Whether you’re an NBA fan stumbling blindly into March Madness or a college diehard wondering
This is your guide to scouting March Madness, from an NBA draft perspective.
Chock-full of juicy potential matchups, the South features the presumptive No. 1 draft pick (DeAndre Ayton), another top-five pick (Mo Bamba), the nation’s top defense (Virginia), second-best defense (Cincinnati) and fifth-best defense (Tennessee), another lottery hopeful (Lonnie Walker)…and Kentucky.
First–Round Game to Watch: Nevada (7) vs. Texas (10)
Nevada has a high-powered offense led by talented twins Caleb and Cody Martin. Texas has a terrific defense led by a likely top-five draft pick in Mo Bamba, who may or may not be healthy (and doesn’t always play as hard as you’d like) but can erase essentially every good
Second–Round Game We Want: Arizona (4) vs. Kentucky (5)
Everyone is drooling over this game, except the scouts who have to physically go to Boise to witness it. Both sets of Wildcats have tough first-round opponents, one of them (12-seed Davidson) also being Wildcats, but if the chalk holds, this is one of the juiciest matchups of the entire first weekend (and maybe the tournament on whole).
From both present and future standpoints, Deandre Ayton is the most intriguing player in the entire tournament. The 7’1” behemoth freshman cut a fiery swath through the Pac-12 tournament last week, catching lobs, draining jumpers and looking completely unguardable. Rawle Alkins supplies the glue on the wing. And if Allonzo Trier gets hot from outside, it’ll either push the Wildcats over the hump or mean nobody else touches the ball all game (or, maybe both).
Kentucky will counter with a vast array of long frontcourt players (all of whom get five fouls to use on Ayton) and rely on freshmen Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox, to supply the scoring. This set of Wildcats should be feeling great about themselves after rolling through the SEC tourney, and as usual, basically everyone on John Calipari’s team is a prospect on some level. Whoever wins gets to (presumably) go get strangled by Virginia’s top-ranked defense in the Sweet 16. Which brings us to…
Optimal Sweet 16: Virginia-Arizona, Miami-Texas
Neither Miami nor Texas is a seed favorite in their respective pod, and they’ll be hard-pressed to punch tickets to Atlanta. For our purposes, extra games from lottery talents Lonnie Walker and Bamba would be gravy. More importantly, watching Ayton try and demolish Virginia’s vaunted pack-line scheme could be the stuff of legend. The disciplined Cavaliers (who have a nice prospect in versatile forward De’Andre Hunter) will be favorites. But if Arizona can knock off the No. 1 seed, it’ll be in great position to win the region. How do we replace “One Shining Moment” with “Feds Watching?”
Most to Gain: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky
Dating back to Kentucky’s Feb. 20 win over Arkansas, the Wildcats are 6–1. Over those games, Gilgeous-Alexander’s averages are as follows: 18.4 points, 7.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 2.4 turnovers on 52% shooting, while making 9 of 18 threes and 82.6% of his free throws. He’s evolved from the timid-looking ball-handler we saw in November and is now the only player on the Wildcats who seems to know where he’s going on the floor 100% of the time. He’s a crafty finisher and instinctive on-ball defender, with great size for his position. Gilgeous-Alexander’s massive strides haven’t gone unnoticed by NBA teams (“He’s really helping himself,” one scout old me last week). The 19-year-old starting to push toward late-lottery position, and might be Kentucky’s best prospect. This tourney is another big platform for him.
Sleeper to Follow: D’Marcus Simonds, G, Georgia State
If there’s a 15-seed upset worth poring over, it might be Cincinnati and Georgia State. Part of that is Cincy’s offensive shortcomings, but another big reason is Simonds, a sophomore guard who runs hot and cold, but can be a huge factor when he’s locked in. He scored 27 points to sink a good UT-Arlington team and get the Panthers into the tourney, and his blend of athleticism and playmaking ability makes the whole team go (he uses a whopping 35.7% of their possessions while on the court). He needs another year or two of school, but Simonds is a legit talent worthy of your attention.
Here is a list of the point guards in the East region: Jalen Brunson (Villanova), Carsen Edwards (Purdue), Keenan Evans (Texas Tech), Landry Shamet (Wichita State), Jevon Carter (West Virginia), Chris Chiozza (Florida), Jaylen Barford (Arkansas), Justin Robinson (Virginia Tech), Collin Sexton (Alabama), Kamar Baldwin (Butler), Aaron Holiday (UCLA) and Jaylen Adams (St. Bonaventure). Enough said.
First–Round Game to Watch: Florida (6) vs. St. Bonaventure/UCLA (11)
No matter who wins the 11-seed play-in, this game should be high-scoring and feature some quality talent. The Gators love to launch threes, and are led by second-round prospect Jalen Hudson and rock-solid senior point guard Chris Chiozza. Whichever team they draw, there will be a solid backcourt matchup: UCLA’s Aaron Holiday and St. Bonaventure’s Jaylen Adams are both gifted scorers and playmakers with NBA potential. The Bruins also have freshmen Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, both of whom are unfinished products but plenty talented. Expect high point totals and a degree of unpredictability.
