Ranking the 25 Best Players in the 2016 NCAA Tournament
The biggest conundrum in college basketball this season has been identifying the nation's best teams. Oklahoma looked like the top dog in January, but then the Sooners lost to Kansas State a month later. North Carolina was rolling before falling in back-to-back road games at Louisville and Notre Dame. And what in tarnation happened to Maryland, Iowa, Providence and so many others after red-hot starts?
Still, while inconsistency—and, frankly, mediocrity—has plagued even the country's best programs all season, it hasn't kept us from identifying college basketball's best individual players.
Many of them—such as Buddy Hield, Denzel Valentine, Kris Dunn and Perry Ellis—are juniors and seniors who have showcased their talents at the collegiate level for years. Their success in 2015-16 is hardly a surprise. And is it really a shock that Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray, Brandon Ingram and some of the nation's other top freshmen lived up to their billing?
We think not.
If anything, the most difficult chore is ranking the Top 25 players in this year's NCAA tournament. Here is our best attempt.
25. Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
Interim head coach Greg Gard deserves a ton of credit for getting Wisconsin into the NCAA tournament following a rough start that included the unexpected retirement of Bo Ryan in December. But let's not discount Nigel Hayes' role in the Badgers' surge, too.
The junior forward averages 16.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game and, because of his inside-out game, is regarded as one of the toughest matchups in the country. Hayes has struggled with his efficiency and is shooting only 38.1 percent from the field, including just 31.4 percent on three-pointers. But he's been good in big games (31 points in an overtime win against Indiana and 25 in a one-point win over Michigan State) and should be motivated for what could be his final NCAA tournament. Hayes is projected as the 36th overall pick in this summer's NBA draft by DraftExpress.
24. Ben Bentil, Providence
The winner of Bleacher Report's Most Improved Player award, Ben Bentil went from averaging 6.4 points per game as a freshman to 21.2 as a sophomore this season. He enters the NCAA tournament as hot as any player in the country, having scored 25 points per contest in his last six games.
At 6'9" and 235 pounds, Bentil is an athletic specimen with incredible burst and a skill set that enables him to score both in and out of the paint. He eclipsed the 30-point barrier five times this season and had 42 points in a loss at Marquette on Feb. 10.
With a roster that is limited offensively, Bentil and Providence point guard Kris Dunn (16 points, 6.4 assists per game) will be under an enormous amount of pressure to lead the Friars to the their first NCAA tournament win since 1997.
23. Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa
Jarrod Uthoff moved from small forward to power forward for his senior season—a switch that benefited both the player and the program.
At 6'9" and 221 pounds, Uthoff is a matchup nightmare for opposing bigs because of his ability to roam outside of the paint and score from the perimeter. Uthoff averages 18.9 points per game and shoots 39.2 percent from three-point range. And it's not like he's a slouch defensively, as he leads the Big Ten in blocks with 2.6 per game.
Uthoff's marked improvement has paid off in a big way for the Hawkeyes, who won 16 of their first 19 games and were ranked as high as No. 3 in the Associated Press poll.
22. Sheldon McClellan, Miami
A senior who began his career at Texas, Sheldon McClellan averages a team-high 15.8 points for a Miami squad that tied for second in the ACC regular-season standings and boasts wins over Utah, Duke, Virginia and Louisville.
At 6'5", McClellan has good size for a shooting guard, and he also has ball skills that enable him to slash and score from mid-range. He shoots 84.8 percent from the foul stripe, a trait that's come in handy for the Hurricanes late in close games. He teams with point guard Angel Rodriguez to form one of the top backcourts in America.
21. Taurean Prince, Baylor
A Baylor senior, Taurean Prince actually signed with Long Island-Brooklyn out of high school but got out of his letter of intent when the school changed coaches prior to his freshman season. The situation worked out great for the Bears, who added the late-emerging small forward and then developed him into a likely first-round NBA draft pick.
At 6'8" and 220 pounds, Prince is a big-time scorer who is considered an incredibly difficult matchup because of his size and mobility. He shoots a respectable 35 percent from three-point range but is even more dangerous when he puts the ball on floor and slashes to the basket. He can be sloppy and careless with the ball at times and is prone to taking bad shots and committing senseless fouls. But when he's dialed in, Prince—who competed for USA Basketball last summer—is one of the top 10 or 15 players in the country.
20. A.J. Hammons, Purdue
The 7'0" A.J. Hammons is the key component for what may be the best frontcourt in America. He's averaged double figures in scoring in each of his four seasons with Purdue, and his 14.9 points per game this year are a career high.
