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NCAA Tournament 2016: Players to Watch in East Region

A look at Kentucky's top opposition to watch for in the East Region.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

With the NCAA Tournament opening today, we gathered our staff to preview the biggest players to watch in the East Region, which is absolutely loaded with studs who can carry their teams to big upsets and deep tournament runs.

These guys will also ensure there is no easy game for the Cats as they look to make a deep run of their own to the Final Four. Here's a look at the top opposition to watch for in the East Region.

Jonathon Leverenz

Joel Bolomboy, F, Weber St: Bolomboy is a 6'9" senior post player, the Big Sky Player of the Year, and Big Sky Defensive POY. He has NBA potential, appearing 59th on Draft Express's current 2016 Mock Draft. Bolomboy will be try to follow in the footsteps of another Big Sky POY - Harold Arceneaux - by leading the Wildcats to a victory over 2nd seed Xavier.

Bolomboy started his career as a typical in-the-paint post, but added a 3-pt shot as a junior and senior. He shoots it at a very respectable 35.9% (33-92) so Xavier's bigs are going to be forced to guard on the perimeter. He's terrific everywhere on the floor, shooting 75% around the rim and 43% on 2-pt jumpers, per Hoop-Math.

He's more than just a scorer though. He's a monster on the glass, boasting a 12.6 Offensive rebound rate (80th best in the country) and 30.9% (!) defensive rebound rate (5th). His 3.2% block rate is low for a big, but still the 368th best individual mark in the country.

Marc-Eddy Norelia, F, Florida Gulf Coast: Norelia is a 6'8" redshirt Junior who led the Eagles in scoring (17.2 PPG) and rebounding (9.8 RPG), setting the FGCU single-season record for double-doubles. He was named to 1st Team All-Atlantic Sun and is also the KenPom POY for the conference this year.

Norelia is the workhorse for his team, leading FGCU in minutes played (32.8), shot attempts (12.3 FGA/G), and overall usage (25.4% of all possessions when on the floor). He does all his work inside having only attempted 2 three-pointers this year (missing both).  He's has proven to be a smart defender, only averaging 2.5 fouls per 40 minutes while drawing 5.2 fouls/40 himself while on offense, the 335th highest rate in the country.

When FGCU knocked off top-seed North Florida in the A-Sun Tournament semi's, Norelia was the MVP. He scored 23 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in the game, tossing in a couple of steals and two assists to boot.

Against Fairleigh-Dickinson in the First Four he notched another double-double, scoring 20 points on 10-11 shooting and grabbing 10 boards while dishing out 5 assists.

Zac Oakes

Brice Johnson, F, UNC: Johnson is the driving force behind this UNC team. He's a senior who has blossomed in his final year in Chapel Hill, averaging roughly 16-17 points per game and 10-11 rebounds. Johnson doesn't overwhelm you with his size (6'9, 225 lbs), but more so with his length and athleticism.

Johnson currently ranks third in Division I basketball in Player Efficiency Rating (only trailing Stony Brook's Jameel Warney and High Point's John Brown).

His ability to dominate on the glass against teams that lack a strong frontcourt presence was on display in the two games UNC played against Duke. In those two games, Johnson averaged 23.5 points and 20 rebounds.

Johnson can also make an impact on the defensive end. He's not known as a physical defender, but his shot-blocking ability can cause issues for teams who like to drive to the basket. He is averaging 1.3 blocks per game, which isn't elite, but driving to the basket against someone with the length of Johnson can cause an offensive player to re-think their shot.

If UNC makes a run in the NCAA Tournament, the Tarheels will be thanking Johnson for making it possible. 

Nigel Hayes, F, Wisconsin: During Wisconsin's run to the championship game last year, Nigel Hayes didn't draw a ton of attention from opposing coaches. They had to worry about the likes of Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky and teammate Sam Dekker.

This year, however, Hayes has come into his own as the Badgers' best player. The 6'8, 235 lb junior leads the Badgers in Points (16.3 ppg) and assists (3 apg), while being second in rebounding (5.8 rpg) and steals (1.3 spg).

