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March 16, 2021

A March Madness viewer's guide for Sixers fans

Here's what to watch for on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament

It's everyone's favorite time of year, the month where you agonize over the hours you've spent watching college basketball, fill out your NCAA Tournament bracket, and light your money on fire so that someone who picks every matchup by colors and mascots can take home the prize money. March Madness — only slightly less aggravating for the average sports fan than fantasy football.

Jokes aside, it's nice to have one of the best sporting events on the calendar back after it was taken from us by COVID-19 last year, and as is tradition around here*, I'm in this for the prospects and the Sixers angle. If you want a perfect bracket, I am not your guy.

So let's discuss some games and teams worth watching this weekend, with a word first on what the Sixers could use if the roster remains mostly the same.

*I think I did this one other time. Techincally, repeating something is a tradition. 

What do the Sixers need?

Based on where they'll likely finish at the end of the season, the Sixers' top priority will just be finding a guy who can contribute at any position. Hitting on picks late in the first round, even with a good draft class, is a tough task for any front office. Players who fall to that range likely have some combination of flaws/concerns that pushed them there, be they skill-based, fit-based, or personality-based, with each team weighing factors differently.

That said, here are a few general archetypes I think the Sixers should be looking at/for.

Two-way wing: I feel like I have been preaching this since I began covering this team full-time, but the Sixers could really use some more big-bodied players who aren't liabilities at either end of the floor. It's not exactly easy to get these guys in the late first, but the Sixers could use a long-term Danny Green once the real-life Danny Green ages out of being useful for this group. You can never have enough guys who can shoot and defend in the playoffs.

Backup big: Perhaps the Sixers already found a diamond in the rough with the Paul Reed selection last fall, and admittedly Reed looked terrific during the G-League bubble. If it's not Reed specifically, bench units with Ben Simmons in charge would benefit from a switchable, rim-protecting big who can either stretch the floor a bit or roll hard to the rim out of pick-and-rolls.

(I use the term "big" here sort of liberally. Paul Reed is only six-foot-nine, and they should be worried about defending in space and protecting the rim, not defending low-post centers.)

Guards, guards, guards: Shot creation has been an issue throughout the year and figures to loom even larger in the playoffs against stiffer competition. Tyrese Maxey has shown promise, but his current exclusion from the rotation tells you he's not important enough to ride through the ups and downs as they fight for the No. 1 seed. Assistance on the second unit for Shake Milton would be much appreciated.

Florida vs. Virginia Tech — Friday, 12:15 p.m. on CBS

Player to watch: Tre Mann (G, Florida)

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A former McDonald's All American who disappointed during his freshman season, Mann has come on strong as a sophomore, taking a big leap as a shooter that has helped open up the floor for everything else he has in the toolkit. Mann has allegedly grown to six-foot-six during his time at Florida, and guys with plus handles who can hit from three and kill you with the in-between game (he's got a nice floater package) don't exactly grow on trees.

It might be a bit of a stretch to expect him to fall to Philly's draft range depending on how his tournament goes because Mann appears to be saving his best for last. He dropped 30 in Florida's matchup with Tennessee in the SEC tournament, a game he played against two lottery-level talents we'll get to later on. A strong tournament during an abbreviated season could give him a big lift in the draft process, especially when you consider his previous credentials. For what it's worth, Florida is a slight underdog (+1) for the game Friday, according to Pa.Unibet.

Baylor vs. Hartford — Friday, 3:30 p.m. on truTV

Players to watch: Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell (G, Baylor)

Okay, so this one doesn't expect to be much of a battle. Rare exceptions aside, No. 1 vs. No.. 16 is usually a snoozefest, so I am mostly just advising you to take a close look at Baylor as long as they're in the tournament. The Baylor backcourt is worth the price of admission and has a chance to do plenty of damage in this tournament. Neither guy really fits into the playmaking guard role mentioned above, but they each bring a different set of skills to the table. 

Butler is the leading man in Baylor's three-headed monster, the top scorer on the Big 12's top team. He has never been shy about letting shots fly, and it's his rise in efficiency over three years that lends hope for his NBA future — he has made almost 43 percent of his threes on over six attempts per game, and with free-throw numbers in the high 70s, he's a good bet to shoot at the next level. He's not an especially gifted playmaker, but improvements as a finisher around the rim give him a chance to be a potential three-level scorer at the next level.

Then there's Mitchell, who has a case as the best perimeter defender in the NCAA tournament. Putting an on-ball defender like Mitchell on the floor with the likes of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid (not to mention Matisse Thybulle) would basically be cheating, and if Mitchell is somehow able to sustain his shooting success from this year, he profiles as a role player with a long, productive future at the next level. I wouldn't count on that though — Mitchell is an iffy free-throw shooter with poor shooting numbers prior to this year, so his ballhandling and playmaking should be under tight surveillance for any team considering him.

