2018 NCAA Tournament: Big men that will break your bracket

There’s a line of thinking that the NCAA tournament is a guard’s game, and there’s ample evidence of its veracity when we look back at runs by Kemba Walker’s UConn, Kris Jenkins and and Josh Hart’s Villanova and Russ Smith’s Louisville in recent years. Don’t, though, forget the big guys. Here’s a list of post presences that could help determine a national champion – and your bracket pool winner.

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Marvin Bagley III, Duke: The Blue Devils freshman was the toast of the sport early in the season before being overshadowed by Trae Young, but he’s been consistently great. He’s great around the bucket, good enough from distance to keep defenses honest and rebounds at a high level. He may not be June’s No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, but he ain’t slipping past five, either.

Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic, Arizona: This is about as close to a throwback frontcourt as you’ll see – despite the fact that Ayton fits well enough in the modern game to be a potential No. 1 pick in June. It’s rare that a team can put two seven-footers on the floor and make it work, but Arizona’s pair can make it work. Still, it’s Ayton that fuels this pairing as he’s established himself as a dominant force inside and capable of keeping the Wildcats moving through the bracket.

Michael Porter, Jr., Missouri: Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon held down the fort inside all season long for the Tigers, but they’re now adding Michael Porter, Jr. to the mix – which could either make them fearsome up front or create a rocky fit. It’s one of the big bets of the NCAA tournament that coach Cuonzo Martin is making here. The upside is massive given Porter, Jr.’s talent.

Isaac Haas, Purdue: It’s pretty astounding that the Boilermakers lost Caleb Swanigan, one of the best big men the sport has seen in recent years, and somehow had a better season. Isaac Haas is a big reason why. The 7-foot-2 senior is on the floor more this year without Swanigan now that coach Matt Painer doesn’t have to juggle the two big men, and Haas has upped his production as a result. His size and skill bends the defense like few other players in the country.

Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward, Michigan State: Jackson is the darling of NBA scouts with his modern game while Ward is a more traditional big man – together they make up an incredibly dynamic and productive frontcourt for the Spartans. Ward is the country’s most prolific offensive rebounder and Jackson is one of the top shotblockers in the nation. And both shoot better than 60 percent from the floor.

(Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

Luke Maye, North Carolina: Maye went from a nice story on last year’s national champion Tar Heels to one of the most productive players in the country this year. He’s averaging a double-double of 17.2 points and 10.1 rebounds as his role has exploded from bit player to star for coach Roy Williams.

Killian Tillie, Gonzaga: With all the turnover off last year’s national runners-up, Tillie has seen his role and his production trend way up. He’s one of the most efficient scorers in the country with a true-shooting percentage of 68.2, which is top-10 nationally. He’s not as proficient as a shotblocker and rebounder, but he’s a major problem for defenses.

Udoka Azubuike, Kansas: The Jayhawks’ roster is incredibly dependent on Azubuike given the dearth of other options inside, making his health status one of the more important subplots of the NCAA tournament. The sophomore missed the Big 12 tournament due to a knee injury, but is expected to return to the court this week. His presence inside really facilitates Kansas’ guard-oriented and 3-point heavy approach.

Mike Daum, South Dakota State: The 6-foot-9 Jackrabbit may be the best mid-major player in the tournament. He’s a high-usage player with a 59.5 true shooting percentage and rebounds on the defensive end at a high rate. His athleticism isn’t going to wow anyone, but his ability to score at every level and in unique ways makes him an incredibly tough cover. If South Dakota State turns into this year’s Cinderella, it’ll be Daum who fit them with the glass slipper.

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Angel Delgado, Seton Hall: The 6-foot-10 senior is a double-double machine, averaging 13.3 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. His prowess on the glass is what separates him from the rest of the big man pack as he’s elite on both the offensive and defensive ends on the floor in that area. He’s not a prolific scorer, but he creates extra shots for the Pirates and limits those extra opportunities for their opponents.

Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, Texas A&M: Another super-sized frontcourt that harkens back to a different era of basketball. Both of these guys are great around the rim, but not threats from the 3-point arc. Williams is a fantastic shotblocker while Davis is a great offensive rebounder.

Mohamed Bamba, Texas: Bamba appears to have healed up from a sprained toe and will try to help the Longhorns escape the first weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012. The 6-foot-11 freshman with an expansive wingspan is one of the most impactful defenders in the country as an elite shotblocker. His offensive game lags behind his defense, but he is capable of causing headaches for opponents on that end as well.

