NCAA Tournament Preview: Frontcourts to Watch

    
March 13th, 2012
While you definitely need guards to win a national title big men are very important in their own right. Whether a team has projected lottery picks or guys who have been solid throughout their careers, a team has to be able to hold their own in the paint. If not a tournament experience that can last two or three weeks gets derailed far sooner. Here are some front courts you'll need to know this week.

South Region

1. Kentucky
This one's pretty simple. The Wildcats have the nation's best freshman in Anthony Davis (who may also be the best player in the country regardless of class) and a wing in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who is one of the best leaders as well as a very talented player. Terrence Jones has played well of late, and while the effort may still wane on occasion he's extremely talented. This group is a big reason why the Wildcats are the overwhelming favorite to win it all.

2. Baylor
The Bears aren't that far behind Kentucky as they can go five deep with a few lottery-caliber talents mixed in. The two lottery guys are Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller, with the former needing to remain engaged in the action consistently if the Bears are to make a deep run. Quincy Acy is the toughest of the bunch, a guy likely to enjoy a long pro career based on his effort and rebounding ability alone, with Cory Jefferson and Anthony Jones rounding out the group.

3. Connecticut
The Huskies may not win the vote in the South for best front court but it's a safe bet that they'd win for most frustrating. Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi get the most minutes while Tyler Olander and Roscoe Smith will also rotate in. If they all play consistently the Huskies can do some damage this week. If not, Iowa State's Royce White will put on a show in Louisville.

Biggest question mark: Ryan Kelly's foot (Duke)
Kelly missed the ACC tournament due to his foot injury, and the Blue Devils have been preparing for Lehigh as if they won't have him. Kelly's absence changes things offensively, as he's able to play on the perimeter. That opens things up for their guards, and without him Duke has two guys inside (Mason and Miles Plumlee) instead of one.

Guys you'll love: UNLV's Mike Moser and Wichita State's Garrett Stutz
Moser can play both inside and out for the Runnin' Rebels, and the UCLA transfer was instantly one of the best players in the Mountain West. As for Stutz, he played well enough to earn first team All-MVC honors, and the seven-footer is a tough matchup in the paint for most teams.

The difference-maker: Cody Zeller (Indiana)
Other than the improvement of their returning players a big reason for Indiana's return to the national stage was the play of Zeller, who with Michigan's Trey Burke was the best freshman in the Big Ten. He opens things up for the Hoosiers' capable shooters, and he'll need to be at his best against a New Mexico State team that can hit the boards.


West Region

1. Michigan State
Two words, one man: Draymond Green. The Big Ten player of the year is the biggest reason why the Spartans won a share of the Big Ten regular season crown and followed that up with the Big Ten tournament title. But with Branden Dawson done for the year with a torn ACL the play of Derrick Nix and Adriean Payne has become even more important. They've done well to to this point, and if they can do so four more times a trip to New Orleans is more than possible.

2. Davidson
Surprised, huh? Don't be. De'Mon Brooks is one of the best players in the country who isn't a staple on "SportsCenter", winning SoCon Player of the Year as well as MVP of the conference tournament. Alongside him is Jake Cohen, whose game has progressed a great deal due in part to a stint with the Israeli national team over the summer. If the Wildcats beat Louisville it's a safe bet that these two are a big reason why.

3. BYU
Whether or not the Cougars reach the main field remains to be seen, but in all honesty their two big men are far better than what you'd generally find on a 14-seed. Noah Hartsock is effective either inside or out, and Brandon Davies is a handful in the paint. The key for BYU is to make sure they get the ball consistently, which can be an issue on occasion.

The X-factor: Tarik Black and foul trouble (Memphis)
This was a serious problem for the Tigers earlier this season, and there's no coincidence that as he's remained on the floor the Tigers have played their best basketball. Ferrakhon Hall helps but when Black gets the ball around the rim he's tough to stop. Keep him on the floor and Memphis can win multiple games in the tournament.

Guys you'll love: Drew Gordon (New Mexico) and Mike Scott (Virginia)
Both guys are familiar names by this point, which means that the choices could have been Julian Boyd (LIU Brooklyn) and T.J. Robinson (Long Beach State). But both Gordon and Scott had very good cases to win Player of the Year honors in their respective conferences but neither did. Virginia needs Scott to be the best player on the floor against Florida as they're low on numbers, and Gordon't the kind of interior presence that can lead a team to the Sweet 16 and beyond.

