Thursday and Friday night host the Sweet 16 part of March Madness, and each of the four regions is packed with talent.
Each night has four games with Elite Eight implications, and we’re hopefully going to see the nation’s top talent play at their best as they fight through the toughest round yet. Thursday night hosts the West and Midwest regions and Friday finishes with the South and the East, and it’s hard to say which bracket has the most talent.
The East is at the bottom regarding big-name players, but someone who has a shines means everyone’s going to put them on their radar. Out West is the same way — there are a bunch of great teams, but few guys who you’d say have star potential in the NBA. In the middle of the country is where the names start getting bigger, and Player of the Year Frank Mason is the headliner of that region. Lastly, there’s the South who has an uber-exciting matchup between UCLA and Kentucky.
East: Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
Of the country’s top-20 scorers, Thornwell is the only one in the tournament, and his level of play has improved tremendously. Heading into the Sweet 16, Thornwell’s an early-second rounder and possibly a late-first rounder depending on the team’s situation, but the way he’s played in the first two postseason games has been tremendous.
Thornwell dropped 29 against Marquette in the opener and was huge in the upset over Duke with 24. The SEC’s Player of the Year has ideal size to play the two at 6-5, and his game is also very prototypical of that position. He’s got efficiency to match the volume, and he can score from almost anywhere. For the tourney, Thornwell’s 6-of-12 from three and 16-of-33 overall. Furthermore, he might be the most aggressive guard in the country. Against Duke, he was 9-of-12 from the charity stripe, and he’s the SEC’s leader with 233 free throw attempts and 193 makes.
He’s the only major conference player to have 10 games with at least 10 free throw attempts, according to Sports-Reference, and the most glaring game is when he made 25 out of 33 from the line against Alabama.
South Carolina is a Cinderella and Thornwell is the one driving the carriage. They’ve already upset Duke and (3) Baylor is only a 3.5-point favorite. If he has another big game and launches the Gamecocks to their first-eve Elite Eight, he could become an early-20s guy.
Also Read: South Carolina Busts Brackets Against Duke
West - Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
You like watching unicorns — don’t lie! Markkanen has put together a stellar freshman year out of the blue, and the projected lottery pick has too much upside for him to fall out of the top-10. He’s a lights-out shooter, tenacious rebounder and we saw a different side of him in Arizona’s second-round game against St. Mary’s.
Markkanen practically willed the Wildcats over the Gaels with his 16 points and 11 rebounds, but he was more aggressive than any point before that and was able to work his way to the line by exploiting mismatches. By night’s end, he was 9-of-10 from the charity stripe. It’s no secret that he’s Sean Miller‘s best player and any more advancements in the tournament will have to come from him producing.
Arizona’s going to feed him the rock religiously, and he could join the discussion of being a top-five pick if he shines on offense and works his tail off defensively.
It should be a relatively easily game against Xavier, and the Wildcats are tied with North Carolina as 7.5-point favorites, the largest spread of the two days. Of course, this is March. Anything can happen, and Xavier isn’t a team that Arizona can sleep on, which they know. The Musketeers waxed Florida State last game, but the Seminoles had really no business being a three-seed.
A couple more great games in conjunction with his near-unicorn-ness will make his potential stardom more feasible.
Midwest - Dillon Brooks, Oregon
The Ducks are a three-seed and still an underdog to the Wolverines. As much as I agree with that assessment, Dillon Brooks may not. Even with significantly fewer minutes (24.4 a game), Brooks equaled his scoring output on a per night basis, improved his percentages, expanded his game and is one of those guys who wants the ball in his hands at the end of games.
Currently, he’s expected to go early in the second by DraftExpress, but an “upset” by his hands could send him into first round territory.
Brooks has the size to play the three at 6-7 and about 215, and he’s an older player. Athletically, he’s not going to wow anyone, but his ball skills make up for what he lacks in explosion. He’s a legitimate 20-point scorer who nails 40 percent of his threes consistently and has shown up against premier teams on multiple occasions — 28 against USC, 25 against Arizona and 23 versus UCLA were some notables.
Questions about his defense will need to get answered before anything else because guarding at the next level will be an issue. Offensively, however, he can shoot out with anyone in the tournament and is a big reason why Oregon is a title favorite to some.
South - Lonzo Ball, UCLA
Thanks to his father, we’re watching Ball more closely than we would’ve been. He’s an incredible talent who goes above and beyond to put the team before himself, and it’s a big reason why he’s a potential first overall pick. Ball rebounds, has incredible vision and range for days, and he’s going up against De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk — what else would you want?!
You can try and argue that he’s not the best player on UCLA, but no one else succeeds as much as they would with him. He just makes everyone better. Now, we’re waiting to see him explode, something like 25 points and 12 assists, or 17 points down the stretch of a close game.
If Ball plays well against the Wildcats and then against the Tar Heels (if they beat Butler), it’s almost a guarantee that he’ll unseat Markelle Fultz as the consensus top pick. Any NBA team would love to pick him up, and he’s still got the potential to grow as a ball player.
Also Read: Lonzo Ball Is Just a New-School Jason Kidd
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