Let’s identify some of the best players we’ll see in the 2018 NCAA tournament.

Quick note: we were flexible with positions – the goal was simply to form the best lineups that made sense. For instance, a two-point guard outfit was fine.

Here we go.

*Left side of the bracket (South, West regions)

C Deandre Ayton, Arizona

Jalen Brunson seems to be the Naismith frontrunner, but if you started a team from scratch and had the first pick, Ayton would be the guy.

Ayton’s putting up monster numbers – he’s averaging 20.3 points and 11.5 rebounds on 62 percent shooting. Arizona isn’t as good this year as many expected; that’s mostly because the supporting cast has underwhelmed. It’s hard to trust anyone on the roster not named Ayton, Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins or Dusan Ristic. Despite that, Arizona blitzed through the Pac-12 and is a 4-seed in the tournament. Ayton is the main reason why.

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He looks like Greg Oden with a jump shot. Ayton is 7-1, 250 pounds but moves better than most guards. Keep in mind: he posted these gargantuan numbers playing (mostly) out of position. Ristic eats into his interior territory, causing Ayton to drift on the perimeter more than he should. He constantly faces double teams and doesn’t have many great kickout options due to Arizona’s lack of depth.

He's balled out in a suboptimal environment and is the only Wildcat with a defensive rating south of 100 – in other words, Ayton is keeping the defense afloat. Easy pick.

F Mike Daum, South Dakota State

Daum is also putting up ridiculous numbers and would be a great fit as a stretch four next to Ayton. The averages: 23.8 points, 10.4 rebounds on 46 percent from the floor and 42 percent from 3. Daum launches 6.4 3s per game – a huge clip for a big man.

South Dakota State has played 17 games since the new year. Daum has double-doubles in 15 of them. Some noteworthy performances: 33 points and 19 rebounds against Western Illinois; 35 points and 18 boards against Omaha; 37 points and 12 rebounds against Colorado in a double-overtime loss. Daum doesn’t play in a high-major league, but he regularly torches high-major opponents (cc: Ohio State).

Daum can carry an offense, but in this team construct, it’s crucial to have off-ball value. He has plenty since he’s an ace shooter and smart cutter. Daum is a heck of a player.

F Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State

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Offensive stats are the first thing we review when we judge players. That makes sense – it’s way easier to quantify offensive value than defensive value.

Bates-Diop is Ohio State’s best player by a mile – on both ends. He’s averaging 19.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks while shooting 48 percent from the floor and 36 percent from 3. But those numbers aren’t the most impressive part of his game.

The dude is a defensive powerhouse. Bates-Diop can guard all five positions – he has a 7-4 wingspan and knows where to be at all times. Ohio State has a defensive rating of 97.7 – that number plummets to 93.1 with Bates-Diop on the floor. He’s the only Buckeye with a sub-96 clip.

Bates-Diop would mostly be a 3-and-D guy on this team, which is fine. But he can also carry an offense. The Buckeyes’ second-best player is Jae’Sean Tate – Tate is a delight, but Bates-Diop is clearly the alpha. Ohio State is 24-8 despite not having a ton of depth; it’s OK to be top-heavy when your star lives up to the role.

Bates-Diop will likely match up with Daum in the first round of the NCAA tournament. You’ll want to watch that.

G/F Trevon Bluiett, Xavier

Yes, this lineup is huge – Bluiett often plays the four for Xavier – but it has more than enough shooting and ball-handling to work. The left side of the bracket has a ton of quality bigs and wings; the right side is dominated by point guards.

Bluiett is a shot-maker. That sounds basic, but there’s an art to it – Bluiett hits shots off-balanced, curling off screens, while being fouled, etc. Xavier has been branded as “lucky” by some – it’s a 1-seed in the tournament despite being ranked 14th at KenPom.

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There’s some truth to that, but part of the reason the Musketeers are so good in close games is because of Bluiett. He’s averaging 19.5 points and 5.7 rebounds while draining 42 percent of his 3s.

Bates-Diop, Ayton, Bluiett and the soon-to-be-named point guard are all switchable defenders – and this team would grab every rebound. College basketball will miss Bluiett once he moves on.

PG Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kentucky

The toughest pick on this side by far – as you’ll see, the right side of the bracket has so many point guards, you could probably roll four of them out together and survive. Gilgeous-Alexander barely edged Joel Berry here.

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Yes, Berry was a key player on a national champion in 2017 – but he’s shooting less than 40 percent from the field, and Gilgeous-Alexander is an all-around dynamo. He’s a significantly better defender – he looks like a college Rajon Rondo. Gilgeous-Alexander can guard three positions in a pinch and is rapidly improving as a shooter and playmaker.

The Kentucky point guard is averaging 18 points and seven assists over his last seven games and has become the Wildcats’ best player, with due respect to Kevin Knox. He’s only taken 53 3s, but is burying them at a 40 percent clip. Perhaps the biggest compliment you can pay Gilgeous-Alexander: Kentucky has played its best basketball of the season ever since Calipari forked the offensive keys over to him.

If the Wildcats make a run, Gilgeous-Alexander will become a household name.

Apologies to…. Kyle Guy, Khyri Thomas, Mo Bamba, Joel Berry, Rob Gray

*Right side of the bracket (East, Midwest regions)

F Marvin Bagley III, Duke

Bagley makes 20 and 10 look easy. The explosive lefty has an absurd rebounding radius and elite body control for his size. Bagley’s second and third jumps are more fluid than most players’ first. 50-50 balls are more like 80-20 if Bagley is in the zip code.

 
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He’s averaging 21.1 points and 11.5 rebounds on 61 percent shooting for the Blue Devils. A possession ending in a Bagley shot attempt is almost guaranteed to be a quality one; it’s rare for a post player to be able to create his own offense, but that’s Bagley’s specialty.

So is offensive rebounding, and punking foes on the glass is Duke’s new identity. The Blue Devils retrieve 39 percent of their own misses, tops in the country. A reason to like Duke in the NCAA tournament: outside shooting can be fluky from game to game, but offensive rebounding travels everywhere. Bagley claims 14 percent of Duke’s misses by himself when he’s on the floor, a monster clip.

The ACC Player of the Year should have a big tournament.

F Miles Bridges, Michigan State

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Bridges is putting up similar stats to his freshman year, but he looks like a totally different player. That evolution allows him to fit into any team construct.

Bridges looked like a Draymond Green type last year – an elite playmaker as the pick-and-roll screener whose outside shot came and went. This season, Bridges plays more on the perimeter and is a plus shooter. The ugly stepback jumpers he bricked as a freshman are finding twine far more often as a sophomore.

He’s a bull on defense who can guard multiple positions thanks to his unique combination of strength and athleticism. Bridges is averaging 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds for the Spartans; his 3-point percentage is actually down from last season, but considering the uptick in shot difficulty, his improved shooting stands out.

Few players can electrify an arena like Bridges.

F Mikal Bridges, Villanova

Mikal Bridges doesn’t have Miles’ strength, but he’s the perfect fit on this team – an ace defender with a lightning-quick shooting release. Mild take alert: Bridges might be Villanova’s best player. Sure, Brunson is the Wildcats’ offensive MVP. But he can’t match Bridges’ defensive value.

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The redshirt junior has a 7-foot wingspan, hops, and extraordinary lateral quickness that allows him to scurry around screens and stay attached to his man. Bridges’ offensive improvement has been remarkable – he’s averaging 18 points while making 43 percent of his 3s. Like Miles, his shot difficulty has increased, but he’s still absurdly efficient. Bridges has also become more comfortable as the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls.

Bridges is the type of player who can thrive in any system.

G Trae Young, Oklahoma

The two guard spots came down to three guys: Young, Brunson and Devonte’ Graham.

Young has struggled in the second half of the season, of course – but the fact that he’s still leading the nation in scoring and assists is worth something. His efficiency has waned – Young is shooting 42 percent from the floor and 36 percent from 3 (on the toughest shot profile in the country, mind you).

Graham would have gotten the nod if he was more efficient. But he’s barely shooting more than 40 percent from the floor, and considering the space Young provides an offense, he’d be more valuable in this environment. Graham and Brunson together seems redundant.

Young still makes defenders guard him from five feet behind the 3-point line. That would create driving lanes for the Bridges and Brunson; we haven’t seen Young play off the ball much at Oklahoma, but how fun would it be to see him curling around screens and attacking closeouts?

Part of the reason Young has faltered is because of the immense burden he’s had to carry. Put him on a March Madness All-Star team, and he’d dazzle.

G Jalen Brunson, Villanova

As we just mentioned, the last two spots came down to Young, Brunson and Graham. The last two are similar -- point guards on 1-seeds who are poised beyond their years.

The counting stats are similar, but Brunson is far more efficient, and he’s more dangerous from inside the 3-point line than Graham. Jay Wright employs Brunson as a post-up weapon when smaller guys check him – an oddly effective tactic – and the guy just rarely misses. He’s shooting 53 percent from the floor and 41 percent from 3.

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For what it’s worth, Graham is awesome. Given a choice between Graham or Young to be your point guard, you’d likely take Graham.

But with Brunson manning the other guard spot, Young’s transcendent shooting range is the best way to optimize the offense. Brunson brings out the best in his teammates, yet manages to get his own numbers. That’s the mark of a miraculous point guard.

Apologies to…. Devonte' Graham, Collin Sexton, Keenan Evans, Jaren Jackson, Carsen Edwards

 

Joe Boozell has been a college basketball writer for NCAA.com since 2015. His work has also appeared in Bleacher Report, FOXSports.com and NBA.com. Joe’s claim to fame since joining NCAA.com: he’s predicted the correct national championship game twice… and picked the wrong winner both times. Growing up, Joe squared off against both Anthony Davis and Frank Kaminsky in the Chicagoland basketball scene. You can imagine how that went.

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