The calendar has flipped to March and with just a few conference games left, NCAA DI basketball teams switch their focus to conference championships and boosting their fortunes (and seeding) for March Madness.
Kansas, the top dogs in the Big 12 with a 27-3 record, are also the no. 1 team in the nation according to the Associated Press. They have one regular season tilt left against Big 12 foe Oklahoma State on Saturday and roll into the Big 12 tournament as the no. 1 seed.
Chief among players on their squad looking to make his mark in that tournament — and at March Madness — is no. 2 ranked prospect Josh Jackson. The 6’8″ freshman forward from Detroit will doubtless join a long line of former Jayhawks who have made it to the show, including current NBAers Andrew Wiggins, Markieff Morris and Joel Embiid.
Unfortunately for no. 1 prospect Markelle Futz, his Washington Huskies won’t be making an appearance at the big tournament when proceedings start March 14-15 with First Four tilts. The Huskies are second last in the Pac-12 with a 9-20 record, and barring a miracle run to the conference title, are too far down the list for an invite.
Despite not being able to watch Futz in action, here are 19 players ranked in the top 30 for the NBA draft who should be in the tournament (a few teams have multiple prospects).
15. Miles Bridges – Michigan State
The Spartans, sixth in the Big 10 with a 18-12 record, are looking at a ninth seed in the DI tournament, as they are ranked 45th in the RPI poll. They are not quite a shoo-in and will have to win at least one game in the Big 10 tournament to solidify their hold on that low seeding. Leading the charge is 6’7″ freshman small forward Miles Bridges, currently ranked 22nd among NBA draft prospects. The Flint native tops a young Spartans roster in scoring with 16.5 points per game. He started off the season well, but missed seven games in December due to an ankle injury. He started slowly after getting back into the line-up in the new year and thanks to a 10-game surge since Jan. 24, he’s upped his stock considerably. It started with a 33-point performance against then 20th ranked Purdue and bookended by a 21-point, 10-rebound outing in a loss to Illinois Wednesday night. He has seven double doubles this season, along with 41.3 percent shooting from three-point range, 8.3 rebounds per game and 1.7 blocks.
14. Ivan Rabb – California
Cal, as a team, does not have a rock solid grip on a tournament berth. They are ranked 52nd in the RPI poll and have two regular season contests against Utah and Colorado to improve their 19-9 overall record. A win over Utah, who are one game back in the Pac-12 standings, would keep them in the fourth seed in the conference. They will have to do well in the Pac-12 tourney, too, to keep March Madness hopes alive. Sophomore power forward Ivan Rabb will have to play a big part in any Golden Bears success. He’s ranked 21st by the NBA and is currently second in Cal scoring behind Jabari Bird with 14.6 points per game. Rabb, more than anything, is a great defensive player who is currently 10th in the nation in rebounds at 10.7 per game (277 total in 26 games). Rabb has also contributed 1.1 blocks and 0.6 steals to his resume. To illustrate just how monster he is in the paint, he had an incredible 20 rebounds (and 17 points) in a 81-71 loss to then fourth-ranked UCLA on Jan. 4.
13. Zach Collins – Gonzaga
Collins isn’t the highest ranked guy on this list at no. 28 by the NBA, but he should get a long look at the tournament, as Gonzaga should be a no. 1 seed. A recent loss, their first of the season, dropped them from their no. 1 perch in the AP poll to fourth, but at 29-1, they are a force to be reckoned with entering the tournament. Collins, a 7’0″ freshman from Las Vegas, has had a standout rookie season, averaging 10.5 points per game (third on the team), 6.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. Collins has been consistent pretty much all season, despite not being given a lot less floor time than six other Bulldogs players (17.5 minutes per game, compared to the 31.3 for Nigel Williams-Goss). To illustrate his effectiveness, Collins had 18 points and six rebounds in just 17 minutes of court time during an early season win over Bryant.
12. Caleb Swanigan – Purdue
The Big 10’s best team, the Boilermakers, may also include the nation’s best player. Caleb Swanigan, a 6’9″ sophomore from Fort Wayne, IN, has been named one of 10 finalists for the Naismith Award. He is also ranked no. 19 on the NBA prospect list. So far this season, Swanigan is having one of the finest seasons in Purdue history and one of the top performances in NCAA basketball in the last 25 years. Along with a team-leading 18.6 points per game, he is second in DI with 12.5 rebounds per game and has 24 double-doubles, the most in the nation and most by a Big 10 Player in the last 31 years. His best statistical game this season was an incredible 28-point, 22-rebound performance in a 91-82 OT loss to Minnesota on New Year’s Day.
