Sweet 16 players that teams can’t afford to lose

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Maryland’s Melo Trimble fell to the ground like he’d been hit with the force of Wladimir Klitschko’s stiffest jab.

It wasn’t Dr. Steelhammer, but rather 6-9, 235-pound Nathan Adrian who delivered the blow, a devastating shoulder-led body check that should’ve been whistled an offensive foul but wasn’t because college refs, as you’ve seen, are the worst.

Trimble wasn’t able to return, diagnosed with a head injury. He spent the rest of Sunday evening’s NCAA Tournament game on the bench, head tucked inside his jersey in despair. The Mountaineers went on to a 69-59 victory, marching on to the Sweet 16.

Hope you were able to get an in-game play in once it was determined Trimble wouldn’t be back, since the Terps had no chance of dealing with West Virginia’s pressure without him. Despite being just a freshman, Trimble carved out a place as one of college basketball’s most invaluable pieces.

His unflappable demeanor, deft passing and feathery shooting touch had carried Maryand to a second-place finish in the Big Ten when the preseason media poll picked them to finish 10th in their first season in the conference.

Tenth? They were top 10 most of the season. Coaches voted Trimble First Team All-Big Ten. He was that good.

The remaining 16 teams all have a catalyst they can’t be without either. Here’s a ranking of them, so if one lands in foul trouble or winds up flat on his back via crippling moving screen, you can move in and take advantage.

16. Xavier, Matt Stainbrook: The Musketeers run most of their offense through their leading scorer and rebounder. At 6-10 and over 260 pounds, he’s an imposing presence who commands a double team against smaller defenders. He’ll be Xavier’s backbone against Arizona.

15. Oklahoma, Buddy Hield: He’s shot 10-for-29 in this tournament, but is still the most dynamic athlete the Sooners throw out there. Right now, he’s settling for far too many jumpers and not taking advantage of his physical gifts. That must change against Sparty.

14. Michigan State, Denzel Valentine: Although you can make a great case for Branden Dawson and Travis Trice, Valentine is a unique player who seemingly makes everything run more smoothly as the Spartans’ best passer. Because he’s 6-5 and built solidly, he’s a walking matchup problem.

13. Gonzaga, Kyle Wiltjer: The Kentucky transfer is 18-for-24 so far in these NCAAs, including 6-for-9 from 3-point range. Being 6-10 doesn’t hurt either, since he’s likely to have to do some banging against UCLA’s bigs. Despite many other candidates, he’s been unquestionably the best of the Zags all season.

12. Wichita State, Fred VanVleet: His regular-season numbers were underwhelming given the expectations, but as expected, one of the country’s top floor generals has turned his game up 10 notches. He dominated Kansas with 17-6-6 after dropping 27 points on Indiana. This is who we expected to see.

11. Arizona, T.J. McConnell: Stanley Johnson is the top-five pick and there are other standouts, but this particular bunch of ‘Cats can’t function without McConnell at the controls. The veteran fifth-year senior put Arizona on his back when Ohio State threatened most, leaving the court for all of one minute. His 19 points were the second-most he’s scored this season. Every one of them were necessary, which he knew.

10. N.C. State, Trevor Lacey: Lightning-quick point guard Kat Barber and powerful bigs Abdul-Malik Abu and Beejay Anya have been critical x-factors, but the Wolfpack really thrive when their Alabama transfer has it going. He’s the main 3-point threat, but far from just a shooter, coming up with nine boards against LSU and dishing out four assists in each NCAA win.

9. Louisville, Terry Rozier: Prized power forward Montrezl Harrell is 1B, but it’s Rozier who has to key the press, run the offense and control the pace, not to mention likely being the primary scorer as he was against Northern Iowa. Most didn’t expect the Cardinals to handle UNI as easily as they did, which was only accomplished due to Rozier’s masterful 25-point, 5-rebound, 7-assist performance.

8. Kentucky, Willie Cauley-Stein: The reason he’s so low on this list is because of the embarrassment of riches the ‘Cats have inside, but he’s still the best of the bunch. Although freshman Karl-Anthony Towns is a beast in the post and Kentucky’s top offensive player, making history hinges on defense, which no one delivers quite like Cauley-Stein. UK isn’t quite as stifling when he sits.

7. West Virginia, Devin Williams: The Mountaineers have proven they can compete without senior guards Juwan Staten, so Williams is by far the guy they can’t be without most. That could be an issue, since the 6-9, 255-pound sophomore is foul-prone. He’s critical to surviving against Kentucky’s trees and has stepped up in the postseason, averaging 18.3 points and 9.8 rebounds when you combine the Big 12 and NCAA Tourneys.

6. UCLA, Bryce Alford: Kevon Looney and Norman Powell are more talented, but the Bruins are here because of the coach’s son. Not only is Alford running the show at the point, he’s shooting 12-for-16 (75 percent) from 3-point range, including the controversial goaltending-aided one. Averaging 24.5 through two games, staying up on Alford is going to be a key part of Gonzaga’s game plan, leaving more room for other Bruins to operate.

5. Notre Dame, Jerian Grant: There’s nothing on the floor he doesn’t do for the Fighting Irish. While Pat Connaughton is similarly essential, Grant is averaging 16.5 points, four rebounds and five assists, numbers right in line with his season averages. He’s the heartbeat for Mike Brey’s squad.

4. Utah, Jakob Poeltl: The Austrian 7-footer will tangle with Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and has been a force in the post. Defensively, he’s been the anchor, while also finishing 27 of his last 35 field goal attempts, mostly on dunks and putbacks. Don’t let that fool you. He’s skilled.

3. Wisconsin, Frank Kaminsky: The Badgers derive their confidence from the likely National Player of the Year. He’s such a difficult matchup for opposing bigs that he makes an offense you think would be stagnant dynamic. The Badgers are averaging 79 points per game in these NCAAs thanks to Kaminsky being 16-for-27 from the floor, averaging 23.5 points and 9.5 boards per game. Given North Carolina’s size, he’ll need to be great for Wisconsin to avoid the upset.

2. Duke, Okafor: The likely No. 1 pick in the NBA draft takes the Blue Devils from good to great. He’s risen to the occasion in the postseason, averaging 25 points on 34-for-45 shooting over the last three games. Because of how unstoppable he’s been in the post, Duke has yet to be challenged.

1. North Carolina, Marcus Paige: Not only would the Tar Heels have lost to Arkansas had he not gotten it together offensively, they would have done so in embarrassing fashion. Paige took over with 13 of UNC’s 17 points during a stretch where they pulled away from a Razorbacks team that had the pace where they wanted it as Paige’s teammates carelessly threw the ball all over the place. The Tar Heels have no shot against Wisconsin unless the top point guard in the country is right.

Tony Mejia is a national sports writer and senior contributor at VegasInsider.com. He’s also the owner and operator of Antony Dinero, the most successful documented volume handicapper in the industry. View his analysis daily at VegasInsider.com. Contact Tony at [email protected].

About the Author
Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia has been a national writer for nearly two decades and has covered NBA and college basketball as a columnist, analyst, handicapper, and bracketologist for CBS Sports, Pro Basketball News, and numerous other sites.

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