2018 Final Four: Ranking the players left in the NCAA Tournament

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Today, we’re going to rank the top 20 players — the starters on every team in San Antonio — left in the NCAA tournament.

But instead of ranking them solely based on who the best players are we’re going to rank them based on the likelihood that they end up being the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. 

I’m sure this won’t cause any arguments:

1. JALEN BRUNSON, Villanova: Brunson is our National Player of the Year. Of course he’s going to be the best player in the Final Four.

2. DEVONTE’ GRAHAM, Kansas: Graham has not been at his best during this run to the Final Four. The Kansas star has shot just 34 percent from the floor during these four wins, and even when the Jayhawks beat Penn in the first round and he scored 29 points, he did it while shooting 9-for-24 from the floor. Having said all that, Graham has had a phenomenal season, one deserving of first-team all-american honors. If Kansas is going to win it all, Graham is going to have to be terrific.

3. MIKAL BRIDGES, Villanova: The Final Four’s lone lottery pick, Bridges has had a bit of an up-and-down run through the tournament, but we all saw what he is capable of early in the second half against Alabama, when he popped off for 16 points in four minutes. He is also Villanova’s best perimeter defender, and will likely play a leading role in trying to slow down Malik Newman.

4. UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas: Doke has been so underrated this season, and his ability to score in the paint has made it just that much easier for the Kansas guards to find space to shoot. The big thing for him is going to be staying out of foul trouble, because every big on Villanova’s roster can step out on the perimeter and knock down an open jumper.

5. MOE WAGNER, Michigan: Wagner has not been at his best during March Madness, but he is Michigan’s most talented player. His ability to step out on the perimeter and play something of the Kevin Pittsnoggle role for the Wolverines opens up John Beilein’s offense. He is going to be a matchup nightmare for Loyola.

(Elsa/Getty Images)

6. OMARI SPELLMAN, Villanova: I was so impressed with Spellman seeing him in person. I thought he was nothing more than a spot-up shooter, but he can protect the rim, he gets out and runs in transition and his ability to put the ball on the floor and go by slower defenders should have Bill Self terrified about keeping Azubuike out of foul trouble.

6a. DONTE DIVINCENZO, Villanova: If he started, this is where I would rank him.

7. MALIK NEWMAN, Kansas: Newman had a bit of an up-and-down season, but he has absolutely caught fire in March and has been the best player for the Jayhawks throughout this tournament and the Big 12 tournament. In the last seven games — all wins, obviously — he’s averaging 21.2 points and shooting 54.9 percent from three. That’s pretty good. Per sources.

8. MUHAMMAD-ALI-ABDUR-RAHKMAN, Michigan: While Zavier Simpson is the guy that gets the credit for being the point guard in Beilein’s offense — because he’s the point guard — it is Abdur-Rahkman that does the heavy-lifting when it comes to being the play-maker and the guy that initiates things on that end. And he has proven that he can take a game over.

9. SVI MYKHAILIUK, Kansas: Everyone wants to talk about the job that Malik Newman did in overtime against Duke, but that game never would have gotten to overtime if Svi had not found a way to muscle up and hold his own against Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter in the paint. And that coming from a guy known as a soft, streaky shooter that didn’t want to defend.

10. CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan: Matthews, along with Simpson, is one of the main reasons that the Wolverines have turned into a defensive stalwart this season. As much as he provides on the offensive end of the floor, his ability to lock down an opponent’s best perimeter defender is a difference-maker.

11. ERIC PASCHALL, Villanova: A freak athlete that can guard just about any position, knock down threes and defend at the rim. He’s a key cog in what Villanova wants to do.

12. ZAVIER SIMPSON, Michigan: The real value of Simpson cannot be found in the numbers that he puts up. What makes him so good and so important to this Michigan team is the way that he can defend. He is spark-plug for a Wolverines team that builds everything they do around that end of the floor.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

13. PHIL BOOTH, Villanova: Booth isn’t flashy, but he is a key cog in that Villanova machine because he does everything. He can handle the ball if needed. He can make open threes. He’s one of their best on-ball defenders. And he’s got the experience – he scored 20 points in a national title game.

14. LAGERALD VICK, Kansas: Early in the season, Vick looked like he might be the second-best player on Kansas. Midway through the year, he was pulled out of the starting lineup because he was mired in a slump. Now? He’s found his shooting stroke and embraced the role that he is being asked to play: knockdown shooter and perimeter defender.

15. DUNCAN ROBINSON, Michigan: I think Robinson is the x-factor for Michigan. The Wolverines have seven losses this season, and in those seven losses, Robinson has averaged 3.0 points. In wins, he’s averaging 10.9 points. X-factor!

16-21. CLAYTON CUSTER, CAMERON KRUTWIG, MARQUES TOWNES, DONTE INGRAM, BEN RICHARDSON and AUNDRE JACKSON, Loyola-Chicago: This might seem like a shot at Loyola-Chicago, but it really isn’t. There’s a reason these guys are playing in the Missouri Valley instead of a bigger league, and with the exception of maybe Clayton Custer, I can’t see them cracking the starting lineup for any of the teams left in the Final Four.

But this Loyola team is not about the individual talents of the players on this roster. That’s not what makes them so good and so fun to watch. The reason they are here in the Final Four is that Porter Moser has himself a group of guys that compliment each other perfectly. They execute offensively and they are connected defensively. They are all the clichés of what a coach wants in a player, and anyone that truly understands how basketball is supposed to be played can appreciate watching this group do what they do best.

 

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.