11. John Collins – Wake Forest
On Wednesday night, Wake Forest’s John Collins put an exclamation mark on his own very good season and had a significant part to play in the Demon Deacons cementing a berth in the DI tournament. After a very close loss to no. 12 Duke on Feb. 18, Wake Forest (then ranked 46th in the RPI) shocked ACC foe and no. 8 Louisville 88-81. Collins was a beast that contest, posting his 15th double-double of the season, scoring 25 points and pulling down 11 rebounds. This followed a superb outing against Duke, where the NBA’s 23rd ranked prospect had a season high 31 points and 15 rebounds. By virtue of the win over Louisville, Wake Forest moved six full spots up the RPI ranking to no. 40, with a likely no. 11 seed in the tournament nearly assured. Collins, a 6’10” sophomore from West Palm Beach, FLA, is averaging 19.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks this year.
10. Josh Hart – Villanova
The Big East is a tough playground and the biggest dogs on that playground are the Villanova Wildcats. Ranked no. 1 in the RPI Poll and no. 2 in the AP, the Wildcats (27-3) and could conceivably defend the national title they won in 2016. This is a balanced squad getting scoring and defensive leadership from senior guard Josh Hart, who is the NBA’s 15th ranked prospect. Hart, from Silver Spring, MD, has a team high 18.6 points per game, along with 6.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals. Hart has three double-doubles this season and even a triple double, which he recorded in an early season win over Saint Joe’s (16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists). His highest offensive output came in a statement game against then 23rd ranked Notre Dame on Dec. 10 when he poured in 37 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, dished out four assists and had two steals.
9. Justin Jackson – North Carolina
The Tar Heels have a rich tradition at March Madness and as the fifth ranked team in the nation according to the AP poll, have a chance to add to it in 2017. The ACC powerhouse, who were runners-up to Villanova last year, last won the title in 2009. They are tops in the perennially tough ACC in 2016-17 at 25-6 with four teams log-jammed at 23-7 behind them. Any team looking to beat them at the tournament will have to shut down leading scorer and NBA no. 14 ranked prospect Justin Jackson. The junior forward from Tomball, TX leads the Tar Heels in scoring with 18.4 points per game and has contributed 4.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists. He has nearly doubled his three-point attempts over his sophomore season, launching 214 bombs, connecting on 84 of them (39.3 percent). He has risen to the occasion against ranked opponents, most recently burning Louisville for 21 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals during a 74-63 victory Feb. 22.
8. Johnathan Motley – Baylor
It’s shaping up to be a watershed year for the Baylor Bears basketball team, as they sit third in the Big 12, and are ranked 11th in the country with a superb 24-6 record (11-6 in conference play). Playing a huge role is 6’10” junior forward Motley. The Houston native leads the Bears in scoring with 17.5 points per game and has played stellar defence, recording 9.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks. He has 12 double-doubles this season, including one against Kansas during a narrow 73-68 loss on Feb. 1 (16 points, 10 boards). Motley was a difference maker in a 71-62 victory over no. 10 West Virginia on Monday, pouring in 23 points and adding eight rebounds, two assists and three blocks. Motley is currently ranked 13th on the NBA’s prospect list.
7. Justin Patton – Creighton
In the early part of this decade, the Creighton Bluejays went to the third round of the tournament in three consecutive seasons (2011-2014). They hit the skids in 2014-15, missing the NCAA and NIT tournaments and were a quarter-finalist at the NIT in 2016. This year, Creighton is in third place in the Big East with a 23-7 mark and are ranked 25th in the RPI poll. Freshman center Justin Patton has made a name for himself after red-shirting in 2015-16, scoring 13.1 points (second on the team), with 6.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. Those kind of numbers have earned him the 12th spot in the NBA rankings and with a good showing the Big East tourney and another at March Madness, could climb the ledger. His game-to-game production has been fairly consistent and he has three double-doubles in 30 contests.
6. Malik Monk And De’Aaron Fox – Kentucky
Good teams usually have one marquee player lighting it up for them. Great teams have two or more, like the no. 9 ranked Kentucky Wildcats, who trot out star freshman shooting guard Malik Monk (9th rated prospect) and fellow freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox (10th rated prospect) on a nightly basis. That is one heck of a back court, if you ask us. Monk, from Lepanto, AR, is 13th in DI scoring with 21.7 points per game and has been shooting threes at a 41.6 percent clip (92-for-221). In an early season statement game, he poured in 47 point (8-for-12 three pointers) as the Wildcats beat North Carolina 103-100. Fox, for his part, has been a force on both sides of the hardwood, scoring 15.4 PPG, and adding 4.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game. In the aforementioned game against North Carolina, he had 24 points to go along with four rebounds and 10 dimes (he has four games of 10 or more).
