Ranking the 25 Best Players in the 2022 Men's NCAA Tournament

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 16, 2022

Ranking the 25 Best Players in the 2022 Men's NCAA Tournament

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    Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe
    Kentucky's Oscar TshiebweJohn Amis/Associated Press

    The NCAA tournament is a great time for learning fun facts about schools you otherwise might not know anything about. Jacksonville State is in Alabama? The team nickname of Saint Peter's is the Peacocks? There's a Texas A&M campus in Corpus Christi? Fascinating.

    But the tournament is also a wonderful showcase for the vast majority of players we've been talking about all season long. Guys like Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe, Kansas' Ochai Agbaji and Gonzaga's Chet Holmgren who we'll be highlighting in this ranking of the tournament's 25 best players.

    Take a break from searching for this year's Cinderellas and instead (re)acquaint yourself with this season's Prince Charmings.

    Rankings are based on a combination of individual dominance, importance to team and team potential. It's not intended to be a ranking of candidates to be named Most Outstanding Player, although the vast majority of these guys would also appear on that list.

Nos. 25-21

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    Bryant's Peter Kiss
    Bryant's Peter KissCharles Krupa/Associated Press

    No. 25: Jordan Walker, UAB
    20.4 PPG, 4.8 APG, 2.8 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 40.6 3P%

    We wanted to start out the list with a few mid-major players you need to watch out for. These aren't just bones we're throwing the little schools, though. Walker can ball, and he was originally a noteworthy recruit at Seton Hall before going from Tulane to UAB. "Jelly" has scored at least 21 points in each of his past six games. He also dropped at least 40 on Middle Tennessee twice this season. Houston, beware.


    No. 24: Malachi Smith, Chattanooga
    20.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.7 SPG, 41.5 3P%

    Another scintillating, veteran guard who could lead a very good mid-major to multiple wins. Smith was bottled up by Furman in Chattanooga's SoCon championship win, but he had 19 20-point performances, including going for 20 at VCU, 27 at Belmont and 36 at Murray State.


    No. 23: Peter Kiss, Bryant
    25.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.6 SPG

    Bryant is very unlikely to pull off any sort of miracle in the tournament, but how could we not include the nation's leading scorer? Kiss has had eight 30-point performances in his past 14 games, averaging 29.1 during that stretch. He's not a great three-point shooter (29.4 percent), but he sure can put the ball through the hoop. With a name like Kiss and a Drew Timme-like flair for post-bucket celebrations, this Bulldog is going to be an instant fan favorite in the First Four.


    No. 22: James Akinjo, Baylor
    13.4 PPG, 5.7 APG, 2.8 RPG, 2.1 SPG

    Before his tailbone injury, Akinjo was knocking on the door of serious National Player of the Year consideration. He slipped off the radar for a while, but he's sitting at 14.7 points and 6.1 assists per game in the past five weeks for an excellent Baylor squad. If the Bears are going to repeat as national champs, he'll need to have a great three-week run.


    No. 21: Johnny Juzang, UCLA
    16.0 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.8 APG, 36.2 3P%

    Juzang had some weird injury in late February when he fell off a scooter. He missed two games and definitely didn't look right for a while. But he played well enough in the Pac-12 championship against Arizona (16 points, two steals and looked much more like himself) that we're ready to believe he'll be back in business for the dance. If he happens to get back all the way to mid-January form when he was taking over games left and right, even better.

Nos. 20-16

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    Purdue's Zach Edey
    Purdue's Zach EdeyAndy Manis/Associated Press

    No. 20: Tari Eason, LSU
    16.9 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 1.1 BPG, 35.5 3P%

    Who the heck knows what LSU is going to look like after firing Will Wade on Saturday, but it's a safe assumption Eason will continue flying around the court like the Tasmanian Devil. He doesn't even play 25 minutes per game, but he fills up the box score like few others during that time on the court. Eason has scored at least 15 points in 12 of his past 13 games, plus a combined 51 blocks and steals during that stretch.


    No. 19: Zach Edey, Purdue
    14.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 1.3 APG

    Speaking of guys who dominate in limited playing time, Edey's per-40 numbers while sharing Purdue's 5 spot with Trevion Williams are 30.5 points, 15.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.6 blocks. Opponents simply have no answer for this 7'4", nearly 300-pound center. And you can't very well double him, since Purdue just about always has four lethal three-point options on the floor.


