1 Potential Breakout Tournament Star on Each Top 25 NCAA Basketball Team

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistFebruary 13, 2014

1 Potential Breakout Tournament Star on Each Top 25 NCAA Basketball Team

0 of 25

    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    The NCAA tournament draws those casual fans who only know team colors, as well as a contingent that supports a team from afar without focusing closely on the ebbs and flows of every player on the roster.

    The tournament's grand stage hosts a coming-out party for a handful of budding stars every season. Last March, who saw the superb performances from Michigan's Mitch McGary or Ohio State's LaQuinton Ross coming?

    Most of our true tournament folk heroes rise out of Cinderella stories. Think Stephen Curry, Gordon Hayward or Ali Farokhmanesh. None of the teams in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, by definition, would qualify as true Sweet 16 stunners.

    Each does, however, have a player or two on the roster who could thrust himself into the national conversation if his team makes a deep run. Some are starters on underexposed teams, others are reserves who could come out of nowhere to post a big game.

    One big performance could start an avalanche of hype heading into next season that positions the player as a preseason all-conference or All-American selection, a la Ross or McGary.

    There are no seniors among these 25 players, since they must be in a position to come back next season and capitalize on next month's madness. There are, however, talented ballers who can put up big games in big settings.

     

    Stats and rankings through games of February 12. All KenPom.com links should be assumed to require subscription.

25. Pittsburgh: Josh Newkirk

1 of 25

    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Pitt Panthers have slumped offensively since sophomore guard Durand Johnson went down with a season-ending ACL injury. Even potential All-American Lamar Patterson has had issues getting his shots without Johnson there for perimeter support.

    Three of Pitt's last four games have ranked among its worst of the season in offensive efficiency. The scoreboard bore that out, with the Panthers averaging only 55.3 points per game and needing extra sessions to avoid bad losses to ACC minnows Miami and Virginia Tech.

    Freshman guard Josh Newkirk had a major hand in the escape against the Hokies, tying his career high with 11 points. He drained three of four foul shots in the second overtime to cement the win, an impressive feat for a player who had missed nine of 10 freebies on the season.

    Newkirk is third on the team in three-point percentage at 35.3 percent, albeit in a small sample size (12-of-34). The Virginia Tech game was only the third time this season that Newkirk's played more than 20 minutes, but in those outings, he's averaged nine points per game.

    Greater emphasis on a three-guard lineup teaming Newkirk with starters Cameron Wright and James Robinson could provide some offensive spark for the slumping Panthers. In a win-or-go-home setting like March Madness, an opponent only needs to lose Newkirk a few times for him to make a game-changing difference.

24. UConn: Amida Brimah

2 of 25

    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Connecticut freshman center Amida Brimah's three highest-scoring games of the season have come against Central Florida (20), Rutgers (10) and Yale (seven). Unfortunately for Brimah and the Huskies, none of those opponents are likely to participate in the NCAA tournament.

    In six games against likely tournament opposition like Florida, Cincinnati and SMU, Brimah's been somewhat less of a factor. He's averaged 3.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 20.2 minutes per game against the above teams plus Louisville, Harvard and Memphis.

    The spindly 217-pound Brimah isn't your classic low-post enforcer, but his 7-foot frame makes him a threat to erase the shot of any penetrator who challenges him.

    Officials are his most dangerous predator, as Brimah fouled out against both Harvard and Memphis after only a combined 33 minutes. UConn's rematch with UCF saw him whistled for four fouls in eight minutes.

    Against undersized opposition, Brimah could loom large, especially if the banged-up Huskies aren't getting optimal production from forward DeAndre Daniels, who's been battling back and ankle issues.

23. SMU: Nic Moore

3 of 25

    Cooper Neill/Getty Images

    It may be a cop-out to name a Top 25 team's starting point guard as a potential breakout star, but how much did the typical college basketball fan know about Nic Moore when the season began?

