32 players who could become this year’s postseason hero

At this time a year ago, few people outside the Big 12 knew about Markquis Nowell. The 5-foot-8 point guard was a key player for Kansas State, but he hadn’t played particularly well in some of the team’s biggest games and struggled in his team’s first-round loss to TCU in the Big 12 tournament.

And then the NCAA tournament began. By the time Kansas State got to its Elite Eight matchup against Florida Atlantic, Nowell — who would score 30 points in a Wildcats loss — had become a must-see player. That’s how quickly everything can change in the college basketball postseason.

While this regular season failed to produce many fireworks, that provides a bigger opportunity for players to have breakout performances in March and enjoy some of the attention Nowell and others attracted last season.

So, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Myron Medcalf are here to offer their takes on the players in each league who could seize the moment and become stars in the postseason.

American Athletic Conference

Johnell Davis, Florida Atlantic Owls
The nation should already be familiar with Davis, who starred on FAU’s Final Four team last season — and he’s even better this season, hitting the 30-point mark three times. He nearly single-handedly took down Arizona back in December, going for 35 points, and bailed FAU out with 34 in a win against UTSA in January. He’s performed on the biggest stage, has improved as a shooter, and he has the confidence to take — and make — big shots.

Honorable mention: David Jones, Memphis Tigers
Say what you want about Memphis’ performance in AAC play, but the Tigers have won seven of nine and still have more talent than any other team in the league. Plus, Jones, who ranks sixth in the country in scoring, and teammate Jahvon Quinerly, have a history of hitting game-winners. — Borzello

America East Conference

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Quinton Mincey, UMass Lowell River Hawks
Sure, Vermont’s the favorite in the America East Conference, and rightly so. But Mincey is one of the toughest players to defend in the league. The senior is coming off an 18-point performance on the road at Vermont and is averaging 22 over his four most recent outings. While the 6-7 Mincey keeps opponents honest with his 3-point range, he inflicts most of his damage inside the arc.

Honorable mention: Aaron Deloney, Vermont Catamounts
Mincey may have scored 18 against Vermont, but Deloney rang up a career-high 33 in that same game. — Gasaway

Atlantic Coast Conference

RJ Davis, North Carolina Tar Heels
As half of the greatest partnership in college basketball along with girlfriend Deja Kelly, the North Carolina women’s star, Davis has been one of the most electric players in the ACC. His numbers have been impressive — but he’s also the leader of a school with a legacy of elite point guard play in March. Shammond Williams, Ed Cota, Raymond Felton, Joel Berry and others have starred for UNC in the postseason. Davis is equipped to join that group (again) two years after helping the Tar Heels reach the national title game.

Honorable mention: Judah Mintz, Syracuse Orange
During his team’s recent 5-1 rally in a six-game stretch, Mintz –a 6-4 guard — averaged 20.8 PPG for a Cuse team that got hot late in the season. — Medcalf

Atlantic Sun Conference

Jalen Blackmon, Stetson Hatters
The league’s top scorer is good enough to carry Stetson to an NCAA tournament bid. He can get hot from behind the arc, finish inside the lane and is automatic from the free-throw line. Blackmon has scored at least 30 points on four separate occasions, including 36 in a win over Jacksonville in the penultimate game of the season. He’s averaging better than 21 points and shooting nearly 40% from 3-point range.

Honorable mention: Isaiah Cozart, Eastern Kentucky Colonels
Cozart is the best player on the league’s regular-season champion. He’s a double-double machine who’s also an elite shot-blocker; his two-way ability could be a difference-maker in the league tourney. — Borzello

Atlantic 10 Conference

DaRon Holmes II, Dayton Flyers
Holmes is a familiar presence in 2024 conversations about All-America and even national POY honors. The 6-10 junior has introduced consistent 3-point shooting to his game and is still connecting on 60% or more of his 2-point tries. Holmes has additionally recorded four or more assists seven times this season. Anthony Grant’s leading scorer is a multidimensional star.

