Ranking the 68 best players in the 2017 NCAA tournament

The best players in college basketball this season hail from every corner of the globe, from a sleepy Australian suburb, to a Medieval city in Poland, to the snow-covered hills of Finland.

There are sons of everyday Joes and ex-NBA stars. There are shooters with 30-foot range and centers who seldom touch the ball outside the paint. There are can’t-miss McDonald’s All-Americans and prospects hardly anyone wanted coming out of high school.

Here’s a look at the 68 best players in this year’s NCAA tournament. The rankings are based not on NBA potential but on a player’s impact on this year’s college basketball season. Stats matter, but so does the level of competition a player faced and the amount of success his team enjoyed.

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1. Frank Mason, G, Kansas

Mason is probably the only national player of the year candidate who once couldn’t find a high-major program willing to offer him a scholarship. The former Towson commit averaged 20.8 points and 5.8 assists as a senior and was at his best when Kansas trailed, sometimes leading the Jayhawks back with shot-making and sheer will.

2. Caleb Swanigan, F, Purdue

“Biggie” Swanigan is equal parts overpowering and dexterous in the paint and on the perimeter. He’s a remarkable story — 360 pounds as an eighth-grader, now arguably the most dominant player in college basketball as a sophomore for the Boilermakers. His numbers — 18.5 points, 12.6 rebounds, 43 percent from beyond the arc — speak for themselves.

3. Lonzo Ball, G, UCLA

The nation’s assists leader has been as good as his dad is brash. In addition to averaging 14.6 points, 7.7 assists and 6.1 rebounds, Ball has transformed UCLA in his image — fast-paced, unselfish, competitive and confident.

(AP)
(AP)

4. Josh Hart, G, Villanova

Hart is a multi-faceted star. His per-game averages undersell him because of Villanova’s methodical pace, but on a per-possession basis, nobody in college basketball can match Hart’s combination of outside shooting, above-the-rim finishing, distribution, rebounding and all-around defense.

5. Dillon Brooks, F, Oregon

Hampered by an offseason foot injury in November and December, Brooks has emerged as one of the nation’s elite scorers since league play began. The 6-foot-7 combo forward has averaged 20.5 points over his past 12 games.

6. Johnathan Motley, F, Baylor

Once known as an AAU teammate of the Harrison twins or a sidekick to Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince at Baylor, Motley has become comfortable in a go-to role this season. The athletic, powerfully built forward has scored and rebounded with the consistency he lacked in previous years.

7. Luke Kennard, G, Duke

On a Duke team that features the preseason national player of the year, the nation’s No. 1 incoming freshman and a bevy of other McDonald’s All-Americans, it’s Kennard who has been the best player. He’s averaging 20.1 points and shooting 50 percent from the field even though nearly half his field goal attempts are 3s.

8. Monte Morris, G, Iowa State

With Georges Niang, Abdel Nader and Jameel McKay graduating last spring, Iowa State coach Steve Prohm asked Morris to call his own number more this season. Morris has responded by raising his scoring average by 2.5 points while still posting a national-best 6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

9. Josh Jackson, F, Kansas

Jackson oozes athleticism in every possible way. He has the lateral quickness. He has the vertical explosiveness. He has the open-floor speed. The big gripe during Jackson’s first two months as a college player was his shooting, but he responded to the concerns by hitting 43.5 percent of his 3s in Big 12 play. In doing so, he became one of the 10 best players in college hoops.

10. Nigel Williams-Goss, G, Gonzaga

Hailed as maybe the nation’s most impactful transfer after he left Washington to come to Gonzaga, Williams-Goss has somehow exceeded high expectations. He has emerged as the go-to threat on a balanced Zags team that fell one win shy of completing the regular season undefeated.

11. Justin Jackson, G, North Carolina

The transformation of Jackson from good to great stems largely from the hard work he did this offseason to improve his 3-point shooting. The ACC player of the year shot a career-high 37.7 percent from behind the arc, though he’s just 7-for-31 in North Carolina’s last four games.

