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Looking at the top lead guards in the 2014 NCAA Tournament

Mar 19, 2014, 9:23 AM EDT

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Solid play from the point guard position is a crucial component of an NCAA Tournament run and if you’re a fan of the lead guard position, then you’ll be really happy watching this year’s tournament. There are a number of talented point guards all across the field, including rock-solid seniors like Scottie Wilbekin from Florida and Bryce Cotton from Providence, or newcomers on the scene like Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis.

Here’s a look at 12 lead guards to watch in the 2014 NCAA Tournament:

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Keith Appling, Michigan State – Other players for No. 4 seed Michigan State may be more talented or have better pro futures, but Appling is the engine that makes the Spartans go. Now that he appears to be fully healthy, Appling’s athleticism makes him a completely different player and he averaged 12.3 points, 4.6 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game this season. He also nabbed 1.3 steals a game and shot 45 percent from the field and 37 percent from the three-point line. If Appling has a weakness, it’s consistency and his shaky 65 percent free-throw shooting.

Bryce Cotton, Providence – A favorite among college basketball fans and analysts, Cotton played an unbelievable amount of minutes for Providence this season while also putting up tremendous numbers. Cotton played at least 40 minutes in an astounding 21 games this year as he averaged 39.9 minutes a game. The senior played played 50 minutes four times,  45 minutes twice and had an additional 15 games of 40 minutes. Those prolonged minutes helped Cotton average 21.4 points, 5.8 assists, and 3.5 rebounds for No. 11 seed Providence.

Aaron Craft, Ohio State – Hate him or love him, Craft is one of the best floor leaders and two-way guards in this tournament. Although he struggles to shoot from the perimeter at 30 percent on the season, Craft is still a dynamic on-the-ball defender who can harass an opposing point guard the length of the floor. Craft averaged 9.6 points, 4.7 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.5 steals on the year. The senior is also effective in bonus situations because of his ability to draw fouls and knock in free throws at a 73 percent clip. But if No. 6 seed Ohio State is going to make a run, they need Craft to be more consistent on the offensive end and limit turnovers.

Tyler Ennis, Syracuse – One of the best freshman in the country, Ennis was a key member of No. 3 seed Syracuse’s team for the entire season as the Canadian import averaged 12.7 points, 5.6 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 2.1 steals a game. Although his defense is a bit of an unknown thanks to Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, Ennis has been one of the biggest weapons in the country on the offensive end thanks to his ability to get in the paint and find open teammates or score for himself.

DeAndre Kane, Iowa State – In his first year in Ames after transferring from Marshall, Kane had an All-American season for the Cyclones as the senior averaged 17 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists a game this season. Kane also shot 49 percent from the field and 39 percent from three-point range and he’s the kind of player that wants the ball in his hands during big moments in a game. Kane will be a big reason why No. 3 seed Iowa State has big dreams this March.

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Shabazz Napier, UConn – Another senior All-American, Napier is perhaps the best clutch performer in the country thanks to his heroic shooting prowess and his knack for stepping up in big games. Who can forget the buzzer-beater to lead UConn past Florida — which is also the last time the Gators lost this season? Napier also led No. 7 seed UConn in points, rebounds and assists as he averaged 17.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. The senior is also a rock-solid shooter at 39 percent from the three-point line and 85 percent from the free-throw line on the season.

Marcus Paige, North Carolina – No. 6 seed North Carolina would not be where it is today without the improved play of sophomore Marcus Paige. Paige averaged 17.4 points, 4.3 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game this season while also saving the Tar Heels from the free throw line with his 88 percent shooting from there. Paige’s first-round matchup with Providence point guard Bryce Cotton might be the best individual match-up that we see in the Round of 64.

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State – Although he’s been mired in controversy this season for fan shoving incident at Texas Tech and his penchant for flopping, Smart is still one of the most talented players in the country and Oklahoma State has played well since he returned from suspension. Smart averaged 17.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.8 steals per game, but his 30 percent three-point shooting and penchant for bad shots can sometimes hurt him. Oklahoma State is one of the more dangerous No. 9 seeds in recent memory if Smart plays like he’s capable of playing on both ends of the floor.

Russ Smith, Louisville – “Russdiculous” has fine-tuned his game in his senior season and he’s a big reason why No. 4 seed Louisville is a favorite to make a third consecutive trip to the Final Four. Smith’s scoring went slightly down this season from 18.7 points to 18.3 points per game, but his assists jumped from 2.9 to 4.7 a game and his shooting percentages skyrocketed. Smith is now much better with shot selection as a senior and it showed when he shot 47 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range this season. Last year as a junior he shot 41 percent from the field and 32 percent from three-point range.

Xavier Thames, San Diego State – The Mountain West Player of the Year, Thames averaged 16.8 points, 3.2 assists and 3 rebounds per game this season for No. 4 seed San Diego State. But, like Russ Smith, Thames did a nice job of improving his field goal percentages in his senior season as those numbers jumped to 41 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point line after a junior season of 35 percent from the floor and 35 percent from distance.

Fred VanVleet, Wichita State – Wichita State sophomore point guard Fred VanVleet isn’t the biggest or flashiest name on this list, but he’s the type of point guard that values winning above all else. The No. 1 seed Shockers are so consistent in-part thanks to VanVleet’s consistency as he averaged 12.1 points, 5.3 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game. He’s also an outstanding shooter that takes smart shots as VanVleet shot 49 percent from the field, 44 percent from three and 82 percent from the free-throw line.

Scottie Wilbekin, Florida – Last but not least comes senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin of the No. 1 overall seed Florida Gators. Wilbekin was a big-time performer in clutch situations for the Gators this season while averaging 13 points, 3.8 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game while running Florida’s offense. Wilbekin also shot 40 percent from three-point range and is a decent free-throw shooter at 72 percent. Although his field goal percentage is only 39 percent from the field, Wilbekin doesn’t take too many bad shots and he’s usually steady with the ball in his hands.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Jahii Carson, Arizona State
  • Semaj Christon, Xavier*
  • Langston Galloway, Saint Joseph’s
  • Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette
  • Chaz Williams, UMass

* Eliminated in First Four

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