20 Players to Watch in the 2023 NCAA Tournament

By the time “One Shining Moment” plays to wrap the 2023 NCAA Tournament, the names and images are well-known.

Before the final field of 64 is set on Wednesday night and Maryland and West Virginia have the first dance on Thursday afternoon, Field Level Media constructed a list of 20 players fans should know entering March Madness:

As a No. 1 seed from a relative outlier conference, Houston is fresh to the radar for some who didn’t see the Cougars smash big-conference competition on a run through the 2022 field. The key cog for UH is senior guard Marcus Sasser. He might not be 100 percent due to a groin injury that kept him out of the conference title game loss to Memphis. A two-way player with NBA potential, the Cougars’ go-to guy on offense (17.1 ppg) also smothers opposing guards as the tone-setter (1.7 spg) on the nation’s No. 4-ranked defensive unit.

Indiana senior Trayce Jackson-Davis has skill for days. He leads the Hoosiers in scoring (20.8 ppg), rebounding (10.8 rpg), passing (4.1 apg) and blocks (2.7 bpg). IU is best when the offense flows through TJD, and the lefty rarely forces the action while finding open men when double-teamed.

Penn State senior guard Jalen Pickett stands out as a triple threat (17.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 6.7 apg) who powers his way into the paint and sprays the ball to open shooters all around the 3-point arc. He’s why the Nittany Lions have their first bid since 2011. Looking for an explosive scoring outing? He put up a homecourt record 41 against Illinois on Valentine’s Day.

Speaking of hearts, there’s a lot to love about Kansas State’s Keyontae Johnson. He collapsed on the court at Florida in 2020, spent three days in a medically induced coma and it appeared his days on the hardwood were done. Now cleared medically, Johnson has taken the rebuilt Wildcats to new heights, earning third-team All-American honors along with teammate Markquis Nowell. They combine for 34.5 points per game.

Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe (16.4 points, 13.1 rebounds per game) was one of the few Wildcats who played to their talent level in the 2022 first-round loss to Saint Peter’s. He went from sullen on the postgame interview lectern to a surprise returnee as the reigning college basketball player of the year. He is a main event attraction if you like getting a glimpse at future NBA talent rivaled only by Zach Edey at Purdue.

On the other side in the first-round matchup Friday, Kentucky transfer Bryce Hopkins leads Providence against his former team. The Wildcats have won five of their past seven games but exited the SEC tournament in the quarterfinals following a loss to Vanderbilt.

Jordan Hawkins isn’t the leading scorer for No. 4 seed UConn – that’s big man Adama Sanogo – but he has the jets and the jumper to carry the Huskies to Houston. Hawkins scored 19 points or more in nine of the past 13 games.

Max Abmas, one of the architects of Oral Roberts’ Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 in 2021, is still one of the nation’s top scorers (22.2 points per game) and looking to lead the Golden Eagles on another such run.

Gradey Dick, a 6-foot-8 freshman for Kansas, is expected to be a lottery pick in this June’s NBA draft. He’s an elite outside shooter who is athletic enough to get to the rim and has the length to excel defensively.

On the topic of freshmen, Duke has tons of talented newcomers, led by center Kyle Filipowski, a 7-footer with three 20-point games in his last four outings. A looming potential rematch with All-American Edey and Purdue could be a serious coming-out party for this Devil. He had 14 points in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge loss to the Boilermakers in November. The Blue Devils are a mostly new cast for first-year coach Jon Scheyer, and this group could be maturing at just the right time following up on a Final Four run last year.

It might seem like Drew Timme is a seventh-year player at Gonzaga, but it’s not quite that extreme. Despite being perhaps the most productive player in college the past four seasons, Timme doesn’t leave NBA scouts drooling because he lacks the “metrics.” Still, his footwork in the post is remarkable, and 20-point games have been nearly automatic this time of year.

As sequels go, Iowa’s Kris Murray is doing just fine in the starring role for the Hawkeyes, following in the footsteps of big brother Keegan Murray – the fourth overall pick in the NBA draft last June. Kris Murray is 20th in the NCAA in scoring at 20.4 points per game. Now he’s tasked with avoiding the same first-round exit the Hawkeyes suffered as a No. 5 seed in New York last year.

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell doesn’t get the accolades of his teammates, but he’s the engine that keeps the Bruins chugging. He scored a career-high 28 points against Oregon in the Pac-12 semifinals.

USC point guard Boogie Ellis could make a major impact for the 10th-seeded Trojans. If a run in the tournament is coming, Ellis is the engine. He’s averaging 18 points and 3.7 assists.

Baylor senior guard Aaron Flager has suited up in 124 games and knows the NCAA Tournament drill well over the past three seasons with the Bears, but the top offensive threat is freshman Keyonte George. George enters with added motivation after going a combined 6 for 20 from the field in back-to-back losses to Iowa State entering the tournament.

Ryan Kalkbrenner was hurt for last year’s tournament loss to Kansas, but he is back as Creighton’s 7-foot-1 center, averaging a team-best 15.4 points and leading the nation by shooting 71.4 percent from the field. All five Bluejays starters average over 11 points but nobody is more important to the team than Kalkbrenner.

If shots are falling for Erik Stevenson, chances are West Virginia isn’t, not in the opening round against Maryland, at least. The sharpshooter runs hot and cold and the Mountaineers could rack up two wins in Birmingham if the good version shows up. Stevenson (15.5 ppg, 77 treys) recently averaged 24.6 points over a five-game stretch immediately after averaging 5.3 over a three-game span. He also topped 30 points twice during a three-game stretch earlier in the season after being 18 of 67 (26.9 percent) from the field over the previous six contests.

From Lubbock to Champaign, Illinois fifth-year senior Terrence Shannon Jr. had 29 points in the Fighting Illini win over UCLA in Las Vegas way back in November. He’s a sparkplug and energy source who can get to the line and will teammates to match him at the peak unless he gets blinded by defenses offering open 3s.

Colgate is a 15 seed with a bit of polish, including five players averaging at least 10 points per game. Senior guard Tucker Richardson delivered a triple-double in the Patriot League title game and takes the court in Des Moines on Thursday night for his 154th career college game. Colgate faces Big 12 tournament champion Texas.

Nathan Mensah of San Diego State is the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year for the second time. With guard Matt Bradley (12.9 ppg) the only double-digit scorer, Mensah’s contributions (6.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 50 blocked shots) are as valuable as anyone’s on a 27-6 team. Mensah ranks third all-time in rebounding (860) and second in blocked shots (221) in San Diego State history.

–Field Level Media