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Tips to watching the NCAA Tournament as a die-hard Suns fan

Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) salutes his teammates after a three-point basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Baylor in Lawrence, Kan., Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017. Jackson scored 23 points in the game. Kansas defeated Baylor 73-68. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

One of college basketball’s fundamental problems is that people don’t care — until it’s time to fill out a bracket.

For die-hard NBA fans and those of the Phoenix Suns specifically, it might be hard to jump into college basketball for only a few games. But there’s reason to watch considering Phoenix owns its lottery pick — currently projected to be third if the lottery balls go with the odds — an early second-round pick and a late second-round pick from the P.J. Tucker trade with Toronto.

How should you go about it?

Accepting that likely first-overall pick Markelle Fultz out of Washington and Dennis Smith Jr. of North Carolina State are among those highly-rated prospects missing from March Madness, we give you five tips for watching the NCAA Tournament as an NBA fan.

But first, pull up DraftExpress’ mock draft and/or its list of top-100 prospects.

Say ‘sorry’ to Cinderella

No rooting for the underdog here.

You want the big boys playing one another. That’s how you’ll best understand how an NBA prospect can play in the NBA, against NBA-like competition.

In the East Region, you’ll want to see Villanova’s Josh Hart (Draft Express’ 40th-ranked prospect) face Virginia’s pack line defense to see if last year’s NCAA Championship hero is a legitimate NBA scorer. In the Midwest Region, you’ll want to know if No. 1-seed Kansas’ Josh Jackson, a likely top-5 pick, can continue his late-season rise against athletes like Michigan State’s Miles Bridges — that’s a potential second-round matchup — and vice versa.

Out West, a No. 2 Arizona against No. 3 seed Florida State in the Sweet 16 would pit hybrid forward Jonathan Isaac against 7-foot Baby Nowitzki Lauri Markkanen. And what could go wrong in the South if passing savant Lonzo Ball of No. 3 seed UCLA faces No. 2 Kentucky point guard and defensive whiz De’Aaron Fox?

The answer: nothing. If you want to see future stars, be prepared to root against almost every pesky mid-major (with the exception of Creighton, just in case freshman center Justin Patton streaks up the draft boards and into the top-10).

If you need to zero in on a region with the most prospects, check out the Midwest, where 11 of the 16 teams have at least one NBA-caliber prospect. No other region has more than eight.

Decide who you want the Suns to draft — and root

Already have a favorite player? Good, it’s easy to root for UCLA’s Lonzo Ball or Kansas’ Jackson to help or hurt their draft stock in the hopes that will make it easier on the Suns to pick them.

But depending on where Phoenix’s lottery odds are at the moment, you might want to hope for other draft prospects in the top-10 to rise or fall.

Particularly, this is interesting in the more general case of small forwards and point guards atop the draft. Jackson and Duke small forward Jayson Tatum have improved their stock over the past few weeks by asserting themselves after feeling out half of the year. Guards like Dennis Smith Jr. and Malik Monk have fallen down mock boards. Like Smith or Monk on the Suns? Then root for Jackson and Tatum to shine.

To the first point, a matchup can do a lot to boost or break a player’s stock.

Isaac and Markkanen have remained steady, but perhaps their potential matchup with one another — or with Gonzaga freshman big man Zach Collins — in the West could swing their stock. Last year, Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis greatly helped his stock by beating up on expected lottery pick Jakob Poeltl of Utah, for example.

Don’t forget the upperclassmen

If you followed Milwaukee Bucks point guard Malcolm Brogdon’s career, you might notice he was not a one-and-done. He spent four years at Virginia playing as a underwhelming athlete at shooting guard, the epitome of a committed college athlete who wasn’t going to make it in the pros. Now he’s arguably a Rookie of the Year candidate.

Phoenix could strike gold with their own second-round pick or even the Raptors’ pick shipped over in the P.J. Tucker deal.

Among the well-known upper-classmen who could enter the NBA Draft are junior forwards Dillon Brooks of third-seeded Oregon and Devin Robinson out of fourth-seeded Florida. Seniors who could be early second-round picks include forward Wesley Iwundu of Kansas State — the Wildcats are in a play-in game against Wake Forest power forward John Collins (No. 15 on Draft Express’ mock) — and point guard Monte Morris of No. 5 seed Iowa State.

Wisconsin senior forward Nigel Hayes, Notre Dame senior V.J. Beachem, and Kansas guards Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham are also projected second-round picks whose teams could go far in the Big Dance.

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