    Even as SMU climbs the rankings and scores tremendous wins over recent heavyweights like UConn, Memphis and Cincinnati, the headlines have focused on 73-year-old coach Larry Brown. Brown's quick fix of a program that hasn't been ranked since March 1985 is noteworthy, but the engine is the sophomore playmaker that transferred in from Illinois State.

    The diminutive (5'9", 170 pounds) Moore quarterbacked the Redbirds to the NIT as a freshman, but he bolted for SMU when coach Tim Jankovich signed on as Brown's coach in waiting.

    As the Mustangs' floor general, Moore is one of the nation's most efficient scorers, ranking in Ken Pomeroy's top 70 in both effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) and true-shooting percentage (TS%). He leads the team at 13.8 points per game, but lest anyone accuse him of being a ball-stopper, he also hovers around the top 100 nationally in assist percentage.

    SMU plays elite-level defense, which will make it a difficult matchup for anyone in the tournament. Moore scored 20 points to beat UConn and put up a double-double in a win over Memphis, so his offensive credentials are verified.

    If the Mustangs are to make a dark-horse run, Moore will be a primary catalyst.

22. Ohio State: Marc Loving

4 of 25

    Cliff Jette/Associated Press

    It's hard to pick out an Ohio State player that hasn't already experienced intense scrutiny—a la Shannon Scott or LaQuinton Ross—or isn't a one-dimensional player who may not see tournament time off coach Thad Matta's shrinking bench (see: Della Valle, Amedeo).

    So, we settle on the guy who hasn't scored yet in February? Eh?

    Look at it this way: They don't get much more under the radar right now than OSU freshman Marc Loving.

    We're a long way from when B/R previewed Loving's potential Big Ten impact, and it's fair to say that said impact has been negligible. The 6'7" forward's season may have reached its nadir when he played all of two minutes in a loss to Michigan.

    Loving is still a dangerous foul-shooter who knocked in 17 of his first 21 attempts in Big Ten play. He's also a player who's struggling with his confidence, a condition that's affecting all facets of his game.

    If he can recapture the form that carried him to 9.5 points per game in his first four Big Ten contests, he'll be capable of surprising opponents the way Ross did in last season's tournament. If not, he'll simply sit quietly as the Buckeyes continue struggling to score against quality opponents.

21. Wisconsin: Nigel Hayes

5 of 25

    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    In Wisconsin freshman Nigel Hayes' first 11 games, he had exactly zero double-figure scoring games. He averaged about 14.5 minutes per game in that span.

    In the 13 games since, Hayes has put up eight games of 10-plus points, averaging 11.0 in 20.2 minutes a night. The 250-pound banger is converting 58.2 percent from the floor in conference, including 73.7 percent in his last three outings.

    Emerging as a quality alternative to Frank "Mr. 43 Points" Kaminsky, Hayes not only gets buckets during games, he can draw chuckles in the postgame interview, as seen in this video about something called the "Chocolate Tornado."

    The primary weakness in Hayes' game has been his 58 percent foul shooting, making Badger Nation wary when he steps to the line. But, we've seen shaky shooters come through in the clutch before. Remember Rumeal Robinson?

20. Memphis: Austin Nichols

6 of 25

    Lance Murphey/Associated Press

    Austin Nichols isn't a member of Memphis' dominant stable of guards, and he's not named after a Hall of Fame baller the way Shaq Goodwin is. He's a freshman from Tennessee whose minutes have tended to fluctuate, depending on when coach Josh Pastner needs more perimeter weapons.

    When Nichols gets extensive time, it's usually because he's putting in work. In the three games in which he's played 30-plus minutes, Nichols has averaged 12.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.

    Nichols' major breakout game came in Orlando at the Old Spice Classic, when he dropped 19 points and eight rebounds against LSU. He helped harass LSU star Johnny O'Bryant into a whopping 10 turnovers.

    Goodwin's improved offensive efficiency has been discussed in this space before, and he's become a major focus of opposing scouting reports. That attention to Nichols' interior counterpart could see the freshman get plenty of easier looks.

    Memphis is known for its guards, but the offense has been most efficient when it operates through the post. If Goodwin finds himself in foul trouble, Nichols is highly capable of picking up the slack.

