It’s not just the stars who come out to shine during the NCAA Tournament. Often, it’s the role players, those X-factor guys, and veterans who lead the way or rise to the occasion when the games matter most.Here’s a look at 25 players, assuming they’re healthy and their schools are in the field as expected, to keep an eye on in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

 

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Virginia Tech is in the hunt for the ACC regular-season title, and Aluma is a big reason. The Wofford transfer leads the Hokies averaging 15.7 points and 7.7 rebounds during his first season against consistently elite competition. The 6-foot-9 Aluma made a major statement with his 29-point, 10-rebound, four-assist performance in Virginia Tech’s 65-51 win over rival Virginia on Jan. 30. He followed it up with 30 points and 10 boards in a loss at Pittsburgh.

 

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College hoops fans expect Luke Garza and Joe Wieskamp to pace the Hawkeyes during the heart of March. However, if Iowa is to make a deep NCAA Tournament run, Bohannon must be a factor. When in a rhythm, Bohannon, in his fifth collegiate season, is one of the top 3-pointer shooters in the country. He’s hit six or more 3s three times this season, but Bohannon has been inconsistent from long distance (3-for-16 in three games from Jan. 21-Feb. 2). If Bonannon gets hot, the Hawkeyes will be even tougher to take down.

 

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The 6-foot-11 Castleton was not very productive in two seasons at Michigan, but it looks like he’s found a home in Florida. After totaling 26 points in his first four games with the Gators, Castleton’s averaged 15.9 over the next 10. He’s blossomed into one of the SEC’s top big men and could be featured prominently come NCAA Tournament time for a Gators’ squad that could be Sweet 16-bound.

 

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With Clark, it’s about leadership and how well he runs the Cavaliers’ offense. His scoring and assists might be down in 2020-21, but he’s shooting a career-high 46.1 percent. More importantly, Clark’s turnover average is down nearly 2.0 from last season. That’s what Virginia needs from Clark — a guy who can take care of the basketball and lead the team while setting up the likes of Sam Hauser and Jay Huff to succeed.

 

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A consistent double-double machine this season, Culver has looked extremely solid of late. During a six-game stretch from Jan. 4-Feb. 2, the 6-foot-10 Culver averaged 15.8 points and 12.0 rebounds. One can see the maturity in Culver’s game and a progression that’s solidified himself as one of the top big men in the Big 12. If he’s able to keep that up into March, then the Mountaineers could hang around the NCAA Tournament for a while.

 

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Averaging 15.1 points and 11.4 rebounds, Dickinson has not disappointed during his freshman season at Michigan. The Wolverines might end up as a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament. If so, the pressure will be pretty hefty. That said, it will be interesting to see how the 7-foot-1 Dickinson handles all the weight that comes with the lights and intensity of the NCAA Tournament.

 

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Trent Frazier, Guard, Illinois

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Illini fans know how dominant stars Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn can be, and are capable of carrying the team themselves. However, if Illinois is to make a run and reach the Final Four for the first time since 2005, the senior leadership from Frazier could be key. Frazier averages a little more than 10.0 points on the season, but 18.7 while making half of his 34 attempts in the Illini’s recent stretch of three straight victories over Penn State, then-No.7 Iowa and Indiana. His presence on and off the court is truly underrated.

 

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There was a time in mid-January when it looked like Tennessee would roll to the SEC regular-season title, but that’s subsided. It also seemed the senior Fulkerson would have a shot a league player of the year. The 6-9 Fulkerson still averages a team-leading 11.0 points, but he totaled just 30 while the Volunteers split a four-game stretch from Jan. 23-Feb. 2. If the Vols are to pose a serious challenge in the NCAA Tournament, Fulkerson must be actively involved.

 

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Gray has become quite the force for the Seminoles since the turn of the calendar to 2021. Since Jan. 16, the junior has averaged 15.2 points, shot 58.3 percent, and recorded 6.8 rebounds per game. At the moment, the 6-8, 260-pound Gray is Florida State’s best player while more well-known contributors like M.J. Walker and stud freshman Scottie Barnes deal with inconsistency. When it comes tournament time, Gray could be Florida State’s X-factor. 

