We’re entering the weekend with some heavy hitting battles between great college basketball teams. And lucky us, all four Elite Eight games will feature NBA Draft prospects in some compelling match-ups.
Mavs Moneyball has been giving you daily watch guides over the last two weeks of tournament play, highlighting players that should hear their names called in June, from lottery picks to second round hopefuls. These are guys the Mavericks front office should be considering, no matter where they end up in the draft order. Now that we’re all familiar with the names from the last two weekends, let’s dig past the surface stats for these players and take a look at specifics, and ways they could be challenged.
Auburn vs Kentucky - 1:20 CT, CBS
How does PJ Washington bounce back off a day of rest?
Anyone who has watched Kentucky sees how different the Wildcats are this season when PJ Washington is on the floor. It was unclear going into their Sweet Sixteen game how much the 6’8, 230-pound sophomore would be able to play, having been out the first two rounds of the tournament with an injury. The forward came off the bench to face the Houston Cougars, and was a huge impact. He was moving well, looked comfortable, and made a few big plays on both ends of the floor down the stretch.
He was asked after the game how he felt, and Washington said he had no pain, while acknowledging all the adrenaline pumping through his body. The tournament schedule can be brutal. In one sense Washington is fresher than anyone else left playing right now. But how his body can respond after a single day of rest, turning around to play an afternoon game today, could be an important test.
One thing he most likely won’t have to worry about is Auburn forward Chuma Okeke, who went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. At the writing of this nothing has been declared about the sophomore forwards chances of playing, but it looks unlikely.
Can Tyler Herro find his shot against the hot shooting of Auburn?
Another key piece next to Washington this season, along with fellow freshman Keldon Johnson, has been guard Tyler Herro. He’s got a smooth shooting stroke, plays with a lot of energy, and has been quietly moving up draft boards. The 6’5 195-pound guard has shot 36 percent from three this season, but has had a bit of a cold streak in the tournament, connecting on 2-of-11 attempts.
Herro hadn’t hit a three in Friday night’s game until its final moments, but it couldn’t have come at a better time. After Houston’s comeback found Kentucky down one with 25 seconds left, Herro nailed a three with a hand in his face. He also connected on two free throws after, sealing the win for the Wildcats. Herro had 19 points in the game, the only other player to score in double digits for Kentucky, but he’ll need to be connecting more than once from deep to match Auburn.
Michigan State vs Duke - 4:05 CT, CBS
Is Cam Reddish playing?
Moments before their Sweet Sixteen game against Virginia Tech on Friday night, Duke determined that Cam Reddish would not play after dealing with some vague knee injury. Alex O’Connell started in his place, and suddenly a shallow Duke squad lost a little more depth. They escaped with the win for the second game in a row, but it took big games from RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson, plus freshman guard Tre Jones having a career night vastly outshooting his 27-percent three point average on the season.
Reddish has had an inconsistent freshman season, but had been shooting well in the tournament, connecting on 5-of-10 from three in the first two games. It remains to be seen if Reddish will be able to play Sunday — and if he does, how effective can he be?
What kind of RJ Barrett do we get?
If you haven’t watched much of the freshman playmaker this season, Friday night’s game was an interesting embodiment of his time at Duke. At times Barrett looked to be scoring at will, getting to the rim and scoring through contact. He was distributing well, notching his second double-digit assist game of the season with 11. But he also went 0-of-5 from three, and had five turnovers. Barrett had 18 points, but took 17 shots to get it. This feels like his story.
To be clear, Duke needs him. They need the volume, the driving, the scoring, all of it. They can’t afford to have many nights where he isn’t producing, though Zion Williamson covers many ills. The questions for Barrett will be can he find some efficiency as he moves to the next level, and whether or not he can ever find his outside shot.
Will Cassius Winston be hero?
Though more exciting college player (maybe one of the best in the nation) than NBA prospect, the 6’1 195-pound guard has had to will this Spartans squad to this point. His running mate Nick Ward has battled injury, and had a scare again on Friday. And after losing Joshua Langford earlier in the season to injury, Winston is really the core of what Michigan State can do, with hopes of other players having big games, like freshman Aaron Henry who had a monster night against LSU.
Winston is a machine though. Averaging 19 points, nearly eight assists, while shooting 40 percent from three, he’s proved he can lead this team. It’ll be a tall order against Duke, a team with size, star power, and some God granted luck that’s allowed them to escape with wins.