With Syracuse C Fab Melo suspended for the entire NCAA Tournament, the first-seeded Orange are suddenly far more vulnerable to an early-round upset. While the Brazilian big man didn't have eye-popping offensive numbers, his length and athleticism at 7'0, 255 pounds was an integral part of their dominant 2-3 zone defense.
Without Melo, Syracuse will have to depend on its offense to win games in March, which in turn will thrust the spotlight squarely on sophomore guard Dion Waiters.
As an underclassmen, he has patiently waited behind Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche, but he has emerged as the Orange's best one-on-one scorer and playmaker this season. Senior forward Kris Joseph, the only other player averaging in double figures, shoots 43% from the floor and averages 1.7 assists and 1.4 turnovers a game.
In contrast, Waiters, an extremely athletic 6'4, 200-pound combo guard, has a complete offensive arsenal. He can bomb away from the perimeter (shooting 36.5% from beyond the arc), slash to the basket and convert shots efficiently around the rim (shooting 48% from the field) as well as make plays for others (averaging 2.6 assists to 1.3 turnovers a game).
He's the one Syracuse player who can take over a game offensively, and with their defense hamstrung by Melo's absence, it will be up to Waiters to give Jim Boeheim's team the offensive edge to make it to the Final Four.
1. Dion Waiters, Syracuse
Who he is: A well-rounded and athletic 6'4. 200-pound combo guard, Waiters is a five-tool player who can create his own shot off the bounce, shoot from the perimeter, run the point and defend both back-court positions. Despite having two upperclassmen on the perimeter who start ahead of him, the Orange will only go as far as Waiters can take them.
What he is playing for: A Final Four run would propel Waiters well into the first round of 2012 or set him up to be a lottery pick in 2013.
Waiters and the Orange were profiled in the "NBA Draft Toolbox" earlier in the year.
2. Myck Kabongo, Texas
Who he is: A highly-touted freshman point guard who struggled in his first year in Austin but has come on at the end of season. Kabongo is one of the most complete PG prospects in the country, with a developing perimeter jumper (shooting 33% from long-range), a solid floor game (averaging 5.3 assists to 3.0 turnovers) and excellent defensive ability. However, he struggles with offensive efficiency (shooting only 40% from the floor) and he's probably a year away from being a reliable NBA contributor.
What he is playing for: His talent alone would probably ensure a first-round selection, but if he wants to be selected closer to where his potential merits, he will probably have to lead Texas to the Sweet 16. A potential match-up with Florida State in the second round would be an excellent test to see how far Kabongo has come.
Kabongo and the Longhorns were one of several Big 12 teams profiled in the "NBA Draft Toolbox" earlier in the year.
3. Jeffrey Taylor, Vanderbilt
Who he is: An athletic 6'7, 215-pound small forward with a smooth outside shot (shooting 43.2% from three) and good ball-handling ability, Taylor is the consummate NBA role player. He's not a reliable shot-creator, but he'll be an excellent third or fourth option while defending multiple positions. As a senior, he's averaging 16.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals with 50% shooting.
What he is playing for: After four years in Vanderbilt, Taylor's talent level has been well-scrutinized by NBA scouts. He's pretty much locked into a mid-to-late first-round selection no matter how he performs in the Tournament. A potential match-up with Dion Waiters and Kris Joseph in the Sweet 16 would be a good test of his defensive chops.
4. Festus Ezeli, Vanderbilt
Who he is: One of the real mysteries of the 2012 draft, Ezeli was suspended the first part of the season and struggled with a knee injury before coming on strong to help Vanderbilt win the SEC Tournament. At 6'11. 255 pounds with a 7'6 wingspan, he combines prototypical size at the center position with a decent amount of athleticism as well as solid footwork in the paint. As a senior, he's averaging 10.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks a game with 53% shooting.
What he is playing for: NBA teams are always desperate for size, so if Ezeli can play well while getting the Commodores past Syracuse and into the Final Four, he could skyrocket up draft boards in the next month.
5. Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Who he is: One of the most polarizing prospects in the NBA Draft, Sullinger has averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds per game in his first two years in Columbus. However, he's a below-the-rim 6'9, 260-pound post player most comfortable in the paint who offers next to nothing defensively.
