March Madness 2014: Ranking the Top 25 Players in the NCAA Tournament
Now it’s time to find out who the real players are.
Who’s going to flounder in the face of adversity? And who’s going to flourish?
Who’s going to step up his game when his team faces elimination? Who’s going to regress?
Who is going to demand the ball and carry his team, and who is going to defer?
We’ll find out soon enough in the NCAA tournament, where toughness—perhaps mental more than physical—almost always trumps talent.
Scoring 30 points in an November exhibition game against Rhode Island State Technical College is one thing; dropping 23 on Arizona in the Elite Eight is another. Getting a triple-double in the consolation round of the Puerto Rico Classic may have seemed like a big deal at the time, but things could be different with the season on the line in a nationally televised game in a sold-out arena.
Here are 25 standouts with the greatest chance to shine during the NCAA tournament. These rankings aren’t solely a reflection on how players performed during the regular season; instead, they’re based more on individual talent, mental toughness, postseason experience, poise in the clutch and versatility.
With the game—the season—on the line, here’s who I’d want on my team.
25. Xavier Thames, San Diego State
The Aztecs point guard is one of the best players in America at his position. He’s averaging 16.8 points and 3.2 assists for a squad that went on a 20-game winning streak earlier this season. The NBA prospect had 29 points in a win over Marquette and was named MVP of the Wooden Legacy tournament.
Thames, who began his career at Washington State, helped the Aztecs pull off one of the best wins by any team this season when they upset Kansas, 61-57, at Allen Fieldhouse back in January. And with Thames leading the way, San Diego State won 20 straight games after a Nov. 14 loss to Arizona. He shoots just 41.1 percent from the field but continues to pique the interest of NBA scouts because of his 6’3”, 195-pound frame.
24. Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa
The Hawkeyes are in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006—thanks, in large part, to Devyn Marble. The senior averages 17.3 points per game and has eclipsed the 20-point barrier on 13 occasions. He scored 11.5 points per game as a sophomore and 15 points as a junior before finally helping his team get over the NCAA hump in his final season.
As much it needs his offense, Iowa will look to Devyn Marble for leadership after losing five of its final six regular-season games. What appeared to be a storybook season took a turn for the worse in late February and early March.
Devyn Marble will want to make sure his career ends on a high note.
23. Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico
One year after averaging 9.7 points and 5.9 rebounds, Bairstow had a monster senior season by averaging 20.3 points and 7.4 boards while also contributing 1.5 blocks. Bairstow helped New Mexico to a 27-6 record and Mountain West tournament title by reaching double figures in all but one game.
No. 3 seed New Mexico was one of the biggest busts of last year’s NCAA tournament, losing to No. 14 Harvard in its first game. The Lobos then endured a coaching change when Steve Alford left Albuquerque for UCLA. The transition from Alford to new coach (and former assistant) Craig Neal has been seamless thanks to Bairstow, who has been recognized as a second-team All-American by various media outlets.
22. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State
A senior small forward, Early proved last season that he’s hardly overwhelmed by playing on college basketball’s biggest stage. He averaged 16.2 points in five NCAA tournament games and scored 24 points in a semifinal loss to eventual champion Louisville. The performance earned Early a spot on the All-Final Four team.
This season, Early leads the undefeated No. 1 Shockers with 15.8 points a game while also contributing 5.9 rebounds. His ability to score from long range and slash to the paint makes him a tough matchup for opposing defenders, especially ones who can’t match his 6’8”, 220-pound frame.
Look for Early to shine in the postseason once again.
21. Scottie Wilbekin, Florida
There’s no question who runs the show for the nation’s No. 1-ranked team. Wilbekin averages 13 points and 3.7 assists, but it’s the senior point guard’s leadership and clutch play that benefits Florida the most.
Wilbekin has had multiple off-court issues during his time in Gainesville, but he seems to have turned his life around as a senior, something that has benefited him and a Gators team which grabbed the tournament's No. 1 overall seed.