Honorable mention: Jordan King, Richmond Spiders
After starring at Siena (where he began as a walk-on) and East Tennessee State, King powers a near-zero-turnover Spiders offense that hits its shots. — Gasaway

Big 12 Conference

Jamal Shead, Houston Cougars
On Saturday, Shead missed a layup at Oklahoma in the final seconds of overtime, but he stayed focused, grabbed a loose ball and nailed an off-balance shot to win the game for the Cougars, one of the most dominant teams in the country. He’s the leader for Kelvin Sampson’s crew. On both ends of the floor, Shead (2.3 SPG) can change a game in his team’s favor.

Honorable mention: Kevin McCullar Jr., Kansas Jayhawks
As Kansas attempts to put itself back together again after a late-season slide, the return of Kevin McCullar Jr. (19.1 PPG) from a knee injury — assuming he stays healthy — increases the odds that the Jayhawks can look like a contender by Selection Sunday. — Medcalf

Big East Conference

Cam Spencer, UConn Huskies
This one might go against the grain a little bit, since Tristen Newton and even Donovan Clingan are more likely to earn headlines entering the postseason — but Spencer is the heart and soul of this team. The Huskies also need him to play well if they want to cut down the nets. He’s averaging 15.9 points and shooting 47.7% from 3 in wins, but just 5.7 points and 14.3% from 3 in losses.

Honorable mention: Tyler Kolek, Marquette Golden Eagles
Kolek is dealing with an oblique injury, but he’s been one of the premier point guards in the country for two seasons in a row — and had an eight-game stretch in Big East play where he averaged 20.6 points and 9.4 assists. He narrowly gets the nod over Creighton’s Baylor Scheierman. — Borzello

Big Sky Conference

Saint Thomas, Northern Colorado Bears
Thomas arrived at Northern Colorado by way of Loyola Chicago, where he made five starts over two seasons but mostly came off the bench in support of the Ramblers’ leading scorers. Then he signed with the Bears, who had just lost their own leading scorer to Tennessee in Dalton Knecht. Thomas is averaging a 20-10 double-double on the season and recently added eight assists to 28 points and 12 boards in a win over Idaho State.

Honorable mention: Dillon Jones, Weber State Wildcats
Jones is a pure scorer who, at 6-6, happens to be one of the nation’s best defensive rebounders as well. — Gasaway

Big South Conference

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Drew Pember, UNC Asheville Bulldogs
Pember is a unicorn. This season, he has six games with 20 points and at least four 3-pointers. That’s enough to make any player in college basketball a star. Pember (20.4 PPG, 37% from beyond the arc) is 6-11. A breakout effort in the postseason could make him a household name in March.

Honorable mention: Duke Miles, High Point Panthers
Miles has hit his stride again after missing three games due to an undisclosed injury in January. He’s scored 20 points or more in 10 games this season. — Medcalf

Big Ten Conference

Zach Edey, Purdue Boilermakers
Can we really choose anyone besides the guy about to win his second consecutive Wooden Award? Edey is even more dominant than last season, ranking second nationally in scoring and third in rebounds, blocking more shots and finishing more efficiently around the rim. He’s scored 30 or more six times in Big Ten play. The gap between him and everyone else in the Player of the Year race is wider than ever — and Purdue isn’t losing to a 16-seed again.

Honorable mention: Terrence Shannon Jr., Illinois Fighting Illini
When Shannon gets going, it seems like he can will his team to a win. He was an All-American through the first month of the season and is returning to form, averaging 26.4 points in his last seven games. — Borzello

Big West Conference

Elijah Pepper, UC Davis Aggies
Pepper’s been the leading scorer at UC Davis since before Ezra Manjon left to play at Vanderbilt. That was in 2022. Pepper’s been at this for a while. The Aggies’ all-time leading scorer is automatic (91%) at the line and always finding ways to contribute on both sides of the ball. When Pepper’s not dropping 30 points on Hawaii, he’s recording seven steals against Cal State Northridge.

Honorable mention: Justin Hohn, UC Irvine Anteaters
As the primary perimeter threat on an interior-oriented offense, Hohn is key in creating the space the Anteaters need to score in the paint. — Gasaway

Coastal Athletic Association

Tyler Thomas, Hofstra Pride
Thomas has led a turnaround for a Hofstra squad that started 4-4 in league play but went 8-2 in its last 10 games. Thomas, a 6-3 guard, averaged 22.3 PPG during those conference games. He’s comfortable as a hero. Last season, Thomas hit the game-winner in Hofstra’s first-round upset of Rutgers in the NIT. This year, he’s an all-CAA candidate.

