It’s here: March Madness. Those blissful three weeks a year when productivity collectively plummets, even the most carefully-researched brackets get busted, and a handful of undercompensated teenagers graduate to NCAA legend status.
Following Tuesday and Wednesday’s play-in games, the first round of the NCAA tournament kicks off Thursday afternoon, carrying sports fans through til the final net gets cut in Minneapolis on April 8th. Until then, there’ll be plenty of Cinderella stories, improbable buzzer beaters, and big-name players to keep you watching long after your bracket gets blown up like it’s a national landmark in a Roland Emmerich movie.
Including, yes, Zion Williamson, the rim-rattling, shoe-obliterating Duke phenom that has every lottery-bound NBA team currently falling all over themselves trying to tank for the right to draft the obvious future number one pick. But, as it turns out – and this might be news to anyone who really only pays attention to college basketball from March on – there are other players in this year’s tournament who aren’t named Zion Williamson. This is a guide to those guys. The other guys.
The consensus consolation prize for whatever team loses the Zion lottery in May, the Mississauga native spent most of the regular season getting overshadowed by his fellow Blue Devil… even though he actually led Duke in scoring and broke the ACC freshman scoring record. All of which makes him somehow slightly underrated, even though most everyone agrees he’s a lock to go #2 or 3 in the upcoming draft. An NBA-ready scorer (albeit without Williamson’s apparently ceiling-less upside), Barrett seems to step his game up in big matchups – and lucky for him, the tourney is nothing but big matchups.
(And how’s this for some requisite March Madness-related CanCon? Barrett’s godfather is the godfather of Canadian basketball, Steve Nash. Expect to see lots of “Uncle Steve” in the stands, in case you needed another reason to tune into those Duke games.)
The 6’3” sophomore point guard just might be the most freakishly athletic player in the entire tournament* (*besides, you know, Zion). Morant treats every trip into the paint like it’s an audition for next year’s dunk contest, earning comparisons to a young Russell Westbrook with his high-wire one-man show act. Here’s the thing, though: Murray State plays in the Ohio Valley Conference, which isn’t exactly the ACC. And since he doesn’t have Williamson’s blue-chip teammates to help carry the load, Morant will need to go full Westbrook if the Racers are going to make it past the first round.
Kemba Walker’s 2011 tourney is the stuff of college hoops legend, as the then-UConn junior effectively put his Huskies squad on his back and carried them all the way to a title. And if anyone’s got a shot at being this year’s Kemba, it’s Howard. The Big East Player of the Year already has nine 30-point games so far this season, including the time he dropped 40 in a half versus the sixth-seeded Buffalo. With NBA range from downtown and the ability to seemingly score at will, the Marquette point guard makes for legitimate drop-whatever-you’re-supposed-to-be-doing appointment viewing – especially considering Howard and Morant (the two highest-scoring players in the entire tournament) are scheduled to square off in the first round. Pro tip: bet the over.
This 6’5” sophomore from Virginia Tech led the Hokies in scoring this season, can play both guard positions and shoot the three – oh yeah, and he’s from Toronto. (He’s also the cousin of current Clippers rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.) That alone should put him squarely on Raptors fans’ radars, provided he doesn’t boost his rising draft stock even higher by leading Virginia Tech to a deep March Madness run.
The first-year phenom better known as Iggy has been drawing comparisons to Cavs’ guard Nik Stauskas (mostly because they’re both Lithuanian-Canadian, both played for Michigan, and are almost the exact same height, making it a pretty easy comparison to draw). But it’s even easier to see how the Big Ten Freshman of the Year’s game will translate to the modern NBA. At 6’7”, Brazdeikis led the Wolverines in scoring while shooting 41.5% from deep, making him the kind of versatile forward scouts, and fans, go nuts over. (Also, Iggy’s a pretty fun name to shout at the bar. Just sayin’.)
The Texas Tech guard struggled during last year’s March Madness, but followed it up with a breakout sophomore season that earned him Big 12 Player of the Year honours. Already a plus-defender, Culver’s potential as a two-way wing in the Association has him rocketing up NBA draft boards, making him a name to know later this summer. Even more so if the Red Raiders make some serious noise this spring.
One-and-done prospects like Zion may take up most of the oxygen during March Madness, but there’s always at least one upperclassman that breaks out during the tourney, and this year, there’s a good chance that’s Hachimura. After averaging 20 points and over 6 rebounds per game for Gonzaga this season, the Japan-born junior is one of four finalists for NCAA Player of the Year. And OK, yeah, so Zion’s probably had that award locked up since the first time he stepped on the court. But it’s pretty hard not to root for the Bulldogs’ rising star.
Since you’re already going to be watching Gonzaga anyway, keep an eye out for Hachimura’s Bulldog teammate Clarke while you’re at it – he’ll be the one pulling down rebounds and blocking shots at a blistering pace. The Vancouver native may be listed at 6’8”, but he’s got a game that plays even bigger and a relentless motor, two factors that helped make him a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year honours.
If you’d heard of Wofford College before this season, you either know someone who went there or you’re a certified college hoops junkie. Either way, the Terriers’ senior guard almost singlehandedly put the tiny private school in Spartanburg, South Carolina on the map (and in the tourney) in 2019, thanks to a season that saw him lead the NCAA in made three-pointers. This month, he’s got another, even bigger mark in his sights: Magee’s just three more triples away from breaking the all-time NCAA career record (he’s already passed noted sharpshooters Steph Curry and J.J. Reddick).
Put it this way: at 7’6”, the Senegalese center is kind of impossible to miss. Just look for the dude making everyone else on the court look like they belong in the Derek Zoolander Center for Ants. With a 10-foot-5 standing reach, the UCF senior doesn’t even have to leave his feet to put the ball in the basket, allowing him to dominate the paint like he’s playing on one of those plastic Fisher-Price hoops. (Here’s a look at some very-real, very-legit game tape.) Fall set an NCAA record for career field goal percentage this season, meaning he’s essentially unstoppable around the rim (again, he’s 7’6”). Basically, he’s an IRL giant – and quite possibly, the only thing standing in between Zion and total March domination. Well, besides another Nike-induced misstep, I guess.