Ranking the 68 best players in this year's NCAA tournament

The Dagger

They hail from every corner of the globe, from Paris to Philadelphia, from the Bahamas to Berlin.

There are sons of everyday Joes and ex-NBA stars. There are guards who stand shy of 6 feet tall and centers who tower over them. There are McDonald’s All-Americans who coaches have fawned over since middle school and late bloomers who were scarcely recruited at all.

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Here’s a look at the 68 best college basketball players in this year’s NCAA tournament. Remember, 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.

1. Deandre Ayton, F, Arizona

Sean Miller describes him as a “one-man wrecking crew.” Opposing Pac-12 coaches describe him as the best talent they’ve seen come through the league. Not only is Ayton a physical marvel who is averaging more than 20 points, the 7-foot-1 freshman is starting to assert himself on the glass and is averaging 16.3 rebounds his past six games.

2. Jalen Brunson, G, Villanova

There’s a reason Brunson has been a part of a high school state title team, a U-19 World Championship team and Villanova’s 2016 national title team. The All-American point guard consistently makes winning plays. Brunson doesn’t wow you with spectacular highlights, head-turning athleticism or jaw-dropping numbers, but he has a high basketball IQ, impeccable court vision and a knack for coming through in big spots.

3. Devonte Graham, G, Kansas

The true measure of the first-team All-American’s worth this season is not his 17.6 points and 7.2 assists per game. It’s that Bill Self was so averse to considering what Kansas would look like without him that Graham logged the full 40 minutes in 10 straight games and only sat for a total of 19 minutes in Big 12 regular season and conference tournament play.

4. Marvin Bagley, F, Duke

Bagley’s superpower is his second and third jump. He’s a 6-foot-11 human pogo stick in high tops.

The ACC player of the year averages nearly four offensive boards per game and is a big reason why Duke is college basketball’s premier offensive rebounding team.

5. Trae Young, G, Oklahoma

A Big 12 assistant coach on what makes Oklahoma’s freshman phenom so tough to contain whenever he has the ball in his hands: “His shooting ability makes him quicker. You can back off of guys who are fast but can’t shoot, but you have to guard him 30 feet from the basket with your hands up every single time.”

6. Trevon Bluiett, F, Xavier

There aren’t many shooters across the country who put more pressure on an opposing defense than Bluiett. Said a Big East assistant coach, “You can’t relax on him. You can’t mess up a ball screen. If he gets a couple layups or gets to the free throw line and sees the ball go through, the next thing you know he’s stringing off three or four threes in a row.”

7. Mikal Bridges, G, Villanova

The key to Bridges’ monster junior season has been his increased proficiency as a catch-and-shoot weapon. Bridges can still guard multiple positions and attack the basket off the dribble, but now he’s also averaging 18 points per game and shooting 43.3 percent from behind the arc.

8. Keita Bates-Diop, F, Ohio State

Bates-Diop’s ascent from unremarkable to invaluable is the biggest reason Ohio State emerged as an unexpected contender in the Big Ten. What sets the lanky forward apart is his high release and ability to consistently knock down tough shots.

9. Miles Bridges, F, Michigan State

While Bridges’ scoring output is nearly identical to last season, the way he has achieved it is not. Guarded mostly by small forwards, as opposed to power forwards a year ago, he has had a tougher time getting to the rim. According to hoop-math.com, 39.6 percent of Bridges’ shots last season were from behind the arc and 37.1 percent were at the rim. This season, 42.2 percent of his shots were 3-pointers and only 28.1 percent came at the rim.

10. Jevon Carter, G, West Virginia

He averages 17 points and 6.5 assists per game, yet that’s not why Carter is a first-team all-Big 12 performer. The two-time Big 12 defensive player of the year is known for his active hands, quick feet and ability to shutdown opposing scorers.

