SportsPulse: We have our Sweet 16 and it’s loaded. USA TODAY’s Scott Gleeson gives each team a reason to feel like they can win (or lose) it all.
Here’s a look at the 10 most valuable players in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, which starts Thursday:
Zion Williamson, Duke. He needs no introduction. The highlight dunking phenom has scored 57 points in two tournament games, most by a freshman since Kevin Durant in 2007. Williamson’s value was clear in his six-game absence with a knee injury, as the Blue Devils went 3-3. In Duke’s Feb. 20 loss to North Carolina, the nation’s leader in blocked shots gave up 62 points in the paint without Williamson. Williamson is more than just a dunk specialist and double-double machine. He’s the heart of this team.
Carsen Edwards, Purdue. Edwards was in a shooting slump before he broke out for 42 points in the Boilermakers’ 87-61 win over Villanova in the second round. When Edwards is hot, it’s difficult to envision this Purdue team not reaching the Final Four.
BOLD PREDICTIONS:For Sweet 16, Elite Eight
Cassius Winston, Michigan State. The do-everything point guard willed his team past a determined No. 15 seed Bradley in the first round. More than stats — 26 points vs. Bradley, nine assists in second-round win over Minnesota — Winston’s pitbull mentality gives the Spartans the backbone to win even if they’re not playing well.
Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga. It was another 6-8 forward, Brandon Clarke, who broke out for the ‘Zags in their second-round win over Baylor with 36 points. But it’s been Hachimura who has anchored coach Mark Few’s nation-leading offense all year. His six points in the Baylor game (largely a result of foul trouble) won’t cut it if the ‘Zags want to win a national title — a goal fully within their reach.
Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech. The sophomore All-American guard erupted for 29 points in the Red Raiders’ first-round win against Northern Kentucky, then chipped in 16 points and 10 rebounds in their second victory over Buffalo. Both were comfortable wins, and when Texas Tech’s defense is stifling opponents, it’s Culver’s dynamic offense that makes Tech a well-rounded machine.
Kenny Wooten, Oregon. The 6-9 sophomore uses his jump-out-of-the-gym athleticism to spearhead the Ducks’ defense, which is what got them into the tournament and the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed. His seven blocks in Oregon’s win over UC Irvine are indicative of the type of paint protection the Ducks have used to control momentum.
Grant Williams, Tennessee. Had it not been for Williams putting the team on his back in the Volunteers’ overtime win against Iowa, there’d be no Sweet 16. The SEC player of the year had 19 points in that 83-77 win where the Vols blew a 25-point lead. He was the difference in OT with six points.
Coby White, North Carolina. The freshman sets the tone, and while the 6-5 guard has had some growing pains, his late-season progress makes him the X-Factor for UNC’s national title quest. Whether on a fast break or in the halfcourt, White gives the Tar Heels’ offense life with his playmaking.
Ty Jerome, Virginia. While UVA shooting guard Kyle Guy and future NBA lottery pick De’Andre Hunter are key to the Cavaliers’ advancement, it’s Jerome who makes the Virginia machine click running the point. Jerome (13 ppg) leads the team in assists (5.3 apg) and steals (1.6 spg) and plays with a fire that could be the difference-maker in a Final Four push.
Zavier Simpson, Michigan. The floor general is the Wolverines’ lightning rod on defense and offense with his ballhawking and shot-making. But his leadership — vocally and by example — gives coach John Beilein a chance to return to the Final Four.