Ranking the 25 Best Players in the 2018 NCAA Tournament
The abundance of quality players in college basketball this season means this list is probably going to upset a lot of people. The omissions were tough.
Nevada's Caleb Martin, Duke's Grayson Allen, Michigan's Moritz Wagner, Purdue's Vincent Edwards, Houston's Rob Gray and Gonzaga's Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie are all good enough to carry their teams into the second weekend. None of them made the list.
Michigan State's Jaren Jackson Jr. and Mo Bamba of Texas are super talented and will be lottery picks. They did not make this list. With Bamba, his toe injury and the fact that he might not be his best self over the next few weeks were taken into consideration.
This is a current look at the players who have the potential to be the best and most impactful over the next few weeks. Heavy emphasis was put on season-long production. Talent matters, but someone like Missouri's Michael Porter Jr. didn't make the cut because he likely isn't ready to make a huge impact after sitting out all year.
So apologies for not including your favorite player on your favorite team. You probably have a valid argument for his inclusion. But this might be one of the most difficult years to limit this list to just 25.
Editor's note: All advanced stats, unless otherwise noted, come from KenPom.com.
25. Tra Holder, Arizona State
Arizona State's Tra Holder got off to a blazing start this season, as did the Sun Devils, who were the last undefeated team in the country.
Holder and ASU cooled off a bit once conference play started, but he's still one of the most electric guards in the country when he's cooking. Holder is crafty off the bounce and does a good job at getting to the free-throw line. He's also improved his jumper and is shooting a career-best 37.4 percent from deep.
Bobby Hurley puts a lot of shooters on the floor, and that gives Holder space to work. While the Sun Devils limped into the tourney and struggled in the Pac-12, they could be a dangerous team playing against unfamiliar opponents again.
24. Joel Berry, North Carolina
Joel Berry has not been as efficient this season having to take on more of a scoring role, but North Carolina has to feel pretty good with him running the show entering March. This is a guy who was arguably the most valuable player on teams that made two straight national title games.
Berry is not as gifted as some of the other top point guards in the country, but he's smart, and he knows what it takes to win in March…and April.
23. Luke Maye, North Carolina
If you could go back in time and show this list to someone a year ago, they'd probably think including Luke Maye was a joke. Maye was a solid contributor a year ago, but no one would have predicted he'd turn into a star. But that's what he's done as a junior, and the Tar Heels have a chance to make a third straight Final Four because of it.
Maye has thrived as an inside-outside threat, and he's been a double-double machine, averaging 17.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.
22. Landry Shamet, Wichita State
Landry Shamet learned behind Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, and now Shamet is the tough-as-nails point guard leading the Shockers.
Shamet made a name for himself a year ago in a close loss to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament. This year he’s improved his game and is one of the most consistent shooters in the country, knocking down 45.5 percent of his threes. Similar to VanVleet and Baker, he has a great feel for the game and is a big reason why the Shockers have their best offensive team ever: They rank fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency.
21. Devon Hall, Virginia
Devon Hall is the latest example of the power of Tony Bennett's coaching and player development. Hall was a fringe rotation player as a freshman, and now he's likely going to make it in the NBA as an ace defender who can knock down the three—he's shooting 44.3 percent from deep this season after making only five treys as a freshman.
Kyle Guy is a better scorer, and Isaiah Wilkins is Virginia's best defender, but Hall is the best all-around player on the roster.
20. Kelan Martin, Butler
Former Michigan assistant LaVall Jordan has unleashed Kelan Martin as a small-ball power forward. Jordan learned from John Beilein the power of playing a slightly undersized player at that spot—think Glenn Robinson III. Martin has always been a good scorer, but he’s turned into a problem for opposing teams this season, averaging 20.8 points per game.
Martin struggled shooting the ball early in the season, but he heated up in Big East play, knocking down 42.6 percent of his threes in conference games.
19. Allonzo Trier, Arizona
It speaks to the quality of this season's college basketball players that a guy averaging 18.7 points with a true shooting percentage of 66.7 is this low on the list.
Allonzo Trier has always been a great scorer, but he's more dangerous than ever this season after improving his long-range jumper. He's made 69 threes after knocking down only 34 last season and has done so at a 39.2 percent clip.
18. Marcus Foster, Creighton
Marcus Foster has one of the best redemption stories in college basketball. He was a great scorer as a freshman at Kansas State, but he let success go to his head and was eventually dismissed from the team. But Foster has resurfaced at Creighton as one of the top true scorers in college hoops.
