by Jordan Ligons (@_jorganligons)
You can catch Jordan twice a week as co-host of Spinsters podcast, the podcast that took over basketball internet in 2021. The podcast does longform reporting on Tuesdays and conversations on Thursdays.
*Sings* It’s the mooooost wonderful time of the year! Buzzer-beating upsets, busted brackets, Cinderellas, gender-equal weight rooms — it must be March!
For the 10th and final week of the Cherry Pickin’ college basketball newsletter, I decided to round up the top 10 players you should watch in the NCAA tournament. Call it the cherry on top of this college basketball series, if you will.
The madness begins March 16-17 for the women and March 17-18 for the men. And come the first week of April, there’s a hefty chance one of these athletes below will be cutting down the net as a national champion.
Aliyah Boston, forward-center, South Carolina
Boston is having a historic junior season. Every game she controls the pace, protects the paint, and bullies anybody that attempts to challenge her in the post. She set a new record with 24 (!) consecutive double-doubles. She also broke a record for hair color changes in one season (OK, I made this up, but why isn’t anyone keeping stats on this??)
Boston’s freshman year, the NCAA tournament was canceled due to COVID-19. In her sophomore year, she came up centimeters short of a national championship bout. This season, Boston has been the anchor on Dawn Staley’s no. 1 seeded Gamecocks all season long and is hungry to bring home the school’s second title. It’s simple: If you love basketball, you’ll love to watch Boston play.
BTW: You have to watch to see what color braids she decides to wear for the tournament, right?
Keegan Murray, forward, Iowa
Murray is Effiecient with a capital “E.” You already know the solid play you’re going to get from him night in and night out, and come tournament time, that’s music to coach Fran McCaffery’s ears. Murray’s 60-plus shooting percentage from 2 and over 40 percent from beyond the arc makes him not a only a star, but a reliable one. In his career-high 37-point performance against Nebraska in February, he shot 15-21 in 29 minutes. That’s 70 percent from the field! Now that it’s March, when close games are on the line and championship hopes are at risk — I know that I’d want Murray, a bonafide bucket getter, on my team.
BTW: His identical twin (!) brother, Kris, also plays for the Hawkeyes. “It’s like having a built-in best friend,” Keegan once said. *Cue the crying emoji*
NaLyssa Smith, forward, Baylor
The All-American can pick-and-pop, back you down in the post, take you off the dribble — there’s nowhere on the court Smith can’t score. In her last regular-season game, she scored a career-high 35 points accessorized with 12 boards. It was her 21st double-double of the season. As the projected no. 1 pick in April’s WNBA Draft, all eyes will be on her come tournament time. Can her prolific scoring carry the Lady Bears’ fourth ‘ship of the 2000s? Can head coach Nicki Collen follow in the giant footsteps left by legendary Baylor coach Kim Mulkey? Why does Smith also wear her headband upside down?!
BTW: “S1epton” is her motto and the main phrase of her merch — a combination of her jersey number (#1), her perceived underratedness, and her projected no. 1 pick status. I’ve always been a sucker for wordplay.
Paolo Banchero, forward, Duke
It’s hard to imagine a top-three NBA prospect sometimes being a silent assassin, but his double-doubles in points and rebounds sometimes sneak up on you! And for basketball nerds like myself, keep an eye out for Banchero as the trailing big man. A point guard typically pitches it back to him as he crosses half court so he can get a running start to attack the rim. Or he’ll pop the 3 in transition. At 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds with a lethal mid-range game, he’s a match-up nightmare. Duke may have flopped Coach K’s last home game in Cameron Indoor Stadium, but with the way Banchero is bulldozing through his defenders, don’t count the Blue Devils out yet.
BTW: Banchero sweats a lot. He reportedly loses up to seven pounds per game because of “heavy sweating.” Is there a spot for that in the stat sheet?
Caitlin Clark, guard, Iowa
Reason #1: She dropped 41 points in the BIG10 tourney…with ease.
