It’s not just the stars who come out to shine during the NCAA Tournament. Often, it’s the role players, those X-factor guys, and veterans who lead the way or rise to the occasion when the games matter most.
Here’s a look at 25 players, assuming they’re healthy and their schools are in the field as expected, to keep an eye on in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
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Virginia Tech is in the hunt for the ACC regular-season title, and Aluma is a big reason. The Wofford transfer leads the Hokies averaging 15.7 points and 7.7 rebounds during his first season against consistently elite competition. The 6-foot-9 Aluma made a major statement with his 29-point, 10-rebound, four-assist performance in Virginia Tech’s 65-51 win over rival Virginia on Jan. 30. He followed it up with 30 points and 10 boards in a loss at Pittsburgh.
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College hoops fans expect Luke Garza and Joe Wieskamp to pace the Hawkeyes during the heart of March. However, if Iowa is to make a deep NCAA Tournament run, Bohannon must be a factor. When in a rhythm, Bohannon, in his fifth collegiate season, is one of the top 3-pointer shooters in the country. He’s hit six or more 3s three times this season, but Bohannon has been inconsistent from long distance (3-for-16 in three games from Jan. 21-Feb. 2). If Bonannon gets hot, the Hawkeyes will be even tougher to take down.
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The 6-foot-11 Castleton was not very productive in two seasons at Michigan, but it looks like he’s found a home in Florida. After totaling 26 points in his first four games with the Gators, Castleton’s averaged 15.9 over the next 10. He’s blossomed into one of the SEC’s top big men and could be featured prominently come NCAA Tournament time for a Gators’ squad that could be Sweet 16-bound.
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With Clark, it’s about leadership and how well he runs the Cavaliers’ offense. His scoring and assists might be down in 2020-21, but he’s shooting a career-high 46.1 percent. More importantly, Clark’s turnover average is down nearly 2.0 from last season. That’s what Virginia needs from Clark — a guy who can take care of the basketball and lead the team while setting up the likes of Sam Hauser and Jay Huff to succeed.
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A consistent double-double machine this season, Culver has looked extremely solid of late. During a six-game stretch from Jan. 4-Feb. 2, the 6-foot-10 Culver averaged 15.8 points and 12.0 rebounds. One can see the maturity in Culver’s game and a progression that’s solidified himself as one of the top big men in the Big 12. If he’s able to keep that up into March, then the Mountaineers could hang around the NCAA Tournament for a while.
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Averaging 15.1 points and 11.4 rebounds, Dickinson has not disappointed during his freshman season at Michigan. The Wolverines might end up as a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament. If so, the pressure will be pretty hefty. That said, it will be interesting to see how the 7-foot-1 Dickinson handles all the weight that comes with the lights and intensity of the NCAA Tournament.
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Trent Frazier, Guard, Illinois
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Illini fans know how dominant stars Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn can be, and are capable of carrying the team themselves. However, if Illinois is to make a run and reach the Final Four for the first time since 2005, the senior leadership from Frazier could be key. Frazier averages a little more than 10.0 points on the season, but 18.7 while making half of his 34 attempts in the Illini’s recent stretch of three straight victories over Penn State, then-No.7 Iowa and Indiana. His presence on and off the court is truly underrated.
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There was a time in mid-January when it looked like Tennessee would roll to the SEC regular-season title, but that’s subsided. It also seemed the senior Fulkerson would have a shot a league player of the year. The 6-9 Fulkerson still averages a team-leading 11.0 points, but he totaled just 30 while the Volunteers split a four-game stretch from Jan. 23-Feb. 2. If the Vols are to pose a serious challenge in the NCAA Tournament, Fulkerson must be actively involved.
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Gray has become quite the force for the Seminoles since the turn of the calendar to 2021. Since Jan. 16, the junior has averaged 15.2 points, shot 58.3 percent, and recorded 6.8 rebounds per game. At the moment, the 6-8, 260-pound Gray is Florida State’s best player while more well-known contributors like M.J. Walker and stud freshman Scottie Barnes deal with inconsistency. When it comes tournament time, Gray could be Florida State’s X-factor.
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Grimes earned some NCAA Tournament experience while starting for Kansas in 2019. Now, the Cougars hope that can help as they look to translate a stellar regular season into success in the tournament. Grimes has found a home at Houston, where he’s averaging a team-high 16.2 points, plus 6.7 rebounds. He’s grown into a leader and someone his teammates can depend on when it matters most.
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ShanQuan Hemphill, Forward, Drake
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Drake has become one of the most interesting stories of the 2020-21 season after winning its first 17 games. Regardless of what happens inside the Missouri Valley Conference, one would assume the Bulldogs could earn an at-large NCAA Tournament bid, at the least. That would then allow a good chunk of the country to check out Hemphill, who leads the team averaging 14.4 points and shooting more than 58 percent while also averaging 5.5 rebounds.
