Ranking the 25 Best Players of the 2017 NCAA Tournament

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterMarch 13, 2017

Ranking the 25 Best Players of the 2017 NCAA Tournament

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    The popular pick for National Player of the Year in the preseason was Duke’s Grayson Allen.

    Allen is on this list, but well below what anyone would have anticipated after his up-and-down junior season. He’s also an example of how difficult it is to rank the top 25 players in the NCAA tournament since the tourney is kind of a reset.

    This is not a list of who had the 25 best seasons this year, although that was strongly taken into consideration. The top two, for instance, are the two favorites for National Player of the Year, Villanova’s Josh Hart and Kansas' Frank Mason.

    Also taken into consideration was overall talent and ability to dominate the college game. This is not an NBA mock draft.

    The top freshmen, who will make up most of the NBA draft lottery, are represented, but only because those included have been dominant on the college level.

    Last thing before we get to the list…

    This. Was. Hard.

    There were a lot of candidates left off the list who had legitimate cases for inclusion.

25. Lauri Markkanen

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    It's not fair when the best shooter on the floor is 7'0". That's the luxury Arizona has in Finnish freshman Lauri Markkanen.

    Markkanen is one of the most skilled 7-footers to come through college basketball in a long time. In addition to draining threes, he can put the ball on the floor and occasionally score from the post as well.

    Markkanen doesn't take a lot of shots, but he makes the most of his opportunities. He averages 15.8 points per game and has the best offensive rating (129.8) in the country among players who use at least 20 percent of their team's possessions, per KenPom.com.

24. Sindarius Thornwell

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    Sindarius Thornwell has been the key piece in Frank Martin's rebuild at South Carolina, and Thornwell is the epitome of a Martin player. Hard-nosed. Tough. Doesn't back down from anyone.

    Thornwell has always been able to get buckets, but he's way more efficient this season. He upped his three-point accuracy from 33.3 percent to 39.1 percent and his free throws from 76.4 percent to 83.2 percent.

    The Gamecocks struggle to score at times, but Thornwell can at least keep them in games almost all by himself. He put up 34 points at Kentucky this season and 44 points in a four-overtime loss to Alabama. He's averaging 21.0 points and 7.2 rebounds on the season.

23. Ethan Happ

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    Ethan Happ is the most unique star player in the country. He plays in a system that has always allowed its skilled big men to stretch the floor and shoot jumpers, but Happ is allergic to jump shots—he's attempted seven all season, according to Synergy Sports.

    Happ, at 6'10", plays defense like a guard, using his quickness and anticipation to go for steals. He ranks 13thxx in steals rate, per KenPom.com, and he's the only player in the country taller than 6'6" to rank in the top 50 of the category.

    Happ averages close to a double-double (13.9 points and 9.0 rebounds), and even without a jumper, he's a tough cover because of his quickness, footwork and the ability to change arm angles and use different hook shots around the basket. He's truly one of a kind.

22. Grayson Allen

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    Grayson Allen hasn't had the year everyone expected, but he still has his moments that remind everyone why the expectations were so grand.

    Allen has been slowed by injuries and has had his mental battles because of the attention he received from the tripping incidents.

    But the NCAA tournament is sort of a reset, and the Blue Devils have a chance to go deep if they get the good Allen. That version of Allen is a slashing daredevil who can also burn defenses from deep.

    The Blue Devils have only one other guy on this list, but arguments could be made for Amile Jefferson and Jayson Tatum appearing as well. Jefferson is Duke's defensive MVP and rock, and Tatum is the most gifted talent on the roster. It's just hard to justify more than two top-25 guys on a team that lost seven ACC games.

21. Semi Ojeleye

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    SMU has quietly been one of the most dominant teams in college basketball the last few months, and Semi Ojeleye is a big reason why.

    The former Duke forward found an ideal landing spot at SMU, where Tim Jankovich wisely utilizes him as a small-ball power forward.

