March Madness will be a reality in 2021 after the arrival of the pandemic in March of 2020 canceled one of the favorite sports events on the calendar. In this return to March Madness, the best team in the country is widely viewed as the Gonzaga Bulldogs. GU is unbeaten and is trying to become the first undefeated national champion in Division I men’s basketball since the Indiana Hoosiers pulled it off in 1976. There is clearly a lot of representation by Gonzaga for the best players in the West Region of this tournament, but other teams have some prime-time players as well. Let’s look at the top players in the region – not a complete list, but the most outstanding performers who come to mind on the higher-seeded teams. These players will have a series impact on the online betting odds.
Corey Kispert, Gonzaga Bulldogs
The Gonzaga Bulldogs clearly have two of the top 10 players in the country, a central reason they are unbeaten. One of them is Kispert, the 3-point shooter with extreme range and an agile offensive game that is strong in transition but can also function extremely well in halfcourt situations. Kispert is a lethal scorer who needs just a sliver of space to release a shot. Kispert demands so much attention from defenses, but he is surrounded by four other good offensive players.
Therefore, when any of those other four players has the ball or is being closely guarded, Kispert can operate one-on-one. He can shake his man and find an opening. This is part of why the Gonzaga offense is so absolutely devastating in every circumstance, and why no defense has truly contained it.
Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga Bulldogs
The brilliance of the Gonzaga offense emerges in fuller view when you consider that Kispert is a knockdown shooter, but can’t get double-teamed too much due to Jalen Suggs being a force of nature with the basketball. This fabulous freshman has blazing speed, a good jump shot, and an ability to pass the ball early in a halfcourt sequence. He makes sure to get the ball to a teammate before the defense can fully rotate or react. The quickness and smoothness in which Suggs makes passes to teammates leave opposing defenses desperate and tardy in their attempts to guard all five Gonzaga players at the same time. Suggs’ floor leadership makes it hard for any GU player to receive a double-team, which enables every member of the Zags to get the ball in a favorable matchup. Suggs complements Kispert and every other teammate at a high level. This is why Gonzaga hasn’t yet been beaten; it is so hard to keep this offense under wraps for a full 40 minutes. Some defenses have bottled up Gonzaga for a full half or even 25 minutes, but no defense has smothered GU for all 40 minutes. Suggs makes the offense hum.
Luka Garza, Iowa Hawkeyes
The favorite for National Player of the Year, Garza is big and powerful but can step out and hit 3-pointers and 15-foot jumpers. He has a soft shooting touch to go along with a brawny game that enables him to pound the offensive glass and get more possessions for the highly-rated Iowa offense. Garza’s low-post defense is above-average. He can be outmuscled by the rare big man who is taller and stronger than him – such as Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn – but that is an uncommon occurrence. There aren’t many players in college basketball who have the physical attributes of Cockburn, who can actually make Garza look small. Against 98% of other big men, Garza is the big dog who dominates the matchup in terms of both physical strength and overall agility. Garza was expected to make Iowa an elite team and he has fulfilled expectations, with Iowa being a No. 2 seed in this tournament which is capable of making a deep run.
David McCormack, Kansas Jayhawks
The Kansas Jayhawks struggled through early February and appeared likely to get a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but then David McCormack finally got the hang of Bill Self’s offensive system and started asserting himself. He polished his low-post offense and found a reliable way to attack opposing big men at that end of the floor. His low-post defense has been strong all year and has become an anchor of a solid Kansas defense which keeps potent opponents in check. The growth in McCormack’s game is precisely why the Jayhawks were able to rise to a No. 3 seed in March Madness.
Sam Hauser, Virginia Cavaliers
The Virginia offense has been inconsistent but when Sam Hauser – a transfer from Marquette – is able to find a groove, this team is tough to beat. Hauser got on a roll in a road game at Louisville on March 6. He carried the UVA offense and got every important bucket late in the second half, propelling the Cavaliers to a victory that clinched the ACC regular-season championship for coach Tony Bennett’s team. If Hauser can be a reliable shooter and late-game scorer for this team in March Madness, Virginia could at least get to the Sweet 16 and earn a rematch with the Gonzaga team that buried the Cavaliers in the regular season. If Hauser is off his game, however, Virginia will be highly vulnerable in its first game of the tournament against the Ohio Bobcats.
Evan Mobley, USC Trojans
The Pac-12 Player of the Year is also the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Evan Mobley is playing his best basketball right now for USC. He scored 26 points in a Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal win over Utah, and 26 more points in a Pac-12 semifinal loss to Colorado. He averages three blocked shots per game, and that doesn’t begin to reflect how many shots he alters. He will be an elite NBA defender. If he improves his free throw shooting, he will be a tough offensive player in the pros as well.
Chris Duarte, Oregon Ducks
The late-game, 3-point shooter for the Ducks is Oregon’s crunch-time maestro. Duarte spearheaded a sequence of 10 wins in 11 games that lifted UO to the Pac-12 regular-season championship and made Oregon’s season a success. Duarte will try to carry that knack for hitting the big shot into the NCAA Tournament, where a date with Luka Garza and Iowa could await in the second round.
Austin Reaves, Oklahoma Sooners
The creative ballhandling playmaker for the Oklahoma offense needs help from his teammates. Too often Reaves is driving into the paint and making a kick-out pass, only for his teammate to miss the shot. Reaves has a lovely floater and finger roll game which enables him to finish plays within six to eight feet of the basket, but he isn’t strong enough to finish at the rim against contact. He needs more physical strength, but he has great technique and a brilliant mind, which have both helped Oklahoma in tight games this season.
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