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Certain aspects of the NCAA Tournament are overblown from a draft standpoint. Most front offices have detailed, largely set ideas about the players who are getting introduced to the general public via March Madness. Still, scouts and GMs alike watch the tourney for a number of reasons, not least of which that in many cases, team owners see players and fall in love. There’s also the added pressure, something that cannot be simulated in workouts nor compares to even regular-season games. 

Accordingly, the impressions made by many this weekend will linger long after a champion is crowned. Here are some of the players who made the biggest moves forward during the first weekend:

Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina

Few paid close attention to Thornwell, even after he captured ACC Player of the Year honors. Frankly, P.J. Dozier got more buzz among NBA front offices heading into the tournament. That’s going to change, and it must, following a pair of star performances. It isn’t just that Thornwell scored 29 against Marquette and added 24 in the unlikely win over Duke. Thornwell did everything. He collected five assists in the Duke game. He grabbed 11 rebounds in the Marquette game. His defense, a plus all year, is both impressive and versatile. Thornwell can guard twos or threes, and doing so this weekend answered a lot of questions that his height and advanced age for a prospect have hovered over him all season.

Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin

Another example of a potentially undersized senior showing up at the right time. Hayes posted a pair of double-doubles against Virginia Tech and, more notably, Villanova, while using his physicality to limit both Kris Jenkins and Daryl Reynolds to a combined 3-for-12 shooting. Hayes has a well above-average basketball IQ, and it allows him to get to positions that other rugged 6-foot-7, 240-pounders simply would not — a hedge against some of the physical limitations anyone who isn’t a plus-plus athlete faces heading to the NBA. It became easier to imagine Hayes providing an NBA team minutes at the four this weekend, and Hayes will get another chance, at least, to keep showing that this weekend.

Miles Bridges, Michigan State

No, he didn’t get the Spartans to the Sweet 16, but Bridges proved that he can match up, even thrive, against the kind of NBA wing he’s going to face consistently in Josh Jackson of Kansas. Bridges gave a complete performance with 22 points, eight rebounds, two assists and a block. Kansas, despite having far more defensive reinforcements for Jackson, couldn’t keep him out of the lane, and a first-half baseline drive with a tough, in-air finish will stay in memory banks from now until June. As for his defensive work on Jackson, he “sped my guy up,” as Kansas coach Bill Self put it. Bridges sure looks like a first round pick.

Monte Morris, Iowa State

Morris has been a favorite of mine for a while, primarily because he does everything a point guard is supposed to do, including the elite — if underrated — skill of avoiding turnovers. But Morris put up some flashier numbers to go with those low-turnover totals. First, against a highly-skilled grad transfer for Nevada in Marcus Marshall, Morris approached a triple-double, finishing with 19 points, eight assists and eight rebounds, and held Marshall to 5-for-16 shooting from the field. Then, in the loss to Purdue, it was Morris who led the comeback from 19 down in the second half. The Cyclones had no answer for Caleb Swanigan — but critically, Purdue had no answer for Morris. Few have this season.

Justin Jackson, North Carolina

Let’s be clear here — the only reason we’re all talking about Duke and Villanova upsets and not UNC as well is Justin Jackson. Arkansas had the lead with less than three minutes to go. And then Jackson, as he has done for much of the year, imposed his will on both ends. He came up with a pair of steals in the clutch, giving him five for the game. He jumped into passing lanes, he facilitated on offense. His final punctuation to clinch the game, a steal and breakaway dunk, was an appropriate capper to a Scottie Pippen-like performance with stats to match: 15 points, eight rebounds, five assists. If the question about Jackson has been a tendency to tune in and out, the clarity of his play on Sunday was loud enough for everyone to hear.

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