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Tournament Preview (03/16)

March 16, 2011
The NBA Perspective
A Tournament Preview

by Kevin Pelton

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I am somewhat unique among basketball fans, I think, in that I get almost equal enjoyment out of watching both professional and college hoops. There are many fans that are almost polemic in their support of either the NCAA or the NBA, which has never made sense to me. Hoops are hoops in my book, and while the NBA is my true passion and my primary focus, I love watching the college game as well.

Of course, for people who aren't paid to watch basketball, it can be difficult to fit everything in. There are plenty of NBA fans who only have the chance to turn their attention to the NCAA during March, when it's almost impossible not to follow the NCAA Tournament. If you're among that group, this column is for you. Chad Ford of ESPN Insider already does a great job of spotlighting the NBA prospects active in March (though, as M. Haubs noted recently on Twitter, barely half of this year's top 15 prospects are playing in the NCAA Tournament). We'll touch on pro potential, but this is also about pointing out the most interesting players and teams to keep an eye on throughout the next three weeks. I hope it helps.

EAST REGIONAL

Most NBA Team: Kentucky
Sunday's excellent Fab Five documentary was a handy reminder that, for better or worse, John Calipari's Kentucky teams are the modern offspring of the Fab Five. This year's 'Cats aren't quite as freshman-heavy as last year's team that produced four one-and-done first-round picks, but Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones carry a heavy load for Kentucky and are likely to be pros this time a year from now. Calipari's Dribble-Drive Motion offense is a pro-style game that helps prepare his point guards to succeed immediately in the NBA, but the focus on it obscures the fact that Calipari's charges annually put in more effort defensively than typical players of their ilk.

First-Round Matchup to Watch: Washington-Georgia
The Huskies are sort of like Kentucky West: Both teams lost a series of close games, mostly on the road, before reasserting their dominance in winning their respective conference tournaments. The Huskies are lacking in star NBA potential but could put multiple players in the league, including senior defensive stopper Justin Holiday. He'll likely match up with ├╝ber-athletic Georgia forward Travis Leslie. Bulldogs post Trey Thompkins is also a possible first-round pick.

Five Guys to Watch:

Harrison Barnes, SF, North Carolina - The nation's top recruit, Barnes struggled early in his freshman season before catching fire down the stretch. He is occasionally unable to create good shots, but he's a premier shotmaker who is usually in the right place.

John Henson, PF, North Carolina - Arguably the NCAA's most FreeDarko player, Henson is a lanky, long-limbed four-man who is physically reminiscent of Tayshaun Prince. Henson is an elite rebounder and shot blocker, but gets beaten badly in the post and struggles to hit from the perimeter--possibly because he's so ambidextrous that he shoots right-handed but does everything else lefty.

Terrence Jones, PF, Kentucky - Jones is sort of like Anthony Randolph if he had played under Calipari's firm thumb. He loves to bring the ball upcourt and shoot from the perimeter, but Calipari has focused him on playing in the paint. Jones is a little undersized, so he may return to the pick-and-pop game as a pro.

Jared Sullinger, C, Ohio State - The likely National Player of the Year as a freshman, Sullinger's earthbound game is perfect for the NCAA level. The success of Kevin Love this season has helped his NBA stock. Sullinger isn't quite in Love's league as a passer or rebounder, but he's got a more polished array of post moves that anchors the No. 1 overall seed.

Isaiah Thomas, PG, Washington - Thomas--no relation to the erstwhile Pistons star--introduced himself to the nation with Saturday's conference-winning jumper at the buzzer of the Pac-10 Tournament Final. Thomas is the heir to Nate Robinson as an undersized Husky tweener guard. While he lacks Robinson's hops, he's proven himself to be a superior distributor this season.

How to Sound Like You've Been Watching the NCAA All Year

"I like Ohio State to win the national championship--as long as they don't have to face Northwestern along the way. Right?"