Hammons, who also averages eight rebounds per game, is a load at 250 pounds. He's at his best offensively with his back to the basket and has also improved his defense on the interior. Whether he's playing alongside freshman star Caleb Swanigan or fellow 7-footer Isaac Haas, Hammons has been effective all season for a team with legitimate Final Four hopes.
19. Gary Payton II, Oregon State
The son of the nine-time NBA All-Star who was known as "The Glove," Gary Payton II has developed a nickname of his own: "The Thief." It's fitting. Not many players in the country are as good defensively as the Oregon State senior, who averages 2.5 steals per game.
Payton was somewhat unheralded when he transferred from junior college to his father's alma mater prior to last season. But he's quickly made an impact in Corvallis, leading the Beavers to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 26 years. The versatile Payton averages 15.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. He's also always good for a highlight-reel dunk or two to ignite Oregon State fans.
18. Jaylen Brown, Cal
Cal enters the NCAA tournament boasting wins in nine of its last 11 games thanks in large part to Jaylen Brown, a freshman who is projected as the No. 3 overall pick in this summer's NBA draft, according to DraftExpress.
The 6'7", 225-pound Brown presents a huge matchup problem for opposing defenses because he can play multiple positions. He's strong and physical enough to bang with power forwards in the paint but is even better when he's slashing to the basket from the perimeter.
One NBA scout said Brown has a "pro body" and that he's physically advanced for his age. He averages 15 points and 5.5 rebounds per game for the well-balanced Golden Bears, who feature another potential lottery pick in freshman forward Ivan Rabb and a veteran guard in Tyrone Wallace.
17. Dillon Brooks, Oregon
The Canadian-born Dillon Brooks helped Oregon clinch its second conference title since 1945. A 6'7", 225-pound sophomore, Brooks is one of the top slashers in college basketball, mainly because he barrels toward the basket with an aggression and relentlessness that makes him difficult to stop.
Brooks isn't considered a great shooter (he sinks just 33.1 percent of his attempts from long range), but he's a great scorer who often comes up big in the clutch. Brooks averages 16.8 points per game along with 5.6 rebounds. He had a career-high 30 points in a home win against Utah on Feb. 7.
16. Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
Not many players in the NCAA tournament have enjoyed success quite like Fred VanVleet. He was a key reserve on Wichita State's Final Four team in 2013. A year later, the point guard guided the Shockers to a 35-1 record, with the only loss coming in a second-round NCAA tournament game to eventual national runner-up Kentucky. Last season, his squad annihilated Kansas en route to the Sweet 16.
With VanVleet and backcourt mate Ron Baker back for one final hurrah, Wichita State fans had high hopes for the 2015-16 season. But an injury to VanVleet in November resulted in four losses that month, which eventually landed the Shockers on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Gregg Marshall's squad managed to sneak into the field and will now depend on the craftiness and leadership of VanVleet—one of 10 finalists for the Naismith Award in 2014—to get it past the first weekend.
15. Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame
Though his potential was always obvious, Demetrius Jackson was overshadowed a bit during his first two seasons by teammates such as Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. As a junior, though, he's flourished during his first true stint in the spotlight.
Projected by DraftExpress as the 11th overall pick in this summer's NBA draft, Jackson averages 15.5 points and 4.8 assists for Notre Dame, which own wins over Duke (two), Iowa, Louisville and North Carolina.
Jackson has struggled with his efficiency from beyond the arc, as he's making just 32.4 percent of his threes. But considering the pressure he's under as the Fighting Irish' top offensive threat, his overall performance this season has been commendable.
14. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
The decision to transfer from Kentucky following the 2012-13 season has worked out well for Kyle Wiltjer. Last season, as a junior, he led Gonzaga to the Elite Eight for just the second time in program history. This year's Bulldogs were hit hard by graduation and injuries and needed to win the West Coast Conference tournament to secure a berth in the NCAA tourney.
Still, Wiltjer has been solid all season, with averages of 20.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
He hasn't been as accurate from three-point range (42.4 percent) as he was last season (46.6 percent). But his attempts per game (3.8 to 5.8) have increased dramatically.
A McDonald's All-American in high school, Wiltjer has scored in double figures in all but three games this season.
13. Brandon Ingram, Duke
Although the general thought is that LSU's Ben Simmons will be the No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft, there are a few pundits who believe Duke's Brandon Ingram may have a shot, too. And hardly anyone thinks he'll fall below No. 2.
