Raphielle Johnson

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NCAA East Region: Top Players

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


Villanova, winner of the Big East tournament, is the top seed in an East region that does not lack for upper-class talent. Programs such as Purdue, Texas Tech, and UCLA have noteworthy upperclassmen on their rosters, but there are some promising freshmen in the region as well. In addition to UCLA, double-digit seeds such as St. Bonaventure, Murray State and Marshall have players capable of turning heads nationally this week.

Here are the links to the other regions: West | Midwest | South

Here are breakdowns on some of the top players in the region, going in order by their team’s seed.

Editor's Note: Want the biggest edge in your NCAA pool this year? TeamRankings.com offers the most sophisticated bracket picks and analysis tools. Get the best bracket for your pool.

Mikal Bridges, Junior, Villanova, G - While Jalen Brunson is one of the frontrunners for national player of the year honors, a good argument can be made that Bridges is the team’s best draft prospect. A fourth-year junior, the 6-foot-7 Bridges has the size, length and athleticism to make an impact on both ends of the floor. Defensively Villanova will use Bridges at the head of its 3/4-court pressure, and he’s capable of wreaking havoc in the half-court as well. Offensively Bridges has improved throughout his time on campus, and he’s made a significant jump in 2017-18 in helping the Wildcats account for the loss of Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. Averaging 18.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, Bridges is shooting 52.1 percent from the field and 43.3 percent from three; in short, he’s remained an efficient contributor despite having more responsibilities on his plate. Already on the NBA radar, a standout performance over the course of this month would do even more for Bridges’ profile.

Jalen Brunson, Junior, Villanova, G - As noted above Brunson is one of the top candidates for national player of the year honors, due to both his individual production and role in the team’s success. Shooting 53.1 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three, Brunson’s averaging 19.4 points and 4.7 assists per game for the Wildcats. What’s interesting about Brunson within the Villanova offense is that they’ll invert things, allowing the 6-foot-3 point guard to take his man into the post and operate from there. It’s a different look, one that isn’t seen all that often in the college game. Brunson’s efficient, more often than not making the right decision with the ball in his hands, and he can operate off the ball as well. And around the basket Brunson finishes well, shooting nearly 71 percent in that area according to hoop-math.com. As a passer Brunson isn’t careless with the basketball, effectively setting up his teammates in positions where they’re at their best.

Carsen Edwards, Sophomore, Purdue, G - On a team that doesn’t lack for experience, the 6-foot-1 sophomore guard is the difference-maker for the Boilermakers. Edwards is the team’s best offensive option when it comes to breaking down defenses; the one guy who can “get his own” outside of the confines of Purdue’s offense. Averaging 18.5 points and 3.0 assists per game, Edwards is shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from beyond the arc on the season. The presence of 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas in the post can open things up offensively for Purdue on the perimeter, but so can Edwards’ willingness to improvise and make plays. And with more teams choosing to defend Haas 1-on-1, with the other defenders staying home so as to account for the fact that the Boilermakers are one of the best perimeter shooting teams in the country, Edwards’ playmaking ability is of even greater importance.

Vince Edwards, Senior, Purdue, F - The 6-foot-8 forward is tied for second on the team in assists with Carsen Edwards, as he’s managed to display the ability to set up teammates within the Purdue offense. In addition to the passing Vince Edwards is averaging 14.5 points per game, shooting 47.1 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from beyond the arc, while also grabbing a team-best 7.3 rebounds per game. Vince tends to make greater use of the mid-range game than Carsen Edwards (no relation), and he’s also making nearly 64 percent of his shots around the basket. Defensively Edwards has value in that he can be used to defend either the three or the four, with Purdue using him at the latter spot in a starting lineup that includes three guards. Edwards moves well laterally, and his long frame helps on that end of the floor as well. A strong showing this month would undoubtedly help Edwards when it comes to positioning himself to get a shot at the next level.

Keenan Evans, Senior, Texas Tech, G -  A big reason for the Red Raiders’ resurgence, Evans enters the tournament averaging 17.5 points and 3.1 assists per game. While Evans shot 47.7 percent from the field, an area in which there are strides to be made is as a perimeter shooter. Evans shot just 31.4 percent from three, a figure that stands out even more when considering the fact that his 137 attempts are the most on the team. What Evans can do from a shooting standpoint is finish at the rim, as he made just over 70 percent of those shots according to hoop-math. Evans finishes well through contact, and with his handle he’s able to break down defenders off the bounce despite the perimeter shooting issues. And with his ability to get to the foul line, Evans is the kind of player who can give opponents who aren’t familiar with his skill set absolute fits. Evans was hampered a big down the stretch by a toe injury, playing through pain before the decision was made to sit him for the Red Raiders’ loss at West Virginia February 26.

