The All-America candidates in Mark Few’s frontcourt might be the headliners this week at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, but Gonzaga’s pod at the NCAA Tournament is flush with talent, from Baylor’s well-traveled senior floor general, Makai Mason, to Syracuse guard Tyus Battle, who returned for his junior season in part to see how deep he could take the Orange this March.
We examine five standouts and five sleepers to keep an eye on this week as March Madness gets going in SLC.
Makai Mason, Baylor – You might remember him wearing a Yale uniform in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. Three years ago, Mason scored 31 points and went 11 for 11 at the free throw line to fuel a 79-75 opening-round win for the Bulldogs over … Baylor. Three years later, the guard transferred to the Big 12 program in Waco, Texas – the first grad transfer in Baylor basketball history – and leads the Bears with 15.5 points per game and 3.2 assists per game.
Tyus Battle, Syracuse – Syracuse fans may have feared the worst when the junior guard tumbled to the ground during a March 9 game against Clemson. A tailbone injury precluded him from playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, but all signs have pointed to him returning for Thursday’s game against Baylor. That’s good, because Battle is the only All-ACC performer for Syracuse, averaging 17.2 points per game. He’s scored 20-plus points 14 times this season and had 32 in a 95-91 upset of then-No. 1 Duke.
Darnell Edge, Fairleigh Dickinson – Among the things Fairleigh Dickinson’s opponents have to account for when defending the Knights, Edge’s sharpshooting might be the top concern. The senior guard is making 47 percent of his 3-point attempts. If you foul him from beyond the arc, there’s a good chance the 89 percent free-throw shooter is making all three. Edge, averaging 16.4 points per game, has made at least six 3-pointers in three games this season and hasn’t missed a free throw since Feb. 23.
Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga – The first piece of Gonzaga’s high-voltage frontcourt, Clarke blossomed into an All-America candidate in what most expect will be his final college season. The Bulldogs’ shot-stuffing phenom broke the school’s single-season blocks record with his 74th on Feb. 7, and he’s been padding it since. As Clarke continues to churn out glowing defensive stats, his offensive efficiency is still flying under the radar. The forward averages 16.5 points per game, on 69 percent shooting, and he was 12 of 15 from the field in the recent West Coast Conference Tournament.
Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga – Just about all of Hachimura’s numbers have improved – and many of them by an impressive margin – during the forward’s junior season in Spokane. Hachimura’s scoring average has almost doubled, from 11.6 ppg last season to 20.1. His 3-point percentage has ballooned, too, from 19 percent to 46 percent, and he’s grabbing 6.6 rebounds per game as a junior after averaging 4.7 as a sophomore. Hachimura scored only nine, 16 and 17 in his past three games, but before that was a five-game stretch that saw the Japan native average 23.4 ppg.
Jared Butler, Baylor – He’s been spotty for the Bears, but the freshman is also capable of a 30-point burst on the right day. Butler, who averages 10.1 ppg for Baylor, poured in 31 in a loss at Kansas to close the regular season and he’s trending in the right direction after scoring in single figures in 11 of his first 14 games for the Bears. Butler has reached double figures in 10 of his last 13 games.
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – The junior was eased back into the Bulldogs’ lineup during the WCC Tournament, playing just 27 minutes in two games against Pepperdine and Saint Mary’s. It’s unclear how Mark Few will use Tillie – and to what extent he’ll use him – but the 6-foot-10 forward’s 3-point shooting and floor-stretching ability could be valuable for a team that didn’t do either effectively in the WCC title game.
Jahlil Jenkins, Fairleigh Dickinson – There’s a direct correlation between the Knights’ recent win streak and Jenkins’ double-digit scoring streak. Both are eight games old. The 5-10 sophomore guard registered 38 points in Fairleigh Dickinson’s Northeast Conference Tournament semifinal and championship games. He was almost perfect from the free-throw line, going 15 for 16.
Frank Howard, Syracuse – A mostly pedestrian senior season for Howard was capped by two monster games at the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament – a win over Pitt that saw him score 18 points and a loss to Duke that saw him record a season-high 28. In the three games prior, Howard scored only 12 combined points on 4-of-16 shooting. Howard’s production earned the guard all-tournament honors, even with the Orange not playing a semifinal game.
Mark Vital, Baylor – The redshirt sophomore is a high-riser known for his highlight-reel dunks, but he’s also Baylor’s defensive ace and was one of six players recognized on the Big 12’s season-ending all-defense list. Vital might not be a threat to score 20 points, but the 6-5 forward is capable of ensuring the opponent’s best player won’t do the same. Earlier in the season, Texas coach Shaka Smart labeled him as the “most physical player in the (Big 12),” according to the Houston Chronicle.
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