5 Players Who Can Take Over the NCAA Tournament

Annie Nader
Annie Nader@ANader33
5 Players Who Can Take Over the NCAA Tournament

Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Carmelo Anthony, Joakim Noah, Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, Frank Kamisnky, Donte DiVincenzo -- the list of college basketball stars who have led their programs to the Final Four and beyond goes on.

This year's NCAA Tournament will be no different.

While the lax college basketball fan may recognize some big names from last year's tourney, there are fresh faces who look primed to shine on basketball's biggest stage.

With that, let's look at five players who could be the talking point of March.

Players Who Can Take Over the NCAA Tournament

5. Marcus Domask, Illinois

Here's one of those fresh faces.

You may have not been familiar with Marcus Domask from Southern Illinois Salukis fame, but the senior transfer is a big reason why the Illinois Fighting Illini have secured a 3 seed in the Big Dance.

Averaging 16.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game, Domask is not the biggest name on this Illinois team. That would be Terrance Shannon Jr., whose 23.0 points per game average is good for the third-most in college basketball.

But, Domask's cumulative +304 plus/minus this season is 45 points higher than the next-best player on an Illinois team that is, by numberFire's metrics, the ninth-best team in the tournament.

More recently, Domask led Illinois to a Big Ten Tournament victory after posting a head-turning stat line that included 26 points, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds off a 72.7% field goal percentage.

Domask and Shannon Jr. combined for a whopping 60 points in the Big Ten title game, so it's easy to see how this lethal backcourt duo could be a problem for opposing teams.

Illinois finds themself in the East Region, arguably the toughest region in the bracket. A trip to the Final Four would mean taking down the Connecticut Huskies, the reigning NCAA champs and current tournament favorite (+370 NCAA Championship odds; via FanDuel Sportsbook).

In a tournament that has, in some sense, become a matter of who will take down the reigning champs, Domask and the Illini have a chance to make some major noise this March.

4. Tyler Kolek, Marquette

Tyler Kolek, the 2023 Big East Player of the Year, has yet to suit up this March.

But Marquette Golden Eagles fans can rest assured; coach Shaka Smart has insisted that Kolek will be more than ready for this Friday's first-round game against Western Kentucky.

Last season, Kolek led Marquette to a Big East tournament win. He was awarded the tournament's Most Outstanding Player after averaging 18.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 2.3 steals.

But despite securing a 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, Marquette got bounced in the second round of play.

The Golden Eagles have returned to this year's dance as a 2 seed, and with Kolek's senior season could come a long-awaited splash when it matters most.

Evan Miyakawa's Bayesian Performance Rating (BPR), which measures a player's overall value to their team, has Kolek at the eighth spot. Further, Kolek ranks fifth in MVP Score (per EvanMiya).

Surround him with Kam Jones (16.8 points per game; 41.1% three-point percentage) and Oso Ighodaro (14.0 points per game), and Kolek's ability to be one of the best scoring and playmaking threats could have him come out as one of the stars of the 2024 tournament.

3. Jamal Shead, Houston

Jamal Shead won't be the flashiest player to appear in this tournament. In fact, he (13.1 points per game) doesn't even lead the Houston Cougars in scoring.

But, if we're talking about game changers, Shead has to be in the conversation.

The Houston Cougars are, for numberFire's money, the best team in college basketball.

Bart Torvik's ratings concur with numberFire, as did the selection committee, who handed Houston their second-straight number 1 seed birth on Sunday.

EvanMiya's model loves Shead. It has Shead coming into the tournament as the third-best player in the country based on BPR.

Shead also ranks second in MVP Score and Indispensability. He and Zach Edey are the only two players who rank in the top 5 of BPR, MVP Score, and Indispensability in EvanMiya's model.

Averaging 2.3 steals per game, Shead is a big reason why the Cougars own the best defense in college ball. He ranks first in defensive BPR and is more than capable of silencing big-name opposing guards in this tourney.

Shead can also get it done on the offensive end -- albeit with a little less pizzazz than some of the others on this list. If Houston makes good on their +600 (second-shortest) odds to win the NCAA Championship, Cougar fans can thank Shead.

2. Zach Edey, Purdue

Zach Edey is a non-negotiable inclusion on any list of this sort.

Last season's consensus national college player of the year upped his own ante this year, averaging 24.4 points (most), 11.7 rebounds (third-most), and 2.2 blocks per game for the Purdue Boilermakers.

He ranks first in BPR, MVP Score, and Indispensability (per EvanMiya).

There's nothing good we can't say about the 7'4 star except for the overt and looming fact that he and the Boilermakers haven't been able to get it together when it matters.

While last season's first-round upset at the hands of Fairleigh Dickinson was nothing new for Purdue fans, it was certainly a low.

Edey and the Boilermakers have once again secured a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. According to numberFire, Purdue is the second-best team in college basketball.

On paper, the Boilermakers are primed to make a deep run, with Edey leading the effort like none other. We'll see if Edey and company can put paper into practice.

1. Donovan Clingan, UConn

We could wax poetic about every starter on UConn.

Tristen Newton (15.2 points per game), Cam Spencer (14.5 points), and Alex Karaban (13.9 points) lead the scoring charge for the Huskies. Stephon Castle's rookie season has him atop the ranks in 2024 NBA Mock Drafts.

And after winning the Big East tournament this past weekend, the Huskies (+370) are a clear favorite to win back-to-back titles.

But, when looking for someone who can take over this tournament, Donovan Clingan may be the best candidate.

His stats (12.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game) are that of a player who finds himself on a team rife with talent. However, when Clingan is firing on all cylinders, UConn is unstoppable.

He scored 22 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in a 73-57 Big East championship win over Marquette. We know one or many players between Newton, Spencer, Karaban, and Castle will get it done this tournament, but if we add a red-hot Clingan into the mix, it becomes hard to deny the Huskies.

His physicality and size have him situated as the second-best player (behind Edey) in EvanMiya's model. Guarding Clingan or facing his defensive wrath should prove to be a nightmare for any unlucky opponent this tournament -- especially when we consider the array of assets who surround him.

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The above author is a FanDuel employee and is not eligible to compete in public daily fantasy contests or place sports betting wagers on FanDuel. The advice provided by the author does not necessarily represent the views of FanDuel. Taking the author's advice will not guarantee a successful outcome. You should use your own judgment when participating in daily fantasy contests or placing sports wagers.