Regardless of the year, guard play tends to be one of the biggest factors in determining a national champion.

Whether it’s a lead guard who properly balances getting his with putting his teammates in spots where they can success, or an off-guard capable of going off on a moment’s notice, if a team doesn’t have good guards they’ll be heading home early.

Below are a few of the guards destined to become household names before the 2018 NCAA tournament comes to an end.

And since we know you’ll ask, we’ll answer first.

There already are some guards that are household names.

We’re staying away from the players such as Jalen Brunson, Devonte’ Graham, Joel Berry II and Trae Young because, quite frankly, those guys are already well-known.

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1. Rob Gray, Houston: Long known as one of the best players in the American, it’s about time the nation get to know Rob Gray. The senior guard has helped lead Houston to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010, averaging 18.5 points, 4.5 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game. Gray’s the focal point of the Houston offense, with Kelvin Sampson entrusting him with the task of either making a play for himself or setting up a teammate. The casuals will likely be drawn in by Gray’s hairstyle; they’ll stick around once they watch him go to work.

2. Zach Lofton, New Mexico State: If you’re looking for a “12 over 5” upset to pick, the WAC champion Aggies are worth taking a look at and Lofton is why. In his first season on the court for New Mexico State, the Texas Southern transfer is averaging 19.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 38.2 percent from beyond the arc. While the matchup with Clemson’s deep and experienced perimeter attack will be a tough one, Lofton is more than capable of making some things happen.

3. Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure: The Bonnies are back in the NCAA tournament and Adams, who shared Atlantic 10 Player of the Year honors with Davidson’s Peyton Aldridge, is a big reason why. The senior point guard is averaging 19.8 points, 5.4 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game, shooting 45.4 percent from the field, 45.7 percent from three and 85.6 percent from the foul line. It should be noted that teammate Matt Mobley is outstanding himself, but the pick here is Adams since he runs the show. And that First Four matchup between the Bonnies and UCLA: must-see TV, due in large part to the matchup between Adams and Aaron Holiday.

4. Kellan Grady, Davidson: The Atlantic 10 tournament champions drew a tough matchup in Kentucky, but in Grady they’ve got a talented freshman guard who’s only going to become more popular nationally as his career progresses. The 6-foot-5 Grady is averaging 18.0 points per game, and he’s doing so on 50.8 percent shooting from the field and 37.7 percent shooting from three. The Atlantic 10’s best freshman, Grady has the tools needed to make life difficult for Kentucky’s talented guards.

Kellan Grady (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

5. Jon Elmore, Marshall: Dan D’Antoni’s offensive system gives his players a lot of freedom on that end of the floor, and Elmore (along with fellow West Virginia native C.J. Burks) has taken full advantage. The 6-foot-3 Elmore is averaging 22.8 points, 6.9 assists and 6.0 rebounds per game, and he’s averaging 7.6 three-point attempts per game. Against a Wichita State team that’s had trouble defending the three this season, Elmore (and Burks, who’s averaging 20.5 ppg) could end up captivating the country if he gets hot.

6. D’Marcus Simonds, Georgia State: The 6-foot-3 sophomore has been outstanding for Ron Hunter’s team, leading the Panthers to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2015 (whey they knocked off Baylor). Averaging 21.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game, Simonds has what it takes skill-wise to put the Panthers on his back. That being said, the matchup with Cincinnati is a difficult one.

7. Grant Riller, College of Charleston: Riller’s teammate, senior Joe Chealey, would also fit here. But the pick is Riller, as the efficient sophomore is averaging 18.7 points per game and has done so by shooting 55.0 percent from the field and 40.3 percent from three. In the Cougars’ overtime win over Northeastern in the CAA title game, Riller supplemented Chealey’s 32-point effort (16-for-16 FT) with 20 of his own.

Jeff Borzello of fame joined Rob Dauster on the podcast today to talk through the Coaching Carousel, the bracket reveal and some bracket advice Q-and-A. Spoiler alert: Jeff LOVED the bracket reveal, and he tries to justify that opinion unsuccessfully.

OPEN: What did the Selection Committee get wrong with seeding and bubble teams?

10:25: Jeff tries to justify his love for the bracket reveal.

