Ranking the 25 Best Players in the 2019 NCAA Tournament

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 18, 2019

Ranking the 25 Best Players in the 2019 NCAA Tournament

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    The men's NCAA tournament bracket is set. Millions of people will spend hours studying the favorites, looking at stats and trying to identify the biggest upsets of March Madness.

    But it all starts with the players.

    You never know when a single star can become a postseason legend. Stephen Curry announced his Baby-Faced Assassin-ry and carried Davidson to the Elite Eight in 2008, and Kemba Walker put 2011 UConn on his back to win a national title.

    Whether you're a die-hard fan of a specific program or you simply enjoy the excitement of the NCAA tournament, you might not be familiar with all of the most talented and productive players in the 68-team field. Bleacher Report has you covered with our top 25.

    The order is subjective based on cooperative ranking between national writers Kerry Miller and David Kenyon. While numerical output is considered and highlighted, other factors include team success, competition level, individual efficiency and role.

25-21. Dylan Windler – CJ Massinburg

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    25. Dylan Windler, Belmont

    If not for Ja Morant, there is zero doubt Dylan Windler would've been the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year. The sweet-shooting big man boasts a 54.8 field-goal rate with a 43.0 percent mark from long distance. Windler has amassed 21.4 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game.

               

    24. Tremont Waters, LSU

    Tremont Waters is a dynamic offensive weapon with LSU-leading averages of 15.1 points and 5.9 assists. His three steals per game also earned SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors. The sophomore shouldered more backcourt responsibilities for the Tigers in Javonte Smart's absence. 

          

    23. Cam Johnson, North Carolina

    In a word: shooter. Through the regular season, per Zach Milner of The Stepien, Cam Johnson ranked in the 98th percentile on catch-and-shoot opportunities. Overall, he's knocked down 51.1 percent of his shots with a 46.9 three-point clip and team-best 16.8 points per game.

             

    22. Ty Jerome, Virginia

    Ty Jerome is the straw that stirs Virginia's drink. Averaging a team-high 5.4 assists and 1.5 steals, the point guard is essential to UVA's success on both ends. Jerome, who also shoots 39.7 percent from long distance, has 13.0 points per game.

             

    21. CJ Massinburg, Buffalo

    Buffalo's upperclassman-heavy roster is back for more. Last year, the Bulls upset Arizona in the first round. However, the CJ Massinburg-led team won't be overlooked this time around; Buffalo has been ranked in every AP poll except for the preseason edition. Massinburg has accumulated 18.3 points with a 39.6 three-point mark, adding 6.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.2 steals per game.

20-16. Jordan Bone – Zavier Simpson

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    20. Jordan Bone, Tennessee

    After averaging 7.2 and 7.3 points in his first two seasons, Jordan Bone has performed at a significantly higher level in 2018-19. He's provided 13.5 points and 6.2 assists per game, helping Tennessee put together one of its best seasons in history.

               

    19. Keldon Johnson, Kentucky

    Keldon Johnson's production can vary, given his nine contests below 10 points. But the freshman is always a threat to attack the rim, and he's a respectable three-point weapon. Johnson has knocked down 38.8 percent of his trifectas while scoring 13.5 per game.

           

    18. Fletcher Magee, Wofford

    Since 1992-93, per Sports-Reference, only Terrence Woods (2002-03, Florida A&M) and Stephen Curry (2007-08, Davidson) have buried a higher percentage of threes than Fletcher Magee while attempting 10-plus per game. The senior boasts a 43.2 long-range clip, tallying 20.5 points per game for the SoCon champs. Magee needs only three triples to set the Division I career record.

             

    17. Jordan Caroline, Nevada

    In each of the last three seasons, Jordan Caroline earned All-Mountain West honors. Not bad for someone who spent his freshman year at Southern Illinois. Caroline has collected 17.3 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists as a senior.

             

    16. Zavier Simpson, Michigan

    Michigan's star guard is also B/R's Defensive Player of the Year. Simpson has posted career-high averages of 9.3 points, 6.5 assists and 1.5 steals this season, and his defensive impact will be critical if the Wolverines are to survive and advance.

15-11. Coby White – Cassius Winston

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    15. Coby White, North Carolina

    Fellow freshman Nassir Little was a higher-rated recruit, but Coby White is the first-year superstar in Chapel Hill. The dynamic guard has gathered 16.3 points and 4.2 assists per game, also setting a UNC freshman record with 76 threes so far.

               

    14. Carsen Edwards, Purdue

    Purdue lost four starters from a Sweet 16 team. That would normally lead to a rebuilding year, but Carsen Edwards instead put the Boilermakers on his back. The junior has notched 23.0 points, 3.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game while carrying a revamped Purdue rotation to a shared Big Ten regular-season title.

           

    13. Dedric Lawson, Kansas

    The Memphis transfer has amassed 19.1 points and 10.3 rebounds per game in his first year of eligibility at Kansas. However, the Jayhawks need more. They'll be without Lagerald Vick, Udoka Azubuike and Silvio De Sousa for March Madness, so Lawson's importance to Kansas' success cannot be overstated.

             

    12. Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech

    Similar to Edwards at Purdue, Jarrett Culver has allowed a retooled roster to remain a contender. He played the leading role for Texas Tech in ending Kansas' streak of 14 regular-season Big 12 titles, averaging 18.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists. 

             

    11. Cassius Winston, Michigan State

    The Big Ten Player of the Year, Cassius Winston is the quietest offensive superstar in the nation. He ranks second nationally in 10.0 offensive box plus/minus, per Sports-Reference, providing 19.0 points and 7.5 assists per game for the co-Big Ten champs.

10. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin

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    Ethan Happ is a unique superstar.

    "I've never seen anything like him," Michigan coach John Beilein said, according to James Hawkins of The Detroit News.

    Post players so rarely showcase this level of versatility. The senior forward is averaging 17.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals per game. He's posted 21 double-doubles, tied for the third-most nationally, per Sports-Reference.

    Wisconsin's lack of a playmaker on the perimeter will put extra pressure on Happ to facilitate the offense in key moments.

9. Markus Howard, Marquette

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    Marquette is slumping at the worst time, but the mere presence of Markus Howard provides enough hope for the NCAA tournament.

    The junior guard has poured in 25.0 points per game, ranking sixth nationally. He's connected on a scorching 40.8 percent of his three-point attempts while hoisting 8.6 per game.

    Howard also averages four assists and four rebounds for the Golden Eagles and was recently named the Big East Player of the Year. But if he's struggling to knock down shots, Marquette will be at a particularly high risk of an early-round exit.

8. Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga

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    Rui Hachimura didn't arrive to Gonzaga as a superstar, but the junior forward has steadily developed into exactly that.

    "Every year he's been there, his game has expanded," an anonymous coach told Sam Vecenie of The Athletic. "Last year, we played him as a guy who couldn't shoot. This year, we respected him on the perimeter as well as a guy who can score at the basket. Every year, he's gotten better. I think he's going to keep getting better."

    In his first season as a full-time starter, Hachimura was the West Coast Conference Player of the Year. He's averaging 20.1 points on 60.9 percent shooting with 6.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists, too.

    And he's not Gonzaga's only potential All-American.

7. De'Andre Hunter, Virginia

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    De'Andre Hunter couldn't do anything about Virginia's historic loss to 16th-seeded UMBC last year. A broken wrist sidelined him, and the potential NBA lottery pick didn't want his college career to end like that.

    "I wanted to come back," he told Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer. "I really didn't like the way our season ended, and I knew if I stayed another year we would have a chance to come back to the tournament and change that."

    That moment has arrived.

    Hunter helped Virginia share the ACC's regular-season title, averaging 15.1 points and 5.0 rebounds. He's knocked down 45.7 percent of his trifectas, too.

6. Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga

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    Brandon Clarke's presence is unmistakable. Not only does he swat 3.0 shots per game, but the San Jose State transfer also alters several more each night while providing a double-double with regularity.

    During a February clash with league foe San Francisco, Clarke racked up 20 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks.

    "He was phenomenal," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after the performance, per Nicholas K. Geranios of the Associated Press. "He's athletic. He's quick. He's strong, skilled."

    Overall, he's averaged 16.5 points and 8.4 rebounds, along with the three blocks. Clarke won both Defensive Player and Newcomer of the Year honors in the West Coast Conference.

5. PJ Washington, Kentucky

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    PJ Washington was a 5-star recruit who didn't live up to that billing. It's amazing what a difference one year can make.

    Last season, he averaged 10.8 points while shooting 51.9 percent overall, but only 23.8 behind the arc and 60.6 at the free-throw line. Washington declared for the NBA draft but ultimately decided to return, and it's proved to be a wise decision.

    The sophomore has improved dramatically, becoming a three-point threat and more reliable free-throw shooter. Those percentages have climbed to 41.9 and 67.5, respectively, helping Washington increase his scoring average to 14.8 points.

    B/R named Washington the Most Improved Player in the country.

4. RJ Barrett, Duke

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    RJ Barrett is rewriting the record books.

    Even before the ACC tournament began, he'd broken Duke and ACC records for total points and 20-point games by a freshman. No playerin any classhas ever scored more in a season at Cameron Indoor Stadium than Barrett and his 402.

    After lifting his season total to 779 in the ACC tournament, Barrett now has a shot at joining the 900 club if Duke makes a deep run. Only two freshmenChris Jackson (LSU, 1988-89) and Kevin Durant (Texas, 2006-07) have ever accomplished it.

    Barring a major surprise, Barrett will be one of two unanimous All-Americans for Duke this season.

3. Grant Williams, Tennessee

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    Once is good. Twice is better.

    After guiding Tennessee to a 27-4 regular-season record and second-place finish in the conference, Grant Williams won his second straight SEC Player of the Year honor.

    Williams has established himself as a dominant force inside the arc, hitting 59.3 percent of his two-point shots. He's posted a career-high 19.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game this season.

    Along with Bone and Admiral Schofield, Williams is hoping to guide the program to its first-ever Final Four appearance.

2. Ja Morant, Murray State

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    Despite holding a 26-4 record entering the Ohio Valley tournament final, Murray State couldn't afford a loss. Had the Racers fallen, they might not have received an at-large bid to March Madness.

    Ja Morant made sure it didn't matter.

    The explosive point guard shredded Belmont for 36 points, including eight straight during a late run that gave Murray State the lead for good. But that was nothing new for Morant. All season long, he's taken over games and carried the Racers.

    Entering the NCAA tournament, the sophomore ranks eighth nationally with 24.6 points per game and is the only player averaging at least six assists. Morant has dished an even 10 per game.

    Don't miss Morant in the Big Dance.

1. Zion Williamson, Duke

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    It couldn't be anyone else.

    Zion Williamson has an electrifying skill set and an unparalleled physical stature. Even after a knee injury, the 6'7", 285-pound forward is the ACC Player of the Year and front-runner for the national award.

    Williamson returned for the ACC tournament following a six-game absence. He helped Duke take home the championship and enters the NCAA tournament with averages of 22.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 2.1 assists and 1.8 blocks.

    Williamson will likely be the No. 1 overall choice in the 2019 NBA draft. But first, he'll try to win a national title.