Granted, watching basketball all the time is part of my job, but it still amazes me how many people donâ€™t (or rarely) watch college hoops until the NCAA Tournament. Because of such inexcusable ignoring of Americaâ€™s best spectator sport (if you ask me), during the Big Dance I usually get peppered with â€śWho is that guy?â€ť or â€śWho does [Team X] got?â€ť questions.
Some of them make sense â€” even I canâ€™t say Iâ€™ve seen Wofford or UC Santa Barbara play this year â€” but a lot of the players who slip under the mainstream radar donâ€™t deserve the anonymity. After giving your four Players to Watch from the Midwest and South regions yesterday, here’s the West:
ASHTON GIBBS, Pittsburgh, PG, Soph.
Playing behind Levance Fields, Gibbs logged only 10 minutes a night as a freshman, but had his breakout performance over the summer: Winning a gold medal as a starter with Team USA at the Under-19 World Championships — a squad coached by Pittâ€™s Jamie Dixon. Gibbs hit the ground running when the season began, quickly becoming Pittâ€™s go-to guy. The Panthers will always play tough and inspired defense, but somebody needs to put the ball in the basket, which is where Gibbs (15.8 ppg, 1.9 apg) fits into the picture. Heâ€™s hitting 40 percent of his threes and almost 90 percent at the line, but on the days when his shot isnâ€™t falling, Pitt is in trouble. In the teamâ€™s eight losses this year, Gibbs has shot 27 percent (29-for-106) from the field.
DERRICK CARACTER, UTEP, PF, Jr.
You remember Caracter, right? He was All-Everything as far back as middle school, a manchild pegged as the next Amarâ€™e Stoudemire before any of us had even heard of Amarâ€™e. Following a tumultuous high school career he landed at Louisville, where he was a bad fit and left after two years. He resurfaced at UTEP this year, helping lead the Miners to a 15-1 record in Conference-USA while averaging 13.8 points and 8.0 rebounds with seven double-doubles. At 6-9, 275 pounds, Caracter is closer to Zach Randolph than Amarâ€™e at this point, a skilled four who eats up rebounds and has a soft touch around the basket. UTEP is as good a pick as any 12-seed to pull off a first-round upset; Butler big man Matt Howard was dominated by Greg Monroe earlier this year and is prone to foul trouble. If Caracter takes ownership of the paint, UTEP will advance.
ERVING WALKER (Soph.) & KENNY BOYNTON (Fr.), Florida, PG/SG
Each of Billy Donovanâ€™s three Final Four teams have been incredibly balanced, with quality guards (Teddy Dupay, Taurean Green), wings (Mike Miller, Corey Brewer) and bigs (Udonis Haslem, Joakim Noah, Al Horford) all working together as a selfless unit. This yearâ€™s Gators arenâ€™t going to the Final Four without significant help from a fairy godmother and some industrious rats, but they do have five players who average between 10 and 13 points per game: bigs Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin, wing Chandler Parsons, and guards Boynton (13.6 ppg) and Walker (12.6 ppg, 4.9 apg). The 5-8 Walker and 6-2 Boynton are undersized for their positions by NBA standards, but on the college level they comprise one of the most explosive backcourts in the country.
JORDAN CRAWFORD, Xavier, SG, Soph.
If you forgot about Crawford after the LeBron dunk-video story died down, you missed out on a good show. The transfer from Indiana was an instant hit with the Musketeers, leading the Atlantic 10 in scoring at 19.7 points per game to go with 4.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals. Early in the season he struggled against tough nonconference competition: Crawford shot 4-for-20 against Marquette, 6-for-19 against Baylor, 5-for-16 against Cincinnati and 5-for-13 against Kansas State, but after dropping 30 points on Wake Forest right before A-10 play began, he hit his stride. Crawford will attack the rim all day and can score in traffic, but heâ€™s not a very polished scorer yet, and guarantee Minnesotaâ€™s Tubby Smith has a game plan for him.