SOUTHEAST REGIONAL

Most NBA Team: Kansas State
You'll remember the Wildcats from last year's run to the Elite Eight. That set up Kansas State with an undeserved top-5 ranking. K-State fell out of the polls entirely after a 1-4 start to conference play before rebounding to finish the conference regular season with six straight wins. The Wildcats pound the offensive glass with a physical frontline and run their offense through quick, powerful guard Jacob Pullen.

First-Round Matchup to Watch: UCLA-Michigan State
St. John's and Gonzaga should be fun as well, but we'll go with this battle of traditional powers unaccustomed to a 7-10 matchup. It's a matchup of strength vs. strength in the frontcourt, as the Bruins' duo of relentless Reeves Nelson and beastly Joshua Smith (somewhere between Eddy Curry and Oliver Miller) takes on versatile Draymond Green and Delvon Roe. While the Spartans have the stronger overall numbers, these two teams have gone in opposite directions. Michigan State finished 9-9 in a tough Big Ten while UCLA was a surprising second in the Pac-10 before flaming out in the conference tournament.

Five Guys to Watch:

Jimmer Fredette, PG, Brigham Young - Surely all but the most casual crossover fans know the Jimmer, who has become a phenomenon on the strength of regular 40-point outings topped by his 52-point effort against New Mexico in the semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament. Fredette's unlimited range and ability to cross over unsuspecting defenders make him infinitely entertaining.

Draymond Green, PF, Michigan State - Green deserves a bit more discussion. At a listed 6'6", 235, he's among the nation's top 105 players in defensive rebound rate, assist rate and steal rate. Green also excels at blocking shots and has three-point range ... but makes just 44.8 percent of his twos. Such a bizarre combination of skills.

Malcolm Lee, SG, UCLA - After a disappointing sophomore season, Lee has been able to settle in at his natural position off the ball and focus on getting to the hoop and locking down opposing scorers. The Bruins' biggest concern is that Lee is hampered by a cartilage tear in his left knee.

David Stockton, PG, Gonzaga - Stockton's father, named John, also attended Gonzaga and subsequently played in the NBA, where he finished his career as the league's all-time leader in assists. His son is a step slower and can be prone to pressure (a possible problem against the Johnnies), which is why he walked on, but the younger Stockton's court vision helped turn around the Zags' season.

Tai Wesley, C, Utah State - The anchor of an Aggies team that could give Kansas State trouble in the opening round, Wesley is a powerful yet skilled post player. He made 59.4 percent of his two-point attempts and lived at the foul line, making free throws at a 71.9 percent clip. The combination made Wesley one of the country's most efficient scorers.

How to Sound Like You've Been Watching the NCAA All Year

"Look, I think the Jimmer is amazing, but without Brandon Davies BYU just doesn't have enough size or depth to reach the Final Four unless he scores 50 points a game the entire tournament."

SOUTHWEST REGIONAL

Most NBA Team: Kansas
The Jayhawks' frontcourt could compete in the NBA tomorrow. Marcus and Markieff Morris are likely to join the Lopez brothers as twins both selected in the first round of the draft, while reserve Thomas Robinson might just join them. Marcus has more NBA upside because of his athleticism and inside-out game, but Markieff has been more dominant in the paint and equally productive. Meanwhile, Robinson comes off the bench to pound the glass and finish at the rim for 15 minutes a night. Kansas is a little low on athleticism on the wings, where Josh Selby has been unable to supplant veterans Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed, but the Jayhawks score efficiently and play at a fast pace.

First-Round Matchup to Watch: Louisville-Morehead State
There's a chance this might turn into a rout, but Morehead State is the rare champion of a one-bid conference that doesn't have to resort to gimmickry to battle an elite power. This Louisville squad is as much in the Rick Pitino mold as any of his teams since Kentucky, pressuring all over the court and shooting tons of threes. The Eagles struggle to take care of the basketball, but if they can beat the press Kenneth Faried will pose problems for the Cardinals on the offensive glass.

