USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach recaps the action from Friday at the NCAA tournament, where the top seeds continued to take care of business.

Michigan guard Derrick Walton Jr. was asked during a postgame television interview what he thought of Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans after Michigan’s first-round victory on Friday.

“He’s one hell of a player,” Walton Jr. said, before slightly pausing. The senior had 26 points and 11 assists to offset Evans’ 23 points and 12 assists. “I think I’m one hell of a player, too. I thought before the game whoever was the best point guard would win.”

Walton’s confidence and logic are on point in what it takes to advance in the NCAA tournament. It’s a team game, but a win-or-go-home format means breakout performances and rising to the occasion can be major difference-makers.

LACK OF MADNESS: Stay tuned for Round 2

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Here’s a look at the players who put their respective team on their backs in the first round and who are just as pivotal for staging deeper runs in the second.

Derrick Walton Jr., Michigan

Walton’s 26 points and 11 dimes include six three-pointers, most of which were daggers to Oklahoma State’s attempts at chipping away at Michigan’s lead. The Wolverines are as hot as any team in the tournament after catching their groove — winning the Big Ten tournament — and establishing their identity late in the season. The key element in that team identity is undoubtedly Walton’s fiery and clutch play. For Michigan to beat Louisville in the second round, Walton will have to lead the charge.

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Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin

For a guy who has been to two Final Fours and an Sweet 16, Koenig didn’t disappoint in the first round in looking like a guy who has been there before. His 28 points against Virginia Tech came off a barrage of three-pointers — eight three-pointers to be exact — that helped the Badgers fend off a gritty Hokies squad. He’ll need to rise to the occasion again if Wisconsin has any shot of knocking off top-seeded Villanova.

MORE: Koenig knows when it’s time to fly

Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina

Thornwell had 29 points and 11 rebounds to help seventh-seeded South Carolina win its first NCAA tournament game in 44 years with a 20-point drubbing of Marquette on Friday. Thornwell almost single-handedly put away the Golden Eagles with his aggressiveness and bull-dozing style. The 6-5 guard has been a potent scorer all season, averaging 21 points a game, but came up huge when it mattered most and helped rejuvenate the team after losing five of seven to enter the tourney. He’ll need another big game to give the Gamecocks a shot at upsetting No. 2 Duke.

Monte Morris, Iowa State

The senior point guard nearly had a triple double, stuffing the stat sheet with 19 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in the Cyclones’ first-round win against Nevada. He also helped limit the Wolf Pack’s best player to 5-of-16 shooting. Morris should be the best guard on the court against Purdue, and can help spearhead a Sweet 16-clinching win.

Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern

Perhaps overshadowed by Vanderbilt’s mind-boggling blunder in Thursday’s most-talked-about first-round game was McIntosh leading the charge for the Wildcats to secure their first-ever NCAA tournament victory. After all, Matthew Fisher-Davis’ errant foul sent McIntosh to the line for two free throws that he drained on the way to finishing with 25 points. His craft playmaking has been huge all season — through injuries and adversity — and it was the difference-maker in the outcome, as much as one mistake stole the headline.



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