19. Texas: Connor Lammert

7 of 25

    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    The Texas Longhorns want forward Jonathan Holmes back from injury as soon as possible, but his replacement's not too bad. Sophomore Connor Lammert stepped into the starting lineup Tuesday against Oklahoma State, recording nine points and nine rebounds in an easy UT victory. This after Lammert himself turned an ankle in the previous day's practice, as reported by OrangeBloods.com.

    It was Lammert's second straight solid game, coming after an eight-point, five-rebound effort against Kansas State. Of his 17 points in the two games, 15 have come on three-point jumpers, making the 6'9" Lammert a dangerous perimeter option on a big team that loves to attack the basket.

    Not content to simply stretch a defense, Lammert is also a force on the glass. His 8.8 offensive and 17.4 defensive rebounding percentages both register him on KenPom's national rankings. The left-hander should see substantial minutes going forward, especially if any further injuries or foul trouble impact the Horns' stable of big cattle.

18. Creighton: Devin Brooks

8 of 25

    Stew Milne/Associated Press

    The Creighton Bluejays are an experienced team, with nearly the entire rotation consisting of upperclassmen. Four seniors are set to depart, including likely three-time All-American Doug McDermott. What's left next season will likely be built around 6'2" junior combo guard Devin Brooks.

    Brooks has been inconsistent all season, balancing seven double-figure scoring games with five games of three or less. He crushed Arizona State for 23 points in the Wooden Legacy at Fullerton, Calif., joining McDermott in impressively outscoring Sun Devil star Jahii Carson.

    A highly aggressive penetrator, Brooks can be the classic instant-offense guard off the bench if the defense isn't focused on him when he enters the game. He's far from shy, as his 29.3 percent usage rate will attest. That percentage is second on his team behind only McDermott.

    Pomeroy's national rankings offer a glimpse at the versatility in Brooks' game. He's in KenPom's top 200 in not only usage but assist percentage and offensive rebounding rate.

    If a postseason opponent is overly occupied with stopping Dougie McBuckets and ignores the little junior college transfer, Brooks can post another of those 15- to 20-point games and send that poor team home disappointed.

17. Virginia: Malcolm Brogdon

9 of 25

    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    After missing the 2012-13 season following a struggle to rehabilitate a broken foot, Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon was an unknown quantity this season. The redshirt sophomore looked like he was going to be part of a point guard committee before the season, but he's settled in as the leader of a formidable three-guard lineup next to senior Joe Harris and freshman London Perrantes.

    Brogdon leads the Cavaliers in scoring and steals, and sits second in rebounds and assists. Granted, his per-game averages aren't sexy, since the pace of Virginia's games is only slightly faster than the growth rate of grass, but he's still a versatile leader for a UV team that looked off-kilter after some ugly nonconference games.

    Since ACC play began in January, Brogdon has struggled through some ugly shooting nights, but he's yet to be held to single digits by any conference opponent. He came within three assists of a triple-double against Boston College.

    And did we mention the ice-cold buzzer-beater he drained to beat Pitt on Groundhog Day?

    If anyone from the Wahoos is going to have an iconic tournament moment next month, it's probably a smart wager to put a Benjamin on Brogdon.

16. Iowa: Jarrod Uthoff

10 of 25

    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    If you know Jarrod Uthoff's name, it's likely due to the firestorm that was touched off when he left Wisconsin and fought to transfer to one of the thousands (not really, just seemed like it) schools that coach Bo Ryan barred him from going to.

    Now at conference rival Iowa, Uthoff cracked double figures in nine of his first 14 games, including 17 points against Notre Dame and 12 in a bitter loss at Iowa State.

    The sophomore's play has cooled off substantially as Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery rides other horses in his 11-deep stable. Still, Uthoff blends inside and outside skills like no one else on his team. No other Hawkeye averages five rebounds and one block per game while shooting better than 46 percent from three-point range.

