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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.

No. 2 Villanova clinches Big East title with win over No. 23 Creighton

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 25: Kris Jenkins #2 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in front of Justin Patton #23 of the Creighton Bluejays in the first half at the Pavilion on February 25, 2017 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Villanova continued its dominance of the modern Big East on Saturday as the No. 2 Wildcats made a late charge to secure a 79-63 home win over No. 23 Creighton.

By clinching at least a share of the Big East regular season crown, Jay Wright’s program has now won four consecutive regular-season conference titles as they try to make another push towards the postseason.

Eric Paschall led a balanced Villanova scoring effort with 19 points while Josh Hart (15 points), Kris Jenkins (14 points) and Mikal Bridges (11 points) also finished in double-figures. The late push at the end was a good sign that Villanova might have shaken off a recent sluggish stretch that included a home loss last game to Butler and an uninspired first half against Creighton.

There were also times during Villanova’s win on Saturday where they didn’t look fully engaged and Creighton was right with them. Maybe it was partly because of the emotion of Senior Day, but while the Wildcats are still a heavy favorite to land a top seed and make it back to the Final Four, there are also some concerns about depth and health at this point in the season.

The Wildcats have been able to withstand the rib injury and five-game absence of veteran big man Darryl Reynolds, but it does seem like this team might be getting a bit tired entering the stretch run. Villanova was only 4-for-19 from three-point range on their home floor on Saturday while Hart is just 1-for-9 from the free-throw line in his last two games.

That could mean a cold stretch but it could also mean some tired legs. Thankfully for Villanova, they only have one regular-season game next week on the road at a Georgetown team that has lost back-to-back games to DePaul and St. John’s. Coupled with the early bye in the Big East tournament and the Wildcats should get some time to rest and recover over the next few weeks.

It’ll be interesting to see if Villanova comes out with any kind of intensity against Georgetown — with nothing really to play for — or if they try to put away a reeling Hoyas team early.

SATURDAY’S SNACKS: North Carolina clinches share of ACC title; Kentucky tops Florida on Monk’s huge half

of the Florida Gators during the game Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena on February 25, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.
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SATURDAY’S THINGS TO KNOW

The ACC saw No. 8 North Carolina win on the road as they handled Pitt to claim at least a share of the ACC regular season conference title. CBT’s Rob Dauster has more on why this season might be Roy Williams’ best coaching job yet.

Things became a little bit clearer in the SEC as No. 11 Kentucky rallied behind a monster second half from freshman Malik Monk (30 of 33 points in second half) to beat No. 13 Florida. On a day in which De’Aaron Fox was out with injury, Monk and freshman Bam Adebayo (18 points, 15 rebounds) combined to give the Wildcats the conference lead with a week left. Dauster has more on Monk and Kentucky’s prospects heading into March.

Defending national champion Villanova clinched at least a share of the Big East regular season title as the No. 4 Wildcats used a late push to run past No. 23 Creighton. A balanced effort helped the Wildcats bounce back from this week’s loss against Butler as Eric Paschall led with 19 points.

STARRED

Virginia’s offense — The Cavaliers were in a mighty slump during their four-game losing streak as the Cavaliers had failed to crack 55 points during the last three. That changed during a win Saturday on the road at N.C. State. Virginia shot 11-for-16 from three-point range (68.8 percent) and freshman Kyle Guy had more points in this one (19) than he did in his previous five games (17).

Malik Monk, Kentucky — Erupting in the second half was the freshman guard as he totaled 33 points in the Wildcats’ important SEC home win over visiting Florida. Monk only had three points at halftime and showed why he’s the country’s most electric player with just a few strong minutes to help Kentucky rally. Monk was 5-for-7 from three-point range and also added five assists and four rebounds.

RELATED: Get caught up on all of today’s bubble action

REST OF THE TOP 25

  • Surviving on the road was No. 12 West Virginia as they won by a point over TCU in Big 12 play. Jevon Carter paced the Mountaineers with 15 points.
  • Playing in front of former head coach Larry Brown, No. 17 SMU ran out to an early lead on UConn and never looked back. The Mustangs had 20 points from Shake Milton in the AAC road win as they’ve won 11 straight.
  • Looking more like the program we’ve seen the past few years, No. 18 Virginia played much better offensively in an ACC road win at N.C. State. Freshman Kyle Guy broke out with 19 points while Devon Hall (18 points) and London Perrantes (16 points) also played well.
  • Winning on the road hasn’t been easy for No. 19 Florida State this season but they held off Clemson to likely eliminate the Tigers from NCAA tournament contention. The Seminoles had 15 points from Xavier Rathan-Mayes in the win.
  • Continuing to pile up double-digit wins is No. 25 Wichita State as they ran past Missouri State for a Missouri Valley Conference road win. Landry Shamet had 23 points for the Shockers while Shaquille Morris had 20 points.

