In addition to the teams that will capture the country’s attention in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, a few individual players will undoubtedly stand out as the best during March Madness. By putting up big numbers and making important shots, they will garner the national spotlight and possibly improve their NBA Draft stock.
The best players in the NCAA Tournament don’t always go on to have success at the next level. Two years ago, Louisville’s Luke Hancock was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, and he’s never played a game in the NBA. Fifteen years earlier, Kentucky’s Jeff Sheppard won the award and went undrafted, as well.
Below is a look at the top five players that will play in the NCAA Tournament.
Jahlil Okafor, Duke
The Duke freshman is the biggest star in college basketball. Entering this season as the top recruit, Okafor has more than lived up to expectations, becoming the best player on the team that might have the best chance of preventing unbeaten Kentucky from winning the national championship. He’s helped Duke become a No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and he’ll likely be the top pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Okafor has put up very impressive numbers as a freshman. His 17.7 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game lead the Blue Devils, and he’s been very consistent, failing to score double-digits in just one game. His last game was one of his best this season, scoring 28 points on 72.2 percent field-goal shooting. Okafor is shooting 66.9 percent from the field for the year.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
The seven-footer won’t be drafted nearly as high as Okafor, but he’s been just as good this year. Leading Wisconsin to a Big Ten Championship and a No.1 seed, Kaminsky has easily been the Badgers’ best player. His 18.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game are tops on the team, and the big man gives Wisconsin a legitimate chance to win the national title.
Kaminsky might be the most difficult player to defend in the entire tournament. His size makes him a presence in the paint, but he’s also a great shooter, making 39 percent of the 2.6 three-pointers he takes per contest. Wisconsin’s one loss to an unranked opponent came against Rutgers when Kaminsky didn’t play.
D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State
Russell’s time in the NCAA Tournament could be limited, since Ohio State isn’t one of the favorites to reach the Final Four. The Buckeyes are a No.10 seed, grabbing one of the last at-large bids to make the field of 68. But Russell has been so good this year that he makes Ohio State a potentially dangerous team.
The guard does everything for the Buckeyes, averaging 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Russell has played particularly well in March, averaging 23 points per game.
Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
Notre Dame is riding high at the start of March Madness, having defeated Duke and North Carolina to capture the ACC Championship. Grant has been their best player all year, and they’ll need him to play well if they want to make a run towards the Final Four.
He isn’t scoring as much as he did last season, but Grant fills up the stat sheet, averaging 16.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game. The senior has come up big when the Fighting Irish have needed him most, posting 24 points and 10 assists when the team won their conference tournament. After proving that he can step up in important moments, Grant could be on his way to having a very memorable tournament.
Bobby Portis, Arkansas
The SEC Player of the Year award didn’t go to anyone on Kentucky, who hasn’t lost a game this season. That honor went to Portis, who led Arkansas to a No.5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. His 17.7 points per game and 54.9 percent field goal percentage rank second in the conference, while his 8.8 rebounds per game are good for fourth-best in the SEC.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein will be drafted ahead of him, but Portis has been the best big man in the SEC. He’s helped lead Arkansas to their best season since they won the national championship 20 years ago.