The 6'9" Ingram is long, wiry and excellent with the ball in his hands—traits that make him a matchup nightmare. At some point, he'll need to add some bulk to his 190-pound frame. That issue will be addressed at the next level, but it hasn't impacted him too negatively in college.
Ingram connects on a pedestrian 44.1 percent of his field-goal attempts but shoots a fantastic 41.3 percent from beyond the arc. He's failed to score in double figures just once since Nov. 29.
12. Jamal Murray, Kentucky
In what will almost certainly be his only college season, Jamal Murray picked the perfect time to show why he's regarded as a top-10 pick in this summer's NBA draft.
After struggling with his touch early in the season, Murray shot 52.9 percent (74-of-140) in his final nine regular-season contests and connected on 53.9 percent of his three-pointers (41-of-76) during that span.
Murray is one of college basketball's more cerebral players, meditating before each game and also immediately after it. He signed with Kentucky over the summer after starring for Canada in the Nike Hoops Summit in Portland, Oregon. The freshman teams with guards Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe to form a three-headed-monster of a backcourt that is generally regarded as the nation's best.
11. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana
Indiana's starting point guard tinkered with the thought of entering the NBA draft after last season. Yogi Ferrell's decision to return paid off both for himself—he's averaging 17 points per game while shooting career bests from the field (45.9 percent) and three-point range (41.7)—and for the Hoosiers, who overcame a sluggish start to win the Big Ten regular-season title outright.
Ferrell, who averages 5.5 assists per game, is considered one of college basketball's top floor leaders. In the second half of the season especially, he's brought out the best in uber-talented teammates Troy Williams and Thomas Bryant. He's hoping to lead Indiana past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament for just the third time since 2002, when the Hoosiers made the national championship game.
10. Grayson Allen, Duke
It's scary to think where Duke may have been this season if not for Grayson Allen. The unlikely hero of last season's NCAA title game win over Wisconsin has blossomed into one of the country's top guards as a sophomore.
His burst and athleticism enable him to beat opponents off the dribble and attack the basket, yet Allen is equally dangerous from long range, as he connects on 41.7 percent of his three-point attempts.
Allen is also the player non-Duke fans love to hate, in part because he tripped two opponents during games the season and earned a public reprimand from the ACC. Whatever the case, the Blue Devils will need a string of banner performances from Allen to make a deep NCAA tournament run. Duke hasn't won back-to-back games since Feb. 17.
9. Brice Johnson, North Carolina
Brice Johnson, a first-team All-American selection by Bleacher Report, is one of the main reasons North Carolina has been pegged by many as a Final Four favorite.
The Tar Heels' leading scorer (16.6 points per game) and rebounder (10.6) used to draw the ire of head coach Roy Williams because of his inconsistency. But that hasn't been an issue for Johnson as a senior, as he scored in double figures in all but three games. His best effort was a 39-point, 23-rebound performance against Florida State on Jan. 4. In two games against Duke, he averaged 23.5 points and 20 boards.
The 6'10", 230-pound Johnson runs the court extremely well for a big man and has a nice touch on his shot. He's connecting on 61.4 percent of his field goals.
8. Georges Niang, Iowa State
Georges Niang is nearing the end of one of the most successful careers in Iowa State history. He ranks third on the Cyclones' all-time scoring list with 2,142 points and is the only player in the country with 2,000 points, 600 rebounds and 400 assists.
The 6'8", 230-pound Niang is a difficult matchup because of his ability to step away from the paint and score from the perimeter. He's an adept ball-handler who can slash to the rim on one play and bury a three the next.
Niang should be extra-motivated to lead Iowa State to postseason success following last season's opening-round loss to No. 14 seed Alabama-Birmingham. The previous season, he injured his foot in the opening round and had to watch from the sideline as the Cyclones reached the Sweet 16.
7. Perry Ellis, Kansas
Perry Ellis has had one of the best careers of any player in Kansas' storied history. It will hardly come as a surprise if the Jayhawks retire his jersey a few years from now. With a good tournament run, Ellis could finish in the top 10 on the school's all-time points and rebounds charts.
Ellis, a two-time first-team All-Big 12 pick, is one of the nation's better offensive players. His footwork and array of offensive moves in the paint make him tough to stop down low. Defensively, he is a liability, though he's improved that area of his game over the years.
Still, as good as Ellis (a three-year starter) has been, he's never experienced high-level success in the postseason. He was a freshman role player on the 2012-13 squad that lost to Michigan in the Sweet 16. The next two years, Kansas experienced second-round upsets against Stanford and Wichita State, respectively.
