In 1998, Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew hit an amazing shot at the buzzer to beat Ole Miss in the first round of the NCAA tournament. His name is synonymous with March Madness ever since. In 2021, he is the head coach at Grand Canyon University, who will be making their first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Drew is one of many players who have become famous for their exploits in the big dance. Some have a series of great games in a deep run while others have just one shining moment.
Here are just 25 names to know in the return of the NCAA tournament. Names who could be the next player to dominate sports talk for the next few days, few weeks, or a lifetime. Here are some players to watch in the 2021 tournament.
Abmas leads the nation in scoring this season with a 24.2 ppg average. He’s put up some huge games this season, including 42 points against South Dakota State and 41 on Western Illinois. He’s also durable, logging 40 minutes in all three games of the Summit League tournament and 14 games this season. This is all the more amazing when you realize the Summit scheduled the conference season with a series of back-to-back dates against the same opponent … meaning Abmas would play 80 minutes in about a 24 hour time frame (he did so three times) and all 120 minutes in the tournament. And this guy still hit 43% of his 208 three-point attempts! The 6’1 sophomore will be a name to follow at ORU for the next few years.
Barcello leads the Cougars in scoring (15.9 ppg) and is one of the best three-point shooters in the nation. He’s hit 51 of his 105 three-point attempts for a 48.6% clip and has become the engine that runs the BYU offense. It is somewhat amazing since he was buried on Arizona’s bench for two years before coming to Salt Lake City. He’s the Cougars’ glue guy, the clutch guy, the teammate they look to when they need a big play.
Looking at his season average, Broome’s 13.9 points per game doesn’t jump out at you, but he’s been a bit more potent over the last two months. He’s had three 20+ point games in the Eagles’ last six games, including 27 against Ohio Valley Conference regular-season champion Belmont in the conference tournament championship game. He’s been a rebounding monster as well, averaging 12.3 boards in those last six games. He’s a throwback as a purely interior player (he didn’t attempt a three all season) and has the size to bang with the big boys in the tournament.
Bouknight missed nine games this season with an elbow injury. UConn is 11-3 when he plays (those losses were to Villanova and Creighton, twice, and by a total of 13 points) and 4-4 when he doesn’t, which means this team is more dangerous than what their seeding implies. He’s averaging over 19 points per game and the Huskies are a much more efficient and lethal team with him out on the floor. He dropped 40 on Creighton earlier this season and had a couple of 20-10 games sprinkled in.
The last time we saw Clark and the Cavaliers in the NCAA tournament, they were carrying the championship trophy. Clark was the starting point guard as a freshman then and was instrumental in advancing UVa through three consecutive nail biters (just ask Purdue about Clark’s basketball IQ). Last season, Clark was tasked with being more of a scorer which he struggled with. Now he’s back as the leader and facilitator of a Virginia offense that is a bit more potent than you may be accustomed to.
Cunningham is likely to be the top pick in the 2021 NBA Draft after a fantastic freshman season. He’s averaging just under 20 points per game and has a game that is both smooth and clutch. He is electric running the Cowboys offense and can score (or make plays) in a variety of ways. Sure, recent history hasn’t been kind to the NBA’s top overall pick during the big dance but Cunningham is legit.
Who said that bigs were a dying breed? Dickinson is the anchor for a very good Michigan squad that has a good look at a title run. He leads the Wolverines in scoring, rebounding, and blocks — not bad for a guy who began the season as a backup. His numbers have gone down slightly since opponents have concentrated on double-teaming him, but he has proven to be able to move the ball and find ways to impact the game. If Michigan goes on a Final Four run, Dickinson will be a major factor.
Dosunmu is averaging around 21 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists for the Illini, and opened eyes with two triple-doubles late in the season. It isn’t just that he can score, but he is also a guy that wants the ball in his hands in big moments. He doesn’t lack confidence and has that look of a guard who can lead a team to a national championship.
Duarte is a fantastic two-way player … and an efficient one at that. He’s one of the oldest players in college basketball (he’ll be 24 in June) and uses his maturity to play with poise, effort, and determination. He’s averaging nearly 17 points and 2 steals per game while shooting 53% from the field, 44% from three, and 80% from the line. He’s a dangerous player without looking like the focal point of the team. In a tournament like the one we’re about to see, this kind of experience goes a long way.
Garza is the front-runner for most of the player of the year awards and is among the nation’s scoring leaders. The senior from D.C. is averaging 24 points and 8 rebounds this season and typically plays big in big games. The Hawkeyes are looking for their first Final Four in 41 years and to get to their first regional final since 1987, and they will be looking for Garza to carry them there.
Grimes became the first Houston Cougar to be named to the Sporting News All-America team (he made their third team) since Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Young in 1984. He leads the team … and second in the AAC … in scoring and has broken out of a brief slump. Grimes dropped 33 points on Western Kentucky a few weeks ago and 29 on South Florida.
Harper, the namesake son of the former Bulls and Lakers champion, is making a name for himself in New Jersey. He has led the Scarlet Knights to their first NCAA tournament in 30 years with his 15.3 points and nearly 6 rebounds this season. After going through a big slump in the middle of the season (he was only averaging 11 points and shooting just 6-of-51 from three during a 12-game stretch) he has started to break out of it at the right time of the year.
