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NCAA Tournament: The Best Players to Watch

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In the first week of games, it felt like the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament was making up for lost time after being canceled last year due to COVID-19. This year’s tournament has been ultra-heavy on upsets. This weekend, the NCAA tournament moves to the regional rounds, with the Sweet 16 kicking off on Saturday and the Elite Eight on Monday. Although it’s still early, a handful of players have already proven themselves to be March Madness heroes.

 

 

Let’s meet eight of them. From free throw specialists to all-around power players, the athletes below are setting their teams up for success in this year’s NCAA tournament—and putting on a great show in the process.

Jalen Suggs, guard, Gonzaga

Suggs is a new kind of Gonzaga superstar. The Bulldogs used to win with a mix of unheralded American recruits (like Adam Morrison) and international prospects (Tobias Harris, Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis). But Suggs is not an off-the-radar find like those players. He’s a true freshman five-star point guard who could have gone to almost any school in the country. But he picked Gonzaga, and he has quickly become one of the best playmakers and shot creators on a veteran-heavy roster.

Cameron Krutwig, center, Loyola–Chicago

Krutwig, a senior, is an indispensable player for the Ramblers, who are trying to mount their second run to the Final Four in four years. He’s an incredibly efficient scorer around the basket, and Loyola likes to run its offense through him—a rarity in an era when most teams rely heavily on guards to generate open shots. Krutwig can facilitate for others, too. He had 19 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists in an upset of No. 1 seed Illinois in the second round.

Also, as ESPN’s Mina Kimes pointed out, he looks like a character in a Coen Brothers movie.

Max Abmas, guard, Oral Roberts

Along with Colorado, Oral Roberts is making a run at finishing the season with the highest team free throw percentage of all time. The 1984 Harvard team holds the record at 82.2 percent, and No. 15 seed Cinderella ORU is currently leading the league at 82.4 percent. The main reason for that is Abmas, a 6’1” guard who has made 129 of 143 foul shots this season—an incredible 90.2 percent. He shoots better than 40 percent on three-pointers, too.

Buddy Boeheim, guard, Syracuse

Orange head coach Jim Boeheim’s son is also his most vital player. Buddy is a 39.6-percent shooter from three-point land, and he also shoots 87 percent at the foul line. He’s one of the few players on the Syracuse squad who can create his own shot off the dribble. His 18-point, 2.5-rebound, and three-assist average makes him the team’s bellwether—if Buddy is having a good night, there’s a solid chance the No. 11 seed Orange are having a good night, too.

Justin Smith, forward, Arkansas

Smith is averaging an excellent 24.5 points per game in this tournament, which puts him in third among remaining players (behind Boeheim and Oral Roberts forward Kevin Obanor). In what should be a terrific game, Smith will likely be matched up directly against Obanor in the Sweet 16.

Evan Mobley, center, USC

The Trojans are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007. A big reason is Mobley, the seven-footer who leads all remaining players in the tournament with six blocks in two games. Mobley is a prodigious defender around the basket, and he also happens to be USC’s most prolific scorer and rebounder, averaging 17 points and nine rebounds. If USC manages to get to its first Final Four since 1954 (when the tournament had just 24 teams), Mobley will be the driving factor.

Jared Butler, guard, Baylor

Averaging 17 points per game, Butler is the straw that stirs the drink for the Bears, who have one of the scariest offenses in the country. Sure, he makes 41.5 percent of his threes, but he’s also the best playmaker coach Scott Drew has. His 4.8 assists per game are likely to help backcourt mates MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell get buckets, too.

Hunter Dickinson, center, Michigan

The Wolverines’ freshman wunderkind is even more important for the team now that star point guard Isaiah Livers is out with an injury. Dickinson is Michigan’s best rebounder, best interior defender, best shot-blocker, best scoring option in the post, and best player at drawing fouls on the other team. He might turn out to be Michigan’s best big man since head coach Juwan Howard played at the school in the ‘90s.


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