There are plenty of reasons why March Madness is considered the most exciting sporting event of the year. The seemingly endless combinations of matchups that can happen, the sheer number of games and the win-or-go-home atmosphere that’s present in every contest are just a few. But the chance to see the future icons of basketball playing on their first massive stage is another reason to love the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Legendary players like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Steph Curry first became household names because of their play during March Madness. So, who are the future stars that will light up the screen during the 2019 tournament?
We’ve rounded up some of the must-see players that will likely play big parts during this year’s Big Dance. Some of the teams they play for are currently on the bubble (as of late February), but if these guys all make the field, you’ll want to keep your eye on them.
25. Jaxson Hayes (Texas)
Towering at 6 feet 11 inches, this freshman for the Texas Longhorns is likely playing in his only collegiate season before you’ll see him posting up in the pros. His numbers aren’t as stout as some others on this list — he’s currently averaging 10.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game — but that’s partly because he started the year on a tight leash, only coming off the bench.
Now that he’s a starter, Hayes is proving why ESPN’s Jay Bilas called him “the real deal.” He’s currently shooting a ridiculous 74.8 percent from the floor.
24. Keldon Johnson (Kentucky)
Another must-watch freshman who will likely be in this year’s tournament is Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson. He’s averaging 13.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game as a guard and already has the build of an NBA player — which is what he’ll likely be next year.
He’s been a huge part of UK’s success this season, nearly leading the team in minutes and developing a reputation as a clutch shooter. If the Wildcats find themselves in a tight game down the stretch during the tournament, Johnson just might be the swingman to take the big shot.
23. De’Andre Hunter (Virginia)
Virginia sophomore De’Andre Hunter has really come into his own in just a year’s time. Every one of his stats has increased meaningfully from his freshman season, with him becoming arguably the star of the Cavaliers this year.
Hunter is averaging 15.2 points per game and has been lights out from three-point land. He’s currently shooting 47.4 percent from three, which is the 21st-best mark in the nation and a big leap from his 38.2-percent average last year. His accurate shooting could prevent Virginia from taking another embarrassing first-round loss in the tournament.
22. Jarrett Culver (Texas Tech)
Another sophomore who’s really stepped his game up is Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver. He went from averaging 11 points per game as a freshman to averaging 18 points per game this year, leading the Red Raiders in scoring, rebounds and assists. Culver’s play on both sides of the ball is a big reason why Texas Tech has been on fire lately, making a push for the tournament. During March Madness, he’ll likely be one of those players who can take over a game on his own.
21. Tacko Fall (UCF)
At 7 feet 6 inches tall, not only is UCF’s Tacko Fall the tallest man in college hoops — he’s one of the tallest people on the planet. A senior now, Fall’s numbers are right about where they’ve been his entire career, but he’s blocking more shots than he ever has.
Fall’s average of 2.69 blocks per game is currently seventh-best in the nation. In addition to swatting away plenty of shots, Fall is also averaging 10.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game for the Knights.
Fun fact: Fall is three inches taller than the tallest player in the NBA right now!
20. Cam Reddish (Duke)
One of Duke’s fabulous freshmen who will likely be starring in the NBA next year, Cam Reddish has been called the deciding factor as to how far the Blue Devils will go during the tournament this year. Reddish’s numbers aren’t quite as eye-popping as teammates R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson, but if he played for any other team, he’d probably be the star. The 6-foot-8-inch forward is currently averaging 14 points per game and will be a huge part of the team’s success in March.
19. Jordan Murphy (Minnesota)
Minnesota senior Jordan Murphy’s scoring and shooting percentage numbers are down slightly from his stellar junior year, but he’s getting more rebounds and dishing out more assists than ever. The Golden Gophers star is averaging a double-double, with 14.9 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, and is second in the nation in total double-doubles recorded this year. Murphy’s rebounding average is the fourth-best number in the country. In a game that can be dominated by underclassmen, Murphy is one of the veterans to keep an eye on during the tournament.
