- Chad Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
It's March Madness, baby! It's the big stage for some of college basketball's best players to show off their games. NBA scouts and general managers will be out in force the next few weeks scouting everyone in the Big Dance.
Rightly or wrongly, a great March can really help a player's stock. NBA GMs, the real decision-makers come draft time, are in attendance and tend to be swayed by what they see on the big stage.
Last year, Syracuse's Dion Waiters boosted his stock with a few big tourney performances. In 2011, UConn's Kemba Walker and Arizona's Derrick Williams improved their stocks with great runs. In 2010, Butler's Gordon Hayward, Baylor's Ekpe Udoh and Xavier's Jordan Crawford helped their causes with terrific tournament performances. In 2009, Tyreke Evans and Jonny Flynn rode strong tournament performances to high lottery picks. In 2008, Derrick Rose moved past Michael Beasley on most NBA teams' boards with an excellent performance, and players such as Russell Westbrook and Brandon Rush helped themselves with strong tournament play, as well.
In years past, Florida's Al Horford and Joakim Noah, LSU's Tyrus Thomas, Illinois' Deron Williams, Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony, Marquette's Dwyane Wade, Maryland's Chris Wilcox, Arizona's Richard Jefferson, Florida's Mike Miller, Miami (Ohio)'s Wally Szczerbiak and Connecticut's Richard Hamilton helped their draft position significantly in March.
Who will take advantage of the national stage in this year's NCAA tournament to supercharge his draft stock?
The Midwest Region has a solid smattering of NBA draft prospects. We count three potential lottery picks and a couple of other first-rounders. It's not a huge bounty, but it's an upgrade over the West Region.
ESPN.com has talked to multiple NBA scouts and GMs over the course of the season to give you a look at the top NBA prospects they'll be watching in each NCAA region.
First-rounder: Gorgui Dieng, C, Jr.
Dieng has played well enough this season to get serious consideration in the first round. He's still not very polished offensively and he's old for his class, but his rebounding, shot-blocking and passing ability should help him get the nod.
Smith and Siva are both somewhat controversial picks. Smith can really score the basketball and Siva is so tough, but both have significant weaknesses.
Harrell might be the guy to watch. After he annihilated Syracuse in the Big East championship, a lot of scouts started moving him up their draft boards. He really needs another season with Rick Pitino, but a big NCAA tournament could move him into the first round.
Lottery pick: Mason Plumlee, F/C, Sr.
Mason Plumlee, Kelly and Curry have all been awesome this season, but they've struggled to catch the imaginations of NBA scouts. Plumlee probably goes somewhere in the late lottery just based on his size and athleticism. Some scouts see Kelly as a bubble first-rounder because of his size and shooting prowess. Curry has played well, despite being injured, all season, but I think the comparisons to his brother Steph hurt him. Sulaimon is right on the first-round bubble. Most likely he'll stay in school another season, but if he gets really hot in the tournament, that could change.
Lottery pick: Gary Harris, SG, Fr.
Wait 'til next year: Branden Dawson, F, So.
Harris doesn't put up really big numbers, but when you factor in he's a freshman playing on a veteran Tom Izzo team, his stats could downright wow you. He's a good athlete, a good shooter and a player who can defend multiple positions. Is he ready? Probably not (and he's seriously considering returning to school). But in a draft with so many weaknesses, he's likely to be a top-10 pick if he declares.
Payne has had a bit of a coming-out party this season. He's big and athletic and has shown off his versatility. He has a shot at the second round. Appling has had his moments, but he's still a tweener, which concerns scouts. Dawson could be awesome as a junior, but he still doesn't seem back to 100 percent health this season.
There's a temptation to put the Billikens' lead guard, Kwamain Mitchell, here, but of all the scouts I spoke with, none of them had him in their top 100. Saint Louis is a very dangerous team, it just doesn't have a legit NBA prospect on its roster.
Lottery pick: Marcus Smart, PG, Fr.
First-rounder: Le'Bryan Nash, F, So.
Potential second-rounder: Markel Brown, SG, Jr.
Smart's importance to the Cowboys can't totally be shown on a stat sheet. He has willed this team to victory and is one of the toughest, most competitive freshmen we've seen in a long time. It's hard to believe he won't be a top-5 pick come draft night even if he can't shoot and is turnover-prone. Nash has benefited greatly from Smart's presence and might want to ride his point guard's coattails into the NBA. Brown is a crazy athlete who has started to shoot the ball better. He might be an intriguing second-round pick.
Thomas was considered a potential lottery pick coming out of high school. He has had his ups and downs this season, but his inability to carve out a definitive position for himself has hurt his stock. Johnson is big and athletic and can really score the basketball. I think he's one of the more underrated players in the country. Stephens is, in my opinion, the most explosive leaper in college basketball. He plays as if he's on a trampoline. Black and Jackson are solid, but both are long shots to get drafted.
Potential second-rounder: Doug McDermott, F, Jr.
McDermott is one of the best scorers in the country. But can he do it against elite athletes? That's the question NBA scouts want to know. A second-round matchup against a tough, athletic, physical Cincinnati team should be a great first proving ground for McDermott.
Potential second-rounder: Colton Iverson, F/C, Sr.
Iverson is a beast. He's tough, physical and built like a rock. He's having a great season for the Rams. If he were just a few inches taller, he'd be projected much, much higher on our Big Board.
Wait 'til next year: Jabari Brown, G, So.
Pressey often looks like the best point guard in America -- until the last two minutes of a game, when he looks like the worst. Although I think he would get drafted in the second round, he could really help his stock with a strong, mistake-free tournament. Bowers and Oriakhi are veteran performers who could slide into the second round.
Potential second-rounder: Sean Kilpatrick, SG, Jr.
Kilpatrick can score, but his jump shot has failed him this season and pushed him out of the second round.
Potential second-rounder: Matthew Dellavedova, PG, Sr.
Dellavedova is one of the most efficient offensive players in the country. He lacks the elite foot speed to defend NBA 1s, but there have been few better at the college level. A big tournament for Saint Mary's might convince scouts he's worth taking a flier on in the second round.
12. Oregon Ducks
Kazemi has been another player advanced stats aficionados have loved over the years. He's a tough, physical player who can really rebound the basketball. Woods' off-the-court issues have hurt his career, but his size can't be taught. Artis and Dotson really make the Ducks run, but both look as if they're a season or two away from the NBA.
Potential second-rounder: Ryan Broekhoff, SF, Sr.
The Australian sharpshooter is shooting better than 43 percent from beyond the arc this season and shows off a very high basketball IQ. He's a potential second-round pick.
16. Liberty Flames