Eleven possible unsung heroes in the Big Dance

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From a personnel standpoint much of the focus during the NCAA tournament is on the stars, the players who have the talent needed to change their NBA draft possibilities drastically over the next three weeks. But for as important as those stars are they need help, and a quality “unsung hero” could mean the difference between a good season and a truly special one.

Here are 11 players capable of fitting that role: 

1) Will Yeguete (Florida): Yeguete isn’t much of a scorer, averaging just 4.9 points per game, but his impact on the defensive end is an important factor for the top overall seed. Yeguete has the athleticism and energy needed to spearhead Florida’s full-court pressure, and his presence in the front court helps out fellow senior Patric Young as well.

2) Tekele Cotton (Wichita State): Cotton’s clearly a known commodity for those who have watched the Shockers all season long. But for those who haven’t, he tends to be an afterthought of sorts with sophomores Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet and senior Cleanthony Early receiving the bulk of the attention. Cotton’s averaging 10.8 points per game, and with two 20-point efforts in his last six games he can provide scoring when the key options are struggling.

3) Travis Trice (Michigan State): This has as much to do with the health of Keith Appling as it does Trice’s ability to handle the point guard responsibilities at times for Michigan State. How close to 100% is Appling at this point? While he’s getting closer to that point the wrist may still be an issue, and for that reason more has been asked of Trice in recent games. And he’s responded well for the most part, which could mean good things in the NCAA tournament.

4) Gabe York (Arizona): Perimeter shooting has been an issue for the Wildcats this season, and York is one of the players capable of providing a spark in this area. But the key for the sophomore in the NCAA tournament will be consistency. In the Pac-12 title game against UCLA York scored 11 points. In the three games prior: a total of nine points.

5) London Perrantes (Virginia): While Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis received a high amount of praise for his steady leadership at the point (and rightfully so), there was another freshman point guard in the ACC running the show with a calm demeanor. Perrantes has been a difference-maker for the Cavaliers this season, and a stat to remember is his 18-for-28 (64.3%) shooting from beyond the arc over the last eight games.

6) Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin): Hayes has done a good job of providing the Badgers with a spark off the bench for much of this season, and he’ll need to continue to do so in the NCAA tournament if Wisconsin is to make a deep run. In the three games prior to his quiet effort in a Big Ten semifinal loss to Ohio State the freshman averaged 12.0 points and 4.7 rebounds.

7) Stephen Van Treese (Louisville): This pick is likely a shock considering the fact that Van Treese is scoring just 2.9 points per game. But his value this season has come on the boards, with Van Treese being Louisville’s second-leading rebounder. Having Montrezl Harrell inside certainly helps, but if the Cardinals are to win a national title they’re going to need Van Treese from a rebounding standpoint. Over his last four games the senior’s pulled down an average of 10.3 rebounds per game.

8) Norman Powell (UCLA): Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson get most of the attention when it comes to UCLA’s perimeter scoring and rightfully so. But don’t ignore Powell’s ability to make things happen as well, and it should also be noted that he’s the Bruins’ best perimeter defender. Over his last three games the junior’s averaging 15.3 points.

9) Rasheed Sulaimon (Duke): Sulaimon’s in a similar situation to that of Powell, with Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood being asked to do much of the heavy lifting offensively. Sulaimon’s certainly capable of giving Duke additional perimeter scoring, as evidenced by his average of 13.8 points per game in the five contests before the ACC title game (two points, 1-for-6 FG).

10) Josh Hart (Villanova): The Wildcats have four talented scoring options in guards Ryan Arcidiacono, James Bell and Darrun Hilliard and forward JayVaughn Pinkston. But what if one (or more) of those players happens to be off the mark? Enter Hart, who averaged 7.9 points per game and enjoyed a stretch of eight straight games in double figures earlier this season.

11) Rob Brandenberg (VCU): When Melvin Johnson injured his knee at the Atlantic 10 tournament this past weekend the Rams lost their best three-point shooter, with the sophomore making 39.5% of his attempts from three. So which player is best equipped to take a step forward if Johnson can’t go this week? Brandenberg, who’s shooting 36.9% from three and averaging 9.7 points per game. With the attention that Treveon Graham, Juvonte Reddic and Briante Weber are bound to receive, keep an eye on Brandenberg.

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.