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The Most Important Players of the NCAA Tournament

Who are the players who will have the biggest impact on their team’s fortunes this May? We take a look at a few below

Rich Graesle / Rutgers Athletics

Yesterday we looked at what the biggest stories of this year’s NCAA Tournament were; ranging from Maryland’s attempt to join an elite group of historical teams to the possibilities for upsets in the first round in a year where there has been such big stratification between the elite teams and the rest of the country. Today, we’re going to look at who the most important players are in this NCAA Tournament.

Some of these are well-known players, the most famous or best player on their team. Others are lesser known names who understatedly need to have strong performances if their team is going to achieve their ultimate goal. But all of them, should they have the best performances of their careers in the month that all players want to have their best career performances, will make a huge impact on the results of this month.

Adam Charalmbides, Rutgers

  • The nation’s longest tenured attackmen at long last makes his NCAA Tournament debut. Charalmbides was present for all of Rutgers’ NCAA Tournament heartbreaks, being a star freshman on the 2016 team that was the last team left out of the field, and being an unfortunate injured member of the 2017 and 2018 teams that similarly came up short. So it’s only fitting after his remarkable, one of a kind journey, he’s on the first Rutgers team to make the NCAA Tournament in 17 years. But if Rutgers is going to go from NCAA Tournament participants to NCAA Tournament Quarterfinalists for the first time since 1990, and a Final Four team for the first time in school history, Charalmbides is going to have to take his game up even another notch from where he’s been this season. And he’s been excellent. He’s 6th in the country in goals per game with 3.36, and 12th in points per game with 4.82. He should be an All-American. But if there’s another gear, the Scarlet Knights will need it. Particularly off the dodge. He’s an elite shooter and inside finisher; but where the Rutgers offense has gotten bogged down, as evidenced by their game against Johns Hopkins in the Big Ten Tournament, is when teams take away their deadly transition game and force the Knights to play in the 6-on-6. The Knights often are slow to get into their sets in settled situations and have trouble beating opponents off the dodge or moving the ball quickly enough to penetrate packed in defenses. This is where Charalmbides comes in. We know Connor Kirst can dodge from up top and drain shots. If they can get Charalmbides to do the same from the wing and be able to beat a long pole and draw slides, that will open up better match-ups and better opportunities for Rutgers in the 6-on-6. If they can get the 6-on-6 offense to go with their deadly transition game, an elite offense (4th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency) will go up another notch and make RU a true Final Four Contender

Jamie Trimboli, Syracuse

  • Coming into the season, there was all sorts of hype for the Syracuse first midfield. Many referred to it as the best first midfield in the country. And for Trimboli in particular, we at College Crosse had him as a Preseason First Team All-American. Neither quite lived up the hype bestowed upon them. The Orange midfield averaged 6.6 PPG combined in 12 games this season, lagging behind that of North Carolina (7.23) and Virginia (6.78.) And Trimboli in particular failed to live up to that First Team All-American. He had 21 points in 12 games; only Dox Aitken of Virginia had fewer amongst ACC midfielders. He had 17 goals all of this year; which is exactly what he had in just FIVE games a year ago before the season was cancelled. His shooting percentage has dropped from 47% to 28%. In ACC play it was 22%. While the Syracuse offense was elite this year, ranking 3rd in the country in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, they’re facing the best defense in the tournament in the Georgetown Hoyas, who have an army of poles they feel comfortable throwing at defenders. Georgetown’s long stick middies are as good at covering as some close D. With Zach Geddes potentially hurt and out, that makes the matchups against short sticks even more important. With Dordevic and Curry likely drawing poles, along with Stephen Rehfuss and Owen Hiltz’s emergence this year likely meaning two poles are reserved for the attack as well; that means Trimboli will draw a shortie. He has to be able to take advantage of that matchup and draw slides against a Hoyas defense that is reticent to do so because they’re so good at causing turnovers off dodges and great off the ground. If the Cuse are going to continue their offensive success in that premier matchup, Trimboli will need to get back to being the guy he was in 2020 for the Orange to advance

Nakeie Montgomery, Duke

  • Michael Sowers is the Blue Devils best offensive player, and Brennan O’Neill gets the attention for his jaw dropping goals and highlights. But on offense, Duke goes as Montgomery goes. In their two defeats against North Carolina and Notre Dame, Montgomery had 0 goals. He was 0-fer in the box score in their loss to North Carolina. In their second half comeback against Notre Dame, the best half the Blue Devils have played all season, he had three big goals off dodges and shots from 10+ yards. His willingness to feed and be involved as a passer is his most underrated attribute and a real boon to a Blue Devils offense that struggles for ball movement after Sowers. But if Duke is going to get to Hartford and win a national championship as has been expected of this group since Michael Sowers announced he was coming to Durham this time last year, it’s going to ride or die with Montgomery showing off the explosive dodging he did as an unknown freshman middie to help propel the Blue Devils to the national title game in 2018. With teams keying so much on Sowers and forcing him to either take uncomfortable shots from distance or passing into a clogged middle of the field, the Devils need a gamebreaker from the midfield. Owen Caputo has been up and down and Dyson Williams is a shooter only. Nakeie is the X-factor. If he steps up in May as he is known to do, you’ll see Duke at Rentschler Field in a few weeks. If he can’t, it could be a painfully disappointing postseason.

