The Midwest Region was considered by many to be the strongest bracket in the field after the teams were announced on Sunday night, and as expected, the region also has a large share of potential NBA prospects to watch. Both teams from last year’s National Championship, Michigan and Louisville, are here, as are former NCAA Champions Duke and Kentucky. Leading the region is #1 seed Wichita State, the nation’s only undefeated team. Here is a look at the players you should keep an eye on:
(Players are listed in order of their team’s seed in the region)
Cleanthony Early, Wichita State, Sr., Forward – Early was a key contributor to last year’s Final Four run for the Shockers, and this year he has been arguably the best player on the 34 and 0 #1 seed. 6’8 and solidly built, Early is at his best when operating around the basket, but he is comfortable looking to penetrate from the perimeter or knock down mid- and long-range jumpers. Early can guard multiple positions and has shown that he can rebound at high levels when the team needs him to. NBA teams may look at him and think there really isn’t one area he excels in, but he does add value in a lot of different areas.
Nik Stauskas, Michigan, Soph., Guard – Stauskas was a valuable role player on last year’s team which lost in the National Championship game, used mainly as a shooter to stretch out defenses. With the loss of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. to the NBA, and Mitch McGary to injury, Stauskas took his game up a notch. He is still one of the deadliest three-point threats in college basketball, hitting over 45% of his attempts this year. Stauskas is not just a spot-up shooter either. He can hit his jumper off the dribble or coming off of screens. Because of the amount of attention he receives when he has the ball in high screen situations, he has shown he can be a strong distributor in pick-and-roll situations, as well as being able to attack the basket. Not a great defender, Stauskas can hold his own against many other shooting guards, but he has to work on defending against dribble penetration. NBA teams are interested because of the shooting ability, but they are going to end up getting a more complete player than that.
Jabari Parker, Duke, Fr., Forward – The highly-touted freshman out of Chicago didn’t disappoint basketball fans, starting his college career by scoring 20+ points in his first seven games. Parker can score in any number of ways, though he is at his best when not spending too much time looking for long-range shots. 6’8, 235 pounds, Parker is able to beat most defenders off the dribble with a variety of moves and some nifty footwork. He has the build to compete in the post and has a variety of ways to score around the basket as well. Can he run the floor? Of course he can, though he often overestimates his ability to lead the break himself. Parker can be a force on the offensive boards and has shown himself to be one of the fiercest dunkers at the college level. So where is Parker’s weakness? Defense. Becoming an average defender would be a huge upgrade for him, but NBA teams aren’t looking at that right now. All they can see is his ability to score in bunches.
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Rodney Hood, Duke, Soph., Forward – Hood sat out last season after transferring from Mississippi State, but established himself as a team leader as soon as he stepped on the court this season. Long and athletic, Hood is a capable long-range shooter (42.8%), but is at his best when he uses his ability to get to the rim quickly and finish strong. Like many Duke players this season, Hood started to fall in love with the jumper a bit too much, but he rounded back into form for the March stretch run. He is an average-to-good on-ball defender, and he should adjust in time to defending at the NBA level. Teams still see plenty of upside in Hood and if enters the Draft this season, he could find himself a lottery pick.
Russ Smith, Louisville, Sr., Guard – The tales of “Russdiculous” permeated college basketball last year as Louisville headed towards a National Championship. This year, with Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng both off to the NBA, Smith took on a bigger role and ended up having a better all-around season. Smith split point guard duties with JUCO transfer Chris Jones and showed that he can be a capable distributor when he looks to pass. He finished with almost five assists per game and a 1.8 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio, compared to last season’s three and 1.1 to 1. The knock on Smith last year was he could play out of control and take some poor shots. This season, Smith is being much smarter about his selection, and has raised his field goal percentage from 41.5% to 47.5%, and his three-point shooting percentage went from 33.2% to 40.5%, all while maintaining his points per game average of just north of 18 points per game. Smith is still a terror on the defensive end, using his quick hands and feet to draw to defender into easy mistakes. He still has his “Russdiculous” moments, but Smith paid attention to what NBA teams wanted to see from him this year, and he delivered. I would expect him to hear his name heard sometime early in the 2nd round.
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville, Soph., Forward – Like Smith, Harrell had to take on a bigger, if slightly different role, than last year. His responsibilities increased early in the season when Chane Behanan was dismissed from the team. Harrell is a physical player with an NBA-ready body, which he uses well around the basket on both ends of the floor. Add to it that he is also an explosive leaper and you have someone who can reel off a spectacular play out of nowhere. At times, Harrell relies purely on his physical play and athleticism to make plays, and he still needs to develop his skill on both ends of the floor, but by the end of this season, you will see a player who looks more and more ready for the NBA game.
