The Sweet 16's most indispensable players
March, 26, 2013
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com
USA TODAY SportsTrey Burke, Jeff Withey and Cody Zeller are big reasons their teams are in the Sweet 16.College basketball differs from the pro game in innumerable ways, so for now let's just focus on one: the importance of stars.
In the NBA, especially in the postseason, star power is everything; you can't win a title without at least two All-Stars, preferably three, and hopefully one of them is the world-eating monolith named LeBron James.
The college game is a totally different beast. Sure, having future pros on your team is a good indication of postseason success, but rare is the modern college player so purely talented and savvy and dominant that he can single-handedly carry a team to a title, even against a field comparably depleted of talent. The last time we got close -- when Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to the title in 2003 -- came before the one-and-done rule (essentially) forced prep stars to spend a year in college. The most talented player of the one-and-done era thus far was Kevin Durant, a 6-foot-9 guard who shot 41 percent from 3, averaged 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, swept the relevant national player of the year awards and made everyone wonder which tier in space and time had been ripped open to allow a clearly inhuman species the opportunity to play basketball that well. Durant's Longhorns lost to USC in the second round of the 2007 NCAA tournament.
The 2012 Kentucky Wildcats don't apply. Sure, they were highlighted by freshmen, but they were buffeted by sophomores and led by an unselfish senior who willingly came off the bench. They were incredible, but not as revolutionary as you might think
Anyway, this is not a value judgment; it's just how things work. Having savvy seniors who'll never sniff the NBA can change the nature of the postseason just as much as a singular All-Star Weekend-bound talent. It's just where we are in the sport right now.
But that doesn't mean every college player is replaceable. Quite the opposite. In many cases, a handful of this year's Sweet 16 participants rely on players who are utterly indispensable.
Let's look at just five:
1. Trey Burke, Michigan Wolverines: To say Michigan wouldn't be where it is without Burke is like saying you wouldn't be able to read this pixelated text without your eyes, or that I wouldn't have been able to write it without caffeine. He is the computing platform on which the Wolverines run, and without him they would be little more than a Big Blue Screen of Death. It's all pretty obvious stuff, but just in case you need a bit of hard evidence: Burke uses 29.1 percent of the Wolverines' possessions but scores efficiently (51.4 percent from 2, 38.7 percent from 3) all while assisting on 37.1 percent of the possessions he uses. Your average college guard is good at one of these things -- he scores in volume, but not efficiently, or he runs his team's offense but can't shoot, or any combination therein -- but Burke has managed to master it all, keying the second-most-efficient offense in the country and one that turns it over less frequently than any other.
Or, if you're a visual learner, go watch Michigan shred VCU -- a defense that existed and succeeded solely based on its ability to force turnovers -- one more time. Or type "Trey Burke step-back jumper" into your search engine of choice (mine's Altavista). If the Wolverines are going to knock off No. 1-seeded Kansas on Friday night, here's your reason why.
2. Jeff Withey, Kansas. If you took Withey away from Kansas, what would you have? You would have a couple of really good senior guards (Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford), a lottery-pick-level scorer on the wing (Ben McLemore) and a handful of 6-foot-8 or smaller forwards. That's a pretty good team. It is not a national title contender. Here's what you wouldn't have: defense. The Jayhawks ranked among the best defenses in the country this season because they allowed the lowest effective field goal percentage, because they in turn allowed the lowest 2-point field goal percentage, because (deep breath) Withey is an incredible shot-blocker. Kansas opponents shoot 38.7 percent from inside the arc against the Jayhawks. Withey's roving rim protection allows the Jayhawks to get up and into their assignments on the perimeter, safe in the knowledge that even if they get beat, their opponent will usually pull up for the most inefficient shot in basketball: the midrange jumper. That shot-blocking also allowed Kansas to wield the fourth-ranked offense in its own league and still end up with a No. 1 seed. Not too shabby, eh?
3. Cody Zeller, Indiana. Victor Oladipo has long since begun to garner more of the headlines, and not undeservedly so, and that isn't about to change just a few days after Oladipo's late 3-pointer sealed IU's squeaky second-round win. But if you really dig into what the Hoosiers do, it's not hard to see why Zeller is the player they could least afford to lose: their No. 1-ranked offense basically depends on him. It may not always look like it, but Zeller leads the Hoosiers in usage and does so efficiently, and his production this season -- 185-of-245 from the free throw line, 192-of-333 from the field, 12.5 percent offensive rebounding rate, seven fouls drawn per 40 minutes -- just so happen to be all of the areas (shooting, offensive rebounding, free throw attempts) that power the Hoosiers' offensive attack. It's not often a preseason player of the year ends the season underappreciated, but it appears to be happening here.
4. Brett Comer, Florida Gulf Coast. You can accuse me of getting caught up in FGCU fever if you want to, and hey -- guilty as charged! Everything about FGCU is incredible, right down to the student managers. Oh, but guess what? Comer is actually an incredible passer. You can see evidence of this in any of the dozens of highlights FGCU has created during its postseason run, almost all of which begin with Comer throwing passes with Larry Bird-level intuition and style. You can also see it in the numbers: Comer's assist rate -- the percentage of his possessions that wind up as assists -- is 43.9 percent, third highest in the country. That's higher than any player left in the tournament, including Burke and Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams. There's a reason Comer ended up at FGCU: He can't shoot. But what he can do -- find guys on the break, trick defenders into overcommitting, hit lobs with pinpoint accuracy -- is where this whole Dunk City thing gets its start. Recognize.
5. Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State. Ohio State's 10-game winning streak since mid-February has been powered by two things: (A) an improvement from "very good" to "downright horrifying" team defense, and (B) a marked increase in secondary scoring contributions from Sam Thompson, Lenzelle Smith, LaQuinton Ross and Aaron Craft. But let's not forget that "secondary" infers a primary, in this case Thomas. For most of the season, Thomas did almost all of the Buckeyes' offensive work (my personal favorite was a loss at Michigan State, when he scored 28 points and no other Buckeye scored more than six), and usually excelled no matter what kind of defensive pressure opposing defenses applied. He took 32.3 percent of his team's shots this season, went 50 percent from inside the arc and 35 percent outside it (and 83.6 percent from the free throw line) and, despite all of those possessions, almost never turns the ball over. Even now, as Ross flashes his immense potential and Thompson goes hunting dunks and Craft pulls last-second 3s out of whatever place Craft comes up with those sorts of things, trying to imagine the Buckeyes without Thomas is difficult. He's a baseline need. Without him, they'd be lost.
Honorable mentions: Mason Plumlee, Russ Smith, Oladipo, Patric Young, Craft, Carter-Williams, Jerrell Wright, Ryan Kelly, Vander Blue, Shane Larkin, Mark Lyons, Cleanthony Early, Gary Harris, Arsalan Kazemi.