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A Sixers’ Fan’s Guide to Watching the NCAA Tournament

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NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament Final-Notre Dame vs Duke Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The field is set and March Madness tips off in a few days, ringing in another year of upsets, busted brackets, and sending all of your money to Becky in Accounting after she somehow wins the office pool despite not watching a single minute of basketball all year long.

I’m not here to handicap the tournament for you— I’d probably get it all wrong anyway. But I am here to provide you with a handy guide for matchups to check out and players to monitor if you want to get a head start on Sixers’ draft talk. With two potential Top 5 picks, plus a bevy of second rounders (as many as four this year), and the potential to package some of those plus a certain lethargic former Blue Devil center for a late first round pick, there are plenty of storylines for Sixers’ fans to pay attention to.

Possible Future Sixers to Watch:

Tier 1: The High Lottery Hopeful Stars

Markelle Fultz missed the tournament. For the second year in a row, the presumed top overall draft pick will not be dancing this March. That’s okay! There are plenty of other top-end players who will be dancing, and who Bryan Colangelo’s Trust Fund may deem acceptable for a Top 5 selection this year. Here are some of the biggest names in that area.

Josh Jackson, SF/PF, Kansas
1-Seed in the Midwest
Jackson’s biggest weakness is his jumpshot, but since the coaching staff at KU tinkered with his form, he has been a pretty solid jump shooter throughout conference play. As an elite defensive prospect who has some creative upside as a playmaker, he could wind up the best player in the draft.

Jayson Tatum, SF/PF, Duke
2-Seed in the East
Tatum struggled to find his shot early in the season, but he has come on strong over the last few weeks of conference play. He has struggled to finish at the rim, and isn’t nearly the defender or passer that Jackson is. Still, there are enough skills to give him an intriguing upside.

Lonzo Ball, PG/SG, UCLA
3-Seed in the South
Ball has been one of the most heavily publicized and hyped prospects this year, as he has played a large role in turning around one of the nation’s biggest programs. He would be a perfect complement to Ben Simmons’ uptempo playing style, as an elite passer and a deep threat to shoot from anywhere off the dribble. There are questions about his ability to conduct and defend the pick-and-roll, which is not a small deal for an NBA point guard.

Malik Monk, SG, Kentucky
2-Seed in the South
Monk is one of the best freshman shooters we’ve seen in a long time, combining high volume with elite efficiency and a diverse shot profile. If he can develop his nascent playmaking and ball handling skills to be a better-rounded player in the halfcourt, his offensive skills could outshine his weak defense to make him a very valuable player. When he’s hot, there are few players who are more exciting in college basketball.

Jonathan Isaac, SF/PF, Florida State
3-Seed in the West
At 6’10 with a 7’1 wingspan, Isaac is the largest of the wing prospects, and also the most intriguing as a defender. A quick player off his feet, he has real utility as a weak-side shot blocker, and can slide in space and switch onto smaller players without issue. While he has shown promise as a spot-up shooter, it is doubtful he’ll ever become impactful as a slasher or creator. But he’s still a very intriguing player.

Lauri Markkanen, PF/C, Arizona
2-Seed in the West
Markkanen is a pick who would scare me, but I could see Bryan being attracted to him. It is not hyperbole to call Markkanen one of the greatest shooting big men prospects of all time— he has merged volume and efficiency to an impressive degree this season, and he is the real deal there. The problem is every other aspect of his game, where he varies from scarily bad (defense, passing, defense, and defense), to average at best (handling in space, rebounding). His shooting would be a much-needed lubricant next to Simmons and Embiid, but questions over whether it will outweigh his defense abound.

De’Aaron Fox, PG, Kentucky
2-Seed in the South
Fox looks the part of an outstanding lead guard prospect. He’s tall and long, exceptionally fast with the ball in his hands, limits his turnovers, sports a good handle, and possesses lead guard-caliber vision and passing chops. The fly in the ointment is his shooting, and in his case it might even be more of a cockroach in the ointment. He’s one of the worst PG shooters in recent history among high-caliber prospects, and it makes him a scary proposition on this Sixers’ team. Still, most draft sites are mocking him in or near the Top 5, so he’s one to watch in case he winds up in Philadelphia.

Tier 2: Late 1st Round & Early 2nd Round Possibilities

While the Sixers do not currently have a late first round pick, they do sport two picks in the Top 10 of the second round, where they are currently projected to go 37 & 40. It’s conceivable that they package these picks, perhaps with a player, to move into an area where these player could get chosen.

Donovan Mitchell, SG, Louisville
2-Seed in the Midwest
Mitchell is a bulldog of a defender who has seen his stock shoot up this year as his shooting stroke has developed. He’s a great athlete who plays above the rim and plays bigger than his 6’3 size. An elite point-of-attack defender, he is the catalyst for Louisville’s withering pressure defense that has turned all opposing prospects into duds, from Brandon Ingram through Bruce Brown. He has an unpolished handle, but as a big 1 or small 2, he could be a great fit next to Ben Simmons.

