If you follow college basketball closely, you probably already know these guys. But if you’re a casual observer, you'll want to learn these names: they’ll impact the way March Madness unfolds.
Christian James, Oklahoma
Trae Young grabs just about all of the Oklahoma-related headlines, but James is his talented sidekick – the Klay to Young’s Steph.James was clearly talented when he arrived at Oklahoma, but wasn’t particularly effective his first two years. He averaged 2.9 points as a freshman and shot 36 percent from the floor as a sophomore.
But as Young’s running mate, he’s thrived in his junior year. James is averaging 13.4 points on 51 percent shooting while making 41 percent of his threes. That’s on high volume, too – James is launching 5.3 shots per game from deep, meaning defenses have to know where he is at all times. While Young is the main reason for Oklahoma’s resurgence, part of the ‘why’ in his effectiveness is James. Teams trap Young at their own risk; if the ball finds its way to James with even an inch of breathing room, the defense is toast.
His all-around game is better, too: James is averaging 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals so far this year. When the Sooners face a high-level point guard, James often guards him so Young can check a less-threatening wing and charge up for offense. He’s been a huge part of Oklahoma’s success.
Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky
Diallo has been doing stuff lately. Good stuff.
He’s extremely raw. Diallo doesn’t always know where to be on offense, or what to do on defense. But his vertical leap is in the mid-40s and he’s got a smooth outside stroke, which are two good places to start.
Kevin Knox is probably the best player on Kentucky right now, but Diallo is a close second. He’s averaging 15.5 points on 45.7 percent shooting and canning 36 percent of his 3s. Diallo is the best athlete on the team – and perhaps in the SEC. He’s scored at least 18 points in his last five games; the arrow is clearly pointing up.
The Wildcats don’t have their typical star power this season. Knox and Diallo are potential stars, but aren’t polished enough to be classified as such yet.
Yet give Diallo a few months. He’s significantly better in late December than he was in mid-November. Chances are good he’ll be a completely different player come March, in a good way.
Romello White, Arizona State
Arizona State wouldn’t be able to survive with its run-and-gun, carefree style if it didn't have White man the paint. He’s been absurdly efficient, shooting 70 percent from the floor and averaging 14.9 points on just under eight shot attempts. He’s essentially an afterthought in the Sun Devils' offense, yet he’s nearly scoring 15 points a game. Incredible.
White has gravity when he rolls to the rim because he’s such a ferocious dunker, and that makes life easier for Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice. He’s an ideal pick-and-roll partner; he commands respect when he darts to the hoop, and if you throw it to him, he has the hands and touch to make the possession count.
White isn’t great on defense – fitting for the Sun Devils – but he’s good enough, and considering he’s a true power forward being asked to play center to juice the offense, he’s holding up nicely. If Arizona State maintains this pace – or even comes close to doing so – White's is a name you’ll be hearing a lot.
Terance Mann, Florida State
After losing Jonathan Isaac, Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Florida State wasn’t supposed to be 11-1 and ranked 24th. Yet here the Seminoles are, and Mann is the main reason for their success.
He’s averaging 15.1 points on 64 percent shooting (Mann is a 6-6 wing, mind you) and he’s not even a threat from beyond the 3-point line. He’s shooting 20 percent from way out there, on just 20 total attempts. His game is the college equivalent of DeMar DeRozan.
Mann has always played this way, but he’s doing it with more volume as a junior. He shot at least 58 percent from the floor in his first two seasons, yet never averaged more than nine points. Mann has nearly doubled his scoring average from last year.
It was fair to expect the Seminoles to drop off this season. It still might happen (that win at Florida doesn’t look as glamorous now) but FSU is a fun team, and Mann could lead a surprise NCAA tournament run.
Kenrich Williams, TCU
There was reason for optimism regarding TCU coming into the year, but few expected this. The Horned Frogs are ranked 10th and are one of three undefeated teams left in the country. Williams is their best player.
Simply put, he can do it all. The 6-7 combo forward is averaging 14.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.5 steals. It’s fair to wonder whether Williams is more valuable offensively or defensively – truth is, he’s a force on both ends, and his two-way talents are enormously valuable. He can guard every position while carrying a heavy offensive burden efficiently; Williams is shooting 53 percent from the floor and 50 percent from deep.
He likely won’t be the Big 12 Player of the Year because he plays in the same league as Young. But most years, Williams would have a real case.
Kenny Williams, North Carolina
From Kenrich to Kenny – imagine how good the Tar Heels would have been last season if this guy was healthy. Yes, UNC won the national title, but its outside shooting was spotty – it really could have used Williams, who is shooting 52 percent from distance and playing solid defense. The junior is averaging 12.4 points per game; Cam Johnson was supposed to be the Tar Heels’ most noteworthy addition this year, but people slept on Williams.
He’s part of the reason North Carolina plays differently this year than it has in recent campaigns. Once Johnson is fully healthy, lineups featuring Williams, Johnson, Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Luke Maye will be a scary thought for opposing ACC head coaches. Despite the Wofford loss, Roy Williams has plenty of depth to work with, and Williams is a big part of that.
Dylan Osetkowski, Texas
The Tulane transfer is an ideal frontcourt partner for freshman sensation Mo Bamba, whose skillset is clearly defined – Bamba is a monster shot-blocker and wreaks havoc on the offensive glass.
Osetkowski is great at nothing, but solid at everything. His 245-pound frame allows him to bang in the post. He’s quicker than you think, and can stay with shiftier guards on the perimeter. Osetkowski is averaging 14.6 points and 7.8 rebounds; the rebound total allows him to shift to center when Bamba sits. When Bamba is in the game, he doesn’t clog the paint – Osetkowski is one of the best big man passers in college basketball, and good things happen when he catches the ball at the high post.
Bamba is the most obvious reason why Texas is better this season. But Osetkowski deserves credit, too, for giving the Longhorns someone who can do everything at a B level.