The NCAA tournament can turn college basketball players into cult heroes. Whether you’re pulling for your alma mater or your bracket picks, this is the rare event that gives the entire country a rooting interesting. That makes it one of the greatest stages in sports.
If you’re tuning into college basketball for the first time this season, we’re here to help. These are the 50 players who will define March Madness in 2018.
50. Jonathan Stark, G, Murray State
Stark was named Ohio Valley Player of the Year by leading Murray State to the regular season and conference tournament crown. The 6-foot guard averaged nearly 22 points per game and has the Racers on a 13-game winning streak heading into the tournament. If Murray State beats West Virginia, it’s because he went off.
49. D’Marcus Simonds, G, Georgia State
The 6’3 guard is an explosive athlete who is starting to gain NBA buzz. He fills the box score on a nightly basis, averaging 21 points, six rebounds and 4.5 assists this season as a sophomore.
48. Zach Lofton, G, New Mexico State
Lofton bounced around at five schools in six years before finally finding a home at New Mexico State. Now 25 years old, Lofton is putting up 20 points per game for an Aggies team that is becoming a trendy upset pick in the first round against Clemson.
47. Chris Chiozza, PG, Florida
Don’t let his size (generously listed at 6-foot) fool you: Chiozza is one of the toughest players in college basketball. He was a tournament hero last season with a buzzer-beater to advance the Gators to the Elite Eight. He also made one of the most clutch plays of this regular season with a steal-and-score at the buzzer to beat Mizzou.
46. Jordan Caroline, F, Nevada
The versatile 6’7 forward does a little bit of everything for Nevada, leading the team in scoring (18 points per game) and placing second in rebounding (8.8 per game). Nevada has an intriguing combination of shooting and physicality that could give Texas trouble in round one, and maybe even Cincinnati in round two.
45. Clayton Custer, PG, Loyola-Chicago
Custer transferred from Iowa State and turned into the Missouri Valley Player of the Year at Loyola. He was an incredibly efficient, shooting 53 percent from the field and 44 percent from three-point range. As if there was any question about his value, three of the Ramblers’ five losses this season came when he was injured.
44. Tra Holder, G, Arizona State
Holder is a 6-foot scoring dynamo who made a name for himself when he dropped 40 points in a win over eventual No. 1 seed Xavier in November. He scored 20 or more points in 15 games this season. Arizona State will need his ability to rack up points off-the-dribble if its going to take out Syracuse in the First Four.
43. Peyton Aldridge, F, Davidson
Davidson became a bid stealer by winning the Atlantic-10 tournament. Aldridge was phenomenal throughout their run, scoring 35 points against Saint Louis, 24 points against Saint Bonaventure and 13 vs. Rhode Island in the title game. On the year, the 6’8 senior forward has averaged 21.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.
42. Tyler Davis, C, Texas A&M
Davis is a throwback center. The 270-pound low post scorer has led Texas A&M in points per game the last two seasons. He’ll be the biggest key in the Aggies’ 7-10 matchup against an undersized Providence team.
41. Luke Maye, PF, North Carolina
What a year it’s been for Luke Maye, who went from the former walk-on that hit a buzzer-beater against Kentucky to get UNC into the Final Four a season ago to the team’s most consistent source of points and rebounds this season as a junior. UNC’s frontcourt was depleted after last season’s title, but Maye’s emergence is a big reason why the Heels have a chance to make another deep run this March.
40. Jaylen Adams, G, St. Bonaventure
Adams has been a stud for three years now, again leading the Bonnies in scoring as a senior while raising his three-point shooting up to 46 percent. He’s the type of off-the-dribble scorer a double-digit seed needs to win in March. St. Bonaventure faces UCLA in the play-in game.
39. Kyle Guy, G, Virginia
The only McDonald’s All-American on Virginia’s roster, Guy led UVA in scoring even as his efficiency dipped as a sophomore. If UVA is going to exorcise its March Madness demos, Guy will have to carry the offense in at least a couple games.
38. Lonnie Walker IV, G, Miami
Walker has worked his way back from a preseason knee injury to turn into Miami’s leading scorer and a possible NBA lottery pick. The 6’4 guard is a long and athletic with a compact shooting stroke. He can make himself some money with a big tournament.
