Players with Potential to Take Over the 2018 NCAA Tournament

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 28, 2018

Players with Potential to Take Over the 2018 NCAA Tournament

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    Trae Young
    Trae YoungCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Oklahoma's Trae Young has come under a lot of scrutiny the past few weeks, but the freshman sensation who has scored at least 30 points in nine games this season is still a top candidate to take over for a couple of weeks in March.

    This isn't a Player of the Year ranking, nor is it a projection of who will be named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2018 NCAA tournament. Rather, it's a ranking of the players who have the best chance of captivating the college basketball world with a few incredible performances in the Big Dance.

    These are the guys who could go down in tournament lore alongside names like Kemba Walker and Stephen Curry.

    To find these potential tourney juggernauts, we looked at the leaders in scoring average as well as the players who have scored at least 35 points two or more times in a game this season. We also included a few elite, ball-dominant players who didn't quite meet either of those criteria, but who are veteran leaders for title contenders. Likelihood of making the tournament was also taken into consideration.

    Not surprisingly, the vast majority of qualified candidates are guards. The two exceptions to that rule were Mike Daum of South Dakota State and Jock Landale of Saint Mary's. But because neither the Jackrabbits nor the Gaels are a lock to make the tournament, we opted to omit them and instead focus on the more explosive players who always have the ball in their hands.

Minor-Conference Studs Who Need Championship Week Miracles

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    Jordan Howard
    Jordan HowardMichael Owen Baker/Associated Press

    If any of these eight players makes the NCAA tournament, he immediately jumps into the top 11. But given where their teams are going to be seeded in their respective conference tournaments, making the Big Dance is a massive "if." Keep these guys in mind as you soak up as much conference tournament action as you possibly can, though. They might not make the big tournament, but they could take over the smaller ones.

                 

    Chris Clemons, Campbell

    Early injuries kept Clemons from leading the nation in scoring, but he has scored at least 20 points in 15 of his last 16 games and has only been held below 15 points once in this entire season. He saved his best for last in 2016-17, averaging 33.4 points in seven games between the Big South tournament and the CIT.

                         

    Jon Elmore, Marshall

    Elmore scored 38 points in the season opener against Tennessee-Martin and had another 38-point outing in his most recent game against Charlotte. He usually hovers more in the high teens and low 20s, but he's one of three players on this Marshall roster (along with C.J. Burks and Ajdin Penava) who could pop off for 30 points in any game.

                              

    Jordan Howard, Central Arkansas

    Good luck finding a more dangerous scorer. Howard has scored at least a dozen points in every game, averages 25.7 and has put up at least 35 on six different occasions, including road games against UCLA and Oregon. But the Central Arkansas defense is so awful that this is still a sub-.500 team that would be a No. 16 seed if it does happen to win the Southland tournament.

                      

    Fletcher Magee, Wofford

    Magee's numbers have tapered off from the record-setting pace he was at when we published a feature on him back in December, but the sharpshooter still leads the nation in made three-pointers. He scored 45 points in a game against Chattanooga less than two weeks ago, draining 11 triples in that contest.

                     

    Kendrick Nunn, Oakland

    The lone player challenging Magee (134) for the national lead in made threes, Nunn (128) shoots it like there's no tomorrow. He had 37 points in his most recent game, which was a slight step backward from putting up 39 in the game before that. Nunn has made at least five three-pointers in 16 of 28 games, so you know that when he goes down, he'll do so swinging.

                      

    Justin Wright-Foreman, Hofstra

    Wright-Foreman has scored at least 30 points in seven games. In fact, there was a span of nine games from mid-December through mid-January in which he averaged 30.3 points and scored at least 22 in each of those games. He hasn't been quite that hot lately, but if he starts feeling it again, look out.

                       

    Erick Neal and Kevin Hervey, Texas-Arlington

    In seven February games, this duo has combined to average 44.9 points. Neal scored at least 35 points in two of those games, and Hervey has put up at least 28 in three of his last eight contests. Either senior (or both) could explode for a couple of monster performances in the NCAA tournament.

11. Jonathan Stark, Murray State

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    2017-18 Season: 21.7 PPG, 4.0 APG, 42.2% 3PT

    30-point games: Four (36, 32, 31, 30)

    Unlike the minor-conference stars in the previous section who likely won't reach the NCAA tournament, Jonathan Stark plays for a Murray State* team that is the favorite to win the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.

