East Regional player to watch
Zion Williamson F, Duke
If you start watching this freshman play, good luck taking your eyes off him. The South Carolina native is a 6-7, 285-pound athletic force who can do it all.
Williamson missed five games because of a knee injury suffered Feb. 20, only seconds into a battle with North Carolina, when his right foot ripped through his Nike.
Duke fans held their breath, wondering if he and the team would be the same. He returned just in time to lead Duke to the ACC tournament title. He made all 13 shots he took in Thursday’s victory over Syracuse and finished the tournament averaging 27 points and 10 rebounds.
“He can do things that nobody has done in this game,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said.
South Regional player to watch
PJ Washington F, Kentucky
Washington considered entering the NBA draft after last season but opted to return for his sophomore season. Smart move.
The versatile forward increased his production to earn first-team All-SEC honors after leading the Wildcats in scoring (14.8) and rebounds (7.5) while making 52 percent of his shots.
Washington presents a difficult matchup because he’s able to shoot from the outside, too. He’s made 31 of 74 three-point attempts (42 percent).
“I believe he’s as good as any player in the country when he’s in a frame of mind that ‘I’m coming after you and you’re not as good as me,’ ” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “So I’m just challenging him to be that guy.”
West Regional player to watch
Ja Morant G, Murray State
Morant was an underappreciated high school point guard at Crestwood High in Sumter, S.C.
In two seasons at Murray State, he has turned himself into a projected top-two NBA draft pick with a dazzling array of drives and dishes. This season he averaged 24.6 points, 10.0 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals. The Racers went 27-4 and won the Ohio Valley Conference championship after Morant dropped 36 points on Belmont last week.
At 6-3, 175, Morant is lean and quick, with a killer crossover and the ability to finish at the rim, whether he’s dunking over a larger opponent or scooping in a shot in traffic. He averaged 30.7 points in Murray State’s past three games.
Midwest Regional player to watch
Talen Horton-Tucker G, Iowa State
This isn’t a former five-star recruit like Duke’s freshmen foursome — and he’s not even the second-leading scorer on his own team. Still, the 6-4, 238-pound Horton-Tucker is the X-factor for the Cyclones, who have the potential to make a run possibly further than their Sweet 16 trip in 2014.
The former Illinois and Chicago-area prep player of the year has the frame, athleticism and length (7-foot wingspan) that intrigues NBA scouts. His six 20-point games this season included a 21-point performance with five threes vs. Baylor that helped end a three-game losing streak and start the Big 12 tournament title run.
Horton-Tucker is averaging 12.1 points and 5.0 rebounds in his first college season.