    Ojeleye is a matchup nightmare because he's too quick for big men, who have to guard him on the perimeter because he shoots 43.1 percent from deep, and too powerful for smaller defenders. Ojeleye is averaging 18.5 points per game, and he ranked first nationally in offensive rating among players who use at least 24 percent of their team's possessions, per KenPom.com.

20. Jalen Brunson

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    An argument could be made for Jalen Brunson as Villanova's most valuable player, and that's quite the compliment considering he's teammates with National Player of the Year candidate Josh Hart.

    Brunson averages decent numbers (14.7 points and 4.2 assists), but more important than the numbers is the poise with which he runs the Wildcats. He rarely makes a mistake and does a great job of putting his teammates in position to succeed.

    Brunson doesn't have elite quickness, but he's effective changing speeds, and he's one of those smooth lefties defenders always seem to struggle checking. He's also a shot-maker, especially inside the arc, where he shooting 61.4 percent. That's second-best nationally among starting point guards.

19. Donovan Mitchell

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    Donovan Mitchell arrived at Louisville as a sick athlete who was a highlight waiting to happen.

    As a sophomore, he's evolved into a star with some skill. He's improved his jumper (36.3 percent from deep) and his ability to create off the bounce. Combine that with his athleticism, and he's difficult for defenses to handle.

    Mitchell also is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country because of his quickness, strength and length, measured at a 7'4" wingspan. He averages 15.7 points and 2.1 steals, making him one of the top two-way guards in the country.

18. De'Aaron Fox

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    No one is more difficult to check off the dribble in college basketball than the lightning-quick De’Aaron Fox.

    Fox is a blur with the basketball in his hands and has a soft lefty touch when he gets into the paint. His mid-range jumper is inconsistent, but when he’s on, he can take over a game.

    Fox is also a nuisance on the defensive end. His combination of quickness, length and endless energy makes him one of the top defensive point guards in the country.

17. Mike Daum

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    I'm not sure there's been a more fun three-point bombing big man in college basketball since West Virginia's Kevin Pittsnogle.

    Mike Daum is must-see TV because every game there's a good chance he's going to go off. He's averaged 30.8 points in his last 13 games, and he's gone for 51, 30, 33, 18 and 37 in his last five, carrying the Jackrabbits back to the NCAA tournament after going just .500 in Summit League play this season.

    The sophomore shoots 41.6 percent from deep, and defenses have to be aware of him at all times because he can score from just about anywhere.

16. Bonzie Colson

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    Bonzie Colson has a mid-major body with a high-major game. Colson is 6'5", and 6'5" post players should not be able to dominate in the ACC. Heck, most 6'5" posts aren't even playing at the D-1 level.

    Colson kills it because he's super skilled and knows how to use angles and his body to get his shots. He averages 17.1 points and 10.2 rebounds, and he's expanded his offensive repertoire this season by adding some range to his jumper. He made a total of five threes his first two seasons at Notre Dame, and he's already made 20 this year, shooting a solid 39.2 percent from deep.

15. Joel Berry

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    Joel Berry was North Carolina's most valuable player during the run to the title game last year. He hit a ton of big shots and provided a steady calm for the Tar Heels.

    It's been more of the same this year for Berry. He's UNC's most consistent shooter (41.8 percent from deep), and he's averaging a career-best 14.8 points per game.

    Berry also deserves credit for the efficiency the Heels have operated with the last two seasons. They ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency last season, per KenPom.com, and they rank fourth this year.

14. Justin Jackson

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Justin Jackson has evolved into North Carolina's star this season, and the main difference in his game is the addition of a reliable three-point shot.

    Jackson has made more threes this year (90) than he made his first two seasons combined (63).

    The ACC Player of the Year averages 18.1 points per game, and he's cerebral in how he goes about his business on the offensive end. Jackson is one of the best in the country at moving without the ball, and he has an in-between game in addition to the ability to pour it in from deep.