Jones is that name you’ll hear a lot when watching an Alabama game. He can score a little (over 10 ppg), hits the boards (6 rebounds per game), defend (nearly 2 steals per game) block some shots, and leads the Tide in assists. He is just seemingly everywhere on the court, including hitting 44% of his threes. Guys like Jaden Shackleford and John Petty Jr. are more of the star players for Bama, but Jones is a glue guy that makes everyone’s job a bit easier.
Gonzaga may be loaded, but Kispert is the heart and soul of the Bulldogs. For example, as the Zags’ undefeated season was on the ropes in the West Coast Conference tournament championship game against BYU, Kispert hit several big shots to turn the tide and lift the Bulldogs to the win. The senior has built up an impressive resume in his four years in Spokane and joins the ranks of Gonzaga legends … but bringing home their first national championship will set him apart.
The last time most of us saw Krutwig, he was the big freshman center for the Cinderella darlings, Loyola-Chicago, setting screens and battling in the paint during their 2018 Final Four run. He’s a senior now and his Ramblers are again a dangerous team heading into the big dance. The Missouri Valley Conference player of the year is a great passing big man who is a key cog in running that offense. Only four people in MVC history have 1,500 points, 800 rebounds, and 300 assists. That list: Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Hersey Hawkins, and Krutwig.
Both McBride and Derek Culver form the dynamic duo for the Mountaineers this season. McBride leads West Virginia in scoring, assists, and steals while averaging 34 minutes per game. This isn’t the “Press Virginia” you’re used to, but McBride is a deft defender who tends to perform at a high level in the big games. He isn’t afraid.
The Jayhawks are not very reliant on three-point shooting, which is why big man McCormack will be a huge factor in Kansas’ tournament run. He isn’t the leading scorer (that’s Ochai Agbaji) or rebounder (Jalen Wilson) but he is a great paint presence who combines scoring production and nice defense (he leads the team in blocked shots). Against Baylor, he dropped 20 points (hitting 8-of-10 from the field) and blocked three shots in the Bears’ lone regular-season loss. He missed the Big 12 tournament due to coronavirus protocols but should be available for the NCAA tournament.
Isaiah Miller is certainly the straw that stirs the drink in Greensboro. He is the only player averaging double figures in scoring (19.3 ppg), leads the team in assists (4.0), and is slightly second on the team in rebounding. He’s also averaging 2.6 steals on the season for a team that plays an in-your-face style of defense. He poured 25 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, and dished out 6 assists in their Southern Conference championship game win over Mercer.
What a jump for Midtgaard! After three seasons as a backup at Wichita State, the 7-footer from Denmark transferred to Grand Canyon University and has exploded. After averaging just 2.7 points in his entire Shockers career, he’s averaging 14 points and 9.9 rebounds while shooting 70% for the Antelopes. Typically, mid-majors struggle with their opponent’s size in the tournament. GCU won’t have that problem in this tournament.
Mobley is just so talented. He’s among the best shot blockers among the power conferences and his athleticism helps make him an outstanding paint defender. The freshman is also a very efficient offensive player, shooting 58% from the floor and can even hit a three every now and again. Mobley will be a one-and-done and likely a top-five pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
Preston is a do-everything player that is the catalyst for the MAC’s best offense. He’s averaging 16.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 7.2 assists — and averaged 22.7 points during the Bobcats MAC tournament championship. What’s amazing is that this guy came out of nowhere to be this good. Preston scored 52 points in his entire high school career (his only start was on his senior day) and wasn’t highly recruited. He exploded last year as a sophomore and it has continued into this season.
Reaves does everything for the Sooners. He led the team in scoring (17.5), rebounding (5.7), and assists (4.9) — and led each category by a sizable margin — becoming the first player in program history to do so. He also hit 87% of his free throws, meaning he will have the ball in his hands at crunch time. Reaves isn’t a reliable three-point shooter (just 28%) but is more than willing to take that shot.
Thomas’s name gets lost when discussing the great freshmen of 2021, though he leads them all in scoring. Thomas is averaging 23 points per game this season and basically has no conscience with his green light. He shoots nearly 17 shots per game (though he’s just 30% from three and 41% from the field). He had a streak of ten straight 20-point scoring games snapped against Ole Miss in the SEC tournament quarterfinals.
Williams, quite simply, is the focal point of everything Purdue does. He is averaging 15.6 points and 9 rebounds for the Boilermakers. At 265 pounds, he’s an old-fashioned Big Ten big man and a load to move off the blocks. In an era of stretch fours and positionless basketball, Williams is a throwback that could be difficult for teams to deal with.
Who on earth would have pegged Moses Wright being the 2021 ACC Player of the Year? This is a kid that wasn’t ranked as a prospect coming out of high school and struggled as a freshman. He slowly developed into a great player who is averaging 17 points, 8 rebounds 1.5 steals, and 1.5 blocks as a senior. Wright, who was a swimmer and tennis player prior to finding basketball in high school, is a true underdog that has fought to get where he is at.