Second–Round Game We Want: Villanova (1) vs. Alabama (9)
Villanova is on this year’s shortlist of true title contenders, led by two soon-to-be draft picks in Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson. The Big East champs are rolling and will be heavily favored, which makes things juicy should they run into the Crimson Tide and wrecking-ball point guard Collin Sexton. Although there’s a bit of an overwrought narrative surrounding Sexton’s intangibles as a competitor, he’s been on a mission of late and has a chance to be the first guard drafted in June. Alabama is arguably the most talented team in the SEC, with Herbert Jones, Donta Hall, John Petty and Dazon Ingram all of interest. If they get past Virginia Tech, this matchup is can’t miss.
Expect Sexton to spend much of the game harassing Brunson, and in turn, Villanova can throw a variety of defenders at him including lanky shutdown specialist Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo, a tough combo guard who’s also on the NBA radar. Bridges has evolved into a quality scorer on all three levels, and while he’s not a great shot creator, playing off of Brunson (who’s in the mix as a Top 40 pick) makes life easy. Villanova has an edge when it comes to experience and should pull this out (particularly playing in Pittsburgh), but it’s far from an easy draw.
Optimal Sweet 16: Villanova-West Virginia, Purdue-UCLA
Watching Villanova deal with West Virginia’s all-out pressure would be fascinating, particularly given the head-to-head matchup between Brunson and the Mountaineers’ Jevon Carter, arguably the best defensive guard in college hoops. That game would be an exercise in discipline and tempo between two well-drilled groups, with one X-Factor being West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate, an elite, effortless shot-blocker. UCLA has the size and personnel to hang with Purdue, and Aaron Holiday and Carsen Edwards are two of the most potent scoring guards in the tourney.
Most to Gain: Jevon Carter, G, West Virginia
As we mentioned, the East is chock-full of great guards, and for Carter, a senior who’s a projected second-rounder, it could be a proving ground. He’s an elite, tenacious on-ball defender and will have a chance to solidify himself as a specialist worth a hard look. He could see Landry Shamet in the second round and Jalen Brunson or Collin Sexton in the Sweet 16, scenarios that are well within West Virginia’s reach. If Carter continues to look like a legitimate shutdown guy, the opportunity to grow his stock is significant.
Sleeper to Follow: Jaylen Adams, G, St. Bonaventure
Adams is one of the lesser-known talents in this region, but a prospect NBA teams are well aware of, helping the Bonnies to an at-large bid and posting a career-best 45% three-point clip coupled with a 29.4% assist rate. He’s not overly big or strong, but he’s a gutsy, experienced playmaker who’s good enough to help play spoiler. Adams can really help his case as a draft pick this week, especially given the opposition already noted above.
Three traditional blue bloods headline the Midwest, and it’s hard to see anyone other than Kansas, Duke and Michigan State making it out. Consider the talent on those teams and the fact that Trae Young’s one-and-done saga comes to a head here, and you’ve got more than enough drama.
First–Round Game to Watch: Rhode Island (7) vs. Oklahoma (10)
The very first game of the first round looks like appointment viewing. Oklahoma sneaking into the tournament was a surprise to many, and the Sooners’ late-season slump correlates directly with their reliance on Trae Young and his fall back to earth. From the outset, his absurd scoring numbers were unsustainable, and in an especially tough Big 12, opponents began to key on him heavily and take advantage. Some scouts think Young has disengaged a bit, and while there’s no guarantee Oklahoma wins a game, he’s certainly capable of catching fire and throwing a wrench into teams’ plans. Rhode Island has a trio of nice guards in Jared Terrell, Jeff Dowtin and E.C. Matthews, and excels at forcing turnovers. It’ll be a stiff test for Young, who’s no lock to be the first guard drafted.
Second–Round Game We Want: Duke vs. Oklahoma
Apologies for beating the Trae Young drum even harder, but this is the obvious potential first-weekend spotlight game. You imagine he’ll come prepared given the chance to take out Duke, with a pair of Top-10 big men in Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter and the backcourt duo of Grayson Allen and Trevon Duval. The Blue Devils play a lot of 2-3 zone, which will likely mean open threes for Young, which means this could get interesting. Plus, the thought of Young and Allen interacting on the court in any way has potential to break Twitter.
It’s unclear if Oklahoma has the horses or the creativity to whip itself into prime shape, but getting to see Young in another high-stakes environment would be a treat. When Duke is in sync, they’re as tough a team to guard as you’ll find, using the versatile skill sets of Carter and Bagley to overwhelm the opposition while Allen finds space to launch threes. This game may not actually be that close, but it sure puts whole lot of talent on one court.
