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Game changers: Five players who will impact NCAA Tournament most

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Duke junior guard Grayson Allen will play a key role in deciding how far the Blue Devils go in the NCAA Tournament. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

Duke junior guard Grayson Allen will play a key role in deciding how far the Blue Devils go in the NCAA Tournament. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

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Duke junior guard Grayson Allen will play a key role in deciding how far the Blue Devils go in the NCAA Tournament. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

By Ted Zhang | Staff Writer

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There are plenty of big-name players leading big-time programs into this year’s Big Dance. But none will have a greater impact on which team gets to cut down the nets at the Final Four in Phoenix than these five:

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) sits on the bench in the second half against Clemson during the second round of the ACC Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. Duke advanced, 79-72. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

Duke’s Grayson Allen (3) sits on the bench in the second half against Clemson during the second round of the ACC Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. Duke advanced, 79-72. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

Grayson Allen

He’s no Christian Laettner — the polarizing college basketball superstar from the early 1990s and subject of the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary “I Hate Christian Laettner” — but Grayson Allen might be the Duke Blue Devils’ most controversial player of the last 20 years.

Allen’s game against Pitt Feb. 4 encapsulates why people both love and hate him, as his brilliant performance led the Blue Devils to a 72-64 win over the Panthers. He led the team with 21 points — nine of which came from back-breaking 3-pointers in the last five minutes of the game.

But he tried to trip Pitt’s Jamel Artis during the game — barely a month after Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski suspended him for his third tripping incident on Dec. 22 — and his lack of sportsmanship often overshadows his play.

Many adjectives have been used to describe the Blue Devils guard, ranging from talented to hot-headed to downright dirty. But none truly capture the impact Allen has on Duke’s success — or failure — as a team.

Allen is averaging a solid 14.2 points and 3.5 assists per game, but it’s been a dropoff from last year when he averaged 21.6 points and 3.5 assists as a sophomore. Still, if he quits trippin’, the 6-foot-5 junior can be the difference between Duke winning and losing.

The Blue Devils won four games in four days last week to take home their 21st ACC Tournament crown — an unprecedented achievement — and Allen came off the bench to provide key contributions in each of the final three games. In Duke’s semifinal win over No. 1 seed North Carolina, Allen made several timely 3-pointers and consistently found the open man to eliminate the Blue Devils’ most heated rival.

Thanks to his well-documented habit of tripping players in games and inciting minor scuffles, Allen gets showered with thunderous boos most everywhere he plays. But he is beloved inside Cameron Indoor Stadium.

He’s the villain on one of the most hated teams in college basketball, led by arguably the game’s greatest coach, Krzyzewski. There is no storyline bigger in this year’s tournament than Allen’s quest to lead Duke to its second title in three seasons.

UCLA's Lonzo Ball (2) celebrates after hitting a 3-point basket late in the second half against Oregon at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. UCLA won, 82-79. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

UCLA’s Lonzo Ball (2) celebrates after hitting a 3-point basket late in the second half against Oregon at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. UCLA won, 82-79. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Lonzo Ball

Standing at 6-foot-6, Lonzo Ball is the most dynamic and versatile first-year point guard to hit the college game in years. Despite being only 19 years old, Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports project him to be among the top five picks in the NBA Draft this June.

Ball has drawn comparisons to Steph Curry for his knack of pulling up 28 feet from the rim and burying 3-pointers. Thanks to his highlight-reel shots and a controversial father, whose aggressive promotion of his sons has led to feuds with Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, Ball is often the subject of media attention.

But Ball deserves all the hype he’s received, as he’s been the driving force behind UCLA’s return to national prominence and has proven himself as one of the best players in the country.

Ball took home the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Award after averaging 14.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and an NCAA-leading 7.7 assists per game. Although his long-distance shooting thrust him into the limelight, Ball’s ability as a floor general and ball handler will keep the Bruins dancing deep into March and April.