Josh Hart, SG, Villanova
1-Seed in the East
Hart has been one of my sleeper favorites all year long. He is remarkably well-rounded, showing skills as a shot-creator for both himself and his teammates, and he consistently generates high-efficiency looks on the offensive end of the court. While he will never be mistaken for a lockdown defender, he plays hard on that end, and contributes positively there. Expect him to overachieve his selection place if he goes in the 2nd round.

Jawun Evans, PG, Oklahoma State
10-Seed in the Midwest
Evans has been overworked as the do-it-all engine for a mediocre OSU team. Still, despite sporting sky-high USG and AST rates, he’s managed decent efficiency, and has kept his team playing above their expectations. He could turn into a strong backup at the PG position, and may even develop into an above average starter. If the Cowboys advance to the second round, his matchup with Louisville’s speed and athleticism will be one to watch.

Dillon Brooks, SG/SF, Oregon
3-Seed in the Midwest
Oregon’s national title hopes have faded a bit following Chris Boucher’s torn ACL, but they remain a dangerous tournament team in large part because of Brooks. He has developed into a strong playmaker who can shoot from deep off-the-dribble, penetrate into the lane, and dish to open teammates. He’s not an outstanding defender, but he competes and can contend with athletes, and he could be a fun addition to the Sixers’ wing rotation.

Luke Kennard, SG, Duke
2-Seed in the East
Kennard has probably been Duke’s best overall player this year, serving as the fulcrum for their offense. He’ll be a disaster on defense in the NBA, but he’s so skilled on offense that it is conceivable for him to carve out a hyper-efficient role at the 2, ala Seth Curry. Athleticism will be a struggle for him on both sides of the court.

Tier 3: Long Shot Players to Monitor Who May Not Declare

Mikal Bridges, SG/SF, Villanova
1-Seed in the East
For the second year in a row, Bridges has been the best defensive player for one of the best teams in the country. He is an ace defensive wing with incredible length, athleticism, and versatility, who can add immediate oomph to any defensive lineup. The questions will come on the offensive end, where his lack of aggression holds him back. While there are worries about his shot, he has put together a 50-40-90 season this year (Ed. Note: He’s now shooting 39.3% from deep after an 0-4 Big East Championship),.

Bruce Brown, SG/SF, Miami
8-Seed in the Midwest
After struggling with his shot early in the year, Brown came on strong to start conference play and looks like a strong 2-way prospect going forward. He has struggled to shoot off the dribble, but he has some handling ability to pair with plus vision, and he’s one of the better off-ball wing defenders in the draft.

Ethan Happ, PF, Wisconsin
8-Seed in the East
The biggest threat to Villanova’s title defense may meet them as early as the second round this year. Happ is one of the best big men in the NCAA this year, and will be a difficult assignment for a Wildcat team notoriously undersized in the frontcourt. Happ has struggled with his shot, but is outlier good at nearly every other basketball skill. If he could ever learn to shoot, he may turn into a diamond in the rough.

Markis McDuffie, SG/SF, Wichita State
10-Seed in the South
Every year, Wichita State seems to come into the tournament under-seeded and primed to upset a more hyped opponent. Every year, some of their unsung two-way guys play solid defense, shutting down a bigger name, and contributing on offense. Following the departures of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, Markis McDuffie could take over the mantle, as an athletic wing who shoots well from outside. If they get past Dayton, the Shockers’ matchup with Kentucky could be a fantastic 2-10 matchup.

Potential Matchups to Watch:

There are plenty of other intriguing prospects playing in the tournament, but this is a good slate from which to start. Here are some potential first weekend matchups that could be gold from a scouting perspective.

(1) Kansas vs. (8) Miami/(9) Michigan State
Whichever team emerges from this 8-9 matchup to face Josh Jackson will provide some great TV. The direct Miles Bridges-Josh Jackson battle has scouts salivating, but don’t sleep on Miami’s athletes to put the pressure on this Jayhawk team.

(2) Kentucky vs. (10) Wichita State
As covered above, Wichita State is criminally underseeded by the committee. Expect them to give the Wildcats a run for their money, although the Fox-Monk combo may be too much for the Shockers to handle in the backcourt.

(2) Louisville vs. (10) Oklahoma State
There is no better test for ballhandlers than Louisville’s pressure defense, and Jawun Evans could do himself a lot of favors with a strong showing in this game.

(4) West Virginia vs. (5) Notre Dame
Jevon Carter may be one of the better under the radar prospects, as a truly elite defender at the point guard position. WVU’s press defense will be tough for most teams to prepare for on a short break, but Mike Brey’s Irish play enough skilled players (led by VJ Beachem and Bonzie Colson) that they may succeed in cracking it. All three players have some potential to stick in the league.

(3) UCLA vs. (11) Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons will need to win three straight games to give us this matchup, but if they get here, it will be great to see their stud PF, John Collins, matched up against TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu. Moreover, UCLA’s pristine spacing will force him to defend in space against NBA-caliber athletes, and could expose his defense, or prove its legitimacy.

(1) Villanova vs. (8) Wisconsin
This matchup was almost cruel for the committee to gift their #1 overall team. Villanova is remarkably weakness-free on the perimeter, as they sport shooting at 4 positions and plus creation from multiple players as well. But they are a very undersized team, and Happ is custom-made to exploit that. It could be a very nervous Saturday for Wildcat fans unaware of the Badgers’ leading man.