Thursday afternoon marks the start of the best four-day stretch of the year. The 2023 NCAA Tournament will begin its opening round at 12:15 p.m. EST, when the West Virginia Mountaineers and the Maryland Terrapins will tip off their game and be the only show in town for a whole 25 minutes. Games will come and go quickly over this weekend, and before things begin, we wanted to highlight some of the players who could end up stealing the show.
Whether they’re going home after one game or cutting down the nets in Houston, all of these players have the potential to captivate fans over the next weeks. Some are going to have long NBA careers, some are going to [that one NCAA commercial that no longer is on TV voice] go pro in something other than sports. But all of these players — and many, many more — are about have an opportunity to become an unforgettable name in the world of college basketball.
Zach Edey (Purdue)
What’s left to be said about the guy who very well might end up being the consensus National Player of the Year? Edey is the single biggest matchup problem in the sport at 7’4, an almost automatic two points any time Purdue gets him the ball, the best offensive rebounder in the country, and a deterrent on defense for anyone who tries to score around the rim. He’s carried the champions of the Big Ten all season, averaging 22.3 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks in 31.6 minutes per game. The Boilermakers have a real shot to get to the Final Four this season, and Edey is the main reason why.
Tyler Kolek (Marquette)
The Golden Eagles have been unbelievable in Shaka Smart’s second season, and Kolek turning into an All-American and the Big East Player of the Year is at the heart of it all. The former George Mason guard struggled mightily for Marquette last season, and this year, he’s taken a gigantic step forward as both a scorer and one of the best players in the country at setting up his teammates. Kolek’s 7.7 assists per game are second in the nation, and he’s averaging 13.3 points on 48.3 percent shooting a night. If not for his play, there’s a very good chance the Golden Eagles would not have won the Big East regular season and tournament titles.
Keyontae Johnson and Markquis Nowell (Kansas State)
Despite not making the NCAA Tournament since 2019 and having a first-time head coach, the Wildcats are dancing as a 3-seed. They’re heading into the Big Dance with one of the best 1-2 punches in the nation, both of whom made their way to Manhattan from other programs. Johnson, the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, has returned to basketball after collapsing on the court and going into a medically induced coma at Florida to average 17.7 points and seven rebounds a game while connecting on nearly 42 percent of his threes. Nowell, an undersized (5’8) point guard who started his career at Little Rock, can fill it up or set up his teammates, as he is averaging 16.8 points and 7.6 assists a night.
Jeremy Roach (Duke)
Duke has turned into one of the most dangerous teams in the country over the final month of the season, as they won the ACC Tournament and haven’t lost in their last nine. While freshman big man Kyle Filipowski has been their top scorer, junior guard Jeremy Roach —13.3 points, 3.1 assists in 33.1 minutes a game — is the straw that stirs the drink and the guy that the Blue Devils rely on when the going gets tough. For a team like Duke that relies so heavily on freshmen, a guy with Roach’s experience and level-headedness in tough situations is invaluable. It’s very possible Jon Scheyer’s first year as a coach involves the Blue Devils going on a run, and if so, Roach is going to be the heart and soul of the whole thing.
Johnell Davis (FAU)
Florida Atlantic is tied with Houston and Charleston for the most wins in the nation (31) and enters the tournament ranked 22nd in KenPom. Their superpower is in their bench, where Davis has been one of the nation’s most dangerous players for most of the season. While Davis started the team’s final seven games of the year, including the Owls’ run through the Conference USA Tournament, the CUSA Sixth Player of the Year and a first-team all-conference selection has largely been a reserve this season. His numbers: 13.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 steals in 25.2 minutes per game while shooting 50 percent from the field and 39.3 percent from three. When he and fellow first-team All-CUSA selection Alijah Martin — who likewise spent time coming off the bench but has been a starter recently — are out there, the Owls are a nightmare to play against.
Max Abmas (Oral Roberts)
Had to cheat and include a sixth (well, seventh) player because noted guy who busted your bracket in 2021 Max Abmas is back in the tournament. In case you forgot (which, that mostly means you are not an Ohio State or Florida fan), Abmas scored 80 points in three games that year as Oral Roberts made it to the Sweet 16, where they lost by two to Arkansas.
The Golden Eagles missed out last year, but in 2023, they’re back and extremely dangerous. They went 30-4, enter the tournament on the nation’s longest win streak (17 games), and Abmas is averaging 22.2 points per game on nearly 38 percent shooting from three. Oral Roberts got Duke in the opening round, and it’s not hard to imagine Blue Devils fans having C.J. McCollum flashbacks while watching Abmas cook.
