Skip to content

Elite Eight stars: Big men dominate big stage


The stage is finally set for the Final Four: UConn, Purdue, Alabama, and NC State booked their flights to Phoenix for the final weekend of the college basketball season.

As expected, several star players rose to the occasion in the regional finals, including a trio of big men who stole the headlines.

Here are five of the Elite Eight's standout performers.

Donovan Clingan, UConn

Clingan is arguably playing the best basketball of his career - and it comes at the perfect time. The towering 7-foot-2 center was a disruptive presence on both ends of the floor versus Illinois. He overpowered his defenders on the low block, rumbled to the basket off the pick-and-roll, and denied multiple point-blank attempts at the rim. Clingan scored the first seven points of the tilt en route to a dominant 22-point, 10-rebound, five-block, and three-steal performance. The Fighting Illini scored only 14 points when Clingan was on the floor and were 0-for-19 on shots contested by the UConn star, per ESPN Stats & Info. Clingan's efforts earned him the Most Outstanding Player award for the East Region.

Mark Sears, Alabama

Steph Chambers / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Sears rebounded from an ugly 2-for-11 start to lift Alabama to its first-ever Final Four. The senior guard caught fire in the second half against Clemson, scoring 18 of his game-high 23 points, including six consecutive triples. Each time the Tigers threatened, Sears responded with a big three to halt their momentum, including a dagger from downtown with 1:15 remaining. Clemson's 3-point defense was exceptional through the first three rounds of the Big Dance but couldn't contain the Ohio transfer despite initially keeping him in check. Sears created separation from his man on step-backs, relocated to open spaces on the floor when he didn't have the ball, and was always ready for catch-and-shoot opportunities. When Sears has it going, he's got the confidence to hit a jumper from just about anywhere.

Zach Edey, Purdue

Zach Edey wrote another historic chapter during his masterful senior season when he dropped 40 points and 16 rebounds in Purdue's 72-66 Elite Eight win over Tennessee on Sunday. He became the fourth player in NCAA Tournament history to reach those numbers - and the first in 34 years. Edey was too much for the Volunteers to handle, constantly drawing fouls while facing multiple defenders on every possession.

The Canadian's giant performance made him the first player in men's college basketball to accumulate over 925 points and 450 rebounds in a season since Larry Bird in 1979. Almost poetically, Edey's 120 points and 65 rebounds in this year's Big Dance haven't been matched since Bird in that same season, according to statistician Jared Berson. It's almost inarguable that they're the two greatest college hoopers in the Hoosier state.

Dalton Knecht, Tennessee

Mike Mulholland / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Dalton Knecht is the only player on our list who didn't win a game this weekend, but his performance against Purdue was too good to leave out. The wing's 37 points covered 56% of Tennessee's points as well as more than half of its field goals and made threes. When the rest of the Volunteers went 10-for-31 from the field, Knecht kept his team in the game. He started 4-of-5 from deep and then used the extra pressure Purdue put on him to drive the lane down the stretch.

He missed his fair share of pull-ups in the second, but he consistently got double-teamed when the Boilermakers realized he was the only player who could make a shot. With a few extra made shots from his teammates, Knecht could have continued to shine in the Big Dance.

DJ Burns Jr., NC State

Against in-state rival Duke on Sunday, DJ Burns Jr. had just eight points at halftime, and NC State trailed 27-21. Then, just like the viral March Madness sensation and his Wolfpack have done time and time again during their unreal winning streak, things turned around.

Burns scored 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting in the second frame, consistently punishing any Duke defender that dared to push him around on the inside. The burly big man showed off the cerebral play that's made him such a name this month, never seeming out of control when the Blue Devils fought aggressively down the stretch to get back into the contest. His 29 points and zero turnovers represent the Elite Eight's highest-scoring effort without coughing up the ball since 1991, according to Berson.

Daily Newsletter

Get the latest trending sports news daily in your inbox