While you were bemoaning the lack of easy storylines and dominant teams in college basketball this season, you missed a once-in-this-generation occurrence: a year dominated by upper classmen talent.
Now, as we look over the Sweet 16 rosters, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that seniors have ruled not only the season but also the NCAA Tournament. Just about every team remaining is led by veteran talent, from the top-seeded Jayhawks and their hero who seems like he’s been there forever to the 10th-seeded Syracuse Orange and their late-blooming senior star. This trend will be well-reflected here on our top 16 players in the Sweet 16.
Before we get to our list, apologies to Texas A&M and Notre Dame, the two schools in the Sweet 16 not represented on the list. The Aggies and Irish will have to settle for our honorable mention list, which includes some electric guards and one powerful freshman big man:
Frank Mason, So., Kansas
Diamond Stone, Fr., Maryland
Ryan Arcidiacono, Sr., Villanova
Demetrius Jackson, Jr., Notre Dame
Jalen Jones, Sr., Texas A&M
Monte Morris, Jr., Iowa State
Now on to the 16 best players in the Sweet 16.
16. Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
With Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker gone, Hayes became Wisconsin’s go-to guy this season, and the junior forward proved he could handle the role. Hayes leads the Badgers in scoring and assists, ranks second in rebounds and gets bonus points for being one of the most personable guys in college hoops. He would rank higher here if he scored more efficiently, but 36.9 percent from the field and 28.7 percent from three-point range leave something to be desired.
15. Melo Trimble, Maryland
Trimble’s numbers have fallen off slightly after his excellent freshman season, but he still averages 14.8 points, 3.7 rebounds and 5 assists per game. He can score from anywhere and will happily dish to his talented array of teammates. If the sophomore cuts down on turnovers (2.7 this season) and improves his three-point percentage (32.2, down from 41.2 last year) he’ll be even better.
14. Brandon Ingram, Duke
Remarkably, Ingram is the ONLY freshman in our top 16, which speaks to how season was all about veterans. Ingram might be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, in part thanks to his stellar performance at the college level. The forward averages 17.1 points and 6.8 rebounds a game for the Blue Devils this season, and steered a thinner-than-usual Duke roster to the Sweet 16 with 45 points over the tournament’s first two games.
13. Michael Gbinije, Syracuse
Gbinije, the first of many seniors on this list, has gradually improved each year of his career. After scoring only 1.7 points per game as a freshman at Duke in 2011-12, the forward now puts up 17.8 per contest for the Orange, a bubble team turned Sweet 16 squad. Gbinije does it all, from rebounding (4.1 boards per game) to passing (4.4 assists) to defense (1.9 steals). Against Middle Tennessee he played 38 minutes and scored 23 points on 10-14 shooting.
12. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
Wiltjer has become a star since transferring from Kentucky (where he won a national title) two seasons ago. The forward scores 20.4 points (second in the WCC) and grabs 6.4 rebounds per game for Gonzaga this season, forming a potent duo with the next guy on our list.
11. Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga
We’re going back to back with Zags. Sabonis, son of legendary Lithuanian center Arvydas Sabonis, is the best rebounder in the tournament. The 6-11 sophomore has pulled down 11.7 boards per game this season, to go with a 17.5 point-per-game scoring average. Sabonis totally outclassed Pac-12 Player of the Year Jakob Poeltl in Gonzaga’s blowout win over Utah on Saturday.
10. Dillon Brooks, Oregon
Oregon’s somewhat-surprising run to regular-season and postseason Pac-12 titles would not have been remotely possible without Brooks, a sophomore forward from Toronto. Brooks spent a lot of the season with the ball in his hands, leading the Ducks in points (16.8) and assists (3.1) per game, while placing second on the team in rebounds and steals. Oregon needed all 25 of his points in a close win over St. Joseph on Sunday.
9. Sheldon McClellan, Miami
McClellan looked like a star in the making as a freshman at Texas in 2012-13 but transferred amid a feud with then-coach Rick Barnes. The Longhorns’ loss was Miami’s gain, as McCllelan developed into one of the best players in the ACC, scoring 16 points a game for the Hurricanes this season. He has particularly stepped up in the NCAA Tournament, playing 38 minutes in each of Miami’s two wins while scoring 20 and 18 points, respectively.
8. Josh Hart, Villanova
Hart is the best player on a talented Villanova squad, a versatile scoring threat who can get buckets in the paint or behind the three-point arc. The forward pours in a team-high 15.4 points per game this season while shooting 51.1% from the field and pulling down 6.9 per contest, second most on the Wildcats. He scored 19 points on 7-11 shooting in only 27 minutes during Villanova’s win over Iowa on Sunday.
7. Georges Niang, Iowa State
Get ready for this list to get extremely senior-heavy; somehow six of the top seven players here are in their fourth year of school. Our run on old guys begins with Niang, who has tallied 20.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game for an Iowa State team that spent a solid chunk of the season in the top 10. Niang scored 28 points in both of his team’s opening-weekend victories.
6. Perry Ellis, Kansas
Ellis seems to have been in college basketball for about eight years, and he looks to have been on this planet for at least 35, but believe it or not the forward is actually a 22-year-old senior. He’s also a 16.9-point-per-game scorer who has converted 53.3 percent of his field goals this season and served as the leader and best player on the country’s top-ranked team.
5. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana
Ferrell is a living NCAA Tournament archetype: the undersized but scrappy scoring guard who leads his team deep into March, in the mold of Kemba Walker, Shabazz Napier, Trey Burke or Tony Delk. Ferrell captained Indiana to a surprising Big Ten regular season title this season, leading the Hoosiers with 17.1 points and 5.6 assists per game. He posted 20 points and 10 assists in his team’s opening round win over Chattanooga and contributed 18 points, five rebounds and four assists to Indiana’s subsequent victory over Kentucky.
4. Grayson Allen, Duke
We first got to know Grayson Allen when he scored 16 points in Duke’s title game win over Wisconsin last year, in what turned out to be a harbinger of things to come for the guard. This season Allen became the NCAA’s most hated player (half because he really likes to trip people and half because he’s a white Duke guard) but also one of its best, averaging 21.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. Without question, he’s the top player in this tournament who looks just like Ted Cruz.
3. Brice Johnson, North Carolina
During the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, Johnson showed the entire skillset that made him one of the ACC’s best players this season (16.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks per game). The senior made 14 of 20 shots over two Tar Heels wins, scoring a total of 39 points while adding 17 rebounds and 10 blocks. He’s the best front-court player left in this tournament.
2. Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia
Brodgon is about as under-the-radar as a likely first-team All-American on a top-five team can be. The senior guard averages 18.6 points, 4 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game this season and earned ACC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors. He is both the Cavaliers’ go-to scorer on one end and their defensive stopped on the other, which makes him the tournament’s best two-way player standing.
1. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
There was never any doubt who would top this list. Hield is one of two contenders for national player of the year awards (along with Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine) thanks to a markedly improved jumper that has him averaging 25.4 points per game, second best in the country. The Bahaman guard has stepped up even further so far in the NCAA Tournament, scoring 27 points against Cal-State Bakersfield and 36 against VCU. Hield might be the best college basketball player in the country, and he’s certainly the best still in the tournament.