March Madness Megastars to Watch in 2021 Conference Tournaments
Every year, a handful of players rise above the rest to take college basketball by storm with huge March Madness performances.
Those stellar individual runs often begin with a strong conference tournament showing.
So 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 in the coming week and on into the NCAA tournament.
Players were selected based on importance to their teams success and current level of production, with the focus placed on teams who are in position to make the NCAA tournament. NBA upside was a nice addition, but it was not the determining factor in who was selected.
Let's get to it.
AAC Tournament: Quentin Grimes, Houston
Stats: 17.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.0 APG, 39.3 3PT%
High Game: 33 points (Feb. 25 vs. Western Kentucky)
Quentin Grimes began his collegiate career at Kansas, joining the Jayhawks as a 5-star recruit and the No. 10 overall player in the 2018 recruiting class.
He started all 36 games as a freshman, but his production fell well short of expectations as he averaged 8.4 points per game while shooting just 38.4 percent from the field.
Expected to be a one-and-done, he tested the pre-draft process but ultimately decided to return to school. In the meantime, he lost his scholarship spot on the Kansas roster with coach Bill Self assuming he was off to the NBA, and he was left with no choice but to enter the transfer portal.
He ultimately chose Houston over Texas A&M in his second recruitment, and he has flourished under coach Kelvin Sampson.
After improving his efficiency by shooting 44.3 percent from the field last year with averaging 12.1 points per game, he has stepped into the role of primary scorer as a junior.
His deep game has improved, with a sharp uptick from 32.6 to 39.3 percent from beyond the arc, and he's shooting nearly twice as many threes per game. He's also dramatically improved his free-throw shooting from 66.0 to 79.5 percent.
Houston has been the class of the AAC this season and Grimes is the star driving their success.
Atlantic 10 Tournament: Nah'Shon Hyland, VCU
Stats: 19.7 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.0 APG, 2.0 SPG, 38.3 3PT%
High Game: 31 points (Dec. 15 vs. Western Carolina)
Based on NBA potential, Nah'Shon Hyland is one of the most compelling mid-major players in the nation. In fact, it's not out of the question to think he could play his way into the back of the first round with a strong March.
B/R NBA draft expert Jonathan Wasserman slotted him at No. 31 on his latest Top 50 Big Board, offering up the following scouting blurb:
"With 64 threes in 21 games, Hyland has been making a case to NBA teams as a shot-making specialist. Though limited as a playmaker, the right team and role could get use out of Hyland's shooting confidence and streaky scoring."
With VCU hovering around the 10-seed/11-seed line in most projections, they'll be in a prime position to pull off a first-round upset in the NCAA tournament.
First things first, they need to punch their ticket by taking care of business in the A-10 tournament, and Hyland will be the key to their success. He scored 30 points on Friday in their opener against Dayton.
ACC Tournament: Moses Wright, Georgia Tech
Stats: 18.0 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.7 BPG, 1.5 SPG, 54.2 FG%
High Game: 31 points (Nov. 25 vs. Georgia State, Feb. 27 vs. Syracuse)
Thanks to a six-game winning streak, Georgia Tech has moved squarely into the NCAA tournament field in recent weeks.
They have Moses Wright to thank.
The senior forward is averaging 23.5 points and 10.0 rebounds per game with four double-doubles during that recent run of success, and he matched a season-high with 31 points in an 84-77 victory over Syracuse on Feb. 27.
That recent surge has pushed him into a wide open ACC Player of the Year conversation, and taking home the award would be an impressive culmination to an unlikely rise to stardom.
An unranked recruit out of high school, Wright played less than 20 minutes per game as a freshman and sophomore before taking a step forward last season when he averaged 13.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game.
Now he's trying to pilot Georgia Tech to its first NCAA tournament since 2010.
Big East Tournament: James Bouknight, UConn
Stats: 20.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.4 SPG, 30.2 3PT%
High Game: 40 points (Dec. 20 vs. Creighton)
After missing six weeks with an elbow injury, James Bouknight has picked up right where he left off since returning to action on Feb. 16.
In his last five games, he's averaging 19.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, and a 4-1 record during that stretch has moved UConn into the No. 3 spot among tournament-bound Big East teams behind Villanova and Creighton.
While he is not a great shooter from deep, connecting on just 30.2 percent of his 53 attempts from beyond the arc this year, Bouknight can fill up the scoring column like few players in the country.
That was never more abundantly clear than in his 40-point outburst against Creighton in December.
Point guard R.J. Cole (12.9 PPG, 4.1 APG) and forward Tyrese Martin (11.0 PPG, 7.4 RPG) are solid complementary pieces, but if the Huskies are going to make a run in the NCAA tournament, it will be up to Bouknight to shoulder the load.
Big Ten Tournament: Luka Garza, Iowa
Stats: 23.9 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.6 BPG. 45.0 3PT%
High Game: 41 points (Nov. 27 vs. Southern)
With Illinois star Ayo Dosunmu nursing a facial injury and Michigan post Hunter Dickinson quieting a bit over the last few weeks, Iowa center Luka Garza is the star to watch in the Big Ten tournament.
There's a case to be made that the Hawkeyes have the most to gain with a deep run in the conference tournament, as it would likely solidify their spot on the 2-seed line.
Bubble teams Rutgers, Michigan State and Indiana would argue otherwise, but the point still stands.
