College basketball power rankings: The most indispensable players on each top team – The Athletic

Brendan Marks and Kyle TuckerMar 7, 2024

Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good — best to be lucky and good — and recent lingering injuries to Marquette’s Tyler Kolek and Kansas’ Kevin McCullar Jr. have served to put a very fine point on just how true that is this time of year. No matter how well you’re playing, every title contender needs a little good injury luck in March to make dreams come true. Ask North Carolina and Cincinnati fans what might’ve been had Kendall Marshall and Kenyon Martin not suffered season-ending injuries in March.

That got us thinking: Who are the most indispensable players in college basketball this season? So we picked one for each of our teams in this, the final installment of Power Rankings before the madness begins. Keep these guys in bubble wrap until Selection Sunday.

1. Houston (27-3)

Last week: No. 1

Most Indispensable Player: Jamal Shead

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We know, we know: the best player on the best team in America. Really going out on a limb here, aren’t we? But for as much as Shead has been the Cougars’ steadying force all season, he’s been even better of late. Over Houston’s last five games entering Wednesday night, per CBB Analytics, the 6-foot-1 senior is averaging a preposterous 15.4 points, 7.8 assists (!!), five rebounds, and 3.2 steals per game. So, everything. (And that was before he dropped 16 points, eight assists and three steals in Houston’s win over UCF on Wednesday, which clinched at least a share of the Big 12 title in the Cougars’ first year in the conference. No biggie.) Shead is second in EvanMiya’s MVP rankings and eighth in KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings. We at The Athletic voted Shead as a second-team All-American in our midseason poll — which, not bad! — but … let’s just say he deserves a bump at the end of the year. Houston isn’t just gunning for a No. 1 seed at this point (because that’s all but locked up); Kelvin Sampson’s team is very much in the hunt for the No. 1 overall seed. Shead is the engine driving this whole thing — and for those questioning the viability of Houston’s offense in the postseason, he has to be the answer. — Brendan Marks

2. Purdue (27-3)

Last week: 2

Most Indispensable Player: Braden Smith

You might think I have severely misspelled Zach Edey, and I get it. Of course the 7-foot-4 Edey is the Boilermakers’ best player, given that he is also for the second straight year college basketball’s best player. But we’ve seen what Edey and the No-Shows can do, and it ain’t much! Which makes Smith, who is absurdly improved as a sophomore, Purdue’s most indispensable guy. He is the most clutch member of Edey’s supporting cast — and lately, a star in his own right. If this team is going to avoid another postseason disaster, it’ll likely be because Smith is much more ready for that moment. The same guy who went 2 of 10 shooting with seven turnovers in the stunning loss to 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson last March … drilled a deep dagger 3-pointer to seal a win at Illinois and clinch an outright Big Ten title on Tuesday night, after which he told the hostile road crowd goodnight. Smith’s off nights are much rarer this season, but his value is demonstrated in the team results when he does falter. In Purdue’s three losses, he averaged two fewer points, almost two fewer steals and one more turnover than in the wins, while shooting 22 percent from 3 and 41 percent from the field. In Purdue’s victories, Smith averaged 13.3 points, 7.0 assists, 1.9 steals and shot 48 percent from 3. He’s the guy who makes it all go. — Kyle Tucker

Tristen Newton leads UConn in points, rebounds and assists. (Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

3. Connecticut (26-3)

Last week: 3

Most Indispensable Player: Tristen Newton

His breakout performance in the national championship game last season — 19 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, two steals — was like a sneak preview. Just wait til this is really his team. And now it is. We’ve seen this team survive, even thrive, while other big names missed time. But not Newton, who has played at an All-America level all year, leading the Huskies in points (15.3), rebounds (7.1) and assists (6.0). His presence has steadied a team that’s been frequently disrupted by those nagging injuries. He and Cam Spencer are the only two players who’ve started every game for UConn. For a 6-5 guard, Newton rebounds exceptionally well, and perhaps the most unexpected stat to represent his winning impact is this: the team is 14-1 when he grabs at least seven rebounds in a game — and he has 10-plus boards seven times this year. (He had six rebounds in Wednesday’s 74-67 win at Marquette). More predictably, they’re also 19-0 when he has five-plus assists in a game. Considering all Dan Hurley lost from last year’s national champs, and that he’s integrated a prized transfer like Spencer, navigated extended injuries to star big man Donovan Clingan and McDonald’s All-American freshman Stephon Castle, it’s obvious Newton is the glue that has pulled all the pieces together again for a title defense. — Tucker

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4. Tennessee (24-6)