    At 6'9", the lanky Uthoff is a matchup nightmare that Iowa's tournament opponents can't sleep on.

15. Michigan: Zak Irvin

11 of 25

    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    The Michigan Wolverines have just concluded a run of four games in nine days, a schedule that should prepare them well for the similar road they'll have to navigate to get back to the Final Four.

    If freshman guard Zak Irvin gets on the kind of roll in March that he's been on for the past week in February, he'll get Wolverine fans excited for next season—whether current stars Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas stay or go pro.

    Irvin's on a run of three straight double-digit scoring games, averaging 15 points a night and sinking 10 three-pointers during that span. In UM's win at Ohio State, Irvin stopped a Buckeye run in the first half with one three, then kick-started his own team's 12-0 second-half run with another.

    Overall, Irvin's drained 44 threes on the season, only 11 behind nationally feared sniper Stauskas. The rookie's had five nights of four or more triples, including performances against potential tournament teams like Stanford, Minnesota and Iowa.

    Those games have made him an X-factor for Michigan. One or two more in March could make him a star.

14. Kentucky: Dakari Johnson

12 of 25

    James Crisp/Associated Press

    As if anyone can truly "break out" on the so-called "most overanalyzed team" in the recorded history of all sports. Kentucky man-child Dakari Johnson is the closest thing the Wildcats have to a non-household name who could become one with a vicious tournament run.

    Early in the season, Johnson was largely a spectator as sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein swatted more shots than King Kong swatted planes. When Cauley-Stein slumped during SEC play, Johnson stepped in and provided an immediate lift.

    Johnson's put up 17 points and 16 rebounds over his last two games, even if they were against SEC bottom-feeders Mississippi State and Auburn.

    Many teams in the postseason might not be equipped to manage a 7-foot, 265-pounder who's motivated and getting playing time. This one could be 2014's Mitch McGary if we had any assurances that his guards would make the slightest effort to look for him in the flow of the offense.

13. Louisville: Terry Rozier

13 of 25

    Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

    Like Michigan, Louisville is about to start a four-game, nine-day stretch that would mimic a run to the Elite Eight. Balancing production and rest will be essential for Cardinal coach Rick Pitino now so his team can go all out in March.

    Freshman guard Terry Rozier is one Cardinal who'll be ready for all the minutes Pitino can dish out.

    Rozier has started 10 games this season as regular point guard Chris Jones battles nagging injuries. During those starts, he's averaged 7.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game. Not the most efficient shooter, Rozier has hit 38.1 percent from the floor, whether starting or coming off the bench.

    Despite his scattered shooting, Rozier is still a more efficient offensive player than either Jones or fellow starting guard Russ Smith. He turns the ball over less than any regular save wing Wayne Blackshear and is a better defensive rebounder by percentage than center Mangok Mathiang. Rozier's had seven games this season of five or more rebounds, capped by 10 against Western Kentucky.

    When he's in the game, Rozier makes plays. A good tournament run could position him as next season's point guard, allowing Jones to become Smith's scoring successor.

12. Saint Louis: Austin McBroom

14 of 25

    Scott Kane/Associated Press

    Saint Louis coach Jim Crews essentially runs a rotation with six starters. Sophomore guard Austin McBroom has become a member of that group, averaging over 23 minutes per game while only making one start this season.

    McBroom's perimeter shooting is the key to his playing time. The 5'9" guard knocks in 40 percent from the arc, tops on the team. In a six-game span from Dec. 18 to Jan. 11, McBroom stuck 18 of 32 three-pointers, a 56 percent success rate. It was a last-minute McBroom triple that rescued the Billikens from what would have been an embarrassing upset against Duquesne.

    Don't look for him to flinch at the foul line, either. McBroom hasn't missed from the stripe yet in Atlantic 10 play, sinking more than 91 percent for the season.

    The Billikens aren't a physically imposing team or a tremendously high-scoring one, so timely shooting will be a key to their postseason run. McBroom is their most reliable source, so expect to hear his name in March.

