Ranking the Top 25 Players in March Madness

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2013

Ranking the Top 25 Players in March Madness

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    March Madness is all about which teams survive and advance, but each squad is driven by a collection of individuals.

    Role players can determine the outcome of numerous NCAA tournament games, but it is the superstars who will likely impact which team wins the national championship and which teams are playing in the Final Four the most. With that in mind, read on to see the top 25 players in the 2013 NCAA tournament.

    There was an exhaustive list of players that just missed the cut when compiling this power rankings, and the difference between many who are included and some who were left off is minimal at best. Feel free to add the players you think should be on this list in the comments section below.

No. 25: C.J. Leslie (North Carolina State)

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    North Carolina State, like a number of other teams this season, came into the year with sky-high expectations but fell a bit short.

    The Wolfpack are immensely talented and pose a danger to any team that they line up against in the NCAA tournament, but an ACC championship and banner season just wasn’t in the cards.

    However, that is of no fault of C.J. Leslie.

    The forward averaged 15 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and one steal a game for North Carolina State and did so while shooting 51 percent from the field. In hindsight, it probably would have worked in the Wolfpack’s favor if Leslie had seen more shot attempts throughout the course of the year.

    The NCAA tournament presents NC State with a clean slate, and Leslie will attempt to create a few masterpieces of his own.

No. 24: Ramon Galloway (La Salle)

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    La Salle snuck up on some of the more established teams in the Atlantic 10 this season (think Butler, VCU, Xavier and Temple), and high-flying Ramon Galloway is a primary reason why.

    While Galloway’s tremendous dunking ability thrills the home crowd, his overall game has caught up to and surpassed his awe-inspiring finishes. He scored 17 points a game for the Explorers, all while dishing out 3.8 assists, grabbing 4.6 rebounds and tallying two steals a night.

    He is also an effective three-point shooter, excellent from the free-throw stripe and will have the ball in his hands most of the way for La Salle in the NCAA tournament. College basketball fans across the country may not know Galloway yet, but they certainly will if the Explorers make a Cinderella run.

No. 23: Rodney McGruder (Kansas State)

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    There may not have been a more under-the-radar Top 10 team this season in all of college basketball than Kansas State, which is appropriate because its superstar Rodney McGruder has flown under the radar as well.

    While Jeff Withey, Ben McLemore and the rest of the Kansas Jayhawks garnered all the attention and headlines in the state this year, McGruder was busy accumulating nightly averages of 15.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, two assists and 1.2 steals. Yes, it would be nice if his assist numbers were a bit higher considering he is a guard, but his primary role is to provide the Wildcats with scoring and perimeter defense.

    When McGruder gets hot, he has the tendency to light it up, which may pose problems for potential opponents in the NCAA tournament.

    Don’t be fooled by the State at the end of Kansas State’s uniform. McGruder and the Wildcats will be another tough out from the state of Kansas in March.

No. 22: Larry Drew II (UCLA)

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    Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and others got most of the attention for UCLA this season, but it was point guard Larry Drew II that provided the veteran leadership that this Bruins team really needed.

    The former North Carolina Tar Heel’s worth goes beyond the statistics he accumulates, but his 7.6 points, 7.4 assists and 1.4 steals per game are nothing to sneeze at. He is also an effective three-point shooter and often takes the clutch shot when UCLA has its back against the wall.

    The best part of Drew’s game is his better than three-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. He is the perfect distributor for a Bruin team that is loaded with weapons in the post and on the perimeter.

    If UCLA is to deliver on all that preseason promise, Drew’s steadying hand will play a big part in it.

No. 21: Seth Curry (Duke)

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    Duke’s Seth Curry is often overshadowed by some of his teammates (Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly), his head coach or even the school name on the front of his jersey, but few players showed the grit and determination that the sharpshooter did all season.

    Curry played through a variety of ailments throughout the year, and he was still able to score 17 points a night. He shoots 43 percent from downtown and 46 percent from the field, both efficient clips from a shooting guard.

    Curry is also a solid passer and capable defender, but it is his veteran guile and steadying presence in the young Duke backcourt that has him on this list. There may not be another player on the Blue Devil roster that Coach K trusts more with the ball in his hands or guiding his teammates in the tense moments of the game.

    That is invaluable come March.

No. 20: Anthony Bennett (UNLV)

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    If you are looking for a little mid-major love (for the record there is nothing mid-major about the way the Mountain West has played this season), look no further than UNLV’s Anthony Bennett.

    The Runnin’ Rebels’ freshman forward put up nightly averages of 16.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks, all while shooting nearly 54 percent from the field and 38 percent from behind the three-point line.

