Payne and Kane among 10 best players left in NCAA tournament
Doug McDermott? McDone.
Jabari Parker? A blue Devil.
Marcus Smart? Shoved out.
The NCAA tournment's first weekend provided a barge-load of drama and also a rather quick, unspectacular end to the seasons for some of the best individual talent the field of 68 had to offer. But the bracket is not barren just yet. Here's an alphabetical look at the top 10 players left in the Sweet 16, with tournament performances to date factored in:
Kyle Anderson, F, UCLA
The numbers aren't overwhelming, but as usual, the 6-foot-9 point forward is the biggest reason for the Bruins' success. Now they're on a roll, having won seven of their past eight games, including the Pac-12 tournament. In the Sweet 16 Anderson will be at the core of solving Florida's stingy defense. The sophomore has averaged 11.5 points, seven rebounds, 5.5 assists and two steals in UCLA's two comfortable NCAA tournament wins.
Nick Johnson, G, Arizona
With metronome-like consistency, the Pac-12 Player of the Year continues to produce for the West's No. 1 seed. He's averaged 17.5 points in two NCAA games so far, but his overall impact in a potentially difficult game against No. 8 Gonzaga in the third round was emblematic of his many contributions: 17 points, five rebounds, five assists, four blocks, three steals. No one would be shocked if he was literally driving the bus for Arizona that night, too.
With playmaking forward Georges Niang out with a broken foot, the Cyclones had but one impeccable creator left on the roster. So Kane created for himself and everyone else in a third round win against North Carolina, with 24 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in the third round – including the game-winning layup with 1.6 seconds left. He has averaged 19 points, 8.5 rebounds and six assists in Iowa State's two wins in the East region.
He led the seventh-seeded Huskies in every major statistical category during the season – scoring, rebounding, assists, steals – and earned All-America honors. Then the NCAA tournament started and Napier did more. He's averaged 24.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.5 steals in two games, and his 21-point second half helped the Huskies upset No. 2 seed Villanova in the third round.
Adreian Payne, F, Michigan State
Teammate Branden Dawson led the way with 26 points in a third-round win over Harvard, but Payne's 41-point outburst in the second round against Delaware was one of the gems of the first weekend. He's made 14-of-25 from the floor and is averaging six rebounds in two games, showing no ill effects of the foot injury that sidelined him for a month at midseason. The presence and production of the 6-10 stretch power forward is a central reason to consider the Spartans a national title frontrunner.
Likely because he played for a bubble team that only garnered a No. 10 seed, the junior guard's exploits went mostly unheralded outside of Pac-12 circles. But he averaged 18.7 points per game this season to lead the Cardinal and has averaged 18.0 in upsets of New Mexico and Stanford. He wasn't just impactful on the offensive end, either; Randle tallied six steals against Kansas in the round of 32.
Fellow freshman teammate Aaron Harrison (18.5 ppg) deserves mention, but his contributions have been fairly narrow. Randle has remained a multifaceted beast for the Wildcats in helping them navigate as taxing a road as any Sweet 16 team has faced thus far. The 6-9 freshman has two double-doubles, averaging 16 points and 12.5 rebounds while shooting 11-of-21 from the floor overall. His court sense against Wichita State was keen, too – he doled out a season-best six assists.
Nik Stauskas, G, Michigan
Sometimes the sophomore sharpshooter has it going for himself, in which case he'll shoot 5-of-9 with a trio of three-pointers, as he did in a win over Wofford in the round of 64. Sometimes he'll observe the attention paid him and get everyone else going, as he did with a career high-tying eight assists in a win over Texas in the round of 32. The Big Ten Player of the Year averaged 16 points in the Wolverines' two wins so far and has the combustibility to lead them back to the Final Four for the second straight year.
That the Azetcs would play suffocating defense was a given, as they were a top 10 team in terms of defensive efficiency all season. Sufficient offense was the question, and Thames has attempted to answer that all by himself. He averaged 26.5 points and five assists in two NCAA tournament games thus far with just four turnovers in 78 minutes.
Scottie Wilbekin, G, Florida
The SEC Player of the Year didn't play like it in a win over Albany – 10 points, four assists – but he certainly did in the third round. The senior made 9-of-15 shots and poured in 21 points -- more than double anyone else on either team -- against Pittsburgh. Just as critical as his offense will be the defensive tone he sets against UCLA's potent attack in the Sweet 16.
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