ISU's Niang, Michigan's Levert lead potential NCAA tournament breakthrough stars
The stars will likely perform well in the NCAA tournament. Teams won't shift away from the most reliable outlets of production, the players that brought them into the brackets in the first place. But there always, always will be a need for relatively unheralded contributors to emerge and seize control and the spotlight as they never have before. Or, at minimum, in a way that no one has recognized until now.
Here's a look at five players primed for breakout performances in the field of 68, key components for each team whose importance may be underscored even more as their teams plunge deeper and deeper into the brackets.
Georges Niang, Iowa State
Point guard DeAndre Kane received the All-American plaudits and forward Melvin Ejim was the Big 12 player of the year, but it's the 6-foot-8 Niang who may be the fulcrum of a potent Cyclones' offense ranked 15th nationally in adjusted efficiency. His possession percentage (27.6) is the highest on the roster, with coach Fred Hoiberg running the attack through a nominal four-man or five-man who can invert and exploit a mismatch. Niang does a little of everything, with 16.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. The lasting image of him from the Big 12 tournament was a bloody one, when his forehead broke open while taking a charge against Kansas. The lasting image of the NCAA tournament could be fueling his team toward a Final Four run.
Caris LeVert, Michigan
When Nik Stauskas stuck around campus during spring break of 2013 to work out -- and therefore wash out the bad taste of his NCAA tournament finish -- it was LeVert who remained in Ann Arbor, too. The diligence has paid off for a 6-foot-6 sophomore who averaged 13.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists for the Wolverines in his first year of full duty. Whatever Michigan needs, LeVert can offer. His possession percentage (21.3) is second only to Stauskas, so the offense can run through him. His defensive rebound percentage (14.6) is second only to center Jordan Morgan. And essentially, if Michigan's so-so defense will make plays, LeVert likely will make them, as the team leader in steal percentage (2.1). That all-around explosiveness might draw greater notice starting this week.
Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico
Maybe a stretch to consider a player who averages 20.3 points and 7.4 rebounds on the cusp of a breakout, because the 6-foot-9 Austrailian has been charging to All-American levels since November. But Bairstow wasn't even the player of the year in his own league and, thanks to a comparative lack of visibility in the Mountain West, the NCAA tournament provides his introduction to the national consciousness. He has a terrific chance to charge the stage, too. Should the Lobos oust Stanford, they get a Joel Embiid-less Kansas team in the round of 32, and Bairstow can attack the rim much more effectively. (His free throw rate, a measure of how often he gets to the line versus his actual field goal attempts, is .713, just inside the top 50 nationally.) People couldn't help but notice if Bairstow leads New Mexico to that upset.
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
Russ Smith is considered the surging Cardinals' best offensive weapon. No one is more combustible...except maybe a 6-foot-8, 235-pound sophomore forward who has the best offensive rating on the team at 119.5. That's Harrell, who may be evolving into a monster just at the right time. He has averaged 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds for the season and has anchored the lane as best he could, with a team-high block percentage of 4.8 (opponent possessions ending in a Harrell swat). Harrell posted 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in the AAC title game, his fifth 20-point effort in his last eight games. Russdiculous gets the attention and acclaim, and perhaps rightfully so. But many may soon see that Harrell may be just as important to Louisville recapturing the magic of last March.
Michael Frazier II, Florida
The general selflessness and balance of the overall No. 1 seed would suggest a very limited chance for breakout. The ability of Frazier to rain down an apocalyptic amount of three-pointers suggests that, at some point, the 6-foot-4 sophomore guard will catch everyone's eyes. Frazier II was the Gators' third-leading scorer at 12.9 points per game but led the team with a 126.9 offensive rating, primarily due to the 107 three-pointers he drained at a 45.5 percent clip. He detonated for 11 in a game against South Carolina on March 4, and twice was extremely efficient from beyond the arc in the SEC tournament – 10-of-15 across three games. He also has increasingly active hands on the defensive end, averaging 1.2 steals per game but twice recording four pilfers in his last five outings. Florida eventually will need an offensive supercharge to push them through. Frazier II is as good a bet as any to provide it.