    Should that happen, the Racers ought to be a No. 12 or No. 13 seed, and Stark could become one of the biggest stars of the tournament by shooting them to the Sweet 16.

    Stark got out to a slow start to the season, scoring fewer than 20 points in eight of his first nine games. But he has been crushing it lately, scoring at least 30 points in three of the last four games and averaging 26.1 points in eight February games.

    The big difference is he is now embracing contact and getting to the free-throw line frequently. He averaged just 2.0 free-throw attempts in those first nine games, but he has gotten 10.2 freebies per game over the last five. As an 89.0 percent shooter from the charity stripe, that's a great way to get on the board.

    Don't expect Stark to spend any time on the bench either. He has played at least 37 minutes in every game since New Year's Day and has scored at least 15 points in 20 consecutive contests.

    *Even though there are no photos of him from the past two seasons since he transferred from Tulane.

10. Nick King, Middle Tennessee

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    2017-18 Season: 21.5 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 1.9 APG, 38.9% 3PT

    30-point games: Four (32, 32, 31, 30)

    If you're looking for guys who might catch fire, drain a dozen threes and score 75 points in one weekend, Nick King isn't the pick for you.

    But if you're looking for guys who might put up 24 points and 10 rebounds in four consecutive games during an incredible run to the Elite Eight, now we're talking.

    The former Memphis and Alabama transfer has never scored more than 32 points in a game, but he has gone for at least 22 points on 15 separate occasions this year. The Blue Raiders are 13-2 in those games, and the two losses were near-wins on a neutral court in Hawaii against USC and Miami.

    This wing-forward is just dangerous enough from three-point range to open up everything else he wants to do. Unlike most of the players on this list, King only averages 1.3 triples per game. He prefers to do his damage in the paint, on the glass and at the free-throw line.

    Just about the only teams that have figured out how to bottle him up this season were Auburn and Marshall, but having one of the better shot-blocking units in the country isn't much of a blueprint for other teams to follow. With any luck, the selection committee won't match MTSU up with a team like Michigan State, West Virginia or Cincinnati, and King will ball out for a few rounds.

9. Tra Holder, Arizona State

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    2017-18 Season: 18.9 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 3.6 APG, 38.1% 3PT

    30-point games: Three (40, 35, 31)

    Would you believe Tra Holder hasn't scored 25 points in a game since December?

    He had six such performances in Arizona State's first 13 games and has not had one since.

    That isn't to say Holder has become a scrub in Pac-12 play. Rather, he has scored at least 20 points in seven of his last nine games. He has just consistently been in the 20-24 range instead of blowing up like he did earlier in the year against Xavier, Kansas and Arizona.

    He clearly has been making less of an impact, though. In his last 15 games, Holder has averaged 15.9 points while shooting 30.0 percent from three-point range, as compared to 22.2 and 46.3, respectively, in his first 13 games.

    Considering every one of Arizona State's nine losses has come by a single-digit margin, there's a case to be made that the Sun Devils would be roughly 25-3 had Holder been able to maintain his early pace. If he can get back to playing and shooting that well, Arizona State could be a sleeper that pulls off a few upsets.

8. Collin Sexton, Alabama

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    2017-18 Season: 18.2 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.5 APG, 31.7% 3PT

    30-point games: Two (40, 30)

    Collin Sexton is in the same boat as Tra Holder. He had a few incredible early games, including a 40-point performance in a non-exempt tournament game. But things haven't been the same since that hot start.

    Sexton averaged 21.7 points in his first 10 games, shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 43.2 percent from downtown. But since then, those numbers are 16.1, 41.3 and 25.4, respectively.

    Yes, the overall level of competition has gotten tougher, but we're talking about a guy who scored 30 points on the road against Arizona. And this was just two weeks after he put up 40 against Minnesota in the famous 3-on-5 game. For the first month of the season, it seemed like Sexton might battle Trae Young for the title of best freshman in the country.

    Between a slow start in SEC play and an abdominal injury that he has been dealing with since mid-January, it has been a while since he had a wrecking ball type of performance.

    But we know that potential is still there, and we're hopeful it will resurface in March.

    Here's a bit of a strange note, though. Alabama is 2-6 when Sexton scores at least 23 points and is 3-4 when he plays and scores fewer than 15 points. But get him in that sweet spot of 15-22 points where he's being assertive but isn't being a ball hog, and the Crimson Tide are 9-2 with the two losses by a combined margin of seven points. If he can score around 20 points in a few wins, it would still feel like a takeover situation.