    No. 18: Trayce-Jackson Davis, Indiana
    18.1 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 1.9 APG

    Not only is Jackson-Davis a great scorer who was red hot in the Big Ten tournament (25.3 PPG), but he is by far the primary reason for Indiana's biggest strength: interior defense. TJD could have gone pro after last season, but his decision to come back and improve as both a shot-blocker and a mid-range shooter may turn out to be a lucrative move.


    No. 17: Armando Bacot, North Carolina
    16.5 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 1.4 APG

    Lost a bit in the shuffle of our national love affair with Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe, UNC's Armando Bacot had one heck of a season filled with double-doubles. In 33 contests, he racked up 25 games with at least 10 points and 10 rebounds, including a few absurd lines like 29 and 22 against Virginia, as well as 28 and 18 with eight blocks against NC State. Pencil him in for a big game, and let's then see if the defense can do enough to get the Heels anywhere in the dance.


    No. 16: Collin Gillespie, Villanova
    15.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.1 SPG, 42.2 3P%

    Whatever hope Gillespie had for being named a first-team All-American went right out the window when he played 25 minutes with zero points and zero assists in a February game against St. John's. But that was very much the exception to the rule for the lead guard who had 14 games with at least three triples and at least three dimes. He went for 33 points in the mid-February win at Providence that put Villanova back on the map as a championship candidate. He also averaged 12.0 points and 6.0 assists while winning the Big East tournament.

Nos. 15-11

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    Colorado State's David Roddy
    Colorado State's David RoddyRick Bowmer/Associated Press

    No. 15: Hunter Dickinson, Michigan
    18.3 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.4 BPG, 31.6 3P%

    Dickinson was a consensus All-American last year as a freshman, and he improved his stat line by 4.2 PPG, 1.3 APG and 0.9 RPG while becoming a legitimate three-point threat (18-of-57 compared to 0-of-4 last year). If Michigan had lived up to the hype following a top-5 preseason ranking, I suspect Dickinson would have been a unanimous first-team All-American, jostling with Oscar Tshiebwe for NPOY honors. If you've forgotten about this seven-foot lefty, there's still time to correct that error.


    No. 14: Paolo Banchero, Duke
    17.0 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.1 SPG

    Banchero might have the most NBA talent of any player in the country, and he probably leads the nation in games for which his stat line deserves either an A- or a B+ grade. But the difficulty in trying to rank him here is the lack of A+ performances. The super frosh has scored more than 24 in a game just once, and even that came against The Citadel. If he manages to tap into some killer instinct in the tournament, though, Coach K might win one last title.


    No. 13: David Roddy, Colorado State
    19.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.1 BPG, 45.5 3P%

    Oh you thought we were done with mid-major players 10 spots ago, did you? Save for a pair of off nights against UNLV, Roddy has been sensational all season long for the Rams. One of his worst games of the year was against Utah State in CSU's MWC tournament opener, and he still finished that one with 13 points, six rebounds, two blocks and two assists. Roddy is the classic "you can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him" star who is bound to have at least one huge game in the dance.


    No. 12: Drew Timme, Gonzaga
    17.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2.7 APG

    The executive decision was made to not have two players from the same team in the top 10, so Chet Holmgren kept Timme from even being considered until around this spot. But it feels about right. Timme didn't quite live up to the preseason hype as NPOY and did become a little more turnover prone this year. But he is still fantastic and recently unleashed his signature weapon: the Timme 'stache. He shaved the beard but left the mustache for the WCC tournament, and now Gonzaga is even more of a favorite to win it all.


    No. 11: Walker Kessler, Auburn
    11.7 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 4.5 BPG, 1.1 SPG

    Like Timme, Kessler was ruled ineligible for the top 10 because of a freshman phenom teammate higher up on the list. But if you wanted to put both Kessler and Jabari Smith Jr. in the top five, no arguments here. Kessler leads the nation in block percentage and is the no-brainer pick for National Defensive Player of the Year. He had two points-rebounds-blocks triple-doubles this season, and two other games in which he fell just two blocks shy of adding to that list. He might block Auburn right into the Final Four.

