There is something about college basketball that makes it one of the most magical sports to watch on television during March. From the drama, the one-game eliminations and the buzzer-beaters, it’s is the equivalent of Christmas for basketball fans. Some players are proven stars during the season and bring their game to the big stage, while some are hidden gems that have been waiting for their chance to shine.
Who can forget Stephen Curry‘s ridiculous run during the 2008 NCAA Tournament? Curry went possessed, scoring 40 against Gonzaga, 30 against Georgetown, 33 against Wisconsin and 25 against Kansas. After he dropped numbers, Curry became a household name and the rest is history.
Another recent notable run was Kemba Walker in 2011. “Cardiac Kemba” went on an unforgettable postseason run, winning five Big East Tournament games in five days, dropping one of the best ankle-breakers of all-time on Gary McGhee, and the Huskies then went on to win six more games to win the NCAA championship.
What is so great about the NCAA Tournament is that anyone can become legendary and breakout at any moment. I counted down 20 players that will have the best chance to breakout during the NCAA Tournament. In typical NCAA fashion, I tried my best to not go fully chalk on this list.
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20. Siyani Chambers
Harvard â€“ Sophomore
The Minnesota native, Chambers has helped the Crimson to a 24-4 record this season while leading the team to their fourth straight Ivy League title. Chambers is a stud and was a finalist for the Bob Cousy award, joining Jeremy Lin and Zach Rosen as the only Ivy League members in history to receive the honor. Led by head coach Tommy Amaker, this Harvard team can make a serious run with Chambers being their floor general.
19. Melvin Ejim
Iowa State â€“ Senior
Ejim was a beast this season playing in a rough Big 12 Conference. He had the best game of the college basketball season after scoring 48 points on 20-for-24 shooting while also grabbing 18 boards. Ejim finished first in the Big 12 in scoring with 18.4 points and second in rebounding with 8.6 rebounding. Standing at 6-6, he is your prototypical undersized power forward that annoys the hell out of opponents. There are not going to be a lot of schools that want to see this Iowa State team during the tournament.
18. Javon McCrea
Buffalo â€“ Senior
I know some people are saying who? But the Buffalo senior is a physical specimen that has grabbed NBA scouts attention, averaging a double-double during the season. Buffalo is not a shoe-in to play in the NCAA Tournament but are a favorite to win the MAC Tournament along with Akron. If they do clinch, it would be great to see McCrea perform on the biggest stage against some great competition.
17. Semaj Christon
Xavier â€“ Sophomore
Christon is one of the best point guard prospects in this year’s NBA Draft but has been playing under the radar at Xavier this season. He is a solid athlete and has a lot of quickness that leads to a lot baskets at the rim. Christon will have the opportunity to lead Xavier in a big run during the tournament. If he performs well his name will definitely rise up draft boards.
16. Sam Dekker
Wisconsin â€“ Sophomore
Dekker has been the man on a solid Wisconsin team this year that has gone 22-5 in a great Big 10 Conference. Dekker led the team in both scoring and rebounds and has shown his elite athletic ability. During the tournament, Dekker is going to become a household name if the Badgers make the Final Four.
15. Wayne Selden
Kansas â€“ Freshman
When you are playing alongside Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, you are not going to receive a lot of the attention. But Wayne Selden is not a slouch and is incredibly talented. Selden is a physical bull, standing at 6-5 and weighing 230 at the off-ball position. During his freshman season, Selden has struggled at times to find his role within this Kansas system that is stocked full of NBA prospects. Once the tournament arrives and Wiggins and Embiid receive all of the focus, Selden can become the x-factor and become a star. If he plays to his potential and stays another year, no doubt Selden will be one of the best players in the country in college basketball next season.
14. Keifer Sykes
Wisconsin-Green Bay – Junior
Sykes is one of the most talented guards in the country that people do not know about. Standing at 5-11, Sykes is very athletic and is the leader of this Wisconsin-Green Bay team that has surprised a lot of people this year. This team is poised to go on an epic Cinderella run during the tournament and a large part of that is due to Sykes’ play this season. Sykes is averaging 20.4 ppg while averaging five assists, and he does everything for this team. Earlier in the season he put on his best performance against Wisconsin and dropped 32 points, featuring some high-flying dunks. Come tournament time, you are going to be surprised at how good this team is.
13. Zach LaVine
UCLA â€“ Freshman
LaVine has been an instant x-factor off the bench for UCLA this season, playing behind Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson. He was not a heralded recruit like the other freshmen this year but has shown he has some serious game. LaVine has the makings of a NBA star because of his extreme athletic ability and his smooth stroke on his jump shot.
Earlier in the season, he was rising up draft boards with some scouts calling him “Russell Westbrook with a jump shot.” As the Bruins season progressed, LaVine returned back to Earth and has been on a real slump but has shown glimpses that he can be a star soon. In a recent game when Adams and Anderson were suspended due to violating team rules, LaVine got his chance to start and become the primarily ballhandler and he did not disappoint, despite not shooting the ball particularly well. He finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and five assists, including zero turnovers, in an overtime loss to Oregon, showing he can create his own offense, which is a critical asset to have. With a good tournament run, LaVine can become an unforgettable name in this year’s draft class.
12. Garry Harris
Michigan State â€“ Sophomore
Somehow, someway, each year, Tom Izzo‘s teams find a way to reach the Final Four, it seems. It is also scary to think about that when this is perhaps one of the most talented teams Izzo has ever had, despite not having the record they wanted this season. Sophomore guard Gary Harris has been the rock for this team and has shown up during all of Michigan State’s games this season. Harris is extremely polished and poised. He is very versatile on both ends and has shown that he can lead an offense. If Michigan State wants to go on another legendary postseason run, Harris must become a superstar and lead this team.
