The NCAA Tournament cannot and will not be stopped. No matter how many stories come out about the FBI investigation, the best sporting event in the world will still go on as planned. We're going to get great games, captivating upsets and the fundamental figures who give us those results, of course, are the players.
So here's a head start on who you should be aware of in advance of the Big Dance.
The number 16 goes hand in hand with March, so in that spirit I've selected 16 prime candidates who are good enough and capable enough of either pushing their teams to the Final Four or, in the cases of small-school guys, leading their teams to an upset or two in the first weekend. In the interest of shining a light on a few lesser-known studs, I'm removing the obvious candidates for a list like this because, frankly, you probably already know a handful of college basketball's best players.
So I'm not including any players on teams seeded No. 1 or No. 2 at this point in our bracket projection. This list is more about introducing readers to guys outside the mainstream/dominant teams. That means Villanova's Jalen Brunson, Xavier's Trevon Bluiett, Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley III at Duke, Devonte' Graham of Kansas and Miles Bridges of Michigan State are all obvious candidates not included below. The only other exception I'm making: Oklahoma's Trae Young. Because of course he would apply for a story like this. Goes without saying.
A reminder to you that some of these players might wind up not making it to the tournament, but this is more about who can do damage so long as they get an invite. Who will become a household name this March? Chances are good it's at least one of the guys listed below.
1. Jaylen Adams | St. Bonaventure | Sr.
Adams is an incredible point guard and someone I think is one of the 30 best all-around players in college basketball. Adams and his senior backcourtmate, Matt Mobley, have propelled St. Bonaventure to potentially its best season in 40 years. Adams is a pure 3-point shooter (averaging 48.2 percent) and that's led him to be among the top 40 scorers in the country (20.2 points per game) in addition to dishing 5.5 assists per game. He's dynamic and plays well in the lanes. Absolutely capable of dropping 32 points in the first round and charging the Bonnies into a Saturday or Sunday game. Would love to see his team in the field of 68.
2. Deandre Ayton | Arizona | Fr.
Ayton is already a household name, particularly in the wake of what happened over the weekend. Nevertheless, Ayton's the most interesting inclusion here because of all the speculation that surrounds his eligibility -- and now how he's become the No. 1 target for fan hate in college basketball. Ayton's got a great shot at being the No. 1 pick in June, and given that we don't know whether or not Sean Miller is going to coach or if Allonzo Trier , Arizona's NCAA Tournament fate could fall on his massive shoulders. He's great enough to drag this team to at least three wins in the NCAAs. March could be when he cements his status as the best NBA prospect in college hoops.
3. Jevon Carter | West Virginia | Sr.
Carter is a veteran point guard who is the face of West Virginia's "Press Virginia" defense attack. But don't think he's just defense. Carter is a do-it-all point guard at both ends of the floor, ranking fourth in the nation in steals (2.93) and 13th in assists (6.5). He also averages 17.0 points and is one of the best on-ball defenders in college hoops. Grown-man game, and he's been so good this season that he should be rewarded by getting drafted in June. Carter will also try to shake the memory of this brutal final possession in WVU's loss last season to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16.
4. Mike Daum | South Dakota State | Jr.
Daum is seventh in the country in scoring (23.6) and top-20 in rebounding (10.1). This fella is a vintage small-school big guy who can put 24 and 12 on a power-conference program in the first round and give the Jackrabbits an upset to remember. South Dakota State is the best team in the Summit League and in fact the best program; a tourney bid this season would be the fifth in seven years for the Jackrabbits. Daum is a volume monster, taking 36.2 percent of SDSU's shots when he's on the floor. But guess what? He deserves it. He gets fouled often, and at 6-9, still makes 43 percent of this 3-point attempts.
5. Keenan Evans | Texas Tech | Sr.
This season has been unusual in that a lot of teams are competing for Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 seeds that aren't there in most years. Texas Tech is one of those teams. A big reason for that is Evans, who's had a season that essentially can match Trae Young and Devonte' Graham in the Big 12. But you haven't heard a lot about Evans, even though he's averaging 17.2 points, 3.3 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals on 57-percent shooting from 2-point range. Now, Evans is battling a bad toe, but if he's in full form for the NCAAs? Then he's good enough to go off and get the Red Raiders to somewhere they've never been: the Elite Eight.
6. Marcus Foster | Creighton | Sr.
The Bluejays' home win over Villanova on Saturday locked up a bid for Creighton, which is led by Foster and a great two-way player in Khyri Thomas (who is almost certainly going to make it in the NBA). But in the college game, Foster, who , is more likely to be the step-up guy for the Jays in the Dance. He's averaging 20.0 points and is shooting 44 percent from 3 (84-of-192). Creighton is a Sweet 16 threat because of its zestful offense and the fact it doesn't excessively turn the ball over. The essence of this list is trying to identify players who can go off in the tournament and push their teams over the top. Foster is a perfect example.
7. Tra Holder | Arizona State | Sr.
The Sun Devils started this season 12-0 and were the No. 1 surprise in the sport heading into January. Things have been bumpy since (7-9) but Bobby Hurley's team is reaching for the finish line and looks to have a good shot at earning an at-large berth. If ASU is in dancing, Holder is the guy to keep an eye on. Arizona State's got a great guard attack with 6-1 Holder acting as the leader. He's the one who should have the ball in his hands with 20 seconds to go. He averages 18.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.4 steals. Is not afraid to take the big shot. High entertainment value.
