NCAA Tournament: 15 seniors to appreciate in their final days

By Matt Norlander | Staff Writer

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Aaron Craft: the player people hate to love to hate. (USATSI)

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We've got quite a few really good graybeards bidding farewell to their college careers in this year's NCAA Tournament. Who knows how long some of these fellas will stick around. Undoubtedly a few won't even make it to Saturday, while a couple of others will have a decent shot at getting to North Texas.

So with the NCAA Tournament technically starting in just a few hours, let's give some credit to the senior stars in the field. Not only guys who've had huge impact in the past, but still could have a moment or two waiting in the coming days.

Some seniors to watch for as we get ready for the best postseason in American sports.

In alphabetical order:

Arizona State's Jordan Bachynski. Some might be saying, "Who?!" but you've gotta trust me on this. He's a center for the Sun Devils. Truly 7-feet-2. Led the Pac-12 in blocks and is one of the best defensive forces inside the paint in college basketball. Be sure to catch Texas' game against ASU late Thursday night. Nobody in college basketball looks as tall and so clearly built for the 5 in college hoops like Bachynski. He's been unheralded his whole career, but he's had a great senior season averaging 11.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.1 blocks.

North Dakota State's Taylor Braun. The Bison senior has big-time potential to be a key player for a Cinderella team. You know how these double-digit seeds flirt with the incredible and do it behind a guy who's unknown but then shows up and balls out against a big-time team? Braun (18.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists) is capable of that. At 6-7, he can go inside-out. Reminds me in some ways of one of the great all-time do-it-all small-schoool guys: Taylor Coppenrath.

Oklahoma State's Markel Brown. Was overlooked his first two years, and now has been overshadowed the past two by Marcus Smart. Brown is one of the best dunkers in college basketball. I hope he gets a chance to show off that athleticism of his against Arizona in the Round of 32.

Providence's Bryce Cotton. The Friars elder statesman just took PC to a Big East tourney title, only the second in the school's history. He was the MOP. Averaging 21.4 points, 5.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 39.9 minutes per game, he's the definition of necessary. Head coach Ed Cooley didn't mix well with Cotton at first, but the two have established a very good relationship over the past year and a half that's led to Cotton's vitality to the program.

Ohio State's Aaron Craft. Yes, you sit there, you watch Aaron Craft's career end, and you enjoy it. The Buckeyes point guard is one of the best on-ball defenders college hoops has seen in the past decade. People weirdly hate him for his hustle, but no matter, he's been one of the five or six most identifiable players in the sport for four years. That counts for something, too. Craft (9.6 points, 4.7 assists, 2.5 steals) and No. 6 Ohio State are not expected to reach the Sweet 16.

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Sean Kilpatrick and Cincinnati seem to be a team few are picking to the Sweet 16. Why? (USATSI)

Syracuse's C.J. Fair. The Syracuse senior was on pace to be a First Team All-American until late January. That's when freshman teammate Tyler Ennis took over. And then Syracuse started slipping up. Fair's had a natural progression, and his understated leadership has been pretty important to Syracuse's run. He's beloved by the fans, the kind of player that's got pro potential but casual college hoops fans won't remember in five years. Syracuse fans won't forget him, though.

Iowa State's DeAndre Kane. Kane's path has been very interesting. This is his sole season at Iowa State, where he was the only player in the country to average as much as 17.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists. Kane played his undergraduate years at Marshall. He was a solid mid-major player, but the explosion on the court this year was remarkable. At times he looked like an All-American. Without him, Iowa State would probably be closer to a six seed. He wears a certain number in honor of his late father.

Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick. Remarkable player in that he's humbly gone about his career, getting better and better each year. THIS GUY IS 24! Kilpatrick and Cincinnati were really damn good for most of the season. Getting that five seed was a bit of a slight, but then again the selection committee didn't much care for the AAC this season. Kilpatrick 20.7 points and 4.4 rebounds. He's a strong two-guard who still hasn't gotten enough respect/pub.

Creighton's Doug McDermott. The no-brainer pick. McDermott's currently fifth on the all-time scoring list in college basketball history (3,105). He's broke myriad Creighton, Big East and NCAA records this season. He also became the first player ever to win Player of the Year in two leagues, a record made possible due to Creighton's defection from the Missouri Valley to the Big East. March is for stars. A lot of people are expecting this team to at least go to the Sweet 16. And they want to see McDermott average 30/game on the way there. It's possible. He's the face of the sport heading into the NCAAs. And that SI cover was so cool.

Connecticut's Shabazz Napier. For my money, the most important player to any team's success of any guy listed here. Napier makes UConn a No. 7 seed, whereas the group would be in the NIT without him. He's got a great handle, can hit a big shot and has been a joy to watch since his freshman year -- when UConn won the whole thing. Yeah, a lot of people don't realize Napier played with Kemba Walker on that title-winning team. The need to compare those two is natural, so I did something along those lines earlier this season.

Michigan State's Adreian Payne. The versatile Sparty big man never thought he'd need four years. One, maybe two seasons -- then it'd be off to the NBA. But learning how to play the game, suffering through injuries, and expand his skill set have paid off for Payne. He can shoot it deep. He's a great rebounder. He's not quite everything to everyone that Draymond Green was a few years back (talk about a guy we miss see playing college basketball), but he's still a necessary force if Michigan State's going to make the Final Four run that a lot of people believe should happen. Payne was also subject of an amazing story, a young girl with cancer who became one of his friends.

Louisville's Russ Smith. Talk about a guy who makes college basketball a joyful experience. Smith originally didn't even hit Louisville's radar, way back when he was first recruited. But he's been an incredible force and entertaining watch for the past three seasons, stepping into a bigger role as a sophomore. He's an NBA-level defender and really an underrated passer. Rick Pitino nicknamed him "Russdiculous," and it's a moniker that will live on long after he's done. Guy is a joy to watch and a really fine human being.

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Russ Smith and Shabaz Napier: two of the top five or six players in the nation this year. (USATSI)

San Diego State's Xavier Thames. Guy has serious onions. Thames (16.8 PPG) and the Aztecs have only lost four games this season. He takes huge shots and is largely responsible for an unexpectedly blessed year for that team. When SDSU is playing in the Sweet 16, just remember his name. Steve Fisher has produced some fine players (hello, Kawhi Leonard). Few have been as vital to the culture like Thames. Relentless player.

UMass' Chaz Williams. You'll love watching him because he's 5-7, has great speed and really good strength. I had a feature on Williams last week that (I hope) is worth the read. Really interesting backstory there. UMass is dancing for the first time since the '90s, and this guy's the reason why. There's a fascination with really small players who do really big things. Williams fits the ideal. Last time I loved someone this small, his name was Speedy Claxton.

Florida's senior crop. I couldn't narrow it down. We end with the group on the No. 1 team that's trying to make its first Final Four. Scottie Wilbekin, Pat Young, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete have made the Elite Eight the past three years. Can they break through? This isn't like that UF squad that won back-to-back titles. It's not as good. But it's probably just as close. And it plays like a team just in the way those guys did. The Gators are one of the best teams that's lacked a superstar that I can recall in the past 10 years. It's pretty appropriate that, in a year of so many good seniors, it's a team filled with them that gets the No. 1 overall seed.

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