 

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Grimes earned some NCAA Tournament experience while starting for Kansas in 2019. Now, the Cougars hope that can help as they look to translate a stellar regular season into success in the tournament. Grimes has found a home at Houston, where he’s averaging a team-high 16.2 points, plus 6.7 rebounds. He’s grown into a leader and someone his teammates can depend on when it matters most.

 

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ShanQuan Hemphill, Forward, Drake

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Drake has become one of the most interesting stories of the 2020-21 season after winning its first 17 games. Regardless of what happens inside the Missouri Valley Conference, one would assume the Bulldogs could earn an at-large NCAA Tournament bid, at the least. That would then allow a good chunk of the country to check out Hemphill, who leads the team averaging 14.4 points and shooting more than 58 percent while also averaging 5.5 rebounds.

 

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Though Louisville closed January with three losses in four games and Jones has struggled a bit of late, he’s enjoyed a strong season at Louisville as a graduate transfer. When Jones, who averages 17.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.9 assists, is on his game, the Cardinals are a tough team to beat. That’s why it’s worth keeping an eye on both come NCAA Tournament time.

 

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The Buckeyes entered February playing some of their best basketball of the season. Liddell, meanwhile, has truly blossomed during his sophomore season, averaging more than 15.0 points and nearly 7.0 rebounds per contest — he averaged 6.7 points and 3.8 boards off the bench as a freshman. Liddell has become one of Ohio State’s most important performers, and if it’s to continue to stay hot and stick around a while during the NCAA Tournament, Liddell’s play must remain at that high level.

 

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Davion Mitchell, Guard, Baylor

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Jared Butler and MaCio Teague garner a lot of attention for a Baylor squad likely headed to a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed. However, when it comes to being a star at the next level, Mitchell (13.8 points per game, 54.1 field-goal percentage, 49.4 percent from 3-point range, 5.8 assists per game) might be the best pro prospect. The improvement that Mitchell has made from the time he started at Auburn in 2017-18 to now is quite impressive.

 

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The 7-foot freshman is a projected top-five pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. And he should be while averaging nearly 17.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, and almost 3.0 blocks per contest. However, before Mobley heads off to the NBA, Trojans fans would like to see him help the program win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. With Mobley leading the way, USC is playing some of its best basketball at the moment.

 

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The top-ranked Zags are loaded with talent and have tremendous depth. One of those key reserves is Nembhard, the Florida transfer who has been a major contributor in his first season at Gonzaga. Whether scoring 17 points at Pepperdine on Jan. 30 or grabbing 10 rebounds at San Diego two days earlier, Nembhard has the ability to be a factor in various ways. Which is obviously valuable when it comes to crunch time in March. 

 

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Micah Potter, Forward, Wisconsin

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Wisconsin has a pretty good guard and outside presence in D’Mitrik Trice. Now, the Badgers can use a little more inside consistency from Potter, who averages just over 12 points and more than 6 rebounds. Yet, the 6-10 senior has also disappeared in games this season, like last month when he finished with six points and two boards in an 81-71 loss at Penn State. Potter has the potential to be a dominant paint figure, and Wisconsin will need that come March.

 

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Reaves leads the Sooners averaging nearly 16.0 points. However, a true sign of a big-time player is coming through in those big games. In his last four games against ranked opponents (as of Feb. 4), Reaves averaged 19.5 points. Sure, the senior can be a streaky shooter, but this is a guy who might be ready to become a star during the madness of March for one of the nation’s top programs.

 

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As we’ve already mentioned, senior leadership can be vital to a long NCAA Tournament run. Samuels provides that for the Wildcats, who appear to be headed toward a No. 1 seed. The 6-7 Samuels can do a little bit of everything well. Though he’s not quite averaging double figures in points, Samuels shoots roughly 46 percent from the field and is pulling down a personal-best 6.7 boards per contest.

 

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Xavier has struggled to find a rhythm this season due to COVID-19. Still, the Musketeers have just two losses as of Feb. 4 and could be a tough out come March. That’s especially true if Scruggs (14.6 points per game) plays as well as he did scoring 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting at Butler on Jan. 30. Scruggs really is the motor that makes the Musketeers go, and they need him to keep churning.