37. Theo Pinson, SG, North Carolina
Pinson is the glue guy for UNC, an athletic swingman who can handle the ball, lockdown on defense and finish at the rim. He’s also possibly the funniest player and best quote in the tournament, which is worth something.
36. Rob Gray, G, Houston
Gray is a stone cold scorer, dropping 33 points against Wichita State in the AAC semis and NEARLY taking taking Cincinnati in the conference tournament title game. As long as he doesn’t play in any more church league games this week, he should be a big factor in the NCAA tournament.
35. Michael Porter Jr., F, Missouri
Porter was considered by some as the No. 1 recruit in the country heading into the season before he was immediately sidelined by back surgery. He made his return in the SEC tournament and looked rusty doing it, but this is still an athletic, 6’10 forward with so much talent. Even at 65 percent, Porter is one of the better players in the field.
34. Rawle Alkins, G, Arizona
The fact that Alkins is clearly Arizona’s No. 3 offensive option just shows how loaded that team is — not bad for a four-seed. The 6’5 sophomore off-guard is a bull going to the basket. Just ask USC:
33. Kevin Knox, SF, Kentucky
Knox is a 6’9 wing who looks phenomenal when his shot is falling. His skill level isn’t as refined as Kentucky’s previous one-and-done stars, but the Wildcats will need him to be their primary option in March if they want to go on a deep tournament run.
32. Grant Williams, F, Tennessee
The SEC Player of the Year is an undersized four-man who acts as the glue for the Vols on both ends of the court. Williams is a tough shot blocker and a beast in the paint, using his big 240-pound frame to consistently get to the foul line. Tennessee is a sleeper Final Four pick because of his development.
31. Grayson Allen, SG, Duke
The most infamous player in college basketball has inched out of the spotlight in his senior season. But even as the Duke freshmen get all the attention, Allen still has the potential to go on a scoring binge in any game in plays in. Don’t forget about Grayson Allen — It’s hard to imagine a scenario where he leaves the sport quietly, one way or another.
30. Mohamed Bamba, C, Texas
It’s easy to see why Bamba is considered a potential top-five NBA draft pick. He has a historically long 7’9 wingspan and uses it to become one of the most fearsome shot blockers in college hoops. Nevada doesn’t have anyone to match Bamba’s size, so he’ll be expected to produce in Texas’ first round game.
29. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G, Kentucky
Alexander has been Kentucky’s breakout player this season, rising from one of the team’s lowest-rated recruits to arguably its biggest star. The 6’6 guard leverages his length for some crafty finishes at the rim. He’s also turned into a good passer tasked with creating most the Wildcats’ offense in the halfcourt.
28. Kelan Martin, F, Butler
Martin has been a big-time scorer for years, but he took his game to a new level as a senior, averaging 21 points per game for Butler. He’s a big wing who can heat up quickly from the outside.
27. Marcus Foster, G, Creighton
Foster was once freshman phenom for Kansas State. Now he’s at Creighton and is once again playing like the star he seemed to be at the beginning of his college career. Foster led the Bluejays with 20.3 points per game and is one-half of the country’s most underrated backcourt with Khyri Thomas.
26. Jaren Jackson Jr., C, Michigan State
We put Jaren Jackson Jr. at No. 3 overall in our latest mock draft because of his rare combination of shooting and shot blocking for an athletic big man. As a college player, Jackson feels a bit underutilized: he only averages 11 points and he’s fourth on the team in minutes per game. Still: there’s no denying Jackson’s talent, and March Madness could be the perfect platform for his coming out party.
25. Gary Clark, F, Cincinnati
Clark has long been Cincy’s secret weapon, and he’s turning in the best season of his career as a senior. The 6’8 forward is a fearsome defensive presence, but this season he’s also become an ultra efficient scorer. Clark’s 129.4 offensive rating ranks No. 16 in the country, partially because of his improved three-point stroke, which has jumped from 28 percent to 44 percent on a under two attempts per game.
