By Justin Morris
It’s time. The madness, the mayhem, the mania, the March. “The sporting event like no other” is not called such without warrant. So much drama, so many upsets, and so much action that all culminates together in an unprecedented slew of games, games and more games. It’s a million dollar event, it’s broadcasted on four of America’s premier television networks, and eyes across the country, across the world have their eyes glued to their television screens as the madness unfolds. There truly is no other event like it. Whether its family tradition, school pride, or just a simple love for the game of basketball, if you’re watching it, you’re watching it for a reason. No other event in sports tests the will, the grit, the determination and the clutch factor of its athletes like this one. It’s win or go home, and the difference between the great college players and the ones who are forgotten is usually made in March. Coaches names become folklore, schools make history and set new records, but the ultimate stars of the show, the players, have their own basketball and life scripts in their hands with the world as witnesses. Names like Kemba Walker, Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry, even Michael Jordan were cemented in March, and it’s the perfect spotlight for players each year to do just what these greats did: become legendary.
2019 is unlike any year we’ve seen in college basketball. It was one of controversy, with multiple recruiting scandals being uncovered, one of the underdog, as countless mid-major program players proved their worth as legitimate NBA prospects, and programs like Murray State and Wofford of South Carolina boasted exceptional surprise records with 20 plus wins, and a year of unparalleled drama, with a staggering total of overtime games and chilling game-winners. It was also one of extremely rare talent. One of these talents, a 6-7 freshman from Spartanburg, South Carolina might be the reason 2019 is different from any other year we’ve seen in the NCAA. He highlights the list of game-changing players to watch heading into the tournament.
Zion Williamson (Duke) has a name that seems as if it’s made for the bright lights. His name, which fittingly means “high point” (deriving from Hebrew origin), is a tell-all for the type of game he boasts, a high-flying, above the rim spectacle of dazzling 360 jams, windmill dunks, and thunderous rim rockers. Williamson looks more like he belongs on a football field, but for all the 280-pound forward brings to the table in size, he compliments it perfectly with a finely tuned skill set, complete with a polished mid-range jumper, tightly knit handle on the ball, and a basketball IQ that seems to surpass his age by years. There’s a reason he’s being compared to Lebron James. He’s a rare basketball player that can just about do anything on the floor, and scouts have been ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the Zion show ever since he stepped foot in Durham. To write about him more wouldn’t even do him justice. So I’ll just leave this here, and allow you to see the spectacle that Zion Williamson is for yourself.
Rui Hachimura (Gonzaga) – Sometimes star talent just goes under the radar, and unheralded players breakout into their true form once they begin college play, shocking those who failed to see their potential while they were still in high school. For others though, their college performance makes you wonder how in the world they slipped under the cracks of so many whose job it is to find the best. Rui Hachimura is one of those players. Perhaps though, the location of his high school career made college scouts a bit timid in pursuing him; he played his high school ball in Toyama, and while he led his school to two Japan national championships, the talent pool was not comparable to basketball in North America. There’s no denying his talent though. He’s a stretchy 6-8 wing with handle, athleticism and a natural knack for scoring the basketball. The WCC player of the year averaged just over 20 points per game on an efficient 60% shooting, and leads a heady Gonzaga squad that went 30-3 this season, head coach Mark Few’s best record during his 20 year tenure there. The Zags are primed to make a tournament run this year, and have been predicted by many to cut down the nets in April. If Hachimura plays like he has all season, they just might be the team we see atop them all at the end of the tournament.
Ja Morant (Murray State) – “Baby Westbrook” as they call him, is projected to be the first top 10 pick from a mid-major school since 2014, and has done everything he possibly could to earn the Westbrook comparisons. He’s a triple-double machine, setting the Murray State record for the stat after just his second (it wouldn’t be close to his last), and all the while leading all Division one players in total assists. His 24.6 points per game led the Racers to a 28-4 record, and boy do they race. Their offense thrives on putting pressure on the defense, and Morant’s lightning-quick speed and springy leaping ability fuels it all. He does so much more for the team than just score, though. He’s the facilitator, the spiritual leader, and arguably the best point guard in the nation, all with a swagger and confidence about him that can propel him to a stellar NBA career. “Beneath no one” are the words tattooed on his left arm, and so far, he’s proved that he is just that among competition he’s faced this year.
