March Madness: 10 Players Who Can Take Over the NCAA Tournament
For casual college basketball fans, part of the fun of March Madness is meeting the characters of this year's season.
There have been upperclassmen and talented NBA products that have been lighting up gyms around the country all season. In the game of basketball more than any other sport, one player can singlehandedly win a game for their team with a heroic effort.
Let's meet 10 guys who could change the outcome of the NCAA tournament if their game is firing on all cylinders.
10. Kris Murray, Iowa
In order for Iowa to make the tournament again, Kris Murray had to replace the massive void his brother, Keegan Murray, left by going fourth overall to the Sacramento Kings in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Murray lept from 9.7 points per game (PPG) last year in Keegan's shadow to a feature role, scoring 20.4 points per game on a 48.4% field goal rate. He also has added 7.9 rebounds per contest, too.
His cold night from the field (41.2% shooting) was a big reason the Hawkeyes fell to Ohio State in their first game of the B1G tournament. Still, he'll be the best player on the floor as Iowa battles Auburn in one of the coin-flip matches of the first round.
9. Amari Bailey, UCLA
Amari Bailey isn't even the first guy most college basketball fans would point to on the Bruins roster, but I see his emergence as the upside UCLA would need to win it all in light of their injuries.
The former five-star recruit has slid down 2023 NBA Draft mocks due to a poor freshman year, but he's found his stride as of late. While only averaging 10.6 PPG for the season, he dropped 26 points in the second round of the Pac-12 tournament against Colorado, and he poured in 19 more during the Bruins' tight loss to the Arizona Wildcats in the title game.
Bailey eclipsed 57.0% from the field in both games, so he's efficiently starting to take charge of this offense. I'm intrigued by the prospect that has bits of Dejounte Murray and Josh Hart in his style. Adding a lottery-caliber scorer at this time of year could push UCLA to the top.
8. Keyontae Johnson, Kansas State
Chances are that Kansas State is happy to live or die with Keyontae Johnson holding the ball late.
The 6'6" senior and Florida transfer was a Wooden Award contender earlier this year, reaching the 20-point mark on nine separate occasions. He was a monumental factor in K-State's win over Baylor last month, which launched the Wildcats as a serious threat to be a top seed.
Johnson took just 12 shots in their second-round loss to Texas Christian, so he may fly out of the blocks in the tournament to avoid a similar result against Montana State.
He's the type of perimeter scorer that can get going in a hurry (41.9% from three this year).
7. Jalen Pickett, Penn State
While most of the remainder are from teams that could win the title, this article really should focus more on players like Jalen Pickett.
Pickett is the only reason Penn State is dancing this year. He led the team in points (18.2), rebounds (7.4), assists (6.8), and steals (0.9) per game for the season. He even posted the rare college triple-double earlier this year against Butler.
The 6'4" senior likely isn't getting NBA looks, so this is his career's potential signature moment.
Many like the underseeded Texas A&M Aggies as a dark horse to make a run in the tournament, but they'll have to get through Pickett's Nittany Lions first. Don't be surprised if he busts brackets.
6. Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Last year, Gonzaga was a well-rounded, undertested juggernaut that exploded several brackets.
This year, they've really leaned into the identity of their remaining star with Chet Holmgren onto the NBA. Drew Timme won't win many awards on the defensive end of the floor, but there's a reason that the Zags have the top mark in KenPom's offensive efficiency rankings.
The senior averaged 20.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, but the impressive part for a scorer in 2023? He did this much scoring with peak efficiency (62.9%) and took just 23 three-point attempts all season.
The Bulldogs can get into a track meet with any team, and Timme's excellent inside scoring is the high-floor approach that'll help avoid those long dry spells. I just wouldn't trust him at the line (62.1% free-throw percentage) like some of these other guys.
5. Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky
Oscar Tshiebwe is a good reminder to not blindly tail this list in your bracket.
