Everyone’s talking about the big names going into this weekend’s Sweet 16 round of the madness—Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Grant Williams, Coby White, Cassius Winston and more. But while the faces of each of the 16 finalists are clearly crucial to their success, there are a few other—often overlooked—players who need to step up if their teams want to survive Thursday and Friday and advance to the Elite Eight.
Virginia Tech: Justin Robinson
Nickeil Alexander-Walker is Virginia Tech’s best player and the backbone of their backcourt, contributing 16.4 points per game to the country’s 12th most efficient offense and connecting on 47.8% of his shots from the field. His 38.0% mark from the three has helped the Hokies to the ninth best three-point percentage in the nation and the sophomore guard’s interior game—and his 1.9 steals per game—are indispensible to a team that has struggled inside the arc on both ends of the floor.
Kerry Blackshear Jr., doubles as the only player on Buzz Williams’ roster taller than 6’6” and the Hokies’ leading rebounder. For a team that struggles with size, Blackshear Jr. will have to hang around the rim against Duke this weekend, especially considering Zion Williamson is back in the fold. Blackshear Jr. dropped 23 points against Duke while Zion was out this season.
Tech’s sixth-year senior, Ty Outlaw, has embraced his stretch four role with open arms, attempting more than five threes per game while shooting 45.6% on the deep ball and serving as one of the team’s best defensive rebounders. His impact on the defensive end is priceless, especially at the perimeter. Most people wouldn’t argue any about the importance of any of these players. But then there’s Justin Robinson. Threes are Tech’s bread and butter, and Robinson shoots a third-best 41.1% from the arc on an equally ranked 13.4 points per game. But what he does best is facilitate, leading the Hokies with 5.0 assists per game.
When the Hokies face a Duke team with something to prove after an uninspiring first half showing against North Dakota State and an almost-upset at the hands of UCF, the top-seeded Blue Devils will certainly have a chip on their shoulder. To match the talent of the offense that Tre Jones runs beautifully, Robinson needs to return to the form from before his injury. Virginia Tech needs to shoot lights out and make smart plays, which starts with the senior guard. His nine-point performance against Saint Louis was underwhelming, at best, especially during the tournament. His 13-point, four-assist and two-rebound showing against Liberty in the second round was better, but if Virginia Tech wants to take Duke out of the running for a national title this weekend, it will need more from Robinson than what we’ve seen so far.
Auburn: Chuma Okeke
Auburn entered the Big Dance on an eight-game winning streak led by an impressive backcourt duo in Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. They’ve found their sweet spots at the arc and in transition, draining shots from deep and nabbing steals at an impressive pace (Auburn is the only team since at least 2010–11 to accumulate 400 or more threes and 300 or more steals in a single season, according to Sports Reference).
But behind the strengths of Brown and Harper, defensive rebounding has been the Tigers’ Achilles heel—and it’s not the best weakness to have against a frantic and fantastic Carolina offense run by freshman Coby White, which capitalizes on offensive weapons like Cameron Johnson (shooting 51% from the field and 46.3% from three for a team-high 16.9 points per game), a 6’8” Luke Maye who dominates at the rim for the Tar Heels while shooting 43% from inside and 28.9% from outside and Nassir Little, who’s found form as of late and is adding 10 points per game at a 48.5% clip.
In this Sweet 16 matchup especially, Auburn needs sophomore forward Chuma Okeke to step up. Okeke leads the team in rebounds at 6.7 per game and steals (1.8), sits at second for blocks (1.2) and third in points at 11.8 while shooting 48.8% and contributing 52 threes at a 38% clip to the cause. His showings in the first and second rounds were solid—13 points, five rebounds, three steals and one block against New Mexico State followed by 12 points, five rebounds, four assists, as many steals and another block in a strong win over Kansas. But what the Tigers need against a talented Carolina team this weekend is a dominant performance from Okeke like he gave against Tennessee in the SEC tournament championship game, where he dropped 18 while shooting 46.2% from the field.
Michigan State: Kenny Goins
The Spartans have looked surprisingly sloppy so far this tournament. Michigan State beat Minnesota by 20 but turned the ball over 22 times against a team much weaker than the one the Tigers will face this weekend. LSU will take advantage of every possession Michigan State gives up, which could make Friday night tough for Tom Izzo’s squad if Kenny Goins doesn’t step up and stop the sloppiness when it comes to protecting the ball—in transition and at the rim—and Cassius Winston doesn’t facilitate a more controlled offense.
In his defense, Winston cannot lead a one-man team to a tournament title. The junior guard had 26 points in the Spartans' first-round win over Bradley, and he tallied 13 points and nine assists against Minnesota to help the team advance to the Sweet 16. He’s leading the team with 18.9 points, 7.5 assists and one steal per game this season. He’s definitely doing his part, but Winston still needs to play more disciplined basketball.
But Goins, the team’s leading rebounder (8.9) had five turnovers against Minnesota—Winston had four while facilitating. Since Michigan State doesn’t have a singular rim-protector like UCF’s Tacko Fall or Purdue’s Matt Haarms, their three forwards (Nick Ward, Xavier Tillman and Goins) have to work a little harder to deny easy buckets and protect the ball. LSU relies much more heavily on points in the paint than at the perimeter, so the Spartans will need their big men to bring their A game and for their guards to keep things moving without turning the ball over a stupid high number of times again if they want to make it through the Tigers in the Sweet 16.
Virginia: Kyle Guy
Kyle Guy was the Cavaliers’ leading scorer during the regular season, but after posting just 12 points through two games in the tournament, that title has been taken over by top-NBA draft prospect and talented two-way wing De’Andre Hunter.
Hunter is averaging 15.2 points per game for Virginia after a dominant 23-point performance against Gardner Webb and a 10-point night in the team’s 63–51 win over Oklahoma in the second round. He’s sinking 52.9% of shots from the field and 44.6% from three. Ty Jerome has knocked in 25 through two tournament games and is equally important to Virginia's success this postseason. The 6'5" junior guard averages 13.0 points (good for third on the team) on 40.0% shooting from deep and leads the Cavaliers with 5.3 assists and 1.6 steals per game, but Guy is their sharp shooter.
Guy is the biggest perimeter threat on a Virginia offense that connects on 40.2% of shots from beyond the arc. He's hit 107 threes at a 43.9% rate and averages 15.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. The junior guard has been uncharacteristically unproductive offensively in two games during this NCAA tournament, including going 0 for 10 from three against Oklahoma, but he's capable of going off at any time if he gets hot from deep. He’s such a key contributor and leader in the Pack Line defense that Tony Bennett’s team needs more from him if it wants to continue dancing. Oregon’s defense has been locked in down the stretch, so if Virginia wants to continue its run for the title, it can’t have another cold night from its second-best shooter.