Kansas point guard Frank Mason (0) celebrates with teammate Mitch Lightfoot, right, after a 73-68 win against Baylor on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. (Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star/TNS)

Kansas point guard Frank Mason (0) celebrates with teammate Mitch Lightfoot, right, after a 73-68 win against Baylor on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. (Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star/TNS)

Frank Mason III

Kansas finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the nation and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the Jayhawks have Frank Mason III to thank for much of their success.

Mason, a 5-foot-11 point guard from Petersburg, Virginia, recently won the Big 12 Player of the Year Award and is a leading candidate for the Wooden Award and Naismith Trophy as the most outstanding player in college basketball. The senior had a prolific season, averaging 20.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game while hitting nearly 50 percent of his 3-point shots.

Although Kansas took an early exit from the Big 12 tournament — falling in the first round to a rejuvenated TCU team led by new head coach Jamie Dixon — Mason still put up big numbers for the Jayhawks.

With star first-year guard Josh Jackson out serving a one-game suspension, Mason did all he could to carry Kansas to victory, finishing with 29 points and six assists in the 85-82 defeat. With or without Jackson, Mason’s unrivaled tenacity could be enough to spur the Jayhawks to Phoenix for the Final Four.

Arizona's Lauri Markkanen (10) celebrates with teammate Kobi Simmons after a dunk against UCLA late in the second half on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles. Arizona won, 96-85. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen (10) celebrates with teammate Kobi Simmons after a dunk against UCLA late in the second half on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles. Arizona won, 96-85. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Lauri Markkanen

Lauri Markkanen isn’t a household name outside of Tucson, Arizona. But during the Wildcats’ run to the Pac-12 Tournament championship, the first-year forward proved he is one of the best big men in college basketball.

Markkanen put up 20 points in a quarterfinal win against Colorado March 9, followed by 29 points in a semifinal win over Ball and UCLA the next day. He only scored 11 points in the championship game against Oregon, but he dominated the Ducks on defense in Arizona’s 83-80 win.

The Finnish 7-footer is versatile enough to rebound and post up down low, while also taking and making the occasional 20-foot shot.

Just like Ball, Markkanen is another young player drawing comparisons to an NBA All-Star. His ability to shoot the ball at his height resembles that of Dallas Mavericks forward and future Hall-of-Famer Dirk Nowitzki.

In addition to his shooting prowess from the field, Markkanen is an 84-percent free throw shooter. Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports project him as a lottery pick come draft time. His performance come tournament time will be the difference between an early-round exit and a deep run for the Wildcats.

Villanova's Josh Hart celebrates after a 55-53 win against Seton Hall in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York on Friday, March 10, 2017. (David Maialetti/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Villanova’s Josh Hart celebrates after a 55-53 win against Seton Hall in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York on Friday, March 10, 2017. (David Maialetti/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Josh Hart

The defending national champion Villanova Wildcats only lost three games during the season and enter the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed.

While the Wildcats aren’t being viewed as an overwhelming favorite to repeat, one player should give them reason to believe they can go back-to-back: senior Josh Hart. Hart is averaging 18.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists this season, all while playing lockdown defense every night.

The 6-foot-6 guard capped off a spectacular Big East Tournament run with a 29-point outburst to lead Villanova past Creighton for the Big East title.

Hart is a multi-dimensional player that can impact the game from every angle. His ability to chase after shots and pull down rebounds as a guard leads to numerous second-chance opportunities for the Wildcats. Before hitting his game-winning shot against Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament semifinals, Hart snatched an errant 3-point attempt off the glass and put it back in to give Villanova a one-point lead and eventual 55-53 victory.

Not only is Hart a great offensive player, but he shows grit and determination as a defender and plays passing lanes to perfection. If Villanova wants a second-straight national championship, Hart will have to be the catalyst on both ends of the floor.

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Game changers: Five players who will impact NCAA Tournament most