24. Angel Delgado, PF, Seton Hall
Delgado’s numbers have dipped slightly from his breakout season last year in part because Seton Hall has three other really good players in Desi Rodriguez, Khadeen Carrington and Myles Powell. Even still, Delgado’s 21 double-doubles are third best in the country. He remains one of the sport’s best front court workhorses.
23. Landry Shamet, PG, Wichita State
Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are gone, but Wichita State has continued to thrive in part because it found a new star in Shamet. The 6’4 point guard has hit 44 percent of his threes the last two seasons and is putting up a career-high 5.4 assists this year. Shamet’s numbers quietly compare favorably to VanVleet as a college player.
22. Allonzo Trier, SG, Arizona
Trier is a natural born scorer. He’s averaging 19 points per game as a junior for Arizona, combining daring drives to the basket with 40 percent three-point shooting ability. As long as he’s willing to feed teammate Deandre Ayton and not hunt his own offense, Arizona is going to be a problem in the tournament.
21. Killian Tillie, PF, Gonzaga
Tillie was an energy guy on Gonzaga’s Final Four team as a freshman last season. This year, he’s starting to emerge as a true front court star. Tillie absolutely dominated the WCC Tournament, averaging 24 points and 5.3 rebounds per game while making 13-of-14 three-pointers across Gonzaga’s three wins.
20. Devon Hall, G, Virginia
On Virginia’s No Name All-Stars, Hall is the leading scorer and the biggest evidence of what Virginia basketball can do for you. The redshirt senior grew his game bit by bit every year, culminating in a season of 45 percent three-point shooting, heady passing and dependable two-way play.
19. Jacob Evans, SG, Cincinnati
Evans is the type of two-way wing every good team needs. He’s Cincinnati’s primary offensive option as a 40 percent three-point shooter who has grown his game as a playmaker this season. He’s also one of the best perimeter defenders on the No. 2 defense in the country.
18. Carsen Edwards, PG, Purdue
Somehow, Purdue has been even better this season without Caleb Swanigan. The development of sophomore point guard Carsen Edwards is a big reason why. Edwards is an explosive off-the-dribble scorer and a skilled shooter who keeps the Boilermakers’ four-out offense humming. He’ll need a big tournament if Purdue wants to make a deep run.
17. Mike Daum, PF, South Dakota State
The Dauminator is college basketball’s premier mid-major star, a 6’9, 250-pound big man who can score from anywhere on the floor. Daum is putting up 23.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game this season on over 40 percent shooting from three-point range. The Jackrabbits have made the NCAA tournament every season he’s been in school.
16. Keenan Evans, PG, Texas Tech
Keenan Evans is the best type of college basketball success story: under-recruited out of high school, he used four long years at Texas Tech to slowly grow into one of the best senior guards in America. The Red Raiders had exactly one NCAA tournament appearance in 10 years until this season. Evans is the biggest reason for their surprising success.
15. Moritz Wagner, C, Michigan
Michigan enters March as college basketball’s hottest team largely because Wagner is the lynchpin in John Beilein’s five-out attack. The 6’11 German has been a 40 percent three-point shooter the last two seasons, and he’s made major strides as a rebounder this year.
14. Wendell Carter, C, Duke
You hear the same thing every Duke game: if it wasn’t for Marvin Bagley’s late commitment, teammate Wendell Carter would be the player everyone talks about. Carter is a skilled inside-out scorer and tenacious rebounder who is tasked with anchoring the backline in Duke’s zone defense. The Blue Devils need to find a way to best utilize Carter’s obvious talent if they want to avoid another early upset this year.
13. Aaron Holiday, PG, UCLA
Holiday is a star at one of the sport’s premier programs and has two brothers in the NBA, yet somehow he still feels under the radar. A player once known for his defense, Holiday has blossomed into a 20 point per game scorer as a junior in part because of his improved perimeter shooting (44 percent from three). He still plays gritty defense and averages six assists per game.
12. Mikal Bridges, F, Villanova
College basketball’s best three-and-D wing, Bridges uses his 7’2 wingspan to wreck havoc on defense while using his four years at Villanova to turn into a knockdown shooter from distance. He is an elite role player in every sense.