Five Guys to Watch:

Festus Ezeli, C, Vanderbilt - Ezeli, a Nigerian native who is presumably the NCAA's only player named after the Latin word for "festive," packs a lot of action into his 23.3 minutes a night--notably 2.6 blocks per game. Ezeli is a high-percentage shooter who commits a lot of fouls and draws even more of them when he's on the floor.

Kenneth Faried, C, Morehead State - Faried is the next undersized post player who will be drafted too low but contribute instantly in the NBA with his rebounding and occasional shot blocking. There's still time to get on his bandwagon before the draft.

Ben Hansbrough, PG, Notre Dame - "Psycho B," the younger brother of the Pacers' Tyler Hansbrough, has come into his own as a senior transfer. Hansbrough is the best of a group of highly efficient shooters, making 44.1 percent of his threes and padding his numbers at the line. He's also the quarterback of an offense that ranks third in the country in assists per field goal and never turns the ball over.

Khris Middleton, SF, Texas A&M - It's impossible to watch Middleton without thinking of Kevin Durant. While Middleton has yet to reach those heights, he's also a skinny swingman with long arms playing in the state of Texas who loves to use spin moves in traffic.

Peyton Siva, PG, Louisville - Siva is the latest product of Franklin High School in Seattle, which also produced star guards Aaron Brooks and Jason Terry. Siva outplayed Kemba Walker head-to-head twice in the regular season, is one of the country's leaders in steal rate and pulled off a 360 dunk in a game. Suffice it to say he's more than a little entertaining.

How to Sound Like You've Been Watching the NCAA All Year

"The selection committee disrespected Belmont by giving them a 13 seed, but the real loser here is Wisconsin, which may well fall victim to another first-weekend upset."

WEST REGIONAL

Most NBA Team: Duke
The Blue Devils are sort of like the San Antonio Spurs of the NCAA. Their conservative nature belies a more radical brand of basketball. Both teams are heavily dependent on the three-point shot, while Duke becomes all the more exciting if point guard Kyrie Irving can return to the lineup for the NCAA Tournament. Like Tony Parker, Irving is a one-man fast break.

First-Round Matchup to Watch: Arizona-Memphis
One-time Wildcats player and assistant Josh Pastner faces his former squad in this 5-12 matchup. After replacing his boss Calipari in Memphis, Pastner secured a star-studded recruiting class led by wing Will Barton, one of four freshmen starters. The Tigers have been inconsistent, but beat UTEP on the road to win the C-USA Tournament. They'll focus their defensive energy on stopping Derrick Williams without giving up the threes on which Arizona relies.

Five Guys to Watch:

Seth Curry, G, Duke - Stephen's little brother was an instant contributor after translating from Liberty. He struggles to finish inside, but knocked down a cool 44.2 percent of his three-point attempts.

Jordan Hamilton, SF, Texas - A super-talented sophomore, Hamilton took a big step forward this season by doing more work on the glass and settling for fewer threes. He still remains prone to 7-for-21 shooting nights, however.

Kawhi Leonard, PF, San Diego State - The first thing you'll notice about Leonard are his hands, which are the size of catcher's mitts. Then you'll notice his leaping ability. Lastly, his ballhandling skill will stand out. Add it up and you have one of the nation's best all-around players despite inefficient shooting. Think Shawn Marion.

Kemba Walker, PG, Connecticut - I don't think there's any way Walker could top his Big East Tournament run, including his game-winning jumper to knock off Pittsburgh, but I can't wait to see him try. Walker also dominated the Maui Invitational in November, so perhaps he is at his best in one-and-done formats.

Derrick Williams, C, Arizona - A preposterously talented big man, Williams is not only unstoppable in the paint but also is threatening the NCAA record for single-season three-point percentage (60.3 percent). No wonder his True Shooting Percentage is better than 70 percent.

How to Sound Like You've Been Watching the NCAA All Year

"If Texas' defense gets back to the level it was playing at during January and February, the Longhorns might just get to the Final Four."

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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