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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. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.