The difference-maker: Patric Young (Florida)
Young is a player talented enough to merit comparisons to Dwight Howard as a McDonald's All-American, and with his physical strength it's easy to see why. The key for Young: getting enough touches. That means no wild shot attempts from the Florida guards.


East Region

1. Ohio State
With Syracuse losing their most important piece Ohio State is now the favorite to win the East Region in the eyes of most people. Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas are both tough to slow down, but Thomas will need to exercise good shot selection on a consistent basis. On the wing there's Lenzelle Smith Jr., a player most tend to underestimate offensively, and Evan Ravenel gives them solid defense off the bench.

2. Florida State
The Seminoles may not have an All-America candidate along the lines of Sullinger but they do have athleticism and depth, two factors that helped them win the ACC tournament. Bernard James and Xavier Gibson are the starters while Jon Kreft and Okaro White provide depth off the bench. FSU is one of the biggest teams in the country and all of these guys can move as well.

3. Kansas State
The Wildcat front court is the big reason why many are picking them to go to the Sweet 16, as they hit the offensive boards with the best of them and top-seed Syracuse is a subpar defensive rebounding team. Jamar Samuels was a big reason why they swept the season series with Missouri, and both Thomas Gipson and Jordan Henriquez-Roberts have improved as the season's worn on.

Biggest question mark: Syracuse without Fab Melo
The Orange have plenty of front court talent without the sophomore from Brazil (and would have a very good argument to be on the above list), but on a team blessed with so much depth Melo was the closest to being indispensable. Without him both Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita will have to pick up the torch in the middle of their 2-3 zone.

Guys you'll love: Andrew Nicholson (St. Bonaventure) and Keith Wright (Harvard)
Vanderbilt's Jeffery Taylor deserves some mention here as well, but we'll go with the A-10 Player of the Year and one of the big reasons why Harvard's back in the Dance for the first time since 1946 instead. Nicholson finished two blocks short of a triple-double in the A-10 tournament final and his name will be called in June. Wright is the man the Crimson run their offense through and he's been extremely productive as a result.

The workhorse: Kevin Jones (West Virginia)
There are few players in America more valuable than Jones. Without him the Mountaineers most likely aren't playing in any tournament much less the Big Dance. The senior from Mount Vernon, NY led the Big East in both scoring and rebounding this season. "Money earnin'" indeed (that's the nickname for Mount Vernon).


Midwest Region

1. North Carolina
The expectation is that John Henson's left wrist is ready to go this week, and his presence on the court beside ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller makes UNC a much better defensive team. Henson's averaging more than three blocked shots per game, and when that's missing the Carolina perimeter defenders can get exposed some. James Michael McAdoo and Justin Watts will also see some time, with the undersized Watts more than willing to fill in wherever needed.

2. Kansas
If Anthony Davis doesn't win a particular National Player of the Year award it should go to Robinson. That's how much those two have separated themselves from the rest of the country. Robinson is essentially an automatic double-double for the Jayhawks, who also need Jeff Withey to show on the big stage that his improved play throughout the conference slate wasn't a mirage. It's highly likely that he will, although their battle with Detroit will provide a good test.

3. Creighton
The Bluejays have one of the best players in the country in sophomore Doug McDermott, who can score both inside and out for the Missouri Valley tournament champs. But there's also banger Gregory Echenique to account for, and those two have the ability to lead Creighton on a special run. The key for them will be defense, especially with a matchup with North Carolina awaiting them should the Bluejays take care of Alabama.

Most Improved: Henry Sims (Georgetown)
For three seasons Sims was essentially an afterthought for the Hoyas. Now he's an essential figure, leading the team in assists while also proving to be a capable scorer out to about 15 feet or so. If he's playing well the Hoyas offensively will prosper as a whole.

Guys you'll love: Rob Jones (Saint Mary's) and C.J. Leslie (NC State)
Jones has been a double-double machine this season for the Gaels, and while he's undersized at the four the senior can put opposing teams at a disadvantage regardless of his height. As for Leslie it would have been difficult to imagine him being in this spot a season ago, but that only displays how much he's improved. And he can finish well above the rim as well.

One last hurrah: Robbie Hummel (Purdue)
Hummel's absence last season due to a torn ACL was a major reason why the Boilermakers were bounced by VCU (but by no means should that take away from how well the Rams played). No JaJuan Johnson or E'Twaun Moore but the fifth-year senior can still get it done, and he'll have to if the Boilers are to get past Saint Mary's.