10 players to watch in the NCAA men's basketball tournament

Jason Owens
·7-min read

After a one-year COVID-19 hiatus, the NCAA tournament is back. Let's catch up on some on the stars poised to make some noise in the coming weeks.

These aren't necessarily the best players in the tournament — though some of them certainly are. These are players best positioned to make headlines this March.

Hunter Dickinson, Michigan

Freshman center

Dickinson arrived at Michigan this year as the nation’s 40th-ranked prospect. He enters the NCAA tournament as the top producer on a No. 1 seed.

The 7-1 center averages 13.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, leading a Michigan team with two other All-Big Ten players in all three categories. He put his skillset on display with this play against Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament.

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Dickinson's a prime reason the Wolverines vaulted from preseason No. 25 to a No. 1 seed.

Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

Freshman forward

Cunningham is known to all but the most casual of hoops fans. But if you’re just catching up, here’s the scoop. The Oklahoma State freshman joined the Cowboys as one of the most hyped prospects in years. He did not disappoint.

The athletic, 6-8 forward averaged 20.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting better than 40% from 3-point distance. The coaches' choice for Big 12 Player of the Year will look to write his March legacy before joining the NBA as the top pick in the draft.

Texas' Andrew Jones (1) controls the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas, Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Justin Rex)
Andew Jones may be the best story of the NCAA tournament. (AP Photo/Justin Rex)

Andrew Jones, Texas

Junior guard

Jones might be the most remarkable story in the tournament field. The junior shooting guard arrived at Texas as an NBA prospect in 2016 only to see his life and career put on hold by a leukemia diagnosis in 2018. After inpatient and outpatient treatment, Jones was medically cleared and returned to Texas as a full-time starter last season. This season, he led the Longhorns in scoring with 14.6 points per game en route to All Big 12 second-team honors. He also hit some big shots.

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Jones and senior point guard Matt Coleman helm a veteran backcourt that helped secure a Big 12 tournament title and have the Longhorns slated as a No. 3 seed. It's a long way from this time last year when head coach Shaka Smart was on the hot seat.

Jason Preston, Ohio

Junior point guard

Pencil in Preston as the mid-major player most likely to make major noise this week. The Ohio point guard earned MAC tournament MVP honors while leading the Bobcats to the tournament title as a No. 5 seed. A playmaker and a scorer, Preston averaged 16.6 points, 7.2 assists and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 53% from the field and 40.1% from 3-point distance — more than enough to earn All-MAC first-team honors.

Ohio's Jason Preston (0) drives to the basket against Buffalo's Ronaldo Segu (10) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the championship of the Mid-American Conference tournament, Saturday, March 13, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Jason Preston does it all for Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

He's done it against top competition, torching No. 1 seed Illinois for 31 points, eight assists and six rebounds as the Illini eked out a 77-75 win on their home court in November. It all adds up to a tough first-round matchup for still-reigning champion and No. 4 seed Virginia, which is also dealing with COVID-19 issues.

Luka Garza, Iowa

Senior center

Iowa's all-everything center is ready for his swan song after achieving almost everything he can on individual level. The two-time Big Ten Player of the Year is a favorite to sweep the national Player of the Year awards after averaging 23.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists. His legacy as Iowa's best-ever player and one of the best in Big Ten history is secure.

He can cement his status in NCAA lore by leading Iowa to its first national title. The No. 2 seed Hawkeyes are among the favorites to cut down the nets in Indianapolis.

Moses Wright, Georgia Tech

Senior forward

Wright snuck up on the ACC this season en route to conference Player of the Year honors. The former three-star recruit slipped under the radar and out of Raleigh to Atlanta in 2017, unrecruited by the likes of Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State.

He made them all pay as Georgia Tech threw it back to the Bobby Cremins era to win its first ACC tournament title since 1993. Wright averaged 17.4 points and eight rebounds while shooting 52% from the field in the process. His reward is a chance to make his name on the national stage in Georgia Tech's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010.

Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert prepares to pass the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Loyola Marymount in Spokane, Wash., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
Corey Kispert could join teammate Jalen Suggs in the NBA draft lottery. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

Corey Kispert, Gonzaga

Senior forward

Is this the year Gonzaga finally pulls through? Having long shed their mid-major status as a year-in, year-out national powerhouse, the Bulldogs maintain one glaring hole on their resume — a national championship. Entering the tournament at 26-0 as the No. 1 overall seed, Gonzaga has its best chance yet this season.

While point guard Jalen Suggs rightfully earns the bulk of the headlines as an elite NBA prospect, it was Kispert who nabbed WCC Player of the Year Honors while leading the Bulldogs with 19.2 points per game. The 6-7 forward is a lights-out shooter, connecting on 54.4% of his field goals and 44.4% of his 3-point attempts. While he doesn't get the pub of Suggs, Kispert has played his way into the NBA lottery discussion. If Gonzaga does finally cut down the Nets, Kispert will certainly be a big reason why.

Jared Butler, Baylor

Junior guard

In a loaded Big 12, it was Butler who pulled down AP Player of the Year honors in the conference. He's the first Baylor player ever to win the award and is the biggest reason why the Bears are slated as a No. 1 seed among the favorites to win the tournament.

Butler led the Bears with 17.1 points per game while shooting 48.8% from the field and 42.9% from 3-point distance. An adept passer and perimeter defender, Butler also chipped in 4.8 assists and 2 steals per game. He's the clear leader of a program poised to compete for its first national championship.

Mac McClung, Texas Tech

Junior guard

He took a winding path to get here. But McClung found his footing as Texas Tech's top scorer this season while leading the Red Raiders to a No. 6 seed. The junior guard earned first-team All Big 12 honors in his first season with the program while averaging 15.7 points per game.

Texas Tech's Mac McClung (0) controls the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State in Lubbock, Texas, Thursday, March 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Justin Rex)
A viral sensation in high school, Mac McClung will get his first taste of the NCAA tournament. (AP Photo/Justin Rex)

McClung joined Georgetown in 2018 as a viral star renowned for his rim-rocking prowess as a 6-2 guard. He transferred to Texas Tech this season hoping to develop his NBA draft stock as a more well-rounded player. He improved his shooting from 39.4% last season to 42.3% in Lubbock, but the jury remains out on his NBA prospects. He'll have his chance to shine on a national stage in the coming days.

Evan Mobley, USC

Freshman center

A high-level NBA prospect, Mobley hasn't disappointed in his first and likely only season at USC. A 7-foot center who runs the floor and protects the rim, Mobley dominated Pac-12 awards, earning Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Mobley averaged 16.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and a league-best three blocks per game while leading the Trojans to a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. He's also a capable 3-point shooter, connecting on 31.4% of his attempts. This will almost surely be the last chance to catch Mobley in a USC uniform before he jumps to the NBA draft lottery.

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