Honorable mention: Ante Brzovic, Charleston Cougars
The 6-10 forward has been a key piece for a Charleston squad that won the CAA’s regular-season title. — Medcalf

Conference USA

Isaiah Crawford, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Crawford, a fifth-year senior from Texas, is finishing the regular season on a tear. He has scored at least 19 points in each of his past four games, averaging 20.8 points and 7.8 rebounds over that span, shooting 40% from 3. He has taken his game to a new level in conference play, which has coincided with Tech winning 11 of its last 13 games. He also went for 24 against a good New Mexico team in November.

Honorable mention: KyKy Tandy, Jacksonville State Gamecocks
It’s hard to see Jacksonville State making a run, but Ray Harper is a terrific tournament coach — and Tandy is the most explosive player in the conference. The former Xavier transfer has scored 20 points 11 times this season. — Borzello

Horizon League

DJ Burns, Youngstown State Penguins
For four seasons Burns played supporting roles at Southern and Murray State. He fills a similar need at YSU, only now he’s a dominant rebounder who makes 59% of his 2s. For the first time in five seasons across three programs, the 6-7 Burns has also been given a green light from outside. If not for shooting 31% on 3s, his efficiency numbers would be even more impressive than they already are.

Honorable mention: Brandon Noel, Wright State Raiders
Noel’s 3-point accuracy has taken a leap forward in his sophomore season. He’s connecting 45% of the time from beyond the arc against Horizon opponents. — Gasaway

Ivy League

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Xaivian Lee, Princeton Tigers
A year ago, Lee was a reserve who barely played on a team that reached the Sweet 16. This year, he’s the star of a Tigers team that leads the nation in turnover percentage (12.2%). Lee (17.9 PPG) could lead Princeton back to the second weekend.

Honorable mention: Danny Wolf, Yale Bulldogs
Wolf (14.4 PPG, 9.8 RPG), a 7-footer, helped Yale capture a slice of the Ivy League regular-season title, which it shared with Princeton. — Medcalf

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

Mervin James, Rider Broncs
One could make the case that Rider is playing the best basketball of anyone in the MAAC over the past few weeks, winning six in a row. And James has been the best player in the league over that span, scoring at least 20 points in five straight games, averaging 22.8 points and 3.6 assists. He leads the league in scoring and also put up 28 against Maryland back in November.

Honorable mention: Matt Balanc, Quinnipiac Bobcats
Quinnipiac is on track again for a league title, bouncing back from a four-game losing streak with two straight wins — and Balanc is the Bobcats’ key man. He’s second in the league in scoring and just had 26 against Siena. — Borzello

Mid-American Conference

Enrique Freeman, Akron Zips
If you prefer the old-school “pay your dues, don’t transfer” model of hoops, Freeman is your guy. As a first-year player with the Zips in 2019-20, he totaled 13 minutes and three points for the entire season. Now the 6-7 senior is the leading scorer on an Akron team hoping to make its second trip to the NCAA tournament in three years. Freeman is No. 1 in the nation for defensive rebound percentage at KenPom.

Honorable mention: Tyler Cochran, Toledo Rockets
Ranking among the MAC’s leaders for interior-oriented stats like defensive rebounding rate and 2-point accuracy, the 6-2 Cochran plays much larger than his listed height. — Gasaway

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Jamarii Thomas, Norfolk State Spartans
In his team’s last seven games entering this week, Norfolk State finished 6-1 as Thomas registered 27 assists (and 15 turnovers). He has also connected on 39% of his 3-point attempts this season and helped Norfolk State maintain a perfect conference record at home with two games to play. It has been a smooth transition for the UNC-Wilmington transfer.

Honorable mention: Fred Cleveland Jr., North Carolina Central Eagles
With Cleveland (15.3 PPG, 5.6 APG) playing point guard, LeVelle Moton’s squad leads the conference in turnover percentage in league play, per KenPom. — Medcalf

Missouri Valley Conference

Tucker DeVries, Drake Bulldogs
The son of Drake’s head coach, DeVries is flat-out one of the most explosive scorers in the country. In back-to-back games to finish the regular season, he had 39 and 29 points. He has scored 25 or more points 12 times this season. He has great size for the wing, is a 35% 3-point shooter — and he also went for 22 in last year’s MVC title game. DeVries has to be at his best for Drake to take down Indiana State in the MVC tourney.