Cassius Winston (Michigan State) – Sparty has got a point guard this year, and they know a thing or two about great point guards (see Earvin Magic Johnson.) Cassius Winston does just about all Tom Izzo can ask for in leading the Spartans: score, pass, defend, rebound. Michigan’s Mr. Basketball in 2016 is still likely the best player in the state, and his 18.9 points per game along with 7.6 assists all but solidify that. Winston has been solid all season as well as clutch, which was exemplified by a game-winning layup with 30 seconds left in a Big Ten quarterfinal matchup with Ohio State that kept Michigan State’s tournament hopes alive, and with Winston leading them past Wisconsin and Michigan on their way to the Big 10 Title, he and the Spartans will have some lofty expectations come tournament time.
Myles Powell (Seton Hall) – This list would be incomplete without Myles Powell, and what’s an article on Hall Pass without a little flavor from Seton Hall? All Hall talk aside though, Powell is well deserving to be on anyone’s watch list, and he has earned all of the attention that has come his way. Whether it was his second half outburst against 7th ranked Kentucky in Madison Square Garden to fuel the Pirates to victory in an overtime thriller, or a 29 point first half barrage in their thrashing of Georgetown in the Big East tournament, Powell has proven that he can get buckets. What the Trenton product has been making, the world has been taking, and he’s likely the reason the Pirates are in the tournament. He averages 22.9 points per game, and is arguably one of the best shooters in the country. It’s no doubt been a breakout year for Powell, but to get, and hold the attention of NBA scouts, he’ll have to have an incredible showing in March.
Luke Maye (UNC) – Luke Maye has been sneaky good on the floor for Roy Williams’s Tarheels, and among a roster that boasts a top 10 recruit in Nassir Little, along with Coby White and Cameron Johnson, both legitimate NBA prospects, Maye has been the glue that’s held the foundation together. UNC has been the model of consistency for years, and the 2017 national champs are once again one of the favorites to take the glory this year. Maye is a big reason for this. He’s skyrocketed his role to being a key cog in Williams’s engine after committing to UNC without even knowing if would receive a scholarship in addition to seldomly being used his first two years in Chapel Hill. A junior campaign with 20.8 points per game and 10.3 rebounds changed this, and this year Maye, while dropping off in point production in efforts to involve UNC’s other fiery scorers, still averages a double-double and is one player Williams can always lean on to make a big play.
Admiral Schofield (Tennessee) – Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield has a certain presence about him on the floor. He’s got broad shoulders and a bassy voice that can be heard every player and coach in the arena. He’s a vocal leader, a big shot taker, and maker, and a big reason that Tennessee was 23-1 on the season at one point, and the consensus number one team in the country. They were one of the favorites to win the 2019 SEC tournament before a disappointing blowout loss to Auburn in the title game. Despite the loss, they received a two seed going into the big dance, one of their best in years. Look for Schofield to come up big for the Volunteers.
Phil Booth (Villanova) – Villanova was not supposed to win another Big East title this year. Jay Wright was not supposed to win Big East Coach of the Year. But somehow, some way, the Wildcats keep winning, and Wright finds a way to get the best out of his talent each year. They’ve won three of the last four Big East championships, two of the last three national championships, and this year, they look to do no different. They are without last year’s AP player of the year, Jalen Brunson, and lost three other players to the NBA. Perhaps though, this was just what the doctor ordered, because the Big Ticker, as he’s now called, has stepped up big time for Nova. The team’s leader this year has an increased role, and he’s took complete advantage of it, averaging 18.6 points per game, while doing so much production-wise that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. Phil Booth makes smart plays, he rebounds, he hustles for loose possessions. He is the embodiment of Jay Wright’s winning “culture” that has kept them atop college basketball’s totem pole, and he will be leaned by Wright heavily as Nova tries to continue doing what they do best: win.
Other Players to Watch: Caleb Martin, PJ Washington, RJ Barrett, Markus Howard, Jared Harper, Naz Reid, Ethan Happ
Justin Morris can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @Justin_JM12