Last week: 4

Most Indispensable Player: Dalton Knecht

Look, we’re not going to even attempt a cute, outside-the-box answer here. You could probably make a case for point guard Zakai Zeigler, who certainly is the engine of that team, but Knecht is the gasoline. Nine games scoring 25-plus points — including six with 30-plus! — make the 6-foot-6 Northern Colorado transfer a potential star of March and the kind of dominant scorer who can drag an entire team along for a fun run through the NCAA Tournament. Consider that against tournament locks Auburn, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina, he dropped 39, 39, 37 and 31 points. And another 26 in the rematch against South Carolina on Wednesday, when Tennessee clinched the outright SEC title. Rick Barnes has had elite defenses for a long time, but he’s never had an offensive weapon (at Tennessee, we mean, because that Kevin Durant guy played for him at Texas) quite like Knecht, who has averaged 25 points in SEC play. Without him, these Volunteers would still be very good and probably look roughly like every other team Barnes has fielded in Knoxville, destined for a Sweet 16 (or earlier) exit. With him, they can dream much bigger than that. — Tucker

5. Arizona (23-6)

Last week: 8

Most Indispensable Player: Caleb Love

A thought we just cannot stop thinking, especially with award SZN right around the corner: Caleb Love hit one of the most consequential shots in North Carolina basketball history — arguably second, only to Michael Jordan’s national championship game-winner vs. Georgetown — and he is … not going to be honored in Chapel Hill in any way. Instead? Love seems poised to run away with the Pac-12 Player of the Year award, which means he’ll be eligible for Arizona’s Ring of Honor, despite only spending one season in Tucson. (He does still have a COVID-19 year of eligibility, but who are we kidding? He gone.) It’s a fascinating career capper for Love, one of college basketball’s best enigmas. But obviously, we’ve seen much more “Good Caleb Love” than his inefficient alter ego this season. He’s averaging 19.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.2 steals per game, while shooting 86.7 percent on free throws and 36.2 percent from 3 — the latter of which are both career highs. (Ssshhhh, ignore that Love has attempted one fewer 3-pointer — 221 — than Arizona’s next two most-frequent 3-point shooters have combined.) He’s the most dynamic offensive weapon on a team with the No. 6 adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom. Essential, basically. And, as college hoops fans know well, Love is at his best late in the season. Over Arizona’s last five games, he’s averaging 21.6 points per contest, while making 41.3 percent of his 9.2 (!!) 3-point attempts per game. UNC fans already know, but Tommy Lloyd is about to find out: Live by Caleb Love … or die by Caleb Love. Here’s hoping for the former. — Marks

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6. North Carolina (24-6)

Last week: 7

Most Indispensable Player: R.J. Davis

Any journalist who tells you he’s a math whiz is either A) much smarter than I am, or B) a liar. But these numbers are pretty easy to handle. In R.J. Davis’ first three college seasons, all 91 games the New York native played — including UNC’s 2022 Final Four run, which tacked on a few — he scored 20 or more points 12 times. Solid numbers, solid player. Now, though? He’s fully engulfed in flames, the ninth-best scorer (at 21.5 points per game) in the country — and he’s broken that 20-point barometer a staggering 19 times in just 30 games. At points in Tuesday’s win over Notre Dame, you could see Davis mentally toying with his defender: backing up, giving himself a runway … only to stop his momentum completely in a stepback 3. (Which, obviously, swished.) He’s averaging the most points in a season by an ACC player since R.J. Barrett at Duke in 2018-19, and he’s well within striking distance of the program’s all-time single-season 3-point record. North Carolina’s offense has ebbed and flowed this season, but with Davis around, water always seems to find its level. A share of the ACC title, UNC’s first since 2019, is already clinched; win at Duke on Saturday, and it’s an outright banner. Maybe the first of a few Davis’ Tar Heels can hang. — Marks

Tyrese Proctor is finding another gear. (Rob Kinnan / USA Today)

7. Duke (24-6)

Last week: 9

Most Indispensable Player: Tyrese Proctor

Before you — yes, you, confused Duke fan — get mad at this selection, crank up the wayback machine and rewind to last February. You know who was critical to the Blue Devils’ late-season 10-game winning streak? To their ACC tournament title? To their having any chance vs. Tennessee in the second half of that NCAA Tournament loss? That would be Proctor. Which is why, when Jon Scheyer said after the Virginia win that Proctor was once again looking like that version of himself — “except even better,” Scheyer added — it perked our ears up. Over Duke’s last five games, per CBB Analytics, Proctor’s been averaging 12 points, 4.8 assists, and three rebounds per game, while also nailing 41.9 percent of his 6.2 3-point attempts per game. It’s not otherworldly, but you know what it is? Tone-setting. Something this Duke team, with its glut of offensive weapons, sorely needs.

