- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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When North Carolina guard Kendall Marshall fractured his wrist in Sunday's win against Creighton, it was momentarily easy to forget Marshall isn't the most talented or productive player on his team. There's Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes and John Henson, and that's just for starters. So why is losing Marshall such a big deal?
Because he is, without question, UNC's most important player. The most efficient? No. The most gifted? Probably not. But there's little question Marshall -- with his visionary, table-setting passing (second nationally in assists), intelligent tempo management and offensive initiation, and the lack of a viable backup -- was/is the most crucial personnel component to Carolina's style, identity and ultimately success.
Which got us thinking: Who is everyone else's Marshall? Who's the most indispensable player on each of the Sweet 16 rosters, the one each team could least afford to lose? Well, we're glad you (OK, we) asked. Here's what we came up with:
No. 1 Kentucky: Anthony Davis, forward -- No overthinking this one. Sure, there's an argument to be made for Marquis Teague, who appeared for much of the season to be Kentucky's lone potential weakness; Teague's two months of consistently increased success -- culminating in a brilliant performance in a rout of Iowa State -- have cast doubts about whether he could be easily replaced. But one can envision a scenario in which guard Doron Lamb, whose ballhandling is probably slightly underrated at this point, would be able to get UK into its offense. Coach John Calipari would find a way to make it work. Without Davis, the Cats lose a downright transcendent shot-blocking force and the source of countless easy baskets on the other end of the floor, the type of player who opposing coaches frequently say "changes the game." It's Davis, and it's hard to find the counterintuitive argument here.
No. 3 Baylor: Quincy Acy, forward -- While not the most talented big man in Baylor's lineup, Acy's absence would irreparably harm the Bears for two obvious reasons: He scores easy buckets in the low block, and he rebounds. Perry Jones III does some of these same things, too, but hardly to the level Acy does (and not nearly as consistently), and the Bears -- a very good offensive rebounding team that struggles on the defensive glass -- would not be nearly as good on offense were Acy not around to clean up so many misses.
No. 4 Indiana: Cody Zeller, forward -- Again, no use in overthinking this. Zeller is by far IU's leader in offensive efficiency and rebounding, and he has changed the way the Hoosiers -- who were immensely foul-prone the past three years under Tom Crean -- guard the rim and chase down misses. Plus, without him, Indiana's big man rotation would consist of Tom Pritchard and Derek Elston. We've seen that movie before. It was not critically acclaimed.
No. 10 Xavier: Kenny Frease, center -- Sticking with the all-big-men theme here, Frease is the most indispensable player because Xavier really doesn't have another guy who can do what he does, primarily on the glass. If star guard Tu Holloway went missing, the Musketeers would certainly lack for offensive creativity, but they'd have another talented (if mercurial) guard in Mark Lyons, who would no doubt be more than willing to hoist a few extra shots. Without Frease, Chris Mack's team would be in no-man's-land on the low block.
No. 1 Michigan State: Draymond Green, forward -- When you do this much for your team, your membership on this list requires no explanation. Really, it's not even close.
No. 3 Marquette: Darius Johnson-Odom, guard -- Jae Crowder's breakout senior season has been a huge factor in this team's success, no doubt about it. But DJO's relentless, attacking, bruising style -- not to mention his all-court game, his lockdown perimeter defense and his ability to go end-to-end on the fast break both with rim finishes and pull-up jumpers -- gives this Marquette team its hard-won identity.
No. 4 Louisville: Gorgui Dieng, forward -- I promise, this list isn't all forwards. The obvious answer here is Peyton Siva, but the Cardinals already have a pretty willing on-ball defender and shot-happy penetrator in guard Russ Smith, while Dieng -- a crazy-lanky shot-blocker, rebounder and defensive anchor -- has keyed so much of the Cards' No. 2-ranked per-possession defense this season.
No. 7 Florida: Kenny Boynton, guard -- The original temptation was to go with another big man, in this case Patric Young, but let's be real: The Gators don't use their frontcourt on offense anyway. Which is why Boynton's ability not only to take a lot of long-range jumpers but actually make them at a high rate is so important. That isn't always the case with the rest of this backcourt. Plus, Boynton -- with the possible exception of Bradley Beal -- happens to be Florida's most creative scorer off the dribble, one of the Gators' few players who can do more than chuck long-range shots to fuel this high-powered offense.
No. 1 North Carolina: Kendall Marshall, guard -- By now, you get the idea.
No. 2 Kansas: Tyshawn Taylor, guard -- The obvious choice is Thomas Robinson and, you know, duh: Dude's a national player of the year candidate for a reason. But at this stage of the season, Kansas' ability to win a national title rests in large part on Taylor's play at the point guard spot. If he is on -- attacking the rim and finding teammates without coughing up turnovers -- he's truly the biggest X factor on Bill Self's team. If he's off, the Jayhawks turn to Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and ... Conner Teahan? The defense rests.
No. 11 North Carolina State: Lorenzo Brown, guard -- C.J. Leslie has blossomed into this team's most impressive player, but its point guard deserves as much if not more credit for the unlikely late-season Sweet 16 run this Wolfpack team has somehow managed to piece together. On a team with no tournament experience and plenty of young players, Brown's calming influence on the ball is a major asset.
No. 13 Ohio: D.J. Cooper, guard -- Cooper demonstrated his worth with huge shots down the stretch against a South Florida team that prides itself on disallowing exactly the kind of offensive display Cooper generated. For a team with the No. 2-ranked opponents' turnover percentage in the country, Cooper's 4.3 percent steals rate (the 22nd-ranked individual mark in the country) truly makes it go.
No. 1 Syracuse: C.J. Fair, forward -- It's hard to pick from Syracuse's still-stacked-minus-Fab lineup, but Fair gets the nod. With all due respect to Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters, Kris Joseph and Brandon Triche, the Orange wouldn't exactly hurt for scoring guards were one of them to suffer an injury. If Fair went down, Jim Boeheim would lose his last truly effective big man, and the only viable interior option this side of Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita.
No. 2 Ohio State: William Buford, guard -- This is a bit of a tricky one, because there's simply no replacing Jared Sullinger's interior prowess or Aaron Craft's incredible perimeter defense. But if OSU is truly a national title threat -- and it looks the part thus far -- that's because Buford, who struggled with his shot in nearly every Ohio State loss this season, isn't cashing in from the perimeter. Having Buford as a go-to option on the outside only aids Sullinger's load and takes as much pressure off Craft and the rest of the Buckeyes as possible. The senior has to score efficiently for this team to make a run. Simple as that.
No. 4 Wisconsin: Jordan Taylor, guard -- Again: No overthinking required, no explanation needed. May a resounding duh ring forth across the land.
No. 6 Cincinnati: Yancy Gates, forward -- With all due respect to Sean Kilpatrick, who has quietly become one of the stars of the tournament, the Bearcats would be a team full of guards with no interior punch (sorry) were it not for the indomitable Gates. Losing Kilpatrick would be a major blow, but lineup and skill-set facsimiles abound. Not so with Gates. He's crucial.