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March Madness 2016: NBA Prospect Watch, Week 1

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Selection Sunday lined up the matchups for 68 NCAA teams, and with the games set to tip off, we take a look at the top NBA prospects in the tournament.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

With all the omnipresent drama surrounding the Sacramento Kings, I'm more appreciative than ever for the start of March Madness as a distraction. This year's tournament features no real favorites, but a ton of mid-level squads that could claim the championship €”more importantly, from an NBA Draft perspective, most of the projected lottery selections and a ton of overall 1st round talent are participating in the madness.

Players are listed in order of my current draft rankings; note that my rankings do not currently include international players, who I will be studying after the tournament. Click on a player's name to open their DraftExpress profile, which has all their basic information; stats all come from sports-reference.com or hoop-math.com.

2. SF Brandon Ingram, Duke
Next Contest: vs. 13 seed UNC Wilmington, Thursday March 17th

From a pure basketball standpoint, Ingram is a joy to watch; he's an excellent shooter (41.3% from three) who utilizes his insane 7'3 wingspan to get clean shots over any defender, and he's crafty on the drive and has been developing an array of offensive moves. He's not a smooth athlete, but he's got a surprising handle and has turned it into a capable weapon (although he should get called for a palming violation every time he touches the ball). He's got great court awareness and is a willing passer (11.1% assist rate), and his only downside is he's not always as consistent on the glass or on defense as he is on offense.

UNC Wilmington is a fun, fast-paced half court-sets-avoiding team, but they start four guards who are 6'5 or under; none of the Seahawks have a shot at stopping Ingram. Baylor is an intriguing potential second-round matchup; senior Taurean Prince (a likely 1st round pick) has the length and quickness to disrupt Ingram, and the veteran has the scoring prowess to take advantage of the freshman on the other end.

3. PG Kris Dunn, Providence
Next Contest: vs. 8 seed USC, Thursday March 17th

Dunn is a dynamo floor general who combines great court awareness and passing skills with NBA-level athleticism and length. His mid-range shot isn't great (he's shooting 28.8% on two-point jump shots), but his assist numbers (41% assist rate, and 50% last season) make him the best point guard in the country. The two-time Big East Player of the Year deserves as much hype as anyone in this class outside of Ben Simmons and Ingram.

USC has some athletic guard defenders (Julian Jacobs, and to a lesser extent Jordan McLaughlin) who can match up with Dunn. Given that the Friars have no success shooting the ball (the team is a combined 27.5% on two-point jump shots, and 32.1% from three), Dunn is going to have to constantly attack the basket and try to create for his teammates around the rim. Fortunately for him, USC is not a very tough defensive squad.

4. SG Jamal Murray, Kentucky
Next Contest: vs. 13 seed Stony Brook, Thursday March 17th

A multi-talented shooter with a lightning-quick release, Murray started off the season slowly but got hot during conference play. Over half of his shots are three pointers, and he's knocking down 42.6% of them while also showing some nice skills on the drive and a willingness to be the secondary ball-handler and play-maker (12.3% assist rate, and a 12% turnover rate that's surprisingly low given his massive usage). Kentucky doesn't have the same super-hyped depth they've had in recent years, so Murray's success has gotten less attention than it should have.

Assuming Kentucky makes it past Stony Brook (more on that match-up below), a potential meeting with 5 seed Indiana poses a good test for Murray. The Hoosiers have a dynamic guard combination with James Blackmon and Yogi Ferrell; Murray's inconsistencies on defense are one of his biggest knocks, and a meeting with Indiana would force him to confront two very talented, athletic scorers.

5. SG Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
Next Contest: vs. 15 seed Cal. St. Bakersfield, Friday, March 18th

The senior Hield €”– one of the most entertaining players of the season €”– combines veteran swagger, an offense built around him, and a 46.4% clip on three pointers. He deserves the Naismith Award €”– he averaged 25 points per game on 49.6% shooting and collected a highlight reel of clutch shots late in big games.

