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Sports fans across the nation will have their eyes glued to their television sets watching the Men’s NCAA Final Four this weekend, and I will certainly be among them. Thousands of others will descend upon Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis to watch four teams compete for a national championship and eternal glory. Michigan State, Butler, West Virginia, and Duke are all that remains of the 65 team field that participated in what may have been the most exciting NCAA Tournament ever.
To get you ready for the games on Saturday, I’ve compiled a list of the eight key players to watch for.
Singler is the heart and soul of the Duke Blue Devils. One of the top five college recruits of the 2007 class, the 6’8″ forward has been a starter at Duke since his freshman year. He could have declared for the NBA draft after averaging 13.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game in his sophomore season, but a loss to West Virginia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament left a bitter taste in his mouth, motivating him to return for another season. Singler, averaging 17.6 points 6.9 rebounds this season, has a chance for redemption on Saturday. Look for him to play with a BIG chip on his shoulder against the Mountaineers.
Like his teammate Kyler Singler, Jon Scheyer can do a little bit of everything on the basketball court. After playing shooting guard throughout the 2008-2009 season, the 6’5″ Scheyer transitioned to playing point guard for Blue Devils this season. After starting in only one game his sophomore season, Scheyer was named the team’s Co-Captain this past fall, and in December, he became the first Duke player to record 1,400 points, 400 rebounds, 250 assists, 200 three-point field goals, and 150 steals for a career. Scheyer will have to take care of the ball, share it, and make some big three-point baskets on Saturday for Duke to have a chance to advance.
Butler is one of the rare college basketball stars who stays around for his senior season; and with a chance to knock off Duke in the Final Four, and play in the national championship game, I’m pretty sure he feels he made the right decision. At 6’7″ and 230 pounds, Butler is somewhat of a hybrid player. He rotates between guard and forward depending on match-ups. He’s a natural scorer and rebounder, averaging 17.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in 2009-2010. In the opening game of the Big East Tournament versus Cincinnati, Butler banked home a game-winning three-pointer with no time left. In the Big East Championship, he once again hit a game-winning shot to upend #22 Georgetown giving the Mountaineers their first ever Big East title. Butler has continued his hot-streak in the Tournament, scoring 28 points against Missouri in the second round and 18 in a win over one-seed Kentucky in the Elite-Eight.
While Butler provides leadership and experience, sophomore forward Devin Ebanks provides a youthful vigor, length, and athleticism. At 6’9″ with incredibly long arms, Ebanks is a formidable presence in the post. He’s currently averaging 12 points, 8.2 rebounds, and just under one block per game. Ebanks and teammate Wellington Smith held the Kentucky duo of DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson to a combined 23 points in the Elite-Eight. Ebanks will have another challenge on Saturday matching up against Duke’s 7’1″ Brian Zoubek and the Plumlee brothers.
Having not had a chance to see much of Butler in the regular season, I was blown away by the play of point guard Shelvin Mack in the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament. This guy really has all of the tools. He’s got size (6’3″, 215), athleticism, a great jump shot (he’s averaging 14.2 points per game), and leadership skills (and he’s only a sophomore!). He dropped 25 on UTEP in the opening round, connecting on seven three-pointers, diced up Syracuse for 14, and put up 16 against Kansas State. He’ll have a favorable matchup on Saturday against a much smaller Korie Lucious (5’11″), and could have a monster game against the Spartans.
Hayward’s outstanding play in this year’s Tournament more than likely elevated him to future first-round NBA draft prospect status. If you’re an NBA Scout, you’ve got to absolutely love this guy. He’s 6’9″, super athletic, long, has a great jump shot, and can drive to the hoop and score whenever he feels like it. Hayward initially learned to play as a guard, but after a freakish growth spurt (he grew eight inches in high school), he’s got the size of a power forward. The Butler forward averaged 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game as a freshman, but it took an NCAA Tourney appearance to really put him on the map. He was top five in the Horizon League in rebounding and scoring this season, and led the league in defensive rebounding. Consequently he was named the Horizon League Player of the Year. Will the MVP of the West Region be able to continue his NBA-level play against Tom Izzo’s defense? We shall see.
Raymar Morgan encapsulates Michigan State’s 2009-2010 season: maddeningly inconsistent, but dynamite in the NCAA Tournament. The 6’8″ 230 pound Spartans forward is averaging 11.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game this season. He put up an impressive 13 point 10 rebound effort against Wayne Chism and Tennessee in the Elite Eight. Michigan State will need another double-double effort from Morgan against Butler to have a shot at advancing.
Like Gordon Hayward, Durrell Summers significantly elevated his NBA Draft stock with his play in this year’s Tournament. After a quiet regular season, Summers has blown up in the Tourney scoring in double figures in all four of Michigan State’s wins. He dropped 26 on Maryland and scored 21 in the win over Tennessee in the absence of key contributor Kalin Lucas. Summer’s leaping ability is second to none. Look for him to have at least one monster alley-oop slam dunk against Butler on Saturday.