2017 NCAA Tournament: Your bracket’s unsung heroes

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The next three weeks of basketball will see a lot of star performances as we often associate the NCAA Tournament with the biggest and best players.

There are a lot of star players to focus on in this tournament. The freshman class is loaded with one-and-done talent and we have a lot of established seniors like Villanova’s Josh Hart and Kansas’ Frank Mason.

But if a team wants to win six games in a row in this tournament they also need some solid performances from unsung heroes.

Among the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, each team has a role player who will make a huge impact during March. Here’s some important players you should know from some of the main contenders.

RELATED: Printable NCAA Tournament Bracket

Theo Pinson, North Carolina — Back in the North Carolina rotation permanently since early February, the junior guard has been a huge part of the stretch run for the Tar Heels. Not a particularly gifted scorer, Pinson doesn’t need to be one here, as the North Carolina roster has enough bucket-getters.

Instead, Pinson can focus on using his best traits — floor vision, passing, rebounding and outlet passes — to enhance an already potent Tar Heel offense. Acting as a second floor leader, Pinson gobbles up assists by finding Justin Jackson or Joel Berry on the wing while also hitting his big men like Kennedy Meeks in the post. If the jumper is falling at all it makes Pinson that much more valuable.

Amile Jefferson, Duke — A fifth-year senior with worlds of experience in this event, Jefferson is the reliable force in the middle for the Blue Devils. If Jefferson is healthy and out of foul trouble, Duke needs him on the floor as much as possible because he’s a double-double machine who is also a solid positional defender.

Since Duke doesn’t know what they’re going to get from its other big men like Harry Giles, Marques Bolden and Chase Jeter, Jefferson needs to be the consistent rock that is ready to play at least 30 minutes in every game.

Power Rankings 1-68 | Duke deserved a 1 seed | Committee got bubble right

REGIONAL BREAKDOWNS: East | Midwest | South | West

Landen Lucas, Kansas — All of the talk this season has been focused on Player of the Year Frank Mason and the Kansas perimeter but Lucas is the player to keep an eye on for the Jayhawks. The senior center doesn’t have eye-popping numbers or athletic traits but he’s the steady backbone of Kansas on both ends of the floor.

Lucas is capable of putting up double-doubles and being an effective positional post defender. He’s had games of 17 or 18 rebounds this season. With the Jayhawks having a limited bench thanks to injuries, Lucas is a player who needs to stay out of foul trouble so he gives Kansas as good chunk of minutes.

Kadeem Allen, Arizona — The senior guard is the heart-and-soul of Arizona as Allen is valuable on both ends of the floor. A valuable on-the-ball defender who also adds a bit of scoring punch, the Wildcats are at their best when Allen is chipping in a bit of offense.

The last four games when Arizona looked great, Allen scored in double-figures in all four wins and his offense is an added bonus to the other things that he provides. Opposing defenses are going to focus on Allonzo Trier and Lauri Markkanen, so Allen has to be one of the guys who is ready to knock down an open shot or fill the lane during a break if Arizona wants to make a Final Four run.

Zach Collins, Gonzaga — Collins has been a huge part of Gonzaga’s success as the freshman big man can give the Bulldogs a huge lift off the bench. More athletic and skilled as a shooter than Przemek Karnowski, Collins has given the Zags a lot of production as a scorer and rebounder and he’ll also protect the rim with the occasional block.

Most McDonald’s All-Americans might have trouble coming off the bench but Collins is uniquely qualified since he backed up two McDonald’s All-American big men (Stephen Zimmerman and Chase Jeter) on his own high school team as a junior. Collins is already used to entering a game cold and making an immediate impact and Gonzaga has greatly benefitted from that this season.

The biggest obstacle with Collins could be foul trouble. A bit jumpy at times, Collins can quickly pick up fouls and be forced to sit. But if Collins is active and on the floor, not a lot of second units can handle what he brings.

BRACKETS: Cinderellas | Upset Watch | CBT Podcast | Unsung Heroes

Donte DiVincenzo (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova — Sitting on the bench as a redshirt during last season’s Villanova title run, the 6-foot-5 DiVincenzo has a chance to be a big factor for the Wildcats this season as a freshman. Although DiVincenzo’s scoring isn’t a necessity with Villanova already having Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson, if he’s able to knock down a couple of shots he’s the type of streaky shooter who can break open a game.

Multiple times this season the Wildcats have been fueled by scoring surges that were provided in large part by DiVincenzo. If he becomes an additional double-figure scorer then it means Villanova has a great chance at winning since opposing defenses have to spend so much time on other options.

Mangok Mathiang/Anas Mahmoud, Louisville — This two-headed monster gobbles up 40 minutes a game in the middle for the Cardinals as Mathiang and Mahmoud can bring a lot of production in those limited minutes. Because both big men only play around 20 minutes a game, it enables them to play harder for shorter stretches of time and it leads to flurries of positive production.

Mathiang, in particular, has flourished lately as he’s coming off of two double-doubles in his final three games of the season. Don’t count out Mahmoud for a big game, however. The Egyptian had 17 points and 11 rebounds against Duke earlier this season.

Derek Willis, Kentucky — We have another Kentucky team filled with freshman stars and a talented sophomore in Isaiah Briscoe. But outside of Kentucky’s four leading scorers, senior Derek Willis is the most important player for head coach John Calipari during this tournament.

A floor-spacing big man who also shows surprising toughness as a rebounder and shot blocker, if Willis can knock down a few jumpers then it helps Kentucky’s spacing immensely. With De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe being perimeter players with inconsistent jumpers, and Bam Adebayo not having outside range, Willis has to provide that threat of knocking in jumpers.

