Mar 19, 2014, 2:10 PM EDT
A presence in the paint can go a long way this time of year. Look no further than last year’s national title game. Gorgui Dieng manned the frontline for national champion Louisville. In the title game the Cardinals topped Michigan, which had freshman center Mitch McGary emerge as the tournament’s breakout star.
Here’s a look at 12 of the most important wing forwards in the 2014 NCAA Tournament:
Adreian Payne, Michigan State — One of three key players for Michigan State who dealt with injuries this season, but we’ve seen how dangerous Sparty can be when healthy. Payne averaged 15.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game while shooting 51 percent from the field and stretching out the opposing frontcourts, hitting 42 percent of his threes. He and Keith Appling will try and keep Tom Izzo’s streak of seniors reaching the Final Four alive.
Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico — The Lobos won the Mountain West Conference Tournament and a big reason to their success this season has been Bairstow’s improvement. He went from 9.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game as a junior to 20.3 and 7.4 a night as a senior, and can be tough to defend on the block. With Bairstow, fellow big man Alex Kirk and 2013 Mountain West Player of the Year, Kendall Williams, it isn’t crazier to think New Mexico could reach the Elite 8.
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville — There were big expectations from Harrell to go from role player to star and the sophomore forward has not disappointed. He’s recorded five double-doubles in Louisville’s last 11 games and is posting averages of 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. In the Midwest Region, you won’t find many bigs as physical as Harrell. Teams like Wichita State and Duke could have trouble stopping him inside.
Frank Kaminksy, Wisconsin — This is a different offensive team than Wisconsin has had in the past. A main reason for that is the emergence of Kaminsky. The junior center only logged a little over 10 minutes a game for the Badgers last season, but this year he’s given them a versatile frontcourt option. He can score down low, and he can stretch the defense with deep shooting. Will he help the Wisconsin offensive attack get Bo Ryan to his first Final Four?
Patric Young, Florida — While he won’t necessarily intimidate anyone with his offensive skill set, he’s is a force down low on defense in a big frontline for the Gators. The SEC Defensive Player of the Year is one of the best post defenders in the country with the size and foot speed to gain position on the block and in the paint. Florida has a roster where players know their roles. Young is no exception.
James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina — The Tar Heels have been hot and cold this season, and enter the tournament with two straight losses with a matchup against a Providence riding the momentum of a Big East Tournament championship. When Marcus Paige and McAdoo, who is averaging 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, are on, North Carolina is a sleeper in the East Region.
Sam Dower, Gonzaga — Marcus Smart has played well since returning from suspension, but Oklahoma State is in for a challenge in the Round of 64. Without Michael Cobbins, the Pokes will have a disadvantage inside against Gonzaga’s Sam Dower. After averaging 15.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting 59 percent from the field, the Zags forward could be in for a huge first game of the NCAA tournament.
Cory Jefferson, Baylor — Take away the Big 12 Tournament loss to Iowa State and Jefferson had a string of really good games, posting three straight double-doubles. He and Isaiah Austin are playing well together for a team that dug itself in the conference basement earlier this season. Jefferson and the Bears can bust some brackets with their size on the frontline.
Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee — The Volunteers haven’t even reached the Round of 64 as they take on Iowa in the First Four on Wednesday. The junior forward could be a big reason why Tennessee could advance to play UMass. Stokes is averaging a double-double per game and can control the defensive glass against the Hawkeyes.
Joel Embiid, Kansas* — He entered Lawrence with a high ceiling, which quickly turned into the projected top overall draft pick in 2014. However, Embiid has been sidelined with a back injury, putting Kansas’ title hopes in question. Embiid went for 18 points, six rebound and blocked four shots against New Mexico in the regular season back in December. That’s a potential Round of 32 game and without him in the lineup, the Lobo frontline (mentioned above) could send the Jayhawks home early.
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