We’re all familiar with the big names in the East Region like Da’Sean Butler, Damion James, Trevor Booker and others. But the NCAA tournament isn’t just about the big boys, and that’s why I’m here. Here’s a little introduction to some of the under-the-radar players in the Cats region that make their teams go .
Darington Hobson – G – New Mexico – 16.2 pts, 9.2 reb, 4.6 ast, 43.8% FG, 36.9% 3pt
New Mexico is arguably the best mid-major in the nation, and Hobson is inarguably its best player. He leads the team in points, rebounds and assists, was named Mountain West Player of the Year and is one of only two players in the nation to average better than 15 points, nine rebounds and four assists. The other? Evan Turner. He’s averaging over 20 ppg in his last four games, but his versatility is what separates him, as demonstrated by the rare assist/rebound double-double he managed against Utah last month. New Mexico has plenty of talent and athleticism but Hobson, a JuCo transfer, is what makes them a potential Final Four sleeper, assuming they get to switch brackets and don’t have to play Kentucky.
Ryan Wittman – F – Cornell – 17.5 pts, 4 reb, 46.5% FG, 42% 3pt
Anyone who follows Cornell basketball knows that it’s Mark Coury who stirs the drink for the Big Red. But this post is for focusing on some players that might not have gained the national recognition that the Flurry has enjoyed. Wittman is a big-time scorer and outside shooter and the driving force behind Cornell’s Ivy League championship. He topped 20 points 10 times this year, including scoring 24 against Kansas in the narrow defeat Cornell suffered in Lawrence. Wittman and 7-footer Jeff Foote were the key cogs in Cornell’s domination of the Ivy League, and would seem to be the main reasons that Jay Bilas shed his generally level-headed analysis and picked them to beat Kentucky and reach the regional final. While that is a serious stretch, to say that they may indeed meet the Cats in the Sweet 16 is not, and Wittman will be the one leading them if they do.
Juan Fernandez – G – Temple – 12.6 pts, 3.6 ast, 46.1% 3pt
Of course, for the Big Red to make a run to the Sweet 16, they’ll first have to beat one of the best mid-majors in the nation this year, Temple, and their leader Juan Fernandez. The Argentine guard doesn’t lead the team in scoring but is the general on the floor and simply makes things happen. He is an explosive shooter that hung 33 points and seven three-pointers on Villanova in the Owls’ win over the other Wildcats in December. Fernandez has the ability to match Wittman’s scoring and sets up his teammates as well, as he averaged 5 assists in Temple’s run to A-10 tournament title. The matchup between Temple and Cornell is one of the most intriguing of the first round, and Fernandez is the key to the Owls ending the Bilas Cinderella story before the pumpkin even picks them up.
Jimmy Butler – G – Marquette – 14.9 pts, 6.4 reb, 2.1 ast, 53.5% FG, 50% 3pt
Marquette is a team that Kentucky fans hate to see in their bracket, given their evil history against the Cats, but Butler gets a break from the hate as he wasn’t a part of the squad that last knocked Kentucky out of the Dance. Lazar Hayward gets most of the pub for the Golden Eagles, but Butler is what makes Marquette a potentially tough out. He picked up his scoring a few games into the Big East schedule and, not coincidentally, that was when his squad started playing like a serious tournament team. He averaged 15.1 ppg over Marquette’s last 14 games, a stretch where they were 11-3. Compare that to the 11 ppg he averaged in the team’s first seven Big East games, when they were 2-5 and lost to awful Depaul (a game in which he scored only 8), and you can see that Butler is huge to any success Marquette wants to have in the tourney.
Anthony Johnson – G – Montana – 19.6 pts., 3.3 reb, 3 ast, 50.6% FG, 46.4% 3pt
Honestly, I had never heard of this guy before his team won the Big Sky tournament, but he made sure it was one hell of an introduction. Johnson scored 42 points, including the last 21 for the Grizzlies as they overcame a 20-point halftime deficit to win the tourney title. He leads the team in scoring and assists and if Montana didn’t pull such a tough draw with New Mexico, Johnson would be the type of player that could carry his team to an upset in the first round. While that’s unlikely to happen, if you get a chance to watch the scoring machine play, take it. Anybody who does what he did in the conference championship at least deserves a look, no?
So there you have it. A comprehensive list of a bunch of guys that have the potential to lead their teams to a beatdown at the hands of the Cats. Consider yourself learned.