7. Markus Howard, Marquette

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    Markus Howard
    Markus HowardMarco Garcia/Associated Press

    2017-18 Season: 20.8 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 2.8 APG, 39.0 3PT

    30-point games: Six (52, 37, 34, 33, 33, 32)

    We already mentioned Jordan Howard back in the minor-conference stars section. Now, let's discuss his brother, Markus.

    Of all the teams on this list, Marquette might be the least likely to make the NCAA tournament. Recent losses to DePaul and St. John's have left the Golden Eagles on the outside looking in, desperately needing a win over Creighton on Saturday and at least one win in the Big East tournament to feel good about a bid.

    On the off chance Marquette gets in, though, Markus Howard might lose his mind on some poor opponent or two.

    The 52-point performance at Providence was arguably the best by any player this season. He was 11-of-19 from three-point range in what was his second game with 11 made triples. (Howard hit 11 of 15 in a November win over Chicago State.)

    But because he's so dependent on that long ball, there's no telling when he's going to have a dud. Howard is averaging better than 20 points per game, but he has been held to 14 points or fewer 12 times.

    Between that and the unlikelihood that Marquette reaches the Big Dance, we couldn't quite justify putting Howard in our top five. If he puts up 40 points in a first-round upset of a No. 6 seed, though, it wouldn't be much of a surprise.

6. Trevon Bluiett, Xavier

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    Trevon Bluiett
    Trevon BluiettStephan Savoia/Associated Press

    2017-18 Season: 19.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 2.7 APG, 43.4% 3PT

    30-point games: Two (37, 31)

    Trevon Bluiett used to be a model of consistency. Prior to this month, he had only scored more than 29 points in a game once in his career. But in 93 games dating back to the start of his sophomore season, he had only been held to single digits six timesnone of which occurred this season.

    Now, he's one of the most mercurial scorers in the country. Four of Bluiett's 10 career games with at least 26 points have come in his last six contests, but he scored six and two points in the other two games. There's no telling which Bluiett you'll get on any given night now.

    Considering how well he played in the Big Dance last year, though, it'd be foolish to not have him somewhere on this list. Bluiett put up 21, 29 and 25 in the first three rounds last year, joining Sindarius Thornwell on the list of guys who were unbelievable for surprising Elite Eight teams.

    The safest assumption is that he'll get back to being a consistently solid contributor, giving the Musketeers somewhere between 17 and 24 points in each tournament game. It's not the type of stuff that will get him noticed as an all-tournament player in the opening weekend, but after four or more games of it, we won't be able to stop talking about how much he has taken over March.

5. Devonte' Graham, Kansas

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    2017-18 Season: 17.7 PPG, 7.2 APG, 4.1 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 42.3% 3PT

    30-point games: Two (35, 35)

    Just like Trevon Bluiett, Devonte' Graham is one of those leaders who doesn't need to dominate with his scoring. He has averaged just 17.4 points in Kansas' current five-game winning streak, during which time he has emerged as the clear favorite for Big 12 Player of the Year and a strong candidate for the Wooden Award.

    Every once in a while, though, Graham will take matters into his own hands.

    Those 35-point games listed above came in back-to-back contests early in the season. He had a combined 52 points in the two wins over TCU and had a huge 26 in the recent road win over Texas Tech.

    Graham's M.O. is to get everyone else going for the first 35 minutes. (He has at least four assists in every game this season.) Then, if need be, he'll don a Superman cape and take over at the end of the game.

    That approach doesn't often result in 30-point performances, but it does frequently feel like Graham is single-handedly carrying the Jayhawks to victory. If you're betting on who will be named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2018 NCAA tournament, this would be an excellent choice.

4. Keenan Evans, Texas Tech

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    2017-18 Season: 17.2 PPG, 3.2 APG, 3.0 RPG, 31.5% 3PT

    30-point games: Three (38, 32, 31)

    Keenan Evans suffered a toe injury in Texas Tech's recent game against Baylor. He scored four points before exiting that game, had two in the next and finished with just six in the game after that. He shot 3-of-19 from the field. And then he didn't play in Monday night's game against West Virginia.

    Not surprisingly, the Red Raiders lost all four of those games. But when he scores at least 12 points, Texas Tech is 20-2. The two exceptions were the game against Seton Hall in which the Pirates shot 11-of-20 from three-point range and the road game against Oklahoma in which the Red Raiders were playing without Zach Smith for the first time.

