Ja Morant and Surefire March Madness Megastars to Watch in Conference Tourneys

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 8, 2019

Ja Morant and Surefire March Madness Megastars to Watch in Conference Tourneys

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Ja Morant has a chance to take the NCAA tournament by storm, provided the Murray State Racers can find their way into the 68-team field.

    He's not the only college basketball megastar looking to make a splash this month.

    Each year, a handful of players rise above the rest and take the sport by storm with huge March Madness performances.

    In honor of the start of conference tournaments, we've selected one star from each major conference and two mid-major standouts—10 players in total—to keep an eye on during conference tourneys and into the Big Dance.

AAC Tournament: Jarron Cumberland, Cincinnati

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Stats: 18.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 3.6 APG, 40.4 3PT%

    High Game: 34 points (Jan. 15 vs. South Florida)

    A staunch defense has been the calling card for Mick Cronin during his 13 seasons as Cincinnati's head coach.

    But not since Sean Kilpatrick averaged 20.6 points per game to earn First Team All-American honors during the 2013-14 season have the Bearcats had an offensive player like Jarron Cumberland.

    The 6'5" junior averaged 11.5 points per game last season while shooting 33.9 percent from beyond the arc. With Jacob Evans and Gary Clark both moving on to the pros from last year's 31-win team, he's become the team's go-to scorer.

    He's improved his outside shooting dramatically, knocking down 69 threes at a 40.4 percent clip, and that's helped open up his offensive game.

    Cincinnati still hangs its hat on its defense, but it now has an offensive threat capable of taking over a game.

Atlantic 10 Tournament: Jon Axel Gudmundsson

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Stats: 17.0 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 4.7 APG, 35.5 3PT%

    High Game: 33 points (Nov. 15 vs. Wichita State)

    Jon Axel Gudmundsson was a freshman starter during the 2016-17 season when the high-scoring tandem of Jack Gibbs (22.1 ppg) and Peyton Aldridge (20.5 ppg) led the Davidson attack.

    It looked like top-100 freshman Kellan Grady would be the next to take a star turn for the Wildcats when he averaged 18.0 points per game last season. He's been equally impressive this season, scoring at a 17.1-point clip, but Gudmundsson is the team's best player.

    The 6'5" junior from Iceland is fourth in the A-10 in scoring, fifth in rebounding and fifth in assists, and he's added 38 steals on the defensive end.

    At 22-8 with a NET ranking of 69, Davidson will likely need to win its conference tournament to be part of the Big Dance. A good VCU team represents the Wildcats' biggest hurdle, while Dayton is also tough.

    If they can find a way to come out on top, Gudmundsson could become a household name.

ACC Tournament: RJ Barrett, Duke

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    Chris Seward/Associated Press

    Stats: 23.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 4.2 APG, 31.2 3PT%

    High Game: 33 points (Nov. 6 vs. Kentucky, Feb. 20 vs. North Carolina)

    It sounds like injured Duke star Zion Williamson could play in the ACC tournament, despite the fact that he still hasn't returned from a scary knee injury.

    "I don't think he'll be ready for Saturday," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski told C.L. Brown of The Athletic of the Blue Devils' matchup with North Carolina. "I have to be careful not to push this. I'd be surprised if he's not ready by the ACC tournament."

    In his absence, fellow freshman phenom RJ Barrett is averaging 26.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists and a whopping 38 minutes per game.

    The Blue Devils have other players capable of helping to fill the Williamson-sized void. Wing Cam Reddish is also a projected lottery pick, and point guard Tre Jones has played his way into the first-round discussion.

    There's no question Barrett is the star of the show, though, and as Duke chases a No. 1 seed, he could be gearing up for a big ACC tournament performance.

Big East Tournament: Markus Howard, Marquette

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Stats: 24.9 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 4.0 APG, 42.1 3PT%

    High Game: 53 (Jan. 9 vs. Creighton)

    Not many college basketball players are capable of going off for a 53-point game.

    Marquette's Markus Howard is a threat to do it every time he steps onto the floor.

    Aside from his explosion against Creighton where he knocked down 10 threes in 14 attempts, he also has a pair of 45-point games against tournament-bound teams in Kansas State and Buffalo.

    Seton Hall locked him up Wednesday, holding Howard to six points on 2-of-11 shooting.

    Despite that lackluster performance, he's still averaging 24.9 points per game, which is good for fifth in the nation and tops among major conference players.

    This is the best Marquette team since the 2012-13 Vander Blue-led squad nabbed a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. That should give Howard a chance to showcase his talents on the national stage beyond the opening weekend.

Big Ten Tournament: Carsen Edwards, Purdue

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Stats: 23.4 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3.0 APG, 34.2 3PT%

    High Game: 40 points (Dec. 9 vs. Texas)

    Purdue was picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten Conference standings in the unofficial preseason media poll, and the Boilermakers began the season No. 24 in the AP rankings.

    It's fair to say they've exceeded expectations, as the latest Bracket Matrix projects them for a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.

    While the overall team performance has been a bit of a surprise, no one is shocked that Carsen Edwards is leading the way for the Boilermakers.

    The 6'1" guard had a big sophomore season a year ago, averaging 18.5 points per game on 40.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc. After testing the NBA draft waters, he decided to return for his junior season, and Big Ten Player of the Year honors and a deep tournament run could be his reward.

