Purdue Boilermakers center Zach Edey boxes out a defender. Purdue center Zach Edey (15) boxes out Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins during their game, Friday, Jan. 5, 2024, at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind.

March Madness is upon us. 

While some teams have already punched their ticket to the 2024 NCAA Tournament by way of winning their conference tournaments, this week the high majors take the stage.

Men’s college basketball has had an interesting season in that there feels like much more parity than usual. While the Purdue Boilermakers, UConn Huskies, and Houston Cougars have all remained consistently near the top of the AP Poll, the rest of the poll has varied all year.

This week could feature some classic contests and unforeseen upsets. Even if it doesn’t, it’s a great appetizer for the NCAA Tournament.

Here are five players to keep an eye on during this week’s conference tournaments:

Zach Edey, Purdue Boilermakers

We might as well get the obvious one out of the way first. Edey won the Naismith Player of the Year award for a 2022-23 season which saw him average 22.3 points and 12.9 rebounds per game on a Purdue team that went 29-6. The Boilermakers won the Big Ten and Big Ten Tournament, but they saw their season come to an unceremonious end when they became the second No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in NCAA Tournament history with their first-round loss to the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights.

Edey and Purdue had revenge on their mind this season, leading to the 7’4” center to come back for his senior season. His numbers remained strong, averaging 24.2 points and 11.7 rebounds per game, second and third in the country, respectively. He will likely become the third player to win the Naismith Award multiple times, joining Ralph Sampson and Bill Walton. Stopping Edey is a tall task, and not many teams are suited to do it.  

Stephon Castle, UConn Huskies

The defending national champions seemingly got even better this season. The Huskies won the Big East by a conference-record four games, and much of it had to do with the strong play of Stephon Castle. The freshman point guard set a Big East record by capturing the conference’s Freshman of the Week award 11 times, breaking the previous record of 10 set by Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony in 2002-03. 

Castle averaged 11 points and four rebounds per game for the Huskies in his first season. He’s also proven successful on the big stage, notching a season-high 21 points in his Madison Square Garden debut against the St. John’s Red Storm. Castle feels right at home in the building where UConn will attempt to win their eighth Big East Tournament this week.

David Jones, Memphis Tigers

In another life, Jones is getting ready for the Big East Tournament instead of the AAC Tournament. The big man from the Dominican Republic originally started his collegiate career with the DePaul Blue Demons, before transferring to St. John’s. Jones was a solid player at both schools, averaging 13.8 points per game in his one season as a starter at each. Once St. John’s parted ways with head coach Mike Anderson, Jones was on the move again. This time he landed with Penny Hardaway and the Memphis Tigers, where he blossomed into one of the nation’s best scorers. 

Jones comes into the AAC Tournament seventh in the nation in scoring, averaging 21.7 points per game. He was pivotal in playing the Tigers to a 22-9 record, Jones and the Tigers have their work cut out for them this week, as Memphis went just 7-7 after a 4-0 start in conference play to finish 11-7. The Tigers have taken some bad losses and will need to win multiple AAC Tournament games to reach the NCAA Tournament. Having the conference’s leading scorer is certainly a good start.

Max Abmas, Texas Longhorns

It seems like just yesterday when Abmas was putting on his best Steph Curry impression as the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles made a run to the Elite Eight of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Abmas, the nation’s leading scorer for the 2020-21 season, scored 25 points in each of the first three rounds of the tournament, just like Curry did when Davidson made their run to the Elite Eight in 2008.

Abmas stuck it out with Oral Roberts until last season but decided to transfer to the Longhorns for his final collegiate year. He’s been great for the Longhorns, leading the team with 16.8 points and 4.3 assists per game. He’s also almost always on the court, averaging 35 minutes per game this season. Abmas has snapped out of a brutal offensive stretch in February that saw him score just 20 points over three games. Texas is likely in the NCAA Tournament as it stands right now; they’re 20-11 and went 9-9 in a very tough Big 12. One win in the Big 12 Tournament will likely punch the Longhorns’ ticket, and it’ll be Abmas’ time to shine if he wants to go to one last NCAA Tournament.

Oumar Ballo, Arizona Wildcats

If Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd is going to capture his third straight Pac-12 tournament title, becoming the first coach (and last) coach in conference history to do such, Ballo will play a pivotal role. The seven-foot Malian center led the conference in rebounding this year with 10.0 per game. He also added 13.1 points per game on 64% shooting, the eighth-best shooting percentage in the country.

It’s possible to stop Ballo, but there aren’t a ton of players who can match his size, making him a very tough matchup for most teams. 3.6 of his 10 rebounds per game this season were offensive rebounds, as well, so part of what makes him so effective is the ability to extend possessions for the Wildcats.