Personnel dictates results. Much as we focus on the coaches — particularly in college basketball — that simple fact still rings true. There’s no substitute for good players and, predictably, there are no shortage of good players at the Final Four. Villanova’s Jay Wright, Kansas’ Bill Self, Michigan’s John Beilein and Loyola-Chicago’s Porter Moser will (deservedly) get plenty of publicity in the lead-up to Saturday, but the players are the ones who will decide the game.
Therefore, it stands to reason that familiarizing ourselves with some of those guys might be a good idea. This list will examine the three most important players on each team remaining in the NCAA tournament. These are the guys whose shoulders the result will rest upon. Most important player doesn’t always mean best player either — though the two often overlap, this is a category of its own. Because we’re just as impatient as you, let’s jump right into it.
Jalen Brunson, Villanova
Brunson has always been one of the better players on one of the best teams in the country, but he stepped it up a notch this year. The junior took home Big East Player of the Year honors after tallying 19.2 points and 4.6 assists on an absurd 61.1 effective field-goal percentage this season. Brunson hasn’t slowed down in the postseason either. He’s posted an offensive rating above 120 in all but one game in March, per KenPom. During the only game of that stretch Villanova was seriously challenged — the Big East tournament final, in which Providence took the Wildcats to overtime (and proceeded to lose by 12) — Brunson dropped 31 points, six rebounds and four assists. Nobody has found a way to slow him down yet, and it’s no coincidence that the same applies to ‘Nova’s offense.
Mikal Bridges, forward, Villanova
Between Bridges and Brunson, good luck limiting the Wildcats. Both rank in the top-five on KenPom’s Player of the Year standings, and Brunson is 12th nationally with a 130 offensive rating among players used on at least 20 percent of possessions. He’s ruthlessly efficient, clocking in with a 62.1 effective field-goal percentage and 65.4 true shooting percentage. He scores from everywhere, then pulls down over five boards per game. Villanova has the best offense in the country, according to KenPom, and by a fairly wide margin at that. The difference between them and Kansas — the next-best Final Four team in adjusted offensive efficiency and one that ranks fifth overall — is wider than the gap between Kansas and Houston, which ranks 39th in the category. The Wildcats have Bridges to thank.
Donte DiVincenzo, forward, Villanova
Brunson and Bridges are, undoubtedly, the keys to Villanova’s everything. But DiVincenzo is vital to the Wildcats’ offense as well. The sophomore has an assist rate slightly above 20 percent — an impressive mark for a wing — and drops in 38.5 percent of his 3-pointers. DiVincenzo is a good defender as well, the type who could present problems for Kansas’ Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk come Saturday. He’s an irreplaceable cog in Jay Wright’s machine. Once Brunson and Bridges are gone, DiVincenzo will step into stardom without a hitch. For now though, he’s playing second fiddle — and doing a damn good job at it.
Devonte’ Graham, guard, Kansas
Kansas has gone somewhat under the radar — at least until now. Without a one-and-done anchoring the Jayhawks, it’s easy to forget just how dominant a player Graham, the Big 12 Player of the Year, can be. During the tournament, Graham has been good, but not great. Though he’s dished out assists like hotcakes, Graham has only broken his seasonal scoring average once in four games — that contest being the first round against 16-seeded Penn. He’s also shot just 34 percent from the field in those games, which is less than ideal, to put it lightly. The Jayhawks survived Duke and, despite a poor shooting performance, Graham’s six rebounds, six assists and defense over 45 minutes were a big part of that. But his scoring needs to be there against Villanova. Anything less than Graham’s best performance will translate to a loss for the Jayhawks.
Udoka Azubuike, center, Kansas
Azubuike came into March Madness as one of the biggest question marks in the field, after missing his last three Big 12 tournament games with injury. He managed to get on the floor in the first round, accompanied by cheers from what amounted to a home crowd for the Jayhawks in Wichita, but played for all of three minutes. Since then, he’s seen a more regular diet of playing time; over 20 minutes in all but one game, and gotten progressively better. Though he played just 19 minutes in the Elite Eight, Azubuike’s 137 offensive rating was his best since February 13, per KenPom. He won’t get big minutes in the Final Four either — Azubuike averaged just 23.5 per game all year — but he can make those minutes count. The seven-footer is a rebounding and shot-blocking menace whose size gives him the ability to drop in hook shots over almost anyone. Foul shooting is the only detriment to his game, but Azubuike can cause so much havoc in the paint that without him, the Jayhawks often seem lost.
Malik Newman, guard, Kansas
The Jayhawks needed a hero to get past Duke. His name was Malik Newman. The redshirt sophomore dropped 32 points on 5-of-12 shooting from 3, then grabbed seven rebounds and picked up three steals. Newman carried Kansas in a game where it had little else to fall back on. No other player scored more than 14 points. Newman did everything, then did a little more. If he has to carry the offense again, it’ll be more than a little unsettling for the Jayhawks, but his being capable of doing so makes him vital for Saturday’s contest. Kansas will have to pitch a proverbial perfect game to get by Villanova, and Newman is no exception. If he can get hot, the Jayhawks could find themselves in the national championship.