NOTABLE

  • The plunge continued for Georgetown as they fell to St. John’s after losing to DePaul earlier in the week. Freshman Shamorie Ponds led the Red Storm with 24 points, becoming the third St. John’s freshmen to register 500 total points in a season.
  • In the Big Ten, Minnesota beat Penn State for a home win as Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason each had 16 points.
  • South Carolina snapped a three-game losing streak with a blowout home win over Tennessee. P.J. Dozier had 19 points to pace the Gamecocks.
  • Oklahoma State continued its recent surge with an easy home Big 12 win over Texas Tech. The Cowboys had 17 points from Jeffrey Carroll and 15 points each from Jawun Evans and Phil Forte.
  • Winning on the road in convincing fashion was Illinois State as the Redbirds ran past Northern Iowa. As a team right on the bubble, the Redbirds are now co-Missouri Valley Conference champs with Wichita State heading into Arch Madness.
  • Also hovering on the bubble is Seton Hall as they held off a late charge from DePaul for a Big East road win.

Malik Monk scores 30 in second half to lead No. 11 Kentucky past No. 13 Florida

LEXINGTON, KY - FEBRUARY 25:  Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates during the game against the  Florida Gators at Rupp Arena on February 25, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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The reason why No. 11 Kentucky is still a national title contender, the reason why no one will ever be able to say that this team cannot get to a Final Four regardless of how much they have struggled over the course of the last month of the season, is Malik Monk.

He’s also the reason why that run isn’t all that likely.

Simply put, he’s college basketball’s single-most unstoppable force, and, once again, he showed us all why on Saturday. Monk scored 30 of his 33 points after halftime and added six assists as the Wildcats outscored No. 13 Florida 32-14 in the final 13 minutes of a 76-66 win that put them in the driver’s seat for the SEC regular season title.

The Gators and the Wildcats entered Saturday tied for first in the league at 13-2. Florida was able to jump out to early leads in both halves, but it was Kentucky that took control down the stretch. Much of that credit goes to Monk, whose shooting brought an energy to Rupp Arena that we haven’t seen in a while and brought on an effort defensively that doesn’t always show up when Kentucky takes the floor.

For a while during the second half, Kentucky looked like the team that we saw early in the season despite the fact that De’Aaron Fox wasn’t playing due to a knee bruise. Their athletes were flying around defensively, they were getting out and running in transition, they were throwing down crazy dunks. That’s the way they played in November and December, when they were scoring in the 90s on a nightly basis and beating teams like Arizona State by 46 points.

That coincided with the time that Monk caught fire.

It’s not just energy that he brings. It’s not just the confidence you see Kentucky’s players get when he’s draining 30-footers like they’re free throws. When he’s scoring, it opens everything up for them on the offensive end of the floor. He’s a shooter with gravity, dragging defenders with him, and he’s a willing and capable enough passer to be able to find open teammates when he puts the ball on the floor. That Kentucky was able to put this kind of a run on a very good Florida team tells you all you need to know about how dangerous they can be.

But here’s the issue: to get to a Final Four, Kentucky, who seems likely to end up around a No. 3 or No. 4 seed, is going to have to beat three really good teams in a row. To win a national title, they’re going to have to do it five straight times. Can Monk catch fire for three straight weeks?

Since the start of the new year, Monk has scored at least 20 points in consecutive games just once — one of those games was a lost at Tennessee — and it’s probably worth noting that the best win Kentucky has in a game where Monk finished below his season scoring average is probably Arkansas at home.

There are a couple of x-factors here, the most obvious of which is De’Aaron Fox getting back to full strength. Between rolled ankles, bruised knees and illnesses, Fox just hasn’t looked like himself for a month. When he’s right, he can be a difference-maker, as can Bam Adebayo, who went for 18 points and 15 boards against a Florida team playing without John Egbunu. He had 22 points and 15 boards against Missouri on Wednesday, and has been playing his best basketball of the season the last couple of weeks.

It should go without saying that Kentucky is better when those two are better. It reduces their reliance on one player doing something that, statistically, is not all that likely.

But they aren’t what makes Kentucky dangerous.

That’s Monk.