12. Jawun Evans, G, Oklahoma State

Evans is college basketball’s least heralded superstar. He’s the spark plug of one of the nation’s most potent offenses. His assist rate of 43.5 ranks third among qualifying players nationally. In a way, Evans is a 6-foot-1, less-celebrated version of Lonzo Ball.

13. Malik Monk, G, Kentucky

The streakiest and most lethal scorer in college basketball this season, Monk can go scoreless one half and drop 30 the other. The 6-foot-3 freshman scored 20 or more 18 times this season and memorably torched North Carolina for 47 back in December.

14. Jayson Tatum, F, Duke

Whereas Harry Giles is still a shell of his former self and Marques Bolden can’t crack Duke’s rotation, Tatum has met sky-high expectations. The 6-foot-8 combo forward scored 19 or more in all four of Duke’s ACC tournament wins, suggesting that he’s peaking at the right time.

15. Lauri Markkanen, F, Arizona

Why is Markkanen likely to become the first Finnish-born NBA lottery pick? The freshman has 7-foot size and the skill of a small forward. He shoots 43.2 percent from behind the arc, yet can also attack the rim and finish in the paint.

16. TJ Leaf, F, UCLA

All UCLA’s other freshman has done is lead the Bruins in scoring and field goal percentage this season. The health of his injured ankle is a concern entering the NCAA tournament after he was at less than his best in Las Vegas last week.

17. Ethan Happ, F, Wisconsin

A paradoxical player in so many ways, Happ is a point guard at heart, a clever maneuverer in the paint, a force around the rim, and quite possibly the best defensive player in college basketball. The only thing he most certainly isn’t is a shooter. His inability to hit shots beyond 15 feet is his major flaw.

18. De’Aaron Fox, G, Kentucky

Maybe the fastest player in college basketball, Fox is a gifted on-ball defender with a quick first step to the basket and the ability to create for himself or others. All that’s missing from his game is a consistent jump shot, or he’d be in the mix to be taken No. 1 overall in June.

19. John Collins, F, Wake Forest

Way off the national radar entering his sophomore season, Collins played his way into first-team all-ACC honors and consideration to be taken in next year’s NBA draft, should he come out this June. The 6-foot-10 big man is averaging 18.9 points and 9.8 rebounds.

20. Donovan Mitchell, G, Louisville

Mitchell’s emergence as a go-to scorer has kept Louisville in the national title hunt. The sophomore is averaging 19.1 points per game since Dec. 31. He’s always been a fantastic on-ball defender, and led the ACC in steals this season; now he has the offense to go with the defensive prowess.

21. Semi Ojeleye, F, SMU

Transferring from Duke in the midst of a season that ended with the 2015 national title wasn’t easy for Ojeleye, but the risk has worked out well for him. He got the opportunity he craved at SMU and took full advantage, averaging 18.9 points and 6.8 rebounds while leading the Mustangs to an AAC title.

22. Bonzie Colson, F, Notre Dame

Colson is doing something almost unheard of for someone who stands 6-foot-5: He’s outplaying elite centers in the ACC. The Wooden Award finalist and first-team all-ACC performer has 19 double-doubles so far this season.

23. Sindarius Thornwell, F, South Carolina

Thornwell is an outstanding perimeter defender on a team full of just that, and a high-efficiency, high-volume scorer on a team otherwise devoid of just that. The 6-foot-5 wing won SEC player of the year over Malik Monk, and finished .001 points behind Monk for the conference scoring title.

24. Jevon Carter, G, West Virginia

Carter is the teeth at the forefront of Press Virginia’s vaunted defense. The junior led the power six conferences in steals per game, and was named the Big 12 defensive layer of the year. On the offensive end, he led the Mountaineers in scoring.

25. Angel Delgado, F, Seton Hall

Delgado is a double-double machine. His 26 10-and-10 games have him tied atop the Division I leaderboard with national player of the year candidate Caleb Swanigan. The junior from the Dominican Republic averages a whopping 13.1 rebounds per game, tops in college basketball.