    In other words, as long as Evans shows up and can hit a few shots, it takes a special circumstance for an opponent to beat Texas Tech.

    On most nights, he does more than just show up. In seven games from Jan. 23 through Feb. 13the last game before the toe injuryhe averaged 24.6 points, shot 44.1 percent from three-point range and made 52.6 percent from the field. It was during this stretch that he became a popular candidate to be a first-team All-American.

    Here's hoping he gets back to full strength and starts playing like that again because Texas Tech has Final Four potential when he's at his best.

3. Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    2017-18 Season: 20.2 PPG, 5.5 APG, 3.6 RPG, 48.2% 3PT

    30-point games: Three (44, 40, 32)

    There have been 38 40-point games this season. Only four players have hit that mark multiple times. And only one player did so in back-to-back games.

    That lone wolf is Jaylen Adams.

    St. Bonaventure's star had 40 points and seven assists in an 84-81 win over Duquesne in early February, followed by 44 points (on just 18 field-goal attempts) with six assists in a 79-56 rout of Saint Louis.

    After failing to score 20 points in any game in January, Adams has become an unstoppable machine in February, averaging 27.0 per game since Groundhog Day.

    This isn't a new development for the career 40.2 percent three-point shooter. He has scored at least 20 points in a game 38 times over the last four years, including doing so four times in December after not playing in November due to an ankle injury.

    Barring an end-of-season collapse or a severe error in judgment by the selection committee, we will finally get a chance to see what Adams can do in the NCAA tournament.

    Best of luck to any opponent that puts all its energy into stopping Adams, because Matt Mobley (17.9 PPG) is also a lethal scorer who has tallied at least 24 points in 11 games this season.

2. Jalen Brunson, Villanova

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    2017-18 Season: 19.3 PPG, 4.9 APG, 3.1 RPG, 41.3% 3PT

    30-point games: Three (31, 31, 31)

    Similar to Devonte' Graham a bit earlier on this list, Jalen Brunson is one of those rare players who can take over a game anytime he wants but who usually spends most of the game creating for his teammates. As a result, his scoring numbers aren't quite as ridiculous as some of the guys in our top 11, even though it's a foregone conclusion that he will be one of the five finalists for every major national Player of the Year award.

    Brunson is like the ace of a pitching staff in baseball. We expect greatness in every game. But even on nights when he's struggling a bit, it still feels like he's doing OK and could turn things around at a moment's notice. The recent seven-turnover dud in a loss to Providence was the only time this season he didn't eventually figure things out and carry the team.

    But just about every Cy Young winner has at least one disastrous outing during the lengthy season, and the ones who make the playoffs tend to save their most dominant performances for last. If that's the trajectory Brunson is on, you're going to want to watch every single Villanova game in the NCAA tournament.

    Even if he's not scoring 30 points per night, Brunson is going to take over games just by being on the court. His ability to penetrate the defense and run the point from the paint is what makes Villanova's offense almost unstoppable.

1. Trae Young, Oklahoma

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    2017-18 Season: 28.3 PPG, 9.1 APG, 3.9 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 37.5% 3PT

    30-point games: Nine (48, 44, 43, 43, 39, 33, 32, 32, 31)

    Trae Young may have fallen out of the lead in the Player of the Year debate, but there's no question he belongs at No. 1 on this list.

    Though he's no longer averaging 30 points and 10 assists per game, Young still leads the nation in both categories and is an ever-present threat to hit either of those thresholds. In a bounce-back game against Kansas State this past weekend, he had 28 points on 10 field-goal attempts with seven assists. When he's playing that efficiently, this team is tough to beat.

    Here's an interesting note since we're searching for guys who could be the next Kemba Walker: UConn's tournament star hit quite the wall of his own in the middle of the 2010-11 season. There was a seven-game stretch from mid-January to mid-February in which Walker averaged 16.6 points and 5.7 assists while shooting 30.9 percent from the field as the Huskies slipped onto the bubble.

    During the six-game losing streak in which Young "struggled," he still averaged 21.5 points and 8.0 assists per game while shooting 33.6 percent from the field. Yes, he committed significantly more turnovers during that time than Walker did (5.2 to 1.4), but the point is even heroesespecially of the freshman variety—can run out of gas toward the end of the regular season.

    The unknown is whether Young will be able to return to early-season form to dominate some non-Big 12 competition in the NCAA tournament. If you're going to bet on anyone to go wild for a week or three, though, Young is the obvious choice.

                    

    Statistics current through the start of play Feb. 27.

    Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.