His turnover numbers (3 a game, 13% rate) are actually surprisingly low considering Hield being asked to handle nearly all of the Sooners' offense. Oklahoma hasn't been quite as stable over the past month, and they are a team that fully relies on jump shooting to win, but if Hield can continue to get the support of his veteran-heavy teammates this team should be an Elite Eight threat.

CSU Bakersfield is an above-average defensive team, but they don't have the firepower to match Oklahoma. An enjoyable second round match-up for the Sooners would be Gary Payton Jr. and Oregon State €”– Hield and Payton wouldn't guard each other the entire game, but they're two NBA-level firebrands who fight on both ends.

6. SF Jaylen Brown, California
Next Contest: vs. 13 seed Hawaii, Friday March 18th

Brown is the heart of a fun, youthful, and athletic Cal squad. He's a capable offensive player who thrives at attacking the basket (42% of his shots are at the rim), controlling the ball (31.3% usage rate), and finding open teammates on the cut (15.6% assist rate).

The biggest problem with Brown's freshman season has been his consistency – in the first 13 games of conference play, he averaged 17.6 points and 5.3 rebounds on 76 of 159 (47.7%) shooting, but his number have tanked since; 11 points on 23 of 70 (32.8%) over his last seven. His offensive game is still mostly reliant on his ability to attack the basket, and he's shooting just 30% on both two-point jumpers and three pointers.

Cal will face off against the high-volume/low-efficiency three-point shooting Rainbow Warriors, and then presumably play Maryland. While Cal's star power of Brown and Ivan Rabb outshines Maryland's duo of Diamond Stone and Melo Trimble, the Terrapins have excellent depth and keep teams from scoring at the rim. Given his offense remains focused on attacking the basket, I wouldn't be surprised if Brown has a disappointing start to the tournament.

7. C Jakob Poeltl, Utah
Next Contest: vs. 14 seed Fresno State, Thursday March 17th

Dynamic rim-protecting prospects will always have value in the NBA, and while Poeltl isn't the smoothest or quickest big man, he is an elusive athlete who will be able to play in an up-tempo offense. Poeltl would have been a first round pick last season, but the risk of returning to college paid off for the 2016 Pac-12 Player of the Year – both his usage (25.6%) AND efficiency (67.3%) climbed throughout his sophomore season. He continues to showcase a growing number of post moves, and operates down low with surprising speed given his size.

Poeltl is coming off a disappointing loss to 2 seed Oregon in the Pac-12 Finals, where he was held in check (14 points and 7 boards on 4-6 shooting) throughout the 88-57 debacle. The Utes tip off against 14 seed Fresno State on Thursday, and while the Bulldogs have a great wing in Marvelle Harris (20.6 ppg and 4.4 APG), they have no one tall enough or athletic enough to stop Poeltl. A potential round of 32 matchup with Seton Hall is intriguing, but while the Pirates are a rough-and-tumble team led by a stellar guard in Isaiah Whitehead, they too lack the size to combat Poeltl. If the Utes end up facing Gonzaga (curse those bulldogs – Saint Mary's beat them twice this year!), that presents an awesome Poeltl vs. Domantas Sabonis (a 1st round lock) matchup.

9. PF Ivan Rabb, California
Next Contest: vs. 13 seed Hawaii, Friday March 18th

Rabb hasn't had the most consistent freshman season, but where Jaylen Brown's numbers tanked over the past few weeks, Rabb has been on a tear; 14.7 points and 8 rebounds on 39 of 61 shooting (63%). While Cal's Pac-12 hopes came to an end in the semis against Utah, Rabb carried them to that point with a 21 point, 15 rebound outing against Oregon State in the first round. He's a high motor big with NBA length and quickness (although not an NBA body yet – 220 lbs is generous), and he has a well-rounded skill set that includes a capable jumper.

Rabb will be matched up against Hawaii's Mike Thomas and Stefan Jankovic; neither has the defensive abilities to face up against Rabb, but they're also multi-faceted scorers who can step outside the paint. The Rainbow Warriors pose a good test for Rabb's ability to guard streach-bigs.