26. Jock Landale, F, St. Mary’s

Saint Mary’s returned all five starters from a 29-win team last season, yet its best player is one of last year’s reserves. Nobody has improved more across the country than the 6-foot-11 Landale, who has shed weight and become the centerpiece of the Gaels’ ultra-efficient attack.

27. Jalen Brunson, G, Villanova

With Ryan Arcidiacono gone, Brunson’s assumption of the lead guard role in Villanova’s offense has gone about as well as Jay Wright could have hoped. The sophomore has improved across the board — offensive rating, 2-point and 3-point shooting, assist rate, turnover rate and so on — all while shouldering a heavier load.

28. Miles Bridges, F, Michigan State

Bridges is a potential lottery pick, and a breakout postseason performance from the 6-foot-7 freshman might be Tom Izzo’s best hope for a return to the Sweet 16.

29. London Perrantes, G, Virginia

Perrantes is pivotal to Virginia’s offense. Move comfortable as a secondary option in years past, the senior point guard is now the focus of defenses, and when opponents nudge him out of rhythm, the Cavs’ attack often stalls.

30. Allonzo Trier, G, Arizona

It took Arizona a little while to successfully reintegrate Trier after his return from a 19-game suspension, but the sophomore is all the way back now. He has scored 19 or more points in each of his past seven games and has showcased better court vision and an improved jump shot.  

31. Joel Berry, G, North Carolina

A 42 percent 3-point shooter who carried North Carolina to its lone win over Duke, Berry is one of only two true long-range threats in Roy Williams’ rotation. He must be on point from beyond the arc if the Tar Heels are to win a national title.

32. Jonathan Isaac, F, Florida State

Isaac is a freakishly athletic 6-foot-10 wing who will be in the NBA sooner rather than later. His offensive game still needs some polish, but he’s an outstanding rebounder as a stretch-four, and even occasionally a stretch-five, for the Seminoles.

33. Melo Trimble, G, Maryland

College basketball’s king of clutch is at his most lethal late in close games. Trimble added to his reputation for late-game magic in his final home game when he toppled Michigan State with a last-second game-winning 3-pointer.

34. Jordan Bell, F, Oregon

The Pac-12’s premier defender, the long-armed, quick-footed Bell can guard multiple positions and alter shots at the rim. He and Chris Boucher formed one of the nation’s most feared shot blocking duos before Boucher tore his ACL in the Pac-12 semifinals last week.

35. Trevon Bluiett, F, Xavier

Already Xavier’s best scorer, Bluiett has faced even greater pressure each night with Edmond Sumner sidelined the past six weeks. For the Musketeers to go far, the formula is probably strong defense, dominating the glass and a big scoring night from Bluiett.

36. Derrick Walton, G, Michigan

Walton packs quickness and deceptive power into his 6-foot-1, 190-pound frame, and is the engine of the nation’s fifth-most efficient offense. The senior from Detroit scored a combined 51 points on 30 shots in Michigan’s semifinal and final victories at the Big Ten tournament.

37. KeVaughn Allen, G, Florida

Allen has improved as a defender in his sophomore season, and leads the Gators in scoring. He’s their best catch-and-shoot threat, but is also very capable off the bounce.

38. Mike Daum, F, South Dakota State

The nation’s second-leading scorer averages 25.8 points per game to go along with 8.2 rebounds. If there were ever a player who could single-handedly propel his team to the first-ever 16-over-1 upset, it might be Daum.

39. Przemek Karnowski, C, Gonzaga

At this time last year, Przemek Karnowski was laid up with a back injury so severe he wasn’t certain he’d ever play again. Now he’s once again a two-way force for the Zags, showcasing deft touch around the basket and an ability to pick out open shooters before double teams arrive.

40. Matt Farrell, G, Notre Dame

Farrell entered last year’s NCAA tournament having scored a grand total of six points in ACC play and the ACC tournament. He enters this year’s tournament as the conductor of a wonderfully balanced and free-flowing Irish offense.

41. Grayson Allen, G, Duke

It’s impossible to sum Allen up in a single short paragraph. He’s as enigmatic a player as there is in college basketball. He’s gone from preseason player of the year favorite to the bench in crunch time of the ACC title game, but when his talent rises to the surface, it can be irrepressible.