8. Aaron Holiday | UCLA | Jr.
Holliday is probably the most consistent player in major-conference basketball who hasn't received nearly enough publicity as he deserves. A 6-1 point guard, Holiday is averaging 19.6 points and 5.8 assists. Here's what's crazy: No player at UCLA has averaged 19 points and five assists in a full season since ... Bill Walton in 1973-74! Holiday is on the verge of program history. (Walton averaged 19.3 points, 5.5 assists and 14.7 rebounds as a senior.) What's more, UCLA hasn't had a guard put up 19 points or better per game since Reggie Miller. So yeah, this is a guy you should know and someone who's capable of being good enough in the NCAA Tournament this season as Lonzo Ball was last season.
9. Chandler Hutchison | Boise State | Sr.
Here's a 6-7 wing with first-round talent and a great candidate to show up and throw down on fools in the Big Dance. Hutchison is an all-round player (19.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals a game) playing on a Broncos team that is winning with defense. So it stands even stronger to reason that Hutchison would be the guy to go off and rally BSU to a first round upset. They'll need him in order to win a game or two. He's got a good handle, and in terms of how he's scouted, he's a mismatch for most wings in college. Top-five most undervalued player in college hoops.
10. Kevin Knox | Kentucky | Fr.
Kentucky's starting to find its groove here. Knox has a shot to validate his stock and establish himself as lottery pick-worthy in the NCAA Tournament. The 6-9 combo wing . He hasn't been as consistent as John Calipari's needed him to be, but all it takes is two games with a 24-point, nine-rebound average, and suddenly Knox's profile nationally will hit an uptick. UK is fighting to get a No. 4 or No. 5 seed at this point. No matter where it lands, Knox's season could well be judged by how he plays on the biggest stage. As he goes, so go the Cats.
11. Nick King | Middle Tennessee | Sr.
We're getting to the portion of the list where small-school guys have to be mentioned. King is a senior on his third school (formerly at Memphis and Alabama) and has stepped in to lead MTSU in scoring. He's 18th nationally at 21.5 points per game. He's a power forward with major-conference experience who's starring for a mid-major team that's won in the past two NCAA Tournaments as a No. 15 and a No. 12 seed. That's a promising combination. The Blue Raiders' Giddy Potts could also be the guy -- again -- for MTSU, but King is ready for this and should be option No. 1.
12. Jock Landale | Saint Mary’s | Sr.
Are you aware that Landale's got a great case for First Team All-America status? The Gaels' big man from Australia ranks No. 2 in KenPom's player-of-the-year formula (behind Trae Young) and is averaging 21.5 points and 10.2 rebounds while shooting 64.2 percent. The Gaels run their methodical offense through Landale, who's 6-11 and savvy on the block. You know how you watch the NCAAs every year and you'll find yourself caught watching a 10, 11 or 13 seed keeping it close thanks to some big man you've never heard of? That's Landale, only you should know of him by now because he's one of the automatic offensive contributors in the sport.
13. Fletcher Magee | Wofford | Jr.
Who's to say if 20-11 Wofford gets into the field out of the SoCon? But if it does you'll be hearing a lot about Magee in advance of the Terriers' first round game. He's made a nation's-best 134 3-pointers this season and has done it shooting 43 percent from behind the arc. This team and Magee made waves when they won at UNC back on Dec. 20. Magee had 27 in that one. If Wofford makes the field and wins its game, the only scenario in which both of those things come true is by Magee going bonkers and draining at least five 3-pointers over a big dog. That's what we want to see that first Thursday or Friday though, right?
14. Michael Porter Jr. | Missouri | Fr.
You know his name but probably haven't really seen his game. Porter, a highly probable top-10 pick come June if healthy, has been cleared for basketball activity after injuring his back and only playing the first two minutes in Mizzou's season-opener. He's practicing with the Tigers, meaning Mizzou fans are aching with hope at this point. Is he going to play? Gosh, I hope so. Missouri's not yet a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but if/when that happens, the Tigers would become one of the must-watch teams in the NCAA Tournament if Porter decided to play. He's got to weigh that opportunity vs. coming off his injury and combining that with his NBA potential earnings and draft position. It's not an easy call, but obviously he wants to play. We want to see him play, too. If Porter got on the floor and averaged 20 points en route to getting Missouri to the Sweet 16, it would potentially be the biggest plot line of the first weekend.
15. Jonathan Stark | Murray State | Sr.
Murray State is really good this season. Stark is 15th in the nation in scoring (21.7) and has a stellar 122.3 offensive rating, according to KenPom. He's a 6-foot-flat senior guard with a chip on his shoulder and a passer's eye that makes the Racers a trendy upset choice. Matt McMahon's team is 24-5 and went 16-2 in the OVC. This is a small school that shoots it well from all over. If it's 67-65 with 20 seconds to go and Murray State has the ball, Stark will be the player asked to save the day. He just might do it.
16. Jared Terrell | Rhode Island | Sr.
Fifth-year senior E.C. Matthews has long been the heralded name. Rhode Island's got about 17 guards it can play. Both noted. But if we're talking about the one Ram who will take over in the final two minutes of a game and get Dan Hurley to a Sweet 16 or beyond, it's the indefatigable Terrell. He averages 17.6 points and shots 42.1 percent from 3. He's not just a one-side-of-the-court player. Terrell is athletic and will be able to guard almost anyone he's put on in the tournament. Heck, I could see him shutting down a guy in a tie game with 30 seconds to go, then scoring in transition to give URI the lead. He will get real looks from NBA teams. With him and that guard attack, Rhode Island (23-4) is more than just a Sweet 16 favorite -- it's a Final Four dark horse.