These role players are in position for a memorable March
Every team that makes a run in the NCAA Tournament needs a role player to become the hero for a game or two.
For 2014 national champion Connecticut, it was DeAndre Daniels. The forward was a solid player entering the tournament, but he exploded for 27 points in the Sweet 16 against Iowa State and then 20 in the Final Four against Florida?
And who could have expected that lightly used Marcus Lee would have stepped in for 10 points and seven offensive rebounds to send Kentucky to the Final Four.
Pinpointing the kinds of unlikely heroes is tough — especially in the case of a guy like Lee — but we might as well give it a try.
Trey Lyles, Kentucky
Lyles might not sneak up on anyone since he was a McDonald’s All-American and John Calipari touted him as Kentucky’s X-factor. Yet he’s still been easy to overlook for most of this season with the way Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns have played in Kentucky’s frontcourt. Lyles, though, is plenty capable of taking charge, scoring 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting Saturday against Arkansas.
Darion Atkins, Virginia
Atkins lost his starting job last season and regained it for good early in the ACC schedule. Atkins is already a key post defender for the Cavaliers, but with Justin Anderson out, he’s also been able contribute more on the offensive end in recent games. He’s scored at least 10 points in three of the last four games after scoring in double figures just twice before Feb. 22.
Gabe York, Arizona
Arizona’s stars haven’t always played like stars at times this season. Thankfully for the Wildcats, York has been there to save the day off the bench. He scored 13 points in 28 minutes against UCLA on Feb. 21 and added 12 in the grinder against Utah on Saturday night. This is the second time York has been something of a secret weapon for Zona. He moved into the starting lineup after the Brandon Ashley injury last season.
Kris Jenkins, Villanova
Villanova is already one of the more balanced scoring teams in the field. The seventh-leading scorer acting as an X-factor is icing on the cake. Jenkins is an outside shooter by trade, hitting four 3s in the comeback against Xavier on Saturday, but he was also able to get to the free throw line nine times a game earlier against Providence.
Matt Jones, Duke
Duke’s stars — Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook and Justise Winslow — are playing like stars. Matt Jones has provided key depth, especially since Rasheed Sulaimon was dismissed. Jones is averaging 7.9 points per game in nine games since Sulaimon was booted.
Dallin Bachynski, Utah
A senior seven-footer is a nice asset to have on the bench. Larry Krysktkowiak has gone to that well judiciously — Bachynski played scored 13 points on 12 shots in 23 minutes in a key win over Stanford on Feb. 12 and eight points in 25 minutes against Arizona, but he played 14 minutes in a three-game span in February. A team whose main weakness is offensive rebounding could use his size in March.
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Just what Notre Dame needs — another guard who can score. The 6-5 Colson has come on in recent weeks, but none better than his 17 points on 7-of-7 shooting and nine rebounds against Louisville on Tuesday. Before that Colson had 16 points against both Boston College and Syracuse in Notre Dame’s previous two games. The freshman’s fearless streak earned him a defensive assignment against Duke’s Okafor a few weeks ago.
Jared Nickens, Maryland
The 6-foot-7, 200-pound freshman forward has been able to contribute in a number of ways for the surprising Terrapins. He stepped into the starting lineup for six games earlier this season when Mark Turgeon was tinkering with his lineup. Coming off the bench, Nickens is a 3-point threat who can also grab rebounds.
Allerik Freeman, Baylor
Freeman gives Baylor a quick offensive threat off the bench, which Baylor needs especially around the rim. Freeman gave Baylor 11 points in 21 minutes in a win over Kansas State on Feb. 21 and 10 points and four offensive rebounds in 27 minutes against West Virginia on Saturday. He shoots better than 50 percent from 2-point range on a team that otherwise shoots 45.3 percent.
Jamari Traylor, Kansas
Traylor’s role has expanded in recent weeks, first as Cliff Alexander’s playing time dwindled and then more after Alexander was pulled off the floor due to potential NCAA eligibility reasons. Traylor was huge in Tuesday’s comeback against West Virginia. With Perry Ellis out during the second half and Kelly Oubre fouled out, Traylor had 14 points and six offensive boards.
Joel Berry, North Carolina
Could Joel Berry become the 3-point threat North Carolina desperately needs? Berry hit 3-of-5 3-pointers against Georgia Tech on Thursday. Sure, it was against a bad Yellow Jackets team, but still a key development for a team looking for perimeter scorers apart from Marcus Paige.
Wayne Blackshear, Louisville
Blackshear responded to fouling out with no points against Syracuse by scoring 10 against Miami, 10 against Georgia Tech and 18 against Florida State. Louisville needs more of that from its senior guard with Chris Jones off the team.