As we embrace the hype that comes with the Final Four (thankfully, it comes nowhere close to the overblown monstrosity of the Super Bowl), we'll hear about plenty of storylines, star players and what people are picking what teams.
But can we have a few moments here to give some attention to the players who get lost in the shuffle? The guys who serve a role on their teams that are often most appreciated by their fellow players and the coaches in the locker room. You can call them unsung heroes or glue guys or whatever you'd like. We like to call them basketball players.
Here's our list of four players who can and will contribute in a big way for their teams, should they find success Saturday and/or Monday night.
Duke's Brian Zoubek. Oh, yes. You see that face above? That's Tree Beard. Fitting, as the man sets a mean screen. We're talking an oak-tree type of block in the middle of the lane. While Zoubek has been a lightning rod for fans' jokes (he's awkward, tall, white and a stiff!), he has had a productive year. Unafraid to play against anybody, Tree Beard has been the senior leader for a Duke front line that saw a boost in its play unlike anything Duke could boast since the early 2000s.
Zoubek was the player who drew the charge call on Quincy Acy that set the hoops world aflame Sunday night. So he and the rest of the Blue Devils enter the Final Four with a bit more venom being flung their way than would have normally been the case. Tough around the hoop and able to grab a few clutch offensive rebounds, Zoubek may be a critical cog in the Blue Devils getting past lengthy West Virginia.
West Virginia's Wellington Smith. Whether you've followed WVU all season or just in the past month, you've gotten to know a lot about this team's personality, the fashion tactics of its head coach (more on that coming here at The Dagger tomorrow) and just how clutch Da'Sean Butler is. Yet, I bet if I had chosen to put Wellington Smith's picture at the top of this post instead of Zoubek's you probably couldn't have told me who it was.
Smith, a starter, averages a humble seven points, four rebounds, one block and one assist per game. But he's 6-7 and adds to that length in the WVU 1-3-1 zone that frustrated Kentucky to no end. While Butler and Devin Ebanks are the future pros on this team, Smith is the player that complete this team and makes it a Final Four squad. A zone defense is only as good as the personnel you put into it. In the 1-3-1 scheme, Smith knows and plays his role as well as anyone in the lineup. The definition of a pest you won't find on paper.
Michigan State's Draymond Green. Are there five players in college with a higher basketball IQ than Green? He was the guy (all 6-foot-6, 235 pounds of him) who dribbled the ball up the floor before Michigan State beat Maryland at the buzzer in the second round. And he was the guy who received the pass, then deftly sent the orange on to his teammate, Raymar Morgan, with the clock nearing expiration in the game against Tennessee Sunday. Poise and awareness, that's Draymond Green.
I talked with Green on Tuesday, and he told me he became the capable ball-handler and passer he is today because was an oversized point guard all through his youth. Even when he was 9 years old and twice the size of the boys he was playing against, his coach, who was his uncle, had him learn how to handle the ball and be an effective point guard. Opponents can't necessarily scheme around stopping Green because he's proven he can hit a 15-foot jump shot and feed the inside to the post — you'd think he's the one who needs to be the one that's fed. Few players define X-factor like Green does.
Butler's Ronald Nored. The name conjures up a feeling of defense, right? You almost think NORAD. Well, Nored defends space and gives little to you on the court. Who doesn't love a good lock-up defender? That's exactly what he is. In fact, Nored shut down a player known for his deadly offense and defense: Kansas State's Jacob Pullen. Nored is the new white-on-rice defender that most all college basketball color commentators love. Did you see how Nored flustered Andy Rautins, too? Sure Rautins got off 15 points, but it arguably one of the most frustrating 15-point outputs of the SU shooting guard's career.
If Butler can wins the national title it's going to be in part because of what Nored does with his assignment(s). His play is nothing new; we just haven't been able to see it on television all this year. Nored averages six points, four assists and two steals per game. He is not a threat on offense. But that's OK because the other team's threat will most likely be nullified.
No better one-on-one defender. We promise you.
- Brian Zoubek