Rim protection is also a surprising element of Willis that has been especially good lately. Willis has 34 blocked shots (1.0 per game) on the season but 17 of those rejections have come in the last five games.

Late run sparks Villanova past West Virginia, into Elite Eight

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BOSTON — It is always just a matter of time before the avalanche comes.

And when it does, you better hope that lead you have is big enough to withstand what’s coming.

For No. 5-seed West Virginia, it was not. With 11 minutes left on Friday night in Boston’s TD Garden, the Mountaineers led 60-54 and had seemingly wrestled control of the game from the No. 1-seed in the East Region. Less than five minutes later, after the Wildcats hit four of their next five threes, Villanova had taken a 76-66 lead by going on a 22-6 run, and West Virginia was never able to recover.

Jalen Brunson led the way for the top-seeded Wildcats with 27 points and four assists while Omari Spellman finished with 18 points, eight boards and three blocks and Mikal Bridges chipped in with 16 points despite playing relatively poorly — by his standards — on Friday.

With a 90-78 win, Villanova advanced to the Elite Eight and a date with the winner of tonight’s game No. 2 Purdue-No. 3 Texas Tech.

That’s the way that it works with this Villanova team. Armed with the most potent, high-volume three-point shooting attack in college basketball — maybe in the history of college basketball — fans of their opponents are just waiting for the inevitable.

On Friday night, Villanova shot 13-for-24 from three, which is damned-impressive and exactly what we expect at the same time, but the game was won during that five-minute surge when West Virginia just didn’t have an answer.

VIDEO: Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall with mammoth dunks for Villanova

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Villanova took the lead on West Virginia and turned the tide of momentum with a pair of emphatic dunks in transition.

It started with Omari Spellman, who had an unbelievable sequence, spiking a shot into the floor before throwing down a put-back dunk all over a defender:

A couple of possessions later, Eric Paschall finally did the impossible.

He dunked on Sagaba Konate:

I am having way too much fun at this game.

No. 1 Kansas into Elite Eight with win over No. 5 Clemson

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OMAHA, Neb. — Once Kansas found its stride, Clemson had little chance of keeping pace – even after a late stumble.

The No. 1 Jayhawks ran away from the No. 5 Tigers with a second-half flurry that powered them to a 80-76 victory Friday night at CenturyLink Center to put them in the Elite Eight on Sunday against either Duke or Syracuse.

Kansas moves on to the Midwest Region final on the back of a second-half offense that Clemson had nearly no success in slowing until the final minutes, when the Tigers turned a 20-point laugher into  a six-point nail-biter.

Malik Newman paced Kansas with 17 points while Devonte Graham 16 and Udoka Azubuike 14 and 11 rebounds.

Clemson got 31 points from senior Gabe DeVoe, but there just wasn’t enough help around him for the Tigers to keep things competitive after the Jayhawks hit them with three-consecutive 3s in the opening minutes of the second half to open up a 20-point lead.

Clemson was already hanging on by a threat after it shot just 35.7 percent from the floor and committed eight turnovers. DeVoe’s 12 first-half points kept the Tigers afloat, but they never enjoyed a lead before halftime.

The Jayhawks, meanwhile, had five players  score at least six points in the first half, including 10 from Azubuike, Their usual strengths – 3-point shooting (4 of 13) and Devonte Graham (1 of 7) – were absent in the first half, but Clemson was unable to take advantage as Kansas continued to get quality looks inside and stops on defense.

The Jayhawks previously played Syracuse in December, beating the Orange by 16 on a neutral floor in Miami. They haven’t faced the Blue Devils, though they have already shared a building with them once this year in the Champion’s Classic. Kansas topped Kentucky, 65-61, while Duke defeated Michigan State, 88-81, that November night in Chicago.

VIDEO: Mikal Bridges tries to dunk on Sagaba Konate, gets denied

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There really is nothing better in this world than seeing someone who is typically a great dunker take flight to try and dunk on Sagaba Konate of West Virginia, because it never, EVER ends well for the dunker.

See: Bridges, Mikal:

Auburn AD Greene gives Bruce Pearl a vote of confidence

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Speaking publicly for the first time about head coach Bruce Pearl, new Auburn athletic director gave his embattled head coach a vote of confidence.

Greene was on an in-house podcast produced with the voice of Auburn sports, and was asked about Pearl’s standing in a pod that lasted less than five minutes and felt more like a press release than anything else.

“He’s been a tremendous blessing for the Auburn family,” Greene said. “The FBI investigation is a long process. We’re going through that process to make sure that we, as a university, are doing what it is that we’re supposed to do to comply. Coach Pearl has been excellent in that regard and I look forward to continuing to work with him as we continue to do the very best to support he, his staff and the student athletes of Auburn University.”

This is the first time since former assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested that a member of the Auburn athletic department had spoken so positively about Pearl. In the fall, Auburn’s president Steven Leath lamented Pearl’s lack of cooperation in the investigation, but just last week released a statement saying Pearl is “working with university officials as part of our due diligence.” Pearl said after his team’s 84-53 loss to Clemson in the second round of the NCAA tournament that he would like to return.

There has been speculation that Pearl’s job was in jeopardy ever since Auburn was mixed up in the FBI’s complaint. Two players were forced to sit out this entire season after the FBI alleged they had received money funneled through Person from a runner for an agent and a financial advisor.

“One of the challenges that we have facing the industry is college basketball,” Greene said. “We want to make sure we work incredibly hard to clean up the game, to make it as pure as it can possibly be so that our student-athletes can enjoy the intercollegiate athletic experience. one of the things that we have to keep in mind is that the state of college basketball is not in a good place right now and I’m a little bit disappointed that auburn is involved in that, but that doesn’t take away from the excellent job that Coach Pearl has done.”