- AJ Mass, Fantasy
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The field of 65 NCAA tournament teams has dwindled to 16, and even though the favorites ruled the opening weekend for the most part, people all around the country are crumpling up their brackets after watching such teams as Wake Forest, Marquette and Washington lose.
But that's one of the great things about Hardcourt Challenge. If you selected players on teams that are no longer in the tournament, your hands are not tied. A new week brings you a tabula rasa, a clean slate. Sweet!
Just as last week, the best strategy is to select players from the teams you think are most likely to win their first matchups (Thursday or Friday). Having two chances to rack up points more likely than not will push your point totals ahead of someone who selects a player who gets just one opportunity to showcase his wares. For example, Ben Woodside of North Dakota State had a terrific opening game, scoring 41 points. Unfortunately, because the Bison lost to Kansas, that was it for him. Woodside's single-game output ranked behind 13 of the 16 players in Bucket 1 whose teams made it to the second round of the tournament. So although he was far from an embarrassing pick for the 9 percent of fantasy players who selected him, he was hardly among the best in his bucket. Check out the players selected by the entries at the top of the leaderboard, and you won't see many, if any, one-and-done performers in their lineups.
That's not to say you can't take chances. After all, only 0.2 percent of all entries selected Memphis' unheralded Roburt Sallie and his 4.5 points per game average, and those people were quite pleased when he dropped 35 points on Cal State Northridge in Round 1, ending up with 58 total Hardcourt Challenge points (points scored plus rebounds plus assists) and Bucket 7 superstar status for the first weekend of action. It's hard to imagine he'll repeat that lightning-in-a-bottle performance, but if you properly identify that unsung hero who raises his game to the next level, you might find your fortunes rising high as well. Of course, if you pick the wrong guy, you're in for a whole world of hurt. It's a question of how far behind you are and how much risk you're willing to take. Just remember, with far fewer players to choose from, and the likes of Bucket 2's Blake Griffin (96 points, 54.4 percent selected) and Bucket 5's Stanley Robinson (48 points, 30.6 percent selected) likely to be in the vast majority of lineups this weekend, gaining ground on the leaders won't happen without a few reaches.
Our first-week selections find us way behind the league average with a paltry 287 points. As such, we're going to throw caution to the wind and try to grab solid performers we feel won't be on other folks' rosters, then hope they're more productive than what you might call obvious picks. So let's take a look at what kind of talent is left in each bucket as the second week of games gets closer to tipoff and see whether we can figure out who the best bets for success might be:
Sherron Collins (78 points, 4.5 percent selected) was a big surprise in the opening weekend, but we're fearful that because the bulk of his success comes from scoring and the defenses he's due to face will be a lot tougher in the second week of play, he just won't be able to rise to the top of the heap again. Thus, we're going with Jeff Adrien of the UConn Huskies, who have so many scoring options that it should be hard to shut any individual down. If the Huskies' shots do start to fall short, he'll be there to pick up rebounds.
Blake Griffin will get the love here, but the game versus Syracuse could well be his last. Plus, because most people won't blink before selecting Griffin, we'll look elsewhere and hope to gain some ground in this bucket. Sam Young had a terrific game against Oklahoma State, and he and DeJuan Blair also will be popular picks. But in an attempt to make up more ground, we'll go with Matt Bouldin of Gonzaga. This pick won't pan out if the Bulldogs don't upset the Tar Heels, but we just can't believe all four No. 1 seeds will make it to Detroit.
Our pick of A.J. Price (69 points, 34.9 percent selected) for the opening games was the correct one, but he also will be a popular pick in Week 2, so we'll look deeper. How about Shawn Taggart of Memphis, who should get double-digit boards against Missouri? If we're lucky, after two double-doubles, Taggart will replace Price at the top of the Bucket 3 heap.
We'll stand pat here with our pick of Levance Fields. Although his 37 points put him nowhere near the likes of Wayne Ellington (66 points, 28.8 percent selected), Fields did score 25 points against Oklahoma State. Fields was still sore from an injury in the first matchup against ETSU, and we think he'll be in top form for two games (sorry, Xavier) and will make us proud.
Of the remaining players in this bucket, Stanley Robinson (48 points, 30.6 percent selected) doubled up the field in the first two games. That's well and good, but if his popularity surges to the 70 percent level, how will we gain anything by selecting him? Well, call this one addition by subtraction, because we just don't want a part of anyone else in this bucket. We'll accept the push here with the rest of the competition and hope our picks in the other buckets give us enough of a boost.
The spread in average points among the top 10 players remaining in this bucket is negligible, with Andy Rautins (35 points, 20.6 percent) being one of the more popular picks from the first week of games. We like Rautins, but if we're going to reach here, we'll go with someone lower on the list and hope he has at least one hot game. So, welcome to the lineup, Shane Clark of Villanova, fresh off 13 Hardcourt Challenge points against UCLA.
Roburt Sallie was a fluke. Durrell Summers (28 points, 25.7 percent selected) was way too popular a pick. So we're standing firm with Travis Walton (22 points, 3.0 percent selected) of Michigan State to continue the momentum he built with his 20 Hardcourt Challenge points against USC.
Syracuse's Rick Jackson is the top dog in this bucket with 45 points (21 percent selected). However, we're concerned he and Arinze Onuaku will have their hands full with Blake Griffin; perhaps the fouls will mount. That said, we won't completely avoid the Orange in this round of play. Kristof Ongenaet's paltry 5.0 average certainly doesn't scream "Pick me!" However, he missed the first game with the flu, and we're crossing our fingers that he'll get hot, at least hot enough to outscore the rest of this bucket.
Well, those are our out-of-the-box picks. If you're already sitting near the top of the leaderboard, you don't need to play as loose with your team as we've done here. But if you're looking to go big or go home, these selections just might be your ticket to the big time. Just remember, you can't win it if you're not in it, so choose your team today!
AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
22hEthan Sherwood Strauss