The Players and Coaches with the Most to Gain During March Madness

It happens every year. We stand on the precipice of Selection Sunday thinking we have a grasp on the current college basketball season. The best games, the best players, the programs on the rise and falling. We think our KenPom numbers and months of regular season games have settled those things in stone.

Then a bracket is selected and over the course of a month, chaos ensues. Winning two games, instead of one, opens up a second weekend and a world of possibilities. Losing a week too early could cost someone a job or their spot in the NBA Draft’s first round. Five years from now, those regular season memories we thought were solidified are nebulous, replaced by the moments of March.

It’s far from the perfect way to do things, but it’s reality. The added pressure and eyeballs on the NCAA Tournament gives it so much power over the college basketball landscape. With that in mind, these are the players and coaches with the most to gain (or lose) this month.

Evan Mobley (USC) and Jalen Suggs (Gonzaga)

The current consensus at the top of the NBA Draft is fairly secure. Cade Cunningham is the top prospect according to nearly every reputable source. Others have had dalliances at the top, but after Cunningham dropped 40 points in Oklahoma State’s first of two consecutive wins over rival Oklahoma, it’s hard to see anyone challenging him as the top guy in the class.

After Cunningham, there’s also a clear second tier. Mobley and Suggs are both surefire top five picks, now joined by Jalen Green and Johnathan Kuminga of the G-League Ignite program. That could change between now and draft night, especially given how Mobley and Suggs play in the Big Dance.

Mobley has come on strong, after a passive first few months in college basketball, to put himself in the All-American conversation. In his first eight games, Mobley average 15 points and 8 rebounds on 9 field goal attempts per game. That stretch of games included a 31 minute performance against Utah in which Mobley did not attempt a shot from the field. For a future top five pick, that’s troublesome.

He looked like a different person over a four-game span in February in which he averaged 21 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 12 field goal attempts. If that Evan Mobley shows up to the tournament in Indianapolis, he could secure his place as the second best prospect in the draft class.

The same is likely true of Jalen Suggs. The former Ohio State football commit chose basketball and the Zags, which look like very prescient decisions in hindsight. He’s the floor general of the undefeated, top-ranked team with the best offense in college basketball as a 19-year old. That will catch some eyes.

Suggs has had a bit of a dip in production, even as Gonzaga’s schedule coasted into its easier portion against the West Coast Conference. In his first few weeks as a Zag, he was confidently stepping into pull-up 3s, making half of his long range attempts in his first six games. His shooting cooled off, with just 24 percent of his distance looks going down since Christmas. NBA teams won’t let the tiny sample size of three, four, five, or six tournament games outweigh their overall evaluations of his jump shot. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt for him to make some big shots on the big stage and continue to be reliable from the free throw line.

Brian Dutcher (San Diego State)

For programs on the hunt for a new coach, Dutcher will be a hot name. His Aztecs have won 61 of their last 72 games. San Diego State hasn’t lost a game to a team outside the KenPom top 100 since February 5, 2019. A run this March could open a lot of doors for Dutcher.

Let’s say for example, you are the Athletic Director at – oh, I don’t know, let’s say….Minnesota. Dutcher is about to make his third NCAA Tournament in four years at San Diego State (if you count 2020). Minnesota employs a coach currently who has made the tournament just twice in eight years, with one tournament win. That coach also failed to win a road game this season, with his team now currently in total freefall. After an 11-4 start, the Gophers have lost nine of eleven, including six straight. Minnesota’s last three games have been losses to Nebraska, Northwestern, and Penn State, the three worst teams in the Big Ten.

One last item: Brian Dutcher is a Minnesota alum.

Moses Moody (Arkansas)

Moody has a pretty decent argument as the most underrated player in college basketball this season. The SEC (outside of Kentucky and maybe Florida) doesn’t have the basketball reputation of its power conference peers. Few outside of Little Rock have cared about the Hogs on the basketball court since Nolan Richardson was on the sidelines.

Eric Musselman, now in his second season in Fayetteville, is building something. And Moody is a big part of this team’s success. There have only been 38 freshman since 1993 to average 17 points, 5.5 rebounds, and one steal per game. This season, there are three freshman doing so. Rayshon Harrison has done so for Presbyterian (against the 315th best schedule in the nation). Future top pick Cade Cunningham has as well. Moody also hits those benchmarks.

When the SEC Tournament starts next week, find an Arkansas game. Keep an eye out for Moody. It won’t take long to find him. He’ll make a play that jumps off the screen pretty quickly.

Moody could lead the Hogs to the Final Four. In doing so, he’d leap from a possible lottery pick to a certain top five selection.

Mark Few (Gonzaga)

I know that Gonzaga has been to more consecutive NCAA Tournaments than any program except Kansas. I know that only Kansas has won a tournament game in more current consecutive seasons than the Zags. I know Gonzaga is the only school to be in each of the last five Sweet Sixteens (and sure-as-shootin’ would have made a sixth in a row after a 31-2 season last year).

I know all of that. And if you didn’t already, now you do too.

But venture into the depths of hell (Twitter, sports radio, etc.) and people will still try to tell you that Gonzaga can’t win big games and benefits from playing in a conference full of patsies. None of those people deserve to have their opinion heard and yet we live in a society that gives them a platform. Quite simply, Mark Few will hear that kind of talk until he makes another Final Four or more likely until he wins a championship. Ask Jay Wright in 2015 or Tony Bennett in 2018 if the world at large cared about regular season success.

Mark Few has his best team ever, full stop. He might have the best mid-major team since the invention of the word “mid-major”. If they cut down the nets in April, well there’s going to be some conversations about placing this team in history. Needless to say, it’s a big month for Few.

Ayo Dosunmu (Illinois)

The first three players on this list have a chance to elevate themselves in the eyes of NBA Draft evaluators, but will likely not leave a lasting impact on college basketball. Unless Suggs is the clear best player on a champion Zags team or Mobley or Moody carry their teams to the Final Four, those players will be one-and-dones with more talk about their future than their legacy.

Every college basketball season has a handful of players who leave their mark. The National Player of the Year gets his name written in history. The best player(s) on a title team too. The mid-major star who leads Cinderella in the tournament is remembered. Lastly, someone becomes The Tournament Guy. Closing out big wins, hitting buzzer-beaters, leading the tournament in scoring. Sometimes he fits into one of the prior categories and sometimes he doesn’t. Kemba Walker was The Tournament Guy. Carsen Edwards was too. So were Shabazz Napier, Carmelo Anthony, Trey Burke, and Stephen Curry.

Juan Dixon. Glen Rice. Larry Bird. The list goes on.

Dosunmu is the prime candidate to be The Tournament Guy this year. He’s a ball-handling guard on a team with a real chance to reach the Final Four and win it all. He’s averaging 21 points per game and adding more than five assists. In the biggest moments this season, he’s come through in the clutch for the Illini. Perhaps most importantly, in terms of leaving a memorable mark on March, he recently broke his nose and will be wearing a mask for the foreseeable future.

Luka Garza certainly could be The Tournament Guy, although it’s rare for a big man to do so. Oregon’s Chris Duarte definitely has The Tournament Guy vibes. If Gonzaga wins it all, it’s more likely Corey Kispert fills the role than Jalen Suggs. I’m not sure why.

Other rapid fire possible The Tournament Guy candidates: Colorado’s McKinley Wright, Houston’s Marcus Sasser, West Virginia’s Duce McBride, UConn’s James Bouknight, Texas Tech’s Mac McClung, and Butler’s Jared Butler. File those names away for safe keeping.

*******

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, The Action Network, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, RotoBaller, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.

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