Top prospects to watch, prospect matchups of the opening round of the NCAA tournament

Can Trae Young find his shooting stroke in the tournament? (AP)
Can Trae Young find his shooting stroke in the tournament? (AP)

The NCAA tournament is here, which means NBA draft season is getting closer too.

With that in mind, here are an assortment of prospects and individual matchups worth watching as your brackets get destroyed on the tournaments opening weekend.

PG Trae Young, Fr., Oklahoma vs. Rhode Island’s backcourt

During Young’s last eight games — six of which the Sooners lost — the diminutive guard has shot 33 percent from the floor. Even more concerning is his 25 percent 3-point shooting during that span. So what’s happened?

Defenses have loaded up on him, icing ball screens and banging his slight frame with stronger, longer defenders, which is why his turnovers also have skyrocketed. “He got tired,” a former NBA executive told Yahoo Sports. “But he’s a really good player who could help himself [draft-wise] in the tournament.”

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“He hit a little bit of a freshman wall,” an opposing Division I coach told Yahoo Sports. “Shooting is confidence. … Defenses are also guarding him a little bit better. If he hits his first couple shots, you’re in real trouble.”

Young has a tall task now in facing an experienced Rhode Island backcourt that will make him work for everything. The Rams have a pair of outstanding senior guards with tournament experience in Jared Terrell (17 points per game on 42 percent from 3-point range) and E.C. Matthews (13 points per game). Both of them will get a crack at Young, who will have to generate space off ball screens and hunt for transition threes.

PG Collin Sexton, Fr., Alabama vs. Virginia Tech’s backcourt

Let Sexton get downhill and it’s lights out. But contain his drive and force the ball out of his hands by trapping ball screens, and he becomes vulnerable. Sexton did more of the former in the SEC tournament, where he saved the Tide’s season with a game-winning floater against Texas A&M. In three tourney games, the former top-10 national recruit averaged 26 points on 52 percent shooting, including drilling 10-of-19 3-pointers. The Hokies’ team focus is on the backcourt, an area of expertise for coach Buzz Williams, dating back to his Marquette days with Jimmy Butler, Wes Matthews and Darius Johnson-Odom. Tech, however, is not a great defensive club, ranking outside the top 50 in defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy.

F Keita Bates-Diop, RS Jr., Ohio State vs. F Mike Daum Jr., South Dakota State

If you like offensive versatility, then this matchup is for you. After earning Big Ten Player of the Year for Chris Holtmann’s Buckeyes, Bates-Diop, who had leg surgery last season, will look to display the type of Swiss Army-knife game that made him so effective this year. At 6-foot-7, Bates-Diop can spot up and bury a three (36 percent), post up or simply isolate and get to the rim. He possesses a nasty pull-up game anywhere inside 20 feet, where he simply uses his dynamic leaping ability to elevate over a defender.

Bates-Diop will have his hands full with the Jackrabbits’ Mike Daum, a hyper-efficient offensive player with shades of Kevin Love. Can he body Daum and use his length? If so, he wins the matchup and the Bucks advance. If not, the 6-foot-9 Daum — the two-time Summit League Player of the Year — will become an instant storyline. He’s averaging 23.8 points (sixth in country) and 10.4 rebounds (tied for 13th) this season, while connecting on over 42 percent of his threes.

C Wendell Carter, Fr., Duke

Two GMs have told me how much they like Carter. “He has a lot of Al Horford to him,” one noted. “The way he moves, he has soft hands and a soft touch.” While fellow superstar freshman Marvin Bagley III has garnered most of the headlines this year, the 6-foot-10, 259-pound Carter has been a glass-eating nightmare for opponents. Able to finish with both hands in the paint, run the floor and step outside to 18 feet, Carter could conceivably catapult himself into the top five with a strong performance in the tournament. One executive told Yahoo Sports that even at the beginning of the year, he was more impressed with Carter than Bagley. “He can do a lot of things,” the executive said. “I like him.”