Optimal Sweet 16: Kansas-Auburn, Duke-Michigan State
As usual, Kansas has a host of potential NBA players led by Devonte Graham (although there’s no can’t-miss talent on this year’s roster). Auburn’s pod is perhaps the least interesting in the whole bracket from a draft perspective, but the Tigers play a deep rotation and have guys who will get hard looks from the NBA in time (there are no seniors in their rotation). The other side is a different story: between Duke and Michigan State, there are seven guys with a chance at the first round, headlined by Bagley, Carter, Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson. This is a convenient segue into the next section.
Most to Gain: Jaren Jackson Jr., F/C, Michigan State
Jackson’s draft stock skyrocketed over the course of the season and he has a chance to be a top-five pick, but his recent play has been uninspired. He was plagued by foul trouble during the Big Ten tournament and still has some issues consistently imposing himself on games, despite his high-end defensive versatility and growing offensive skill set. It’s less a knock on him than a byproduct of his age — he’s one of the youngest players in college basketball and needs to mature physically and mentally. With that noted, he’s certainly good enough to turn it on and help anchor a Final Four run, and if the Spartans draw Duke, Jackson could be playing head-to-head with Marvin Bagley for draft position. His draft floor is safe, but Jackson’s play in March could elevate his ceiling — and lead Michigan State to a title.
Sleeper to Follow: Kenrich Williams, F, TCU
We’ve written a good bit about Williams, who despite his advanced age is a Top-60 prospect in our rankings. He’s kept a relatively low draft profile, but NBA teams are keen on his versatility and impressive grasp of the floor. Williams is a terrific rebounder and passer, has the size to defend both forward spots and doesn’t have to score to impact the game. He’s also a 40% three-point shooter. He may not get drafted, but it should be no surprise if he winds up on a roster going into next season.
There’s less high-end NBA talent in the West, but there are a bunch of legitimately good teams, great coaches, and some sneaky prospects. Plus, Michael Porter Jr.’s health is a massive wild card.
First–Round Game to Watch: Ohio State vs. South Dakota State
Buckeyes forward Keita-Bates Diop and Jackrabbits big man Mike Daum were two of the more prolific inside-out scorers in college hoops this season, and make this a fun matchup. South Dakota State is great at limiting mistakes and generating open threes, funneling more than a third of their shots through Daum, a 6’9” post who can be a load for anyone to deal with. Bates-Diop has been fully maximized by Ohio State in Chris Holtmann’s first season and is his team’s only go-to scorer, playing his way into the second round mix (and maybe the first) with a terrific season.
Second–Round Game We Want: North Carolina vs. Texas A&M
Texas A&M has been wildly inconsistent all season, and it’s unclear if they’ll even win a game here. But if the Aggies knock off Providence, their massive frontcourt could make the Tar Heels sweat, the chief threat being potential late-lottery selection Robert Williams. North Carolina is experienced, tough as nails and greater than the sum of its parts, but in this matchup would likely lean on two freshmen, Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley, to combat Williams and Tyler Davis.
For Williams, the big question is his motor, as he checks in and out of games mentally when he could be dominating the glass and ducking into space for easy dunks. Engineering an upset and putting together a monster performance or two could be somewhat redeeming given the circumstances. Teammate D.J. Hogg is a terrific shooter with size, and UNC’s trio of Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Luke Maye all still have plenty to prove. The Heels should handle business in this scenario, but A&M’s best — though fleeting — can flip the script.
Optimal Sweet 16: Gonzaga-Missouri, North Carolina-Michigan
Apologies to Xavier, but if Michael Porter is healthy and firing from three, he’s the guy scouts want to see deep in the tournament. His younger brother Jontay, an impeccably skilled big, has become a fascinating prospect of his own. Pitting them against Gonzaga’s red-hot Killian Tillie and powerful slasher Rui Hachimura is prime territory. Carolina and Michigan don’t have elite prospects, but their guys all have plenty to play for, particularly draft hopeful Moritz Wagner.
Most to Gain: Michael Porter Jr., F, Missouri
Conversely, Porter might have the most to lose: if he continues to look a step slow or re-injures himself in any way, he’ll enter draft workouts with more questions surrounding his stock than answers. That said, beyond getting hurt, nothing can damn his chances to the point where he can’t address the issues in private workouts. In the scenario where Porter looks like his old self and/or leads a surprise tournament run, he’ll add to his résumé as an elite prospect. We’ll all have to tune in to find out.
Sleeper to Follow: Malik Pope, F, San Diego State
The Aztecs are one of the hottest teams in the tournament, chalking up nine games in a row and an auto-bid thanks to quality defense. Pope, a versatile 6’11” big, is their top pro prospect. While he’s battled injuries and has never quite delivered on his promise, he can shoot jumpers, attack the glass and bother opponents with his length. There are no guarantees here, but Pope is a legitimate NBA prospect, and a second-round matchup with Michigan and Moritz Wagner would be worth the watch.