College basketball season is starting to heat up and the next few weeks are when mid-majors rise, conference championships are won and stars are born.
As we inch closer to March, which names do you need to know for this year’s NCAA Tournament? Here are 16.
Lonzo Ball, G, UCLA
Ball is a household name at this point, completely revitalizing UCLA from a sub. 500 team a year ago, to one that has real title aspirations. It’s almost certain he’s headed to the NBA this spring. But before he goes, can he bring the Bruins their first national championship in over 20 years?
Jayson Tatum, F, Duke
Luke Kennard has been Duke’s best player this season and Grayson Allen has quietly transitioned into the playmaking ball-handler the Blue Devils need. But for Duke to go from "good" to "national championship good" they will need Tatum at his absolute best -- like he was last week, when he put up 28 points at Virginia.
Gonzaga is the No. 1 team in the country and in line to get a No. 1 seed, but even the Bulldogs know that until they make the Final Four, they won't earn most fans' respect. In a season with a stacked roster and no dominant team, it's worth asking: If the Bulldogs can't break through this year, will they ever?
Sean Miller, Arizona head coach
Miller holds the dubious title of Best Coach to Never Make A Final Four. He's now 0-4 in Elite Eights (including 0-3 at Arizona) but once again has a team capable of breaking through in the tournament. And if they do, his fans will be rewarded. Remember, this year's Final Four is in Arizona.
Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan, F, Purdue
With averages of 19 points and 13 rebounds (second in the country) per game, Swanigan is starting to get National Player of the Year love. He’s also one of the few players who could put a team on his back and take them all the way to the Final Four.
A year after being banished from the NCAA Tournament, the Mustangs (currently sitting at 24-4) will almost certainly be in this year’s field of 68. And with a roster that includes Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye (averaging 18.3 ppg) and a likely NBA player in guard Shake Milton, SMU has the talent to not only get into the tournament, but make it to the second weekend.
Josh Jackson, F, Kansas
Frank Mason is Kansas’ best player (and would have my vote for National Player of the Year) but Jackson is the versatile do-it-all player that might be key for a deep Kansas run. The 6’8 freshman impacts the game in virtually all phases, from scoring (his 16.5 ppg are second on the team) to rebounding (6.9 a game), as well as on the defensive end, where he averages nearly two steals and a block per game.
Mark ZerofUSA TODAY Sports
Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
The Blue Raiders flipped the college basketball world on its head last year with a first-round upset over prohibitive pre-tourney favorite Michigan State. The scary part is that at 24-4 overall (including 14 wins in their last 15 games), they might be even better this season.
Jeff CurryUSA TODAY Sports
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State head coach
We take everything Marshall has accomplished at Wichita State for granted, but what he’s done this season is nothing short of incredible. After losing two NBA players (Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet), Marshall once again has Wichita rolling (25-4) and in position to potentially make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. It’s also worth noting that with both the Indiana and Illinois jobs potentially opening up this winter, March could be Marshall’s swan song in Wichita.
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Jalen Brunson, PG, Villanova
Josh Hart is the Wildcats’ star but Brunson is their heartbeat. The 6’3 sophomore has stepped in seamlessly for the departed Ryan Arcidiacono at point guard, and is a big reason why Villanova can repeat as national champions this season.
Looking for a team in the 7-10 seed range that could pull off a few upsets, end up in the Sweet 16 and completely ruin your bracket? Look no further than the Trojans. They’ve quietly gotten lost in the Pac-12 shuffle behind Arizona, UCLA and Oregon, but have the size and athleticism to give any team in the tournament fits -- and send them home earlier than expected.
Malik Monk, G, Kentucky
Monk has put Kentucky on his back a few times this season (like in his 47-point performance against North Carolina) and on a Wildcats roster devoid of scorers, he may have to do it a few more times for John Calipari’s club to make a deep run. March is where legends are born and Monk could become one this year.
Kevin Keatts, UNC-Wilmington
Keatts is already getting buzz for high-major coaching jobs, and at this point it seems likely that he’ll be coaching somewhere other than Wilmington next season. But for now, he is in charge of one of the hottest mid-major teams (24-5 overall) that is capable of pulling off an upset or two in the Big Dance.
No team was snubbed as badly on Selection Sunday as Monmouth last season, but the Hawks have bounced back in a big way in 2017. Monmouth has 13 straight wins and if they can get to the NCAA Tournament, they have more than enough to upset your favorite team.
With size, athleticism, experience and plenty of NBA talent, the Ducks would be considered a title favorite if the name on the front of the jersey said “North Carolina,” “Duke” or “Kansas.” But instead, it says “Oregon,” so the Ducks will have to settle for the title of “scariest team no one is talking about.”
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North Carolina Tar Heels
Last year the Tar Heels weren’t just one game away from winning a national title, but potentially one shot. This year they have a good enough squad to get to back to the title game -- and win it.