Brandon Miller (Alabama)
Any list of the most interesting players to watch in the South Region has to start with Miller, which means any list of the most interesting players to watch in the South Region has to begin with the obvious: Miller’s continued role for Alabama basketball has led to plenty of controversy and criticism following an incident earlier this year where he allegedly brought a gun to now-former teammate Darius Miles, who was arrested and charged with capital murder of a 23-year-old woman named Jamea Jonae Harris in Tuscaloosa.
Miller was not charged with a crime and has continued to play for the Crimson Tide, which won the SEC regular season and tournament crowns. The former 5-star recruit has been a major reason for this success, as he is one of the best scorers in the country and the primary option in Alabama’s uptempo, three-point heavy system, averaging 19.6 points on 45.1/40.1/85.6 splits. And on the defensive end of the floor, Miller’s length and peskiness have been an important piece to the puzzle as the Crimson Tide possess one of the nation’s most difficult defenses.
Azuolas Tubelis (Arizona)
Tubelis had been a good, productive player in each of his first two years in Tucson, as he made his way into the starting lineup under Sean Miller as a freshman and remained there when Tommy Lloyd took over last year. This season, he’s taken things to another level en route to earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors for the Wildcats. Despite being the center on a team that plays ultra fast, Tubelis has been wildly productive, averaging 19.8 points and 9.3 rebounds a night, including absolutely cooking Oregon for 40 points in 37 minutes of work earlier this season.
Tubelis is quite light on his feet and has unbelievable scoring instincts around the rim, while his chemistry with starting point guard Kerr Kriisa is top notch. He’s also comfortable putting the ball on the floor and attacking opposing big men. Arizona is going to score a whole lot of points — they’re the No. 4 scoring offense in America — and Tubelis is going to do a ton of it.
D’Moi Hodge (Missouri)
One of the best turnarounds in college basketball this season happened at Mizzou, where the Tigers were absolutely wretched last year — 12-21, 5-13 mark in conference play, fired Cuonzo Martin — and are now a 7-seed under first-year coach Dennis Gates. They are a straight up nightmare to play against, and Hodge is a huge reason why. On offense, he has one of the greenest lights to let it fly in the country, as he’s shooting 7.2 threes a game and hitting on 40.1 percent of them. He doesn’t turn the ball over (he’s ninth in the country in turnover rate), and he’s one of the most efficient scorers in the game, as evidenced by his effective field goal percentage of 62.1 percent. And on defense, he is a steals machine, as his steal percentage is the sixth-highest mark in the country.
Steven Ashworth (Utah State)
Looking for a potential Cinderella? The Aggies have you covered. They’re a 10-seed despite coming into the tournament ranked 18th in both KenPom and the NET rankings, and are led by head coach Ryan Odom, who was in charge of the UMBC team that remains the only 16-seed to ever beat a 1-seed.
They have five players who average double figures, with Ashworth leading the way at 16.3 points per game on 44.3 percent shooting from behind the three-point line. Beyond his ability to score — he’s scored in double-figures in all but five games this season — Ashworth is the team’s best facilitator, as he’s averaging 4.5 assists and 1.7 turnovers in 33 minutes a game. A second round matchup against Arizona would be difficult, Ashworth and backcourt mate Max Shulga can go to war with anyone in America.
Jalen Slawson (Furman)
Would you be surprised to learn that the best two-point shooting team in the nation is the mighty Furman Paladins? The team comes into the tournament having won six in a row and 14 of its last 15, and while star guard Mike Bothwell is the leading scorer, Slawson does a little bit of everything and does it all well. He leads the team in rebounds (7.1), steals (1.6), and blocks (1.6) per game. He’s their top three-point shooter, hitting 39.4 percent of his attempts. His 15.7 points and 3.2 assists per game are both second on the team. The Paladins get Virginia in the 4-13 game and have a real shot at knocking them off. If they do, our hunch is Slawson will have a monster game.
Marcus Sasser (Houston)
The Cougars are my pick to win a national title, and their experienced, tough as nails point guard is the main reason. Sasser is an unbelievable college basketball player who sets the tone on both ends of the court for KenPom’s best team in the country. After playing a major role in Houston making it to the Final Four in 2021, an injury ended Sasser’s season in 2022 after 12 games. This year, he’s been excellent, leading the team to a 31-3 record, although he suffered a groin injury in the AAC Tournament semifinals that might hold him out. If he does play, though, the Cougars very well could be a Final Four team — he’s averaging 17.1 points, 3.2 assists, and 1.7 steals in 31.1 minutes per game while hitting his threes at a 38.3 percent clip.