11. T.J. McConnell
Arizona – Junior
A junior transfer from Duquesne, McConnell has been a gift for Arizona this season and was the missing piece for this team to be considered a contender. While his stats won’t wow you, his play on the court goes beyond the court and has been a leader all-around with this team, along with Nick Johnson. This Arizona team has always had the offensive firepower but truly lacked a defense stopper such as McConnell. He is a ball-hawk defender with his gritty play. McConnell has my vote to hit a memorable game-winner during the tournament.
10. Xavier Thames
San Diego State â€“ Senior
When Xavier Thames calmly made four crucial free throws to clinch a win against Kansas in January, I was sold on this team’s potential. Thames is one of the most underrated players in the nation and has improved each season playing under head coach Steve Fisher. He is San Diego State’s best scorer, as well as their best defender. During the season, Thames averaged around 17 PPG, while shooting 40 from the field and 3-point line.
9. Nic Moore
Southern Methodist â€“ Sophomore
Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown has made SMU a legit team and has brought in some impressive recruiting classes in his tenure. The Mustangs have a record of 23-7 in the American Athletic Conference, which features teams such as Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis and Cincinnati. Nic Moore has been the most valuable player on the Mustangs roster this season and is the best scorer and facilitator on the team. SMU has pulled some good wins out this season against UConn (twice), Memphis and Cincy. If SMU goes far it will depend on Moore’s play and leadership.
8. Marcus Smart
Oklahoma State – Sophomore
A great March run will erase most of the criticism surrounding Marcus Smart and his leadership ability. Smart is one person that I can see going on a Kemba Walker-type of run during the tournament, putting his team on his back. There is probably not one player in the country that can guard Smart face up but if he plays smart (no pun intended) and puts out his best effort, this Cowboys team will be trouble.
After participating in Senior Night during Oklahoma State’s last home game, it is given that Smart is league-bound and a dominant outing during the tournament would be a perfect ending.
7. Marcus Paige
North Carolina â€“ Sophomore
Marcus Paige plays well behind his years at UNC and has carried the load Roy Williams has given him since the start of his career. Paige has had an outstanding season this year and is leading UNC in scoring at 16.9 PPG and in assists with 4.5 per contest. He is the main reason why UNC has pulled impressive wins against top 25 teams this season, going 5-1. He has shown a lot of confidence this season while going on a couple scoring outbursts against Louisville (32) and against Wisconsin (35)… with even a couple of key game-deciding shots. Under Paige, UNC has a chance to reach the Final Four.
6. Russ Smith
Louisville â€“ Senior
How can someone who already has a NCAA championship become a breakout star this year as well? Well, when you are “Russdiculous” anything can happen. With Peyton Siva gone, Russ Smith has put the Cardinals on his back this season and has become a tremendous leader. His erratic play has calmed down this season and he is taking higher percentage shots. He’s averaging close to 18 points and his shooting, rebounding and assisting percentages have all improved, leading him to become a finalist for the Naismith award. For a two-star recruit who Rick Pitino didn’t want any part of, Smith has become a legitimate player and is one of the most exciting players to watch in the country.
5. Shabazz Napier
Connecticut â€“ Senior
It feels like Napier has been at Uconn for almost a decade now. Napier witnessed first-hand Kemba Walker’s legendary run in 2011 and has been following in the footsteps of his role model this season. He has proven that he can score at the end of the games as well as anyone in the country and has been the outright leader for the Huskies this season. The Huskies are going to be a great team to watch during the tournament, featuring Napier and his backcourt mate, Ryan Boatright.
4. Fred VanVleet
Wichita State – Sophomore
The Wichita Shockers had the most memorable season, going 31-0 during the regular season, becoming the first team to finish undefeated in ten years. VanVleet has been one of the best players in the country and is a finalist for the Naismith award due to his play and leadership. VanVleet is averaging 11.9 points on 48 percent shooting, along with 5.3 assists and 4.0 rebounds, and will be the answer if Wichita goes far in the tournament.
3. Jabari Parker
Duke – Freshman
The Carmelo comparisons are pretty evident. Parker is a natural scorer and has been one of the best freshmen this season. He is the alpha-dog on the Duke team and leads Duke in both scoring and rebounding. He is, without a doubt, the most ready NBA prospect playing college basketball right now and does everything you want in a player. Parker is a very special player that is definitely going to show up during tournament time. Parker can follow in ‘Melo’s footsteps and lead his team to a championship during his freshman year before exciting the door for the draft.
2. Nick Johnson
Arizona â€“ Junior
There are a lot of players in college basketball that mean a lot to their teams but there might not be one person in the country that takes on the load such as Nick Johnson. Johnson has been the leader for a talented Wildcats team this year and has received many honors as a finalist for the Pac-12 Player of the Year award and a Naismith award finalist. Johnson plays hard and his play has pushed this Arizona team to contender status.
Johnson has everything covered on the basketball court, becoming a complete player over the past three years in Tucson. I will not be surprised if Arizona is in the Final Four and Johnson will be the main reason for that.
1. Tyler Ennis
Syracuse â€“ Freshman
Tyler Ennis has, without a doubt, been one of the surprising players in the country this season and has been the main contributor for Syracuse this season. Ennis was overlooked coming out of high school and was not expected to have the impact he has had this season–not just at Syracuse but college basketball in general.
As a point guard, he is as pure as they come and during the end of games has shown he has ice water in his veins, continuously hitting big shots. Ennis has an absurd amount of poise for a freshman and has not backed away from any competition. With ‘Cuse being one of the favorites to win the championship, Ennis can lead this team to the promised land and go on a legendary run.
What do you think?
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