The reminder that the NCAA tournament is a top five sporting event hits you like a freight train every year. Never truer than in the home of Prospect Watch Thursday night, as the thrills and heartbreak of day one took their toll.
It would be impossible to pretend that the DeAndre Ayton versus Kentucky and Trae Young versus Duke matchups being ripped from our televisions wasn’t monumentally disappointing. It was like finding out what you’re getting for Christmas, then your presents disappearing on Christmas Eve. But alas, that is the beauty of the tournament.
Thursday and Friday saw SIX of the players on Mavs Moneyball’s most recent Big Board get eliminated in the first round — plus Trae Young, the Oklahoma point guard projected to be a lottery pick. It was a messy round for some prospects, but lucky for us, there is still plenty to watch with eyes toward the NBA Draft in June.
The Round of 32 kicks off this morning and will wrap up Sunday night. Here are a handful of games with NBA prospects that you should be watching this weekend.
Tip-off times are approximate
Villanova vs Alabama - 11:10 CT (CBS)
What a way to start round two Saturday morning. Not only do we get one of the best teams in college basketball matched up with a surging Crimson Tide, we get two premiere perimeter players opposite each other. From a pure tournament perspective, Alabama’s Collin Sexton is already being tabbed as a tournament darling, likened to a Kemba Walker that can carry his team through March. For Villanova’s Mikal Bridges, the veteran Wildcats wing, he has become the key cog in a basketball machine; the two-way player that does a little bit of everything for a very talented Nova squad.
Sexton, a 6’3 spark plug point guard, saw early foul trouble in their round one matchup with Virginia Tech, but was able to play the rest of the way and be effective (25 points, three rebounds, six assists). Prospect Watch is hoping to see a lot of Bridges guarding Sexton Saturday, but even if we don’t get that, the actual point guard battle of Sexton and Villanova’s Jalen Brunson will be something to watch. Brunson, a likely early second-round selection, should be able to use his veteran savvy to challenge the young Sexton’s defensive tenacity.
Ohio State vs Gonzaga - 6:45 CT (CBS)
We featured Ohio State and forward Keita Bates-Diop in our first-round piece, and he certainly delivered in a game that went down to the final minute. KBD led the way for the Buckeyes with 24 points and 12 rebounds (though was a bad 4-of-13 from three). He has an NBA skillset and length, though it is a little unclear where to project him positionally and how much more he can grow.
The player to watch for the Bulldogs is 6’10 sophomore big man Killian Tillie. He went on an absolute tear in their conference tournament, averaging 24 points and five rebounds, shooting 13-of-14 from three over three games — a scorching 93 percent from deep. Tillie has the smoothest shot of any big man considering the draft, shooting 49 percent from three on the season. For reference, Jaren Jackson Jr., the best outside shooter of the lottery bigs, is shooting 39 percent on just four more attempts. There are questions about Tillie’s defensive potential at the next level, and it’s probably why he’s still under the radar. But if he and the Zags can make a run this month, expect more talk about Tillie.
Texas Tech vs Florida - 7:40 CT (TNT)
Saturday night will feature a springy Texas Tech squad up against the Florida Gators, a possible showcase for a number of guards and wings. Leading scorers for the Gators Egor Koulechov and Jalen Hudson are both shooting 40 percent from deep, and Hudson particularly flashes some NBA potential from the perimeter.
If you were somehow away from the internet Thursday night, you might have missed what was the most athletic play of the first full tournament day:
I had to watch this play at least five times just to figure out how Tech freshman Zhaire Smith even did this. He and a few other Red Raiders are capable of plays like this every time they step on the floor. It’s unclear if Smith will enter this summer’s draft, but he’s a player to keep an eye on as his stock continues to rise. Primary playmaker Keenan Evans should also get some looks in the second round in June.
Michigan State vs Syracuse - 1:40 CT (CBS)
Bucknell pushed the Spartans for long stretches Friday night, but Tom Izzo and co. rode behind the play of Miles Bridges, who put up 29 points and nine boards. Jaren Jackson Jr., who many see as a top five pick in June, saw less time — something of a trend for him this season. The freshman big man clearly has the high ceiling and versatility of a top five pick, but sophomore forward Miles Bridges shouldn’t be forgotten. He’s had a very solid season, and continues to lead this talented squad to success.
They may have their hands full Sunday against Boeheim’s pestering zone defense. No matter the season the Orange have, they always pose problems in March. Syracuse is led by sophomore Tyus Battle and freshman forward Oshae Brissett, who had a solid opening game of the tournament. Sneaking into the tournament as a play-in team, they play with a short bench, and don’t put up many points. But they find ways to muck up good teams. Miles Bridges and the Spartans will have their work cut out for them.
Texas A&M vs North Carolina - 4:15 CT (CBS)
In a piece published last fall for ESPN, Robert Williams said he wanted to return for his sophomore season to, “show people I can do more than just run, rebound and block shots,” and that he “could be a start-a-fast-break Robert Williams, a knock-down-a-corner-3 Robert Williams.” While most of those goals haven’t exactly come to fruition (for starters, he’s 0-for-12 from three this season), a lot of what teams liked about him last spring is still present in his game today; it was on full display Friday afternoon against Providence, putting up 13 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks, plus a pretty scary open floor windmill dunk to seal the game. He’s a fun energetic presence on the floor, and has a defined set of useful skills for the next level.
The defending champion Tar Heels are stacked with veteran college talent and are led by point guard Joel Berry II. In terms of draft possibilities, forward Theo Pinson may be the one to watch. He’s the type of Swiss Army knife wing that the NBA looks for, though without a three-point shot, he’ll have some work to do.
Cincinnati vs Nevada - 5:10 CT (TNT)
The Bearcats, an overwhelming defense with capable scorers all over the floor, may see some of the benefits of a chaotic region full of upsets. But not yet. They avoided facing Mohamed Bamba and Texas and are now tasked with taking on the Nevada Wolf Pack.
The player to watch here is Cincinnati wing Jacob Evans, a do-it-all wing who can affect the game on both ends of the floor. Nevada plays with five guys all similar in size across the perimeter, and Evans and the Bearcats crew will attempt to slow down a team shooting 40 percent from deep this season (top 20 in the country). Evans, a junior, looks to be a mid-late first-round pick in June, and will look to carry some momentum from this month in to draft training.
Look out for us next week as we feature more draft prospect games from the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight!