For most people, the NCAA Tournament is about picking teams and waiting for the next Cinderella story to emerge. But it’s also about getting to watch how players respond to playing on the big stage.
Sometimes it’s about seeing if a star player can rise to the occasion and carry his team deep into the tournament. Other times it’s about underdogs proving that they’re just as good as the blue-chippers who are on their way to the NBA.
Even if our focus at the beginning is filling out our bracket with the name of a team, it usually ends with our eyes on specific players.
With that in mind, we wanted to share some of the players we’ll be watching closely in March and who we can’t wait to see in the spotlight during the NCAA Tournament.
Sandro Mamukelashvili, Seton Hall
Don’t worry if you can’t pronounce his name, just enjoy getting to watch Sandro Mamukelashvili, who hails from Georgia (the country in Eastern Europe).
A year ago, he was part of the supporting cast at Seton Hall behind Myles Powell, but Mamukelashvili is the main man for the Pirates this season. He’s 6-foot-11 but has the skills of a guard, leading Seton Hall with 17.6 points per game and is second on the team with 3.2 assists per game. He shoots the ball from the outside as well as he rebounds, making him a matchup nightmare who has a chance to do special things in March.
Trevion Williams, Purdue
While the NCAA Tournament is usually decided by guard play, Trevion Williams is one of the few big men who warrants close attention. He’s a double-double machine, collecting nine so far this season, the most during conference play.
After battling the best in the Big Ten all season, Williams figures to be a handful for any team Purdue plays in the Big Dance.
Aamir Simms, Clemson
The Tigers are one of the most overlooked teams in the country, as they typically win with defense rather than offense. However, Simms is the one player who averages double figures in the scoring department.
The 6-foot-8 senior has legitimate NBA potential and is the one Clemson player who can take control of a game on the offensive end. He’s also the team leader in assists, as Simms is far more than a big body who battles in the paint; he has a skill set that’s worth checking out.
Carlik Jones, Louisville
If the Cardinals don’t allow all of their COVID-19 shutdowns to stop them from reaching the Big Dance, Jones is one of the guards to watch. He averaged 20 points per game last season at Radford and has made the step up to the ACC with little trouble.
Jones plays virtually every minute for Louisville, averaging 17.4 points and 4.9 assists per game. At 6-1, he’s also one of the team’s best rebounders, grabbing 5.6 boards per game.
If the Cardinals are in a close game, Jones will be the one with the ball in his hands, taking the shot that will either win or lose the game for the Cardinals.
Quentin Grimes, Houston
To be fair, there are a lot of reasons why Houston has lost just two games this season. But Grimes is a big one, as he’s stepped up in the absence of Caleb Mills, who was his running mate last season.
The Cougars have a solid supporting cast behind Grimes, which is why they’re running away with the AAC. But as the team’s leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, Grimes is the player to watch, especially if the Cougars are going to live up to the top-10 ranking they’ve had most of the season and make a deep run.
Evan Mobley, USC
Evan Mobley is one of the most polished freshmen big men that college basketball has seen in a long time. The seven-footer is looking like a top-three NBA draft pick after all that he’s done for the Trojans this season.
He leads USC in scoring, rebounding, blocks, and steals, nearly averaging a double-double per game while also averaging three blocks every time out.
If you haven’t been paying attention to the Pac-12 this season, the NCAA Tournament is your best chance to see Mobley play, as the big man tries to carry USC through the tournament.
Cameron Thomas, LSU
LSU has a quartet of high-level offensive players, but Thomas is the one you want to watch closely.
The freshman isn’t an accomplished jump shooter just yet, but he’s still averaging 22.6 points per game. In LSU’s first 19 games, he’s failed to score at least 20 points just five times.
While the Tigers aren’t known for their defense, they can fill up the score sheet with Thomas being their most dangerous weapon.
McKinley Wright IV, Colorado
Colorado has flown under the radar for most of the season, but they’ll probably make March Madness, with Wright being a big reason why.
The diminutive senior has been a triple threat throughout his entire career. He averages 14.4 points and 5.7 assists, pulling the strings for the Colorado offense, while also averaging 4.3 rebounds per game.
He’s the motor that makes the Buffaloes go and will give Colorado a chance to turn some heads and surprise some people in March.
Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana
The Hoosiers haven’t yet punched their ticket, but Jackson-Davis is a player you want to watch closely if they do. He’s a traditional post player who’s nearly averaging a double-double per game with 19.6 points and 9.4 rebounds.
If Indiana can sneak into the Big Dance, he’s the reason why nobody will want a piece of the Hoosiers in the First Round.
Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
Suggs is one of the best recruits that Mark Few has ever attracted to Gonzaga, and he’s more than lived up to the hype. He’s given the Bulldogs a huge upgrade in guard play from last season and is considered a top-five draft pick.
In fairness, Gonzaga is still a frontcourt-oriented team with both Drew Timme and Corey Kispert averaging over 19 points per game. But in the NCAA Tournament, Suggs is the player to watch because the backcourt will likely decide whether or not this is the year that Gonzaga finally wins a national championship.
Jared Butler, Baylor
It’s tough to single out just one player on Baylor’s roster to watch because the Bears are so deep and talented. However, Butler is the team’s leading scorer and a genuine National Player of the Year candidate. He can shoot it, set up his teammates, and is a ferocious defender who averages 2.4 steals per game.
Even on a team like Baylor, Butler is someone to watch closely and will likely take the lead if the Bears end up in the Final Four.
Sam Hauser, Virginia
Obviously, the Cavaliers win on the back of their defensive prowess, but Hauser gives them a talented offensive player who we suspect will be at his best on the big stage.
The 6-foot-8 forward is automatic when left alone on the perimeter. But he’s also strong and tough enough to lead Virginia and rebounding and score buckets in the paint as well.
If Virginia needs to win a high-scoring game during the tournament, we’re curious to see if Hauser will be able to deliver and help the (technically, still) reigning national champions repeat.
Hunter Dickinson, Michigan
Dickinson has almost come out of nowhere and been a huge key in making Michigan a championship contender. While Isaiah Livers is the team’s leading scorer, the 7-foot-1 freshman has been the biggest difference-maker for the Wolverines, scoring 15.6 points per game.
He’s far more polished than most freshmen centers and provides the perfect complement to Michigan’s deep backcourt.
Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton
Zegarowski is one of the few players who would have been on this list last season as well. Unlike many of those players, the junior point guard stayed in school.
While the Bluejays have four other players who average double figures, Zegarowski is still the straw that stirs the drink. He was phenomenal in Creighton’s recent upset over Villanova and will be fascinating to watch on the big stage against top-level competition.
Zegarowski gives Creighton the caliber of guard play that tends to win in March, making him and the Bluejays a Final Four dark horse.
Luka Garza, Iowa
It’s almost a sure thing that Garza is going to win National Player of the Year, so why wouldn’t we be eager to see him in the NCAA Tournament?
He can score in the paint, he can knock down perimeter shots, he’s a better passer than most people realize, and he can defend the paint. Garza is also averaging 24.5 points per game, so he can take over games.
Iowa has some great shooters and a solid supporting cast, but if the Hawkeyes make a deep run in March, it’ll be on Garza’s back. We’re excited to see just how far the nation’s best player can carry his team.
Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
There’s an excellent chance Cade Cunningham is the top pick in this year’s NBA Draft, so this should be the only time we get a chance to see him in the NCAA Tournament. There have been some rough moments for the freshman, who can be turnover prone at times. But it’s obvious that he’s one of the most talented players in the country.
He’s a natural-born scorer and a great passer who also has the size and strength to average more than six rebounds per game. More than that, Cunningham has shown a propensity for taking over late in games. That makes him one of the most intriguing players to watch during the NCAA Tournament because he makes Oklahoma State a team that can do some damage.
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