Nos. 10-6

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    Auburn's Jabari Smith Jr.
    Auburn's Jabari Smith Jr.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    No. 10: Bennedict Mathurin, Arizona
    17.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.0 SPG, 37.6 3P%

    Arizona is a major threat to win it all because of the volume of capable big men on its roster, but also because it has Mathurin—one of the best pure ballers in the nation. The soon-to-be lottery pick had 27 points and a career-high seven assists in the Pac-12 championship victory over UCLA and has paced the Wildcats to at least 80 points scored in 10 of their past 11 games.


    No. 9: Jaden Ivey, Purdue
    17.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 3.2 APG, 35.6 3P%

    Speaking of ridiculously talented guards who will be in the lottery in a few months, Ivey might be the most fun-to-watch player in the dance. He has yet to go for more than 27 points in a game this season, but he has been hitting 20 with more regularity since late January. Take it to the bank that he will have at least one "Wow!" moment within the first weekend.


    No. 8: Jabari Smith Jr., Auburn
    17.1 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 42.8 3P%

    Alright, fine, one more lottery pick, and this one may well be going No. 1 overall. Smith does a little bit of everything for Auburn, and the 6'10" superstar freshman has become much more assertive in recent weeks. He had a career high of 25 points through his first 25 games, but he has put up at least 27 in four of his past seven contests. If the Tigers lean on him, they can win it all.


    No. 7: E.J. Liddell, Ohio State
    19.6 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 2.6 BPG, 2.5 APG, 37.6 3PT

    Liddell tumbled out of the NPOY race in recent weeks as Ohio State stumbled to the finish line, but don't blame this versatile power forward. Liddell is averaging 21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks thus far in March and has scored in double figures in every game this season. He'll show up in a big way for that first-round showdown with Loyola-Chicago. (Whether any of his teammates will do the same is another question.)


    No. 6: Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
    21.1 PPG, 10.6 RPG

    It's hard to believe this 7'0" mountain of a man doesn't even average one block per game, but he makes up for it with a double-double more often than not. Trying to go one-on-one with Cockburn is a great way to give up 30 points to one player. But trying to double him in the post is a great way to get Alfonso Plummer, Trent Frazier and Jacob Grandison cooking from three-point range. He's the perfect centerpiece for a team that could go on a deep run.

No. 5: Ochai Agbaji, Kansas

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    Kansas' Ochai Agbaji
    Kansas' Ochai AgbajiCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Stats: 19.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.6 APG, 40.5 3P%

    There were various points during the season when Ochai Agbaji felt like an absolute lock to finish top-three in any Player of the Year vote.

    He lit up Michigan State for 29 points in the Champions Classic to start the season and proceeded to score at least 17 in each of his first 10 games. There was also the two-game stretch in January when he single-handedly carried the Jayhawks out of a massive halftime hole against Kansas State and then dropped 37 on Texas Tech in double overtime.

    He has been less prolific in March, though, averaging 16.5 points and shooting 27.5 percent from three-point range through six games.

    Thus, he slips all the way down to No. 5.

    Still, watch out for this senior who can get red hot in a heartbeat and can score from anywhere.

No. 4: Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga

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    Gonzaga's Chet Holmgren
    Gonzaga's Chet HolmgrenJed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    Stats: 14.2 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 3.6 BPG, 1.8 APG, 41.2 3P%

    Chet Holmgren is one of the most efficient scorers we've ever seen in college basketball. Per Sports Reference, he is one of just two players in the past three decades to make at least 40 percent of at least 80 three-point attempts and also make at least 70 percent of at least 100 two-point attempts. The other was Lonzo Ball, who maybe attempted four mid-range shots during that entire freshman season at UCLA.

    As a result, Holmgren averages 1.65 points per field-goal attempt, which is a rather absurd ratio. Zion Williamson ended up at 1.71, but he spent way more time at the free-throw line than Holmgren, as well as considerably more time dunking the ball. Normally, 1.3 is pretty good and anything over 1.5 is remarkable.

    And, oh yeah, Holmgren also ranks fourth in the nation in blocked shots with 104.

    Holmgren is already one of just four players in the past 30 years with at least 40 made threes and at least 100 blocks in a single season, and he's going to end up closer to 50 and 125, respectively, if Gonzaga lasts as long as it should in the dance.

