The Sweet 16 of the men’s NCAA Tournament might not have the same appeal as the upset-filled first weekend of March Madness. But it’s when the dust settles and the remaining teams have defined themselves as the survivors of all the mayhem.
It’s also when the national title contenders separate from the happy-to-be-here teams. Or, following the theme of March Madness, when the national title favorites get upset by a team no one saw coming – such as Indiana’s bracket-shattering win over heavily favored Duke in 2002. In that game, Jared Jeffries exploded for 24 points and 15 rebounds.
There’s almost always a star player or catalyst in the second weekend who can put the team on his back to spearhead a victory to advance to the Elite Eight.
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A look at the top nine players to watch of the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis:
Franz Wagner, Michigan
The 6-9 point guard is garnering NBA attention for his length and playmaking. As important as big man Hunter Dickinson is to the Wolverines’ national title pursuits, it’s Wagner (12.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.0 apg) who can make an impact on both ends to drive momentum in Michigan’s favor.
Cameron Krutwig, Loyola
At 6-9, Krutwig is an old-school big man who leverages finesse footwork and operates best at the top of the key – where he can create for his teammates with underrated passing ability or outmaneuver a more athletic opponent. Krutwig’s 19 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and four steals in a win over No. 1 seed Illinois is a stat line he’ll need to replicate for the Ramblers to play into April.
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Jared Butler, Baylor
The first-team All-American is the central piece to this offense and the most important of a deep backcourt that’s arguably the best in this tournament. The 6-3 guard has always been able to score, leading the Bears with 16.9 points per game, but it’s been his facilitation for others that’s bolstered Baylor’s offense the most this season (improving from 3.1 assists per game in 2019-20 to 4.8 apg in 2020-21.)
Max Abmas, Oral Roberts
The nation’s leading scorer with 24.5 points per game, Abmas has taken a backseat in the spotlight to teammate Kevin Obanor. But Abmas’ ability to score at will and carve through defenses is what put the Golden Eagles here in the first place. Abmas is capable of erupting for a 30-point or 40-point game and it might take that to see Oral Roberts advance.
Buddy Boeheim, Syracuse
The Orange don’t even look like a No. 11 seed when the coach’s son is torching from beyond the arc. Boeheim’s instant offense has been the difference in Syracuse’s two NCAA Tournament wins over San Diego State and West Virginia. He scored 55 points and made 13 three-pointers combined in those games.
Evan Mobley, Southern California
The 7-footer and projected NBA draft lottery pick changes the game with his mere presence – protecting the rim and intimidating guard penetration with his fly-swatting blocks. Mobley has a high motor on offense, too, and will score double figures without needing many touches. The freshman averages 16.5 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting 58% from the floor.
Corey Kispert, Gonzaga
Arguably the best shooter in the nation, Kispert makes the big time shots for the ‘Zags from beyond the arc and mid-range. His shot-making on the wing will be crucial in Gonzaga staying undefeated to win it all. He averages 19.2 points and shoots 46% from three-point range.
Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton
The junior marksmen, who averages 15.7 points and 4.4 assists per game, is a threat from beyond the arc and the go-to player for coach Greg McDermott when this team needs a key bucket. He came up clutch in a first-round win over UC Santa Barbara and his offense generated a victory over Ohio to reach the Sweet 16.
Quentin Grimes, Houston
The junior guard transferred from Kansas and has found a perfect fit with the Cougars, leading the team in scoring with 18.1 points per game. His 22 points and nine rebounds helped Houston come back and edge Rutgers to avoid an upset in the second round.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.