14 players who can become NCAA tournament legends

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March Madness is when heroes get made in college basketball. With the eyes of an entire nation descending upon our sport for a month, getting hot on the court as spring begins to thaw out a polar vortex-induced deep freeze is what can turn a good player into an unforgettable memory, into One Shining Moment. 

Guys like Harold Arceneaux and C.J. McCollum, Danny Manning and Kemba Walker, Bryce Drew and Ali Farokhmanesh. You might not remember who he beat, but you should remember Stephen Curry carrying Davidson to without a shot of the Final Four, or Carmelo Anthony leading Jim Boeheim to his only national title.

Here are 14 players that can turn this into their tournament:

TOP PLAYERS: Lead Guards | Off Guards | Wing Forwards | Big Men

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Doug McDermott, Creighton: Dougie McBuckets. The best player in the country. One of the best scorers that we’ve seen in college basketball history. How good is he? I always use this as an example: McDermott scored 22 points, hitting four threes, and grabbed 12 boards in Creighton’s loss at Georgetown earlier this month, and the overriding sentiment was that he had an off-night. Think about that. He can get 35 a night in the tournament and I wouldn’t be shocked.

Here’s the interesting part: McDermott’s career is incredible, but legends get made in March. A deep run in the tournament is the one thing that he’s missing on his resume. Will he get it this year?

Jabari Parker, Duke: The easy comparison to make for Jabari Parker at the next level is Carmelo Anthony, and, like Anthony in 2003, Parker will enter the tournament on a team with a No. 3 seed. Parker may be the most difficult matchup in the tournament and has already proven himself capable of carrying the weight for the Blue Devils.

Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: Wiggins has been the most over-analyzed player in the country, but we all saw what he is capable of in the loss at West Virginia the overtime win over Oklahoma State in the last two weeks. With Embiid’s status uncertain, if Wiggins can lead Kansas to a Final Four, he’ll be the biggest story in college basketball.

Nik Stauskas, Michigan: Wouldn’t it be something if Michigan can make back-to-back Final Fours despite losing Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Mitch McGary? If they do, it will be because of Stauskas, who has turned into the focal point for that offensive attack.

Russ Smith, Louisville: It feels weird saying this about a guy that is coming off of a Final Four and a National Title in the past two seasons, but with the change in Smith’s role this season, he’s become a much bigger part of this team’s success. He’s capable of carrying the Cardinals to a back-to-back titles.

MORE8 teams that can win it all  |  8 that won’t  |  TV times  |  Bracket contest

SLEEPERS

Shabazz Napier, UConn: Can Bazz get his Kemba on? He’s had that kind of a season for the Huskies this year, hitting big shot after big shot while carrying the Huskies to a No. 7 seed in the Big Dance. He also has a flair for the dramatic. Don’t be surprised if when his game-winners make One Shining Moment.

Bryce Cotton, Providence: I’m glad Cotton has gotten a chance to play on a national stage. He’s thrived in anonymity for the last four years, and now he can showcase his ability nation-wide. An upset over North Carolina would be a good place to start, but …

Marcus Paige, North Carolina: … he’ll be going up against another guard with the ability to take over in Paige. North Carolina has the ability to make a run this year, and Paige is the guy that will carry them. There’s a reason is nickname is “second half Paige”.

T.J. Warren, N.C. State: 30 times this season, T.J. Warren has scored more than 20 points. He’s done it in 18 straight games, including popping off for more than 40 in back-to-back games at the end of the regular season. He was the ACC Player of the Year. N.C. State already won a game in March. If they make a run, he’ll be a star.

Marcus Foster, Kansas State: The freshman no one talked about. Foster is a tough scorer and a big-time athlete at the off-guard spot, but he’ll have a couple of tough matchups with Kentucky and then, in all likelihood, a date with Wichita State.

CINDERELLAS

Taylor Braun, North Dakota State: I really like Braun and I’ve loved this North Dakota State team all season, but they drew a tough matchup for them against Oklahoma. Still, Braun is their best player and a guy that can takeover in crunch time.

Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette: Payton is a beast. He played with Team USA in the U-19 championships this summer and started. He’s an athletic, penetrating guard that’s a terror defensively, and he’ll be tough for Creighton to matchup with. People notice if you knock out the National Player of the Year.

Langston Hall, Mercer: Hall is as tough of a point guard as you are going to find and, like C.J. McCollum and Eric Maynor before him, he’ll have a chance to etch his name into history by leading his team to an upset of Duke in the NCAA tournament.