42. Naz Mitrou-Long, G, Iowa State

The debilitating hip injury that sidelined Mitrou-Long last season became a blessing in disguise for this year’s team. The 6-foot-4 fifth-year senior has turned into the ultimate 3-and-D guy for Iowa State, hitting 38.5 percent of his 3-pointers and often guarding an opposing team’s top perimeter scorer.

43. Nate Mason, G, Minnesota

Mason didn’t make that big a jump from 2015-16 to 2016-17, but everybody around him did, so Mason’s talent no longer goes unrecognized. His 2.72-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio ranked third in the Big Ten, and he plays 34.4 minutes per game on a team that’s gone from 8-24 to a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament in a span of 12 months.

44. Zach LeDay, F, Virginia Tech

Only a couple years ago, LeDay averaged a modest 4.1 points and 2.5 rebounds as a sophomore at South Florida. His development into an all-ACC player at Virginia Tech is one of the catalysts for the Hokies’ sudden ascent.

45. Reggie Lynch, C, Minnesota

Lynch is the best shot-blocker in college basketball. He swats away 14.6 percent of opponents’ 2-point shots, a ridiculous percentage … and one that’s actually lower than his percentages in his sophomore and freshman seasons, when he led Division I in block percentage two years in a row.

46. Dwayne Bacon, G, Florida State

Already lethal off the bounce and in transition, Bacon spent the offseason working to improve his wayward jump shot. The 6-foot-7 wing is still prone to cold streaks, but he has made enough progress to make opposing defenders pay for sagging off him.

47. Devonte’ Graham, G, Kansas

Graham is overshadowed by Mason and Jackson, but he’d be the top option on at least 90 percent of Division I teams, and he’s crucial to Kansas’ success.

48. Marcus Foster, G, Creighton

In desperate need of a fresh start after bottoming out at Kansas State his sophomore year, Foster transferred to the other school that heavily pursued him in high school. The result has been a positive for both sides as Foster has resurrected his career and emerged as one of the Big East’s best perimeter scorers.

49. Scoochie Smith, G, Dayton

Smith’s senior season has been his best at Dayton. His numbers have improved across the board, and his assist rate rose to 31.4 in Atlantic 10 play, a testament to his ability to facilitate the Flyers’ offense. He also has loads of experience: Friday’s game against Wichita State will be Smith’s ninth in the NCAA tournament.

50. Kelan Martin, F, Butler

Martin experienced a mid-season crisis, sent to the bench by Chris Holtmann in early February after a spell of inconsistency to open Big East play. But he’s responded in a big way. He’s posted offensive ratings above 110 in his past six games, and seems to be an ideal fit in the sixth man role for the Bulldogs.

51. Kennedy Meeks, C, North Carolina

Meeks, a dominant offensive rebounder, has made his last go-around in Chapel Hill his best. The 6-foot-10, 260-pound wide-bodied big is averaging 15.2 boards and 1.7 blocks per 40 minutes.

52. Bronson Koenig, G, Wisconsin

Koenig has gradually transitioned from a ball-handling facilitator to Wisconsin’s premier outside scoring threat. He has seen a jump in usage but a decline in assist rate for the second straight season, and attempts seven 3-pointers per game. When Koenig’s 3s aren’t falling, the Badger offense can go ice-cold.

53. Mikal Bridges, F, Villanova

Bridges is a definitive fourth on Villanova’s offensive pecking order, but the 6-foot-7 wing is a disruptive, versatile defender. And when he is called upon on offense? His true shooting percentage is 68.4, the ninth-best mark in all of college basketball.

54. Jeffrey Carroll, G, Oklahoma State

Carroll is right up there with Landale and Farrell for the title of most improved player in college basketball. Between his sophomore and junior seasons, the 6-foot-6 guard has seen his offensive rating jump over 30 points, his effective field goal percentage jump more than 10, his offensive and defensive rebounding percentages by over four each, and his free throw shooting percentage by over 10 points as well. He’s now averaging 17.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.