Wilbekin, who averages 1.6 steals, is regarded as one of the top defensive guards in America. The SEC Player of the Year will be a huge factor for a Florida squad that has lost in the Elite Eight the past three seasons.
20. C.J. Fair, Syracuse
Fair’s decision to return for his senior year paid huge dividends for the Orange, who won their first 25 games and spent a large chunk of the season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll.
Fair leads Syracuse in scoring (16.7 points) and ranks second in rebounds (6.2). Last season, he averaged 15.4 points in NCAA tournament play, when he helped lead Jim Boeheim’s squad to the Final Four. Fair scored 22 points in the Orange’s loss to Michigan in the NCAA semifinals.
His best effort this season came when he scored 28 points in an overtime win against Duke on Feb. 1.
19. Gary Harris, Michigan State
A lot has been asked of the Spartans shooting guard, one of the few constants on a squad hounded by injuries all year. Harris averages a team-high 17.2 points a game, but the likely first-round draft pick is shooting just 41.9 percent from the field and a pedestrian 35.5 percent from three-point range. Those numbers may seem a bit low, but consider that Harris was often the focal point of opposing defenses when players as Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson were out of the lineup.
With Michigan State now close to being healthy and fresh off a B1G tournament win over rival Michigan, some of the pressure should be off of Harris in the NCAA tournament. He has the potential to be one of the better 2-guards in the country when he plays with a free mind.
18. Nik Stauskas, Michigan
The Big Ten Player of the Year is rising up NBA draft boards following a banner regular season in which he averaged 17.5 points while shooting 44.5 percent from three-point range.
Stauskas has already proven himself on college basketball’s biggest stage. He helped spark the Wolverines to the Final Four last year as a freshman by scoring 11 points in a Sweet 16 victory over Kansas and 22 against Florida in the Elite Eight.
Stauskas’ presence on the perimeter has been huge for a Michigan squad that lost underclassmen Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA draft. Just as he was during the season, Stauskas is the key to the Wolverines’ success.
17. Aaron Gordon, Arizona
The freakishly athletic Wildcats forward hasn’t received as much publicity as Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and other members of the freshman class of 2014, but he’s enjoyed more team success than any of them.
With Gordon manning the paint, Arizona opened the season with 21 straight wins while establishing itself as one of the top defensive teams in college basketball. The 6’9”, 225-pound Gordon averages a team-high 7.8 rebounds and ranks second in scoring with 12.1 points per contest. His biggest weakness is at the foul line, as Gordon is connecting on just 43.5 percent of his free throws.
Still, Gordon is projected as a first-round pick in this summer’s NBA draft.
16. Aaron Craft, Ohio State
Any team with NCAA title hopes would want an experienced point guard such as Craft as its leader.
Craft helped Ohio State advance to the Final Four in 2012 and the Elite Eight last season. He’s generally regarded as the top on-ball defender in all of college basketball and holds the Big Ten’s all-time record for steals.
Craft, a senior, led the Buckeyes to 15 straight victories and a No. 3 national ranking to begin the year, but Ohio State then lost five of its next six games and was never really in contention for the league title. Craft’s scoring stats are down slightly from last season, but his leadership hasn’t dwindled one bit.
With Craft running the show, the Buckeyes have a chance to beat any opponent in the 68-team field.
15. Marcus Paige, North Carolina
No Reggie Bullock, no P.J. Hairston, no problem. The Tar Heels are back in the NCAA tournament despite the unexpected loss of the top two players from last season’s squad. For that, they can thank Paige, who helped navigate his team through a sea of potential distractions on the way to a No. 6 seed.
Paige leads North Carolina in points (17.4) and assists (4.3) and shoots a respectable 39.1 percent from three-point range. Paige had 32 points in a win against Louisville and 23 in a victory over Kentucky. He also helped North Carolina to a victory over Michigan State before engineering a 12-game winning streak in the ACC after the Tar Heels had opened with losses in four of their first five contests.