He was great last year at Creighton, but he’s evolved his game this year to be a more complete player on both ends, and he’s taking better shots, which has upped his efficiency. Foster averages 20.3 points per game and knocks down 42.2 percent of his threes. He found a perfect home at Creighton in Greg McDermott’s "let it fly" uptempo system.
17. Khyri Thomas, Creighton
Khyri Thomas was an unknown a few years ago, and now he's considered a first-round prospect as a three-and-D wing. Thomas, the Big East's Defensive Player of the Year, is usually able to take away the other team's best perimeter scorer. His length (a 6'10" wingspan at only 6'3") and defensive instincts make him really special on that end.
Thomas has also improved this season as a scorer. He averages 15.3 points per game and shoots 41.9 percent from deep. He and Marcus Foster make up the best 2-3 combo in college hoops.
16. Aaron Holiday, UCLA
Somehow a star UCLA guard is underappreciated.
That's the case for Aaron Holiday, who has carried an inexperienced UCLA roster into the NCAA tournament. The junior point guard is a bulldog who lives for big moments. He's averaging 20.3 points per game and has shot 43.3 percent from deep. Try to take away his jumper, and he'll blow by you off the bounce. He's also averaged 5.9 assists per game. Deandre Ayton won Pac-12 Player of the Year, and deservedly so, but Holiday was so good that it was at least worth having a debate.
15. Keenan Evans, Texas Tech
A late-season toe injury slowed Keenan Evans and Texas Tech down, but he was back looking like himself again at the Big 12 tournament.
Before Evans' injury, the Red Raiders were 22-4 and in first place in the Big 12. That gives you an idea of how good they are when he's right. Evans has made a habit of nailing big shots, and he has a great feel for how to get his looks in Chris Beard's motion offense. He averages 17.5 points per game, and when he scores 20 or more points, Texas Tech is 11-1.
14. Jevon Carter, West Virginia
Jevon Carter is one of those players who has been around forever. The West Virginia senior guard is a bully on the defensive end and makes life hell for opposing point guards. He average 2.9 steals per game in WVU's full-court press.
Carter is also a reliable scorer who can take and make tough shots. He's averaging 17.0 points and 6.5 assists, and he'll go down as a Mountaineer legend who took the program to another level. As a three-year starter, he's helped lead the Mountaineers to four straight NCAA tournaments, and they've been a fifth seed or better every year.
13. Mike Daum, South Dakota State
First, read the story of the man they call the Dauminator.
That might just be the best nickname in college hoops, and Mike Daum might just be the best shooter. And he's a 6'9" center.
Daum averages 23.8 points per game and knocks down 42.1 percent of his threes. He's also got some old-man trickery with up-fakes and other clever tactics to get his looks. Do yourself a favor and tune in to South Dakota State's first-round game to watch the Dauminator get buckets.
12. Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure
It would be great if the Bonnies could go on a run so everyone in the country gets to see how good Jaylen Adams is. He's one of the more underrated guys in the country just because it's not often a nationwide audience gets to see St. Bonaventure in action.
Adams averages 19.8 points and 5.3 assists per game and shoots a ridiculous 46.5 percent from deep. If you're looking for a good mid-major team to ride to the Sweet 16 in your bracket, he makes St. Bonaventure an attractive choice.
11. Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
Trevon Bluiett carried the Musketeers to the Elite Eight last year, and the old gunner is one of the best true scorers in the country.
Bluiett is savvy moving without the ball, and he has a quick release and can shoot from way out. He's made 42.3 percent of his threes this season, and that number is really impressive when you consider the difficulty of shots he's sometimes taking. He also does a good job getting to the free-throw line, drawing 5.2 fouls per 40 minutes, and he cashes in by shooting 86.1 percent at the line.
10. Carsen Edwards, Purdue
Carsen Edwards is one of the most fun bucket-getters to watch in college basketball. The dude has a ton of confidence, and he lets that swagger show.
He's a good shooter, so defenders have to respect his shot and play him tight. But when you do that, he can blow by and finish with authority at the rim. And often with his left hand. As a 6'1" right-handed player, you just don't see anyone else doing that.
The Boilermakers have the goods to get to the Final Four, and Edwards' performance is probably the most important element to their chances.
9. Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Miles Bridges hasn't lived up to the expectations that were placed on him when he turned down the chance to be a lottery pick and returned to school. Most had him as a National Player of the Year favorite coming into the season. Though he hasn't risen to that level, he's still been pretty darn good, filling up the stat sheet with 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.
His combination of size and athleticism makes him difficult for opposing players to handle. Sometimes he's a little too reliant on perimeter jumpers, especially with his size, but he's shot the ball decently (36.9 percent from three) and hit some huge shots, including the game-winner back on Feb. 10 against Purdue.
8. Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State
Bleacher Report's pick for the Most Improved Player in college hoops is a big reason why Ohio State made the NCAA tournament after going just 7-11 in the Big Ten last season.
Bates-Diop is averaging 19.4 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. His midrange game, almost a lost art in basketball, makes him a tough cover. He also has a high release on his jumper, and at 6'7", he can usually get his shot off just about whenever he wants.
7. Collin Sexton, Alabama
Collin Sexton played Alabama into the NCAA tournament with an unbelievable run in the SEC tourney.
Sexton is one of the few players in college basketball who can take over a game by himself, and there’s not much the defense can do about it. The dude nearly brought Alabama back in a 3-on-5 setting against Minnesota back in November. His jumper has been inconsistent, but when he’s making outside shots, the Crimson Tide are a scary, scary matchup. Just ask SEC conference champion Auburn.
6. Trae Young, Oklahoma
Trae Young has come back to earth over the last month, but he's still the scariest scorer in college basketball when he's flowing. His limitless range and creativity off the bounce, as well as his ability to find teammates if you try to cheat and double him, makes him unguardable. But that's come with a qualifier—when he's hitting shots.
When he's not, Young can still be effective as a playmaker. But the Sooners are so reliant on his scoring that he needs to hit shots for them to be effective, mainly because they're just not a very good defensive squad.
5. Devonte' Graham, Kansas
Devonte' Graham is so important to Kansas that Bill Self did not take him off the floor in 12 conference games. Graham is a fantastic leader, bringing intangibles that don't show up in the box score.
What does show up in the box score is he's one of the best true point guards in the country, averaging 17.3 points and 7.3 assists per game while knocking down 41.1 percent of his threes. That's an impressive percentage considering, unlike last season, he isn't alongside another playmaker like Frank Mason who can set him up. Graham is that one guy for Kansas, and he's done a remarkable job putting the super-thin Jayhawks in the position they're in entering the tourney.
4. Mikal Bridges, Villanova
Mikal Bridges is the best two-way wing in college basketball. He’s turned himself into a scorer at Villanova, improving his jumper (a 42.9 percent three-point shooter) and averaging a career-best 17.8 points per game this season.
Defensively, his quickness and length make him an extremely valuable stopper. He can get beat and recover. Go back and watch the final play of regulation at Creighton. Marcus Foster got by him and had a layup for the win that Bridges erased. He leads the Wildcats in steals (1.6 per game) and is second in blocks (1.1).
3. Marvin Bagley, Duke
His grandpa's nickname was "Pogo" Joe Caldwell, and he inherited the Pogo.
Marvin Bagley operates in a different altitude than just about everyone else in college basketball. That spring allows him to average 21.1 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.
Bagley also handles the ball well for his position, and that makes him a tough matchup if you try to throw size at him. Put a smaller, quicker defender on him, and he just rises over those guys. He's not as good of a shooter as Mike Krzyzewski is used to having at the power forward spot, but he's been better than expected, knocking down 37.0 percent of his threes.
The ultimate testament to his talent? Bagley and Wendell Carter have been so good that the Blue Devils have changed their style to play more inside out.
2. Deandre Ayton, Arizona
Deandre Ayton has the most intimidating physique in college basketball, and he has the game to match. There hasn't been a freshman center this good since…struggling to come up with anyone…let's go Tim Duncan.
Everyone expected Ayton to be a monster, but not this good. He averages 19.9 points per game on 61.2 percent shooting, and his numbers would probably be even more impressive if Arizona had better guard play. He also grabs 11.3 rebounds per game, meaning you can just go ahead and bank on him putting up a double-double nightly.
His defense is the only reason he's not No. 1 on this list. He hasn't been great on that end, but he's also had to play out of position much of the time at power forward. Offensively, he can score with his back to the basket and is also a better shooter than you'd think for someone built like that. Just unfair.
1. Jalen Brunson, Villanova
It feels like Jalen Brunson has been in college forever, and he's only a junior.
Brunson has the basketball IQ of an NBA veteran. It helps that he plays for Jay Wright—his guys are always well-schooled. His father, Rick Brunson, who was an NBA journeyman, has taught him the game well.
Brunson is a solid defender and one of the most efficient scorers in the country. His 130.0 offensive rating is tops among players who use at least 24 percent of their team's possessions. He gets where he wants on the floor and finishes. In crunch time, there's not a player in the country I'd trust more, and that's why B/R's National Player of the Year is the pick here as the best player in the 2018 NCAA tournament.