Tshiebwe won the 2022 Wooden Award before last year's NCAA tournament, and the Wildcats were bounced in the Round of 64 as Saint Peter's got fit for a glass slipper. Kentucky, once again, got a pretty difficult draw with a Providence squad motivated by former UK guard Bryce Hopkins.
Still, Tshiebwe is a game-wrecking beast. He led the nation in rebounding (13.1 per game) while adding 16.5 points per game on efficient 53.5% shooting.
Providence, Kansas State, and Marquette don't really match that inside presence on paper, so a hot run from the native of Congo -- should he avoid foul trouble -- could catapult Kentucky much further than they went last year.
4. Jalen Wilson, Kansas
It's probably good news for Kansas I couldn't decide whether to put Gradey Dick or Jalen Wilson in this spot.
Dick is the better NBA prospect as a potential lottery pick, but the junior Wilson is largely considered the Jayhawks' top option. He was 26th in the nation in scoring (20.1 PPG) on modest 47.1% efficiency for a multi-level scorer.
At 6'8", he added 8.4 rebounds per contest, including double-digit boards in five of his last eight contests. His activity on the glass gives Kansas some size into their lethal draw with potentially Connecticut, Gonzaga, or UCLA.
No other team in the country boasts two elite scoring talents like Wilson and Dick, which should make KU a contender to defend their throne from the West Region's top seed.
3. Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana
As far as a pure scorer with time refined in school, Trayce Jackson-Davis would get my nod as the best in the country.
He's topped 25 points in 10 separate games this year, and he posted 24 in both B1G Tournament games despite their semifinal loss to Penn State. As mentioned, that Jalen Pickett guy isn't bad.
If you're worried about perimeter dry spells, fear not here. Jackson-Davis has a similar scoring chart to Drew Timme; he didn't take a single three all season. Nonetheless, TJD is a better bet at the foul line (68.6%) late in games.
Though he doesn't have the size of other true bigs on the list, he's a huge weapon for Indiana in their first-round matchup with Kent State, whose rotation has just one player matching Jackson-Davis' 6'9" frame.
2. Zach Edey, Purdue
A lot of these forwards and guards are incredibly skilled but not physically imposing.
Some teams tipping off on Thursday would just have zero answers for Purdue's Zach Edey. The 7'4" big man is an overwhelming favorite to win the 2023 Wooden Award based on the massive leap he took from his sophomore to his junior season.
Edey played just 17 minutes in last year's Sweet 16 loss to Saint Peter's, but as Purdue's focal point on both ends in 2022-23, he's dropped 22.3 points per game on 60.2% shooting. Importantly, the center is a better free-throw shooter (73.7%) than a lot of the forwards on this list.
He's also increased to 2.1 blocks per contest this season, defending the rim at an elite level.
No team or player can truly match Edey's size, which is why Purdue -- as the lowest-selected team to win it all on ESPN at the moment -- might be a sneaky title pick in your bracket pool.
1. Brandon Miller, Alabama
Only four players since 2010 have had the honor of winning a national title in college and getting picked in the top five of the NBA Draft later that summer. Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did so in 2012 from Kentucky, Jahlil Okafor won a title at Duke in 2015, and De'Andre Hunter went from Virginia to the Atlanta Hawks in 2019.
Brandon Miller could become the fifth. Alabama is +800 to win this year's national title on FanDuel Sportsbook, and if they win it, Miller likely played a significant part.
The 6'9" freshman posted 19.6 PPG and added 8.3 rebounds per contest. On 7.6 three-point attempts per game, he also shot an excellent 40.1% from deep. The three-and-D wing is the perfect leader for the Tide's three-point-heavy shot diet, relentless tempo, and defensive acumen.
Of course, Alabama's off-court issues -- tangentially connected to Miller -- have cast a cloud of uncertainty over the entire tournament, and his availability could impact the end result. Still, if allowed to remain available all the way through the dance, he is a top-shelf difference maker this March -- and likely at the next level as a projected top-three pick.