15:15: UConn, Georgia, Pitt and Memphis. Who should they hire? Who will they hire?

26:45: Bracket Breakdown Q-and-A!

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Shabazz Napier became an immortal figure in college basketball.

The former UConn point guard led the Huskies to a 2014 national title as a No. 7 seed.

And now that we know Kevin Ollie isn’t a very good coach, Napier’s heroics look even more impressive over time.

The All-American was a known player with an established track record entering the 2014 tournament.

His six-game stretch through March turned him a superstar who will likely be forever recognized.

He’s the standard-bearer for a lead guard who took over and won a tournament.

Even LeBron wanted to play with Napier after that run.

No way u take another PG in the lottery before Napier.

— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 8, 2014

In our quest to find a new Napier, we only considered teams below No. 2 seeds — since Napier’s run wasn’t from a major title favorite. That means some talented guards like Joel Berry, Jalen Brunson, Devonte’ Graham and Carsen Edwards were left off this list. These New Napiers also need to be high-scoring, high-usage guards who consistently have the ball in their hands. Napier had four games of at least 22 points during his ridiculous six-game stretch. That means some great guards on balanced rosters were also left off this list.

The 2018 NCAA Tournament has plenty of potential Shabazz Napiers lurking in the shadows. Can any of them match the incredible run of 2014? Here are some schools with potentially new Napiers to keep an eye on.

Shabazz Napier (AP Photo)

KEENAN EVANS, Texas Tech: Before suffering a turf toe injury late in the regular seasons, Evans was looking like a potential first-team All-American for the Red Raiders. Although the injury slowed him down a little bit, Evans had a knack for making big plays and big shots during the regular season. He was the clutch player Texas Tech needed on many nights. A second-team All-American, the senior had two big scoring outings in his last three games. That could be a sign that Evans is healthier and ready to go for the Big Dance.

JEVON CARTER, West Virginia: The engine that makes West Virginia go, Carter is the top defensive player on this list while also being a credible threat on offense. The NABC national Defensive Player of the Year last year, Carter has improved his offensive consistency during his senior season. Putting up 17.0 points, 6.6 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 2.9 steals per game, Carter was a third-team All-American this season.

ROB GRAY, Houston: If Shea Serrano hops on the bandwagon, you’re probably doing something right. The Houston senior actually saw his scoring numbers dip this season but it was mostly because Gray became a more well-rounded perimeter threat. Still capable of dropping 30-point games on elite teams — Gray had 33 in an AAC semifinal win over Wichita State last week — Gray is a hard-nosed competitor on both ends of the floor. Don’t be fooled by the man bun. Gray will defend the length of the floor and knock down cold-blooded perimeter jumpers with a hand in his face.

COLLIN SEXTON, Alabama: We already saw Sexton put together a major run during the SEC Tournament. So we already know that he’s capable of carrying a team to victory over quality competition. Although the Crimson Tide fell short in the semifinals, Sexton’s scoring outbursts and ability to create for teammates was a huge storyline in St. Louis. Sexton might have single-handedly put Alabama into the tournament with two quality wins when they were squarely on the bubble to begin the week. Does Sexton have another ridiculous run in him these next few weeks? Enjoy watching this hyperactive freshman while you can before he becomes a lottery pick in June.

MARCUS FOSTER, Creighton: There aren’t many badder dudes on this list to begin with. And then you also factor that Foster and Creighton are facing Foster’s former school (and head coach that dismissed him) in the first round? Foster against Kansas State and Bruce Weber is a huge revenge game for the senior as he’ll get a chance at redemption after a promising start to his career in Manhattan. This season, Foster is putting up 20.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game during another great campaign. It will be fascinating to see if Foster and Creighton can win the first game against the Wildcats and use it as a springboard into the second round against No. 1 seed Virginia.

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JAYLEN ADAMS (and Matt Mobley), St. Bonaventure: The First Four features a lot of dangerous guards who can take over and win a game. Since these teams are also in the First Four, they are flawed groups who likely need big performances from these guards to advance. Adams and Mobley, a pair of seniors, have the goods to deliver some wins. Both averaged over 37 minutes per game this season and both fill it up from all over the floor. The duo combines to average 38.3 points per game. Adams is the more likely to explode for a 40-point game thanks to his ridiculous 45 percent three-point shooting.

