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Prospect Watch: NBA talent to watch in round one

In a week of round-the-clock basketball, we give you the games to keep an eye on as the NCAA tournament opens.

SEC Basketball Tournament - Second Round Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

For fans of NBA teams that sit at the bottom of the standings, the month of March can be the strangest basketball tug-of-war experience. On the one hand, you’re taking your damaged corneas that have endured five months of soul searching basketball, and drag them to the finish line — while at the same time, getting to watch the most exciting tournament in sports, where the brightest lights of the future of the league battle it out for three weekends.

We’re here. We’ve made it.

Thursday kicks off the NCAA tournament proper (Tuesday and Wednesday gave us the four play-in games in Dayton), and if you’re savvy enough, you can catch 32 basketball games over the next 48 hours. Here at Prospect Watch, we will try to highlight some of the best matchups of future NBA talent. It won’t always be the top of the draft class, but the best talent in the most interesting games of the day. There is plenty of time to dig in and dissect their numbers, but for now, here’s a taste of what the next two days hold.

We’ll be back Saturday morning diving in to round two. Now on to round one!

Tip-off times are approximate

THURSDAY

Miami vs Loyola-Chicago - 2:10 CT (TruTV)

The Hurricane have been without their best player, Bruce Brown Jr., since January after what was assumed to be a season-ending injury. Because of the injury, and a dip in production in his sophomore season, Brown figures to be available in the early second round of the draft. He’s the sort of multi-faceted wing that every NBA team needs. There’s some thought that he could be available in the tournament if Miami advances, so keep an eye out.

For now, Miami will have to rely on a supporting cast, led by freshman shooting guard Lonnie Walker. Though he had a rough start, Walker has been Miami’s best player since conference play began. His numbers don’t jump off the page, but his length, athleticism, and raw talent should make him a late lottery pick. He could use a strong tournament showing to solidify that spot, but the Canes have a tough test in round one against a veteran Loyola squad.

Ohio St. vs South Dakota St - 3 CT (TNT)

If you’re a college basketball or draft junkie, Keita Bates-Diop has long been on your watch list for the tournament. And to give you an even deeper cut, KBD’s possible matchup opposite South Dakota State’s star, Mike Daum, has you locked in for a Thursday afternoon tip.

This year’s Big Ten Player of the Year, KBD has been the standout star in his redshirt Junior season. After having his third year ended by a stress fracture and receiving a medical redshirt, Bates-Diop has bounced back stronger than before. He has an NBA body, with ultra long arms and the ability to match up all over the frontcourt. KBD now looks to be a mid-first-round pick, but for him and for Daum (a dominant big man in his own right), the tournament could provide a nice launch pad to draft workouts. This game will be a battle.

Kentucky vs Davidson - 6:10 CT (CBS)

In another popular 5-12 seeded battle, Kentucky is going to have their hands full with the Davidson Wildcats. Kentucky is stacked with young potential, that might be playing their best basketball at the perfect time. The two prospects to key in on are forward Kevin Knox, and guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The two freshmen have led coach Calipari’s squad through an up-and-down season, and both look poised to be potential lottery picks come June. Knox established himself early as the foundation for the group, but Calipari himself has said the lengthy SGA might be their best player. Kentucky always seem primed for a deep run (though they’re in an impossible region), and these two may be the reason why.

FRIDAY

Texas A&M vs Providence - 11:15 CT (CBS)

Entering the season, Robert Williams was the sophomore not named Miles Bridges that was on everyone’s lottery lists, after both opted to pass up projected top-15 lottery spots last summer and return to school. The high flying Aggie big man simply hasn’t progressed in the ways scouts were hoping, and he’s faded back behind a sea of high-ceiling centers and power forwards in this year’s draft class.

Still, Williams has plenty of potential as an NBA rim protector, rebounder, and lob man. After putting together a very solid stretch through conference play, Williams battled some lingering inconsistencies to close out February and start March. If he can find a way to bring renewed energy and production in the tournament, it’ll be easy to recall what scouts saw in him last season.

Texas vs Nevada - 3:30 CT (TBS)

Longhorn center Mohamed Bamba has been dealing with a nagging injury to finish off his freshman season. It’s limited his minutes, and his effectiveness on the floor — and that’s too bad. The lengthy rim protector looks to be set to take on Nevada Friday afternoon, and as the technical underdog in the matchup the Longhorns will have plenty to prove.

Bamba seems to be the hardest to project of all the big men sitting in the top ten of this summer’s draft. His skill set defensively is clearly defined, perhaps more than anyone else in the class. It’s his ceiling on the other end that looks harder to predict. Hopefully he can stay healthy for this run, and take some momentum in to his draft preparation.

Missouri vs Florida St - 8:50 CT (TBS)

In what has suddenly become the most polarizing topic in draft talk, Michael Porter Jr. looks to appear in his second game back from injury. Out to prove that his rehab is progressing, and that he’s the same player that was worthy of plenty of praise entering the year, the playmaking forward returned last week to mixed reviews. No scout should be expecting him to come in and immediately change the world, but as he continues to knock off the rust, eyes will be on every move he makes on the floor.

The elder Porter is getting plenty of expected attention, but his young brother Jontay Porter is earning a ton of respect as the season reaches it’s pinnacle. He has the same explosiveness MPJ has, but his growth this season is proving his place on a future NBA roster. The Brothers Porter have the ability to lead the Tigers on a little run — if they do, expect the spotlight on them.

There are plenty more names and teams to track. Check back Saturday as we feature the weekend’s matchups!