For those who watch the NCAA tournament partly to get a good last look at the summer's top NBA draft prospects, you may be out of luck. In a historic year for freshmen, we've already said goodbye to the three who led our mock draft at the start of the tournament.
But just because many of the game's high-profile freshmen are gone, along with other stars like Doug McDermott and Marcus Smart, doesn't mean the remaining field is lacking talent. Teams like Florida in particular have showed the value of experience in NCAA tournament play, whle Kentucky and its lineup filled with freshmen is finally proving that a one-and-done fueled team can get it together before April. As the Sweet 16 kicks off Thursday night, here we identify the most valuable players (plus a couple coaches) left, the ones who may ultimately decide who advances to the Final Four in Texas, and who ultimately cuts down the nets.
Guard: Shabazz Napier, Connecticut. Three years ago, UConn rebounded from a disastrous final month of the season to win the Big East tournament as the No. 9 seed, then rolled through the NCAA tournament as a No. 3, beating Butler in one of the least memorable college basketball games ever to win a national championship. Mostly, it did this behind guard Kemba Walker. But Napier was there too, just a freshman, scoring 7.8 points per game. The comparisons may be unfair, but they're also impossible to avoid. Time after time, Napier has come through with big plays in important moments, developing into one of the most valuable players in the country. He leads the Huskies in scoring at 17.8 points per game, steals at 1.8 and assists at 4.9 and rebounds at 5.9. He may be undersized, but the offense flows through him at the point, and he constantly comes up big when the Huskies need him.
Guard: Russ Smith, Louisville. College basketball fans can all be happy another year of Smith in a Cardinals uniform happened. After winning the national title last year, Smith appeared to be gone, but he ultimately decided to return in pursuit of back-to-back national titles as one of the most exciting players in the game. That can be both good or bad, as he can play recklessly at times, but he's an aggressive defender, excellent in transition and he can score in a hurry, putting up 42 in the American Athletic tournament semifinals.
Forward: Adreian Payne, Michigan State. Payne isn't exactly a consistent offensive star, but when he's locked in, the senior can be impossible to contain. He proved that against Delaware last Thursday, when he scored 41 points, going 4-of-5 from three-point range and hitting all 17 of his free-throw attempts. At 6-foot-10, 245 pounds, Payne is an inside-out force, capable of playing physical basketball underneath but also giving flexibility to the Spartans offense by stretching defenses with his shooting range.
Forward: Julius Randle, Kentucky. Watching a locked-in Randle is something to behold, and now he's carrying the flag as the best freshman left in the tournament before he becomes a top-five pick in the NBA draft. He scored 19 and 13 in the two tournament games so far, and he's also totaled 25 rebounds and even had six assists in the dramatic win over Wichita State. Randle may be only 19 years old, but he looks the part of an NBA player already, and he's the best player on a young but supremely talented Kentucky team that may finally be hitting its stride after months of uneven play.
Forward: Kyle Anderson, UCLA. It's easy to be wary of UCLA's potential to beat Florida, given that its two NCAA wins have come against Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin, and it got blown out by Washington State in its final regular season game. But in between, the Bruins beat Oregon, Stanford and Arizona to win the Pac-12 championship, with Anderson, a sophomore, continuing to prove how vital he is to their success. A 6-foot-9 wing, Anderson does everything for UCLA, averaging 14.7 points per game, along with 8.7 rebounds and 6.5 assists -- ranking first and third in the Pac-12 in the latter two categories, respectively. Anderson's combination of size and versatility makes him the type of modern basketball star who will easily find a place in the NBA.
Coach: Tom Izzo, Michigan State. Izzo has only one national championship, and that happened in 2000, but is there anyone you'd rather have at the end of your bench in the NCAA tournament? While the Spartans were a No. 4 seed, they're undoubtedly one of the two or three most talented teams in the game, when healthy. They are now, meaning Izzo stands a good chance of getting seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne to their first Final Four -- like every other recruiting class Izzo has landed since landing the Michigan State job in 1996.
Guard: Xavier Thames, San Diego State. A great defensive team needs someone to score, so fortunately the Aztecs have Thames to do most of the heavy lifting. A 6-foot-3 senior who began his career at Washington State, Thames really elevated his game as a senior, shooting 38 percent from three-point range and 83 percent from the free-throw line to average 17.4 points per game, while also protecting the basketball. He's taken on an even bigger share of the load in the NCAA tournament, scoring 23 points in the overtime win over New Mexico State and following with 30 in a 63-44 blowout of North Dakota State.
Guard: Nik Stauskas, Michigan. The Big Ten's player of the year is more than just a three-point sharpshooter, but that's what he's most known for, for good reason: Seven of his nine field goals in the NCAA tournament have come from long range, making him a perfect fit for John Beilein's Wolverines offense. Stauskas doesn't have Trey Burke to distribute the ball to him this year, but that also means more of the scoring load has been on his shoulders -- especially with big man Mitch McGary hurt. Stauskas has responded by averaging 17.4 points per game as a sophomore, making a staggering 45 percent of his 178 three-point attempts (which ranked fourth in the Big Ten).
Guard: DeAndre Kane, Iowa State. The actual game-winning shot kind of got lost in the bizarre timeout/clock controversy at the end of the Round of 32 win over North Carolina, but it was Kane who sliced through the defense and got to the basket to send the Tar Heels home and propel the Cyclones to New York for their first Sweet 16 since 2000. Melvin Ejim is the Cyclones' leading scorer and led the Big 12, but Kane isn't far behind at 17 points per game, shooting 49 percent from the field and leading the conference in assists. A 6-foot-4 senior, Kane scored 24 in beating North Carolina.
Forward: Aaron Gordon, Arizona. The best candidate for "best freshman left" behind Julius Randle. The 6-foot-8 forward is an inconsistent scorer, but he fits perfectly into the Arizona system as a strong defender and excellent rebounder. In the Wildcats' dominant win over Gonzaga in the Round of 32, Gordon made 8 of 10 field goals, scored 18 points, grabbed six rebounds and had six assists and four steals in his best all-around game of the season. With Brandon Ashley out, Arizona needed Gordon to fill an even bigger role, and the soon-to-be top-10 draft pick is coming through for the Wildcats.
Forward: Patric Young, Florida. There has to be room for defense here, and nobody is more intimidating in the post than the 6-foot-9 senior Young. Players like Payne and Doug McDermott get a lot of attention for their versatility and range, as they should, but Young serves a valuable purpose for the Gators as a physical presence who protects the rim as well as anyone. Plus, it's not like he's irrelevant on offense either, as he averages 10.9 points per game in addition to his 6.3 rebounds.
Coach: Billy Donovan, Florida. Donovan has missed the tournament four times, sure, but two of those years were his first two at Florida, and the other two were easily forgiven because all he did was win back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007. The Gators haven't reached the Final Four since, but they've made three straight regional finals, losing each. Now, if they can get past UCLA, a win over Dayton or Stanford seems very, very likely for the top overall seed to get back to the Final Four.