 

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The NBA could be calling Shannon pretty soon. In the meantime, the sophomore continues to help a Texas Tech squad that could be a sneaky sleeper pick when the NCAA Tournament rolls around in March. Shannon has been one of the Red Raiders’ top offensive performers all season and averaged 17.7 points in his last three games. We think his stock will continue to rise.

 

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Sims has never averaged more than 9.7 points in four seasons at Texas, yet he’s started these last two campaigns and is one of the more underrated players in the Big 12. Sims is a guy who will do whatever is asked and if he’s needed to score, there’s confidence within the Texas program that he can get it done. Like he did while averaging 13.3 points on 15-of-18 shooting in the last three games.

 

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Tilmon’s first three seasons at Mizzou can be best described as “inconsistent.” However, it seems the 6-10, 260-pound Tilmon has finally found his potential this season as a senior. While the Tigers have enjoyed a solid campaign, Tilmon’s been a big reason for the success, averaging 13.9 points and 8.1 rebounds — both career highs. It will be interesting to see how he performs when the lights are even brighter.

 

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Williams has progressed in each of his three seasons at Purdue. Now, he’s turned into a potential star and someone who might be able to carry the Boilermakers to some NCAA Tournament success as an underdog in the event. Williams is averaging nearly 16.0 points and 10.0 rebounds. In fact, over a six-game stretch from Jan. 14-Feb. 2, the 6-10 Williams averaged 17.5 points and 10.7 boards.

 

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Zegarowski entered the season as a national player-of-the-year candidate but has been inconsistent in 2020-21. Especially when it comes to his shot (Zegarowski is shooting 42.6 percent). If Creighton is going to make a serious run during the NCAA Tournament, Zegarowski must step up his game and find a more consistent touch. As he did while shooting 51.5 percent during the Bluejays’ three-game winning streak from Jan. 23-30.

Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.

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With the Super Bowl over, sports fans are ready to move on to the next big event — March Madness. A lot of football fans don’t get serious about college basketball until the big game is over and decide then to pivot to the hardwood.This season has been one unlike any other, but unlike last season the hope is to finish off with a champion crowned. So if you are one of the people who are reintroducing yourself to college hoops right now, here is a refresher on what the storylines have and will be for the NCAA tournament. 

 

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NCAA tournament will be much different this year

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To ensure we have a tournament this year, the NCAA has decided to change up and hold the tournament entirely in Indiana. This “bubble” of sorts will see four sites in Indianapolis host games; Bankers Life Fieldhouse (NBA Pacers’ home), Hinkle Fieldhouse (Butler), Indiana Farmers Coliseum (IUPUI), and Lucas Oil Stadium (NFL Colts), which will have two courts set up. Assembly Hall in Bloomington and Mackey Arena in West Lafayette will also be used as tournament sites.The tournament will also be seeded 1 through 68 since geography won’t be a factor in the placement of teams in the field. Also, the days the games will be played will be different as the event will be shifted a bit to accommodate the testing of players as they arrive in the Hoosier state.  It will make for a different feel of a tournament, but hopefully, one that will not only take place but with limited disruptions. After last year’s heartbreaking cancellation, making sure we have a safe big dance is of the utmost importance.

 

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Conference tournaments are in jeopardy

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In such a challenging season, there is some concern if the conference tournaments will actually happen. There have already been rumors of coaches considering opting out of their conference tournament if they feel safely in and not wanting to risk the players’ health. Take this scenario: a team that is safely in the NCAA tournament field goes to their conference tournament and comes in contact with another team who tests positive for COVID-19. They will have to have seven days of negative tests before they can travel to Indiana for the tournament. Why would any coach even bother going to a tournament where 12 to 15 teams are mingling in the same spaces? You might as well just sit it out, rest up and get ready to bubble-up for the big dance.While nothing has been decided by anyone yet, it could snowball if one conference or a bunch of schools decides to skip championship week. As we saw last March when one league makes a decision it doesn’t take long before the dominoes start to fall. Keep an eye on this. 

