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March Madness 2019: 12 unheralded players who could impact the NCAA Tournament

Sporting News logo Sporting News 3/20/2019 Jacob Janower
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We know the main attractions of the 2019 NCAA Tournament by now.

Zion Williamson highlights are all over social media. His sidekick, RJ Barrett, isn't too bad himself. Cassius Winston plays point guard as well as anyone in the country. Rui Hachimura does it all for one of the nation's best teams. Grant Williams is a reliable maestro on both ends of the floor. The list goes on.

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The star power this year is plentiful, and if several of the top teams in the field play into the second weekend and beyond, the players listed above will almost certainly be a big reason why.

But of course every winning team goes beyond just the stars. Role players and less-heralded but instrumental pieces to the winning puzzle often shine in the NCAA Tournament. We saw it last year when Donte DiVincenzo came off the bench to score 31 points in the national championship game for Villanova.

The top three seeds in each region have the most reasonable chance to make a deep run, so here are 12 undervalued players — one from each team — that are names to remember, as they could have a big impact on the NCAA Tournament.

SN's BRACKET GUIDES: SOUTH | EAST | WEST | MIDWEST

Duke: Tre Jones, G

Jones is an extremely important piece for the Blue Devils, but most of the attention goes to future top 10 picks Williamson, Barrett, and Cam Reddish. As the point guard and offensive facilitator, Jones holds the keys for the Blue Devils. He won't light up the scoreboard, but he has 16 games with six-plus assists and Duke's offense noticeably lost a step during his short injury absence. The three other freshmen are deservedly worth the hype, but Jones is the engine that makes the car go.

Virginia: Mamadi Diakite, F

On a team that is rife with strong defenders, Diakite is one of the best. His 88.3 defensive rating per 100 possessions is third among Cavaliers regulars and he's assumed a larger role as of late, posting over two blocks per ACC game. Virginia is anchored by guards, but it will need strong play down low to make a big run, and Diakite fits the bill as help for De'Andre Hunter.

North Carolina: Nassir Little, F

It's a little crazy to think of Little — a projected top 10 pick in the NBA Draft — as underestimated, but the sixth man on a deep Tar Heels team brings a spark off the bench that not many other teams possess. He's fourth on North Carolina in points per game (9.4), despite averaging less than 20 minutes per game and boasts 20.5 PPG and 10.5 rebounds per 40 minutes. Little's potential seems to be coming around, and if North Carolina makes a deep tournament run, expect him to be a big part of it.

BRACKET TIPS: KenPom | Play the odds | Idiot's guide

Gonzaga: Killian Tillie, F

Tillie's return is coming at a perfect time for Gonzaga, which gets another weapon for the tournament. Tillie had the potential to be a top three player for the Bulldogs had he stayed healthy, but he may fly under the radar on a Bulldogs team that has three players — Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, and Zach Norvell — all averaging over 15 PPG. Tillie averaged nearly 13 PPG last year and shot 48 percent from 3. If he can average 20 minutes a game, it would be a huge boost to an already loaded group.

Tennessee: Kyle Alexander, F

At 6-11, Alexander is a force for the Volunteers. He's strong on both sides of the ball (125.5 offensive rating, 96.5 DRtg) and leads all Tennessee regulars in field-goal percentage (62.6) and blocks per game (1.7). Teams will focus on Williams and Admiral Schofield, but Alexander fills his role well for the Vols.

Michigan State: Kenny Goins, F

Goins has had quite the glow-up for Michigan State. He never averaged more than 3.4 PPG over his first three seasons. This year? 8.3. He had four made 3-pointers in his first three seasons. This year? 50. Goins started really hitting his stride after Joshua Langford and Nick Ward went down with injuries, and his emergence has been just what the doctor ordered for the Winston-led Spartans. Outside of a ho-hum Big Ten championship game, he's averaged 12.3 PPG and 9.3 RPG in his last nine contests.

MORE BRACKET PICKS: DeCourcy (Duke) | Bender (Duke) | Fagan (Duke)

Kentucky: Ashton Hagans, G

Like Jones, Hagans isn't a star but is the point guard behind one of the nation's most potent offenses. Hagans has had growing pains as a freshmen, but he's averaging 9.2 assists per 100 possessions and is coming off his first double-double of the season. Kentucky has better scoring options, but Hagans is an instrumental part of the offense.

Michigan: Jon Teske, F

Like his in-state counterpart Goins, Teske has improved vastly over his college career. His 7-1 frame disrupts offenses, and he leads the Wolverines in RPG (6.9) and BPG (2.1). Add to that his ability to shoot 3s, his 22.6 player efficiency rating, 124.7 ORtg, and 85.9 DRtg, all of which lead the team, and Teske is a dangerous player on an extremely dangerous Michigan team.

LSU: Kavell Bigby-Williams, F

Teams will largely focus on the Tigers' three-headed monster of Tremont Waters, Skylar Mays, and Naz Reid, but Bigby-Williams deserves a lot of credit as well. The Oregon transfer has Final Four experience and has the highest PER (24.6) and ORtg (131.6) on the team.

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Texas Tech: Tariq Owens, F

Another transfer, Owens, can key a deep run for the Red Raiders. Owens earns his stripes defensively as a shot-blocker. His 2.4 BPG is second in the Big 12, but he can also score (8.8 PPG). His 79.5 free throw percentage makes him a big man you don't want to foul. Owens is another player who finished the year strong, with six double-digit points performances in his last eight games. He had multiple blocks in all but one of those contests. If he carries that into the NCAA tournament, it makes Texas Tech even more dangerous.

Purdue: Ryan Cline, G

The Boilermakers are essentially Carsen Edwards and several role players, so you have your pick of the litter when highlighting someone who should be appreciated more. Cline, a senior, hits on 42 percent of his 3s and is the only other Boilermaker averaging at least 10 PPG. When all the attention goes to Edwards, Cline immediately becomes someone who can get a clutch bucket or two.

Houston: Dejon Jarreau, G

The Cougars are Corey Davis' team, but Jarreau can really shoot it (46/38/69 FG/3PT/FT percentage) and is a stout defender on one of the nation's best defensive squads. HIs 20.3 PER makes him dangerous as a third option to Davis and Armoni Brooks.

Related slideshow: Best of the NCAA Tournament (Provided by imagn)

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