Marcus Carr (Texas)
Carr’s had quite the career, as he started at Pitt in 2017, transferred back when you had to redshirt, spent three years at Minnesota, and then transferred to Texas, where he’s been for the last two seasons. A first-team All-Big 12 selection this year, Carr is saving the best basketball of his collegiate career for last — he’s put up team-best marks in scoring (15.9 points a game), assists (4.1 a night), steals (1.8 per game), and threes made a game (2.1) — as he’s been a steadying force amid all the turmoil that has gone on at Texas this season. If the Longhorns go on a run, he’ll be the one leading the way.
Isaiah Wong (Miami)
As you can see, the guards in this region absolutely rock, and Wong is no exception. The ACC Player of the Year has long been one of the conference’s best scorers, and this year, he’s putting up the best efficiency numbers of his career. Wong’s effective field goal percentage of 52.6 and True Shooting percentage of 58.3 are both high-water marks, and while the Hurricanes have a rather egalitarian attack (four players score in double-digits), his 16.2 points per game are the best on the team.
Wade Taylor (Texas A&M)
Despite standing only 6-feet tall, few guards live at the free throw line more than the Aggies’ floor general. Taylor is a warrior, as he has attempted the most free throws (192) for the team that has attempted the most in all of college basketball (860). And when he gets there, he is money, converting at an 87.5 percent clip. It’s quite the break in case of emergency option for A&M, which can struggle from the field (254th nationally in effective field goal percentage), especially if their ability to grab offensive rebounds (the sixth-best ORB% in America) is limited. His 16.5 points, four assists, and 1.8 steals per game all lead the Aggies.
Jalen Pickett (Penn State)
The case can be made that the best guard in college basketball goes to Penn State, which is playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 2011. Pickett, a transfer from Siena, has been sensational for the Nittany Lions this year, as his ability to slow down the tempo of a game and either bully opposing guards or set up Penn State’s bevy of three-point shooters (no team in the Tournament is more dependent on hitting threes) was unaffectionately nicknamed “booty ball” by Illinois coach Brad Underwood. The fact that no more than one of himself, Carr, or Taylor will make it out of the first weekend is a shame, because all three are big time college basketball players.
Jalen Wilson (Kansas)
If the Jayhawks become the first team to go back-to-back since the 2006-07 Florida Gators, it’s because Wilson led them there. The consensus first-team All-American and Big 12 Player of the Year was by no means a bad player on last year’s team — he started and tied for the team lead in points in the national title game against North Carolina — but he’s stepped into a more prominent role in 2022-23. He’s the first Jayhawk to average at least 20 points a game since Frank Mason in 2016-17, while his 8.4 rebounds a game are a career-high, too.
Jaime Jaquez (UCLA)
The 2-seed in the West is six spots higher in KenPom than the 1-seed. A member of the UCLA team that made it to the Final Four in 2021, Jaquez is the Pac-12 Player of the Year and the kind of player who gets after it on both ends of the floor, averaging 17.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.4 steals per game. While he is not an especially killer athlete, Jaquez knows how to play, has turned into the No. 1 option in Westwood this year, and finds ways to impact games even if his shot isn’t falling.
Drew Timme (Gonzaga)
It sure seems like Timme has been in college forever. Gonzaga’s veteran big man has unsurprisingly played a major role for the best offense in all of college basketball, as his 20.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game are all career-highs. His game is well-documented at this point: Timme is ultra-skilled and has a seemingly endless bag of tricks when he gets down low, and his feel for the game is as good as anyone in the country. The Bulldogs are going to score, and he’s going to spearhead their attack as they look to look to return to the Final Four.
Boo Buie (Northwestern)
To the surprise of everyone outside of Evanston (and honestly, plenty of folks inside of Evanstan), the Wildcats are dancing for the second time in program history on the heels of a 21-11 season and a 12-8 mark in Big Ten play that had them finish tied for second. Their defense is superb (the 13th-most efficient in the country, per KenPom), while their offense is suspect. Well, lemme rephrase: Their offense outside of Buie is suspect. The senior guard is one of the most fun players to watch in the country when he’s on, as it seems like he is capable of single-handedly willing Northwestern to wins, either by getting to his spots and hitting shots or setting up his teammates.
Walter Clayton Jr. (Iona)
Everything about Clayton screams “mid-major guard who puts the fear of god into a higher seed.” He’s an undersized 2-guard who was named the MAAC Player of the Year, can absolutely fill it up, and is among the most efficient scorers in all of college basketball. He scores just under 17 points a game, hits 42.9 percent of his 5.2 threes a game, and he’s as good as it gets at icing games from the free throw line, as he’s gone 98-for-103 (95.1 percent) from the charity stripe this season. So much of the focus on the Gaels right now is on whatever the future holds for Rick Pitino, but thanks to Clayton and the rest of their talented roster, they have a real shot at making some noise in March.