Senior

All of the numbers on McDermott's season have analysts running out of ways to describe how good he is. For me, it's truly been an honor to watch this guy develop into the clear-cut frontrunner for this year's Wooden Award. I remember watching McDermott years ago with notions of 'solid' in my takeaway from his game. Now, he's flat out dominant, much slimmer, quicker, and a lethal threat from anywhere on the floor. I love his feel, his footwork, and his decorated inside-out game, which has helped him accumulate over 3,000 points in his career after dropping 45 points on Providence in the Big East Tournament last Saturday.

Jabari Parker - Duke, Freshman

I fell in love with Parker's game right away, which for me was Duke's game vs. Kansas in November's tip-off tournament. What I saw was a raw confidence supplemented by gifted scoring abilities and a physical presence, which resulted in 27 points and 9 rebounds by the freshman on his first big stage. Since then we've seen Parker truly elevate his game, specifically in terms of getting easier baskets and playing more adamantly below the free throw line. He has also shown a tremendous, willful knack for rebounding the basketball, specifically defensively, which has kept Duke afloat on the glass against bigger teams. Parker's offensive rating was an astounding 113.3 this season, and that's while using 31.4 percent of Duke's possessions and taking 31.8 percent of their shots. He is and will continue to be a special talent, and I can say I'm honored to have watched him in likely his first and last college season.

Andrew Wiggins - Kansas, Freshman

Most of what I heard about Wiggins as a prospect had to do with his freakish athleticism, but  as I've watched him this season it has become more unfair to simply reduce it to that. Frankly, Wiggins has continued to show why his potential stock garnered comparisons to LeBron James -- he's nearly unstoppable in the open floor and uses his rare length, speed, and athleticism to cause problems on defense. However, he also has a potency to his offense that has started to mature on a major level just in the last week, scoring 41 points on 18 shot attempts in a loss at West Virginia and 30 points, 9 rebounds vs. Oklahoma State in the quarterfinal round of the Big 12 Tournament. If Wiggins has "figured it out" in terms of understanding time and possession, when to pull the trigger/use the first step, and found that middle ground between smart and aggressive, he's on watch for putting on an encore for what is expected to be his first and last season as a college basketball player.

Gary Harris - Michigan State, Sophomore

I've been a big fan of the Keith Appling-Gary Harris back court for the Spartans these last two years, and I think we've seen Harris grow up a bit this season. Izzo and Co. have suffered injury lapses but Harris has continued to develop individually. Although his shooting percentages dropped from his freshman campaign, his scoring has increased by +5 PPG and his capabilities are still affirmed. At 6-foot-4 Harris is an off-guard that can virtually score against anyone on the perimeter and off the bounce, and I think his junior year could be the solidifier in terms of calling him an elite pro prospect.

Russ Smith - Louisville, Senior

Louisville's postseason run last year opened my eyes to just how much I enjoy watching Russ Smith play basketball. His tenacious individual defense correlates with Rick Pitino's desire to suffocate the opposition with full court pressure. I love how Smith uses his cat-quickness as a defender to corner, jam, and dictate ball handlers. On the offensive side, he's a cannon. When you see how dangerously streaky this guy is you start to understand why Allen Iverson's name has been mentioned incessantly along with "Russ-diculous". You also get a sense of how he earned that nickname. His trigger is quick off the catch, his shot selection is eager but justified, and he can get wherever he wants using the dribble as fast as he wants to get there.

Nik Stauskas - Michigan, Junior

I love seeing guys embrace a new role. Nik Stauskas' role during Michigan's Final Four run last season was to hit outside shots, which he did. Without their Trey Burke catalyst this season, Stauskas has taken on a more primary role in Michigan's offense. The ball is in his hands more and he has shown more of a repertoire, particularly off the dribble. Increasing his scoring average by 6 points per game and harnessing more responsibility for the Wolverines offense has shown Stauskas' full embrace of his new role. He's deceptively shifty with the basketball and has helped his team maintain their identity even after losing Burke and Hardaway Jr. to the NBA Draft and big man Mitch McGary to injury.

Nick Johnson - Arizona, Junior

I started taking a closer look at Arizona when they began to ascend as one of the nation's top teams this season, and what I first noticed, per usual, was the guard play. I saw stability in the back court with T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson. Earning Pac-12 Player of the Year, Johnson's two-way impact is what I enjoy more than anything. Recognized as one of the best defenders in the conference, his quickness, strength, and athleticism allow him to guard multiple positions. On the offensive end, he leads the Wildcats in scoring (16.1 PPG) with efficiency and poise. He's not really a prolific shot creator but he provides steady and stable offense, which obviously comes in handy this time of the year.

Georges Niang - Iowa State, Sophomore

This season for Iowa State has pointed so much deserving attention to stand outs DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim, who have had spectacular seasons, but I might argue that Georges Niang is the most critical asset of their big three. My first time truly watching Niang was during Iowa State's match-up with Oklahoma State on February 3. I watched him make two 17-foot jumpers and complete two pinpoint, high-IQ assists to DeAndre Kane, (one an alley-oop from the top of the key, the other a kick out from the post on a double team) scoring or assisting on 15 of the Cyclones' first 17 points of the game. This guy is one of those rare playmakers at the forward position who compensates a lack of vertical athleticism with a savvy feel for the game.

Jerami Grant - Syracuse, Sophomore

What I've enjoyed most about watching Jerami Grant this season is his role in the Syracuse 2-3 zone. Jim Boeheim does an excellent job of finding guys like Grant and C.J. Fair who have great length on the bottom wing of the zone, but more importantly, can cover ground quickly by discouraging the wing pass and guarding the bass line simultaneously. Grant's length is a crucial aspect to Syracuse's ability to neutralize offenses with the zone. He finds his points offensively, mostly on the glass, and displays great patience for his size when he does look to create. Grant is the kind of specimen that NBA scouts have kept their eye on all season.

Shabazz Napier - UCONN, Junior

Napier is the current poster child for embracing a new role. Filling the shoes of his predecessor Kemba Walker might have seemed like a tall order at the time, but right now I believe Shabazz Napier to be the most dangerous guard in college basketball. His fearlessness is evident, but more specifically, it's his elusively off-the-dribble that astounds me each time I watch him. His ability to go from the dribble into his jump shot is seamless and limitless. You can't really disrupt him or make him uncomfortable because he fully understands situations, spacing, and timing. Deservingly earning AAC Player of the Year, don't be at all surprised if Napier lights up March the way his predecessor did.

Lamar Patterson - Pittsburgh, Senior

Patterson very well may be one of the most improved all-around players in the country. The fifth-year senior increased his scoring average from 10 to just under 18 PPG this season, giving Jamie Dixon and the Panthers their reliable go-to option. Dixon's offense runs through Patterson as a scorer, but also as a playmaker, constantly in pick-and-roll situations because of his wonderful passing and decision making in those scenarios. He's a gifted shooter, can put it on the floor, and can seemingly create any shot he needs, but I love watching his concerted knack for getting his teammates involved.

Other players I've enjoyed watching this season: Julius Randle (Kentucky), Patrick Young (Florida), Tyler Haws (BYU), Perry Ellis (Kansas), Marcus Paige (UNC), Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Aaron Gordon (Arizona)

- Martin S. (@marley_mcfly)

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