13. John Collins

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    Wake Forest's John Collins was Bleacher Report's pick for most improved player in college hoops this season. The sophomore has gone from a decent bench big to a potential lottery pick.

    He's one of the most efficient bigs in the country operating out of post-ups (1.025 points per possession) and the pick-and-roll (1.636 points per possession), per Synergy Sports.

    Collins averages 18.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.

12. Malik Monk

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    Malik Monk could shoot Kentucky to a Final Four or an early loss in the tournament. The freshman is reckless at times with his shot selection, but when he's on, he's unstoppable and a blast to watch.

    Monk can fly and has the ability to make difficult shots that most players wouldn't dream of taking. That's why he can go off when he's on. He's had four games this season when he's scored more than 30 points, including a career-high 47 in a win against North Carolina.

11. Nigel Williams-Goss

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    Nigel Williams-Goss is the rock for Gonzaga and a big reason why the Zags have lost just one game all season.

    Williams-Goss fills up the stat sheet (16.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game), but he's even more valuable than the numbers suggest because he just simply does whatever his team needs to win. There are games where he'll sacrifice his scoring just to keep feeding whoever is on that day.

    Gonzaga's front line has arguably been the best in college hoops this season, and some of that success and consistent production is thanks to Williams-Goss. He made a wise move transferring to Gonzaga two years ago.

10. Johnathan Motley

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    A lot of folks have probably cooled on the Bears since they were ranked No. 1. They stumbled down the stretch and lost in the Big 12 tourney to Kansas State. But Baylor is still a difficult team to match up against in an NCAA tournament setting because of its zone and because of Johnathan Motley.

    Motley is close to impossible to cover one-on-one—most teams send a double-team when he catches on the blocks immediately—and he can also step away from the basket and is effective in the pick-and-pop. Baylor coach Scott Drew does a good job moving him around to make sure he gets his shots.

    Baylor's guards are schooled to lob the ball to Motley from the wing when he's on the opposite block, and Drew will often have someone set what's essentially a flare screen in the paint to free Motley.

    That's helped the big fella put up consistent numbers. He averages 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.

9. Jawun Evans

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    Jawun Evans often gets compared to Chris Paul. While comparisons like that are typically extremely unfair, Evans is at the very least the college version of Paul.

    The Oklahoma State sophomore, like Paul, is a magician off the dribble and has an advanced understanding of how to operate once he gets into the teeth of the defense.

    Evans averages 19.0 points and 6.2 assists, but more impressive than his per-game averages is the fact that he runs an offense that ranks first nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com.

8. Luke Kennard

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    No one expected Duke's Luke Kennard to be the team's best player this season, but here he is, appearing as one of the 10 best players in the NCAA tournament.

    Kennard has consistently gotten buckets all season. Most casual fans probably assume he's a clone of deadeye shooter J.J. Redick. Kennard is a deadeye shooter, but he's got a lot more to his game.

    He's one of the cleverest scorers off the bounce in the country. He finds a way to get into the lane and then once there, even if he's well covered, he uses pivots and fakes to get himself a clean look at the basket. The ball always comes off his hand soft every time, and that in-between game is why he's been so consistent scoring the ball, averaging 20.2 points per game.

7. Dillon Brooks

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    Dillon Brooks got off to a slow start this season because of a foot injury that held him out of the first three games. The version that was tearing up the court last March has returned to form recently.

    Brooks enters the tournament averaging 21.1 points per game over his last 10 games. He's shooting better than he ever has from long range—42.5 percent—and that makes him an ideal fit as the small-ball stretch 4 in Oregon's offense.

    Brooks, at 6'7", is a bulldozer who attacks the rim with rage. He looks like he plays angry, and he loves the big stage. He also enters the tourney looking for some redemption after scoring only seven points in last year's Elite Eight loss to Oklahoma.

