NCAA Men's Tournament 2019: Ranking the Top Performers Through the 1st Round

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistMarch 23, 2019

NCAA Men's Tournament 2019: Ranking the Top Performers Through the 1st Round

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    Lance King/Getty Images

    The first round of the 2019 NCAA men's basketball tournament is in the books, and there was no shortage of memorable performances across Thursday's and Friday's games.

    The biggest stars (Duke's Zion Williamson, Texas Tech's Jarrett Culver, Gonzaga's Rui Hachimura) showed out, and there were plenty of upsets as well. Three of the four No. 12 seeds beat their No. 5-seeded opponents, and the No. 13 UC Irvine Anteaters took down the No. 4 Kansas State Wildcats.

    Ahead of the round of 32, it's worth looking back at the best performances of the first round. With apologies to good performances from Belmont's Dylan Windler (35 points, 11 rebounds), Colgate's Jordan Burns (32 points) and Arizona State's Zylan Cheatham (22 points, eight rebounds, three assists), only players on winning teams were considered for these rankings.

    Here are the 10 players whose performances Thursday and Friday will be remembered.

10. Carsen Edwards, Purdue

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    Jessica Hill/Associated Press

    By the numbers: Carsen Edwards played a strong all-around game, leading all scorers with 26 points. He hit four three-pointers, grabbed seven rebounds, dished four assists and had two steals as the No. 3 Purdue Boilermakers easily beat the No. 14 Old Dominion Monarchs in the South Region.

    Buzz factor: Edwards had been plagued by a shooting slump leading up the tournament, raising questions about whether the Boilermakers were potential early-round upset victims. Edwards wasn't particularly efficient, shooting just 7-of-23 from the field, but he did everything for Purdue and helped his team take care of business without much difficulty.

    Why he's here: Because of his shooting struggles, Edwards was among the biggest wild cards on any of the high-seeded teams heading into the tournament. He didn't entirely put those doubts to rest Thursday, but he did enough to earn the Boilermakers a spot in the round of 32.

9. Payton Pritchard, Oregon

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    By the numbers: Payton Pritchard led all scorers with 19 points along with eight assists, five rebounds and two steals as the No. 12 Oregon Ducks upset the No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers 72-54 in the South Region.

    Buzz factor: The Ducks were the second of three No. 12 seeds to upset a No. 5 seed, coming on the heels of Murray State's Thursday victory over Marquette in the West Region.

    Why he's here: Not only did Oregon upset a higher seed, but the Ducks also blew out the Badgers. Pritchard controlled the offense the whole way, setting up teammates in addition to his own strong scoring performance.

8. De'Andre Hunter, Virginia

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    Associated Press

    By the numbers: De'Andre Hunter's 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting and six rebounds helped lead the No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers past the No. 16 Gardner-Webb Bulldogs 71-56 in the South Region on Friday.

    Buzz factor: Hunter hasn't received quite as much national buzz as other prospects, but the sophomore guard is a projected top-10 NBA draft pick who did nothing to hurt that status in the opening game of the tournament.

    Why he's here: Last season, UVA made the wrong kind of NCAA tournament history, becoming the first No. 1 seed in the men's competition to lose to a No. 16 seed, when the team fell to the UMBC Retrievers. Hunter's all-around solid performance was enough to ensure that did not happen again.

7. Cassius Winston, Michigan State

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    By the numbers: Cassius Winston had a game-high 26 points on 8-of-17 shooting along with three rebounds and four assists as the No. 2 Michigan State Spartans survived a challenge from the No. 15 Bradley Braves in the East Region, pulling out a 76-65 victory to advance to the round of 32.

    Buzz factor: Until the final five minutes of the game, it seemed like there was a real chance Bradley would pull off the most shocking upset of the tournament thus far. It wouldn't have been like the No. 16 UMBC Retrievers' upset of the No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers in 2018, but it would have been close.

    Why he's here: Winston made sure that upset didn't happen, putting the Spartans on his back to pull away at the end.

6. Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    By the numbers: Rui Hachimura scored 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting and recorded eight rebounds as the No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs blew out the No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson Knights 87-49 in the West Region.

    Buzz factor: Hachimura is the reigning West Coast Conference Player of the Year, and Gonzaga entered the tournament as one of the most dangerous teams in the country. Both lived up to the billing.

    Why he's here: A player of Hachimura's stature is supposed to take care of business, especially in the first round of the tournament against a much lesser opponent. That's what he and the Bulldogs did, and they easily advanced to the round of 32.

5. Dedric Lawson, Kansas

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    By the numbers: Dedric Lawson had a game-high 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting, including 3-of-5 from three-point range, and put up 11 rebounds, a steal and a block as the No. 4 Kansas Jayhawks routed the No. 13 Northeastern Huskies 87-53 in the Midwest Region.

    Buzz factor: Lawson lived up to his status as a preseason All-American with an all-around dominant night to help the Jayhawks advance.

    Why he's here: Lawson showed off all facets of his game Thursday, hitting outside shots, scoring inside, dominating the glass and playing physical defense. He did it all for the Jayhawks.

4. Caleb Homesley, Liberty

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    By the numbers: Caleb Homesley exploded for 30 points on 10-of-16 shooting and hit five three-pointers to go along with his four rebounds as the No. 12 Liberty Flames stunned the No. 5 Mississippi State Bulldogs with a come-from-behind win in the East Region on Friday.

    Buzz factor: Three of the tournament's four No. 12 seeds pulled off upsets, with the Flames' win over the Bulldogs coming on the heels of Murray State's victory over Marquette and Oregon's win over Wisconsin.

    Why he's here: Homesley scored a lot of points, and he did it efficiently while leading a comeback in one of the more entertaining games of the first round.

3. Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    By the numbers: Jarrett Culver led all scorers with 29 points on 10-of-17 shooting as the No. 3 Texas Tech Red Raiders handled business against the No. 14 Northern Kentucky Norse 72-57 in the West Region. He was 3-of-5 from beyond the arc and had eight rebounds, seven assists, a steal and a block.

    Buzz factor: Culver is a projected top-10 pick in June's NBA draft, and a big tournament run could vault him solidly into the top five. That campaign couldn't have gotten off to a better start.

    Why he's here: Culver showed off everything he can do, shooting the ball efficiently while rebounding and making plays for others to help the Red Raiders take care of the Norse.

2. Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, Duke

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    By the numbers: RJ Barrett had a game-high 26 points along with 14 rebounds, three assists and a steal. Zion Williamson added 25 points on 12-of-16 shooting along with three rebounds. Together, No. 1 Duke's two star freshmen accounted for over half of the Blue Devils' points as their team blew out the No. 16 North Dakota State Bison 85-62 on Friday in the East Region.

    Buzz factor: Williamson is the most electrifying college player in years and all but certain to be the No. 1 overall pick in June's NBA draft. Barrett is also a projected top-five selection, and he and Williamson have been dominant together when Williamson has been healthy.

    Why they're here: Because of Williamson's superstar status, all eyes will be on Duke throughout the tournament, which could raise the profiles of Barrett and fellow freshman star Cam Reddish. Reddish had an off night Friday (12 points on just 3-of-9 shooting), but Williamson and Barrett helped Duke take care of its first-round opponent easily.

1. Ja Morant, Murray State

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    Jessica Hill/Associated Press

    By the numbers: Ja Morant had the first triple-double in the men's tournament since Draymond Green in 2012, putting up 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds as No. 12 Murray State blew out No. 5 Marquette 83-64 in the West Region.

    Buzz factor: Outside of presumptive top pick Zion Williamson, no prospect in the 2019 NBA draft class has been getting more buzz than Morant, who is likely to go No. 2 overall on June 20. His dazzling performance in the opening game of the tournament will only help his case.

    Why he's here: Thanks to Morant, Murray State was a popular pre-tournament upset pick, and the Racers did not disappoint. Not only did they beat a higher seed, but they also ran them off the floor, setting up a possible legitimate Cinderella run.