    He is a matchup nightmare of sorts because of his length and athleticism. Like so many stretch forwards in the game today, he is capable of hitting the three, posting smaller players up and driving around slower defenders.

    UNLV has a lot of talent, but it will be Bennett carrying the torch in the NCAA tournament if the Rebels are to deliver on that skill level. Don’t be surprised if he does.

No. 19: Allen Crabbe (California)

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    Oregon, Arizona and UCLA stole all the headlines in the Pac-12 this season, but it was California and its star player Allen Crabbe that went on a late season run to seize the No. 2 spot in the conference standings.

    That surge is also the primary reason why the Golden Bears will be dancing in the NCAA tournament this week.

    Crabbe poured in nearly 19 points a contest this season, all while grabbing six rebounds, dishing out 2.6 assists and recording more than one steal a night. He is a long-range gunner (the percentage isn’t great, but he has the tendency to make the clutch ones when it counts) and is money from the free-throw line.

    If you are looking for an under-the-radar type of player that can carry his team further than expected in the NCAA tournament, keep the immensely talented Crabbe in mind.

No. 18: Jeff Withey (Kansas)

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    Kansas’ Jeff Withey is a capable scorer from the blocks, but he is not on the floor to provide the Jayhawks with consistent scoring. He is on the floor to swat, or at least alter, every inside shot the opposition takes.

    Withey averaged nearly four blocks a game this season and uses his length and underrated athleticism to time his jumps flawlessly. There is nobody else quite like him in the NCAA tournament, and he should help Kansas advance deep into March based on his defense alone.

    Withey can also play a little bit of offense, as evidenced by his 13.6 points per game and 58 percent shooting clip from the field. He is a solid free-throw shooter and hits the offensive glass particularly hard for Bill Self.

    Don’t underestimate what Withey can do, even if he isn’t particularly flashy.

No. 17: Shane Larkin (Miami)

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    Miami’s Shane Larkin may have a Hall of Fame baseball player as a father, but he is shaping his own legacy this season in Coral Gables.

    Larkin is the straw that stirs the Hurricanes’ drink. He did so with nightly averages of 14.2 points, 4.3 assists, 3.9 rebounds and two steals. Throw in the fact that he shot better than 40 percent from behind the three-point line and 48 percent from the field, and we have ourselves an all-around excellent point guard.

    Larkin’s assist-to-turnover ratio stands at about two-to-one, which is solid if not spectacular considering how often he has the ball in his hands. He is the primary reason why Miami had the type of season it did, and he will continue to find his teammates and score at the key moments during the tournament.

No. 16: Jamaal Franklin (San Diego State)

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    The loaded Mountain West features a number of excellent players, but San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin may just be the best one.

    Franklin is arguably the best rebounding guard in the country thanks to his athleticism, length, nose for the ball and ability to jump out of the gym. He averaged 9.5 boards a game despite his 6'5" frame.

    Franklin also poured in nearly 17 points and dish out more than three assists a game. He is the primary offensive weapon for the Aztecs, which leads to a high volume of possessions that run through him and perhaps a few too many turnovers (3.4 per contest).

    Triple-doubles are rare animals at the college level, but if anyone is going to get one in the NCAA tournament, Franklin is a solid bet.

No. 15: Ryan Kelly (Duke)

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    This is not a list of All-American candidates, so being out most of the season doesn’t automatically disqualify you. Especially if being out that long finally allowed the country to recognize how valuable you were to one of the nation’s best teams.

    That is exactly what happened to Duke’s Ryan Kelly, who played an instrumental role in the Blue Devils’ early season dominance, only to see much of his season derailed by an injury. However, he thrilled the Cameron Crazies upon his return on senior night by pouring in a career-high 36 points behind blistering three-point shooting.

    Considering the fact that Kelly was basically playing under the pressure of being considered the savior for a Duke squad that hit a snag in the middle of the season without him, it was a truly remarkable performance.

    He may not be the best athlete in the world, but when Kelly combines his shooting, rebounding and defensive skills, he is one of the most important players to his team in the country.

No. 14: Aaron Craft (Ohio State)

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    If this list had been compiled a few weeks ago, Ohio State’s Aaron Craft would not have been on it. However, the Buckeye point guard has carried his squad down the stretch and completely changed the trajectory of its season in the process.

    Craft has always been one of the premier defenders in all of college basketball, but his offensive game has caught up recently. Never was that clearer than in the Big Ten tournament's semifinal game against Michigan State, where Craft scored 20 points and dished out nine assists to go along with his four steals.

    Despite the recent offensive surge, Craft is on this list because of his defense. He harasses opposing ball-handlers, records steals, draws charges and forces turnovers that never show up in the box score.

    If he does that throughout the NCAA tournament, Ohio State has a chance to play its way to the Final Four for the second straight year.