6. Monte Morris

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    Monte Morris will finish his career as the NCAA all-time leader in assist-to-turnover ratio. In fact, for former Pittsburgh guard James Robinson, the current record holder, to finish tied with Morris, the Iowa State point guard would have to turn the ball over 60 straight times without an assist during that stretch.

    Let that sink in for a second.

    Morris is underappreciated for how awesome he has been at the position, as evidenced by his omission as a Cousy Award finalist. This season has been his finest in terms of taking care of the basketball—an NCAA-best 5.88 assist-to-turnover ratio—and he's also evolved into more of a scorer, averaging a career-best 16.3 points per game.

    The Cyclones play a space-and-pace game, and Morris makes things really easy for the shooters who surround him. That makes the Cyclones a tough draw in this bracket.

5. Josh Jackson

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    Josh Jackson's value to Kansas was apparent last week when his team lost to TCU in the Big 12 tournament without him.

    Jackson has been KU's best one-and-done player, easily fitting in on both ends of the floor. That's impressive considering he plays most of his minutes as a small-ball 4, which was not expected coming into the season or when he signed with Kansas.

    The fit has been perfect, as Jackson easily beats opposing 4s off the bounce. He's become impossible to cover lately with his jump shot becoming more consistent. Jackson shot 43.5 percent from deep in Big 12 play. Defensively, he's also KU's most important piece because of his versatility and ability to block shots.

4. Caleb Swanigan

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    Caleb Swanigan is a double-double machine (18.5 points and 12.6 boards per game), and his consistency has earned him the title of best big man in college basketball.

    Swanigan is an old-school big who understands how to seal his man in the post and score with his back to the basket. But this season he improved his face-up game as well and has become a dangerous pick-and-pop option. He shoots 43.1 percent from deep.

    Most opponents double-team Swanigan once he catches it, but that's not a great option because Purdue surrounds him with shooters, and he's a really good passer. The only way to really slow Swanigan is to somehow limit his touches.

3. Lonzo Ball

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    Lonzo Ball completely transformed UCLA this year, bringing a fun-and-gun style to Los Angeles. Ball has terrific vision, and his unselfishness is contagious.

    The Bruins move the ball beautifully and spread the floor with shooters. Ball can also get buckets as well and has unlimited range on his jumper, often pulling up well beyond the three-point line.

    Most great point guards these days dominate the ball, but Ball gets rid of it quickly and that's why UCLA is so hard to guard. The second a defender loses his man, Ball finds him. When the Bruins are going right, they're the best offensive team in the country.

2. Josh Hart

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    Villanova's Josh Hart has already proven he can be the star player on a national title team. He's the only college player you can currently say that about.

    Hart has elevated his game to another level this season, improving as a three-point shooter and becoming a more dynamic playmaker off the bounce. He's averaging career highs in points (18.6) and assists (3.2). Hart, a senior, takes smart shots and knows when to attack, which makes him one of the most efficient scorers in the country.

    He's also a terrific defender. Basically, Jay Wright never has to worry about Hart not figuring out a way to contribute every night out.

1. Frank Mason

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    If it's the last possession of the national championship and your team is down by a point, who do you want taking the shot?

    The correct answer: Frank Mason III.

    Mason has been clutch all season for the Jayhawks, playing his best basketball down the stretch of close games. He started the year off with a game-winner against Duke and was pivotal in pulling off one of the most remarkable comebacks of the season against West Virginia.

    Mason can get just about wherever he wants on the floor now that he's become a knockdown perimeter shooter. He spent most of the season burying better than 50 percent of his treys.

    That forces defenders to play him tight on the perimeter, and that's a tough chore because he's one of the best in the country at shaking dudes off the dribble.

    Mason plays so many minutes that he has to pick and choose his times to be aggressive on the defensive end, but when he gets after it, he can be a bully as an on-the-ball defender as well. He was Bleacher Report's pick to win National Player of the Year, and it's hard to envision him not playing his best ball to finish his career.