Earlier this week, we took a look at five teams that you are going to want to keep an eye on in the second half of the NCAA Men’s College Basketball season. Today, we are going to take it down one more level and take a look at five players that are going to be difference-makers in the second half. These are the players that are going to carry their team to the NCAA tournament and bust everyone’s bracket in March Madness. We will kick things off with one of the most talented freshmen in the nation, Duke’s Jalen Johnson.
Jalen Johnson – Forward Duke
Jalen Johnson was one of the main reasons that so many people saw Duke as being one of the top teams in the nation this year. The Blue Devils started the season ranked in the top-10 nationally and were expected to compete at the top of the ACC, with Johnson leading the way.
Johnson was a 5-star recruit, ranked as the 13th best high schooler in the country. But things haven’t worked out as planned for the Blue Devils, as they have fallen out of the national rankings, and at 5-4 overall, they are at serious risk of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in a generation.
But when you take a closer look at Duke, they have seen their season get derailed by Corona Virus related delays and injuries. The Dukies have only played 9-games on the season, the fewest games played of any team in the ACC, and their star freshman, Jalen Johnson, has only appeared in six games. In two of those six games, Johnson has barely played, playing only 15-minutes against Bellarmine and only 4-minutes against Virginia Tech. So, in reality, we have only actually seen Johnson play four full games in his college hoops career so far.
“He did everything he’s supposed to do. That’s why having him back is definitely a plus for us.”
–Wendell Moore Jr. on the impact that Jalen Johnson had in just his second game back from injury: https://t.co/n2lQytrYCl
— Duke Basketball (@dukebasketball) January 20, 2021
We haven’t seen a lot of Johnson, but what we have seen has been awfully impressive. Against Coppin State, he dropped 19 and 19 with 5 assists and 4 blocks in 38 minutes. Against Pitt in the Blue Devils last game, Johnson scored a career-high 24 points and filled up the stat sheet with 15 rebounds, 7 assists, and 4 blocks. There isn’t a player in the country that can fill up a stat sheet like Johnson can when he is healthy and on the floor.
It’s going to take a strong finish for the Blue Devils to play themselves back into the tournament conversation, but I think we can all agree that Coach K is far too good of a coach to struggle for much longer. Duke has made the tournament 24 straight times, the longest active streak in the nation, and as long as Jalen Johnson can stay on the court, they are going to make that 25 straight this year.
The Blue Devils play at Louisville this weekend in a must-win game against the Cardinals, and it’s hard not to expect Johnson to have another great game and give his team a chance to pick up the upset victory on the road.
John Petty Jr – Guard Alabama
For Alabama fans, they are used to seeing John Petty Jr draining shots from deep and racking up points. Petty Jr is a 4-year starter for the Crimson Tide, averaging double-digit scoring in all 4 seasons. But what he has done this year, and really in the last couple of weeks specifically, has been truly impressive. Petty Jr has taken his game to a new level, carrying his Crimson Tide team to a top-25 ranking and an undefeated record in the SEC.
In the non-conference, Petty Jr struggled with inconsistency scoring the basketball. He scored single-digit points in 3 of the Tide’s 7 games non-conference games and couldn’t find his stroke from beyond the arc. But in SEC play, Petty Jr has caught fire, and he has led his team to 7 consecutive victories. He has been light’s out from 3-point land, nailing 26 deep balls, at an absolutely absurd clip of 57%. In his last game, he scored a season-high 24 points on 8-10 shooting from deep, as Alabama blew out their rival LSU Tigers on the road.
“The rim is an ocean for @jpetty2324!” 🌊
— Alabama Men’s Basketball (@AlabamaMBB) January 20, 2021
Petty Jr has a history of being hot and cold, but if he can continue shooting at this rate, Alabama is going to be very tough to beat. The Tide have a unique style of play where they shoot only 3-pointers, or from the paint, that’s it. They take basically no mid-range shots.
That is always a risky proposition, as they are going to live and die by the 3-ball, but we have recently seen that if they make them, they aren’t going to lose very many games. With John Petty Jr leading the way, no top-seed is going to want to see Alabama’s name in their bracket come tournament time.
Trayce Jackson-Davis – Forward Indiana
If Luka Garza wasn’t in the Big 10, Trayce Jackson-Davis would be running away with the player of the league award right now. Jackson-Davis is averaging 20 points and 9 rebounds a game and is leading this Indiana team to relevancy in the toughest conference in the country, the Big 10. After a breakout season last year as a freshman, Jackson-Davis has improved his game vastly, improving his averages for scoring, rebounding, and assists.
What has made Indiana so good recently has been the consistency of Jackson-Davis. In Big 10 play, he has scored 20 or more points in 6 out of the Hoosiers 8 games. Earlier this month, he had a string of 3 straight games where he dropped a double-double in each contest, and the Hoosiers won 2 of those games and narrowly missed upsetting the Wisconsin Badgers in Madison, losing in double overtime.
“I thought our team really buckled down… We finally found a way to win.” 🔴⚪️@TrayceJackson joined @TheAndyKatz after @IndianaMBB picked up its win of the season at No. 4 Iowa! #IUBB pic.twitter.com/Cg505fHjhv
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) January 22, 2021
We already mentioned that Luka Garza is a lock to take home the Big 10 player of the year award, but last night, Indiana went into Carver-Hawkeye Arena and did what no other team has been able to do this season, and that is beat the Hawkeyes on their home floor. And who led the way for the Hoosiers? You got it, Trayce Jackson-Davis. Jackson-Davis led Indiana in scoring and rebounding with 23 points and 7 boards, and while Garza again posted his typical gaudy stats, he had 28 and 12, it was Indiana that won the game.