11. Keenan Evans, G, Texas Tech

Kansas’ conference title streak might be over had Evans not suffered an ill-timed toe injury in mid-February. During Texas Tech’s ensuing four-game losing streak, Evans sat out one game and scored a total of 12 points on 3-for-19 shooting in the others. The 6-foot-3 senior has averaged more than 18 points besides that.

12. Aaron Holiday, G, UCLA

The sport’s best trio of brothers isn’t Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo. It’s Jrue, Justin and Aaron. While the youngest Holiday isn’t as gifted as Jrue or as long and physical as Justin, Aaron has been everything UCLA could have hoped. The junior point guard is averaging 20.3 points and 5.8 assists and shooting a sizzling 43.3 percent from behind the arc.

13. Carsen Edwards, G, Purdue

The 6-foot-1 sophomore’s contributions to Purdue this season include 18.5 points per game, 41.2 percent 3-point shooting and an all-time great GIF.

14. Luke Maye, F, North Carolina

The tale of Maye blossoming from walk-on to All-American candidate and NCAA tournament hero is a tad overblown. The skilled big man had offers from a number of Division I programs, but he chose to commit to his dream school even though Roy Williams only had one scholarship left and it was earmarked for Brandon Ingram. When Ingram chose Duke, Maye got his scholarship.

15. Kelan Martin, G, Butler

The unanimous first-team all-Big East selection has come a long way since former coach Chris Holtmann risked losing a league game by benching Martin for 30 minutes last season. Not only is Martin averaging 21.2 points per game, he has also emerged as an all-around player who is no longer a liability on defense.

16. Allonzo Trier, G, Arizona

Trier has evolved from a good shooter to an elite one over the course of his Arizona career. He finished the regular season shooting over 50 percent from the field, over 40 percent from behind the arc and over 80 percent from the foul line, becoming the first Arizona player to achieve that feat since Salim Stoudamire’s remarkable 2004-05 season.

17. Moritz Wagner, F, Michigan

Nick Ward is still having Moritz Wagner-themed nightmares.

18. Devon Hall, G, Virginia

He isn’t Virginia’s best defender. That’s Isaiah Wilkins. He also isn’t Virginia’s leading scorer. That’s Kyle Guy. But Hall might be the best all-around player on college basketball’s best all-around team. The 6-foot-5 senior shoots nearly 45 percent from behind the arc and nearly 90 percent from the free throw line while also providing lockdown perimeter defense.

19. Marcus Foster, G, Creighton

Since Creighton lost top big man Martin Krampelj to a knee injury in mid-January, Foster has taken his game to another level. The 6-foot-3 senior scoring guard is averaging 22 points during that stretch, yet has not experienced a downtick in efficiency.

20. Wendell Carter, F, Duke

Must be nice being Duke. The Blue Devils’ other big man is also a future lottery pick. He’s not quite as bouncy as Bagley, but he can score in the paint or off the glass and he shoots well from behind the arc.

21. Collin Sexton, G, Alabama

Most underrated achievement of the season: Sexton nearly rallying Alabama past Minnesota while playing 3-on-5.

22. Grant Williams, F, Tennessee

Things that TV broadcast crews are contractually obligated to mention about Williams during Vols games: His mom works for NASA, he turned down Ivy League offers to attend Tennessee and he plays seven musical instruments. Oh, and he’s halfway decent at basketball too.

23. Dean Wade, F, Kansas State

The 6-foot-10 forward is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. He’s a tough cover for slower big men in a pick and pop or smaller wings in a pick and roll as he shoots over 40 percent from behind the arc yet is effective scoring in the paint as well.

24. Landry Shamet, G, Wichita State

This might be the best offense Wichita State has ever had under Gregg Marshall, and Shamet’s development is a huge reason why. The 6-foot-4 point guard is a lethal shooter with good court vision, an effective hesitation dribble and an excellent feel for the game.

25. Mo Bamba, C, Texas

Monster defensive upside. Seven-foot-9 wingspan. Flashes of shooting touch. There’s a ton to like about Bamba as a prospect, but he’s still raw and still needs to get stronger. Said a Big 12 assistant, “If you’re an NBA team that’s building something, he has unbelievable upside if you give him time. If you’re trying to be a playoff team next season, I don’t know if he’s the guy I would draft.”