 

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Pandemic’s affect on college hoops

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All sports fans have seen the impact that the pandemic has had on athletics. College basketball has been no different and could argue that it has been affected more than other sports after having its championships canceled last March.This season, we’ve seen a host of teams “pausing” due to COVID protocols … including highly ranked teams like Villanova, Michigan, and Houston. Some programs have had to wait over a month between games while others have scheduled new opponents just to have someone to play (for example, Houston taking on Our Lady of the Lake). Limited non-conference games have really hurt mid-major schools … both in their coffers and the fact they cannot ring up valuable wins over the power conferences. The biggest rivalry in the sport, North Carolina-Duke, was played in front of an empty Cameron Indoor Stadium where no Crazies were there to chant at their hated rivals. Now, as we’ve previously mentioned, the NCAA tournament has moved and the conference tournaments are in jeopardy.We are used to this by now since we’re nearing the end of the sports cycle where this began, but it is still damaging in a sport that has a great disparage between the top-level programs and the small schools. College hoops have really been hit hard. 

 

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Gonzaga and Baylor are really, really good

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Gonzaga and Baylor have been the cream that has risen to the top of college basketball. They are both undefeated and are dominating opponents at an alarming rate. Baylor has won every game this season by at least eight points while Gonzaga is bulldozing through their West Coast Conference schedule. Baylor has their typical tough defense which is being paired with an efficient offense led by the best backcourt in the country. Gonzaga has the top scoring offense, averaging 94 points per game, and is the top shooting team at 55%. Baylor is the top three-point shooting team.These two teams should pepper the post-season All-American teams. Gonzaga is led by the trio of Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme are all on the Wooden watch list while Baylor’s Jared Butler may have the best chance of any player on either team to be the national player of the year. This is college basketball, so anything can happen. A bunch of teams have a chance to win the national championship but someone will have the slay these Goliaths. 

 

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By the way, we could see an undefeated season

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With the combination of a shortened season, possibly no conference tournaments, and a bubble-like NCAA tournament, we could see the first undefeated season since 1976. We were close in 1991 and 2015 when UNLV and Kentucky, respectively, reached the Final Four before losing their first game in the national semifinals. With Gonzaga and Baylor currently toting flawless records, could this year finally net us that elusive perfect record?Both teams are that good to win a national championship without a loss. Gonzaga may have a better opportunity since the West Coast Conference isn’t the grind that the Big 12 is. As we’ve seen in other bubble scenarios and in the pandemic sports world, the best team rises to the top. The Lakers, Dodgers, and Crimson Tide all won championships after dominating regular seasons. Of course, college basketball doesn’t crown champions in quite the same fashion as those other sports, but it is a trend to keep in mind as Gonzaga and Baylor lay waste to the regular season. 

 

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Mid-majors and non-traditional powers have their chance

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One of the somber moments of the cancellation of last year’s NCAA tournament was it was a lost opportunity for schools like Gonzaga, Dayton, or San Diego State to make a legitimate Final Four run and a shot at a national championship. The last time someone outside of the power six leagues won the whole thing (please excuse the AAC’s two titles in 2013 and 2014 with former Big East evictions Louisville and UConn) was UNLV way back in 1990.This year could still be that year. Gonzaga looks like the team to beat in 2021 and has that look of those 1990 Rebels. Kelvin Sampson’s Houston Cougars are a top-five team that have the chops to make a run. Could a team like Drake make a Butler-style run to the Final Four? Add in schools like Alabama, Iowa, Creighton, or Missouri and we could have a non-traditional champion. Which makes sense with how …

 

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Blue bloods are struggling

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For the first time in 60 years, Duke, Kentucky, and North Carolina are all unranked at the same time. Duke and North Carolina just ended a streak of over 150 meetings where at least one of them was ranked. On a lot of bracketology sites, the Tar Heels are squarely on the bubble, the Blue Devils are on the outside looking in and the Wildcats are in the midst of their worst season in decades and will need a miracle to make the tournament. There is a feasible chance that none of those storied programs will participate in March Madness this season. Also, Michigan State is sitting near the bottom of the Big Ten standings. To not have these programs in the NCAA tournament would add to one of the strangest seasons in college hoops history. 