Honorable mention: Robbie Avila, Indiana State Sycamores
Recently nicknamed “Cream Abdul-Jabbar” on social media, Avila has brought Indiana State basketball more attention than it has gotten since Larry Bird was in Terre Haute. The 6-10 size, the goggles, the incredible shooting and passing ability — he’s built for a national breakout. — Borzello

Mountain West Conference

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Jaedon LeDee, San Diego State Aztecs
Give LeDee credit for patience. He made four starts across 117 games in four seasons at TCU and San Diego State before coming into his own this year as the Aztecs’ featured scorer. LeDee went off for 27 points in the first game of the season against Cal State Fullerton, and the 6-9 senior has been on a roll ever since. He’s drawing an almost Edey-like 7.5 fouls per 40 minutes.

Honorable mention: Great Osobor, Utah State Aggies
Montana State transfer Osobor is playing just as well as he did last year. This time, however, he’s starring for a projected No. 7 seed. — Gasaway

Northeast Conference

Jordan Derkack, Merrimack Warriors
Merrimack is finally eligible for the NCAA tournament a year after it defeated Fairleigh Dickinson in the league’s tournament title game but watched Fairleigh Dickinson represent the league and upset top-seed Purdue in the first round. Derkack (17.7 PPG), a 6-4 guard, could be Merrimack’s first NCAA tournament hero after it completed the NCAA-mandated four-year transition to Division I athletics.

Honorable mention: Nico Galette, Sacred Heart Pioneers
Galette, a 6-6 forward, anchored a Sacred Heart squad that had a 4-1 record in its past five games entering the conference tournament. — Medcalf

Ohio Valley Conference

Jordan Sears, UT Martin Skyhawks
UT-Martin, which won seven in a row to end the regular season, plays an incredibly entertaining brand of basketball, pushing the tempo at the fastest pace in the league and making a lot of 3-pointers. Sears is at the heart of that system. He’s a 5-11 guard who finished the regular season with at least 31 points in three of his past five games. Sears leads the league in scoring and ranks third in assists.

Honorable mention: Riley Minix, Morehead State Eagles
Minix is averaging 24 points and 11.9 rebounds over his past 10 games. — Borzello

Pac-12 Conference

Caleb Love, Arizona Wildcats
Anyone who saw Love’s 28-point tour de force for North Carolina against Duke in the 2022 Final Four knew what Love was capable of. Now the 6-4 senior is having the best season of his career at Arizona. It’s not complicated. Love is shooting more often and more accurately than ever before.

Honorable mention: KJ Simpson, Colorado Buffaloes
Simpson’s 3s are falling at a spectacular clip. He willed CU to a win at USC with 30 points on six 3s along with eight assists. — Gasaway

Patriot League

Braeden Smith, Colgate Raiders
Smith (12.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 5.8 APG, 1.9 SPG) fueled Colgate’s dominant run to the Patriot League regular-season title, which it won by six games. Sure, anything can happen in March. But a loss in the conference tournament by Colgate & Co. would be one of the country’s greatest upsets.

Honorable mention: Keegan Records, Colgate Raiders
Records (11.1 PPG, 6.5 RPG), Smith’s teammate, finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds in a four-point loss to Syracuse earlier this season. — Medcalf

Southeastern Conference

Dalton Knecht, Tennessee Volunteers
If Zach Edey didn’t exist, Knecht would be the favorite to win the Wooden Award. He’s been, by far, the nation’s best transfer, putting forth some of the season’s truly elite individual performances — including 39 points against Auburn last week, 39 against Florida in January and 37 against North Carolina back in November. He’s nearly impossible to stop, given his 6-6 size, 40% 3-point shooting and ability to score through contact and make contested shots.