26. Gary Clark, F, Cincinnati

Versatility might be Clark’s greatest strength. The 6-foot-8 forward is a phenomenal offensive rebounder, a capable rim protector, a competent passer and a dependable scorer.

27. Joel Berry II, G, North Carolina

This snippet of Berry’s senior night speech should be mandatory viewing for future incoming freshmen at North Carolina. Great stuff.

28. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G, Kentucky

He wasn’t as highly touted as some of Kentucky’s other freshmen, but he has been the Wildcats’ emotional leader and best player. Said one SEC assistant coach on Gilgeous-Alexander: “He’s a 6-6 point guard. There aren’t many of those out there. He can get in the paint, score over the top of you, his shot has gotten better and he can really pass. He’s a stud.”

29. Grayson Allen, G, Duke

If you think Grayson Allen has been at Duke a long time, imagine how he feels. Twenty-nine different Blue Devils players have been Allen’s teammate since he arrived with Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow in 2014.

30. Caleb Martin, F, Nevada

If Marcus Foster is college basketball’s best former transfer, Caleb Martin and his twin brother Cody aren’t far behind. Caleb edged Boise State senior Chandler Hutchison for Mountain West player of the year honors. Cody earned the league’s defensive player of the year award.

31. Jaylen Adams, G, St. Bonaventure

A three-time first-team all-Atlantic 10 selection, Adams shared conference player of the year honors this season with Davidson’s Peyton Aldridge. The high-scoring senior pairs with teammate Matt Mobley to give St. Bonaventure one of the nation’s top mid-major backcourts.

32. Jared Harper, G, Auburn

In addition to averaging nearly 14 points and 6 assists per game, Harper also leads the SEC in swagger. Exhibit A: This shot nobody else in the league would even dare to attempt in garbage time, let alone two minutes into a rivalry game.

33. Khyri Thomas, G, Creighton

Seldom does a guy who averages 15.5 points per game receive so little attention for his offense. That’s because Thomas is the two-time reigning Big East defender of the year and one of the elite perimeter stoppers in all of college basketball.

34. Tyus Battle, G, Syracuse

On a Syracuse team with only three scorers and precious little depth, Battle averages 20 points per game and shoulders a heavy burden. Believe it or not, he is averaging more than 40 minutes per game since December as a result of a pair of overtime games.

35. Peyton Aldridge, F, Davidson

The man who will try to lead Davidson past Kentucky this week is a skilled 6-foot-8 forward who can score inside and out. He and freshman guard Kellan Grady combine to average nearly 40 points per game for the Wildcats.

36. Cassius Winston, G, Michigan State

Miles Bridges is Michigan State’s best player and Jaren Jackson is Michigan State’s best prospect, but Winston is the Spartans’ catalyst. He’s doubled his scoring average from last season while shooting over 50 percent from the field and behind the arc. He’s also averaging a Big Ten-best 6.8 assists.

37. Angel Delgado, F, Seton Hall

One of the stalwarts of a 2014 recruiting class that changed Seton Hall’s fortunes, Delgado will soon conclude a decorated college career. He has averaged a double-double as a junior and senior and is among the nation’s premier rebounders.

38. Barry Brown, G, Kansas State

Who played the best defense against Trae Young all season? It very well might be Brown. The Kansas State standout face-guarded Young in mid-January, forcing him to take 21 shots to net 20 points and harassing him into a Big 12-record 12 turnovers.

39. Johnathan Williams, F, Gonzaga

The leading scorer and top interior defender on a balanced Gonzaga team is finishing his college career with a flourish. He has scored in double figures in each of his last 12 games and tallied double-doubles in nine of them.

40. Marcquise Reed, G, Clemson

How did Clemson win a school-record 11 ACC games this season despite a season-ending injury to second-leading scorer Donte Grantham? A big key has been Reed’s perimeter scoring. He’s averaging more than 16 points per game for a team that thrives on defense.