Hayes has been a catalyst for a Wisconsin team that has undergone more than their share of turmoil this season. After a season-opening home loss to Western Illinois and another early home loss to Milwaukee, followed by Bo Ryan's retirement, the Badgers came on strong late in the season to earn a tournament bid.

A large part of that can be attributed to Hayes. In a home game against Michigan State, Hayes went for 25 points and 7 rebounds. In another home victory versus Indiana, Hayes led the way with 31 points and 5 rebounds. In a loss at Oklahoma, Hayes recorded 20 points and 11 rebounds.

One of the things that Hayes does well is get to the free throw line. While he is not a top-notch free throw shooter (shooting 74 percent), his ability to get to the line causes problems for opposing teams, getting them in foul trouble. Hayes is currently 14th in the country in free throw attempts per game.

As a 7 seed, Wisconsin has the potential to pull off an upset in the second round. If that happens, it's nearly certain Hayes will have a big game.

Justin Hodges

Jameel Warney, F, Stony Brook: Highly overshadowed from playing at Stony Brook, a lower conference school, big man Jameel Warney has flourished himself as one of the most physically dominating players in the country; with statistics and accolades to back that up.

Warney, a senior at Stony Brook, has been named the American East Conference Player of the Year each of the last three years. Notably in the 2014-2015 season  Warney led the entire nation in rebounding and double-doubles, and this year he has only gotten better.

On the season, Warney averages 19.8 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks per game. While leading Stony Brook to the school's first-ever conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance, Jameel Warney posted stat-lines of 27 points and 23 rebounds against UMBC, 21 points and 13 rebounds against Hart, and an astounding 43 point, 10 rebound and 4 block performance in the AEC Championship against Vermont.

Warney also noticeably outplayed one of the top NBA Draft prospects, when he went up against Vanderbilt and Damion Jones. Warney put up 22/11/4 blocks in that game, while holding Jones to 13 points and 6 boards in an overtime thriller that Vandy barely escaped victorious.

This is a Stony Brook team that went on an 18 game winning streak earlier in the year, and are Kentucky's first matchup in the NCAA Tournament. The Cats are given a 91% chance to win the game, but don't expect Warney to go out lightly in what may be his final collegiate game.

Jason Marcum

Yogi Ferrell, G, Indiana: As much talk has been around Kentucky, North Carolina and even West Virginia in the East, people seem to be overlooking Indiana and star guard Yogi Ferrell. If you're looking for someone to have a Kemba Walker/Shabazz Napier type of March scoring spree, Ferrell is fully capable of putting a string of big games together as his Hoosiers will need him to step up for IU to make a deep run.

He's averaging 17 points per game while shooting career bests from the field (45.9 percent) and three-point range (41.7) to go with 5.5 assists per game. Ferrell scored 38 points in one game this season and had an eight-game stretch in January which he averaged 20.3 ppg.

The Hoosiers are a talented but thin team without a lot of experience when it comes to March. That's why they'll likely rely heavily on Ferrell, so don't be surprised to see him being one of the top scorers of this tournament. IU will need it just to get past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament for just the third time since 2002, when the Hoosiers made the national championship game.

Kris Dunn, G, Providence: Many thought Kris Dunn was making a mistake by returning to Providence for his redshirt junior season instead of entering last year's NBA draft when he was projected as a lottery pick.

But Dunn was convinced he could improve and elevate his stock, and that decision has paid off big time. Now projected as the No. 5 pick in this year's draft with the potential to go higher, Dunn is generally regarded as the best all-around guard in college basketball (not named Tyler Ulis).

The 6-4, 220-pound Dunn's biggest strength is his versatility and ability to impact games in a variety of ways. He ranks fourth in the NCAA in steals per game (2.55) while also averaging 16 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game. His size, speed and athleticism make him look like an NBA guard playing against college competition, and you can bet he's capable of taking over a game vs anyone in this tournament.

Honorable Mentions: Devin Williams, F, West Virginia; Zach Auguste, C, Notre Dame; Ben Bentil, F, Providence; Demetrius Jackson, G, Notre Dame; Trevon Bluiett, F, Xavier; Michael Young, F, Pittsburgh; Julian Jacobs, G, USC; Marcus Paige, G, North Carolina;