Julius Randle, Kentucky, Fr., Forward – The jewel of Kentucky’s heralded freshman class, Randle has ended up being the only one of the group to come close to meeting expectations. A beast in the low blocks, Randle shows surprising footwork and touch around the basket at his size (6’9, 250), and he has slowly started to expand his game as the season has gone on. He attracts a large amount of attention when he gets the ball in the post, so the fact that he has greatly improved his ability to find an open teammate quickly is a big deal. Randle is a tremendous rebounder on both ends of the floor, having a great knack for getting position quickly and going strong after the ball. He has some trouble finishing against longer players around the basket and he has to remember to try and use his body to create space. Also, for most of the season, he relied almost wholly on his left hand, even going to the same spin move every time to ensure he could get to his left. He’s started to slowly show some moves with his right, but still has a long way to go. Defensively, Randle has a lot of work to do on his positioning and footwork, but he has no problem playing physical with someone. There are definitely some skills here which will allow Randle to make some impact quickly in the NBA.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky, So., Center – Cauley-Stein made good progress last season after Nerlens Noel went down with an ACL injury, so much was expected of him heading into this season. An athletic 7-footer, Cauley-Stein is a natural rim protector. He has learned to block shots well with both hands now and he does a better job getting into help position. Overall, he is a good man defender, and he has shown to be particularly adept at defending pick-and-roll situations. Offensively, Cauley-Stein has made progress as well, including having added a nice quick mini-hook shot which he can shoot with either hand. That simple offense and his ability to run the floor and finish in transition is about all the offense you will get out of Cauley-Stein, so having him on the floor means you better have plenty of other scorers. He hasn’t reached his potential as a player yet, and if he were to enter the draft this season, it is very likely that a team will be willing to roll the dice on him in the late lottery to early teens.
Jahii Carson, Arizona State, Soph., Guard – the 5’10 Carson is one of the few players who may have a legitimate claim to being the “most exciting” player in college basketball. A high-level ballhandler with a variety of moves and dribbles, Carson is extremely tough for one man to stop from getting into the lane. Once he is there, he just finds ways to score over, or around, much bigger players. While he almost certainly looks to score as a first option, he does a good job creating for others when he tries to. On defense, Carson isn’t like many smaller guards who are always looking to get a steal. He focuses on just keeping his man out of the lane and if the opportunity to swipe at the ball is there, he’ll pounce. Arizona State needs him to bring his “A” game if they are to have any hope of advancing.
T.J. Warren, North Carolina State, Soph., Forward – Other than possibly Doug McDermott, there may not be a better scorer in college than Warren. Averaging almost 25 points per game, Warren had only one game this year where he failed to reach double figures for points. More impressive, in 34 games this season, Warren scored 20+ points in thirty of them. His scoring comes almost exclusively from the mid-range area and basket, with only 31 three-pointers made, and he shot 52.5% from the field on the year. Warren plays hard on both ends of the floor, though he is a much better offensive player than defensive. He does do a good job rebounding on both ends, and not many players can get up a quicker second shot off an offensive rebound like Warren. His NCAA Tournament will continue after scoring 25 points in a win over Xavier in the First Four on Tuesday night.
Aaric Murray, Texas Southern, Sr., Center – It may seem odd having a player from a 16 seed that is in the First Four on this list, but Murray is not your typical low-major player. Murray spent two seasons at La Salle, and had developed into a dangerous low post threat. Murray’s time at La Salle wasn’t always smooth and he transferred to West Virginia for his junior season. After sitting out a year, Murray’s approach to the game ended up not meshing with Bob Huggins, and Murray’s season was a disappointment. He decided to finish his last season at Texas Southern, a small SWAC school. Now people may look at Murray’s numbers and then look at his conference and jump to a conclusion, but Murray also had a 28-point effort against Stanford, and a 30-point game against Tulsa, both teams in the NCAA Tournament. Athletic with a good feel for the post game, Murray is tough to stop one-on-one when he gets good position. He has nice toughness around the basket and handles the ball fairly well for his size. Murray has also shown that he can hit long-range shots, though not always consistently. He can block shots and protect the rim, but he still struggles at times with the finer points of playing post defense. Now Murray’s prior troubles and age (24) may leave him as a non-draftee in June, but I am sure plenty of teams will give him a real close look for the future.
Other Players to Watch
Chaz Williams - Massachusetts
Cameron Ridley - Texas
Jarnell Stokes - Tennessee
Rhamel Brown - Manhattan
Marcus Foster – Kansas State
Roy Devyn Marble - Iowa