Selection Sunday is almost a month away, which means it’s crunch time for teams looking to earn top seeds and for bubble teams fighting for an at-large bid.
Once that stage is set, the spotlight will shift to an NCAA tournament team’s most important player because they are key to a deep run.
It’s not always the obvious superstar, either. Sometimes a team’s role player holds the most value because an opponent’s scouting report focuses on slowing other players.
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Here’s a preview of five players poised to flourish as stars of March Madness:
Markus Howard, Marquette: One of the country’s most electric scorers, Howard (25.6 points per game, 4.1 assists) has helped transform the Golden Eagles into a projected No. 3 seed and Big East title contender. The 5-11 guard had 38 points in Marquette’s big win over Villanova last Saturday and followed it up Tuesday with a 36-point outing vs. DePaul. While Marquette might rely on his offense too much, Howard’s the type of catalyst who can lift a team in March. He scored 45 points in a win against elite mid-major Buffalo on Dec. 21, accounting for 40 in the second half.
Tre Jones, Duke: Overshadowed by projected top-two NBA draft picks Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, Jones has been the vital distributor that makes the Blue Devils the current overall No. 1 seed. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has said it’s Jones who “stirs the drink” for this Duke team. He’s averaging just 8.5 points and 5.4 assists a game but he’s the type of shotmaker who could be key if tournament teams decide to play zone to offset Duke’s offense — which worked for Gonzaga and Syracuse.
Ja Morant, Murray State: The sophomore guard is averaging a double-double with 23.9 points and 10.2 assists a game. Morant’s highlight-reel plays have thrust the Racers into national relevance and put him higher on NBA draft boards. But the real time to perform will be in March when Murray State will try to win the Ohio Valley tournament and then excel on the dancing stage.
Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga: The versatile 6-8 forward, who represents Japan’s national team, had his coming-out party in last year’s NCAA tournament, helping the ‘Zags reach the Sweet 16 behind his 25-point, four-block performance vs. Ohio State. This year, he’s blossomed into a player of the year candidate, averaging 20.2 points a game.
Fletcher Magee, Wofford: The senior guard who is averaging 20 points a game is the main reason the Terriers are a projected No. 9 seed. That means even if Wofford loses the Southern Conference Tournament, it could go dancing. Magee is the type of veteran player that will cause inexperienced players headaches with his fundamentals and basketball IQ. He scored back-to-back 30 point games this month.