Indiana finds itself on the bubble right now with a mediocre overall record of 8-6, so the win last night couldn’t have been bigger for the Hoosiers NCAA tournament hopes. I tend to think that Indiana is going to get into the Big Dance as they have the win over Iowa to go with wins over Maryland, Penn State, Butler, Stanford, and Providence. The SOS for Indiana is 7th in the nation, and this team is battled tested and ready to ride their leader, Trayce Jackson-Davis, into war against any team, on any court.
Corey Kispert – Forward Gonzaga
Somehow Corey Kispert is in a strange situation where he might be the best player in the country right now, but also maybe not the best player on his team. The Gonzaga Bulldogs are looking to make history as an undefeated regular season looks to be a foregone conclusion at this point, and Mark Few has three of the top players in the nation in Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs, and Drew Timme. It’s hard to imagine that the leading scorer for the nation’s top team, a guy that was named a preseason All-American, is somehow being overlooked, but that seems to be the case right now in Spokane.
With Suggs making a case to be the number one overall draft pick in next year’s NBA draft and Drew Timme racking up efficiency stats we rarely ever see, Kispert has been a bit of an afterthought for Gonzaga. I will tell you this right now, DO NOT SLEEP on Corey Kispert. Kispert is the senior leader for the Zags, and he was a nice player for the Bulldogs last year, but has emerged as the best clutch shooter in the country this year.
— Gonzaga Basketball (@ZagMBB) January 15, 2021
Kispert takes over 6 3-pointers a game, one of the highest totals of any player in the country and is knocking them down at a sizzling hot 49% rate. His sweet stroke is accurate from the field and the line as well, as he is shooting nearly 60% from the field and 89% from the charity stripe. If Gonzaga needs a clutch shot, Kispert is the guy to take it, and he seemingly never misses when the Zags need a big bucket.
Against a Virginia Cavaliers team that leads the ACC and just might be the top defensive team in the country, Kispert embarrassed the Cavaliers, scoring 32 points on 9-13 shooting from beyond the arc. Guys just don’t score like that on Virginia, like ever, and it was a very special performance for the senior. The WCC is better than most people think it is this season, but Gonzaga likely won’t be challenged seriously again this season until the NCAA tournament.
— Gonzaga Basketball (@ZagMBB) January 8, 2021
Don’t let this easy finish to the year lead you to forget that Gonzaga had wins over Virginia, Iowa, Kansas, Auburn, and West Virginia in the non-conference, finishing off one of the best non-conference slates in recent memory. The national media is enamored with Suggs and Timme, and who can blame them, those guys are great too, but the Zags players know who the best player on this team is and who is going to take the shots that they need to make with the game on the line, and that is Corey Kispert.
Trevion Williams – Forward Purdue
I am going to be honest here, I didn’t think that Purdue was going to be able to survive in the Big 10 this season. After seeing two of their best players from last year leave unexpectedly as grad transfers, including big man Matthew Haarms, I expected Purdue to be competitive, but not good enough to compete at the top of the league. In a league that is as good as any league I have ever seen, solid teams were going to lose a lot of games in the Big 10.
But in the last couple of weeks, Purdue has proven me dead wrong, as they are playing well and winning games in the Big 10. And if there is one guy that can take the lion’s share of the credit for all of that success, it is Trevion Williams. Williams came on late last year as a high impact player for the Boilermakers, and his emergence as a guy that demanded more minutes was a big reason why Haarms left the program.
PURDUE STEALS ONE IN EAST LANSING! 😮
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) January 9, 2021
Now that Williams is clearly the guy in the paint for Purdue, he has exploded as one of the top players in the conference. The stats don’t do justice to what Williams brings to the floor, as he is always in the right place at the right time to give Purdue whatever they need to win basketball games. That selflessness has allowed the Boilermakers to win 4 straight games, 3 of which came on the road, in a league where road teams rarely ever win.
During this recent win streak that has taken Purdue from the wrong side of the bubble, to tied for 3rd place in the league standings. Williams has averaged nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds a game during this stretch. He hit a game-winner at the buzzer to upset Michigan State a couple of weeks ago and leads the Big 10 in rebounds per 40 minutes at 15.5. That’s more boards per minute the Luka Garza, than Kofi Cockburn, than Trayce Jackson-Davis, all guys that are getting a lot more national attention right now in the Big 10 than Trevion Williams.
— Purdue Mens Basketball (@BoilerBall) January 18, 2021
Matt Painter has always had a blue-collar team, where it’s always about the team first. The name on the front of the jersey always means more than the name on the back of the jersey at Purdue. Painter has 4 trips to the Sweet 16 and a trip to the Elite 8 on his resume, but if he can make a second-weekend appearance this year, with this team, I am sure that it’s going to be the best coaching job he has ever done. The only way that the Boilermakers can stay hot and keep winning games, and make that deep run in March, is if Trevion Williams keeps leading the way.
There you have it, folks, five players to watch as we inch closer towards March Madness. Stars are born every year in the NCAA tournament, and this year, there is going to be a player that emerges as a superstar that leads his team deep into the Big Dance. Who will be this year’s version of a Jimmer Fredette or Steph Curry?
Well, in my opinion, you need to look no further for the next breakout tournament legend than the names on this list. Thanks for reading, and make sure you check out TheSportsGeek’s college hoops betting page, where we bring you free college basketball picks each and every day!