11. Iowa State: Monte Morris

15 of 25

    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Iowa State's Monte Morris beat out James Young of Kentucky and Derrick Walton of Michigan for Mr. Basketball honors in the state of Michigan last year. That alone isn't proof that he can ball at the college level, but he's done plenty on the court in Ames to prove he belongs.

    Morris has taken over the point guard position in February, averaging 9.8 points and 4.8 assists over ISU's last four games. He played a whopping 52 of 55 minutes in the Cyclones' triple-overtime win over Oklahoma State and still had enough legs left to knock down the winning jumper with 43 seconds left.

    How big was the shot? Iowa State hadn't won in Stillwater since March 2, 1988. That's how big.

    For the season, Morris is in the Big 12's top 12 in both assists and steals per game. Those averages were buoyed even in a blowout loss at West Virginia, in which Morris put up six dimes and three steals, all while taking a mid-air right cross from Mountaineer guard Eron Harris.

    In the postseason, expect more basketball plays and less pugilism. Morris has shown that he can make basketball plays, and he'll have a chance to make plenty in ISU's uptempo offense surrounded by one of the nation's most talented teams.

10. Cincinnati: Jermaine Sanders

16 of 25

    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    Cincinnati, like Creighton, will be led into the postseason by one overarching star. The Bearcats see Creighton's Doug McDermott and counter with their own senior star, Sean Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick will go down as one of the greatest players in UC history, and his reputation will actually help teammates find openings to score.

    Junior guard Jermaine Sanders could position himself as next season's alpha Bearcat if he puts up a strong NCAA tournament run, and he's capable of doing so. The 6'5" Sanders is Cincinnati's most efficient three-point shooter, making nearly 38 percent from the arc.

    Like St. Louis' Austin McBroom, Sanders hit a hot streak around Christmas, making 13 of 22 triples (59 percent) over a six-game span, including wins over Nebraska, SMU and Memphis. Since then, he's tailed off from long range, but he's made up for it with 57 percent shooting on two-pointers and 75 percent from the foul line.

    Sanders knocked down two key free throws with 18 seconds left to help the Bearcats beat UConn on Feb. 6. Another big play came on the opposite end, when Sanders stuffed a shot by Temple's Josh Brown in the waning seconds to preserve a four-point UC win.

    In most games, Cincinnati's crunch-time strategy revolves around Kilpatrick. Sanders, for one, has shown up when needed. Doing so in March will get him noticed by a nationwide audience.

9. Michigan State: Travis Trice

17 of 25

    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Michigan State's Travis Trice is a big-game hunter. By that, we don't mean that he kills lions and elephants, just that he has some of his most productive games against quality opposition. Of Trice's six double-figure scoring games this season, three have come against likely tournament teams Iowa, Wisconsin and Texas. Two others came against always pesky Indiana and Penn State.

    Usually playing behind Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Keith Appling, Trice doesn't always see a lot of opportunities. Appling is currently ailing, however, finally succumbing to a wrist injury that's nagged him since December.

    Trice has stepped in as the Spartans' starter for the past two games and produced a respectable stat line: 18 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and zero turnovers. He's also drained four three-point shots in those games.

    The junior may be getting a high-octane dress rehearsal for next season, when he's the likely successor to Appling as MSU's floor general. But for this year, he's still one of Sparty's most dangerous three-point shooters, making 43 percent on the season. He should get the opportunity to make at least one big shot during the tournament.

8. Duke: Amile Jefferson

18 of 25

    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Duke forward Amile Jefferson is all of 6'9" and 210 pounds, but he's spent the conference season outdueling bigger post players.

    He pulled nine rebounds against Notre Dame's stable of bigs, 10 while matched against Georgia Tech's massive Daniel Miller, and 15 against Virginia's solid glass-eating duo of Akil Mitchell and Mike Tobey. All in all, Jefferson is averaging eight boards per game in ACC play.

    There aren't many big men Duke might encounter in the NCAA tournament that will make Jefferson sweat now. Most of the conversation surrounding Duke has been about stud freshman Jabari Parker and impact transfer Rodney Hood, but don't underestimate the yeoman work Jefferson has done to clean up after their misses.

