Ten players to watch entering the major conference tournaments
During conference tournament week, the focus naturally is on teams playing for seeds or spots in the NCAA tournament. Here are 10 players to watch, listed in alphabetical order, who can affect their school's fates significantly this week and beyond.
Justin Anderson, Virginia
The most pertinent question about the 6’ 6” junior forward: When you are watching him, are you looking at the Greensboro Coliseum floor or the Cavaliers’ bench? Anderson had a shot at All-ACC honors and an outside chance at a spot on the All-America team before he broke a finger on Jan. 31 against Duke. His return was then further delayed by an appendectomy last Thursday. Virginia won nine of 10 games without Anderson in the lineup, but there’s no question it values his offense and ability to spread the floor a bit (13.4 points per game, team-best 62.9% true shooting percentage). “It’s going to be good to get him back, hopefully sooner than later,” coach Tony Bennett said after a season-ending loss at Louisville. Anderson doesn’t need to be back at full-go in Greensboro. But some perceptible evidence that he’s headed that way will do wonders for Virginia’s potential to push to the Final Four.
Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
The junior’s six-point effort in the Wildcats’ regular-season finale wasn’t eye-popping. But helping to orchestrate a 105–68 win and one of the most efficient offensive showings of the season (1.555 points per possession) is certainly credible enough. And before that, Arcidiacono had been on a bit of a hot shooting streak: In his previous five games, he averaged 15.3 points per game on 51% efficiency from the floor (he’s a 40% shooter overall). Villanova is in no danger at Madison Square Garden this week, but it will have to bolster its case for a No. 1 seed and can't bow out early as the Wildcats did last year. And, what do you know, the team that flushed Villanova from the Big East tournament last year, Seton Hall, is a possible quarterfinal opponent. After that, strong guard play from Providence or St. John’s would await. If Arcidiacono can maintain his shooting touch, that makes the already flummoxing Wildcats offense (fourth nationally in efficiency) even more difficult to defend. And that should provide enough cushion for Villanova to settle on that one-line come Selection Sunday.
James Blackmon, Indiana
[daily_cut.college basketball]The Hoosiers have lost four of five entering the Big Ten tournament and now tenuously occupy a spot on the NCAA tournament bubble. You may have heard Indiana fans are not particularly thrilled about this. An early exit in Chicago would only serve to motivate the torch-and-pitchfork crowd howling for coach Tom Crean’s exile, and in theory, junior guard and All-Big Ten performer Yogi Ferrell leads the way to quelling the uprising. But we’ll keep an eye on Blackmon instead, both because of the freshman’s more explosive scoring ability—he had six three-pointers last month against Minnesota—and the fact that he was dreadful last time out against Northwestern, Indiana’s opponent on Thursday. Blackmon, who averages 15.8 points per game on 42.6% shooting, hit just 1 of 10 shots in a Feb. 25 loss to the Wildcats. What’s more, Northwestern has won three of the last four against Indiana. If Blackmon can get it going at the United Center, he can help the Hoosiers avoid disaster, scoot off the bubble and thereby help drag his coach off a potentially scalding seat.
Perry Ellis, Kansas
Kansas's leading scorer (14.2 points per game) and rebounder (7.0 boards per night) is now dogged by a sprained right knee that may sideline him for at least the Big 12 tournament opener on Thursday. “If he can’t go full speed by Wendesday, we’re not going to play him Thursday,” Kansas coach Bill Self told reporters Monday. Another year, another injury predicament with a key big man for the Jayhawks. Last year it was Joel Embiid’s back that kept the 7-footer out of the league tournament, and this year the 6’ 8” Ellis’ status is in flux. The frontcourt was already unsettled with Cliff Alexander sidelined due to NCAA eligibility issues, and this does not help. Surely, Kansas would prefer Ellis to be at full health for the NCAA tournament.
Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
The last time the senior guard was on the Greensboro Coliseum floor, he was at the center of another crushing NCAA tournament disappointment: Down two with 2.8 seconds left against Xavier, the Irish were at the line and had a chance to tie … when officials ruled that Grant left his position behind the three-point line too early on a shot, giving the ball back to the Musketeers to clinch it. And Grant enters the ACC tournament coming off another, slightly less stinging moment—losing league Player of the Year honors to Duke’s Jahlil Okafor. “It’s an award I really wanted,” Grant told reporters on Monday. The player who drives the third-most efficient offense in the country—Grant averages 16.8 points, 6.7 assists and shoots 49.4%—may be driven by bad memories of long ago and not-so-long-ago. That may help the Irish cinch a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, which will be critical to keep them close to home and best position them to push for a first Sweet 16 bid since 2003.
