March Madness

NCAA tournament: 5 players to watch in the men’s bracket who can lead their team to a title

NCAA tournament: 5 players to watch in the men's bracket who can lead their team to a title

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This year's NCAA tournament features familiar faces, with some of them in notably new places.

Contenders across the board are counting on transfers in various roles, some more prominent than others. Meanwhile, teams that met last season with disappointment are back as top seeds with star players seeking redemption.

Here are five players to watch with a chance to lead their team to a national championship.

Caleb Love, guard, Arizona

The last time we saw Caleb Love in the NCAA tournament, he sunk Duke in the Final Four with a shot that resonates as one of the biggest North Carolina basketball history. That was 2022.

Love and the Tar Heels followed up that run to the national championship game with an all-time clunker of a season that saw them ranked No. 1 overall in the preseason and then miss the NCAA tournament. The collapse was exacerbated by a glut in the backcourt with Love alongside fellow scoring guard RJ Davis that ultimately led to a breakup with Love transferring to play for Arizona.

That decision has worked out just fine. Love responded with a bounce-back season that's been the best of his career. With a clearly defined role as Arizona's lead guard and primary scorer, Love's averaged a career-high 18.1 points alongside 4.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists while shooting 34.7% on 7.5 3-point attempts per game.

The effort earned him Pac-12 Player of the Year honors in his first season in the league. With Love leading the way, Arizona won the regular season Pac-12 title and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Caleb Love revived his career after transferring to Arizona. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Love remains a streaky shooter and inefficient scorer, an ominous prospect for a tournament that requires six consecutive wins to claim victory. But he's improved vastly on his North Carolina career that never saw him shoot better than 37.8% from the field in season. He's connected on 42.1% of his field goals with the Wildcats this season.

How Arizona fares in the coming weeks will fall largely on Love's shoulders. A six-point, 2-of-11 effort like he had in Arizona's Pac-12 tournament semifinal loss to Oregon could sink Arizona in any given game. But he's capable of getting and staying hot, a scenario that could translate to a deep run.

RJ Davis, guard, North Carolina

Speaking of RJ Davis. The split with Love has worked out for him as well. In his first season as North Carolina's undisputed No. 1 scoring option, Davis has erupted as one of college basketball's most lethal weapons.

Davis now shares the backcourt with freshman Elliot Cadeau, a pass-first point guard who pushes the tempo and sets up his teammates to score. For Davis, that shift has contributed to a career-high 21.4 points alongside 3.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game while shooting 40.6% on 7.7 3-point attempts per game.

He broke the Dean Smith's Center's single-game scoring record with 42 points in a February win over Miami. He was named ACC Player of the Year and is a lock for First-Team All-America honors. He's done so while leading North Carolina to an ACC regular-season title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

RJ Davis thrived this season in the absence of Caleb Love. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

North Carolina is balanced with multiple scoring options, including Armando Bacot, Harrison Ingram and Cormac Ryan. But when the lights are brightest and tension highest, Davis is where the Tar Heels look first when they need a bucket.

A potential West regional final featuring Davis and Love going head-to-head looms large.

Zach Edey, center, Purdue

Zach Edey enters NCAA play as the presumptive consensus National Player of the Year for a second consecutive season. For good reason.

There's nobody in college basketball who can match up with the 7-4 center. Edey averaged a career-high 24.4 points per game this season alongside 11.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.2 blocks while shooting 61.9% from the field. He led the Boilermakers to a second consecutive Big Ten regular-season championship and No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Edey's vaulted to the top of the college basketball world despite not playing organized basketball until high school. A gifted athlete, Edey focused on hockey and baseball as a youth before shifting his focus to the hardwood.

Zach Edey’s back and hoping for better results in the NCAA tournament. (Matt Krohn/Reuters)

As a junior in 2023, Edey's skills caught up with his size as he emerged from a relative unknown on an unranked team to the nation's best player for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. There was no sneaking up on anyone this season as Edey led a team that entered the season ranked No. 3 in the nation to a 29-4 record and another No. 1 seed.

Now Edey's legacy is on the line. The Boilermakers suffered one of the biggest upsets in college sports history last year when Fairleigh Dickinson beat them last season as just the second No. 16 seed ever to win a tournament game. Only a deep run this tournament will erase that stink.

Cam Spencer, guard, UConn

Cam Spencer joined the reigning champion Huskies as a transfer from Rutgers and quickly established himself as one of the team's most important players. His arrival has been critical for UConn, which revamped its roster after losing three players to the NBA from last year's title team.

Thanks in part to Spencer, UConn enters this year's tournament as the favorite to cut down the nets again. Spencer joins returning fifth-year senior Tristen Newton as half of arguably the best backcourt in college basketball. A sharpshooter playing on his third team after starting his career at Loyola Maryland, Spencer has averaged 14.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting a Big East-best 44.4% on 5.8 3-point attempts per game.

Cam Spencer hopes to help lead UConn to a second-straight championship after transferring from Rutgers. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Spencer's ready for the big stage. He showed his best stuff on Friday in a Big East tournament semifinal win over St. John's. He hit 4 of 5 3-pointers against the Red Storm while tallying 20 points and nine assists under the brightest of basketball spotlights at Madison Square Garden.

Newton posted 25 points and nine assists of his own against St. John's in a demonstration of the difficulties opposing backcourts will face when Connecticut's on the floor.

Tyler Kolek, guard, Marquette

Tyler Kolek's status will be one of the most watched heading into NCAA tournament play. The 2023 Big East Player of the Year, Kolek has been sidelined since Feb. 28 with an oblique injury. Marquette went 3-3 down the stretch without its top player with two losses to No. 2 UConn and another to No. 8 Creighton.

Kolek was considered questionable for the latter games of the Big East tournament, but watched in street clothes on Saturday as UConn rolled to a 73-57 win in the championship game. Marquette played things safe with Kolek while prioritizing the NCAA tournament. Head coach Shaka Smart said before the tournament that he "absolutely" expects Kolek back for NCAA play.

Tyler Kolek’s health is essential for Marquette’s Final Four hopes. (John Fisher/Getty Images)

For Marquette's sake, here's hoping Smart's right. Kolek's availability could be the difference in a first-weekend exit and a trip to the Final Four.

A senior guard, Kolek is one of the nation's most potent offensive weapons and playmakers. In 28 games this season, he averaged 15 points, 7.6 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 48.6% from the floor and 40% from 3-point distance. He led the nation in assists per game. He was named First-Team All-Big East for a second straight season and is an All-America candidate despite missing time with injury.

A No. 2 seed, Marquette is a legitimate contender. But only if Kolek is at his best.

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