55. Charles Cooke, G, Dayton

Cooke is Dayton’s leading scorer at 16.1 points per game, and, even at 6-foot-5, is also the team’s leading rebounder. The senior is a bouncy athlete who also shoots 40 percent from deep.

56. Cameron Oliver, F, Nevada

One third of a three-headed monster at Nevada along with sweet-shooting Marcus Marshall and versatile Jordan Caroline, Oliver is a high-upside interior player who blocks shots, scores in the paint and dominates the glass. He’s a huge reason Nevada has gone from nine wins two years ago to the NCAA tournament this season.  

57. Bryant Crawford, G, Wake Forest

The first big-time recruit to sign with Danny Manning, Crawford’s sophomore leap hasn’t been as dramatic as his teammate Collins’, but he continues to make incremental progress. He shoots better and values the ball more, whether by taking smarter shots or minimizing his turnovers.

58. Bam Adebayo, F, Kentucky

Adebayo is one of the most physically imposing players in college basketball. He’s as physically mature a 19-year-old as you’ll come across. His game is more or less confined to a 10-foot radius around the rim, but he’s so powerful that his field goal percentage (61.4) is unaffected, and his free throw rate is astronomical.

59. Kris Jenkins, F, Villanova

Jenkins’ shooting, especially from inside the arc, has regressed in his senior year. He’s actually posted the worst offensive rating of his four-year career, and hasn’t improved noticeably in other areas either. But how could we leave the owner of the greatest moment in Final Four history off this list?

60. Markis McDuffie, F, Wichita State

Wichita State’s balance makes it difficult to choose among its best players, but McDuffie is the best representative of the Shockers’ 30-win success. Long, athletic and hardworking, he scores in multiple ways and is also an excellent defender.

61. Bryce Alford, G, UCLA

Miscast as a ball-dominant point guard earlier in his UCLA career, Alford has thrived this season after Lonzo Ball’s arrival bumped him off ball. He can create off the dribble for himself and others in a pinch, but he’s at his most dangerous running off screens as an elite catch-and-shoot specialist.  

62. Quentin Snider, G, Louisville

Snider isn’t flashy. His season has been interrupted by injury. But the Cardinals’ junior point guard is a high-efficiency scorer, a secure ball handler with a 2.74-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and can be an above average defender when fully healthy.

63. V.J. Beachem, F, Notre Dame

A springy, stringy wing, Beachem is often the tallest player on the floor for the Irish at 6-foot-8. That makes him a matchup nightmare for opposing fours or fives on the offensive end.

64. Kyle Washington, F, Cincinnati

On a Cincinnati team that has recently lacked scoring, Washington’s arrival from NC State has been a Godsend. He provides a low-post scoring presence for the Bearcats along with another capable defender and rebounder.

65. Shake Milton, G, SMU

Milton is emblematic of what makes SMU so intriguing as a team. The Mustangs play positionless basketball, and Milton, at 6-foot-6, is the nominal point guard, but his skill set is far more wide-ranging than that of a typical one.

66. JaCorey Williams, F, Middle Tennessee

Having encountered off-the-court trouble at Arkansas during his junior year, Williams transferred to Middle Tennessee in search of a fresh start. Along with guard Giddy Potts and forward Reggie Upshaw, he’s the biggest reason the Blue Raiders made the jump from 25-win 15-seed to 30-win 12-seed this season.

67. Sterling Brown, G, SMU

As hinted at above, SMU coach Tim Jankovich has a six-man rotation; none of the six are shorter than 6-foot-5; none of them are taller than 6-foot-8. Brown comes down right in the middle on the continuum. One of two seniors on the team, he’s a strong rebounder and defender, but also a dead-eye shooter (44 percent from deep) on the offensive end.

68. Keon Johnson, G, Winthrop

Johnson is undoubtedly the shortest player on this list, but he might be the best pound-for-pound scorer. The 5-foot-7, 160-pound senior averages 22.5 points per game for the 13th-seeded Eagles.

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