18. C.J. Massinburg (Buffalo)
Another four-year player to watch in March comes from the MAC. Buffalo’s C.J. Massinburg has gotten better every year of his stellar career with the Bulls, with his current average of 18.5 points per game being his best yet. Part of that high scoring average comes from the fact that he’s shooting 50 percent from the field and 43.4 percent from three, both of which are career highs. Massinburg is also averaging 6.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game. If Buffalo makes a deep run in the tournament, it’ll be because Massinburg is in control.
17. Cassius Winston (Michigan State)
Detroit native Cassius Winston has also improved his game this season, hitting a career high in scoring average for his junior year. In addition to chipping in 19.2 points per game, Winston is also shooting 46.8 percent from the floor. His 7.4 assists per game also make him invaluable to Michigan State’s game plan. Winston is also fourth-best in the nation in offensive box plus/minus, according to Sports-Reference.com, which is an advanced metric that shows a player’s performance compared to the nationwide average.
16. Bruno Fernando (Maryland)
Standing at 6 feet 10 inches tall and weighing 240 pounds, Maryland’s Bruno Fernando is one of the most physically imposing players in the nation. This sophomore is averaging a double-double for the Terrapins every night, turning in 14.4 points and 10.6 rebounds per outing — both of which are steep increases from his freshman season. Fernando also connects for 1.9 blocks per game, making him a must-watch defensive threat. If you like to watch big men banging on the post, you’ll want to check out a Maryland game during this year’s tourney.
15. Grant Williams (Tennessee)
Tennessee stud Grant Williams has been a must-see player every year of his collegiate career, but the junior is playing his best basketball ever right in time for the tournament. Williams, who was named SEC player of the year in 2018, is averaging 19 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.4 blocks per game. The one-two combination of him and teammate Admiral Schofield will make the Volunteers a tough out during the Big Dance.
14. Markus Howard (Marquette)
Marquette junior Markus Howard averaged a very respectable 13.2 points per game as a freshman — but he’s nearly doubled that average this season. The sixth-leading scorer in the country, Howard is currently averaging 25.3 points per game to go along with 4.0 assists and 1.1 steals.
Part of why Howard is such a reliable scorer is his total command at the free-throw line, where he’s shooting 91.5 percent for the year. If Marquette gets into a close game during the tournament, you can bet they’ll be trying to get it into Howard’s hands to seal it up.
13. Dedric Lawson (Kansas)
Another must-watch junior is Kansas star Dedric Lawson. He’s averaging 19.0 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, both of which lead the Jayhawks. Lawson is one of the nation’s most reliable box-score stuffers, putting together the seventh-most double-doubles in the nation so far. Kansas made it to the Final Four last year and Lawson will be a huge decider in whether or not they can make it that far again in the tournament.
12. Justin Wright-Foreman (Hofstra)
Hofstra senior Justin Wright-Foreman has been one of the country’s best scorers for three years in a row, and this looks like his best chance to finally play in the NCAA tournament. He’s averaging 26.6 points per game, which is the second-highest mark in the nation, and is shooting 51.5 percent from the floor. Hofstra isn’t a one-man show but Wright-Foreman will be one of the most dangerous scorers in the entire field if the Pride make the tournament.
11. Jordan Caroline (Nevada)
Another lights-out scorer who’s only gotten better with age, Nevada senior Jordan Caroline looks to take the Wolf Pack further than the Sweet 16 this year. Caroline is one of the nation’s best dual threats, averaging 18.3 points and 9.6 rebounds per game this season — both of which are career highs. The 6-foot-7-inch forward doesn’t shoot many threes but he’s been more accurate than ever from downtown this season, shooting 40.6 percent from three.
10. Ja Morant (Murray State)
Murray State is certainly not a guaranteed tournament team, but if they make the cut you’ll get to see one of the nation’s most exciting players. Sophomore stud Ja Morant has had an unbelievable year, averaging 24.4 points and 10.3 assists per game, the latter of which leads the entire nation. He’s a smart shooter, making 51 percent of his field goals so far this season. Morant is also gifted on defense, averaging 2.0 steals per game. If you see Murray State on your bracket, this guy gives you a real reason to pick them.
9. P.J. Washington (Kentucky)
As a freshman last year, P.J. Washington played a big part in Kentucky’s run to the Sweet 16 — but he’s playing even better this year as the team’s undoubted leader. Washington leads the Wildcats in scoring, averaging 15.2 points per game this season. The 6-foot-8-inch forward is also turning in 7.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks each time out. If you’re tempted to take Kentucky on a deep run in your bracket pool, Washington will be the guy you’re counting on to make it happen.