41. Mike Daum, F, South Dakota State

The 6-foot-9 Nebraska native didn’t have any scholarship offers until the South Dakota State staff spotted him knocking down threes at a Las Vegas tournament. All he’s done since is finish top 10 nationally in scoring twice and earn a spot among the five finalists for the Karl Malone Award given to college basketball’s best power forward.

42. Rob Gray, G, Houston

Distinctive hairstyle, dynamic game. The 6-foot-1 point guard is known not only for his man bun but also for his explosiveness off the dribble. Gray is averaging 18.1 points and a career-best 4.7 assists per game.

43. Vince Edwards, F, Purdue

The senior forward’s production has been a good barometer for Purdue’s success. He has averaged less than nine points per game in the Boilermakers’ losses and 14.7 points per game in their wins.

44. Tyler Davis, C, Texas A&M

Davis is as dependable as his team is erratic. Only four times all season did the 6-foot-10 big man fail to score in double figures. And only four times all season did Davis score more than 20. You can pretty much pencil him in for 15 points and 9 rebounds every night, a nice luxury for a Texas A&M program that lacks consistency elsewhere on the floor.

45. Bryce Brown, G, Auburn

Keeping Bryce Brown in check is among the keys to beating Auburn. The Tigers are unbeaten when the sharpshooter scored 13 or more points and 4-5 when he is held to 12 or fewer.

46. Jaren Jackson, F, Michigan State

The Big Ten defensive player of the year is a future lottery pick, an elite shot blocker who can also guard positionally and knock down 3-pointers. Said one Big Ten assistant coach, “I call him Kevin Garnett 2.0. He’s going to be a problem.”

46. Kyle Guy, G, Virginia

Until last Thursday, Guy held one of college basketball’s oddest titles: He might have been the best player never to dunk in a game. The sharpshooting guard relinquished his crown with a breakaway dunk in the final minute of Virginia’s ACC quarterfinal win over Louisville.

47. Killian Tillie, F, Gonzaga

After the WCC coaches did not include Tillie on the league’s 10-player first-team all-conference team, Tillie made that look downright absurd. The skilled 6-foot-10 forward averaged 24 points per game in three WCC tournament games and played his usual effective defense, helping Gonzaga cruise to another title.

48. Michael Porter Jr., F, Missouri

Someday soon, Porter might be the best player on this list, but the future lottery pick needs more time to shake the rust off after missing all but two minutes of the regular season with a back injury. Porter returned in the SEC tournament and shot 5-for-17 from the field in a loss to Georgia.

49. Chris Chiozza, G, Florida

In addition to his knack for playmaking and ability to pressure the ball, Chiozza has come through in the clutch for Florida time and time again. His most famous game winner? Hide your eyes, Wisconsin fans.

50. Svi Mykhailiuk, G, Kansas

He’s a lethal shooter and improved defender. His ability to use his size and length to defend opposing forwards has been one of the reasons Kansas has been so successful in its four-guard set.

51. Isaac Haas, C, Purdue

The strategy among Big Ten teams has been to try to take away Purdue’s 3-point shooters and force Haas to win the game 1-on-1 from the post. Well, he can do that. The 7-foot-2 senior is averaging 14.9 points and shooting 62.1 percent from the field. When he gets deep post position, he’s automatic.

52. Jacob Evans III, G, Cincinnati

His shooting stroke and defensive versatility stand out, as does his ability to play through pain. Evans fought through leg cramps and a sprained ankle on March 3 to score 19 points in Cincinnati’s league title-clinching victory at Wichita State.

53. Justin Robinson, G, Virginia Tech

Once primarily a playmaker for others, Robinson emerged as Virginia Tech’s top scoring threat over the course of ACC play. The junior guard averaged 17.4 points during the Hokies’ final 15 games.