Paige is particularly dangerous from the foul stripe, where he shoots 88 percent.
14. Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
VanVleet is the key reason the Shockers are the first team in 23 years to enter the NCAA tournament without a loss. The point guard is averaging a modest 12.1 points per game along with 5.3 assists, but it's his selflessness and refusal to hoist bad shots that has led to so much of the team’s success.
VanVleet contributed 16.2 minutes off the bench as a freshman for last year’s Final Four squad. When this season began, it was evident from the beginning that VanVleet was actually an upgrade over former starter Malcolm Armstead.
More than anything, VanVleet is known for his poise under pressure and his ability to perform well in big moments. When the score got tight in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament title game against Indiana State, VanVleet scored 13 points in the final six minutes to ice the win.
VanVleet’s mettle will be tested more than ever in the coming weeks as the Shockers attempt to advance to the Final Four for the second straight year. VanVleet is one of 10 finalists for the Naismith Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top player.
13. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati
A 6’4” guard, Kilpatrick earned first-team All-American honors from numerous media outlets after leading Cincinnati to a share of the American Athletic Conference title.
The senior averages 20.7 points per game, a phenomenal number considering that, on a team otherwise devoid of offensive stars, he’s the focal point of nearly every opposing defense. Kilpatrick also chips in 2.6 assists per game and shoots 84.7 percent from the foul stripe. He has eclipsed the 20-point plateau 19 times this season and scored in double figures in all but one game.
Kilpatrick enters the NCAA tournament on a hot streak. He averaged 24.4 points over his final eight regular-season games and has 2,127 points in his career. A volume shooter, Kilpatrick connects of 42.2 percent of his attempts from the field.
12. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
Can Napier emulate the feat of his mentor, Kemba Walker, and almost single-handedly guide the Huskies to the NCAA title? Time will tell, but the senior point guard has shown an ability to shine on a big stage.
As a freshman in 2011, he hit some key free throws down the stretch of that championship-game victory over Butler. He averaged 13 and 17.1 points the next two seasons, respectively, and is now averaging a career-high 17.4 points as a senior.
Connecticut became one of two teams all season to defeat Florida, thanks to Napier’s game-winning shot at the buzzer back on Dec. 2. And he scored a season-high 34 points in a Feb. 15 victory over Memphis.
Napier also deserves credit for being loyal to Connecticut after APR issues caused the Huskies to be banned from last year’s NCAA tournament. He could’ve elected to play his final two seasons elsewhere, but Napier remained true to his word and stayed in Stoors.
11. Kyle Anderson, UCLA
At 6’9”, Anderson has a unique skill set for his frame. He averages 6.6 assists as UCLA’s primary ball-handler, but he also leads the team in rebounds with 8.8 per contest. He ranks second the team with 14.9 points per game.
After a mildly disappointing freshman season, Anderson’s numbers have risen in almost every statistical category in 2013-14. His leadership both on and off the court is one of the main reasons UCLA was able to weather a coaching change and finish second in the Pac-12 standings behind Final Four favorite Arizona. They also shocked the Wildcats to win the Pac-12 tournament title.
A McDonald’s All-American in high school, Anderson will likely enter this summer’s NBA draft.
10. Adreian Payne, Michigan State
The 6'10" Payne would’ve been an All-American candidate if not for a foot injury that sidelined him for seven games in January. Still, that shouldn’t diminish what was easily the best season of Payne’s four-year career.
One of the Big Ten’s most improved players, Payne is averaging a career-high 15.7 points along with 7.3 rebounds. His best performance came in a 33-point, nine-board effort in a victory over Texas in Austin. Payne is a beast inside, at 245 pounds, but his ability to handle the ball on the perimeter and score from long range is what makes him a potential first-round pick in this summer’s NBA draft.