Kyle Filipowski is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, Jeremy Roach is its senior captain, Jared McCain is its sharpshooting guard, and Mark Mitchell is its do-everything wing … but Proctor is the guy who, at his best, pulls all the puppet strings. He’s also back closer to being an elite perimeter defender, something Duke needs if it’s going to mount a second-weekend (or deeper) run. Scheyer calls it Proctor’s floor game, his total control — and we can’t think of a more perfect description. Injuries cost Proctor time this season, and the runway he needed to fully break out … but who’s to say there isn’t still enough time for that? — Marks

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8. Iowa State (24-6)

Last week: 6

Most Indispensable Player: Tamin Lipsey

The last time Iowa State won at least 17 home games? That would be back during the 1999-2000 season — which, as Cyclones fans know well, was also the last time the program made the Elite Eight. (It’s the only time in the modern era; we’re not holding on too much to anything from 1944.) So you’re darn right that Tamin Lipsey — one of the more unheralded guards in America, and an Ames native who knows better than anyone the value of Hilton Coliseum — was determined on Wednesday night to get this season’s Iowa State team to that same sterling home record against BYU. He took over in the second half, scoring 12 of his 19 points and making all three of his 3s, but more importantly? He forced the game-winning turnover on Dallin Hall to preserve ISU’s comeback win.

But this late in the season, that’s just what Lipsey does. He had five steals Wednesday … which is completely unsurprising, considering he entered the game with the sixth-best steal percentage in college basketball, per KenPom — and the best amongst all high-major players. Iowa State’s defense, which is the second-best in the country, is the reason why T.J. Otzelberger’s team is in line for a No. 2 seed come Selection Sunday. Nobody embodies that, or the Cyclones’ relentlessness, better than its star sophomore guard. All we’re saying? There’s gonna be a lot of kids named Tamin in Ames nine months from now. — Marks

 

9. Creighton (22-8)

Last week: 11

Most Indispensable Player: Baylor Scheierman

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The former South Dakota State star was good for the Bluejays last season, but he’s taken that up to great this season. He leads Creighton in points (18.5), rebounds (8.9), made 3s (3.1) and free-throw attempts (3.3), and he ranks second in assists (4.0). He leads the Big East in a wild array of categories: made 3s, defensive rebounds and defensive win shares. As a 6-foot-6 perimeter player, Scheierman has a ridiculous 14 double-doubles and 15 double-digit rebound games this season – and he’s the NCAA’s active career leader in defensive rebounds (1,092). In games Scheierman makes at least three 3-pointers, the Bluejays are 15-3. He’s scored 20-plus points 14 times, including the last two wins over Seton Hall and Marquette. He was ridiculous in both those games, producing a combined 46 points, 27 boards, seven assists, five steals and hitting 12 of 22 3s. That aggressive, takeover-the-game version of Scheierman, the former Summit League Player of the Year, elevates Creighton to legit Final Four contender (again). — Tucker

10. Marquette (22-7)

Last week: 5

Most Indispensable Player: Tyler Kolek

Don’t need to go too long here, do we? With Kolek, arguably the best floor general in America, Marquette is a legitimate Final Four contender. Without him? Well … not that! Not close. The Golden Eagles put up an admirable fight at Creighton on Saturday without Kolek (and big man Oso Ighodaro, who missed the game with an illness) — especially Kam Jones and David Joplin, who combined for 44 of the team’s 75 points. And it battled UConn hard on Wednesday. But Shaka Smart’s team needs Kolek, who leads the country in assists per game (7.6), to have any realistic shot of a run. He’s already done for the rest of the regular season with his oblique injury, and Smart said recently that he’ll “play when he’s ready to play.” Not exactly super encouraging. That this has happened two seasons in a row — he injured his thumb in Marquette’s first-round NCAA Tournament win last season — is just incredibly unlucky timing for one of the sport’s most exciting talents. (Kolek set the program’s single-game assists record vs. DePaul, when he had 18 … and also had a four-game stretch in February when he averaged 25.8 points per game. Get you a man who can do both.) Best-case scenario: Kolek is back for the Big East tournament, and Marquette can compete at kinda-full strength with Creighton and UConn. Worst-case scenario? Let’s not talk about that. — Marks

11. Kentucky (22-8)

Last week: 13

Most Indispensable Player: Antonio Reeves

It feels like a lot of people (raises hand) have taken Reeves for granted just a bit, because the Wildcats have so much ridiculous and interesting talent. Reed Sheppard, the homegrown hero. Rob Dillingham, the human microwave. Zvonimir Ivisic, the Croatian sensation. And on and on. Kentucky has had 11 players score at least 13 points in a game this season and five guys have scored 28-plus. So yes, it’s easy to get overshadowed on a roster like that.

