After grueling through four months of games, a team’s entire season is judged on what happens in the next few weeks. That’s the nature of college basketball. Regular-season championships are meaningful. They hand out trophies for conference tournaments. But the NCAA Tournament, or March Madness, is what matters the most. The 64-team, single-elimination bracket is cruel but fair. Survive and advance or lose and go home.
It all starts this Friday at host schools around the country, culminating in Dallas with the Final Four on Friday, March 31 and the championship game on Sunday, April 2. Along the way, here are the eight best players to watch. All but the last two listed are among the 15 finalists for the Wooden Award, given to the nation’s top player.
Kelsey Plum, Washington
What, did you think the sport’s all-time leading scorer wouldn’t be included on this list? Senior Kelsey Plum is a crafty lefty who torches opponents from deep and gets to the rim. A recent WNBA.com article highlights just how efficient Plum is offensively. The Huskies get out in transition plenty, where Plum excels, but the 5-foot-8 senior is also deadly in the pick and roll and in isolation. In addition to her 31.7 points per game, she boasts a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio, often finding teammate Chantel Osahor, also a Wooden Award finalist.
[More from Excelle Sports: Kelsey Plum among 15 finalists for John R. Wooden Award]
The WNBA article, citing statistics from basketball-data conglomerate Synergy Sports Technology, points out that Plum isn’t quite as good going to her right. Opponents, especially in the Pac-12, certainly know this, but it hasn’t mattered. There’s a good chance Plum will break the single-season scoring record during the tournament—she only needs 50 to set a new mark. She’ll get her first crack against Montana State. Should the No. 3–seed Huskies advance, they’d potentially face Mississippi State and/or Baylor in the Oklahoma City, Okla. region.
A’ja Wilson, South Carolina
South Carolina head coach (and newly appointed Team USA coach) Dawn Staley gets right to it when talking about junior A’ja Wilson. “Check her stats against the top teams in the country,” Staley told Excelle Sports. “Enough said.”
In South Carolina’s 10 games against ranked teams so far this season, Wilson has posted 19.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game—all slight increases from her already impressive production the rest of the year. She scored a career-high 31 points in a win over then-No. 14 Texas in Austin. Most importantly, the Gamecocks won most of these games, finishing with a 29-4 record. The 6-foot-5 forward does most of her work in the paint and is a 72 percent free throw shooter. South Carolina is the top seed in the Stockton, Calif. region.
[More from Excelle Sports: A’ja Wilson and Kelsey Mitchell are named conference players of the year]
Brionna Jones, Maryland
Like South Carolina does with Wilson, Maryland can play through its star post player. Brionna Jones shoots 69.8 percent from the field—tops in the country for the second straight season.
Maryland, the highest-scoring team in the nation, gets contributions from a lot of players, including Wooden Award finalist Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. The guard has high praise for Jones. “She makes us go,” Walker-Kimbrough said of Jones after Maryland’s Big Ten Tournament championship win over Purdue. “She is just a beast down low offensively and defensively.” Purdue head coach Sharon Versyp agrees. “She’s big and physical, a very hard presence to guard. She’s one of the best post players in the country,” Versyp said of Jones.
Walker-Kimbrough and Jones, two seniors, went to the Final Four in their first two seasons. Returning won’t be easy. The Terps, the No. 4 team in the country, were given no favors by the selection committee, which gave them a No. 3 seed in the Bridgeport region with Connecticut.
[More from Excelle Sports: WATCH: Brionna Jones makes a shot to help Maryland win Big 10 Tournament]
Katie Lou Samuelson, UConn
The entire UConn team is worth watching, but Katie Lou Samuelson gets the nod because she’s a 6-foot-3 guard coming off a historic shooting performance. The sophomore hit all 10 of her 3-point attempts in the American Athletic Conference championship against South Florida. She’s the Huskies’ leading scorer at 21 points per game and only two players in the country have made more 3’s than she has.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma has talked about how he treats Samuelson like other great shooters he’s coached, reminding her that she shouldn’t judge her game solely on her outside shooting. Samuelson can do other things, which she recently proved with five assists and two steals against USF. It’s her shooting, though, that makes her so valuable.