    His 23.4 points per game make him the conference leader by a wide margin ahead of Penn State's Lamar Stevens (19.9), Nebraska's James Palmer Jr. (18.9) and Michigan State's Cassius Winston (18.8).

Big 12 Tournament: Dedric Lawson, Kansas

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    Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    Stats: 19.0 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 1.8 APG, 36.5 3PT%

    High Game: 31 (Jan. 9 vs. TCU)

    With a disappointing season from 5-star freshman Quentin Grimes and a bumpy senior season from Lagerald Vick, Kansas has relied even more heavily than expected on standout transfer Dedric Lawson.

    After a sophomore year at Memphis in which he averaged 19.2 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, Lawson sat out last season while waiting to become eligible.

    He kicked off his Jayhawks career with a bang, tallying 20 points, 14 rebounds and six assists against Michigan State in the Champions Classic. That was the first of 19 double-doubles he's posted this season, as he leads the Big 12 and ranks 11th in the nation with 10.5 boards per contest.

    Aside from his polished inside game, the 6'9" forward has also become more of a deep threat. After he shot 27.0 percent from long range during his final season at Memphis, he's up to 36.5 percent this year with 27 makes.

    If Kansas is going to salvage what's been a disappointing season, Lawson will play a major role.

Pac-12 Tournament: Luguentz Dort, Arizona State

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    David Becker/Getty Images

    Stats: 16.2 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 2.4 APG, 30.6 3PT%

    High Game: 33 (Nov. 21 vs. Utah State)

    To say it's a down year for the Pac-12 would be a massive understatement.

    The current Bracket Matrix has Washington (No. 8 seed) and Arizona State (No. 12 seed) as the conference's only two representatives in the projected NCAA tournament field.

    That doesn't take anything away from what freshman Luguentz Dort is doing for the Sun Devils.

    A 4-star recruit who ranked No. 30 overall in the 2018 class, Dort has outperformed a number of first-year players ranked above him.

    That said, the 6'4" guard has gone through some ups and downs this year:

    • First 8 games: 22.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 44.0 FG%, 34.0 3PT%
    • Next 12 games: 12.0 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 33.8 FG%, 22.6 3PT%
    • Last 9 games: 16.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 44.8 FG%, 36.2 3PT%

    If he can carry his recent momentum into the Pac-12 tournament and the Sun Devils can punch their ticket, he could be ready for a star turn during March Madness.

SEC Tournament: Grant Williams, Tennessee

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Stats: 19.1 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.3 APG, 34.2 3PT%

    High Game: 43 points (Jan. 23 vs. Vanderbilt)

    Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield have both taken a step forward this season for a Tennessee team that's firmly in the mix for a No. 1 seed.

    Williams is the reigning SEC Player of the Year but has better numbers across the board this season—both in terms of production and efficiency:

    • 2017-18: 15.2 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.9 APG, 47.3 FG%, 12.0 3PT%
    • 2017-19: 19.1 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.3 APG, 56.5 FG%, 34.2 3PT%

    He does a great job of getting to the free-throw line, where he's an 83 percent shooter. In his 43-point outburst against Vanderbilt earlier this year, he was a perfect 23-of-23 at the charity stripe.

    The 6'7" forward doesn't need to do it alone with a talented roster around him.

    That said, it's worth noting that Williams was held under 20 points in each of the Volunteers' three losses this season.

Mid-Major (Ohio Valley Tournament): Ja Morant, Murray State

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Stats: 24.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 10.3 APG, 34.0 3PT%

    High Game: 40 (Jan. 19 vs. SIU-Edwardsville)

    Most college basketball fans know who Ja Morant is, and that's just as true of NBA fans who are anxiously awaiting his arrival as a projected top-five pick in this year's draft.

    However, not everyone has had a chance to see the Murray State star play this year. After all, the Ohio Valley Conference gets limited national exposure.

    The NCAA tournament would be his chance to put his elite talent on display for a national audience.

    First, the Racers need to get in, and that's far from a foregone conclusion.

    A really good Belmont team stands in their way in the OVC tournament, and if they can't secure the automatic bid, they don't have the resume for an at-large bid.

    It would be a real shame if Morant, who is averaging a double-double with assists, didn't get an opportunity to play on the big stage.

    If he does get that chance, he's the kind of player who's capable of putting a team on his shoulders. Think Wally Szczerbiak at Miami (Ohio) in the late '90s.

Mid-Major (Southern Conference Tournament): Fletcher Magee, Wofford

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Stats: 20.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.6 APG, 42.8 3PT%

    High Game: 36 (March 2 vs. Samford)

    Morant has far and away the most NBA upside of any mid-major player.

    However, the best mid-major player in the country is Wofford sharp-shooter Fletcher Magee.

    The 6'4" senior leads the nation with 139 made three-pointers, and he's buried them at a blistering 42.8 percent rate.

    His scoring is actually down from the 22.1 points per game he averaged last season—when he took home Southern Conference Player of the Year.

    With 2,427 career points, Magee is third all-time on the SoCon scoring list, trailing only Stephen Curry (2,635) and Andrew Goudelock (2,571).

    Wofford has been one of the best stories of the 2018-19 season. With a 26-4 overall record and an undefeated run in conference play, the Terriers are projected for a No. 7 seed in the Bracket Matrix.

    If they can make it out of the first weekend, Magee could be the breakout star of the entire tournament.


    All stats courtesy of Sports Reference, unless otherwise noted, and accurate through March 7. Recruit rankings courtesy of 247Sports.