 

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What’s happening to Kansas?

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The Jayhawks lost their season opener to top-ranked Gonzaga … then went on to win 10 of their next 11 games. They then hit a rough patch as the Jayhawks would lose three straight and five out of seven to put them in a deep hole in the Big 12 standings. With games remaining against Texas, Texas Tech, and Baylor, the Jayhawks could lose more than 10 games for the first time since Roy Williams’ first season in Lawrence in 1988-1989.Or they could make a run and win their first national championship since 2008. They are that kind of boom-or-bust kind of team. Sure, they’ve lost seven games already, but they are to the two top-ranked teams in the nation, and five of the top 11 ranked teams. But they are trending the wrong way and close the regular season against Texas Tech, Texas, and Baylor. 

 

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Big Ten wants to end its drought

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It just doesn’t make sense that the Big Ten hasn’t won a national championship since Mateen Cleaves and the Michigan State “Flintstones” cashed in on a title in 2000. Twenty years and the league is still searching for their next title — though they played in the national championship game in 2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2013, 2015, and 2018. In that time, rival leagues the ACC (8), Big East (5), and SEC (3) have dominated winning the tournament. Heck, even the fledgling AAC has won two tournaments! The Big Ten is loaded in 2021 and could see ten of its teams in the field. They, however, don’t have one of the trendy power teams that are favored to cut down the nets in Indianapolis. Michigan has been sensational this year and head coach Juwan Howard may win several Coach of the Year honors. Ohio State is rolling at the right time. Iowa has the national player of the year frontrunner, Luka Garza. Illinois has two guys that will be playing in the NBA soon, in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. Add in Wisconsin and Purdue and the Big Ten has a stable of teams who could make a deep run in the tournament. The league just wants a deep run to finally end up crowning their first national champion since Bill Clinton was president. 

 

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Pac-12 would also love to end its drought

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People lay in to the Big Ten for their championship drought, but the Pac 12 has a longer streak going. The last time a Pac 12 school won a national championship was in 1997 when the Arizona Wildcats … of the Pac-10 … won the title. In fact, the league has won just two national championships over the last 45 years. The Pac-12 has only had a team in the championship game just twice since Arizona won it 24 years ago. Oregon, in 2017, is the only Pac 12 school to get to the Final Four in the last 12 tournaments.That comes after the conference won 13 of the first 36 NCAA tournaments (14, if you count current member Utah).This year doesn’t seem to be the season that trend will end. UCLA is the league’s only ranked team. USC has an NBA talent in Evan Mobley but doesn’t look like a Final Four caliber squad. California and Oregon will likely get into the tournament but nothing much is expected from them. 

 

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Can anyone challenge Luka Garza for the Naismith Award?

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Garza seems like the safe bet to win the Naismith Award. The senior is averaging 26.5 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting over 59% from the field and 45% from three and he has Iowa hanging in the top ten. The question is there anyone capable of ripping the award from him? Baylor’s Jared Butler and Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert are in that next tier as they are the best players on the best teams in the nation, though they are playing alongside other All-American candidates. Ayo Dosunmu of Illinois could make a push but that’ll be a tough task playing in the same conference as Garza. Barring a collapse over the next few weeks, it seems as this thing is locked up.

 

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Yeah, but who is the NBA valuing?

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While Garza may have the player of the year awards all but locked up, that doesn’t mean he’s viewed as a can’t miss NBA prospect. In fact, he is likely a mid-to-late 2nd round pick according to the draft experts. So who are the guys you might want to know about as the season winds down and the tournament rolls on?  Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham is the popular name to become the top overall pick in the 2021 Draft. Cunningham is 6’8 with an NBA-ready game who can play lead guard or as a point-forward. USC’s Evan Mobley is an athletic big man who can defend and play rim to rim. Jalen Suggs may be the Gonzaga Bulldog to be drafted first. Florida State’s Scottie Barnes has had scouts salivating since his prep days. As you know, there are always players who perform well in the NCAA tournament that rapidly climb up draft charts. Guys like Texas’ Greg Brown, Illinois Ayo Dusunmu, or Villanova’s Jeremiah Robinson-Earl who could see their draft stock rise with a big March.