But Reeves has been the picture of consistency for John Calipari’s Cats, one of the most reliable scorers in the country. He put up his sixth straight 20-point games (and 18th this season) in Wednesday’s win against Vanderbilt. He’s scored at least 14 points in all but two games, made at least one 3-pointer in all but one game. That Reeves almost always delivers has been a huge development for a guy who came in with some questions about how he’d show up in big games after last season. Reeves is better on the road this year than at home, averaging 22.4 points and shooting 50 percent from 3. Overall, he’s averaging 20 a game and flirting with a rare 50/40/90 shooting season: 51 percent field goals, 44 percent 3s, 88 percent free throws. That’s the long way to say for all the other talent in Lexington, Reeves is the only guy who has played at an All-America level throughout. — Tucker

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12. Baylor (22-8)

Last week: Not ranked

Most Indispensable Player: RayJ Dennis

This may date me, but I was a Yu-Gi-Oh fan as a kid. I loved collecting rare monsters, waiting to use them … until I realized you couldn’t build a deck with all monsters. You need spells and traps, too, to make it all work. To connect the dots. Baylor has plenty of those rare pieces Scott Drew wants to unlock — freshman stud Ja’Kobe Walter, Jayden Nunn, Jalen Bridges, Yves Missi — but they can’t pass the ball to themselves. They need a dot-connector. And in Dennis, they’ve got an elite one.

Dennis is a fine scorer himself — his float game basically willed the Bears past Kansas on Saturday — but the way he unlocks Baylor’s other scorers is what makes him so special. He’s averaging 6.7 assists per game this season, which is impressive, but over Baylor’s last five contests, he’s up to eight assists per night — a total which, per CBB Analytics, is the fourth-best of any high-major player over that stretch. Unsurprisingly, Dennis is the leading assister to all four of those aforementioned scorers. Missi has been the biggest beneficiary though; he’s been on the receiving end of 25 percent of Dennis’ total assists this season. Dennis’ 3-point shot hasn’t been falling lately, but … maybe that’s a good thing? It’s led to an uptick in assists, a serious uptick in 2-point percentage — he’s making 65.8 percent of his 2s the last five games, which is in the 98th percentile nationally — and generally elite offense for Drew’s team. I don’t know if Baylor’s defense is anywhere good enough to make a serious run, but I do know I wouldn’t want to be the coach responsible for stopping Dennis and the rest of this offense. — Marks

Walter Clayton Jr. is leading a hot Florida team. (Alan Youngblood / AP)

13. Florida (21-9)

Last week: NR

Most Indispensable Player: Walter Clayton Jr.

This might be a bit of a surprise, given the overall body of work, but the Gators merit some extensive discussion in our final Power Rankings of the season — because they’re one of the hottest teams in the country over the last seven weeks. They look like a team clicking at precisely the right time for Todd Golden (the sharp young coach we bought stock in a long time ago). They’re 10-3 in that span, with four wins over NCAA Tournament teams: at Kentucky and against Auburn, Alabama and Mississippi State. Since Jan. 17, Florida has been the 12th-best team nationally in Bart Torvik’s metrics-based ratings, with a top-10 offense and top-40 defense. Clayton Jr., the Iona transfer and last year’s MAAC Player of the Year for Rick Pitino, has led the charge. He has six 20-point games in the last eight and during the 13-game heater, he’s averaged 18.6 points and shot 39 percent from 3, 92 percent at the free-throw line. He hit seven 3-pointers in the win at Rupp Arena, including one to force overtime and another to give the Gators a lead for good in OT. When he’s cooking, he can beat you single-handedly. — Tucker

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14. Kansas (22-8)

Last week: 12

Most Indispensable Player: Kevin McCullar Jr.