10. PF/C Skal Labissiere, Kentucky
Next Contest: vs. 13 seed Stony Brook, Thursday March 17th

Skal Labissiere entered the season with near-equal hype to Ben Simmons thanks to his athleticism and size, but he has massively underperformed. There's a lot to like about Labissiere's physical build and his basic skillset, and the latter has gotten lost in his poor season; he's got a capable jumper on offense, decently improving footwork in the paint, and good instincts as a shot blocker.

Potential aside, there's no denying that he's been held back by his lack of basketball experience and court awareness. He hasn't adjusted well to the bright lights of playing for the biggest hoops institution, and John Calipari has been killing his confidence all year. Any team that drafts him will making a huge bet on their ability to develop him both physically and mentally.

Against Stony Brook, Labissiere will be matched up against big man Jameel Warney, a 3-time American East Conference Player of the year who is coming off a 43 point, 10 rebound (on 18-22 shooting) contest against Vermont for the conference title. Warney is 255 pounds of pure determination, and is the perfect test at this stage for Labissiere – after that, I'm crossing my fingers for the potential match-up with Indiana and freshman center Thomas Bryant in the round of 32.

11. SG Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
Next Contest: vs. 15 seed Middle Tennessee, Friday March 18th

Valentine is a smooth, multi-talented combo guard who has put up top-tier numbers all across the board – 19.4 PPG, 7.6 APG and 7.6 RPG, all while shooting 46.4% from the field and 44.7% from three.

He took over as the primary ball handler due to injury, and morphed into one of the best floor leaders in the country. With his size (6'6), length (6'10 wingspan) and excellent court awareness, the senior will have serious value in the NBA's small-ball era. He lacks great quickness and explosiveness, but he's also one of the hardest workers in college basketball who has made major improvements each year of his career.

Michigan State is my lock to get to the Final Four. Aside from Utah, no one in their bracket will come close to threatening them, and Virginia shouldn't have gotten that 1 seed over the Spartans. None of Middle Tennessee, Dayton or Syracuse have the talent to contain Valentine or keep him from continually dumping the ball off to Bryn Forbes, Matt Costello, or Deyonta Davis (another late-lottery prospect).

12. PG Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame
Next Contest: vs. 11 seed Michigan, Friday, March 18th

A lightning-quick bulldog of a player, Demetrius Jackson has top-tier quickness and explosiveness which makes up for his less than ideal size. Jackson can score from anywhere on the court; he's a capable pull-up longballer who also loves to explode and attack the basket with a nasty first step.

As a sophomore, Jackson played mostly as the secondary ball-handler, but took the reigns this season and managed to dramatically improve his assist numbers (3.1 to 4.9, 15.9% rate to 26.1%) while also improving his turnover rate to a surprisingly low 12.6%. The one concern over his junior season; as his usage skyrocketed, his three-point efficiency plummeted from 42.9% as a sophomore to 33.8% as a junior.

Notre Dame faces off against Michigan, and unless Caris LeVert is suddenly healthy, the Wolverines don't have the talent to match the Irish. That said, the Irish might still be feeling that 78-47 beatdown from North Carolina in the ACC tournament, and Notre Dame has lost four of their last seven games. In that stretch, Jackson is averaging 10.5 points and 4.2 assists on 32.9% shooting; he needs to bounce back if the Irish have any hopes beyond the round of 32.

Additional players to watch:

PF/C Deyonta Davis, Michigan StateC Diamond Stone, MarylandPG Melo Trimble, MarylandPF/C Damian Jones, VanderbiltPG Tyler Ulis, KentuckySG Grayson Allen, DukeF Taurean Prince, BaylorPF Thomas Bryant, Indiana

Top potential 2016 Draftees not participating in the NCAA Tournament:

1. F Ben Simmons, LSU, 8. PF Henry Ellenson, Marquette

Top International prospects:

PF Dragan Bender, CroatiaSG Furkan Korkmaz, TurkeySG/SF Timothe Luwawu, France