JAYLEN BARFORD (and Daryl Macon), Arkansas: Similar to St. Bonaventure, but locked in at a No. 7 seed, the Razorbacks are going to be relying a lot on this senior duo to make plays. Barford and Macon don’t need to play as many minutes or take as many shots as the St. Bonaventure duo, but they combine to put up 34.9 points per game while both of them shoot over 42 percent from three-point range. Since this duo also has an emerging big man in Daniel Gafford and another veteran guard in Anton Beard, they might not have to do as much by themselves as some others on this list.

KHADEEN CARRINGTON, Seton Hall: The Seton Hall senior is getting hot at just the right time. Carrington is already having a very good senior season. But over his last five games, he’s averaging 22.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game for the Pirates. That stretch included games against four NCAA tournament teams. Carrington is also an 83 percent free-throw shooter who would be among the Tournament’s more reliable closers. On a veteran team, Carrington could be a dangerous catalyst.

TRA HOLDER (and Shannon Evans), Arizona State: The first few weeks of the season were dominated by Arizona State and this senior backcourt duo. While the Sun Devils cooled off to the point of playing in the First Four and barely making the field — these two guards still have the potential to be lethal. Evans and Holder both fire up insane amounts of three-pointers, and if one, or both, get hot then it spells trouble for an opponent. The duo has also been through some cold stretches over the final months of the season, so they could just as easily help shoot Arizona State right out of the tournament.

AARON HOLIDAY, UCLA: The younger brother of Justin and Jrue Holiday feels like the most underrated All-American in the country — which is very odd considering he plays at UCLA and has NBA bloodlines. After being the nation’s best sixth man last year, Holiday has taken control from Lonzo Ball and put together a great year, averaging 20.3 points, 5.8 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game while shooting 43 percent from three. Holiday faces the St. Bonaventure duo of Adams and Mobley in a First Four game that you need to make a priority in your viewing schedule.

TRAE YOUNG, Oklahoma: Probably the most obvious name on this list, Young took the basketball world by storm with his deep shooting range and monster numbers to open the year. Oklahoma was a top-ten team and looked like a potential top seed. Then teams started throwing crazy traps and schemes at Young and Oklahoma during Big 12 play.

The Sooners (and in some games, Young) responded poorly and faltered enough to barely get into this tournament as a No. 10 seed. But Young still led the nation in points and assists (as a freshman!) and he has the type of range nobody can match in this event. If he gets supernova-level hot, then who knows?

One of college basketball’s most well-known and recognizable officials will be absent from the NCAA tournament.

Ted Valentine will not work the tournament this month, just a year after officiating the Final Four, for what he believes to be fallout from the incident in which he turned his back on North Carolina’s Joel Berry during a game, he told ESPN on Monday.

“This is not right, it’s just not fair,” Valentine told ESPN. “It hit me like a ton of bricks. I’m being punished unjustly.”

Valentine said he was told of the decision Saturday by NCAA coordinator of officials J.D. Collins.

“We talked about the Joel Berry situation and how he had a discussion with the Big Ten. But I told him, ‘I fixed the situation,’” Valentine said.

During a game in January, Valentine turned his back while Berry lobbied him after a call.

“I screwed up,” Valentine said. “But I went back a week later and apologized, and he and I were joking and kidding. It was no big deal. I even pulled him out of a situation where he could have gotten a technical foul.”

Valentine certainly has a reputation – and the nickname TV Teddy – but a big constituency of coaches would be glad to have him on the whistle for a big game. His conduct with Berry was unbecoming, but shelving him during the NCAA tournament seems like a huge reaction.

Kentucky doesn’t tip off in the NCAA tournament until Thursday, but the Wildcats already have a win this week.

DJ Jeffries, a four-star recruit in the Class of 2019, committed to the ‘Cats on Monday to become coach John Calipari’s first pledge in the class.

Committed✔️ BBN 🔵⚪️ s/o @HoopMajor for the video

— Djjeffries™ (@lildjj0) March 13, 2018

The 6-foot-7 forward is a consensus top-50 recruit who chose Kentucky over the likes of Florida, Kansas and Memphis. The Olive Branch, Miss. native met with Calipari just last week ahead of his commitment.

Jeffries’ decision puts Kentucky out ahead of schedule with its 2019 class, and there’s little doubt that he’ll be joined by plenty of other high-profile prospects.

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