Reason #2: Shots from the logo and MJ shrugs are always great entertainment.
Reason #3: This little girl is cheering for Caitlin, so you should too.
BTW: Caitlin Clark is very good at basketball.
Jaden Ivey, guard, Purdue
This 6-foot-4 sophomore has been toted as the second coming of Ja Morant. Do you really need another reason to watch? Just in case: You can expect high-flying dunks, scrappy defense, and a killer pull-up jumper from the projected no. 1 overall pick.
BTW: Jaden’s mom is Notre Dame women’s basketball head coach, Niele Ivey. He grew up in the gym getting rebounds for Irish legends like Skylar Diggins-Smith, Jewel Lloyd and Kayla McBride. We love to see a mother-son duo take on the tournament! Go Iveys!
Haley Jones, forward, Stanford
Can the Cardinals go back-to-back? Last year’s Final Four was a rollercoaster of emotions for us fans, but especially for Jones and Co. They won their final two games of the tournament by a combined two points. The 6-foot-1 guard and Naismith Player of the Year finalist might not be as flashy as the other players on this list, but she’s solid and fundamental. Her killer spin move, free-throw jumper, and tenacious rebounding will help the no. 2 ranked Stanford show that last season wasn’t a fluke.
BTW: Yes, I know there should be an entirely separate list for players you should follow on TikTok during March Madness, but while we’re here, Jones’ is a must. Come for the dancing videos, stay for iconic head coach Tara VanDerveer lip-syncing.
Chet Holmgren, center, Gonzaga
We all remember the first viral video we watched of Holmgren as a high schooler. He was the next unicorn; he didn’t seem real. The 7-foot and 195-pound Bulldog has been giving NBA scouts heart eyes ever since. Holmgren is a guard trapped in a center’s body. He can take it coast-to-coast or crossover his opponents (and then dunk on them) or he’ll pull up from 3 (splash). It’s been difficult to give him an NBA player comp: Is he Kevin Durant? Porzingis? Jokic?
None of the above — he’s a future star in his own right. I’m sure Holmgren and the no. 1 ranked Gonzaga are wanting to remedy the team’s last season L in the national championship game with a W this time around. And they’ll have to lean heavily on their unicorn to get them there.
BTW: Holmgren’s former high school teammate, 2021 NBA Lottery Pick and Zag alum Jalen Suggs, had the biggest influence on his college choice. I can’t imagine going against these two as a fellow Minnesotian high schooler; Suggs and Holmgren won three high school state championships in a row.
Rhyne Howard, guard, Kentucky
In a wild turn of events, Kentucky beat South Carolina in the SEC Championship on a last-second 3 pointer. With that upset, Howard and the Wildcats punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament. They never backed down, kept attacking, and earned the chance to make snow angels in championship confetti. Expect Howard to ride the confidence wave into the Big Dance. The 6-foot-2 big guard has been a pro prospect since her freshman season. Now is her chance to showcase her Swiss Army knife of skills on the biggest and brightest stage.
BTW: Want to feel old? Seniors in this year’s tournament, including Howard, were born in the year 2000. She wasn’t even old enough to remember Rajon Rondo’s headband ban.
Jabari Smith Jr., forward, Auburn
For the men’s side, most top-players only get one shot at an epic March Madness due to the one-year-and-done paths majority of them take. Smith is no different. The SEC Freshman of the Year has already helped his Tigers win their conference regular-season title with the way he splashes it from behind the arc. Whatever the tournament outcome, though, head coach Bruce Pearl says the 6-foot-10 phenom has already over-delivered. “Regardless of how the expectations have been this year for Jabari Smith, he has lived up to all them and then some,” Pearl said. “That is really, really hard to do.”
BTW: My parents were going to name me Jabari if I was born a boy (despite “Jordan” already being a unisex name?) so I feel a need to cheer for my almost namesake, and you should too.
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