Sitting here in the Phoenix airport. One flight left until Vegas. Eight hours left until tip-off. I want to tell you about the eight players I feel could be household names by Saturday.
1. Jordair Jett – G – St. Louis
Jett epitomizes the senior leadership exhibited by the Saint Louis squad. NC State has become a fashionable pick to defeat the Billikins tomorrow in a 5-12 matchup. I would caution those looking for the obligatory 12 seed upsets tomorrow; UTEP was written on almost everyone’s bracket back in 2010 with Derek Caracter. Butler beat them by 20 then went on to the Championship Game. I see Saint Louis as very similar to Butler in that spot. Although “Jordair” sounds like the combination of His Greatness and his sneakers, he is actually more like a football player. I think he’ll move the chains, get to the rim, and beat Louisville or Manhattan to advance to the Sweet 16.
2. Elfrid Payton/Shawn Long – G/F – Louisiana Lafayette
The Ragin’ Cajuns duo here are the most productive pair in the entire NCAA Tournament. I don’t know if Creighton will have the defensive tandem to be able to guard them. They are both a tough cover with pure scorer mentalities.
3. Anthony Gill – G/F – Virginia
Gill played one season at South Carolina, averaging almost 8 points as a freshman before bolting to the Cavaliers. He took over a couple of games in the ACC Tournament and I think this is just the tip of the ice berg. It’s funny, I asked myself whether he is related to Kendal Gill, because he plays somewhat similar. Like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, Virginia is a great team, but can go through its offensive droughts. I believe Gill will be the answer this first weekend.
4. Amedo Della Valle – G – Ohio State
If you give me the opportunity to sneak in a paisan, I will. This kid looks like a cross between Danillo Gallinari and Sideshow Bob on the court, but his play has propelled the Buckeyes into the tournament. They could have easily ended up like Illinois and Indiana in the Big 10; Highly talented, but left on the outside looking in. Ohio State Coach Thad Matta has been looking for a second guard off the bench, especially in situations where they need to score. The freshman Loving from Toledo has recently been benched in lieu of Della Valle. I look for the Italian to continue his clutch play, quietly being the glue that gives this team a second wind in the second half.
5. Josh Newkirk – G – Pittsburgh
As previously mentioned, the Panthers can struggle to score at times. This freshman is changing that. He is an exceptionally quick guard. With the seniority surrounding him, Newkirk has been able to find his niche and contribute more scoring late this year. If there is a guy to hit a big shot to win a close game versus Colorado.
6. Eric Stutz – C – Eastern Kentucky
The Colonels beat a respectable Belmont squad to make the tournament. Picture NBA euro-star Luis Scola and you’ll see the NCAA equivalence in Stutz. What he lacks in athleticism, he will make up for in hustle. Eastern Kentucky is a very small team, but one of the best 3PT shooting team in the U.S. Stutz’s foul count could be the key to them covering a spread against the Kansas Jayhawks.
7. Deandre Bembry
Look for the afro on the court. Bembry reminds me of a young Sam Perkins. You’re not sure if he is a big or a guard. He will find himself in the paint when it’s time for offensive rebound for the team. He will sneak along the baseline when it’s time to knock down a twelve foot jumper. Bembry joins Kanacevic and Roberts Jr. on a very athletic front court for the Hawks. They can get above the rim. That’s why I believe Saint Joseph’s will make the actual Elite 8 with this one of my Eight Unkowns.
8. J.J. O’Brien – F – San Diego St.
O’Brien is the guy who you pick up on your team during pickup basketball because you actually want to win and hold the court. Fans who watch the Mountain West already know his name. I have credited coach Steve Fisher for training this Aztec defense as the best in the country for double-teaming. They confused Joel Embiid earlier in the year at Allen Fieldhouse during a win. J.J. O’Brien is usually the guy who comes over as the second defender, then quickly rotates to help side once the ball is passed opposite wing. I can see him knocking down a crucial and-one to catapolt the Aztecs into the Final Four. Right now I have Wisconsin in that region, but it could easily be San Diego St., Arizona or Oklahoma State. I am not believing in Creighton, Gonzaga, Oregon or Oklahoma as a Final Four team from that region.