The 2012 NCAA tournament is finally here, and with it the endless speculation that accompanies each bracket. The 68-team field has been dissected from every angle, and the hunger for information is insatiable. Can Kentucky defend its top overall ranking? Can UNC recover from an injury to John Henson?
Despite immense buildup, one perspective gets lost in the shuffle: that of the NBA. March Madness also provides secondary stage, a final proving ground for top prospects looking to boost their stock before the June 28 draft.
While fans are looking for the next Cinderella, personnel evaluators will seek out the league's next superstar. As the tourney tips off, here are two scouts' takes on college basketball's marquee event, broken down by region.
Top prospect: PF Anthony Davis, Kentucky
This one's a no-brainer. As detailed in last month's stock watch, Davis has become the clear-cut frontrunner for the No. 1 pick. He's wowed scouts with his defensive dominance (157 blocks through March 12, 27 more than anyone else in the nation) and is quickly adding to his offensive repertoire: He displayed range in the SEC tournament, even connecting on a three-pointer against Florida.
"Davis was as good as expected and probably even better because he showed his ability to step up on the floor and make pick-and-pop jump shots," said a Western Conference NBA scout. "I looked around at other scouts and they were rolling their eyes and saying it's over as far as him being the top pick."
With Davis' top draft slot all but guaranteed, the more interesting case becomes his teammate, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The 6-foot-7 freshman swingman has climbed as high as No. 2 in some mock draft, and though he's shown offensive limitations -- he's shooting just 26.1 percent from three (12-of-46) -- he's notched seven double-doubles while establishing himself as an elite defensive presence.
"I couldn't take him at two, but he's probably moved from eight into that four or five category," said another scout. "He's very consistent. Others haven't performed as well, so he's probably gotten their spot."
Player with the most at stake: C Andre Drummond, UConn
Perhaps no player in the potential 2012 draft class evokes more varied reactions than the Huskies' 6-foot-11 freshman. He has the size and athleticism of a future NBA star, but lacks any developed offensive game, as evidenced by his statistical inconsistency. He scored in double-figures in just six of his final 12 contests and is averaging an underwhelming 10.2 points per game.
The NCAA tournament offers a shot at redemption. If Connecticut can dispatch Iowa State (a daunting task considering the recent play of Scott Christopherson and Royce White), it will likely face top-ranked Kentucky in the round of 32. That would pit Drummond against Davis -- a measuring stick game with major lottery implications.
"I'd like to see him against somebody his own size," said the Western Conference scout. "I'd like to see if he takes advantage of his physical strength and responds to the length and athleticism of Davis."
"If Drummond can stay out of foul trouble, be physical and rebound like crazy, then he could be the second pick in the draft," echoed the other scout. "But if he doesn't, if he gets two fouls in two minutes and finishes with four points and five rebounds, people would go, 'Not sold yet.'"
Second-round games to watch: No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 14 South Dakota State; No. 2 Duke vs. No. 15 Lehigh
Though Baylor is loaded with NBA talent, including potential lottery selections Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller, the most intriguing prospect in their second-round matchup may be South Dakota State's Nate Wolters. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound point guard is rapidly rising on many draft boards, and has played admirably against major conference foes: He scored 20, 15 and 34 points in contests at Minnesota, Georgia and Washington, respectively.
"I'd like to see how he can play against NBA size and athleticism and quickness that the Baylor kids have," one of the scouts said. "I'd like to see if he can get in the paint and get shots off like he does against the competition he plays all year long."
In the Duke-Lehigh game, C.J. McCollum will take center stage. The junior shooting guard is listed in the mid- to late-second round of most mocks, and tallied 26 points and seven rebounds against Kansas during the Mountain Hawks' last tournament appearance in 2010. He'll be monitored closely in his head-to-head matchup with Austin Rivers.
"It's a big stage," said the other scout. "If he can make open shots and not get abused defensively, those are things that we'll certainly watch for."
Dream matchup: No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 9 UConn in the Third Round
Regarding first-weekend NCAA tournament locations, expect the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville to be crawling with NBA scouts. A March 17 showdown between the Wildcats and Huskies would feature up to five potential lottery picks (Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Drummond, Jeremy Lamb and Terrence Jones) and a pair of tantalizing head-to-head matchups: Drummond against Davis, and Lamb against Kidd-Gilchrist.