There's a chance both guys are stuck between guard positions at the next level, though I would argue it bodes well that they successfully passed off responsibilities to one another and thrived in the same college backcourt. Shake Milton could use a combo guard next to him who can thrive on or off-ball.

Villanova vs. Winthrop — Friday, 9:57 p.m. on TNT

Player to watch: Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (F, Villanova)

I'm sure I don't have to convince many of you to watch the Wildcats. Even those of you who aren't fans of the Mainline team might tune in just to see if they fall early in the tournament (and many appear to have them on upset alert).

Let's be honest here, I'm only including this game so the five people who always complain that I didn't mention a guy from Villanova are satisfied. I think Robinson-Earl is one of the worst fits for the Sixers among NBA-level prospects who have come out of Jay Wright's program in recent years. Sue me!

LSU vs. St. Bonaventure — Saturday, 1:45 p.m. on TNT

Player to watch: Cam Thomas (G, LSU)

You wanted a passer? Too damn bad. You wanted a defender? Tough break. But if you want a guy with no conscience who is going to fill it up quickly when he gets on a roll? Congrats, Cam Thomas is your guy to watch this weekend. He simply does not care who is in front of him, he is getting his shots up early and often.

As you can imagine, that's not always a good thing. Thomas' shooting splits tell you as much about his shot selection as anything else, and you have to believe in the raw scoring ability enough to excuse his chucking habits — he has made just 32 percent of his threes coming into the tournament, and he has taken nearly 200 of those bad boys during his freshman season.

But it's not easy to find guys who can constantly create separation for themselves and put up points the way Thomas does. He has done an excellent job inviting contact and generating free-throws this season, and his 88 percent mark at the stripe lends hope that he'll be a better shooter at the next level. If you're into the Sixers getting somebody who is a threat to just light teams up off of the bench, they could do much worse, and Doc Rivers has loved guys like him historically. This game could be a fun one too, by the way, with LSU slight -1.5 favorites over the Bonnies.

VCU vs. Oregon — Saturday, 9:57 p.m. on TNT 

Player to watch: Chris Duarte (G/F, Oregon)

Duarte is the sort of player who should walk right into a role and into a coach's good graces the second he enters a pro practice facility. Shooting is going to be his meal ticket. Duarte is hitting 43 percent from three on a wide variety of shot types this season. He can shoot off-the-catch and off-movement, he's got some juice off-the-dribble, and he's relatively unfazed by defenders closing down on him, using a quick release to get shots off with ease. Duarte doesn't need to have the ball in his hands much to make an impact on offense.

He's also a rock-solid defender, solid on-the-ball and a calculated risk taker away from it, picking up steals in passing lanes without going off-script so often as to break the defensive chain. For his work on the defensive end this season, Duarte was named to the Pac-12 All-Defense team, and he made considerable noise in the conference last season as well. Duarte added eight steals to a 30-point, 11-rebound performance against USC last season, a rare stat line if you've ever seen one.

You're all waiting for the, "But!" so I'll give it to you straight. Duarte will be 24 by the time he's drafted, much older than a lot of guys he'll play in this tournament let alone be drafted with. If he doesn't give you something right away at the next level, it might be a wasted pick. Let's see how he fares in tourney action.

(If you want to double-dip, VCU's Nah'Shon "Bones" Hyland has a great nickname and some sleeper potential as a prospect. He's not the most explosive driver and his midrange game needs some work, but he's a prolific shooter with a projectable shot who did a much better job getting to the line this year. If his frame fills out and he can progress as a ballhandler, I like him a good bit.)

Oregon is a 5-point favorite in the nightcap.

Any game with Cade Cunningham or Jalen Suggs

Do the Sixers have any chance of drafting either one of these guys? Absolutely not. Are they the sort of players who can make an NCAA Tournament game worth watching all by themselves? Absolutely.

Even with a suboptimal setup around Cunningham — the Cowboys are a below-average team from deep, which allows teams to collapse on his drives — the freshman phenom still managed to take home Player of the Year honors in a good Big 12 conference. He is the complete package, with three-level scoring ability and terrific vision that will make him a nightmare on a more open floor at the next level. The story is much different for Suggs, who has a lottery-caliber shooter (Corey Kispert) next to him in the backcourt that has to be accounted for at all times. That doesn't make Suggs any less impressive or fun to watch, but it does give him a much better chance to go on a deep run.

While Gonzaga has little worry about advancing, I am personally rooting for Oklahoma State and Tennessee to win their opening games so we can get a second-round matchup that will feature at least three lottery candidates, with Cunningham facing off against UT's Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer. The Volunteers can theoretically throw either guy on Cunningham, keeping him off-balance with a mix of matchups and coverages. Watching him try to solve that problem would be one of the highlights of the tournament for NBA-centric viewers.

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