8. Cameron Johnson (North Carolina)
In his senior season — and second with North Carolina — 2019 will be Cameron Johnson’s final chance to cut down the nets after March Madness. The Tar Heels big man, who stands at 6 feet 9 inches, is having the best season of his career, averaging 16.7 points per game, which leads UNC.
Johnson is also averaging 5.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game and has been smart with his rare opportunities for three pointers, making 47.3 percent of his shots from downtown. In his team’s huge road win against Duke this year, Johnson scored 26 of the Tar Heels’ 88 points.
7. Carsen Edwards (Purdue)
Purdue junior Carsen Edwards was a big part of his team’s run to the Sweet 16 last year, and he’s got the ability to take them deeper in 2019. The nation’s 10th-leading scorer, Edwards is turning in 23.4 points per game so far. He’s also averaging 3.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game, leading Purdue in all three of the stat categories we’ve listed. In the Boilermakers’ disappointing tournament loss last season, Edwards poured in 30 points to lead the team. Expect more performances like that on the big stage this time out.
6. Mike Daum (South Dakota State)
As explosive a scorer as there’s been in college basketball in recent years, Mike Daum has averaged at least 23 points per game in each of the past three seasons. This season he’s averaging a career-high 25.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, doing all he can to make it to March Madness in his senior season for South Dakota State. Daum currently ranks in the nation’s top five for both scoring and rebounding, making him one of the must-see stars of the game.
5. Luke Maye (North Carolina)
One of the grittiest players in the game, North Carolina’s Luke Maye is trying to win his second national title in his final year with the Tar Heels. Maye’s numbers aren’t quite as breathtaking as some of the guys on this list but he’s the heart of a great team and always seems to come through in big games.
Maye is currently averaging just shy of a double-double, turning in 15.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, the latter of which leads the Tar Heels. In the team’s tournament-atmosphere win over Duke recently, he led UNC with 30 points. Expect fireworks like that come tournament time.
4. Ethan Happ (Wisconsin)
Yet another senior who has steadily improved his game with every passing season, Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ leads the Badgers in points, rebounds and assists. Happ is doing absolutely all he can to get his team back into the tournament for the first time since 2017, averaging 17.7 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. He’s the only player in the entire country to record multiple triple-doubles this season, which goes along with his 18 double-doubles.
It would be a shame for a player this talented to miss the NCAA tournament in each of his final two seasons, but if Wisconsin makes it in, expect brilliance from Happ.
3. R.J. Barrett (Duke)
It could be argued that R.J. Barrett is the best of Duke’s incredible freshman class, as he leads the Blue Devils in scoring this season. His average of 23.3 points per game is also the 11th-best mark in the country and is made even more impressive when you look at how many other great scoring options his team has.
Barrett is also pulling down 7.5 rebounds and dishing out 4.1 assists per game, making him one of the nation’s most balanced threats. When teammate Zion Williamson went down in the team’s tough home loss to North Carolina, Barrett did all he could, leading all scorers with 33 points.
2. Brandon Clarke (Gonzaga)
In his first season with Gonzaga, transfer junior Brandon Clarke has been a huge reason the team is looking like a surefire No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Clarke has the best field-goal percentage in the nation, sinking 68.4 percent of his shots. He makes a strong case for being the best all-around player in the game, averaging 16.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game, the latter of which is the nation’s third-best mark. According to Sports-Reference.com, Clarke ranks in the top two in the country in offensive rating and defensive rating, which is something no other player can say.
1. Zion Williamson (Duke)
Who else could it be? Built like an NFL player who can jump out of the building, Duke superstar Zion Williamson is the must-see star of March Madness 2019. In what will almost definitely be your only chance to see him play in the NCAA tournament, Williamson will carry in averages of 21.6 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game.
Numbers only say so much when it comes to this guy, as his NBA-level dunks are what will keep you glued to your screen during Duke’s run this year. The fact that the Blue Devils lost two out of three games after he got hurt in February shows how invaluable he will be to their chances of winning the title this year.