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Though Louisville closed January with three losses in four games and Jones has struggled a bit of late, he’s enjoyed a strong season at Louisville as a graduate transfer. When Jones, who averages 17.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.9 assists, is on his game, the Cardinals are a tough team to beat. That’s why it’s worth keeping an eye on both come NCAA Tournament time.
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The Buckeyes entered February playing some of their best basketball of the season. Liddell, meanwhile, has truly blossomed during his sophomore season, averaging more than 15.0 points and nearly 7.0 rebounds per contest — he averaged 6.7 points and 3.8 boards off the bench as a freshman. Liddell has become one of Ohio State’s most important performers, and if it’s to continue to stay hot and stick around a while during the NCAA Tournament, Liddell’s play must remain at that high level.
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Davion Mitchell, Guard, Baylor
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Jared Butler and MaCio Teague garner a lot of attention for a Baylor squad likely headed to a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed. However, when it comes to being a star at the next level, Mitchell (13.8 points per game, 54.1 field-goal percentage, 49.4 percent from 3-point range, 5.8 assists per game) might be the best pro prospect. The improvement that Mitchell has made from the time he started at Auburn in 2017-18 to now is quite impressive.
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The 7-foot freshman is a projected top-five pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. And he should be while averaging nearly 17.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, and almost 3.0 blocks per contest. However, before Mobley heads off to the NBA, Trojans fans would like to see him help the program win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. With Mobley leading the way, USC is playing some of its best basketball at the moment.
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The top-ranked Zags are loaded with talent and have tremendous depth. One of those key reserves is Nembhard, the Florida transfer who has been a major contributor in his first season at Gonzaga. Whether scoring 17 points at Pepperdine on Jan. 30 or grabbing 10 rebounds at San Diego two days earlier, Nembhard has the ability to be a factor in various ways. Which is obviously valuable when it comes to crunch time in March.
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Micah Potter, Forward, Wisconsin
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Wisconsin has a pretty good guard and outside presence in D’Mitrik Trice. Now, the Badgers can use a little more inside consistency from Potter, who averages just over 12 points and more than 6 rebounds. Yet, the 6-10 senior has also disappeared in games this season, like last month when he finished with six points and two boards in an 81-71 loss at Penn State. Potter has the potential to be a dominant paint figure, and Wisconsin will need that come March.
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Reaves leads the Sooners averaging nearly 16.0 points. However, a true sign of a big-time player is coming through in those big games. In his last four games against ranked opponents (as of Feb. 4), Reaves averaged 19.5 points. Sure, the senior can be a streaky shooter, but this is a guy who might be ready to become a star during the madness of March for one of the nation’s top programs.
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As we’ve already mentioned, senior leadership can be vital to a long NCAA Tournament run. Samuels provides that for the Wildcats, who appear to be headed toward a No. 1 seed. The 6-7 Samuels can do a little bit of everything well. Though he’s not quite averaging double figures in points, Samuels shoots roughly 46 percent from the field and is pulling down a personal-best 6.7 boards per contest.
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Xavier has struggled to find a rhythm this season due to COVID-19. Still, the Musketeers have just two losses as of Feb. 4 and could be a tough out come March. That’s especially true if Scruggs (14.6 points per game) plays as well as he did scoring 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting at Butler on Jan. 30. Scruggs really is the motor that makes the Musketeers go, and they need him to keep churning.
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The NBA could be calling Shannon pretty soon. In the meantime, the sophomore continues to help a Texas Tech squad that could be a sneaky sleeper pick when the NCAA Tournament rolls around in March. Shannon has been one of the Red Raiders’ top offensive performers all season and averaged 17.7 points in his last three games. We think his stock will continue to rise.
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Sims has never averaged more than 9.7 points in four seasons at Texas, yet he’s started these last two campaigns and is one of the more underrated players in the Big 12. Sims is a guy who will do whatever is asked and if he’s needed to score, there’s confidence within the Texas program that he can get it done. Like he did while averaging 13.3 points on 15-of-18 shooting in the last three games.
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Tilmon’s first three seasons at Mizzou can be best described as “inconsistent.” However, it seems the 6-10, 260-pound Tilmon has finally found his potential this season as a senior. While the Tigers have enjoyed a solid campaign, Tilmon’s been a big reason for the success, averaging 13.9 points and 8.1 rebounds — both career highs. It will be interesting to see how he performs when the lights are even brighter.
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Williams has progressed in each of his three seasons at Purdue. Now, he’s turned into a potential star and someone who might be able to carry the Boilermakers to some NCAA Tournament success as an underdog in the event. Williams is averaging nearly 16.0 points and 10.0 rebounds. In fact, over a six-game stretch from Jan. 14-Feb. 2, the 6-10 Williams averaged 17.5 points and 10.7 boards.
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Zegarowski entered the season as a national player-of-the-year candidate but has been inconsistent in 2020-21. Especially when it comes to his shot (Zegarowski is shooting 42.6 percent). If Creighton is going to make a serious run during the NCAA Tournament, Zegarowski must step up his game and find a more consistent touch. As he did while shooting 51.5 percent during the Bluejays’ three-game winning streak from Jan. 23-30.
Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.