Clayton Custer, guard, Loyola-Chicago
Custer won the Missouri Valley Player of the Year, but his raw numbers — 13.2 points and 4.2 assists per game — don’t jump off the page. When you watch the Ramblers’ offense, though, a machine-like medley of ball-screens, dribble-handoffs and motion, it doesn’t take long to realize just how pivotal Custer is to their success. The junior runs it all — the ball is in his hands constantly. He’s one of the only players Loyola has who consistently takes pull-up jumpers, but Custer does so well enough that it doesn’t especially matter. He has a 63.4 effective field-goal percentage and, though most of them are open, knocks in 46.5 percent from 3. Combine that with an assist rate above 25 percent, per KenPom, and Custer is the catalyst behind one of the most impressively constructed offenses to show its face in the tournament. Stopping it will be no easy task for Michigan.
Carmeron Krutwig, center, Loyola-Chicago
Krutwig is the only traditional big man who gets real minutes for the Ramblers. He’s a serious threat on the block, posting a 60.5 effective field-goal percentage with most of his points coming from the post. Krutwig’s intrigue as it relates to this weekend, however, comes on the other end. Though an offensive threat, Krutwig is a plodder on the other end, the type Michigan consistently takes advantage of by putting Moritz Wagner in pick-and-pop situations and forcing opposing centers to guard the perimeter. If Krutwig can’t do that effectively — and it’s hard to make an argument he can — Moser must considering limiting minutes. However, his offensive ability is tantalizing, especially given that Wagner often struggles in post defense. If Krutwig can somehow keep up on defense, the Ramblers could easily pull off yet another upset.
Aundre Jackson, forward, Loyola-Chicago
When Krutwig isn’t at the ‘5’, it’ll be Jackson and Donte Ingram at the big positions. Who plays what position in those lineups is almost irrelevant. The Ramblers can switch everything — and likely will against Michigan. Of course, it’s one thing to be able to switch everything and another to do it well. Jackson is capable of filling both categories, but he’ll need to be on his A-game. The Wolverines struggled against switching defenses earlier in the year, but have feasted on them of late. Wagner has a notable height advantage over Jackson and won’t hesitate to use it. Loyola’s defense is top-20 in the country, though, and the switching they can do with Jackson on the floor is a big reason why. The Ramblers don’t have much room for error in this game, particularly on defense, where Michigan is vulnerable. Anything less than Jackson’s best game could send Loyola packing.
Zavier Simpson, guard, Michigan
Simpson has been a revelation for the Wolverines this season. The sophomore has lived in the personal space of every point guard in the Big Ten, anchoring a defense that ranks fourth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom. He’s the leader of this team — in practice, in the huddle, in games. Simpson’s offense has made strides since the start of the year, particularly his finishing at the rim, but if you’re looking for one, singular reason Michigan has gotten this far in the first place, it’s defense. And that starts with Simpson. Custer will presumably be his matchup on Saturday, and he’ll have to do what Cassius Winston, Carsen Edwards and, well, everyone else couldn’t. Simpson’s defense is the lynchpin upon which Michigan’s success has been built this season. To call him anything less than the Wolverines’ most important player would be flat-out wrong.
Charles Matthews, forward, Michigan
Matthews’ ascension in the last month has never been more evident than now. After struggling offensively for most of the year, he’s found his stride. In the Elite Eight, Matthews anchored Michigan’s offense, scoring 17 points and grabbing eight boards. He’s found efficiency from inside the arc (though 3-point shooting has yet to come), and the ability to thrive within Beilein’s system which eluded him early on. Matthews’ defense shouldn’t be made light of either. He’s been pivotal on that end all year, quietly helping Michigan turn into a defensive-minded team. Next to Simpson, he’s the Wolverines’ best defender. After finding his footing on offense, Matthews took home the West Region’s Most Outstanding Player. If that resurgence continues into the Final Four, he may take home another, bigger MOP when the tournament is all said and done.
Moritz Wagner, forward, Michigan
Wagner has struggled in all but one NCAA tournament — Michigan’s 99-72 drubbing of Texas A&M. There won’t be as much room for error now. Though the Wolverines’ offense hasn’t been the reason they’ve gotten this far, Wagner is its lynchpin. He can torch traditional big men off pick-and-pops and his improvement on the boards has been the biggest reason for Michigan jumping to 31st in defensive rebounding rate, per KenPom. If Wagner gets it going on Saturday, he’ll keep Krutwig off the floor. That matchup could well decide who moves on to the national championship. He’ll need to find an offensive rhythm that’s eluded him for much of the tournament, but if Wagner does, it’s pretty hard to see Michigan losing.