The NCAA Tournament is where stars are born. Every game has maximum importance for teams and players alike. Money, recruiting capabilities and success are all on the line. With one great game in March, your entire future can change.
Now that the teams are set and the brackets have been printed (smell that fresh ink), it’s time to narrow down some of the most important players in the NCAA Tournament field for their respective teams.
Not every star player is the most important for their team, though. Sometimes it’s a glue guy, one who plays a lesser role but a vastly important one that can make up the difference between utter despair and ultimate triumph.
Who are the top players to watch over the next three weeks and why? First, let’s look at the underrated choices and work our way up the ladder.
20. Sindarius Thornwell, PG, South Carolina
Thornwell has been the key piece in igniting Frank Martin’s rebuild at South Carolina, averaging 21.2 points per game, the second best scoring rate among Power-5 point guards this season. With that said, everyone knows that the senior guard can get buckets. However, it’s been Thornwell’s scoring efficiency and toughness on defense that’s taken on a whole new form this season. Thornwell was able to increase his field goal percentage to 44% and 3-point percentage to 39% – both career-highs, and in addition he also went to line roughly eight times per game (shooting it at a 83.2 clip). While Thornwell mostly maintained a prolific knack for scoring, he also embodied a presence as a stout on-ball defender, issuing 2.2 steals per game.
19. Semi Ojeleye, PF, SMU
Ojeleye left Duke following its 2015 National Championship season because he couldn’t receive enough playing time. Now, nearly two seasons later at SMU, Ojeleye has transformed himself into one of college basketball’s most productive scorers. The junior forward possesses a rare blend of strength, infinite shooting range and touch around the basket. On the season, Ojeleye averaged 18.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, while making 53.7 percent of his twos and 42.3 percent of his threes. At 6’8”, Ojeleye proves to be a mismatch nightmare in the post, and for this reason makes SMU a sleeper Final Four pick.
18. Ethan Happ, PF, Wisconsin
Wisconsin turns unheralded recruits into college stars nearly every year – whether that’s been Frank Kaminsky, Jordan Taylor and Same Dekker in the past – or currently Ethan Happ, who is proving to be the next player in that fine tradition. The redshirt sophomore has flashed stardom in many categories this season, such as leading the Badgers in points (13.8 per game), rebounds (9.2) and steals (1.8) – yes, you read that correctly, a 6-10 forward averages nearly two steals per game.
17. Joel Berry II, PG, North Carolina
North Carolina lost Marcus Paige to graduation this season, but the steady rise of junior Joel Berry II has once again brought the Tar Heels back to National Championship contention entering March. Berry has became a more consistent scoring threat, averaging 15 PPG this season. In addition, Berry has developed into a more knock-down shooter, draining 45.7 percent of his field goals and 41.8 percent of his threes – both career-highs.
16. Jayson Tatum, SF, Duke
Duke’s recruiting class was thought to be Mike Krzyzewski’s best ever, reeling in three five-star recruits up-front to go alongside guards Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard. But as Duke’s season transpired, several of the Blue Devils’ freshman talents didn’t materialize, whether it was because of injury (Harry Giles) or lack of opportunity (Marques Bolden). Only one of Coach K’s stellar trio of freshman has panned out this season, and that would be SF/PF Jayson Tatum. Tatum has quickly developed into a smooth 6’8 scorer who is playing his best ball of the year right now: averaging 16.9 points, 7.3 rebounds per game with a 45.3 FG%.
15. Bonzie Colson, C, Notre Dame
Colson has defied simple basketball logic this season, like how a player with a significant height disadvantage at 6’5” can dominate a game in the interior. Whatever the case may be, Colson’s craftiness, toughness and versatility has shined through in Mike Brey’s 5-out offense, where the junior center is averaging 17.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game while sporting a 52.3 FG% and 40.1 3P%.
14. De’Aaron Fox, PG, Kentucky
There’s a handful of players that you don’t want to see in transition, much less create havoc in the fast-break. De’Aaron Fox is one of those players, and he operates at only one speed: fast. He’s not just a track star though, Fox is an elite defender, issuing 1.4 steals per game and a 98 Defensive Rating, a good facilitator (4.8 APG) and a crafty finisher. The only hole in Fox’s game is his jump shot, as he’s made just 24.2 percent of his threes. This is something in which Fox needs to correct, especially if Kentucky intends to go deep.
13. Monte Morris, PG, Iowa State
If you’re in need of a pristine and efficient point guard, look no further than Iowa State’s Monte Morris. The senior from Flint, MI registered the best AST/TO ratio in College Basketball this season, at 6:1, proving that he does possess the goods to carry the Cyclones deep into the tournament. However, Morris is more than just a top-flight floor general. He’s also a much improved scorer (16.8 PPG), proficient shooter (39 percent from three this season) and unexpectedly impressive rebounder (grabbing 4.9 boards per game).
12. Nigel Williams-Goss, SG, Gonzaga
The wing transfer from Washington represents the biggest difference between this year’s Zags and the Mark Few teams that have fallen short in the past. Finally, Gonzaga has a big, athletic guard to help contend with the blue bloods in March. Williams-Goss led Gonzaga in points (16.9) and assists (five) in the regular season and has proven to be a quality defender when called upon.
11. Malik Monk, SG, Kentucky
Flash and flare. Those two words alone go hand-in-hand in describing freshman Malik Monk’s basketball persona. At times this season, Monk has proven to be the most electric scorer in college basketball – putting up four 30+ point performances. But other times, his freshman immaturity has cost him, whether it’s been through bad shot selection or careless turnovers. Regardless, John Calipari has had a lot of great freshman, but he’s never had one that scores as effortlessly as Monk. On the season, he is averaging 20.4 points per game while shooting over 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from the perimeter.
