When the game is on the line and your NCAA Tournament life is at stake, you want the ball in the hands of someone that can take over. That can also be the difference in moving on or heading home.
Each team left in the men’s field has a leading scorer. But not every one has a leading personality that accepts the challenge of carrying his team into the next round by taking the big shot or making the key pass or defensive play. That difference-maker for several teams didn’t necessarily start the tournament as an All-American or the team’s star.
A look at eight unappreciated breaktout players in the field when the tournament resumes Saturday.
Johnny Juzang, UCLA
The Bruins entered the tournament with a four-game losing streak, partly because Juzang was dealing with an injured ankle that limited him and eventually sidelined him for the season-finale against Southern California. The rest did him well as he has scored 67 points on 26-for-51 shooting in three wins. The Bruins will need his hot hand to continue against Alabama.
Kevin Obanor, Oral Roberts
It isn’t easy to get attention alongside the nation’s leading scorer. That’s the situation for Obanor, who is teammates with Max Abmas. And while Abmas is averaging 27.5 points this tournament, it is Obanor who has led the Golden Eagles in scoring and rebounding as they posted two improbable victories as a No. 15 seed. Another indication of how important is the big man to the team? Obanor has played all 85 minutes of the two wins.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova
More was going to be needed from Robinson-Earl in the tournament with the Wildcats without second-leading scorer Collin Gilliespie. He has delivered, averaging 20 points and almost tripling his usual assist rate with 6 per game in two victories. That’s the mark of team player and has Villanova two wins from another Final Four with a showdown with Baylor ahead.
Matthew Mayer, Baylor
The success of the Bears all season has mostly been placed at the feet of their veteran three guards that score, distribute and defend. However, you need five on the court at all time. And you need players off the bench to step up when someone is off their game. That’s where Mayer comes in. The junior guard was crucial in Baylor’s defeat of Wisconsin as he scored a team-high 17 points – more than double his season’s average. He’s also added 15 rebounds in the two victories so far. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t even honorable mention all-conference.
Chaundee Brown, Michigan
Brown went literally from a zero to a hero in this tournament. After going scoreless in the team’s opening victory against Texas Southern, he put up a season-high 21 points in a tight win against LSU. More impressively, 14 of the team-high 21 came in the second half with the game on the line, showing how Brown might be critical for the Wolverines to advance with second-leading scorer Isaiah Livers.
Lucas Williamson, Loyola Chicago
A senior, Williamson picked the right time to play his best basketball of the season. He started with a season-high 21 points against Georgia Tech in the opening round and then followed that with 14 points in the surprise upset of No. 1 Illinois. Perhaps his biggest contribution from the upset of the Illini was his role in defending All-American Ayo Dosunmu, who managed just nine points. It was his lowest point total of the season.
Isaiah Mobley, Southern California
Playing with a younger brother who is the Pac-12 player of the year could be frustrating to even the most positive players. Yet Mobley has found his niche in this NCAA Tournament. Only fourth on the team in scoring in the regular season, he has scored 32 points – more than any other Trojans player – in victories against Drake and Kansas. His ability to stretch defenses with three-point shooting and his size inside is valuable commodity.
Joseph Girard III, Syracuse
If you only look at points in the box score, you’re missing the bigger picture. Guys like Girard are vital to a team’s success and its demonstrated as he leads the team in rebounding and assists during the tournament while also averaging 12 points per game. Not a bad deal for Orange’s smallest starter at 6-1. Buddy Boeheim gets a lot of attention for making threes, but its Girard that often sets him up. More of that will be needed against Houston.