It’s hard to believe, but we’re only a few nights of college hoops action from determining the Final Four and which teams will be battling for the national championship next weekend in Houston. While it’s never fair to say that the outcome of a game will be determined by a single player, it is fair to say that the eight players highlighted here will have a huge say on how the Sweet 16 gets cut in half to the Elite Eight and ultimately, which schools get to the Bayou City.
SAN DIEGO STATE vs. CONNECTICUT (West Regional, Thursday 6:15 p.m., CBS)
ALEX ORIAKHI, CONNECTICUT: UConn often plays with just one big man on the floor, and Oriakhi is the guy who gets most of the minutes. Although his scoring is inconsistent, he is generally a rugged rebounder.
He’ll need to stay out of foul trouble to keep the Aztecs from pounding the offensive glass with their big and athletic front line. After all, Kemba Walker won’t be able to utilize his open-floor brilliance if the Huskies can’t clear defensive rebounds.
FLORIDA vs. BYU (Southeast Regional, Thursday 6:27 p.m., TBS)
JACKSON EMERY, BYU: As much as Jimmer Fredette can seem like a one-man team, he’s at his best when his teammates are knocking down the open shots provided to them by his presence. Emery is the Cougars most reliable scoring option outside of Fredette.
He managed 16 points against Gonzaga, but he has struggled with his 3-point shot in the postseason. Florida will have its defense shifted heavily to Jimmer at all times, so Emery must make them pay for it.
DUKE vs. ARIZONA (West Regional, Thursday 8:45 p.m., CBS)
KYRIE IRVING, DUKE: This selection isn’t so much about this game as it is about the bigger tournament picture. I don’t think Duke can win its second straight title without Irving near the top of his game.
He had last weekend to shake off the rust caused by his long layoff. This game should provide a clearer picture of Irving’s status. If he comes out aggressively and puts the hurt on the Wildcats, the Blue Devils can stake a claim that they, not Ohio State, are the tourney favorites.
WISCONSIN vs. BUTLER (Southeast Regional, Thursday 8:57 p.m., TBS)
RONALD NORED, BUTLER: Nored’s defensive abilities helped to limit the shot attempts by Pitt’s Ashton Gibbs in Butler’s stunning upset of Pitt. He’ll be tasked this time around with the containment of Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor.
Taylor struggled through an ugly offensive effort against Kansas State, but his teammates bailed him out. He’s likely to shoot the ball much better this time around, so Nored must be pesky enough to make those shots as tough as possible.
NORTH CAROLINA vs. MARQUETTE (East Regional, Friday 6:15 p.m., CBS)
JIMMY BUTLER, NORTH CAROLINA: The only chance the Golden Eagles have in this one is if they can slow down the Tar Heels' high-octane attack. Many people assume that can only be achieved by taking time offensively, but getting to the free-throw line often is an effective tempo-control technique as well.
Butler gets to the line almost seven times per game, an impressive figure. If he can up that number to double-digits on Friday, North Carolina will be doing a lot more standing around than it prefers.
KANSAS vs. RICHMOND (Southwest Region, Friday 6:27 p.m., TBS)
JOSH SELBY, KANSAS: Most people have conceded this upset-riddled region to the Jayhawks, and, let’s face it, they’re probably right. This is another big-picture selection.
To win it all, I think Kansas will need to get production from Selby, the highly-touted freshman who started the year fast but has really struggled in the second half of the year as his playing time and confidence has dwindled. Friday’s game against the scrappy Spiders would be a great opportunity for Bill Self to get Selby involved again.
OHIO STATE vs. KENTUCKY (East Regional, Friday 8:45 p.m., CBS)
TERRENCE JONES, KENTUCKY: The freshman forward has been relatively quiet in the tourney so far while classmate Brandon Knight has stolen the headlines. But Jones presents an interesting matchup dilemma for the Buckeyes, who play undersized David Lighty at the four position for the majority of the time.
While Lighty is a fantastic defender, he could be victimized by Jones’ rebounding ability and overall length. Jones must exploit this advantage at every opportunity.
FLORIDA STATE vs. VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH (Southwest Regional, 8:57 p.m., TBS)
DERWIN KITCHEN, FLORIDA STATE: Kitchen is one of the most underrated performers left in this tourney, a point guard who does a little of everything for this Seminole squad. His main goal against the Rams will be tempo control and ball protection.
VCU is going to play its frenetic style of pressuring defense to try and get Florida State into a track meet. Kitchen must not only keep from turning it over but he must keep FSU focused on pounding the ball inside instead of taking quick, ill-advised shots.