Honorable mention: Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard, Kentucky Wildcats
I can’t pick just half of John Calipari’s dominant freshman duo. Dillingham is one of the nation’s most exciting players with the ball in his hands, while Sheppard has game-changing ability at both ends of the floor. — Borzello

Southern Conference

Achor Achor, Samford Bulldogs
Few players have as high a per-minute impact as Achor, who is limited only by his playing time. Too many whistles are a consistent concern for the 6-9 junior, who has picked up a fourth foul on 10 occasions this season. When he’s on the floor, however, Achor is scoring in the paint, drawing fouls in his own right, distributing the ball and blocking and altering shots.

Honorable mention: Mikeal Brown-Jones, UNC Greensboro Spartans
The Spartans gave a much larger role to Brown-Jones this season, and the 6-8 senior has responded by hitting shots from both sides of the arc. — Gasaway

Southland Conference

Shahada Wells, McNeese Cowboys
Boasting one of the highest NET rankings (56th) among mid-major programs, McNeese State has a résumé that includes a win over VCU. Wells (39% from the 3-point line), a TCU transfer, has been the catalyst for a program that has lost just one game since Nov. 22, while kicking off Will Wade’s comeback tour with a run to the Southland regular-season crown.

Honorable mention: Christian Shumate, McNeese Cowboys
Pound-for-pound, Shumate (12.1 PPG, 9.6 RPG), a 6-6 forward, is one of the best post players in America. — Medcalf

Southwestern Athletic Conference

PJ Henry, Texas Southern Tigers
After averaging 12.6 points in the first 12 games of the season, Henry has been one of the SWAC’s best players — and is the main reason Texas Southern has won eight of its past 10 games. Over his past 11 games, Henry has hit the 20-point mark six times and is averaging 18.5 points per game and is shooting nearly 38% from behind the arc. He is the key to Texas Southern winning its fourth straight conference tournament title.

Honorable mention: Tra’Michael Moton, Grambling Tigers
After scoring in double figures just four times in the first 14 games of the season, Moton has done that number 11 times in the past two months for the league’s first-place team. — Borzello

Summit League

Zeke Mayo, South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Mayo is on a roll heading into the Summit tournament. In road wins at North Dakota and North Dakota State, the 6-4 junior poured in 45 points on eight 3s and even added five steals. The Jackrabbits have won seven of eight thanks in part to the points Mayo puts on the board, whether through assists or his own shots.

Honorable mention: Jamar Brown, Kansas City Roos
Brown’s 3s aren’t falling, but 60% shooting inside the arc in Summit play has helped power the Roos to a six-game winning streak. — Gasaway

Sun Belt Conference

Terrence Edwards Jr., James Madison Dukes
After opening the season with a road win over Michigan State, James Madison enjoyed a stretch on the bubble. A trio of league losses changed those prospects, but the team still finished the regular season on a 10-game winning streak with Edwards (17.7 PPG, 37% from beyond the arc) leading the way.

Honorable mention: TreVon Spillers, Appalachian State Mountaineers
In a pair of wins over James Madison that helped Appalachian State seal the league’s regular-season crown, Spiller averaged 14.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG and 1.5 BPG. — Medcalf

West Coast Conference

Graham Ike, Gonzaga Bulldogs
Ike has been the best player in the WCC over the past month, carrying Gonzaga to a likely NCAA tournament bid. He scored at least 20 points in seven straight games to end the regular season, including 24 points, 10 boards and 2 blocks in the ticket-punching win at Saint Mary’s this past weekend. The Wyoming transfer is dominant with his back to the basket and has NCAA tournament experience from his time with the Cowboys.

Honorable mention: Aidan Mahaney, Saint Mary’s Gaels
Mahaney made a name for himself last season with an incredible regular-season performance against Gonzaga — and he’s leading the Gaels in scoring this season. — Borzello

Western Athletic Conference

Gabe McGlothan, Grand Canyon Lopes
While Tyon Grant-Foster is GCU’s leading scorer, thanks in part to his ability to get to the line, McGlothan gives all his teammates space to create with his 3-point accuracy. In WAC play, the 6-7 senior has been making 44% of his 3s. One thing to watch, however, is whether McGlothan still has the touch after going 4-of-16 over his four most recent outings.

Honorable mention: Cameron Tyson, Seattle U Redhawks
A onetime Idaho Vandal who also appeared in 18 games for Houston in 2020-21, Tyson has scored 80 points in the past three games. — Gasaway

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