No Kansas fan should be surprised that McCullar was our inspiration for this entire exercise. (And Kolek, too, but he came later.) It’s pretty simple. With McCullar — whom The Athletic voted as a first-team All-American in its midseason poll — the Jayhawks have arguably the best starting five in America. No depth behind them, but, you know: you try to make it work. (KU fans did have a front-row seat to the last team that tried this, UNC in 2022, and … a reserve puked on the court during the national championship. ‘Nuff said.) Without McCullar, though, Kansas’ margin for error goes from slim to nonexistent. Since the first game he missed with a bone bruise in his knee, back on Jan. 30 vs. Oklahoma State, the Jayhawks’ offense has fallen to 49th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Bart Torvik’s sorting tool. During that same stretch, Kansas has only made 31.1 percent of its 3s — which is a dismal 289th nationally over that span. But there’s good news, obviously: McCullar returned on Saturday at Baylor, and in the two games he’s been back, he’s been good. Very good! The 3-point shot hasn’t come around quite yet — small sample size, but he’s 2-of-9 from deep in those two games — but the rest of his game has: 39 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 steals, and a perfect 9-of-9 from the charity stripe. Kansas fans will take that any day. Fingers crossed McCullar’s knee holds up, because that’s a guy who deserves one last postseason shot. — Marks

15. Gonzaga (24-6)

Last week: NR

Most Indispensable Player: Graham Ike

Oh we of little faith, doubting Mark Few and his Bulldogs, who’ve made 24 consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Why should a loss to sub-100 Santa Clara on Jan. 11 have sounded such alarms, other than the fact Gonzaga was a mediocre 11-5 with zero wins over quality opponents back then? It was the definition of a bubble team at the time. Not so much now, after Few’s team won 13 of 14 to close the regular season, including major road wins at Kentucky, San Francisco and Saint Mary’s. And you know who’s been an absolute monster during that heater? Ike, the 6-foot-9, 245-pound Wyoming transfer who averaged 19.6 points, 6.9 boards and shot 63 percent from the field over the last 14 games. He closed the regular season with seven straight 20-point outings, including 23 at Kentucky, 26 at San Francisco and 24 and 10 at Saint Mary’s. If Ike is in seek-and-destroy mode, Gonzaga typically wins. He’s found his former All-Mountain West form down the stretch, and that makes the Bulldogs a team nobody will want to see on their side of the bracket later this month. Same as it ever was. — Tucker 

16. High Point (24-7)

Last week: NR

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Most Indispensable Player: Duke Miles

We’ll get to Miles, but not before a nod to first-year coach Alan Huss, the former Creighton assistant who just guided the Panthers to 24 wins, most ever as a Division I program, and Big South regular-season title. (And the honorary mid-major spotlight here at No. 16). Huss was named the league’s coach of the year for that feat. Now High Point, which had six losing seasons in the previous seven years, will try to earn its first D1 NCAA Tournament invitation. That’s where Miles comes in. The 6-foot-2 guard who transferred in from Troy leads the league in field-goal percentage, effective field-goal percentage and offensive rating, and he’s second in scoring. He’s averaging 17.8 points and 3.6 assists and he’s scored 25-plus six times this season. That was good enough for Miles to be voted the Big South Newcomer of the Year. There were plenty of choices for that just on High Point’s remade roster, where five of the top six players were new this season: four transfers and the league’s top freshman, 7-footer Juslin Bodo Bodo. – Tucker

Also thinking about: Absolutely no shame in Illinois (22-8) losing to Purdue on Tuesday, in one of the best Big Ten games all season. (How was that game on Peacock? Anyways.) Our bigger holdup with the Illini, though, is their defense, or lack thereof. Brad Underwood’s team is 99th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, but they’re somehow even worse, No. 201, since Terrence Shannon Jr. returned from suspension. Good pieces, but that ain’t good enough. … South Carolina (24-6) lost a heartbreaker to Tennessee on Wednesday, which cost the Gamecocks a shot at a share of the SEC title. But Lamont Paris’ team is still old, still shares the ball, and still has nothing to lose. He’ll be among the finalists for National Coach of the Year, given his team’s 14th-place preseason prognosis. … Speaking of really good coaches, this Rick Pitino fellow seems to know what he’s doing. You know: like verbally eviscerating his St. John’s (18-12) team after it lost to Seton Hall on Feb. 18 — only for that same squad to immediately turn around, rattle off four straight dubs, and rise near the top of the bubble. That rant saved the Johnnies’ season. If they make the Big Dance, it’s an all-timer. … John Becker has won at least 20 games in 12 of the 13 seasons he’s been at Vermont (25-6) — and the lone exception was the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season. The Catamounts are once again favorites to win the America East tournament. We’re trying to spread the mid-major love as those conference tournaments begin. … Bruce Pearl’s bench army is still a metrics darling — Auburn (23-7) has a top-15 adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ranking — but the Tigers’ resume is still thin on marquee wins. As much as any team in America, we’re truly unsure what to expect of Auburn this postseason. First-round flameout? Final Four? Everything seems on the table.

(Top photo of Baylor Scheierman: Rich Schultz / Getty Images)

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