While the battle in the paint would receive top billing, the latter matchup would be equally telling. Lamb's pure scoring potential (17.7 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting) would be tested against an NBA-ready defender, particularly given his slender, and sometimes scrutinized, frame.
"He's gonna beat the s--- out of [Lamb], that's what Gilchrist does," said one of the scouts. "I think the league will watch to see how Lamb responds. He's certainly talented enough to go off, but can he deal with the physical play that he might get from Gilchrist?"
Top prospect: SG Bradley Beal, Florida
The West is by far the weakest region as far as NBA talent is concerned, filled with savvy veteran teams not cut for the professional cloth. Top seeds Michigan State and Missouri are built around college phenoms, and the region, by and large, appears to lack a wealth of first-round talent.
Beal could be the exception. A McDonald's All-American coming out of Chaminade College Prep (Mo.), Beal is averaging 14.6 points as a freshman. And despite failing to live up to his reputation as an elite shooter -- he's converting just 32.9 percent of his threes and 77.5 percent of his free throws -- he's compensated with his size-defying prowess on the glass. He's pulling down 6.5 boards per game, a total that's jumped to 7.8 since Feb. 2, and has all the makings of a lottery-bound prospect.
"He's got a nose for the ball," a scout said. "He rebounds as well as any guard in the country."
"I could see him, best case scenario, going in the eight-to-11 range," said the other scout. "I don't know if he's gonna leave, but he's gonna get everybody's attention if he does."
Player with the most at stake: SF Jae Crowder, Marquette
Had Iona held its 25-point lead over BYU, the prospect with the most to gain would have been point guard Scott Machado. The 6-foot-1 senior led the NCAA in assists (9.9 per game) and tallied 10 in the first half of Tuesday's play-in game before Iona's swift and unprecedented demise. With Weber State's Damian Lillard and Washington's Tony Wroten Jr., both absent from the tournament, Machado could have made a case as one of the nation's premier point guards.
"Especially because the point guard position is so weak this year," said an NBA scout, "I thought he could've played himself up into a higher position if he was able to win a game or two and be a big part of it."
Following his exit, however, the torch gets passed to Crowder, who would've been Machado's second-round opponent. After climbing onto the NBA radar late in the season -- he's averaged 18.8 points and 9.1 rebounds since Jan. 16 -- the undersized 6-6 forward could solidify a spot in June's draft with a head-turning March. That's particularly true if the Golden Eagles can earn an Elite Eight meeting with top-seeded Michigan State, pitting Crowder against a similarly bruising Draymond Green.
"I don't think [Crowder] is a first-round pick," the other scout clarified. "But if you're not on a draft board and get picked in the second round, then obviously you've helped yourself."
Second-round game to watch: No. 8 Memphis vs. No. 9 Saint Louis
Lacking an under-the-radar mid-major prospect, this clash possesses the West's biggest draft ramifications. The Tigers possess a fringe first-rounder in sophomore Will Barton, who has emerged as an offensive force as the season has progressed: He leads Conference USA in scoring (18.1 points), offensive win shares (3.8) and ranks third in effective field-goal percentage (.551).
His slender frame remains an issue (6-5, 165 pounds), but if he can play well against the grind-it-out Billikens -- Saint Louis ranks eighth in the nation in scoring defense -- it could go a long way toward building his reputation as a versatile, and possibly elite, scorer.
"He's a little small, but he plays really hard and gets a lot done for a guy his size," said one of the scouts. "I always put him in the 25-to-35 range and could see him sneaking into the end of the first round."
Dream matchup: No. 2 Missouri vs. No. 7 Florida in the Third Round
While no game would qualify as appointment NBA viewing, a Missouri-Florida matchup would most closely approach the mark. It'd constitute a game of up-and-coming guards, with the Gators' Beal, Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker taking on the Tigers' Marcus Denmon, Kim English and Michael Dixon.
Among the smalls, however, Florida's Patric Young could have a chance to shine. The undersized sophomore forward (6-9, 247) has been an enigma of sorts, averaging just 10.3 points and 6.4 rebounds, but could thrive in an environment where he's the tallest player on the floor.
"If he got on a run, if he started blocking two and a half shots a game and getting 10 rebounds in the tournament, I think he would help himself," a scout said. "I don't know if he's had an off-the-charts season, but he could be a top 20 pick."
