NCAA tournament: 5 players to watch in the men's bracket

The NCAA tournament is loaded with NBA draft prospects, but not all the stars this March will be lottery bound. Here are five players with the potential to shine and make headlines in the coming weeks and potentially raise their draft stock in the process.

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Keyontae Johnson, Kansas State

One of college basketball's most remarkable stories, Keyontae Johnson now has a chance to make his mark on the NCAA tournament. A former Florida standout, Johnson transferred to Kansas State this season after nearly two full seasons away from basketball.

Johnson was hospitalized with a reported heart condition and placed in a medically induced coma after collapsing on the court during a 2020 Florida game vs. Florida State. He recovered from the life-threatening condition, but was not cleared by Florida doctors to play. He was greenlit at Kansas State and has thrived this season while leading the Wildcats to a No. 3 seed out of a loaded Big 12.

Keyontae Johnson has reignited his career at Kansas State and has his eyes on the NCAA tournament. (Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)
Keyontae Johnson has reignited his career at Kansas State and has his eyes on the NCAA tournament. (Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

A 6-foot-6 wing who can attack the basket and shoot from distance, Johnson averages 17.7 points and 7 rebounds while shooting 51.9% from the floor and 41.9% from 3. He has a penchant for the big moment and led an upset over No. 1 seed Kansas in January that he punctuated with a game-winning alley-oop dunk.

Presumed not long ago to be out of basketball for good, Johnson's once again an NBA prospect. He has the upside in the coming weeks to become a March star.

Zach Edey, Purdue

Zach Edey first played organized basketball in high school and arrived at Purdue as a three-star prospect ranked outside of the top 150 players in his class. He'll enter NCAA tournament play as the favorite to win National Player of the Year.

A look at the standings and his stat line tells why. A junior center, Edey dominates the box score with 22.3 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 60.6% from the floor. This is a player who didn't crack the starting lineup just two seasons ago as a freshman. He's done all of this for a Purdue team that's vaulted from outside the preseason top 25 to a first-place finish in the Big Ten and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

And if the numbers aren't convincing, just take a look at Edey on the court. At 7-foot-4 and 290 pounds, he towers over his opposition. He's a natural athlete who grew up in Canada playing hockey and baseball before his size dictated his path to the basketball court. If Purdue secures its first national championship, Edey will be the primary reason why.

Feb 4, 2023; Bloomington, Indiana, USA; Purdue Boilermakers center Zach Edey (15) posts up Indiana Hoosiers forward Trayce Jackson-Davis (23) in the first half at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Zach Edey and Trayce Jackson-Davis battled in the Big Ten post this season. (Trevor Ruszkowsk/Reuters)

Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana

One of Edey's top front-court competitors resided this season just 100 miles south in Bloomington. Indiana senior forward Trayce-Jackson-Davis is a dominant force on the block and a catalyst for the Hoosiers' emergence as March contenders. He's a strong bet to join Edey as a first-team All-American.

Jackson-Davis earned his fourth All-Big Ten team selection this season while averaging 20.8 points, 10.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.7 blocks per game, all career highs. He thrives in the spotlight, and came up big in frontcourt matchups against Edey as Indiana handed Purdue two of its five losses.

On Feb. 4, Jackson-Davis tallied 25 points, seven rebounds and five blocks in a 79-74 win over the Boilermakers that sent Indiana fans rushing onto the Assembly Hall floor. In a Feb. 25 rematch, he played the distributor, posting 10 points, eight rebounds and seven assists as freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino broke out for 35 points in a 79-71 Indiana win. The Hoosiers secured the No. 4 seed in the Midwest and face a potential Sweet 16 matchup against top-seeded Houston. They'll go as far as Jackson-Davis can carry them.

Dereck Lively, Duke

The crown jewel of Duke's vaunted freshman class, Dereck Lively remains a work in progress on offense. But he's ready for his spotlight on defense. An athletic, 7-foot-1 center, Lively is a difference-maker at the rim whose 2.3 blocks per game don't tell the whole story.

A calf injury limited Lively early in the season, and the freshman didn't start to see more than 20 minutes per game until February. Once he settled in to his spot in the rotation, he was a dominant force in the post. Lively averaged 2.9 blocks per game over Duke's final 13 games, a span that saw the Blue Devils finish 11-2 and play their way off the NCAA tournament bubble. Duke wouldn't have won a critical Feb. 4 game against rival North Carolina without his eight blocks.

At 5.4 points per game, Lively's not going to win the game with the ball in his hands. And his more polished freshman frontcourt mate Kyle Filipowski has rightly garnered more attention this season as a second-team All-ACC player. But Lively's prowess at the rim earned him ACC All-Defensive Team honors and could very well prove to be the difference in a tight game in March.

Mar 1, 2023; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) handles the ball during the first half against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports
Oscar Tshiebwe isn't the NPOY, but he's still been outstanding. (Jordan Prather/Reuters)

Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky

Oscar Tshiebwe's taken a bit of a back seat since being named consensus National Player of the Year last season. The sting of last year's opening-round loss to Saint Peter's took the shine off all things Kentucky, then the Wildcats tumbled out of the top 25 this season after starting the new season at No. 4.

But Tshiebwe's been outstanding once again even if he's not getting the NPOY love that's shifted to Edey in 2023. And Kentucky's back in the mix as a No. 6 seed in the East. Projected Alabama lottery pick Brandon Miller took SEC Player of the Year honors, but Tshiebwe reclaimed his spot on the All-SEC First Team while averaging 16.5 points, 13.1 rebounds and one block while shooting 56.3% from the field.

The numbers don't quite stack up to last year's (17.4 points, 15.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks per game), but they're outstanding nonetheless. Can Tshiebwe remind viewers in March of what made him one of the biggest stories of the 2021-22 season? And will a dimmed spotlight help both Tshiebwe and Kentucky?