Whether it’s one and done or four and out, the NCAA Tournament can either confirm what we know about players’ college credentials or burnish new ones entirely. It’s the ultimate job fair, but this one doesn’t involve schmoozing or hors d’oeuvres and is televised to millions (hope you wore your best suit, er, sneakers).
This late in the season it’s hard to believe the tourney could be a discovery stage for some prospects, but there are always a handful of small-conferece players who take advantage of having every game televised and do something remarkable, even if just for a game.
These five players took advantage of their time in the tourney, whether brief or the full six games, and came out the other side that much the better as NBA prospects.
Jeff Withey, Kansas: If this was his last collegiate audition before the NBA, it was a good one. Even in a loss he held Kentucky’s Anthony Davis to 1-of-10 shooting. That’s usually the kind of accomplishment that’s followed by a Nobel Prize or saying, “That’s one small step for man…” He’ll have to settle, instead, for rising in the consciousness of NBA GMs (and a theme song about him).
The 6-11 center is expected back by coach Bill Self even after setting the NCAA Tournament blocks record, with 31. The previous record was 29, set by Joakim Noah. Davis was hardly his first test, going against the likes of Ohio State and North Carolina’s front lines, and that consistency against elite big men showed Withey could be more than a serviceable center in the NBA who could challenge the “stiff white guy” stereotype.
With Thomas Robinson earning his deserved publicity for being a unanimous AP All-American, Withey more slowly grew into a big-time role for the Jayhawks, but he was a first priority for any Jayhawk opponent driving the lane. Against Ohio State he had seven blocks and eight rebounds, stifling Jared Sullinger. Against John Henson, Tyler Zeller and North Carolina, he got near his average with three blocks but surprised with 15 points and eight boards. Before he even got to the Buckeyes and Tar Heels, he blocked 10 N.C. State shots, tying a Kansas record.
Royce White, Iowa State: Here’s another case of coming in with a lot of buzz and then matching it by playing well against players projected to be NBA mainstays. White went for 23 points and nine boards in the Cyclones’ loss to Kentucky (where he almost played at but for anxiety issues he’s taken big steps to overcome).
To get to face the Wildcats, White poured in 15 points, 13 boards and two assists against defending national champ Connecticut. The Huskies were known as a team all year whose identity was as hard to figure out as Keyser Soze‘s, but don’t knock the talent on that squad. Andre Drummond, a 6-10, consensus top-five pick in many mock drafts, was barreled over time and again by White. He helped get the Cyclones their third-highest offensive rebounding percentage of the season against UConn while outscoring the Huskies by 14 in the paint.
Kyle O’Quinn, Norfolk State: Only three weeks after the upset, we mostly remember that No. 15 Norfolk State beat No. 2 Missouri, breaking everyone’s bracket — including, famously, the quoteable O’Quinn’s. It broke because of his 26-point, 14-board, two-block performance that was stunning. At 6-10, 240 he’s a bigger body who is ridiculously efficient inside the arc, with DraftExpress noting he shoots 61 percent inside that limit. He proved it against Mizzou, and showed that even as a widebody he can dominate in a running game. Do I hear DeJuan Blair Lite?
His shot-blocking isn’t a fluke; for the second year in a row he’s near the top of DraftExpress’ top shot blockers per 40 minutes adjusted pace. He went on to miss 8-of-9 shots in a blowout loss to Florida. That puts a damper on the Spartans’ story, but it shouldn’t rule out O’Quinn, who showed the kind of possibility he can play at against Missouri.
Look for him to get a run at this summer’s tournaments to improve his chances of making a team next fall.
James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina: With the aforementioned Henson out with injury there was genuine concern a freshman could hold down the middle for the Heels, even in the first rounds of the tournament. Any concern turned out to be unfounded. The 6-9 freshman played so well Charles Barkley called him UNC’s most talented player. He certainly played the part at times, almost reminding of a Marvin Williams, who (in college, remember) was so good as a freakishly talented freshman role player.
He scored 17 points, with a nasty tip-slam (see below. No, really) but broke the Catamounts with consecutive three-point plays. Then against a good Creighton team where he guarded AP All-American Doug McDermott, McAdoo had nine points, four boards and three blocks as Henson returned, cutting into his minutes. Against Kansas he again led UNC in points, with 15, for the second time in three tourney games. Not bad for a guy averaging 15.6 minutes per game before the tournament.
The NCAA Tournament, even for elite prospects, is a great equalizer. To see him not only play well with the pressure of an assumed UNC Final Four run — and also in a wholly different role than he’d been asked to be all season — was even more impressive than his run-and-jump potential.
C.J. McCollum, Lehigh: He was the nation’s best freshman scorer, which moved him onto the NBA radar. This year he was the fourth-best scorer, period. What moved the needle, though, was his performance to stun No. 2 seed Duke. He averaged 21.9 points this year on 44 percent shooting, so you know Duke knew his name.
Trouble was, it didn’t look that way. He dropped 30 with six boards and six assists on the Blue Devils in a stunning win, as much for how easy McCollum made it look.
“They had the best player on the court tonight in McCollum,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s been their player of the year, and he’s really one of the outstanding players in the country. You could see why tonight.”
He’s hailed as as good a leader as he is fast and lethal offensively. Those all showed through in the win over Duke, and doubtless, plenty of NBA personnel caught a glance.
Who had the best tournament?
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