David Brown, Western Michigan: I’ve got Western Michigan beating Syracuse in the Round of 64. Brown is their leading scorer at 19.7 points. You can do the math there.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, and Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

 

VIDEO: Jordan Bell’s spectacular chase-down block

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Oregon big man Jordan Bell has been the best player on the floor for the Ducks against Kansas, totally changing the way that Kansas wants to play with his defense.

As of the time of this posting, he had nine points, 11 boards, seven blocks and three assists, but his impact is not solely limited to the shots he swatted — every Kansas player that gets into the lane is very aware of the fact that Bell is lurking around the rim.

The thought of him changes shots.

The best block he’s had today came midway through the second half, when he snuffed out a dunk attempt from Landen Lucas with an impressive chase-down block:

No. 1 Gonzaga reaches first Final Four with win over No. 11 Xavier

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It took 18 long years, but after Gonzaga exploded onto the national scene with a Cinderella run that came one possession short of the Final Four in 1999, after the program followed up that run with back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed, after 19 straight trips to the NCAA tournament marred by moments of unfathomable heartbreak, the nation’s preeminent mid-major success story is finally headed to the Final Four.

What will the ‘Gonzaga is overrated’ crowd say now?

Armed with a roster that included a pair of blue-chip guards in their back court, a trio of high-major transfers and a McDonald’s All-American and future first round pick coming off the bench, Mark Few knocked off No. 11 seed Xavier, 83-59, on Saturday night to win the West Region and punch his first ticket to the final weekend of the college basketball season. Nigel Williams-Goss led the way with 23 points, eight boards and four assists and Johnathan Williams III, who was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player, added 19 points and nine boards as Gonzaga buried 12 threes and jumped out to an early lead they would never relinquish in a game that never felt like it was in doubt.

And with that, the monkey on Mark Few’s back is now gone.

“It means everything that we could deliver for guys like this,” Mark Few said after the game. Few had been the winningest NCAA tournament coach without a Final Four on his résumé. “They believed in us when they came. This is what we wanted to do and set out to do, and these guys were unbelievable. I could not be happier for all these guys, all our former players and all of Zag Nation.”

Whether or not that monkey was deserved is a fair question to ask. Gonzaga has had an incredible amount of success in the NCAA tournament. They’ve won at least one game in 16 of the 19 NCAA tournaments, including this year, that they’ve been a part of, including five of the six years in which they were a double-digit seed. In 13 of the previous 18 NCAA tournaments they played in, they advanced as far or further than their seed suggested they should have. Only five times did they lose to a team that was seeded lower than them. They’ve won 17 WCC regular season titles and 15 WCC tournament titles during that span.

What they’ve done, the consistency of the success that they’ve had, is not something done easily.

And it’s not something that should be overlooked when you consider where this program was in the early 90s. When Few was hired as an assistant coach in 1990, Gonzaga was thought of as the worst job in the WCC. The program, located in Spokane, Washington, which isn’t exactly a hotbed for recruiting, had never been to an NCAA tournament. The school didn’t even have a weight room for the team.

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“Players would sign out sweats and jerseys at the beginning of every school year and turn them back in nine months later,” wrote Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg earlier this week. “Sneakers were the only gear players received new, but obtaining a fresh pair typically required proving the old ones had a hole in the bottom.”

Within five years, Gonzaga was in the NCAA tournament. Within nine years, they had won the league and reached the Elite 8. Within 15 years, the school opened up a sparkling, $25-million, 6,000-seat arena, chartering flights for road games and recruiting trips.

Today, Gonzaga is arguably a top ten program in the sport

It is, quite literally, college basketball’s best rags-to-riches story.

They shouldn’t need this to justify their standing in the sport. Few shouldn’t need this to legitimize himself as something more than a coach feasting on a conference that can’t compete.

“My legacy is I guess built on a lot of other things,” Few said on Friday. “It’s built on the respect my players have for me and how they feel about they were treated and coached and developed and all that.”

“I’m schlepping along right now like vastly far behind my father who is 54 years a Presbyterian minister, man. He’s saved thousands of souls. He’s helped hundreds and thousands of people through all their tough times, you know. And that’s kind of the legacy that I’m looking at.”

But that’s not how our sport works.

March means everything.

If you can’t win on the biggest stage, if you don’t have that level of success when all eyes turn to college basketball, then everything you did during the previous four months is written off.

It’s not fair.

But that’s just how it is.

And now, nearly two decades removed from their introduction into the national consciousness, Gonzaga’s detractors no longer have that leg to stand on.