What he is playing for: While most scouting services have Sullinger in the top 5, there's no way I would use a lottery pick on him. To be effective in the NBA, he'll need to turn himself into a pick-and-pop mid-range jump shooter like David West, but he's better off cashing out now while his stock is still high.
Sullinger and the Buckeyes were featured in the "NBA Draft Toolbox" earlier in the year.
6. Sam Dower, Gonzaga
Who he is: A 6'9, 250-pound sophomore power forward who comes off Gonzaga's bench, Dower has displayed an intriguing skill-set in a limited amount of time for Mark Few. A lefty with a soft touch out to the three-point line, his combination of size and skill could make him a 10-year NBA veteran. He's averaging 8.5 points and 3.7 rebounds in 18 minutes this year.
What he is playing for: With Robert Sacre set to graduate, Dower is poised to become one of the Bulldogs' primary offensive options next year. If Gonzaga can make a run into the tournament's second weekend, Dower could put himself into first-round discussions in 2013.
7. Kevin Jones, West Virginia
Who he is: A physical 6'8, 230-pound power forward who has maximized his abilities in four years under Bobby Huggins. He'll never be a star as a professional, but he has two skills -- offensive rebounding (11 rebounds a game) and perimeter shooting (career 32% three-point shooter) -- which should translate immediately in the NBA.
What he is playing for: The team that takes Jones will be doing so based on his statistical profile and not his athletic ability, so any opportunity to rack up big rebounding numbers against elite competition is beneficial for his draft stock. If he doesn't sneak into the end of the first round, he could end up being the next undersized 4 (Paul Millsapp, Leon Powe, Brandon Bass, Craig Smith, Glen Davis) stolen out of the second by a smart team.
8. Xavier Gibson, Florida State
Who he is: A long and athletic 6'11, 250-pound senior center, Gibson's defensive ability at the next level is intriguing, especially coming from a Florida State program under former NBA coach Leonard Hamilton that emphasizes aggressive man-to-man defense. He's averaging 7.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks with 48% shooting in 18 minutes a game this year.
What he is playing for: There will always be a spot on an NBA roster for a player with Gibson's size and athletic ability. If Gibson can shine in possible defensive match-ups against Andrew Nicholson (St. Bonaventure), Yancy Gates (Cincinnati) and Sullinger, he should lock up a spot in the first round.
9. William Buford, Ohio State
Who he is: A skilled four-year contributor at Ohio State, Buford is averaging 14.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game with 43% shooting as a senior. At 6'6, 220 pounds, he has the size to defend both wing positions in the NBA, but he doesn't have the athleticism to be a shut-down defender. His shooting percentages have dipped now that he's become a featured part of the Buckeyes' offense, indicating that he's best suited to be an off-ball role on the next level.
What he is playing for: Buford needs only look at the career of David Lighty, his former Ohio State teammate with a remarkably similar game, to know the damage an early tournament exit can do. After the Buckeyes fell to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, Lighty wasn't drafted and is now part of a huge number of fringe wing prospects trying for another shot in the NBA.
10. Andrew Nicholson, St. Bonaventure
Who he is: A skilled 6'9, 240-pound senior power forward with an excellent jumper out to 20 feet, Nicholson has led the Bonnies to their first tournament appearance in nearly a decade. He's averaging 18.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks with 58% shooting this year.
What he is playing for: Like most mid-major players, Nicholson has played the majority of his career against substandard competition. As a result, the tournament is a huge opportunity for him, especially on the defensive end. His first-round game against Florida State, which has one of the longest and most athletic front-lines in the country, will unquestionably be the biggest 40 minutes of his career.
Robert Sacre, C, Gonzaga
A skilled 7'0, 260-pound center who isn't a complete stiff, Sacre would be a first-round lock if he was surrounded by All-Americans and playing on national TV on a weekly basis. He's not the type of player who can dominate a game, but he should be able to carve out an NBA career as a back-up center. The longer Gonzaga can hang around in the tournament, the higher he'll rise on draft boards.