Top prospect: PF Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
At this point, Sullinger is a known commodity among NBA evaluators. He's the same player he's been since he first stepped foot in Columbus -- a bullish interior presence lacking elite athleticism. He boasts more low-post moves than any forward in the nation, and, heading into the tournament, is the key to the Buckeyes' championship hopes.
Though his draft stock has remained constant since his return for his sophomore season, a strong March showing, including potential victories over athletic Florida State and Syracuse, could dismiss ongoing concerns about his health ("I think he's been nicked a little bit all year," said a scout). And if he performs like he did in the Big Ten tournament -- he averaged 24 points, nine rebounds shot 56 percent from the field in three games -- he could reinforce his case as a top five talent.
"I think people expect them to win two games, but if they're gonna get to the round of eight or four it's gonna be because of him," one of the scouts said. "If someone has a great comfort level with [Sullinger] and they're not concerned about his vertical play, then he could get into that three, four or five conversation. If teams are a little hesitant, he'll probably go five through eight."
Player with the most at stake: SG Dion Waiters, Syracuse
While Lamb and Beal have received the lion's share of attention among potential 2012 shooting guards, Waiters has begun to gain early first-round recognition. He's displayed deft skill as a ball-handler, passer and defender (he ranks fourth in the Big East in Player Efficiency Rating), and enters the tournament following his strongest outing to date: a 28-point showing in which he went 7-of-10 from three. His all-around court-savvy has earned high praise -- and prompted some unlikely comparisons.
"He does a little bit of the stuff that Dwyane Wade does," said a scout. "Now, he's not as explosive, but he splits doubles like Wade does. And he's got a little James Harden to him because he can pass it."
The problem is Waiters averages just 23.9 minutes per game, good enough for fifth on the Orange's roster. It's downplayed his hype, something that could change in potential showdowns with prospect-laden Vanderbilt or Ohio State.
"I would say today that scouts are more enamored with Beal but only because he's played more," said a scout. "Why is this guy playing 20 minutes? He might be [Syracuse's] best player."
Second-round game to watch: No. 3 Florida State vs. No. 14 St. Bonaventure
Largely off the grid for most of his St. Bonaventure career, 6-foot-9 senior Andrew Nicholson has emerged as a late draft bloomer. His steady production has finally garnered acknowledgement, and he's impressed scouts with his comfort on the low block and around the perimeter. He also bolstered his stock by carrying the Bonnies to the Big Dance, entering the first round of some mocks after averaging 26 points and 10.6 rebounds over the team's final eight games (St. Bonaventure won seven).
Now comes the real challenge. Questioned for his toughness, Nicholson will meet a Florida State squad loaded with athletes. His head-to-head play against Bernard James, the Seminoles' 6-10 senior forward, should serve as a litmus test for Nicholson's first-round potential.
"He doesn't seem like he has a real physical NBA-body presence," said one of the scouts. "It'll be interesting to see him against one of the best athletic defensive teams."
Dream matchup: No. 1 Syracuse vs. No. 5 Vanderbilt in the Sweet 16
Similar to a Kentucky-North Carolina matchup, though to a much lesser extent, a Vanderbilt-Syracuse showdown would feature a litany of NBA prospects. The Commodores have pro-caliber talents in Jeffrey Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli, and the Orange counter with Waiters and Kris Joseph. The battle of the bigs is not as tantalizing as it could have been -- heralded 7-foot center Fab Melo was ruled ineligible for the tournament -- but Taylor's defensive efforts against Waiters would pique significant scouting interest.
"We look at Taylor as a guy, in college, who can guard the 'one' through 'four' positions," said a scout. "We'd love to see that matchup."
Though Syracuse's zone scheme could camouflage some individual battles, it could actually benefit the 6-4 Jenkins. Pegged as late first-rounder to early second-rounder, he could improve his stock behind several dominant shooting performances -- an extension of a junior season in which he shot 44.8 percent from beyond the arc.
"It seems like [the zone] favors Jenkins' strengths, quite honestly," said the other scout. "He struggles more against heavy man-to-man pressure than he does when he's able to shoot the ball."