Payne is also one of college basketball’s most respected players away from the court. He overcame a learning disability—he could hardly read in the ninth grade—to become Scholar Athlete award winner at Michigan State. He’s also a source of inspiration to Lacey Holsworth, an eight-year-old who is battling cancer. Payne befriended Lacey while touring a children’s hospital two years ago. They’ve grown so close that Payne asked Lacey to escort him onto the court on Michigan State’s Senior Night.
9. DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
Kane is one of the most versatile players in the country and probably should’ve been considered for first-team All-American honors after averaging 17.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists during the regular season. Those are Marcus Smart-like numbers.
A Marshall transfer, Kane arrived at just the right time for the Cyclones, who were in desperate need of an offensive threat after losing four double-digit scorers from last season’s successful squad. Kane could be prickly at times at Marshall, but he’s blended right in at Iowa State, where chemistry is one of the Cyclones’ biggest strengths. Kane helped lead the Cyclones to a Big 12 tournament title with wins over Kansas State, Kansas and Baylor.
Kane’s best game came in a Jan. 7 victory over Baylor, when he flirted with a triple double with 30 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. If he plays his best in the NCAA tournament, Iowa State will have a chance to advance beyond the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2000.
Editor's note: A previous version of the article mistakenly stated that Iowa State made the Sweet 16 in 2013 and had a chance to advance beyond that round for the first time in school history this year.
8. Rodney Hood, Duke
Jabari Parker’s standout season has overshadowed an excellent campaign by Hood, who failed to earn first-team All-ACC honors despite averaging 16.5 points while shooting 47.4 percent from the field.
Hood has been one of the Blue Devils’ most consistent players, scoring in double figures in all but four games while eclipsing the 20-point barrier on 10 occasions.
The 6’8”, 215-pound Hood is a difficult matchup for opposing defenders. His quickness and athleticism will give a bigger player fits, and his size and strength can be overwhelming for an average guard. Hood is incredibly efficient, shooting 41.4 percent from the three-point range and 81.5 percent from the foul stripe.
This will likely be his only NCAA tournament, as Hood—a sophomore transfer from Mississippi State—is likely to enter the NBA draft.
7. Nick Johnson, Arizona
Freshman forward Aaron Gordon gets the most publicity and will likely be the better pro, but the Wildcats wouldn’t be anywhere without Johnson. The junior guard averages a team-high 16.2 points along with 2.8 assists. But it’s his leadership and poise that benefits Arizona the most.
Johnson is the one who maintained command in the huddle when complacency could’ve set in during the Wildcats’ 21-game winning streak. And it was Johnson who helped rally the team after starting forward Brandon Ashley was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Teams with leaders such as Johnson are the ones that have the best chance in March.
6. Russ Smith, Louisville
The senior’s scoring stats are down a bit from his junior season, when he helped spark the Cardinals to the NCAA title. But overall, he’s playing the best basketball of his career—mainly because his game has become more well-rounded.
Smith, for instance, is averaging 4.7 assists compared to 2.9 last season. His field-goal percentage has gone from 41.4 percent as a junior to 47.5 percent as a senior because he’s taking better shots. Smith is also a force on the defensive end. All of it could result in a third straight Final Four berth for Smith and the Cardinals, who appear to be finding their groove after losing Chane Behanan earlier in the season. They'll have a tough route to Dallas this year, as the Cards start as a No. 4 seed.
Smith averaged 22.3 points in last year’s NCAA tournament and 12.4 points the year before. His presence makes Louisville a contender.
5. Julius Randle, Kentucky
The 6’9” forward has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season for the Wildcats, who entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed after opening the year as the top-ranked team in America.
Randle leads Kentucky in both scoring (15.3) and rebounding (10.6) and has posted 20 double-doubles. Still, he often leaves fans wanting more on the offensive end, where he’s eclipsed the 20-point barrier just seven times.
