Buddy Hield. Kemba Walker. Ali Farokhmanesh. Tyus Edney. Carmelo Anthony. Some were college stars. Some became stars in the NBA. A few barely played professional basketball at all. But all have one thing in common: Their careers were largely born with big March performances.
So who are the players who could make their names this March? Here are 16, ranging from the biggest stars in the game to key role players and mid-major players you’ve probably never heard of.
Copyright The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Joel Berry, G, North Carolina
There’s no question that Justin Jackson is North Carolina’s best player. There’s also no doubt that Berry is the team’s most important as the Tar Heels look to get to a second straight Final Four.
The proof is in the pudding – or in this case, the ACC Tournament. Berry battled foul trouble all night and played just 24 minutes against Duke in the ACC quarters, a game the Tar Heels lost 93-83.
If Gonzaga does break through and make it to the Final Four this year, Williams-Goss will play a major part. The redshirt junior is the team’s best player – and one of the best point guards in the country – averaging just under 17 points, six rebounds and five assists per contest.
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY SportsCasey Sapio
Lauri Markannen, F, Arizona
The 7’0 Finn seemed to hit a freshman wall a few weeks ago, but rebounded nicely with his best basketball in the Pac-12 Tournament. That included a 29-point effort in a win over UCLA in the semifinals on Friday.
The best part for Cats fans is that Markannen is just getting hot at a time when teammate Allonzo Trier is playing his best basketball. Arizona hasn’t really had its two best players playing well at the same time all season (Trier was suspended for 19 games). That's a scary thought for everyone else in the West Region.
By now you know Ball’s accolades, so there’s no reason to repeat them here.
There isn’t a single player who is more important to his team’s success than the UCLA point guard. The only proof needed came in the Bruins’ Pac-12 semifinal loss to Arizona, where Ball injured his thumb and the Bruins fell 86-75 in a game that wasn’t even that close.
Keon Johnson, G, Winthrop
Looking for a mid-major star who could explode in the NCAA tournament? Look no further than Winthrop’s Keon Johnson. The 5’9 guard finished as one of college basketball’s top 10 scorers, averaging over 22 points per game. That included at least 26 points – and two 30-point performances – in the school’s Big South Conference championship run.
As coach Pat Kelsey told “The Sidelines Podcast” this week, “He’s a stone-cold killer. In the nicest way I can say it.”
Copyright The Associated Press. All rights reserved.AP
Josh Jackson, F, Kansas
Frank Mason is Kansas’ best player (he was FOX Sports’ national player of the year, after all) but there’s little doubt that Jackson is the team’s most important. Just look at the Jayhawks’ performance last week in the Big 12 Tournament. With Jackson sidelined due to suspension, they lost to a TCU team they had beaten by nearly 20 points just two weeks ago.
In addition to his across the board stats – 16 points, seven boards and three assists, with a steal and a block per game – Jackson gives the Jayhawks desperately needed size down low.
Pretty good, but what’s even better was his performance in the Summit League final. He tallied 37 points and 12 boards (including five three’s) in a victory over Omaha. And there’s no doubt he could give Gonzaga fits in Round 1 on Thursday.
Copyright The Associated Press. All rights reserved.AP
Angel Delgado, F, Seton Hall
For all the hype surrounding Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan (and with good reason), Delgado has actually replaced him as the nation’s leading rebounder. The Seton Hall big man is averaging a staggering 13.1 boards per game, and has tallied 13 double-doubles in his last 14 games.
Delgado’s emergence is a big reason Seton Hall is playing its best basketball entering the tournament and nearly upset No. 1 Villanova in the Big East semifinals.
Mark DolejsUSA TODAY Sports
Jayson Tatum, F, Duke
It isn't an exaggeration to say that Duke is at their best when Tatum is. The Blue Devils' two biggest regular season wins (vs. North Carolina and at Virginia) came in games that Tatum scored 19 and 28 points respectively. He also averaged over 20 points per game in Duke's ACC Tournament title run, helping the Blue Devils lock up a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance.
And no one perfectly encapsulates the Mustangs’ “position less basketball” mantra better than Ojeleye. The Duke transfer is the team’s leading scorer (18.9 ppg) and second leading rebounder (6.8 rpg) while also connecting on over 42 percent of his shots behind the arc.
Cam Oliver, F, Nevada
Marcus Marshall might be Nevada’s leading scorer, but make no mistake: Oliver is the team’s most important player. The junior forward – who could be selected in this summer’s NBA Draft – averaged just under 16 points and nine rebounds per game this season, helping the Wolfpack to Mountain West regular season and postseason titles.
The best part for Nevada is that he saved his best basketball for the team’s biggest games. Oliver put up 27 points (including five three-pointers) in the Wolfpack’s semifinal win in the Mountain West Tournament, then bounced back with a 14-rebound performance in their victory over Colorado State to clinch the title.
Stephen R. SylvanieUSA TODAY Sports
De'Aaron Fox, G, Kentucky
Fox has been dealing with nagging injuries for the second half of the season, but finally got healthy for the SEC Tournament and absolutely played out of his mind. That included his best performance as a Wildcat with 28 points in a semifinal win over Alabama.
JaCorey Williams, F, Middle Tennessee State
The Blue Raiders were NCAA Tournament darlings last year – upsetting Michigan State as a No. 15 seed – and could be once again, with a favorable matchup against Minnesota in Round 1. However, their key player this year wasn’t even on the court a season ago.
That player is Williams, a 6’8 transfer from Arkansas. He is averaging team-highs in points (17.3) and rebounds (7.3) helping Middle Tennessee to a 30-4 record this season.
T.J. Cromer, G, ETSU
The Buccaneers are a team that everyone – especially first round opponent Florida - needs to watch out for as the SoCon champs enter the tournament red-hot.
Cromer averaged 19 points per game and did his best work in the SoCon Tournament, where he took home MVP honors. That included a 41-point performance, with nine three-pointers made in a semifinal victory over Samford.
Melo Trimble, G, Maryland
What Trimble has done this season might be the most underappreciated story in college basketball. After losing four starters off last year’s team (including NBA Draft picks Diamond Stone and Jake Layman), Trimble came back, and led his team to a 24-8 overall record and second place finish in the Big Ten.
He's the team's leading scorer (the next three are all freshmen), averaging 17 points and just under four rebounds and four assists per game this season.
Donte DiVincenzo, G
Josh Hart is the star at Villanova and Jalen Brunson is the force that drives them. But let’s give a quick shout out to DiVincenzo.
His stats won’t blow you away, but the 6’5 freshman has served an important role for the defending champions. With Phil Booth injured, DiVincenzo has stepped into his place and averaged 8.3 points off the bench. DiVincenzo also has – by far – the best nickname in college basketball. He’s known as “The Michael Jordan of Delaware.”