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March Madness a proving ground for NBA Draft hopefuls

POSTED: Mar 7, 2013 12:25 PM ET

By Chris Dortch

BY Chris Dortch


Jeff Withey, a 7-footer from Kansas, had a record 31 blocks in last year's NCAA Tournament.

They call it March Madness for good reason. Strange things happen when college basketball enters its postseason. Dramatic upsets and heroic deeds abound. Sometimes it seems as though the only sure thing is that there's no sure thing.

For the next month, college basketball fans the world over will be riveted and enthralled. NBA scouts and general managers will pay close attention, too, because the crucible of the NCAA Tournament is a good place to measure the progress of potential draft picks. If players can perform when the stakes are high and the competition becomes increasingly more difficult, that's a good sign.

Because the 2013 NBA Draft is thought to be one of the weakest in years, NBA teams don't have a lot of clear-cut decisions. So several players have an opportunity to increase their stock in the NCAAs. Many of them are lottery picks anyway. But they can move up by seizing the moment.

Shabazz Muhammad, FR, UCLA: When Bruins coach Ben Howland told the media after a victory over Arizona on Saturday that Muhammad had played his final game at Pauley Pavilion, it caused a brief stir, prompting the beleaguered coach to issue an apology three days later.

The fuss seemed much ado about nothing. Muhammad later said he hadn't made up his mind about leaving school because the Bruins were returning a potentially great team in 2013-14. That may be so, but how many times has that stopped a player from taking the NBA's money as soon his one-and-done college career is complete?

Given that Muhammad -- who began the season serving out an NCAA suspension that was later rescinded -- has been under constant scrutiny for inconsistent play and something as trivial as not celebrating a teammate's game-winning shot, it would surprise no one if he bolted for the NBA.

"He's a top five pick," Howland said Saturday. "When you have that going for you, it's absolutely the right thing,"

Muhammad leads the Bruins in scoring and 3-point shooting, but scouts will be looking to see how far he can lead UCLA, and how consistent he can be in doing so.

Whether scouts can get past Muhammad's lack of size for the small forward position and a perceived lack of explosiveness is another matter. He's a lottery pick, but a strong NCAA Tournament might bump him up a few spots.

Alex Poythress, FR, Kentucky: When this 6-foot-7, 240-pound athlete comes ready to rumble, he's tough to handle because of his inside-outside ability. Kentucky fans thought they were getting an extraordinary talent along the lines of Anthony Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. After scoring eight points in the Wildcats' opener against Maryland, Poythress notched 20 or more in his next four games, including 20 against Duke.

Here's the frustrating part: he's scored 20 or more only twice since, and he's been held to single digits 11 times, including a string of five consecutive Southeastern Conference games in February.

Kentucky coach John Calipari would like to see Poythress' engine stuck on full throttle. So would NBA scouts.

Jeff Withey, SR, Kansas: Not many college players are capable of putting together a triple-double. Withey bagged one this season and came within one blocked shot of another last week against West Virginia.

The lanky 7-footer's forte is blocking shots -- he's rejected four or more 15 times this season, including a personal best of 12 in his triple-double game against San Jose State -- but he's become an increasingly more reliable offensive presence.

In winning two consecutive Big 12 Player of the Week awards last month, Withey averaged 16.5 points and shot 50 percent from the field in four games. Last Saturday against West Virginia, he made 7 of 8 shots, including three face-up jumpers.

There's no doubt Withey has an NBA-level skill. If scouts didn't know it before the 2012 NCAA Tournament, they knew it after Withey helped lead the Jayhawks to the championship game with a tournament-record 31 blocked shots.

If Withey can use the 2013 NCAAs to showcase his offensive skills, he has a chance move up to the middle of the first round.

Ryan Kelly, SR, Duke: Lest anyone forgot how important Kelly was to the Blue Devils while he was sidelined for 13 games with a foot injury, he provided a none-too-subtle reminder against Miami last Saturday in his first game back. Kelly scored a career-high 36 points and tossed in a career-high seven 3-pointers, and the Blue Devils needed every one of those points to hold off the Hurricanes, 79-76.

"I mean, me saying 'spectacular' or whatever doesn't do his performance justice," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. "One for the ages. Probably as good a performance as any player has had -- a Duke player has had -- in Cameron."

"I thought we prepared for Ryan Kelly," Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. "But obviously not for that Ryan Kelly."

Kelly followed that performance with an 18-point, nine-rebound effort against Virginia Tech.

Considered a second-round pick before he had to sit, Kelly is playing like a first-rounder now. Can he keep it up as Duke makes another NCAA title run?

Cody Zeller, SO, Indiana: Does the consensus preseason national player of the year need to prove anything? Not in the areas of skill, athleticism, touch around the rim and character. But in the NBA, he'll have to go one of two ways. He's either going to have to bulk up and battle in the post or increase his face-up range.

Scouts are worried about Zeller's physicality, or lack thereof. He's occasionally had a tough time dealing with size in the Big Ten. He struggled against Michigan State's tandem of Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne and was worked over by Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe as the then-No. 1 Hoosiers were upset by the then-struggling Gophers. Ohio State's Eric Ravenel was a little too productive as the Buckeyes dealt the Hoosiers a rare home-court loss on Sunday.

In fairness, Zeller is still young. Mbakwe is a 24-year-old sixth-year senior. Nix, a senior, is a robust 270 pounds.

Zeller has taken only two 3-pointers in two seasons at Indiana. But he's shown range to 15 feet and he's a 75 percent free-throw shooter. The Hoosiers can win the national championship, and NBA scouts will get a better feel for his low-post game, if he brings the physicality deep into March.

Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.

You can email him here, follow him on Twitter and listen to the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Hour.