Anthony Hickey Jr., Oklahoma State
The senior point guard’s lone season with the Cowboys played out much like his three seasons at LSU did: He was steady enough with 9.8 points and 3.5 assists per game while shooting a career-best 43.5% from the floor. But in his last two outings Hickey found a higher gear. He had 20 points and five assists on 8-of-12 shooting in a win over TCU and then had 17 points and seven assists on 6-of-11 shooting in a loss to West Virginia. Oklahoma State’s NCAA tournament fate isn’t quite teetering as it enters the Big 12 tournament, but it’s not locked down by any stretch. The Cowboys's quarterfinal opponent—Oklahoma—brings some good and some bad. It’s another chance for a top-shelf victory. But that may be hard to come by for a team that already has lost five of six. If Hickey can be a factor offensively, it can only relieve some pressure from Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte III and help the Cowboys leave a favorable impression on the selection committee’s minds.
Stanley Johnson, Arizona
It might be a long way to a No. 1 seed for the Wildcats, but that’s sort of beside the point, as they’re likely to get shipped to the West Region even as a No. 2. To reinforce the idea that this is a national championship-caliber team—and, yes, that means a team capable of beating Kentucky—it needs Johnson to shake off a minor swoon at the end of his freshman season. The 6’ 7” forward can be the assertive, athletic slasher driving Arizona’s half-court offense. And he remains the team’s overall leading scorer (13.9 points per game) and rebounder (6.6 boards). But he’s dipped just a bit to 10.7 points per game over his last seven outings, mixing in some good shooting nights (6 of 12 against USC, 6 of 11 against Colorado) with some unsightly ones (1 of 9 versus UCLA, 3 of 19 against Utah). The Wildcats can win with defense, anyway; only Kentucky and Virginia are more efficient on that end. Should Johnson return to a more consistent level of high production on offense, Arizona may have far more cushion than it needs.
Jordan Mickey, LSU
There’s a lot on the Tigers’ plate heading into Nashville. They appear to be on the bubble, and they are in line for a shot at Kentucky in the conference tournament semifinals. They’ll have a very limited shot at either if Mickey, the 6’ 8” sophomore forward, hasn’t come around from a shoulder injury that kept him out of the season finale at Arkansas. LSU appears set with production from Jarell Martin, who has averaged 22.8 points in his last five games. There’s less clarity with Mickey, the team’s second-leading scorer at 16 points per game. That’s due to the injury and the fact that Mickey has hit the 20-point mark just once since Feb. 7. LSU led Kentucky for more than half the game in a two-point loss on Feb. 10 and had a chance to win at the buzzer. The Tigers may not be able to replicate that effort on a neutral floor. But at least a healthy and productive Mickey allows them to envision stopping history in its tracks.
James Woodard, Tulsa
The Golden Hurricane enter the AAC tournament on a two-game slide, which has positioned them in NCAA tournament bubble territory. Their 21 wins include zero against teams that were ranked at the time and they’re 2-6 against teams ranked in the Top 50 of the RPI. A run to the conference title game may be enough to convince the selection committee that this is a tournament team. The 6’ 3” Woodard is Tulsa's leading scorer and dropped 10 three-pointers on SMU in a loss to end the regular season, making it 10 games with at least four three-pointers this season. There’s a lot that goes into the committee determining a team’s ability to compete at a high level. An explosive scorer and shooter like Woodard is one element of that equation. So it would be helpful to demonstrate more of those qualities this week.
Delon Wright, Utah
The senior guard’s Win Shares total of 7.5—a measure of how much his production contributed to Utes’ victories—was second only to Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky (7.9), who may be the national Player of the Year. Wright’s offensive rating (132.7) was fourth in the country. His defensive Win Shares total of 2.7 tied for sixth. He probably will be an All-America after Utah finished with 23 wins and in second place in the Pac-12. And, somehow, Wright was not the league’s Player of the Year, losing out to Oregon’s Joseph Young. (Arizona’s T.J. McConnell has a beef, too.) The 6’ 5” guard may be another player on a mission to prove something, though the chase for team validation may be as important as making an individual case. Should the Utes hoist the trophy in Las Vegas, the entire program can feel it somewhat closed the gap on Arizona, if only just fractionally, after a pair of regular-season losses. Wright should be properly motivated to fuel those efforts.