Posted by Jonah Gardner on March 13, 2017
There are other contenders for Best Sports Weekend of the Year -- the first two days of the NBA Playoffs and the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs are both up there -- but, in my opinion, there's no better series of days on the sports calendar than the first week of the NCAA Tournament. For one thing, unlike other sports weekends, this extra-long one lasts four days, and it's packed with wall-to-wall basketball, starting at noon and stretching well into the night.
That weekend is nearly here! March Madness kicks off this week and there's a lot to look forward to. Pro basketball fans will have the chance to see how top prospects for this year's NBA Draft, like Lonzo Ball and Josh Jackson, perform on the NCAA's biggest stage. College hoop-heads will have the chance to see Naismith Award semi-finalists like Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Hart in action and potentially even squaring off in later rounds.
In the past, we've examined some of the tournament's most memorable upsets and broken down which seeds tend to advance deep into the tournament, but this year I wanted to take a look at some of the players themselves. March Madness has a rich history of individual excellence. For some, the Tournament has served as a springboard for a long career in the NBA; for others, it's simply been the final highlight of an excellent career in college hoops.
To get ready for this year's Tournament, I used the Game Finder on College-Basketball-Reference to find the best individual March Madness games since 2011, the first year that the Game Finder can run a game-by-game search of individual players' stats. In order to have an objective way of defining "best", I'll be using Game Score. Game Score is a stat developed by John Hollinger, the advanced basketball stat guru best known for Player Efficiency Rating. Game Score is built on similar principles as PER, prioritizing efficient production over mere chucking, but it's scaled down to the level of a single game. A score around 10 is an average performance, while a score around 40 is an all-time great game.
Our list starts with a tie between the two players on it who went on to have the best careers. In Zeller's case, an excellent performance in the 2011 Tournament would foreshadow an extremely strong follow-up season at UNC, where he won 2012 ACC Player of the Year and went on to be a first round pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Sure, he'd probably have done all of that without first beating up on Long Island University-Brooklyn in the first round of the Tournament, but it certainly didn't hurt.
Zeller went 9-14 from the field, scoring 32 points and grabbing nine rebounds as the second-seeded Tar Heels dismantled the 15-seed Blackbirds. Zeller wasn't the only UNC player to bring it in this game; Harrison Barnes had a 24-point, 16-rebound double-double and John Henson put up 28 and 11. Even Kendall Marshall notched ten assists as the Blackbirds learned that, when you face a team with four future NBA players on it, you tend to lose by double-digits.
Unfortunately for the Blackbirds, their follow-up March Madness trip in 2012 would also end with them getting blasted by a team with a future Golden State Warriors starter. In characteristic fashion, Draymond stuffed the box score en route to his second NCAA Tournament triple-double in the Game Finder era. In fact, since 2011, Draymond is the only player to have a triple-double. And while this one didn't come against competition quite as impressive as his 2011 triple-double against the UCLA Bruins, this one was better, with a 24-12-10 statline that gave Green a Game Score of 27.3. He also won this game, unlike the UCLA game, which the Spartans lost.
In the only First Four game to appear on this list, Aaric Murray did everything he could to put the Tigers through to the main tournament, scoring 38 points, including three three-pointers, on 23 shots. But, outside of Murray, Texas Southern simply couldn't get anything going. The Southwest Athletic Conference Player of the Year accounted for well over half of the Tigers' 69 points, and the Cal Poly Mustangs, despite going 14-19, cruised through to the next round, winning by 12.
In this Sweet Sixteen classic, Houge's third-seeded Cyclones faced an unlikely Cinderella: the seven-seed UConn Huskies. Hogue went 15-19 from the field, shooting a blistering 78.9% and scoring 34 points while adding in six rebounds and two steals. But it wasn't enough for Fred Hoiberg's Cyclones to stop Kevin Ollie's Huskies on the latter's surprise run to the title. DeAndre Daniels had 27 points and 10 rebounds, while 2014 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Shabazz Napier chipped in a 19-5-5 to give UConn a five point win and a ticket to the Elite Eight.
7. Tyler Zeller, North Carolina Tar Heels, 2011 NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen, Game Score: 29.3
Zeller is the only player to appear twice on this list, following his 10th ranked performance in the 2011 Round of 64 with an even more impressive turn in that year's Sweet Sixteen. Unlike in his first game on this list, Zeller largely had to do it alone, as both Barnes and Henson shot under 50%.
