The Davids of the basketball world tried their best this weekend, but across the bracket, Goliaths mostly prevailed. The 1, 2, and 3 seeded teams all advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, as did two of the 4 seeds (Virginia Tech and Florida State), with only 5th seeded Auburn and 12th seeded Oregon (!) sneaking in as upsets.
The good news for armchair scouts is that these top teams all have real NBA prospects to take a look at. As I talked about in last week’s Prospect Watch, I’d bet at least one of these players ends up selected before Sacramento’s first pick. Consider this more an opportunity to enjoy watching young players trying to prove they belong in the NBA and less an exercise in trying to nostradumbass our way into predicting what the Kings will do/will be able to do with 2nd round picks.
Cameron Johnson, Wing, North Carolina
vs. 5 Auburn, Friday, 4:29 p.m., TBS
Cam Johnson is a damn sniper who is scoring at insane efficiencies across the board and leading one of the nation’s best and deepest teams in scoring (16.9 PPG). Check out his pre-Tourney Synergy stat splits;
Cam Johnson Shooting Stats
|Jump Shots, Half Court||197||1.32||97th||47.2%||65.2%|
|Catch and Shoot, Half Court||149||1.46||97th||50.3%||72.1%|
Against Iona and Washington—both games UNC won with strong second half starts—Johnson finished with a combined 34 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds, and 7 of 16 from deep. He’s is a 23 year old super senior who spent three years at Pitt before transferring to Chapel Hill, but he’s got a depth of skills to back up his age. He’s keeps the offense moving (14.2% assist rate with 3 dimes per 40), has improved his rebounding (6.4 boards per 40 last year to 7.8 per 40 this season), and jumped up his tenacity on defense. While his slight frame is going to cause him problems in the NBA (then again, Joerger sure stuck with that idea with just-as-skinny Justin Jackson could play small-ball 4), Johnson is a determined defender and has shown much greater toughness this season than I saw last year.
I picked North Carolina as champs last week. I believe in this team’s depth, high-paced efficiency, and star power—Coby White is a lottery lock for me, and I think he’ll make many more highlights over the next few weeks—but Johnson’s sharpshooting abilities make him one of the more dangerous players left in the tournament. If you enjoy fun college basketball, watch North Carolina; they’re one of the more enjoyable and complete teams in recent memory.
Charles Matthews, Wing, Michigan
vs. 3 Texas Tech, Thursday, 6:39 p.m., CBS
Matthews is another super senior making a huge impact for a title contender—albeit on a different dimension than Johnson. He’s a tough defender who makes life hell for the opposing team’s best wing—Synergy marks him as holding opponents to 34.4% shooting overall, 84th percentile in the country—and he’s got the length, quickness, and height to become an solid NBA defender. Thursday’s match up with Texas Tech gives him a chance to cover lotto pick Jarrett Culver. Culver and Texas Tech run a bunch of pick-and-rolls—it’s Culver’s most used offensive play type, per Synergy—and Matthews hold opponents to 18.9% shooting (97th percentile!) off of pick-and-rolls. This is a matchup that shouldn’t be missed.
But with some major shooting concerns (50.2% true shooting percentage this season, 34% shooting on all jump shots in the half-court, and a career 31.4% mark on 204 threes attempted), Matthews might not be the best prospect on Michigan. That title might belong to Jordan Poole, who you may remember from his improbable game-winner in last year’s tournament. Poole is one of the weaker links in Michigan’s mostly ironclad defense, but he’s a crafty attack man and a solid shooter who borders on the absurd sometimes. There’s always a place in the NBA for electric, highly confident scorers.
Killian Tillie, Big, Gonzaga
vs. 4 Florida State, Thursday, 4:09 p.m., CBS
To the surprise of no one who has paid attention to the sport over the last decade, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are a damn good team. Not quite good enough to beat Saint Mary’s three times this year, but certainly good enough to win this year’s NCAA tournament. This is the best Gonzaga team I’ve ever watched (and as an SMC alumni, I’ve rage-watched them a lot); Rui Hachimura is a beast (if still figuring out how to shoot, pass, and control the ball), Brandon Clarke is the best Bulldog prospect I’ve scouted, and Zach Norvell Jr. is a talented two-way combo guard (37.3% from deep on 244 attempts this year). But big Killian Tillie has become the forgotten man this year, and he deserves to be remembered as a real NBA prospect.
Tillie struggled with ankle and foot injuries this season that limited him to just 13 games of action. He returned in the WCC tournament and has come off the bench to spell Hachimura and Clarke (who have locked down their starting spots), and in their 1st round win against 16 Farileigh Dickinson, he showcased why he was such a big name for Twitter-scouts last season; 17 points, 4 assists, 7-8 from the field, 2-2 from deep, and a highlight dunk in just 18 minutes of play.
The junior from France has the outside shot (46.9% career shooter from deep on 145 attempts), offensive versatility, and help-defense instincts to be a solid bench big in the NBA. He might not have the frame to be a traditional full-time 5, but last season (when healthy), he showed promise guarding smaller guys in space and on the perimeter.
Gonzaga’s big core faces a huge test against Florida State’s dou of Mfiondu Kabengele (6’10, 250 lbs) and Christ Koumadje (7’4, 270 lbs), so the Bulldogs may really need Tillie’s floor spacing ability on Thursday. He might be smart to stay in Spokane another year and remind the basketball world who he is when healthy, but if he enters the 2019 draft, he might be a sneaky selection whose draft stock was only limited by injuries.