10. Johnathan Motley, PF, Baylor
Baylor has developed several notable big man over the years, starting from the likes of Perry Jones and Quincy Acy, down to Taurean Prince and Isaiah Austin. The chapter has continued with Johnathan Motley this season. The junior has promptly blossomed into one of the country’s most productive forwards, averaging 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game while more importantly turning Baylor into a legitimate contender.
9. Jawun Evans, PG, Oklahoma State
There have been moments this season where Evans has taken over a game, demonstrating his adept scoring ability, blazing speed and flawless court-vision. On the season, the sophomore has averaged 19 points, shoot a efficient percentage from deep (39 percent), and facilitate like no one else in College Basketball – assisting on 42.2 percent of the team’s points. This, for all intensive purposes is the Jawun Evans that Oklahoma State faithful have grown to see, and one that must rise up if the Cowboys want a chance to make some noise.
8. Justin Jackson, PF, North Carolina
Before the season started, Justin Jackson was already a household name in North Carolina – coming off a 12 point and four rebounds per game sophomore season. However, his inability to consistently hit three-pointers and score around the basket was a major blemish in his game. Jackson ultimately found his stroke this season as a junior and it’s unlocked his game. He’s drilled more threes this year (90) than he did his first two seasons combined (63) and he’s done it at an impressive 37.7 percent clip. Not to mention, Jackson scored 18.2 points per game.
7. Dillon Brooks, SF, Oregon
It took Brooks two months and into the start of Pac 12 play to fully regain his confidence that he previously lost recovering from foot surgery last off-season. The junior SG/SF out of Ontario recorded a gaudy stat line of 16.2 points per game in the regular season, and during conference play, Brooks shot a ridiculous 63.6 percent from two and 44.1 percent behind the arc. This proves, that when he’s at he top of his game, Brooks can be one of America’s premier two-way wings.
6. Luke Kennard, SG, Duke
Luke Kennard was supposed to be a glorified role player for Duke this year. Instead, he turned into their best player and one of College Basketball’s ruthless scorers – pouring in 20.1 points per game, 44.3 percent shooting from three and a 128.1 offensive rating, amongst the best in Division-1). Duke never did emerge as the super team that everyone envisioned at the season’s outset, however they did find their most valuable piece to their potential National Championship puzzle.
5. Josh Jackson, SF, Kansas
The first and only thing that you must know about Josh Jackson is that he’s a gamer. Nearly every facet of his game is well-rounded, whether that’s found through his elite athleticism, hounding defense, or sheer competitiveness – Jackson’s spectacular play this season has made him a staple for Kansas all year. The numbers speak for themselves: Jackson is averaging 16.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, and while his shooting efficiency was heavily scrutinized before he came to Lawerence, Jackson improved exponentially, making 51.5 percent of his twos and 43.5 percent of his threes in conference play.
4. Caleb Swanigan, PF, Purdue
They call him “Biggie” for a reason. Purdue’s big, bruising forward added 35 pounds of pure muscle to his frame this off-season, and his numbers greatly reflected it. As a sophomore this season, Swanigan transformed his image from not only a powerful presence in the paint, but also a reliable four-man who can knock down a jumper consistently. Swanigan managed to score 18.5 points per game, make 56 percent of his twos, 40.1 percent of his threes and rebound 33.2 percent of opponents missed shots, which was by far the best mark in the nation.
3. Lonzo Ball, PG, UCLA
It was only 12 months ago when UCLA won 15 games, experienced a rapid decline in attendance at Pauley Pavilion and saw head coach Steve Alford inch closer towards the hot seat. Then Lonzo Ball showed up. Ever since Ball’s arrival, the freshman prodigy has transformed a once joyless program into the greatest show in college basketball. By playing fast, Ball has transcended the Bruins’ offense into a 4-out, 1-in offense registering 90.5 PPG and a team ORtg of 120.7, both clear-cut bests in Division-1. Ball’s deadly efficiency from the field (54.4 percent), beyond the arc (41.1 percent) and headiness as a passer (7.7 APG) has launched UCLA as legitimate shot national championship favorites.
2. Josh Hart, SG, Villanova
Villanova’s Josh Hart has already proven he can be the star player on a national title team. He’s the only college player you can currently say that about.
Hart has elevated his game to another level this season, improving as a three-point shooter and becoming a more dynamic playmaker off the bounce. He’s averaging career highs in points (18.6) and assists (3.2). Hart, a senior, takes smart shots and knows when to attack, which makes him one of the most efficient scorers in the country. He’s also a terrific defender. Basically, Jay Wright never has to worry about Hart not figuring out a way to contribute every night out.
1. Frank Mason, PG, Kansas
Frank Mason III is basically a folk hero at this point. He hits big shots, gets rap songs dedicated to him, and enters the NCAA tournament as a leading national player of the year candidate. Not bad for a 5’11 point guard who was once committed to Towson.
Mason has been clutch all season for the Jayhawks, playing his best basketball down the stretch of close games. He started the year off with a game-winner against Duke and was pivotal in pulling off one of the most remarkable comebacks of the season against West Virginia.
Mason can get just about wherever he wants on the floor now that he’s become a knockdown perimeter shooter. He spent most of the season burying better than 50 percent of his treys. Mason plays so many minutes that he has to pick and choose his times to be aggressive on the defensive end, but when he gets after it, he can be a bully as an on-the-ball defender as well.