The projected No.1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft won’t be a part of March Madness, but most of college basketball’s top stars will compete in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. Just as the sport’s top two players squared off in last year’s national championship game, a few of the nation’s top five individual performers have a good chance to reach the Final Four.
A year ago, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky faced off with Duke’s Jahlil Okafor in the final game of the season. Kaminsky won the John R. Wooden Award, finishing just ahead of Okafor, who led the Blue Devils to a national title. This season, it’s Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine who are likely to finish in the top two in voting, and they could be on a path to meet in the finals.
The Sooners are the No.2 seed in the West, while the Spartans are the No.2 seed in the South. Five straight wins for each team would force a meeting in the national championship game on April 4 in Houston, and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see them play for the title. Oklahoma is the betting favorite to win their region, while Michigan State has the best odds in the Midwest in addition to being the championship pick of many experts.
Hield has been the most exciting player in college basketball for the 2015-2016 season. His 25.0 points per game rank first among players in the field of 68, and he's scoring at an incredibly efficient rate. The guard is making 49.6 percent of his field goals and 46.4 percent of the 8.6 three-pointers he attempts each game. The senior has made himself a likely lottery pick in June’s draft after showcasing his consistent scoring ability.
Valentine isn’t as highly regarded among NBA scouts, and he could be a late lottery pick. But that doesn’t change the fact that Valentine might be the best all-around player in the tournament. The senior fills up the stat sheet most nights, averaging 19.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game. When Michigan State defeated Kansas, who earned the No.1 overall seed, he posted a triple-double with 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists.
Hield plays in the West and Valentine is the top player in the South, but it might be the East that has the most talent of any region. Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis and Providence’s Kris Dunn are perhaps the most accomplished guards in the tournament, and they could potentially meet in the Sweet 16. No.4 Kentucky is the second favorite in the region behind No.1 North Carolina, and No.9 Providence is a longshot to reach the Final Four.
At just 5’9, Ulis ranks second among tournament players with 7.2 assists per game, only trailing Valentine. His draft stock isn’t high because of his height, though he did make history this season by becoming the shortest player to ever be named the SEC Player of the Year.
Dunn, on the other hand, could be a top-five pick, standing at 6’4. He averages 16.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game, and while teammate Ben Bentil is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, Dunn’s all-around game makes him the most important player on the team, and he has drawn comparisons to Dwyane Wade and John Wall. Dunn was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year for a second straight season, and his 2.5 steals per game rank second-best among players in the tournament.
Standing 15 inches taller than Ulis, Jakob Poeltl is the best big man that will take the court during March Madness. During an era in which traditional centers aren’t seen that often, the Utah star has thrived by dominating in the paint. He’s averaging 17.6 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, shooting 65.6 percent from the field. The seven-footer hasn’t attempted one three-pointer all season.
Utah is a No.3 seed, and they could face Michigan State in the Sweet 16. The Utes have the fourth-best odds to win their region.
Superstar freshman forward Ben Simmons is expected to be taken first overall in the draft, but LSU didn’t make the field of 68 and the team won’t play in any postseason tournament. There are three highly touted freshmen in the tournament, though their overall game still need refinement. Brandon Ingram of Duke, Jaylen Brown of Cal and Jamal Murray of Kentucky are expected to be lottery picks.