No. 13: Shabazz Muhammad (UCLA)

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    UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad inconsistency can be frustrating at times, but he is one of the most talented players in the entire country. He will likely head to the NBA after the NCAA tournament, but he has a chance to show the nation his skill level in March.

    Muhammad puts in nearly 18 points a game behind an effective mid-range and post approach, along with an occasional three-point shot. He is not the best passer, but he limits his turnovers on most occasions.

    If Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart is the best freshman in the country, Muhammad isn’t that far behind.

    Muhammad averages slightly more than five rebounds a night, a number that Bruin fans wouldn’t mind seeing increase in the tournament. If it does, UCLA may finally deliver on that preseason hype.

No. 12: Russ Smith (Louisville)

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    Louisville’s Russ Smith is a lot of things. At times he is inconsistent, he often has trouble with turnovers and shot selection can be an issue.

    But he is also one of the most talented players in the Big East, if not the country.

    Smith outshone backcourt mate Peyton Siva this season by averaging 18.1 points a game to go along with 3.6 rebounds, three assists and two steals. His defense and free-throw shooting both improved this season, which certainly made Rick Pitino happy.

    One area that Smith needs to improve on heading into the NCAA tournament is his three-point shooting, or at least his tendency to take so many. He is only shooting 33 percent from behind the arc, yet he is taking nearly five a game. That type of inefficiency can haunt a team in March.

    However, Smith brings so much to the table that Louisville will be fine even with the missed threes.

No. 11: Ben McLemore (Kansas)

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    While Jeff Withey is the anchor for Kansas’ defense, Ben McLemore is the offensive catalyst.

    McLemore has the ability to be a lights-out shooter from the field and behind the three-point line, as shown by his 50.7 and 43.7 percent shooting clips, respectively. He is also as automatic as they come from the free-throw stripe, which will come in handy in the NCAA tournament.

    McLemore is not a one-trick pony. He is a capable passer and defender and routinely hits the glass hard for the Jayhawks (he averages more than five rebounds a night). Seeing the offensive star of the team hit the boards as effectively as McLemore is something many other coaches wish their offensive superstars would do.

    Look for McLemore to score a critical basket or two for the Jayhawks in the tournament. He will be the go-to guy if they need one.

No. 10: Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse)

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    The 2012-13 season was a bit of a roller coaster ride for Syracuse, but it would have been much more treacherous were it not for the steadying presence of Michael Carter-Williams.

    The Orange’s leader is one of the best all-around players in the country, which was demonstrated with nightly averages of 12 points, 7.7 assists 4.8 rebounds and 2.7 steals. He was also money from the free-throw stripe and occasionally found the basket from behind the three-point line.

    Carter-Williams’ biggest concern of the season was his turnover tendency. That can partially be explained by the fact that the ball is always in his hands, but 3.5 a game is still too many. Nevertheless, he had a better than two-to-one assist-turnover ratio even with that gaudy total, which shows you how great of a distributor he truly is.  He also struggled from the floor, shooting just 39 percent.

    If Carter-Williams continues to find open teammates, score at a consistent rate and cut down on his turnovers, the Orange will leave its late-season struggles in the rear-view mirror.

No. 9: Cody Zeller (Indiana)

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    Indiana’s Cody Zeller was everyone’s National Player of the Year to start the season, which set expectations at such an unreasonably high level that it was almost guaranteed that he would somewhat disappoint.

    While he didn’t dominate the Player of the Year race as many expected (and probably won’t even be a first team All-American), he still had a very productive season.

    The Hoosier big man scored nearly 17 points a game and grabbed 8.2 rebounds a night. He also chipped in on the defensive side with more than one block and one steal per contest.

    Teammate Victor Oladipo stole many of the late-season headlines, but Indiana would not be considered one of the favorites to make a Final Four run in March without Zeller on the blocks.

No. 8: Kelly Olynyk (Gonzaga)

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    Gonzaga is no longer the little engine that could, thanks in part to the efforts of superstar Kelly Olynyk. In fact, the Zags are so far removed from the Cinderella story moniker that they seized the No. 1 ranking for an extended time period during the regular season.

    If there was any doubt who the most improved player in the nation was in the 2012-13 college basketball year, consider the fact that Olynyk only played 13.5 minutes a game in 2010-11 (missed all of 2011-2012) and is now in the middle of All-American discussions.

    He scored more than 17 points a game, grabbed more than seven rebounds a night and tallied a number of critical blocks this year.

No. 7: Mason Plumlee (Duke)

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    Ryan Kelly may have garnered the late-season headlines with his dramatic return from injury for Coach K and Duke, but it was Mason Plumlee who carried the Blue Devils for much of the season.

