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.
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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.
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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.
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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.