There's no doubt those shortcomings will motivate Ellis during his final stretch as a collegian.
6. Jakob Poeltl, Utah
A likely first-round NBA draft pick a year ago, Jakob Poeltl has benefitted greatly by returning to college for his sophomore season. And so has Utah, which ended the regular season ranked No. 12 in the AP poll thanks in large part to the 7-footer, who leads the Utes in points (17.6) and rebounds (nine) per game.
Now regarded as a lottery pick in this summer's draft, Poeltl will become the first Austria-born player to compete in the NBA.
Most of Utah's offensive sets go through Poeltl, who runs the court extremely well for his size. Offensively, he excels in the post and in pick-and-roll situations, and he's become a much better passer.
5. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
It's only fitting that the nation's top backcourt is led by college basketball's best pure point guard. With Tyler Ulis running the show, Kentucky has a legitimate shot at earning a berth in the Final Four for the fifth time in the past six years.
A Bleacher Report first-team All-American, Ulis held his squad together during what most would consider to be a down year for the Wildcats, who haven't been ranked in the Top 10 since early January. The 5'9" sophomore is sixth in the nation in assists per game (7.2) and averages 17.2 points per contest, a mark that ranks second on the team to Jamal Murray.
Ulis, who has eight double-doubles, was particularly dominant down the stretch. He ended the regular season with 16 straight double-figure scoring games and entered the SEC tournament averaging 10.2 assists per game over his previous nine contests.
4. Kris Dunn, Providence
The people closest to Kris Dunn—everyone from his head coach to his own father—told the guard he was making a mistake by returning to Providence for his redshirt junior season instead of entering last year's NBA draft. He was projected as a lottery pick.
But Dunn was convinced he could improve and elevate his stock. One year later, the decision has paid off. Now projected as the No. 5 pick in this summer's draft, according to DraftExpress, Dunn is generally regarded as the best all-around guard in college basketball.
Dunn's biggest strength is his versatility. He ranks fourth in the nation in steals per game (2.55) while also averaging 16 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.4 assists per contest. At 6'4" and 220 pounds, the point guard is bigger and stronger than most of his defenders, yet every bit as athletic and quick.
What's even more impressive about Dunn's success this season is that it's come under an enormous amount of pressure, as the Friars have few offensive weapons other than Dunn and leading scorer Ben Bentil (21.2 points per game). Only one other player (Rodney Bullock, 11.6 points per contest) averages double figures.
3. Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia
Malcolm Brogdon is shooting the ball better late in the season than he ever has in his career, and Virginia is doing a good job of getting him his shots. It helps that Brogdon has a great feel for moving without the ball. He's best as a catch-and-shoot scorer, but when he needs to, he can put it on the floor and get to the rim as well.
Brogdon is also a terrific defender. He probably doesn't get enough credit for that because people just assume he's a product of Tony Bennett's pack-line D. But don't be mistaken. Brogdon would be a stopper in any system, and he can guard multiple positions.
2. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
As a senior, Denzel Valentine was named National Player of the Year by multiple media outlets—and understandably so. The 6'5" guard is the first player to average more than 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists since assists became an official statistic in the 1983-84 season. Only LSU's Ben Simmons, the likely No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft, can match Valentine's versatility.
What's just as impressive about Valentine is his leadership. The Spartans lost two of their three double-digit scorers (Travis Trice and Branden Dawson) from last season's Final Four squad, but with Valentine leading the way, Michigan State has actually improved and enters the NCAA tournament playing as well as any team in the country.
The Spartans are one of just four teams to beat No. 1 overall seed Kansas. Fittingly, Valentine had his best game of the season in that victory with 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists. The triple-double earned him a congratulatory postgame phone call from MSU legend and NBA great Magic Johnson.
1. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
Bleacher Report's National Player of the Year is the most exciting guard in all of college basketball. A senior who ranks second in the nation with 25 points per game, Buddy Hield sparked Oklahoma to a 19-2 start and its first No. 1 ranking since 1990. The Bahamas native eclipsed the 20-point barrier in 22 of the Sooners' 30 regular-season games and reached 30 points nine times.
Along with being the best player in the country this season, Hield is also one of the most improved. He's averaging 7.6 more points per game than he did as a junior, and his field-goal percentages—both overall (41.2 to 49.6) and from three-point range (35.9 to 46.4)—have risen dramatically.
A projected lottery pick in this summer's NBA draft, Hield's goal when he arrived at Oklahoma was to guide the Sooners to the Final Four for the first time since 2002. This is his last chance.