    Plumlee was a double-double machine this year and averaged more than 17 points and 10 rebounds a night. He is also an effective passer out of double teams and anchors Duke’s low-block defense.

    Perhaps the most notable part of Plumlee’s game this season is his improved free-throw shooting, which is up 14 percent from last season (67.1 percent this season). It is one thing to shoot nearly 60 percent from the floor, but quite another to recognize a flaw in one’s game and work tirelessly to develop that weakness to the point where it is almost a strength.

    Duke haters may not want to hear it, but Plumlee gives the Blue Devils an excellent chance to make the Final Four in this year’s NCAA tournament.

No. 6: Deshaun Thomas (Ohio State)

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    The Big Ten is the best conference in the country this season by a sizable margin, and Deshaun Thomas leads that league in points per game (just less than 20).

    Ohio State’s forward is a matchup nightmare for defenders because he can hit the three, post up smaller opponents and drive around big men. In a season when many questioned if he would be able to consistently score without Jared Sullinger in the post, Thomas has proved many doubters wrong.

    While Thomas will never be the defender that teammate Aaron Craft is, his defense is much improved from his first two seasons in Columbus. Furthermore, he leads a Buckeye team that struggles on the glass at times in rebounding.

    If Ohio State is to advance to another Final Four, it will need Thomas to play like the superstar he is capable of being. 

No. 5: Doug McDermott (Creighton)

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    If the entire field of college basketball players was available and one final basket was needed, getting the ball to Doug McDermott is arguably the way to go.

    Creighton’s main man poured in 23.1 points a night behind a blistering 56.1 percent clip from the field. Considering he is always priority No. 1, 2 and 3 for opposing defenses, McDermott’s scoring tendency is impressive.

    He also rebounds (7.5 per contest) and occasionally creates shots for his teammates, but his efficiency is what stands out. In addition to his 56.1 percent field-goal shooting, he hits his free throws at an 86 percent mark and three-pointers 49.7 percent of the time.

    How far Creighton advances in the tournament will depend on how many points McDermott can accumulate throughout March.

No. 4: Trey Burke (Michigan)

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    Outside of Kelly Olynyk of Gonzaga, few players on this list made as significant of a jump from last season to this one as Michigan’s Trey Burke did.

    The Wolverines’ floor general improved his scoring from approximately 15 points a night to 19.2, assists from less than five a game to nearly seven, steals from less than one a contest to 1.6 and shooting percentages from the field and line.

    Perhaps most importantly, Burke dramatically cut down on his turnover numbers. He is an All-American lock and is the best hope for Michigan heading into the NCAA tournament despite the Wolverines’ late-season struggles.

    Few point guards in the bracket will be able to guard Burke one-on-one.

No. 3: Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State)

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    Not only is Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart the best freshman in the country, the argument can be made that he is one of the best players in the country.

    Smart is the Cowboys’ go-to scorer (15.4 points a contest), but he also posted excellent numbers across the board. He grabbed nearly six rebounds a game, dished out more than four assists a night and tallied about three steals every contest.

    Throw in his excellent free-throw shooting (78.7), and we are talking about an all-around superstar.

    Smart unleashed his freshman reign of terror on the Big 12 this season, but the rest of the country is about to experience it when the NCAA tournament gets under way. Look for him to carry the Cowboys to the later rounds.

No. 2: Otto Porter (Georgetown)

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    It is only Otto Porter’s second season in Georgetown’s lineup, but the Hoyas are officially his squad.

    The Big East’s best player scores (16.3 points a night), rebounds (more than seven a game), anchors the Hoyas’ stout defense (nearly two steals and one block per contest) and smoothly operates the offense without turning it over frequently (1.5 turnovers per game).

    Georgetown may have been knocked out by Syracuse in the Big East tournament, but Porter helped operate an impressive late-season winning streak that had the Hoyas in the middle of No. 1 seed discussions for most of March.

    Look for him to demonstrate his overall game in the NCAA tournament and remain on the radar of NBA scouts.

No. 1: Victor Oladipo (Indiana)

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    There are players on this list who specialize in perimeter defense, outside shooting, low-post scoring or a number of other facets of the game, but perhaps nobody puts the whole package together quite as effectively as Indiana’s Victor Oladipo.

    The Player of the Year candidate scores nearly 14 points a game, grabs more than six rebounds per night, dishes out assists and records more than two steals a night. He also has become a regular on SportsCenter because of his dramatic blocks and a LeBron James-like chase-down ability in transition.

    Oladipo was awarded the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Award (in a conference that includes Aaron Craft) and will be Tom Crean’s primary weapon during the NCAA tournament when the opposition has the ball.

    Be it offense or defense, Oladipo will provide the Hoosiers with whatever they need in that particular game.


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