54. Kassius Robertson, G, Missouri

The Canisius graduate transfer has endeared himself to Missouri fans with his perimeter shooting and his raggedy shoes. Said Robertson to PowerMizzou.com earlier this season, “I don’t like playing in brand-new shoes; I hate it. I like them to be worn in a little bit.”

55. Kevin Knox, F, Kentucky

While NBA scouts believe that Knox will eventually emerge as an outstanding perimeter shooter, the 6-foot-9 power forward has been erratic as a freshman. He’s averaging more than 15 points per game, but shooting a modest 34.9 percent from behind the arc.

56. Daryl Macon, G, Arkansas

He’s been one of the big reasons Arkansas is back in the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. Macon is averaging 17 points and 4 assists while shooting over 40 percent from behind the arc.

57. Tra Holder, G, Arizona State

Once an early candidate for Pac-12 player of the year, Holder has fallen off in league play along with his team. The senior guard is still averaging 18.4 points per game this season, but he has shot under 39 percent from the field against Pac-12 opponents.

58. Jared Terrell, G, Rhode Island

The Atlantic 10 had co-players of the year, yet the best player on the league’s best team was not one of them. St. Bonaventure’s Jaylen Adams and Dayton’s Payton Pritchard shared that award, while Terrell settled for first-team all-league despite averaging nearly 18 points and shooting over 40 percent from behind the arc.

59. Admiral Schofield, F, Tennessee

This hilarious exchange is emblematic both of Schofield’s humility and Tennessee’s underdog status. The undersized forward helped lead a team projected 13th in the SEC in the preseason to an improbable league title.

60. Theo Pinson, G, North Carolina

Few players impact a game without scoring more than Pinson does. He’s North Carolina’s emotional leader, top perimeter defender and best passer — even when he’s on his backside.

61. Ty Jerome, G, Virginia

Of all the big shots Virginia’s King of Clutch has hit this season, this one at Duke is probably the most memorable. Ball fake. Swish. Silence.

62. Shaquille Morris, C, Wichita State

Gregg Marshall on Morris’ evolution from project to standout: “He just needed to learn to work and be an everyday guy, so we could count on him every day. Lately, not only have we been counting on him, we’ve been riding him.”

63. Jonathan Stark, G, Murray State

Might be the mid-major star most likely to emerge as this year’s Sherwood Brown or Harold Arceneaux. Stark has averaged 20-plus both of the past two seasons, and he can beat you off the bounce or from behind the arc.

64. Gary Trent Jr., G, Duke

An elite outside shooter who spaces the floor so that Duke’s other standouts have room to operate in the paint, Trent is shooting 41.5 percent from behind the arc. NBA scouts like his positional size and scoring instincts, but he has room to improve defensively and making decisions with the ball in his hands.

65. Isaiah Wilkins, F, Virginia

The most important player on the nation’s best defense. The 6-foot-7 senior does a little bit of everything, from sturdy post defense, to crisp rotations, to deflecting passes, to protecting the rim.

66. Udoka Azubuike, C, Kansas

Expect plenty of attention to be devoted to Azubuike’s injured left knee this week. Kansas needs back the anchor of its thin frontcourt, a sophomore who has averaged 13.7 points and 7.1 boards while also providing the rim protection the Jayhawks otherwise lack.

67. Jemerrio Jones, G, New Mexico State

Not only is Jones second in the country in rebounding, he’s the only player among the top 20 who stands shorter than 6-foot-6. The 6-foot-5 guard has an ability to track the ball off the glass that his coaches describe as “sonar.”

68. Donte DiVincenzo, G, Villanova

You probably know about Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, but the contributions of DiVicenzo sometimes go overlooked. Said a Big East assistant: “He’s one of the most underrated guys in the country. Obviously he can shoot, but he’s really athletic, he has good size and he can make plays around the rim.”

Deandre Ayton is peaking in March, which should have Arizona’s potential NCAA opponents terrified. (AP)
Deandre Ayton is peaking in March, which should have Arizona’s potential NCAA opponents terrified. (AP)

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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