March Madness: Players to Watch

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When the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament starts with the play-in games on Tuesday and the round of 64 on Thursday, some of the most noticeable players to watch will come from schools like Bryant, South Dakota State and Seton Hall — not just from the top seeds.

Of course, big-name brands like Gonzaga, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Auburn have their share of key players and future N.B.A. draft picks to watch as well.

Here are some names to keep an eye on:

This 6-foot-5 point guard from Ontario is the engine that makes the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense go.

In a year without many elite point guards at the top of college basketball, Nembhard, who averages 11.7 points, 5.7 assists and 3.2 rebounds while shooting 46 percent from the field for Gonzaga (26-3, 13-1 West Coast Conference), is one of the best.

When the Bulldogs won their eighth W.C.C. tournament title in nine years over Saint Mary’s on Tuesday night, Nembhard went for 19 points, 7 assists and 3 rebounds, hitting a big 3-pointer late to extend the lead to double-digits en route to an 82-69 victory.

“Their offense is as good as any in the country,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “There’s a lot of things you have to do right to have a chance, and we did that for a while, but you have to do it for 40 minutes.”

This 6-foot-7, 210-pound senior forward averages 16.5 points and 5.5 rebounds while shooting 57 percent from the field for a Jackrabbits team that owns the longest winning streak in Division 1 at 21 games. They haven’t loss since falling at Missouri State on Dec. 15.

South Dakota State (30-4) became the first team in Summit League history to go undefeated in conference play by finishing the regular season 18-0, and then added three more wins en route to the league’s tournament championship. In the 75-69 victory over North Dakota State in the title game on Tuesday, Wilson had 21 points and 11 rebounds and was named the tournament Most Valuable Player.

Wilson and the Jackrabbits have the second most potent offense in Division I (behind Gonzaga), averaging 86.7 points a game.

This 6-foot-5 guard from the Upper East Side is a colorful and controversial character, and not just because he sometimes dons a KISS T-shirt before games. He’s known for talking smack to opponents and taunting fans and opponents with gestures like sticking his tongue out after a dunk or doing push-ups on the baseline after a basket.

“He plays with an edge, he plays with a swagger, and I think he has a chip on his shoulder with something to prove when he plays,” said Bryant coach Jared Grasso, who guided his team to its first-ever N.C.A.A. tournament appearance.

Kiss, on his third school after stops at Quinnipiac and Rutgers, leads Division 1 in scoring at 25.1 points a game along with 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists. In the Northeast Conference championship game against Wagner on Tuesday night, Kiss had one of his best games in a Bryant uniform, putting up 34 points, six rebounds and five steals.

He is the sixth player in the last dozen years to lead Division 1 in scoring and make the N.C.A.A. tournament. Of those six, two went on to reach the round of 16: Max Abmas of Oral Roberts last season and Jimmer Fredette of BYU in 2011.

This 6-foot-3 point guard was a freshman on the Villanova team that won the N.C.A.A. championship in 2018.

After suffering a season-ending torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee last March, Gillespie returned for a fifth season granted by the N.C.A.A. in the wake of the pandemic. Despite suffering a sprained ankle in Villanova’s victory over Connecticut on Feb. 5, he returned for the next game three days later against St. John’s, grabbing 10 rebounds in a win. A week later, he solidified his case as Big East player of the year by pouring in 33 points with four rebounds and two assists in an 89-84 victory over Providence, the eventual regular-season league champion.

After sharing Big East Player of the Year honors last season, Gillespie won the award by himself this year when he averaged 16.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists through the regular season.

“He’s a special player, a big-time shot maker and a big-time playmaker,” Villanova guard Justin Moore told reporters of his backcourt mate. “We know if we put the ball in his hands, we go through so many situations in practice and we’ve seen him do it for so many years, that something good’s going to happen.”

When the 6-foot-10 Smith committed to Auburn in October 2020, his coach at Sandy Creek High School in Georgia, Jon-Michael Nickerson, boldly forecast that he had the potential to be like some of the greatest N.B.A. big men of all time: Chris Bosh, Anthony Davis, Kevin Garnett and Kevin Durant.

“While he has a long, long ways to go to get to a level even close to them, he still shows similarities,” Nickerson said at the time.

Smith, 18, is not yet in the conversation with those greats, but he had a huge impact for the Tigers in what is expected to be his lone season on campus. A multitalented forward who can shoot from deep, score in a variety of ways in the paint and defend several positions, he averaged 17.1 points and 6.9 rebounds while shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc through the regular season en route to being named the Southeastern Conference freshman of the year. He’s a projected top-3 N.B.A. draft pick this summer.

“He has two foundational pillars that every N.B.A. team is looking for,” the ESPN draft expert Mike Schmitz said on air earlier this season. “He can really defend, sit down and slide, and he’s an elite shooter, not just a good shooter, an elite shooter.”

At 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds, Tshiebwe is what the late talent scout Tom Konchalski called “a mountain masquerading as a man.”

He is both an unstoppable force and an immovable object in the paint, where he has a tremendous knack for rebounding the ball out of his area with both hands. Tshiebwe was averaging a team-best 17.3 points and a nation-leading 15.3 rebounds a game entering this week’s Southeastern Conference tournament. He is looking to become the first Division I player to average at least 15 points and at least 15 rebounds per game since Drake’s Lewis Lloyd and Alcorn State’s Larry Smith each did during the 1979-80 season, and the first major-conference player to average at least 16 points and at least 15 rebounds for a season since Bill Walton at U.C.L.A. in 1972-73.

