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Spotlight on Wichita State, Kentucky stars Early, Randle

Updated: April 24, 2014 10:10AM



A guide to third-round action in the NCAA tournament Sunday:

Early vs. Randle

This will be one of the best individual head-to-heads we see all tournament. Wichita State’s Cleanthony Early and Kentucky’s Julius Randle have different skill sets — the former is a smooth 6-8 senior with a diverse offensive game; the latter is a bruising 6-9 freshman with explosive finishing ability at the rim — but both are on the short list of best players in the country.

And they are emblematic of their extraordinary teams: Early at his four-year peak on a 35-0 squad seeded first in the Midwest Regional and Randle headed to the NBA draft lottery as the best of four freshman starters on a No. 8 seed with gigantic potential.

‘‘I know [the Shockers] are a great team,’’ said Randle, who had 19 points and 15 rebounds in the Wildcats’ victory Friday against Kansas State. ‘‘And their record speaks for itself.’’

Lumberjacks vs. trees

Right behind Wichita State with the second-longest winning streak in the country — 29 games — is Stephen F. Austin, which nevertheless will be a big-time underdog against UCLA, the No. 4 seed in the South Regional. The 12th-seeded Lumberjacks seem to have too much fun playing the game to be burdened by that.

The Bruins’ length is scary. Sophomore point guard Kyle Anderson is 6-9, and twins David and Travis Wear go 6-10 apiece on the front line. But it’s impossible to discount a Stephen F. Austin squad that might have forgotten by now what it’s like to lose. The Lumberjacks’ comeback Friday against VCU was the stuff of instant legend: a four-point play by Desmond Haymon in the waning seconds to force overtime.

Jayhawks vs. Tree

Stanford (mascot: indeed, a tree) doesn’t have much depth, but it has four double-digit scorers and two guys up front — Dwight Powell and Stefan Nastic — who go 6-10 and 6-11. This is a No. 2-vs.-No. 10 game in the South Regional in which Kansas really could use its spectacular 7-foot freshman, Joel Embiid. But Embiid is expected to be on the bench again, nursing a back injury.

Kansas still has loads of size — Perry Ellis, Tarik Black, Jamari Traylor — but no one who comes close to what Embiid provides defensively. The Jayhawks let Eastern Kentucky hang around for an uncomfortably long time Friday. Stanford isn’t great, but it’s a clear step up from Eastern Kentucky.

Iowa State’s bad break

There might not have been any team in the East Regional better equipped to confront popular Final Four pick Michigan State than third-seeded Iowa State, which put up 93 points Friday against North Carolina Central.

You can drop the ‘‘Central’’ now because the Cyclones are about to meet North Carolina — and without terrific 6-7 forward Georges Niang, who scored 24 points before breaking a bone in his right foot. There goes 16.5 points from one of the best offenses in the country.

Iowa State still has the outstanding duo of Melvin Ejim (18.1 ppg) and DeAndre Kane (17.0), and they’ll have to carry a bigger load against a nine-loss Tar Heels team that probably isn’t a national-title contender but did win 11 games in a row from late January through early March.

Cinderella dances

This much is guaranteed: a double-digit seed will be making the Sweet 16. And in the loaded Midwest Regional, no less, which is a little less loaded now that No. 11 seed Tennessee and No. 14 seed Mercer have advanced.

Everybody loves Mercer, except for those whose brackets were busted when the Bears knocked off Duke in unforgettable fashion.

Get to know these names: Langston Hall, Daniel Coursey, Jakob Gollon, Bud Thomas and Anthony White Jr. They’re all senior starters, and all but White have been at Mercer from the first day of their careers. And they’re not done yet.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg



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