Randle’s tenacity on the offensive glass can be breathtaking at times, and few players in America have as lethal of a mix of size, athleticism and skill. Randle needs to take a leadership role during the NCAA tournament and encourage his talented teammates to play with the same kind of fire he exudes on the court. If that happens, the Wildcats will be capable of making a deep run in what’s sure to be the only postseason appearance for Randle, who is expected to be a lottery pick in this summer’s NBA draft.
4. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
When he’s not shoving fans, kicking over chairs or making up quotes from opposing coaches, Smart is one of the top players in all of college basketball. And he’s been performing that way since returning from a three-game suspension in late February.
Smart impacts the game in virtually every way possible: points, rebounds, steals and assists. Smart ranks at or near the top of the Oklahoma State charts in all four categories (17.8, 5.7, 2.8, 4.7, respectively). More importantly, Smart’s intensity—both on the practice court and in games—sets the tone for the rest of Oklahoma State’s squad.
Smart brings out the best in his teammates, which makes the Cowboys a legitimate Final Four threat, even as a No. 9 seed.
3. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
The back injury that’s threatening to keep Joel Embiid off the court hardly spells gloom and doom for the Jayhawks, who boast the most talented player in the country in Wiggins. The potential No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft enters his first and (likely) only NCAA tournament averaging 17.4 points and six rebounds.
Wiggins battled consistency issues early in the season. One night, he was scoring 17 points and grabbing 19 rebounds in a win over Iowa State; the next, he scored three points in a narrow win over Oklahoma State. Another time, he followed a 29-point game against the Cyclones with a seven-point effort in a double-digit loss to Texas.
No one, however, can question Wiggins’ effort in recent weeks. He averaged 20 points in his final six regular-season games. That included a 41-point performance in a loss to West Virginia, when Wiggins clearly looked like the best player in the nation. He was in attack mode the entire afternoon, using his quick first step to get to the basket at will when when he wasn’t hurting Mountaineers from the outside.
With Embiid out, that type of aggressive mentality from Wiggins will be vital if Kansas hopes to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Anything less, and the Jayhawks may not advance past the first weekend.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke
If it weren’t for McDermott, Parker would likely be the leading candidate for the Wooden and Naismith awards. The small forward has been the top player in one of the most hyped freshmen classes in recent memory—and he’s not finished yet.
Parker averages 19.2 points and 8.8 rebounds—both team highs—while shooting a respectable 48.4 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from three-point range.
Parker seems to play his best when the lights are the brightest. He had 27 points against Kansas in a loss at the Champions Classic, 23 points in a win over UCLA at Madison Square Garden and a season-high 30 points in the regular-season finale, a victory over rival North Carolina.
Unlike most of the highly touted freshmen in the Class of 2013, Parker lived up to the hype from the beginning of the regular season until the end. While some first-year players struggled with consistency issues, Parker played at a high level for the entire season. He was held to single-digit point totals just twice all season.
Parker is projected as a top-three pick in this summer’s NBA draft. He told reporters two weeks ago that he hadn’t made up his mind about returning to school, but at this point it’s difficult to imagine him doing anything other than turning pro.
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton
Who doesn’t know the story by now?
McDermott plays second fiddle to teammate Harrison Barnes in high school, signs with Northern Iowa but then ends up at Creighton when the school hires his father, who nearly red-shirted Doug as a true freshman.
Now McDermott ranks fifth on NCAA’s all-time scoring list with 3,105 career points and appears to be a sure-fire first-round pick in this summer’s NBA draft. The only thing McDermott hasn’t done is lead the Bluejays to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Creighton’s chances of accomplishing that feat this season are strong if McDermott continues to score at the pace he has all season. The 6’8” forward averages a Division I-leading 26.9 points per game and has surpassed the 20-point plateau on 29 occasions. Not many players in the country catch and release as quickly as McDermott, who is also known for his footwork and his constant movement, which wears out opposing defenders.
McDermott will no doubt be remembered as one of the top players in the history of college basketball.