Since he was limited to just eight points on 3-of-11 shooting against Michigan State on Feb. 13, Garza has returned to form, averaging 21.4 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 51.3 percent from the field in his last five games.
With National Player of the Year honors on the line, Garza will look to finish with a flourish against a loaded Big Ten Conference before anchoring what Iowa hopes will be a deep run into the NCAA tournament.
Big 12 Tournament: Jared Butler, Baylor
Stats: 17.1 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 5.0 APG, 2.2 SPG, 44.3 3PT%
High Game: 30 points (Jan. 18 vs. Kansas)
Even before Oklahoma State's superstar freshman Cade Cunningham rolled an ankle on Thursday night, this spot was reserved for Baylor junior Jared Butler.
The 6'3" guard can simply do it all.
He's one of the best shooters in the nation and the leading scorer for a Baylor team that has stood atop the college basketball world alongside Gonzaga for most of the season.
But beyond his scoring prowess, he has also seen his assists per game climb from 3.1 to 5.0 while taking on more of a facilitator role, and he also leads the Big 12 with 47 steals on the defensive end.
There was some undeniable rust to shake off after Baylor dealt with a three-week COVID-19 layoff, but he has returned to form with 25 points in a big road win over West Virginia on Tuesday and 22 points against Oklahoma State on Thursday.
Can he make a late run at National Player of the Year with a strong finish?
Pac-12 Tournament: Evan Mobley, USC
Stats: 16.2 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 2.2 APG, 2.8 BPG, 58.2 FG%
High Game: 25 points (Jan. 23 vs. California)
A 5-star recruit and the No. 3 player overall in the 2020 recruiting class, Evan Mobley has been consistently slotted in the No. 2 or No. 3 slot in NBA mock drafts all season.
It's not hard to see why.
Not many 7-footers can run the way he does, and he has shown an advanced offensive game during his freshman season with efficiency around the rim and a developing outside game.
On the defensive end, he leads the Pac-12 and ranks third in the nation with 74 blocks, and he has also added 24 steals in 26 games, using his lanky frame and long wingspan extremely well.
He has cooled off a bit of late, averaging just 11.3 points and 6.5 rebounds in his last four games, and the Trojans are just 2-2 during that stretch.
It has been a down year for the Pac-12 Conference, but USC has been the best of the bunch and they could force their way up to the 4-seed line if they run the table in the conference tournament.
SEC Tournament: Cameron Thomas, LSU
Stats: 22.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.4 APG, 30.6 3PT%
High Game: 32 points (Dec. 29 vs. Texas A&M)
With a 30.8 percent clip from beyond the arc and a 40.7 percent shooting percentage overall, Cameron Thomas is by no stretch of the imagination the most efficient player in the country.
However, he is instant offense.
The 6'4" freshman guard leads the SEC in scoring and ranks second only to Luka Garza (23.9 PPG) among major conference players with 22.8 points per game, and he has been as consistent as anyone in the nation when it comes to putting points on the board.
The 5-star recruit has scored at least 20 points in 18 of 23 games, including nine in a row following a 23-points, 10-rebound game against Vanderbilt on Tuesday.
With no dominant team but a deep field overall in the SEC this season, LSU could make a statement with a run in the conference tournament as they look to move off the 8/9-seed line in an effort to avoid a round of 32 matchup with a 1-seed.
Mid-Major (WCC Tournament): Corey Kispert, Gonzaga
Stats: 19.5 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.8 AST, 1.0 STL, 46.3 3PT%
High Game: 32 points (Dec. 26 vs. Virginia)
How deep is Gonzaga?
Freshman Jalen Suggs is probably going to be a top-three pick in the 2021 NBA draft, and he's not even averaging 10 shot attempts per game.
Junior guard Joel Ayayi has a triple-double this year and he's the team's fourth scoring option.
Sophomore post Drew Timme is averaging 18.9 points and 7.1 rebounds while shooting 65.1 percent from the floor, and he would be the face of the West Coast Conference in almost any other year.
Instead, he shares the spotlight with senior Corey Kispert, who might be the best knockdown shooter in the nation.
The 6'7" forward has connected on 68 of 147 attempts from beyond the arc, good for a 46.3 percent shooting clip that leads the conference and ranks fourth in the nation among qualified players.
Timme is a rock down low, but there's nothing quite like watching an elite shooter get hot from deep and Kispert already has a game with nine 3-pointers on his resume earlier this year.
Mid Major (MAC Tournament): Marreon Jackson, Toledo
Stats: 17.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 6.1 APG, 1.9 SPG, 35.5 3PT%
High Game: 31 points (Jan. 23 vs. Kent State)
Outside of the Gonzaga roster, it's a wide open debate for who deserves the title of best mid-major player in the country this year.
Toledo guard Marreon Jackson at the very least has a seat at the table.
The 6'1" senior is one of just three players in the nation this year averaging 15 points, five rebounds and five assists per game, joining Illinois star Ayo Dosunmu and Ohio guard Jason Preston. He posted his second triple-double of the year on Friday with 22 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists against Ball State.
Those sweeping contributions have helped lead Toledo to a 20-7 record overall and a 15-4 record in the Mid-American Conference, and they will enter the MAC tournament as the No. 1 seed.
If they can navigate the field to earn the automatic bid, they could be a popular upset pick on the 12-seed line.
Toledo has not been to the NCAA tournament since 1980.
All stats courtesy of Sports Reference.