A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, he transferred to Kentucky from West Virginia and has already been named the Southeastern Conference player of the year. He is among the favorites for both the John R. Wooden award and the Naismith college player of the year award as the nation’s best college player. But his larger focus is on helping No. 4 Kentucky contend for its second national championship under Coach John Calipari.

“We have a great chance to win all things,” Tshiebwe told The Sporting News, which named him its national player of the year. “I just want everybody to sacrifice, because if you really want something good to happen, you have to sacrifice. We’ve to got to give everything. How long does it take, two weeks, March Madness? If you’re not willing to fight to help this team, fight with everything you’ve got, you’re never going to forget it.”

When North Carolina desperately needed a signature win to solidify its N.C.A.A. tournament résumé, this 6-foot-10, 240-pound junior willed it to happen.

Playing at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium in Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game on March 5, Bacot went for 23 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and two steals in the emphatic 94-81 victory. He had a thunderous two-handed dunk in the closing minutes to extend the lead to 10 points.

“I wasn’t trying to lose,” he said. “I was in this position my freshman year, and we ended up losing after being up a huge lead at home. I wasn’t excited until the buzzer ran off, because you never can count them out. I do not want to go through that again.”

Some people feel Bacot was robbed of the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year award, which went to Wake Forest senior guard Alondes Williams. Bacot, who averaged 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds entering the A.C.C. tournament, leads the conference in rebounding, offensive rebounding, field goal percentage and double-doubles and is Carolina’s leading scorer. He received the highest vote total on the All-A.C.C. first team (380 points).

When the 6-foot-10, 250-pound Banchero committed to Duke in August 2020 out of O’Dea High School in Seattle, it was seen as a major recruiting coup for Coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff. Banchero had also considered Kentucky, Gonzaga, Tennessee, Arizona and Washington.

“I’m kind a stretch, do-it-all 4, and I can play the 3 too,” Banchero said at the time, referring to the power forward and small forward positions. “I can kind of do whatever, play on the wing or play inside, but if it was up to me I would prefer kind of in the midrange, 16-17 feet out, and just kind of operate from there.”

Banchero’s words proved prophetic as he has a been a key reason the Blue Devils spent time ranked No. 1 this season and are among a handful of teams with a legitimate chance to win the N.C.A.A. championship. A mismatch nightmare for opposing defenses because he can shoot from the midrange, dominate down low and pass out of double-teams, he was averaging 17.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists heading into this week’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. He, as much as anyone, will determine how far Krzyzewski’s final ride at Duke coach goes.

Still, Duke must figure out where its best player wants the ball at the end of games — in that midrange area — and get it to him there so he can make plays. He can’t afford to go missing or float to the perimeter at critical times.

“There’s not a person in America that can guard that dude one-on-one,” the ESPN analyst and former Notre Dame star LaPhonso Ellis said on air. “For Duke to make a Final Four, for them to win a national championship, Paolo Banchero has to be dominant like he was in the” first half of the March 5 North Carolina game, when he finished with 23 points and five rebounds.

This 6-foot-6 Long Island native is the latest Seton Hall player to show steady development over a four-year career under Pirates Coach Kevin Willard. Like the current N.B.A. players Myles Powell (Philadelphia 76ers) and Sandro Mamukelashvili (Milwaukee Bucks), Rhoden improved each year and has a chance to play professionally down the road.

A first-team All-Big East selection, Rhoden was averaging 16.2 points and 6.9 rebounds heading into the postseason for the resurgent Pirates, who had won six straight before losing in the Big East tournament quarterfinals on Thursday.

Though he can hit the 3-pointer — where he is shooting 34 percent this season — he excels in the midrange. Creighton coach Greg McDermott called him the best midrange scorer in the Big East.

“I spent an extensive time growing up watching players like Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and DeMar DeRozan and I just saw them get to what they call the ‘kill spot’ and just torch teams over the years over it,” Rhoden said. “And I feel like that’s just a testament to the basketball that I watched when I was younger. The game has now obviously evolved a lot but I still feel like shot is really effective and it’s something that I will always keep in my game.”

The 6-foot-6 Agbaji tested the N.B.A. draft waters last season after his junior season when the Jayhawks were dominated by Southern California in the second round of the N.C.A.A. tournament.

He opted to return to campus for his senior season, and the decision helped his team. An athletic open-court player who can score in the paint, from the midrange and from deep, he was named the Big 12 Conference player of the year and he’s also a projected NBA lottery pick. Agbaji leads the Big 12 and is 25th nationally in scoring at 19.8 points a game. A Kansas City, Missouri native, he is second in the league in 3-point field goal percentage (41.1 percent) and in 3-pointers made per game (2.9). He was a major reason Kansas won a share of yet another Big 12 regular season-title, has been projected as a No. 1 seed and has a chance for another deep run in the tournament.

“So often postseason accolades come from not only individual success but primarily from the team’s success, and we’re proud to get a piece of the Big 12 championship,” Coach Bill Self said. “Ochai has had a great year and deserved being a unanimous selection for player of the year and All-Big 12 first team.”



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