    He's put up double-doubles against Virginia and Pitt, two teams that should join Duke in the field of 68. It shouldn't be a surprise if he adds another against some overmatched No. 14 or 15 seed in the Blue Devils' tournament opener. Whether he puts up more in later rounds may determine how far Duke eventually goes.

7. Kansas: Wayne Selden

19 of 25

    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    When Kansas stumbled to four nonconference losses, the narrative surrounded whether the Jayhawks' touted freshman class was in over its collective head. At times, all of the rookies—center Joel Embiid, wing Wayne Selden, even all-everything icon Andrew Wiggins—have played like freshmen.

    These things happen.

    During KU's Big 12 surge, Embiid has become a critical darling and Wiggins has had moments of dominance. Selden's had his moments, too—just not quite as many.

    Strong games of 24 points at Oklahoma and 20 at home against Kansas State—in his first two Big 12 games, no less—netted Selden a National Freshman of the Week honor. Since then, he's still averaged a respectable 10.0 points and 3.3 assists per game.

    A promising sign of improvement comes at the free-throw line. Selden stumbled to 50 percent success from the line in nonleague play, but he's made 22 of 29 (72 percent) free throws over his last nine games.

    Selden is more likely to be back in Lawrence next season than either of his more hyped classmates, who may very well go one-two in the 2014 NBA draft. He'll need to take a lesson from his disengaged performance in the return meeting with Kansas State, but it's unlikely he'll see any more venues as hostile as Bramlage Coliseum.

6. Villanova: Josh Hart

20 of 25

    Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

    Depth has been a primary factor in Villanova's success this season. Nine players average at least 11 minutes per game, allowing coach Jay Wright plenty of freedom to experiment and find a hot hand.

    From mid-December to mid-January, freshman guard Josh Hart wasn't on fire, but he was pleasantly warm for Wildcat fans. He scored in double figures in eight straight games, dropping in a combined 100 points over opponents ranging from Rider to Syracuse. Hart also drained a toasty 52 percent from three-point range.

    Since then, Hart may as well have gone into witness protection, scoring only 17 points in his last seven games, but he's still averaging 3.3 rebounds a game in that span. Once he gets his jumper to fall again—he's missed 14 straight from outside the arc—Hart can get back to loading up the score sheet.

    Opponents have to avoid being lulled to sleep by Hart's recent form, because no one wants to be the team torched for five three-pointers by the guy who hasn't made one since Tunisian Revolution Day.

     

5. San Diego State: J.J. O'Brien

21 of 25

    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Junior forward J.J. O'Brien is the perfect symbol of his team. San Diego State doesn't get gaudy with the scoring figures, and at times the offense goes downright frigid. But scoring on the Aztecs is a labor that would give Hercules pause for thought.

    O'Brien may be a poor choice for breakout star of the tournament, because he's not tremendously likely to have a gaudy statistical game. He only scored in double figures once between Dec. 8 and Feb. 11. What he's more likely to do is neutralize the guys that opposing fans put their faith in.

    Against Colorado State, O'Brien was largely responsible for stuffing Rams star J.J. Avila. Avila went 4-of-17 from the floor in a nine-point CSU loss. Despite scoring only one point himself, O'Brien's 10 rebounds and sticky defense made him one of the stars of the game.

    UNLV gunner Bryce Dejean-Jones scored 15 points against O'Brien and various teammates, but it took him 25 shots to get there.

    If the Aztecs make a tournament run, the games are more likely to score in the 60s than the 80s. Still, a night choking out a potent offense like, say, Michigan State, Kentucky or Kansas (again) will get attention.

    O'Brien could raise his national profile without raising a single shot.

4. Wichita State: Tekele Cotton

22 of 25

    Wichita State's Tekele Cotton can do things like he does in the video seen here. When a college player gets up hard enough to posterize opponents and get on SportsCenter in January, how much play will a similar dunk rate get in March?

