March Madness is where some stars are made (Bryce Drew) while other stars fade (Aaron Gray). What we’re doing over this two-part segment is putting you up on 16 Players 2 Watch during the NCAA Tournament: one guy from every number-seed in the field. For example, out of the four #16 seeds, we’ll tell you about one player in particular that you should keep an eye on to make some noise in the Dance. Then one player from the #15 seeds, one from the #14 seeds and so on, all the way down to the #1 seeds.
(Read the #16 through #9-seeds HERE.)
8. Jamont Gordon, PG, Miss. State
One of the most complete guards in the country, Gordon is a triple-double threat who averaged 17.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game for the Bulldogs. The 6-4 lefty junior posted a 24-13-8 line against Auburn, 24-8-5 against Vanderbilt, 17-6-10 against Alabama and 23-9-4 against LSU. His Achilles’ heel, though, is his propensity to turn the ball over: in 13 of Gordon’s 32 games this year, he committed five or more turnovers, averaging 4.0 per game.
7. Austin Daye, PF/SF, Gonzaga
At one point this year, NBADraft.net had Daye projected to be picked #2 overall in the ’09 Draft; currently he’s 9th on the board. Why? To be honest, I haven’t seen it yet. Daye is only a freshman, stands 6-10 and has some skills, but a Lottery pick already? He’s averaging 10.6 points and 4.6 rebounds a night in just 18 minutes. In his college debut he dropped 20 and 10 on Montana, but since then has only had a handful of standout games — and none of those came against Big Dance-level competition. Everyone is picking #10-seed Davidson to upset Gonzaga, and how Daye performs will definitely be an X-factor.
6. O.J. Mayo, PG/SG, USC
After what seems like years and years of hype, O.J. finally steps on the big stage at the Big Dance. And standing in his way is the player who’s lorded over what was supposed to be O.J.’s one shining moment: K-State’s Michael Beasley. The first time Mayo went head-to-head with another superstar freshman, Memphis’ Derrick Rose, he struggled with his shot (6-for-20 FGA) but impressed on defense. The next three times, when USC faced UCLA and Kevin Love, O.J. again seemed to be pressing on offense. While O.J. won’t be guarding Beasley, he may have a mindset where he wants to go out and defend the title he held for so long as the best player in his class. Mayo has been good in his freshman season, averaging 20.8 points per game and showing some potential as a lock-down defender on the next level, but he’s also faced a lot of criticism; be it for shooting too much, or trying to wow pro scouts rather than win college games. However long the Trojans last in the tournament, Mayo can prove his doubters wrong with every W.
5. Kalin Lucas, PG, Michigan State
Everyone knows Drew Neitzel is The Man for MSU, but a lot of how the team and Neitzel fares will depend on Lucas, the 6-foot freshman point guard. The ’07 Jordan Brand All-American has been up-and-down this year (10 points, 3.8 assists, 2.1 turnovers) — for every 9-dime, 0-turnover game he puts up (vs. Wisconsin-Green Bay), he’ll roll out a 7-turnover stinker (vs. Purdue). In the Big Ten tournament, Lucas had his moments where he literally couldn’t be on the court because he was hurting the Spartans so much, and other moments when he looked like a savvy four-year starter. How he plays at the point will determine what Tom Izzo can do with Neitzel; whether he can play #11 off the ball and open up scoring opportunities or if Neitzel will have to bring the ball up and limit his versatility.
4. A.J. Ogilvy, C, Vanderbilt
The 6-11 freshman from Australia will be getting a ton of “next Andrew Bogut” talk for however long he stays in school. The thing is, he’s not really the same kind of player. Ogilvy (17 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.5 bpg) isn’t as physical in the paint and Bogut and doesn’t (yet) have that nasty streak, but he is a bit more polished offensively at this stage than Bogut was. His early-season production dropped off a bit when it came to the SEC schedule, but a couple games ago he lit up Auburn for 27 points on 12-for-13 shooting. He should make light work of Siena in the first round, but looming ahead would be a likely matchup with Clemson (strong in the paint) or Villanova (whose small-ball can take big men out of the game).
3. Joe Krabbenhoft, SF, Wisconsin
The best player to come out of South Dakota since Mike Miller, the 6-7 junior Krabbenhoft is an X-factor for a Badgers team that some are picking to go all the way to the Final Four and some are picking to get knocked off in the first round. Krabbenhoft’s numbers are solid (7.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg), not great, but he’s come up big in some of Wisconsin’s best games: he had 11 points and 10 boards in the Big Ten tourney win over Michigan State, 8 boards in the nonconference win over Texas, and 12 boards and five assists in a win over Indiana in January. While everyone focuses on Brian Butch, Krabbenhoft could sneak up and have a big game to get Wisconsin into an Elite position.
2. Greg Paulus, PG, Duke
Even by Duke standards, Paulus has taken a ton of criticism over the years; it’s like he can’t do anything right in the eyes of Duke-haters, and is a major disappointment to Duke fans due to costly turnovers and blown defensive assignments. Last year at this time, Paulus was publicly getting raked over the coals for, well, getting raked over the coals by VCU’s Eric Maynor in Duke’s first-round upset loss. This year, however, the 6-1 junior has been more effective and consistent than ever. Although his shooting percentages are down, Paulus’ turnovers are down from 3.1 per game last year to 1.6, and he’s bailed Duke out in multiple games by sticking big three-pointers — like when he nailed six triples in a win over North Carolina in February and five treys in a win over NC State in March. For the season he’s averaging 11.3 points, 3.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Duke is arguably the weakest of the #2-seeds, but they say the Big Dance is all about your backcourt, and having a three-year starter running the point will be huge for the Blue Devils.
1. Russell Westbrook, PG/SG, UCLA
Going into the season, any talk about UCLA centered on Kevin Love, Darren Collison and Josh Shipp. But over the last five months, Westbrook has stolen headlines and broken through as maybe the most exciting player in the country. (Check this out; and this; and this.) And beyond just creating highlights, the 6-3 sophomore has been shooting up the mock draft boards at warp-speed; Westbrook (12.6 ppg, 4.3 apg, 1.6 spg) is currently projected to go 8th overall in the ’08 draft by NBADraft.net, and pegged 8th overall in the ’09 mock by DraftExpress.com. UCLA is a favorite to take the whole thing in a lot of people’s brackets, and Westbrook is a vital part of the running attack that can take them to a championship. He is part of what makes the Bruins the deepest, most athletic team in the country.