You probably feel like you’ve watched dozens and dozens of hours of NCAA basketball over the last week. Maybe you have! I literally watched a full 40-hour workweek of 18- to 22-year-olds (I myself was born in 1923) throwing orange balls at a metal orange circle, and it felt GREAT.
As good as the first few four days are, things really get down to business with the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight, when the underdogs either turn into beautiful butterflies or remain awkward flustered tadpoles, and the favorites either justify their kingpin status or get cast to the curb like a leather skirt worn once by Kanye West. (Never mix your metaphors.)
Of course, when we’re talking basketball teams, we’re really talking basketball players. And these are the 11 players you must know before watching the Sweet 16, or else you might — will — die.
1. Tyrone Garland, LaSalle
“Shout out to my cousin Vern. Shout out to my mom. All y’all, man. We out here!” With those words, LaSalle’s Tyrone Garland immediately ascended into the pantheon of great post-game interviews, where he now sits alongside a statue of Kevin Garnett and a collection of Craig Sager’s blazers. Garland isn’t all bluster and smiles, though. He hit the game-winning layup against Ole Miss to send LaSalle to the Sweet 16, and he has really tremendous hair. Plus, he named his shot that beat Ole Miss the “Southwest Philly Floater,” and having a shot with a name is totally rad. It’s the basketball equivalent of christening your fists.
2. Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke
On a Duke team and in a Duke program that’s usually known for upperclassmen — Ryan Kelly, Seth Curry, and Mason Plumlee this year — Rasheed Sulaimon has become something of an outstanding character. In addition to not collapsing under the crushing, technical-earning weight of sharing a nickname with Rasheed Wallace, ‘Sheed scored 21 points in the Round of 32 against Creighton and provides a slashing, dynamic presence that Duke otherwise lacks. He’ll also prove essential in covering up for Seth Curry when Curry’s chronic shin injury gets the better of him. Also, he inspired the best college-newspaper headline of the year. [EDITOR’S NOTE: That headline makes no sense, and Michigan has been doing “That shit Trey” for at least a year now. Kevin is a dummy.]
3. Jeff Withey, Kansas
What’s 18 feet tall, has a boy-band haircut, and dunks like it’s trying to spike-drive a spike into the Earth’s core? Kansas’ own Jeff Withey! Withey is a he, not an it, but either way, the center has been one of the most consistent players on an up-and-down Kansas team that, if it can sustain one of those ups for long enough, should threaten for the national title. And even better than Withey’s dunks are his thunderous blocks.
4. Sherwood Brown, Florida Gulf Coast
Florida Gulf Coast University, aka Dunk City, aka Rap Game 15-Seed, aka Young Money Cash Money Fort Myers Billionaires, aka the Basketball Spring Breakers, a.k.a. Top Underdawgs Entertainment, is this year’s resident phenomenon. Not just the tournament; the entire YEAR. And while FGCU is nothing if not a team effort, the face of the movement has got to be young Sherwood Brown, who, along with coach/trophy husband Andy Enfield — supermodels get to have trophy husbands — has been the most visible representative of the Eagles. (Aside from that dude who danced like an Eagle on the sidelines.)
5. Victor Oladipo, Indiana
The big, goofy, stumbling face of Indiana tends to be Cody Zeller, the center who so exemplifies college basketball that the NCAA is considering extending his eligibility by another 15 years. But if you watched their win over Temple, you know the shot that sealed the deal came from Victor Oladipo, a junior guard. Oladipo’s a hyper-efficient scorer out of the Indiana backcourt — he shot 59% from the field this year, en route to 13.6 points per game — and is a big part of one of the nation’s best offenses during the regular season. When that offense does struggle, a la the Temple game, Oladipo’s the best bet to give it an adrenaline shot.
6. Shane Larkin, Miami
Shane Larkin is Barry Larkin’s kid. You know, Barry Larkin. Ever heard of him? Of course you have: He’s a Hall of Fame shortstop, a World Series winner, a — oh, wait, you haven’t heard of him? Weird. Well, he was good at baseball. No, I know you shouldn’t have to know about baseball when you’re reading a basketball story, I’m sorry. Anyway, his kid plays for Miami, and the dude is as exciting as any guard in the country, possessed of a solid jump shot as well as incredible athleticism. Miami as a whole is a thrilling and explosive team, and Larkin’s its curly-haired, shortstop-sired captain.
7. Aaron Craft, Ohio State
Showing Aaron Craft resting, likely after driving himself to total exhaustion, is the most fitting way to show him, because Aaron Craft spends most of his time driving himself to total exhaustion. Craft, Ohio State’s point guard and spiritual leader, plays with the tenacity and freneticism of a chipmunk that got into Marv Albert’s drug stash. This came to a head last week, when Craft drew a (very questionable) charge and then hit the game-winner against Iowa State despite spending most of the earlier parts of the game turning the ball over. Big-time tournament players have short memories; Craft’s memory might be shorter than that aforementioned chipmunk’s. In a good way.
8. Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan
Tim Hardaway Jr.’s dad is Tim Hardaway, who is also a basketball player, or was. (I cannot attest to whether or not Tim Hardaway still plays basketball.) And on a Michigan team quarterbacked by Trey Burke, one of the best players in the nation, Hardaway J — my nickname for Hardaway Jr., since it rhymes — gives the Wolverines one of those guys who can score in droves but isn’t the primary offensive threat. That’s the type of luxury that usually pushes a team from “Oh, word, this squad is pretty good” territory into “HAHAHAHA LOOK THEY JUST SCORED 200 POINTS.” When Hardaway J is on, Michigan’s the latter.
9. Mark Lyons, Arizona
Mark Lyons has had an interesting path to the Sweet 16. He was at Xavier; then he transferred to Arizona, following the coach who had recruited him to Xavier in the first place. He’s currently playing what will be his one and only season in a Wildcats uniform. Lyons is one of those guys who has, deserving or not, been trailed by a sour reputation for the last few years, but he’s doing wonders to shed it during what’s been a potent Tourney run so far: 50 points total in ‘Zona’s first two games.
10. Russ Smith, Louisville
If you make a good case for being the best scorer on the nation’s best team, you automatically belong on this list. Russ Smith also belongs on this list for being an absolute rifle: Smith has dropped 50 on 31 shots so far this March as Louisville steamrolled the poor kids who got in their way. They’ve got Oregon next, which could be a repeat of the same or an actual challenge — Oregon’s become the archetypal team with a chip on its shoulder thanks to their probably-too-low No. 12 seed — but if Smith keeps firing as effectively as he has been, Louisville should remain pretty hard to beat.
11. Vander Blue, Marquette
Vander Blue hit the game-winning shot against Davidson that capped Marquette’s phenomenal comeback.
But most importantly: He has the perfect name.
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