11. Keita Bates-Diop, F, Ohio State
After suffering a season-ending stress fracture in his leg last season, Bates-Diop has come back better than ever as a redshirt junior. The Big Ten Player of the Year was second in the league in scoring (19.2 points per game) and rebounding (8.9 boards per game) while serving as an active defensive presence. There are few forwards in college basketball this versatile.
10. Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama
Sexton is a March Madness hero in the making. Alabama needed multiple wins in the SEC tournament just to make the NCAAs, and Sexton almost single-handedly willed them there. He hit a floater at the buzzer to beat Texas A&M in the opener, then exploded for 31 points the next game over Auburn. Simply put, Sexton is a fearless scorer and tireless competitor who will give the Tide a chance in every game they play.
9. Joel Berry II, PG, North Carolina
Berry feels perpetually underrated. After helping get to the Tar Heels to the national title game as a sophomore, he helped them win it as a senior, winning Most Outstanding Player in the process. He isn’t the biggest or fastest point guard, but he does nothing but produce. With Berry at the controls, the Heels have another chance at a deep tournament run.
8. Jevon Carter, PG, West Virginia
Carter is one of college basketball’s premier defenders, a bulldog on the perimeter whose aggression fuels West Virginia on both ends. He’s grown immensely as a playmaker as a senior, nearly doubling his assists per game from last year. He’s also a quality three-point shooter. Any opposing point guard that draws Carter throughout this tournament won’t be sleeping easy.
7. Trevon Bluiett, G, Xavier
Bluiett has been the backbone of Xavier for the last four years. He contributed to a Sweet 16 run as a freshman and almost single-handedly powered a surprising Elite Eight run last year. Now, as a senior, Bluiett is the star of a Xavier team that heads into March with a No. 1 seed. If the game is on the line late, everyone in the gym will know who the Musketeers are giving the ball to.
6. Miles Bridges, F, Michigan State
Bridges was our No. 1 player in the preseason. He’s been very good, but hasn’t grown his game in any significant ways since his shocking decision to return to school for his sophomore year. That’s fine: at 6’6, Bridges is an explosive athlete and quality jump shooter who can carry an offense when he gets hot. Michigan State’s Final Four hopes rest squarely on his shoulders.
5. Devonte Graham, PG, Kansas
For all the attention Trae Young got during the season, he wasn’t even the player of the year in his own conference. That award went to Devonte Graham, Kansas’ senior floor general who serves as the lifeblood of the Jayhawks. Graham can score from deep, set up teammates and lock down on defense. If Kansas makes a Final Four run, it’s because Graham wills them there.
4. Jalen Brunson, PG, Villanova
Brunson is a ruthlessly efficient offensive point guard, shooting 60 percent on two-pointers, 40 percent on three-pointers and 80 percent on free throws. He’s the engine that powers Villanova’s national title chances, a 6’3 bulldog who can get to the basket or hit pull-up jumpers whenever the offense needs a bucket in a pinch. Brunson has one national title under his belt already, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get a second.
3. Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma
Young defined the college season more than any player in the country. He was a supernova during the first half of the season, sparking Stephen Curry comparisons with his astonishing shooting range and impressive passing displays. His play dipped in the second half of the season as Oklahoma closed the year losing eight of 10, but this is still the first player to lead DI in points and assists per game since the 1950s. If anyone’s capable of getting hot in March, it’s Young.
2. Marvin Bagley III, F, Duke
Duke has had a lot of great one-and-done stars over the last few years, but you can make the case Bagley has been better than any of them. He’s averaging 21.2 points and 11.4 rebounds per this season, numbers that dwarf what Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum put up. So big and so fast with great touch around the rim, there is basically no way to stop Bagley from getting two points.
1. Deandre Ayton, C, Arizona
There is nothing you can do to stop Deandre Ayton. Arizona’s freshman center is simply too big (7’1, 250 pounds), too strong and too quick for the mere mortals he’s facing at the college level. He’s a dominant scorer in the paint, a ferocious rebounder and even has a developing face-up game from the perimeter. You don’t need to be a professional scout to see why Ayton is potentially the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. They don’t make centers like this anymore.