Top prospects: SF Harrison Barnes, North Carolina; PF Thomas Robinson, Kansas
What else is left to write about these two? Both Barnes and Robinson are surefire early lottery selections, potential franchise building blocks who have proven themselves on countless occasions. Their 2012 campaigns were no exception: Barnes averaged 17.4 points while shooting over 45 percent from three, while Robinson garnered Player of the Year consideration by averaging 17.9 points and 11.8 rebounds.
"Those guys are realistically in the top five whether they're two and three, three and four or four and five," said a scout. "It's just a matter of teams' needs, unless one of them totally blows up in the tournament."
If one does have something to gain, however, it's Robinson, who could silence his small circle of critics during a potential Elite Eight bout with UNC. The traditional knock on Robinson is that he's undersized by NBA standards, with his 6-9 frame paling in comparison to prototypical power forward prospects like Perry Jones (6-11). Robinson could cement himself as the nation's preeminent big -- with the exception of Davis -- by rising to the occasion against the Tar Heels' vaunted front court of John Henson, Tyler Zeller and James McAdoo.
"I'd like to see how Robinson and Henson match up," said the other scout. "That might be the best matchup head-to-head. I'm hoping that Henson is all right physically and his wrist doesn't give him any problems."
Player with the most at stake: SF Doug McDermott, Creighton
At first glance, it's hard not to see McDermott's deficiencies from an NBA standpoint. He's undersized (6-7, 210) and athletically limited. And though he's a terrific scorer (he ranks third in the NCAA in scoring, at 23.3 points per game), he could be a defensive liability: He may not be quick enough to guard professional-level wings.
"He's gonna be able to make shots," said a scout. "Our question is he athletic enough to defend in our league?"
It's a valid drawback, but not a complete deterrent. Former Creighton star Kyle Korver has evolved into a valued NBA producer, and McDermott has been even better during his time on campus. While Korver averaged 17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds and shot 48 percent from distance as a sophomore, McDermott averages 23.2 points, 8.2 rebounds while converting 49.5 percent of his three-point attempts.
"We know what he is and we know his limitations, but if he can have two good games against a couple of quality teams, especially Carolina, it might help boost his stock down the road," said the other scout. "I think if he has a great tournament then he can move up into the late first round."
Second-round games to watch: No. 8 Creighton vs. No. 9 Alabama; No. 6 San Diego State vs. No. 11 N.C. State
NBA interest here revolves almost solely around the play of McDermott. He's torched major-conference competition -- he averaged 25.3 points in three games against Big Ten teams this season -- and could leave a strong final impression by playing well against Alabama, and if Creighton wins, against his high school teammate Harrison Barnes and Carolina.
"If he goes out against Alabama, and it's another test against athletes, and he puts up great numbers we'll go, 'Wow, another feather in his cap,' said one of the scouts. "If he has two games on national TV and is pretty representative, our league would go, 'this guy is pretty good.'"
As for the rest of the region? It's largely a year or two removed from draft relevance. Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke seem set to return to Ann Arbor, and San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin -- though a blossoming talent -- remains starkly raw. NC State's C.J. Leslie, a 6-8, 206-pound sophomore power forward, has come on strong and could warrant late first-round consideration if he declares.
"Leslie has helped himself," said the scout. "He was a McDonald's All-American so he's always had some talent. He's intriguing. He's worth watching a little bit to see if he can take another step."
Dream matchup: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kansas in the Elite Eight
If this matchup were to materialize, it could turn into the most anticipated game of the tournament. The storylines are endless: UNC coach Roy Williams against his former team. Robinson against the Tar Heels' front line. Perhaps most captivating: Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor against Kendall Marshall.
The latter would give Marshall and Taylor an opportunity to showcase their playmaking ability, and more importantly, their defensive potential against NBA-level talent. The gritty Taylor would be tasked with slowing the nation's leader in assists-to-turnover ratio (3.51), while Marshall would be forced to contain one of the game's most athletic prospects. In Marshall's case, it could help eradicate doubts that have plagued Carolina's sophomore -- and potentially catapult him past Lillard and Wroten in the minds of NBA evaluators.
"Marshall is an elite passer," said a scout. "And he's making open shots now. My question is will he be able to defend at our level? His foot speed is not great. He's not great laterally.
"He's obviously played against elite players his whole life -- at Carolina and in high school -- and has done really well. But this is the best of the best. Will he step up and be a star?