The Ten Players Who Will Decide the Final Four

Posted by Shane McNichol on March 31st, 2016

No single player is going to decide either of Saturday’s semifinal games or the ensuing championship tilt on Monday night, but many will have a hand in those results. Some players’ “shining moments” will last longer than others (no matter who sings about it), however, so with that in mind, let’s examine the 10 players likely to make the biggest impact this weekend (in descending order).

Buddy Hield Holds Oversized Influence This Weekend (USA Today Images)

Buddy Hield Carries Some Oversized Influence This Weekend (USA Today Images)

10. Isaiah Cousins, Oklahoma

Every team Oklahoma plays focuses its defensive game plan on Buddy Hield with good reason. Other than the presumptive NPOY, however, Cousins has proven especially effective at finding and exploiting the resulting holes in opposing defenses, scoring more than 15 points in 14 different games this season. Opponents place so much attention on Hield that it allows Cousins to locate driving lanes and space to create his own, very effective, offense.

9. Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova

It’s not easy to predict how Arcidiacono will affect a game but you can count on him finding some way to do so. He is capable of anything ranging from a hot shooting streak, double-figure assists, complete control of the flow and tempo, or defensive mastery. The bottom line is that Arcidiacono will make plays. It will be up to Oklahoma to limit his overall effect. If at some point in the second half on Saturday, you think, “We haven’t seen much from Arch,” things are probably going pretty well for the Sooners.

8. Tyler Lydon, Syracuse

Tyler Lydon Has Been Key to Syracuse's Surge (USA Today Images)

Tyler Lydon Has Been Key to Syracuse’s Surge (USA Today Images)

The 6’8″ Orange freshman has been a super sub off the bench for Jim Boeheim, averaging more than 10 points per game in his first season. His ability to stretch the floor (41 percent from beyond the arc) has forced opposing defenses to adapt to his strengths when he is on the floor. If Brice Johnson gets matched up with the rookie, this could become particularly relevant. Pulling Johnson’s rim protection away from the basket could serve to open things up for Michael Gbinije and the other Syracuse slashers.

7. Justin Jackson, North Carolina

Despite the small-ball revolution occurring in much of the rest of the basketball world, the 6’8″ Jackson has played 75 percent of his minutes at the small forward spotJackson is usually playing alongside Brice Johnson and another big man, but he has had trouble pulling defenders out of the paint. This season Jackson has made only 32-of-114 shots from three-point range for a paltry 28.1 percent. In order to stretch the Syracuse zone and create some gaps for the other Tar Heels, Jackson must be a threat to score from the perimeter.

6. Daniel Ochefu, Villanova

It’s been quite a few weeks since Villanova has had the luxury of a fully healthy Ochefu in its arsenal. Partially as a result of the center’s absence earlier this season, Darryl Reynolds had time to develop into a reliable replacement. Reynolds can finish open looks at the rim, defend opposing bigs and grab more than his fair share of rebounds, but a healthy Ochefu brings significantly more to the table. Unlike Reynolds, Ochefu can score from the block and commands a double-team when he gets low position. This allows Villanova’s perimeter players opportunities for spot-up jump shots and wider driving lanes into the paint. On the defensive end, Ochefu is often a game-changer. He posted the fourth best block rate in the Big East this season and alters movement through the lane with just his presence. Knowing that Ochefu has their backs, Villanova’s guards can confidently apply pressure and take chances in their 1-2-2 press. This will be especially crucial when they are cheating screens and overplaying passing lanes in an effort to contain Buddy Hield on Saturday. If Ochefu’s balky ankle isn’t a hindrance, Villanova’s collective effort to keep Hield quiet gets a lot easier.

5. Brice Johnson, North Carolina


Both Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson will figure prominently in Houston.(Photo: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

Both Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson will figure prominently in Houston.(Photo: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

Johnson has been a double-double machine all season and there’s no reason to believe it won’t continue this weekend. Syracuse ranks among the bottom 15 teams nationally in defensive rebounding, while the North Carolina senior makes his living on the offensive glass. Without getting ahead of ourselves, Johnson would salivate at the chance to play Villanova on Monday night. The Wildcats start 6’6″ Kris Jenkins at the four, a great individual matchup for him. This might cause Jay Wright to play Reynolds and Ochefu together more often, something he’s only dabbled with (doing so for only nine percent of their five most recent games, per KenPom).

4. Malachi Richardson, Syracuse

Richardson has been an X-factor for the Orange lately, scoring over 20 points in two of Syracuse’s four NCAA Tournament games. The springy freshman fueled his team’s comeback victory over Virginia last weekend, and with so much defensive attention placed on upperclassmen Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney, Richardson uses his length and athleticism to find open shots.

3. Josh Hart, Villanova

Josh Hart (USA Today Images)

Josh Hart (USA Today Images)

Hart’s importance in Villanova’s semifinal showdown with Oklahoma is twofold: It’s very likely that he will draw the assignment of guarding Buddy Hield for most of the game; and it’s also likely Hield will cover Hart in return. Guarding the NPOY is obviously no easy task, although Hart has the defensive skill set and corresponding instincts to make his life difficult. However, it may be the other end of the floor where Hart’s value is most important. Forcing Hield to exert himself on the defensive end — in addition to all of the running off screens and transition movement he is known for — could wear down his legs. Think of Hart’s offense like a series of body shots in a heavyweight fight. The long term ramifications of Hield needing to be a two-way player for 40 minutes could ultimately tip things in Villanova’s favor.

2. Marcus Paige, North Carolina

Given Justin Jackson’s shooting struggles, Paige’s importance in the area of perimeter shooting becomes even greater. The Tar Heels finished dead last in three-point percentage in the ACC, and Paige is the one player who can occasionally get hot (ask Indiana). If anyone is going to force Syracuse’s zone to extend out to the perimeter, it is likely to be Paige. When his shots are dropping, there is a clear domino effect: Jackson is free to penetrate; Johnson can dominate inside; and the Heels’ transition game can flow. Every shot Paige makes forces the defense to react accordingly, and each of those opportunities opens up additional downstream scoring chances for the Tar Heels.

1. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma

The most important player this weekend has to be Hield, as no other player in college basketball is capable of such an immediate and oversized impact. Every second that Hield is on the floor for Oklahoma, he’s capable of changing the course of a game in a flash. He can ignite a quick run or hit a dagger three. He can be a factor in the half-court, in transition, during out-of-bounds situations, and in clutch moments.  This, of course, is not an entirely positive situation. Hield’s shooting is Oklahoma’s most potent offensive weapon, which also means that the Sooners have experienced problems when he has gone cold. In two games where Hield shot 30 percent or worse from three-point range and scored fewer than 17 points (at Texas Tech; vs. West Virginia). Oklahoma lost both contests. There’s also the cavernous sight lines of the Final Four venue (NRG Stadium) to consider along with Villanova’s stable of capable defenders — guys like Josh Hart, Phil Booth, and Ryan Arcidiacono. But the NPOY has seen relentless defenses in hostile environments all season — even with some of the chips stacked against him, it’s hard to bet against Buddy.

Shane McNichol (30 Posts)

Shane McNichol is a national columnist for Rush The Court. He is also the founder, editor, and writer at and has contributed to and Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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