“For the most part this season, when (Samuelson) gets going early and makes some shots it just changes everything for our team,” Auriemma told reporters after the USF game. “Because she has the ability to blow games wide open and the confidence that we get from that just spills over to everyone else.”
Samuelson got injured in UConn’s Final Four victory last season and didn’t play in the national championship. Odds are, she’ll get another chance in a few weeks. UConn is a No. 1 seed and gets to play at home for the first two rounds and in Bridgeport for the next two.
[More from Excelle Sports: WATCH: UConn’s Katie Lou Samuelson breaks NCAA record with 10/10 three pointers]
Kelsey Mitchell, Ohio State
Kelsey Mitchell is the junior class version of Plum: same first name, same dominant hand, same position, similar ability to score from anywhere. Mitchell’s ball handling and shooting are elite. She’s scoring 23 points per game and is the fastest player in history to score 2,000 points. This year, she also added some elements to her game that don’t show up in the box score.
“She is a great player and a great kid who has expanded her leadership capabilities, which has paid dividends for us this season,” Ohio State head coach Kevin McGuff told Excelle Sports.
The Buckeyes lost just one game in the Big Ten this season before getting upset in the semifinals of the league tournament. That got them the 5 seed in the Lexington, Ky. region. They’ll face Western Kentucky in the first round and potentially Kentucky after that.
Lindsay Allen, Notre Dame
Lindsay Allen is the consummate point guard, a player who makes everyone around her better. Her 7.6 assists per game rank second in the country, and the senior chips in five rebounds and a couple of steals while shooting 50 percent from the field. Allen, with the help of fellow Wooden Award finalist Brianna Turner, has the Irish playing its best basketball of the season. During the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, ESPN analyst Kara Lawson highlighted how Allen gets the ball to her teammates in perfect position to score.
Notre Dame has not lost since Jan. 16, beating Duke (2 seed) and Louisville (4 seed) twice each during that span, as well as Florida State (3 seed) and Syracuse (8 seed). The Irish earned the top seed in the Lexington, Ky. region. They’ll host the first two rounds.
Erica McCall, Stanford
Stanford placed three players on the 15-person All-Pac-12 Team, including Erica McCall. The 6-foot-3 senior forward leads Stanford in scoring (14.6 points per game) and rebounding (8.7). For McCall, who hails from an impressive basketball family, stats don’t tell her entire story.
[More from Excelle Sports: Why is Stanford’s Erica McCall so good? Take a look at who’s in her family.]
Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer has loved coaching McCall. “She’s a great basketball player, a wonderful person, and works hard,” VanDerveer told Excelle Sports. “Her leadership this season has played a big role in our success.”
McCall and the Cardinal are especially worth watching because they handed UConn its last loss, early in 2014–15 season. McCall played 11 minutes and scored 6 points in that game. A potential rematch with the Huskies would have to come in the championship game. Stanford is the 2 seed in the Lexington region but won’t host because of a previously scheduled event in its home arena; instead, the team will play in Manhattan, Kan.
Lizzy Wendell, Drake
Which team enters the Tournament with the second-longest win streak? That would be the Drake Bulldogs, winners of 22 straight. They’re ranked 20th in the country and earned an automatic bid after winning the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Tournament. MVC, a 6-foot senior forward, is the star. She and point guard Caitlin Ingle have carried the program to incredible heights.
“They’re great players that make people around them better and make them believe in something bigger than them,” Drake head coach Jennie Baranczyk said of the senior duo after the MVC championship.
Wendell is 13th in the country in scoring at 21.1 points per game, trailing just six players in the Tournament field. Among active players, only Plum and Mitchell have scored more career points than Wendell. Drake, a 10 seed, will have to play a road game at Kansas State to start the Tournament and would likely face Stanford next.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to Excelle Sports. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.