    Tournament fortunes are sometimes governed by who's peaking at the right time. If we were on March 13 instead of Feb. 13, Cotton would be hitting his stride at the perfect moment. He's hit 10 of his 24 three-pointers in the last four games, shooting 47.6 percent and averaging 12.0 points per game in that span.

    The Shockers have plenty of weapons to choose from. As they inch closer to a seemingly inevitable undefeated regular season, we'll see a lot of Fred VanVleet pulling the strings and Ron Baker pulling triggers on silky jump shots. State won't be hurting for talent, even when Cleanthony Early graduates.

    Cotton may be the closest thing Wichita State will have to a "secret weapon" when the tournament dawns. If he throws a hammer in the face of some 16-seed's center in the round of 64, he won't be a secret much longer.

3. Florida: Dorian Finney-Smith

23 of 25

    Phil Sandlin/Associated Press

    If Dorian Finney-Smith only played schools from the state of Arkansas, he'd be an All-American.

    In his Florida debut against Arkansas-Little Rock, Finney-Smith only played 16 minutes. In that span, he amassed 17 points and nine rebounds. All in a night's work, eh?

    About two months later, the Gators pulled an overtime win out of Arkansas' inhospitable Bud Walton Arena, thanks to DFS producing 22 points, 15 boards and three steals.

    In more recent times, Finney-Smith is struggling. He's missed 11 straight triples over his last four games, but he's also putting up approximately six rebounds and three assists in that span.

    The Gators have no one else who blends an inside and outside game the way the sophomore transfer from Virginia Tech does. He even leads UF in rebounding at 7.5 per game on the season.

    If starting forwards Patric Young or Casey Prather aren't performing early on in a postseason game, coach Billy Donovan will have no qualms about calling on his sixth man.

2. Arizona: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

24 of 25

    Ralph Freso/Getty Images

    Arizona freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has already been pushed into action thanks to a season-ending broken foot for sophomore starter Brandon Ashley. Hollis-Jefferson has started UA's only two games since Ashley's injury, but he was already contributing more aggressively on offense before Ashley went down.

    In the rookie's two starts, he's put up 14 and 16 points against both of the Pac-12's Oregon-based members, but those are his fourth and fifth double-figure games out of his last seven. In that span, he's put up 10.4 points and 6.4 rebounds a night.

    Putting Hollis-Jefferson and classmate Aaron Gordon together at forward limits what Arizona coach Sean Miller can do offensively, as neither is a perimeter threat. The Wildcats may have to learn from fellow West Coast powerhouse San Diego State and rely on their defense to choke out opponents.

    That, the freshmen can do. In the meantime, Hollis-Jefferson's aggressive style will surely generate a couple highlights during what could be a lengthy March run for Arizona.

1. Syracuse: Rakeem Christmas

25 of 25

    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Most of Syracuse's leading men, you know. C.J. Fair, the preseason All-American whom Syracuse fans still thought was "slept on." Tyler Ennis, the precocious freshman who made one of the season's most cold-blooded shots. Trevor Cooney, the sophomore who's made shots from everywhere but a concourse popcorn stand. Jerami Grant, the former sixth man who could still become a first-round pick.

    If we're looking for a more unknown quantity to assert himself for the Orange in the postseason, we may be waiting for Christmas.

    That's Rakeem Christmas, the junior center imported from the Virgin Islands. Christmas has never been a major offensive presence, averaging only 5.6 points per game this season. His defense and rebounding, however, have been on point when the Orange have needed them most. He's swatted three or more shots against quality opposition like Indiana, North Carolina, Pitt (twice) and Duke (a career-high six).

    Help off of Christmas at your peril, though. He's shooting 68 percent from the floor, and not all of the makes have been on putbacks. His last double-figure scoring night, a perfect shooting exhibition against Pitt, featured an array of moves according to Syracuse.com's Donna Ditota.

    "Everyone thinks I'm just out there taking up space," Christmas told Ditota. "I want to go out there and show everyone that I can do something." What better time to show everyone than in the tournament, when millions of extra eyes are watching?