F Michael Porter Jr., Fr., Missouri

He’s played less than 30 minutes this season because of a back injury, but Porter Jr. remains one of the most talented players in the tournament. “He’s a freak,” said a former college coach who recruited Porter. “Michael can do it all. Whatever you need, he can do it.” Fair enough. Porter has to show a more fluid game, however, than he did in the Tigers’ SEC tournament loss to Georgia, when he missed 12-of-17 shots and lacked his trademark explosiveness.

F Killian Tillie, Soph., Gonzaga

Tillie is off the national radar, but not for long. At 6-foot-10, the bouncy Frenchman has all of the tools NBA executives look for in a new-age four man: Tillie is athletic and can step away from the basket and shoot it (50 percent on threes, 76 percent free throws). He also guards ball screens well and displays a nastiness and grit that is required at the next level. From a per-40-minute basis, few bigs are more productive than this 20-year-old, who averaged 21 points, nine rebounds and nearly two blocks per game this season. An argument can be made that Tillie has more upside than former Gonzaga big Domantas Sabonis, a lottery pick in 2016 who’s enjoying a solid season with the Pacers.

F Miles Bridges, Soph., Michigan State

At a sturdy 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, Bridges’ stock seemed to have dipped, simply because he returned for his sophomore year. All he’s done this year, though, is average 17 points and seven rebounds on a highly efficient 46-37-88 percent shooting split. Maybe he’s Michael Beasley, or maybe he’s a more versatile version. Bridges can really help himself in March if he displays a consistent ability to make 3-point shots and guarding both the block and perimeter at a high level.

C Mohamed Bamba, Fr., Texas

One Big 12 college head coach told Yahoo: “He intimidates you. You walk out on the floor and you’re like, ‘Oh, snap.’ He’s so long and physically imposing. You combine the length [7-foot-9 wingspan, 9-foot-6 standing reach] and athleticism, and he’s very scary.” Bamba blocks 3.7 shots per game and has the dexterity necessary to excel on both ends of the floor. How aggressive he is and how well he shoots the ball in the tournament could ultimately determine his draft position.

G D’Marcus Simonds, Soph., Georgia State

Simonds can really go. He may be the Russell Westbrook of the mid-majors. Simonds has a power game, able to attack the paint and enforce his will. The Georgia native ranks in the top 25 nationally in scoring (21.1 points per game), but it’s Simonds’ overall floor game that will impress scouts the most: He nabs over six rebounds and dishes out nearly five assists per game. He gets downhill in a hurry, using his excellent first step and then relying on his strength to absorb contact in the lane, hence his six free-throw attempts per game.

F Mikal Bridges, Jr., Villanova

Bridges, the Big East Tournament MVP, continues to improve in all facets. One GM raved that the 6-foot-6 Bridges is the prototypical 3-and-D wing and said he loves his 7-foot-2 wingspan and ability to guard at least three NBA positions. He also noted his strong character. Watch for Bridges to score off the ball while also locking up opponents and making winning plays. He is a better version of Bates-Diop.

G Zach Lofton, Sr., New Mexico State

A vagabond of sorts, Lofton — playing for his fourth Division I program — has been lights out all season. Creative off the bounce, he can fill it up in a hurry. Lofton has six games with at least four threes and is a terrific rebounder for his size, collecting over five boards per game. At 6-foot-4, he has enough size to play as a combo guard in the pros and enough scoring punch to isolate off the dribble. The 12th-seeded Aggies are a trendy upset pick, and Lofton is the main reason why. He has a difficult first-round matchup against an athletic Clemson team that has multiple wing defenders. The Tigers rank eighth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Collin Sexton’s game-winner was against Auburn. It has been changed to correctly reflect that it was against Texas A&M.

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Follow Jordan Schultz on Twitter and Instagram @Schultz_Report

Jordan Schultz is an NFL, NBA and NCAAB insider/analyst for Yahoo Sports.

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