He’s good enough that he can literally carry Kentucky to a win over anyone.

But unless Kentucky can find a way to be consistently good on the nights where the inconsistently great Monk isn’t, it’s hard to imagine them making a run to Phoenix.

Milton scores 20 to help No. 15 SMU beat UConn

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 17:  Semi Ojeleye #33 celebrates with Shake Milton #1 of the Southern Methodist Mustangs against the Pittsburgh Panthers in the second half during the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 17, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) Shake Milton had 20 points and seven rebounds to lead No. 15 SMU over UConn 69-61 on Saturday.

The Mustangs (25-4, 15-1 American Athletic Conference) won their 11th straight and haven’t lost since Jan. 12 at Cincinnati. Semi Ojeleye had 16 points, Ben Moore added 15 and Sterling Brown had 11.

The Huskies (14-14, 9-7), who have dropped two straight after a four-game winning streak, were led by Kentan Facey’s 15 points. Freshman Christian Vital and Vance Jackson each added 14, while Rodney Purvis had 11.

The Mustangs rode the hot shooting of Milton, who made 6 of 7 from 3-point range, to lead 41-30 at halftime. SMU led by as many as 16 points, with Milton’s fifth 3-pointer giving it a 31-15 lead with 8:04 to play.

Milton scored just two points in the Mustangs’ previous win, a 76-66 decision over Houston on Feb. 18.

SMU shot 50 percent from the field and led by double digits for almost the entire final 13:28 of the half. Vital’s 3-pointer with 34 seconds left made it 39-30, but Moore closed the half with a dunk.

The Mustangs survived some foul trouble in the half, with Ojeleye and Brown sitting for extended periods with two fouls apiece.

UConn shot just 11 for 32 in the half, with the starting backcourt of Purvis and Jalen Adams a combined 3 for 16. Adams missed the final 2:58 of the half with a left ankle sprain and did not return.

Without Adams, UConn tried climbed within 57-52 with 9:20 to play, but the Mustangs answered with a 9-2 run to regain control.

BIG PICTURE

SMU: The Mustangs and No. 15 Cincinnati are vying for the top seed in the AAC Tournament, but it will come down to the wire. The teams split in the regular season.

UConn: The Huskies are looking to lockup a top-five seed in the AAC Tournament, but could be in trouble if Adams is out for an extended period of time. Vital and Purvis are the only healthy guards left.

UP NEXT

SMU finishes the regular season at home with Tulsa and Memphis.

UConn closes at East Carolina and Cincinnati.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25.

No. 18 Virginia snaps 4-game skid, beats NC State 70-55

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - FEBRUARY 20: Marial Shayok #4 of the Virginia Cavaliers shoots a three point shot during Virginia's game against the Miami Hurricanes at John Paul Jones Arena on February 20, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images)
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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Freshman Kyle Guy scored 19 points to help No. 18 Virginia snap out of an offensive funk to beat North Carolina State 70-55 on Saturday, ending a four-game skid.

Devon Hall added 18 points for the Cavaliers (19-9, 9-7 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 49 percent and made 11 of 16 3-pointers – a huge change from missing shot after shot during three particularly ugly offensive performances coming in.

It was Virginia’s longest losing streak since losing nine straight during coach Tony Bennett’s first season in 2009-10. But the Cavaliers led 35-21 by halftime, pushed that to 19 early after halftime and led by double figures nearly the entire second half.

The Wolfpack (15-15, 4-13) made a last-stand run to get within 59-51, only to see London Perrantes bury a 3-pointer with 5:04 left then Hall put back his own miss to push the margin back to 13.

N.C. State got no closer than 10 again in the final regular-season home game for coach Mark Gottfried. The school announced earlier this month that he won’t return next year after a once-promising season completely unraveled.

Freshman Dennis Smith Jr. scored 13 points but made just 4 of 14 shots for N.C. State, which shot 32 percent and made 7 of 27 3s (26 percent).

BIG PICTURE

Virginia: Virginia got its shot back, for a game at least. The Cavaliers had shot just 32 percent in its last three games while making 10 of 52 3-pointers (19 percent). They need this performance badly.

N.C. State: N.C. State finished its home regular-season schedule at 2-7 in ACC games, just one of many reasons for the Wolfpack’s disappointing season that ultimately cost Gottfried his job.

UP NEXT

Virginia: The Cavaliers get a quick turnaround to host No. 8 North Carolina on Monday.

N.C. State: N.C. State plays its regular-season finale Wednesday at Clemson.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25