5. Jayson Tatum – Duke
There is something to be said for continuity. For the 22nd straight season, the Blue Devils under Coach K will be making an appearance in the tournament. They won the title in 2015 and will be looking to move past the Sweet Sixteen finish of 2016. The Blue Devils are third in the ACC at 23-7 (11-6 conference) and ranked 17th by the AP. As with any Mike Krzyzewski-coached squad there is tremendous balance in scoring and this year he has been able to ride the hot hand of freshman forward Jayson Tatum, who is second on the team with 16.1 points per game. Tatum, who is the NBA’s eighth rated prospect, has been a standout defensively too. The St. Louis, MO native has recorded 7.4 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 1.3 steals in his first NCAA DI season. After sitting out the first eight games of the season, Tatum showed no jitters his second game out, registering 22 points, eight rebounds, a block and two steals in a 84-74 victory over Florida. His last game out, he had 15 points, nine rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals as the Blue Devils beat no. 15 Florida State 75-70.
4. Lauri Markkanen And Allonzo Trier – Arizona
The dogfight atop the Pac-12 has been something this season. The Arizona Wildcats are in the thick of it, sporting a 26-4 record (15-2 conference) to tie them with the powerful Oregon Ducks and keep them one game clear of UCLA. ‘Zona is ranked seventh in the nation by AP, just behind Oregon and four spots back of the Bruins. Statistically, the Wildcats are led by the NBA’s 16th ranked prospect, sophomore guard Allonzo Trier, who has 16.2 PPG so far. Right behind him on the ledger is Finnish freshman sensation Lauri Markkanen, a 7’0″ scoring and rebounding machine (15.4 points, 7.4 rebounds). Markkanen, however, is part of large freshman contigent who could be drafted this season and is currently ranked fifth by the NBA. Together, they are dynamite and will play a big part in any success the ‘Cats have at this year’s DI tourney.
3. Jon Isaac – Florida State
In a battle of top prospects, no. four ranked prospect Jon Isaac, a freshman forward from Naples, FLA was outdone by eighth-ranked prospect Jayson Tatum of ACC arch rival Duke, who beat FSU 75-70 on Tuesday. But, it’s a team game and the no. 15 Seminoles — and Isaac — have nothing to be ashamed of losing to the Blue Devils. Isaac will play a large part in his team’s foray into the tournament this year, especially where defence is concerned. Isaac leads the Seminoles in rebounds (7.4 per game) and blocks (1.5), and is second in steals with 1.5. On the offensive side, he has contributed 12.6 points per game (second) and is shooting 37.7 percent from three-point range. He has used his lanky 6’10” body to great effect in 2016-17, authoring six double-doubles. Of those six, three came in a row against ranked opponents in January (North Carolina, Notre Dame and Louisville).
2. Lonzo Ball And T.J. Leaf – UCLA
There might not be two better basketball names, especially for this year’s NBA draft, than Bruins’ freshmen Ball and Leaf. T.J. Leaf, a 6’10” forward from El Cajon, CA, is the NBA’s 20th ranked prospect and is currently second in Bruins scoring with 16.3 points. Ball, a 6’6″ guard from Chino Hills, CA, is third with 15 points per game. Together, they are part of a dynamic UCLA attack that has helped the Bruins to a 27-3 record (14-3 in Pac-12) and a no. 3 ranking in the AP poll. The Bruins will charge into the tournament with this first-year duo front and center. Ball has earned his no. 3 ranking on the NBA prospect list, shooting threes at a rate of 42.2 percent (68-for-161), as well as recording 6.3 rebounds, 7.6 assists and 1.9 steals. Leaf has been great on D too, registering 8.4 rebounds (second on the team), 1.2 blocks and 0.7 steals. Leaf also has 11 double-doubles, while Ball has four.
1. Josh Jackson and Frank Mason III – Kansas
Jayhawks coach Bill Self is a lucky guy. In 14 seasons at the helm of KU basketball, he has been to the tournament every year, won it all in 2008 and has had the good fortune to coach guys like Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Markieff Morris along the way. This year, the no. 1 ranked Jayhawks feature two elite players, they being no. 2 NBA prospect Josh Jackson and no. 17 rated Frank Mason III. The latter is in his senior season and has done a superb job running the Jayhawks offence. Mason III is 32nd in scoring in the nation with 20.3 points per game, with a laser-like 50 percent performance from beyond the arc (67-for-134). Jackson, a 6’8″ shooting guard from Detroit, is second on the team in points at 16.3 and first in rebounds with 7.2 per game. His no. 2 ranking for the draft is well earned and with a standout performance at the tournament, could unseat Markelle Futz of Washington as the no. 1 pick.