    Remarkable stuff from the 19-year-old. And get ready for countless shots of his dad sitting in the stands with a camcorder. It felt like we saw Dave Holmgren during the WCC tournament just as often as we saw Chet.

No. 3: Johnny Davis, Wisconsin

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    Wisconsin's Johnny Davis
    Wisconsin's Johnny DavisAndy Manis/Associated Press

    Stats: 19.7 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.1 SPG

    Much like Ochai Agbaji, Johnny Davis spent a few prolonged chunks of the season looking like the clear frontrunner for National Player of the Year prior to struggling a bit over the past few weeks.

    Davis' magnum opus was the 37 points and 14 rebounds he amassed in an early January win at Purdue, but that was far from the only gem. He also dropped 30 on an excellent Houston defense in Las Vegas, had an efficient 26 points, nine rebounds and three assists in a win over Iowa and—my personal favorite—a mid-February game at Indiana in which he scored 13 of his 30 points in the final four minutes, leading the Badgers to a come-from-behind victory.

    There aren't any players in the country better than Peak Johnny Davis.

    Over the past five games, though, he's shooting just 33.3 percent from the field and hasn't been anywhere near the unstoppable force he was for the first three months of the season. As such, he cedes his spot in the top two to a pair of stars who have shown no sign of slowing down.

    Still, we're talking about a 6'5" guard averaging around 20 points and eight rebounds per game, despite facing probably more help defense than any player in the country. Even the B- version of Davis that we've seen lately is still pretty darn good.

No. 2: Keegan Murray, Iowa

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    Iowa's Keegan Murray
    Iowa's Keegan MurrayDarron Cummings/Associated Press

    Stats: 23.6 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 2.0 BPG, 1.5 APG, 1.3 SPG, 40.5 3P%

    It has been a recent surge to the top of the NPOY leaderboard for Keegan Murray, though not because he was ever lacking in statistical greatness.

    Murray opened the regular season with six consecutive games of 23 points or more. At that point, he had scored 154 in 147 minutes on the floor, and he also had a 21-rebound game against North Carolina Central. It's not like he slowed down much from there, reaching 20 points on 25 occasions.

    Instead, the dilemma with trying to make the NPOY case for Murray was Iowa's lack of quality wins. Seems weird to say this about a No. 5 seed, but it hasn't even been a month since the Hawkeyes were on the NCAA tournament bubble. They were 17-8 in mid-February with no great victories, and the National Player of the Year almost always comes from a team that earns a No. 4 seed or better.

    But the Hawkeyes finished strong, and so did Murray. Iowa went 9-1 down the stretch with several big wins while Murray averaged 24.1 points and 9.3 rebounds and shot 48.1 percent from three-point range.

    In 14 games played since the beginning of February, Murray has had more games with at least 30 points (three) than he has had games with fewer than 22 points (two). Just a remarkable hot streak with no end in sight. And while the scoring understandably gets most of the attention, Murray is also Iowa's defensive MVP by a country mile.

No. 1: Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky

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    Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe
    Kentucky's Oscar TshiebweChris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Stats: 17.0 PPG, 15.2 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 1.6 BPG, 1.0 APG

    For as sensational as Keegan Murray has been, we've seen that greatness before. Heck, it was just last season that Luka Garza put up similar numbers for the same Iowa team.

    But Oscar Tshiebwe's 15 rebounds per game is all-time greatness.

    Big O is currently at 500 total rebounds on the season, which is the third-best single season total in at least the past 36 years. Assuming he gets his 28th double-double of the season in Kentucky's opener against Saint Peter's, he will become the new leader. And if he maintains his season average while the Wildcats make it all the way to the national championship, he would finish 83 rebounds ahead of Kenneth Faried.

    It's not quite as preposterous as when Steph Curry broke his own NBA single-season three-point record by a 40 percent margin a few years ago, but there's no denying how incredible this year has been for Tshiebwe.

    And he's no one-trick pony. Tshiebwe also ranks top five in the SEC in scoring average and is one of just two players in the country averaging at least 1.6 blocks and 1.6 steals per game.

    The only three players in the past quarter century to do anything like this were Faried, Blake Griffin and Tim Duncan. Pretty good company for Tshiebwe, who is all but certain to win the Wooden Award and Naismith Trophy.