Jevon Carter, Senior, West Virginia, G - West Virginia’s senior point guard is one of the top on-ball defenders in the country, with his work in the Mountaineers’ full-court pressure being one of the reasons why the team is so adept at turning opponents over. Carter enters the tournament averaging 2.9 steals per game, and his steal percentage of 4.6 ranks eighth in the country. But Carter isn’t solely about defense, as he’s also West Virginia’s leading scorer and assist man (17.0 ppg, 6.6 apg). Carter doesn’t have the most impressive field goal percentage, making just 41.7 percent of his shots, but he doesn’t shy away from the moment and he’s more than capable of making plays for himself and for others. It’s also worth noting that Carter is shooting better than 86 percent from the foul line, which is critical when considering just how much he has the ball in his hands. Lightly recruited out of high school, Carter has fought throughout his career to get into a position where he’s considered to be one of the top point guards in the country. 

Jalen Hudson, Junior, Florida, G - Averaging a team-best 15.3 points per game, the 6-foot-5 Hudson is one of the best three-point shooters around. Hudson enters the tournament shooting nearly 41 percent from three, and nearly half of his field goal attempts have been three-pointers. Yet that perimeter shooting ability hasn’t exactly translated to the foul line, where he’s just a 66.9 percent shooter on the season. Hudson’s been used as both a starter and a sixth man by head coach Mike White, having started 17 of the team’s 32 games this season. At 6-foot-6 Hudson has good size at the wing position, but there are still strides to be made with regards to applying pressure to opposing defenses off the dribble. If Florida, which will open with either St. Bonaventure or UCLA, is go have any kind of success in this tournament it will need standout performances from Hudson and KeVaughn Allen.

Daniel Gafford, Freshman, Arkansas, C - Gafford’s name is one that has been mentioned more frequently as the season’s progressed with regards to the next level, and it’s easy to see why. He’s got good size at 6-foot-11, 234 pounds, and Gafford doesn’t look out of place in Mike Anderson’s fast-paced system. He runs the floor well and finishes around the basket, having made nearly 88 percent of those shots according to hoop-math. A lot of Gafford’s work offensively is done around the basket, which is understandable given the presence of players such as Jaylen Barford, Daryl Macon and Anton Beard on the perimeter. Arkansas will use Gafford in ball screen situations, and he’ll get some touches on the low block as well. Defensively Gafford’s been valuable as a rim protector, blocking just over two shots per game. Should Arkansas advance to meet Purdue in the second round, how Gafford matches up with Isaac Haas will be something to keep an eye on.

Collin Sexton, Freshman, Alabama, G - In a freshman class littered with exciting talents, Sexton is one of the most explosive first-year players in the country. Outstanding for much of the Crimson Tide’s run to the SEC tournament semifinals, which ensured the team of an NCAA tournament berth, Sexton is an absolute handful for defenders. Sexton’s averaging 19.0 points and 3.5 assists per game, and he’s made good use of the “green light” given to him by Avery Johnson. Sexton is the focal point for what Alabama does offensively, and while the shooting percentages could be better (44.4 percent from the field, 34.4 percent from three) the opponent’s focus on Sexton can open things up for some of his teammates. Sexton’s undoubtedly going to get his shots, that’s just the way that Alabama’s offense is set up at this point in time. But the key for him moving forward will be efficiency and having a better grasp of when to attack for his own offense and when to do so in order to set up others. 

Aaron Holiday, Junior, UCLA, G - Holiday not being named a finalist for the Cousy Award remains baffling to this day, as he’s been outstanding for UCLA in a season that could have spiraled out of control at the very start. Holiday enters the tournament averaging 20.3 points and 5.8 assists per game, and he’s been efficient in getting his offense as well. The junior’s shooting 46.3 percent from the field, 43.3 percent from three and 82.6 percent from the foul line, and he generally has a good feel of when it’s time to make a play for himself and when it’s time to set up a teammate. While Holiday’s height (6-foot-1) could be a deterrent for some, the fact of the matter is that there aren’t many point guards in college basketball with as good of a feel for the game as Holiday. His matchup with St. Bonaventure’s Jaylen Adams could be one of the best of the first weekend of the tournament, and Holiday has the ability to put the Bruins on his back and lead the team on a run.

Others to watch: Phil Booth, Villanova; Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova; Omari Spellman, Villanova; Isaac Haas, Purdue; Zhaire Smith, Texas Tech; Shaq Morris, Wichita State; Landry Shamet, Wichita State; Sagaba Konate, West Virginia; Chris Chiozza, Florida; Egor Koulechov, Florida; Jalen Barford, Arkansas; Daryl Macon, Arkansas; Justin Robinson, Virginia Tech; John Petty, Alabama; Kelan Martin, Butler; Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure; Matt Mobley, St. Bonaventure; Thomas Welsh, UCLA; Kris Wilkes, UCLA; Jonathan Stark, Murray State; C.J. Burks, Marshall; Jon Elmore, Marshall.



Raphielle has been writing about college sports for more than a decade for multiple outlets, including NBC Sports. Focuses have included game recaps, columns, features and recruiting stories. A native of the Northeast, he now calls Pac-12 country home. Raphielle can be followed on Twitter @raphiellej.
Email :Raphielle Johnson



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