However, Zeller had no problem taking over the game when the Heels needed him. He scored 29 points, going to the line 10 times, and added 12 rebounds, four assists, and three steals. While game score doesn't account for defense outside of the box score stats, Zeller impressed on that end as well. He posting a defensive rating of 80 as UNC held a Marquette Golden Eagles team that featured future NBA All-Star Jimmy Butler (not to mention Jae Crowder, who might have deserved a spot in the ASG himself) to 15 points in the first half.
On a list that features three NBA players, including an NBA champion, it's Williams who was the only lottery pick. Given Williams' impressive resume, including winning the 2011 Pac-12 Player of the Year award and finishing as a Wooden Award Finalist that year, he was probably going to be a lottery pick no matter what. However, it's certainly possible that his impressive Sweet Sixteen performance was the deciding factor for the Minnesota Timberwolves to take him second overall, ahead of Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson.
In fact, Williams even outperformed the player who would go first overall, Kyrie Irving, in this game. Irving had 28 points off the bench for the Duke Blue Devils, but Williams dropped 32, while grabbing thirteen rebounds, two assists, two steals, and a block. In the end, the Wildcats cruised to an easy victory, beating Mike Krzyzewski's team by sixteen.
But this would be the high water mark for Williams and the Wildcats. Arizona would go on to lose in the next round to UConn (led by Kemba Walker, another player who probably would have been a better choice for the T-Wolves), and Williams would go on to be among the more disappointing #2 picks of the Lottery Era. However, he's recently found new life in the NBA as a bench player for the Cleveland Cavaliers, meaning he could end up getting that ring after all.
UNC makes its third appearance in a box score on this list, this time at the receiving end of an all-time performance by Bryce Cotton. Cotton scored 36 points and played all 40 minutes, but the Friars fell just short, losing to the six-seed Heels by two points. That UNC team would then have to face another player on this list, Dustin Hogue, whose Cyclones would knock them out of the tournament.
Unlike most of the other players on this list, Morgan had a bit of an advantage because this game, against Texas A&M, went to two overtimes, giving him a little more time for stat padding. Still, Morgan played an impressive 49 out of a possible 50 minutes, and notched 36 points and 12 rebounds, double the numbers than any of his teammates managed. Unfortunately, the Panthers weren't able to pull off their second straight upset, after eliminating the sixth-seeded Texas Longhorns in the Round of 64, and the Aggies squeaked through to the Sweet Sixteen.
There are a few ways for a Cinderella team to upset a heavy favorite, but one of the most reliable is having a player go off at the right time. That's what happened for the Trojans in last year's tournament. As a 12-seed, facing an under-rated Purdue Boilermakers team that ranked in the Top 10 in the nation by both Simple Rating System and Net Rating, the Trojans were heavy underdogs.
However, Josh Hagins picked the right time to have a career game. In fact, Hagins' game against Purdue was the single best performance by an Arkansas-Little Rock player in the entire Game Finder era. Hagins would up with a stunning 30 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and five steals, and he did it all without ever turning the ball over and only fouling once.
Like the Trojans, the Lumberjacks were heavy underdogs, perhaps even more so, considering that they were 14-seeds going up against a third-seeded West Virginia Mountaineers that ranked sixth in SRS. But SFA had school legend Thomas Walkup on their side. Walkup dominated the game to such an extent that, unlike with Hagins' Trojans, this upset wasn't even particularly close. Walkup got to the line 20 times, making 19 free throws en route to scoring 33 points. He also chipped in nine rebounds as the Lumberjacks beat West Virginia by 14.
At last, we've come to number one, and it goes to another Tom Izzo player. While Payne only has a slight advantage over the others in Game Score, the raw box score numbers are mind-boggling. In just 24 minutes, Payne scored 41 points, marking the only time since 2011 that a player dropped 40 in the NCAA Tournament. It's also one of two games at any time in that span where a player scored 40+ in 24 minutes. While it may be a little short of the NCAA Tournament Record for scoring, it was still an impressive performance, even more so when you add in the fact that Payne grabbed eight rebounds and shot 17 free throw attempts without missing one.