 

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Scheduling messes

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It isn’t a news flash to say the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the college hoops regular season which could lead to scheduling quirks as we reach March Madness. Take the Atlantic 10, for example. Right now, Saint Louis has played just two conference games (losing both of them) yet sit 7-3 overall. They beat LSU and NC State earlier this season but have played just twice since December 23rd (those two losses in league play).In the Big East, Creighton has played 13 league games while Villanova has played just seven and Xavier has played six. How about the WAC where Grand Canyon (6-0) is tied with Texas-Rio Grande Valley (2-0) atop the standings?This could loom large if conference tournaments don’t happen … and especially in one-bid leagues that will now assign their selection to the regular-season champion. Look at the curious case of the Howard Bison, who have a bit of national interest since prized recruit Makur Makur committed there this season. Howard has played just five games this season and no MEAC games. They are scheduled (yeah, good luck) to play a series of back-to-back games against the same team at the same site — cramming eight games in a 16-day window — in a league that has been ravaged by cancellations and postponements. The MEAC is such a mess that how will it even attempt to figure out who its regular-season champion is?All over the country, there are schedules similar to Howard’s: games played on consecutive nights against the same team in the same venue. Obviously, those games will be in doubt as well.

 

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V for Virginia and Villanova

Brace Hemmelgarn, USA TODAY Sport

Two schools that are under the radar are defending champ (yes, they still are) Virginia and Villanova. Villanova has that weird every-other-year thing where they have been winning championships and due to their COVID issues, this season are flying way under the radar. The Wildcats are 12-2 this season with their lone losses to Virginia Tech and St. John’s. They have NBA talent and are still coached by Jay Wright, so they have the ability to make a run in March. Virginia looks nothing like its title team from 2019 (again, they are defending champs) but they do continue to own the ACC. They had a hiccup against rival Virginia Tech a few games ago but they still have that wicked back-line defense. Their offense can be efficient, too, with transfer Sam Hauser as their top offensive weapon and championship holdover Kihei Clark running the slow-paced attack. In a weird year, these are two coaches and programs who know what it takes to get through the tournament. If anyone is going to upset the Gonzaga-Baylor dynamic, these two may be at the top of the list. 

 

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Head coach hot seat

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It is almost unfair that any coach is on the hot seat after everyone has tried to navigate through such a challenging season, but college basketball is still a business. Athletic directors and university presidents still need to have faith that their head coach can lead them into the future, uncertain as that may be.Boston College’s Jim Christian is on a boiling hot seat after another bad season in Chestnut Hill. DePaul’s Dave Leitao has also been living on the hot seat for quite some time, and with a new AD and the same ol’ bad program, it has been means a change will be likely. Bruce Weber looks like he will be on the chopping block after another bad season at Kansas State. Josh Pastner has Georgia Tech playing better but is it enough to keep his job? There’s also Minnesota’s Richard Pitino, Iowa State’s Steve Prohm, Washington’s Mike Hopkins and SMU’s Tim Jankovich are also feeling some heat. There is also some heat … though not the kind that would call for a coaching change … around some names you’d normally not think of. BBN isn’t pleased with the direction John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats have been going and the moans about the one-and-done culture have grown louder. Mike Brey is hearing it from restless Notre Dame fans. While Archie Miller may get Indiana back into the tournament this spring, Hoosier fans aren’t really enthusiastic about his program. And then there is Patrick Ewing. Could Georgetown look to actually fire the greatest player in school history?

 

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Iona is sitting at 3-1 in MAAC play, after canceling several games due to COVID-19 protocols. The Gaels haven’t played a game since before Christmas (a win over Coppin State on December 23rd) but hope to resume their season this week against Niagara. Iona sits just a few games behind Siena in the conference standings with an ambitious schedule to try to fit nine games in over the next two-plus weeks.If Iona can find a way to win the MAAC championship, new head coach Rick Pitino will find himself back in the NCAA tournament. Pretty remarkable after his fall from grace at Louisville just three years ago. 

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