Justin Shockey and Luke Wierman, Maryland

  • This is a bit of a copout as we’re choosing two guys from one team here, but the responsibility and impact is going to fall on both men and come from both of them. The one chink in the armor of what has been this Maryland machine this year has been the faceoffs. They’re only 32nd in the country in Adjusted FO%, only two teams in the entire field rank lower. If the Terps are to make it to Memorial Day, they’ll potentially have to face the 3rd, 9th, and 6th or 12th best teams in Adjusted FO%. They’ve managed it well all year. When you’re Top 5 in the country in Adjusted Offensive and Defensive Efficiency and clear it at 88%, you’re going to find yourself doing fairly well in terms of possessions and the Terps are 19th in possession margin on the year, at +27. But nonetheless, you never want to be stuck with having an off day on defense or a day where you maybe have some bad luck or turnover issues and then aren’t winning faceoffs and Jared Bernhardt is going a long time without touching the ball. That’s where Shockey and Wierman come in. Shockey was the Terps primary faceoff man at the start of the year and had an extremely up and down start to the season. He was 50% against Michigan in the season opener before starting 0-for-6 against Gerard Arceri and Penn State and being pulled. After winning at 54% in Maryland’s wins over Johns Hopkins and Rutgers, he hit a rut where he was pulled early in three games against Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan after starting a combined 3-for-16. He gave way to Wierman, who emerged from being the 3rd man on the Terps faceoff depth chart to go 53-for-104 in the Terps last four regular season games before he too hit a rut in the Big Ten Tournament, going 4-for-13. Shockey returned and went a strong 24-for-40 in total, but also was 1 for his last 6 and again pulled for Wierman. It’s been a balancing act all season for John Tillman, and his willingness to use both means that if a guy has the hot hand, Tillman will ride him and the Terps can mitigate when one guy runs cold. But against potential elite face-off men like Maryland will face in the postseason, those cold runs either need to be lessened and the Terps need to just find a way to a solid 40-45% with strong clearing like they’ve done all year or one guy may need to continue that hot streak through three to four games to prevent an exit before what Maryland expects their destination to be.

The Denver Midfield

  • This should really read “The Denver Midfield aside from Jack Hannah.” You know what you’re getting from the massive midfielder from Milford, Ohio. 2nd on the team in goals with 34, he’s a First Team All-American and the best offensive midfielder in the entire country. He can dodge past any shortie with ease and even against tough poles. And his unique blend of size with slippery hands and good stick skills makes him hard to defend even when defended well off the dodge or in tight spaces. The question for Denver is….what do the rest of the midfielders do? In the Pios’ last two games against Georgetown, their only two losses since February, their remaining first midfielders Lucas Cotler and Ted Sullivan combined for 3 goals. The second midfield of Riley Curtis, Schuyler Blair, and Ellis Geis had just 2 goals. That’s 5 goals from Denver’s five midfielders outside of Jack Hannah. With Alex Simmons emergence as a dodging and passing option at the attack (31 goals, 21 assists, 52 points) as opposed to the more one dimensional JJ Sillstrop, you know have to pole the Pios entire attack unit of Jackson Morrill, Ethan Walker, and Simmons. Hannah will get a pole as well. That means when the first midfield is on, Cotler and Sullivan are getting shorties. When the 2nd midfield is on, someone is getting a pole. A real disadvantage for Denver. Someone from those five midfielders beyond Hannah needs to prove they can punish a short stick matchup and open up space for the shooters like Walker on the wing or Hannah with his big shot up top. This is why Denver struggled so much on offense in their final two meetings against an elite defense like Georgetown’s. And the road to Hartford is paved with elite defenses for the Pios. Loyola? Top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Duke? Same. If they get there? Maryland or Notre Dame more likely than not, Top 5. There are elite defenses who will feel comfortable with matchups against Denver, unless Cotler or Sullivan or the 2nd midfield take off and become consistently threatening dodging presences, at which this Denver offense could be as deadly as anyone. But as of yet, we haven’t seen it.