2017 NCAA Tournament: 10 players ready to break out as March Madness stars

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No matter who wins the games in the first and second round of the NCAA Tournament, stars will be made. Big shots will go down, big performances will pop up, and we’ll look back at a 72-hour period of chaos and be highlighting the teenagers or twentysomethings’ lives who’ve changed forever. 

Let’s look at some talented candidates, March Madness breakout players, if you will. Here’s my rule for this: I’m not listing guys that have been All-American candidates or are generally known by casual college basketball fans. So that takes off the likes of Luke Kennard, Josh Hart, Frank Mason, plus standout freshmen such as Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Miles Bridges. 

If you’re a top-20 player of renown, you don’t qualify. This is about finding the goods beneath the surface, because the tournament often makes legends out of the guys who aren’t necessarily the stars on a major team. Here are the underappreciated studs, guys with big upside who could push their teams to big wins in big moments and become storylines all to themselves. 

Bam Adebayo, Kentucky: Still projected by some as a first-round pick, Adebayo is a beast down low who still hasn’t been in contact with his ceiling. I could see it coming in the tournament, and in fact think that will happen. Fox and Monk are Kentucky’s two best players, but everything changes for UK if Adebayo plays like an NBA-level forward. 

Jordan Caroline and/or Marcus Marshall, Nevada: Both are well-known to fans in the Mountain West, but not to the general sports audience. Nevada is a somewhat-trendy pick to beat Iowa State in that 5-12 game. If it happens. these guys will be the reason why. While Nevada’s Cameron Oliver is a sophomore power forward who will be picked in the 2017 draft if he opts to leave, it’s Caroline that does more damage for the Wolf Pack. He put up 45 points against New Mexico earlier this year. He averages 14.8 points and 9.2 rebounds. Marshall leads the team in scoring (19.8) while running the point. 

John Collins, Wake Forest: Collins’ national profile has become more well-known in the past month as Wake Forest won its way to a bid. It’s reached the point where this sophomore big, who was once a three-star recruit, is a top-20 talent in the upcoming draft. Wake Forest is the team that could go from the First Four to the second weekend. Collins has personality to match, too. 

Mike Daum, South Dakota State: It’s extremely unlikely South Dakota State beats Gonzaga, but Daum could still go off. He’s this year’s “guy on a bad team who makes you want to watch anyway because of what he might do” representative. Daum has a very interesting back story. He was barely a D-I recruit, then got to SDSU and didn’t think he was good enough for the low-major level. Now he’s averaging 25.3 points, second in college basketball. 

Bam Adebayo (No. 3) might move from the background to the spotlight in this tournament.  USATSI

Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State: Terrific athlete, heady point guard with physical abilities who uplifts the team around him. Oklahoma State is well-coached, and Evans is a problem for every team. This year’s Cowboys team is sort of an afterthought as a 10 seed, but Evans is good enough to average 23/10 in the points/assists column this week and get OSU to the Sweet 16. 

Jonathan Isaac and/or Dwayne Bacon, Florida State: Isaac was a top-15 freshmen in college basketball this season. Oozing with potential. If he hits a selfish streak (wouldn’t be the worst thing) he could become the face of a deep FSU run in the tourney. If it’s not him, then how about the man with the terrific last name. Yes, Bacon can cook. He averages 17/game. Florida State is a fun group to watch. Will they play big in the moment? 

Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s: Big potential for the big man here. Landale is one of the most underrated players in the country, having averaged 16.8 points and 9.3 rebounds for a ranked team throughout the season. Saint Mary’s could well knock off Arizona in the second round. If that happens, Landale — an Aussie! — will be a known commodity. 

Keon Johnson, Winthrop: Now we’ve hit the tiny-guard portion of the program. I’m going with Keon Johnson, who is all of 5-foot-7 but averages 22.5 points. This guy is why people love the tournament. Can you imagine if Johnson puts up 26 in a Winthrop upset of Butler? He’ll be one of the biggest stories entering the weekend. 

Semi Ojeleye, SMU: A lot of potential here. Ojeleye is the most talented player on a talented SMU team that has a right to feel slighted after getting jobbed with a 6 seed. The Mustangs are 30-4. Ojeleye, who could wind up going pro in the NBA or the NFL, could come out of the weekend with a double-double average and be the face of SMU’s biggest tournament moment in 50 years. The Ponies haven’t made the Sweet 16 since 1967. 

Derrick Walton Jr., Michigan: A prime candidate. Walton’s already entered the spotlight. The Michigan Big Ten title run came after the plane scare in advance of that league tournament. Walton, all of 6 feet tall, averaged 20.5 points, 6.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds in the Big Ten tournament. Now, he’s gotta go up against another guy on this list (Evans), but if Michigan keeps the win streak going, they’ll be must-watch against, presumably, Louisville in the second round. Walton’s been a solid player for all four of his years, but this a beautiful culmination of his college career.

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

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