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Zach Pekale | | September 15, 2020

College basketball's top 10 players in the NBA's 2020 Eastern Conference Finals

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Before the NBA's 2020 Eastern Conference finals tip off, Andy Katz ranked the top 10 college basketball players competing in the round during the latest episode of the March Madness 365 podcast.

You can hear Katz's rankings beginning with about 5:45 left in the podcast below. It's also worth checking out Andy's interview with hall-of-famer Homer Drew, Baylor head coach Scott Drew and Grand Canyon head coach Bryce Drew.

Here's who made the cut:

10. Jayson Tatum, Duke (2016-17)

Tatum is the only member of this list to play one season of college basketball, though he left quite an impression on Durham during his lone year with the Blue Devils. Tatum didn't debut until early December, but became a cog in Duke's offense once he did. The freshman netted 20-plus points seven times and ranked second on the team in points (16.8) and rebounds (7.3) per game. Tatum made the ACC All-Freshman team, helping the Blue Devils win 28 games and the 2016 ACC tournament title before the Boston Celtics drafted him third overall in 2017.

9. Tacko Fall, UCF (2015-19)

Fall spent four years at Central Florida, transforming himself into one of college basketball's premier two-way players in the paint. His 280 blocks are the most in UCF history while his 74 percent shooting clip is the second-best mark all time in the NCAA. As a senior, Fall's presence at both ends of the floor helped the Knights return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005. Fall dominated with 13 points, 18 rebounds and five blocks against VCU in the Round of 64 before putting up 15 points, six rebounds and three blocks in a near-upset of Zion Williamson and No. 1 Duke. Fall was signed by the Boston Celtics in 2019.  

8. Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga (2009-13)

Olynyk is somewhat a unicorn on the basketball court. Not just because the 7-foot big man was stretching the floor before most of the basketball world adopted that style of play, but also given his unorthodox path to college basketball stardom. Olynyk redshirted his junior year at Gonzaga after making just four combined starts over his first two seasons. Olynyk broke out as a senior, averaging over 17 points and seven rebounds per game. He was named a first team All-American and WCC Player of the Year as the Bulldogs earned their first No. 1 seed in program history at the 2013 NCAA tournament.  Olynyk began his NBA career in Boston but joined the Miami Heat in 2017.

7. Jae Crowder, Marquette (2010-12)

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Crowder spent two seasons at Marquette, winning almost 50 games with the Golden Eagles in that span. He started just under half of Marquette's games as a freshman, scoring in double figures for the season as the program reached the Sweet 16. Crowder returned bigger and better as a sophomore, when his scoring  average jumped to 17.5 points per game in addition to 8.4 rebounds and 2.5 steals. The second-year wing won Big East Player of the Year in 2012, leading Marquette to its only back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances in the 64-team era of the NCAA tournament. Like Olynyk, Crowder has played for both Boston and Miami. He joined the Heat in the middle of the 2019-20 season.

6. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State (2012-14)

Smart had an immediate impact at Oklahoma State as a freshman, winning Big 12 Player of the Year during his first year in Stillwater. The versatility of his game was on full display that season as he averaged 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and three steals per game. Smart's scoring jumped to 18 points per game the following season as he became a more efficient shooter, simultaneously improving his rebounding and assist numbers too while cutting down on his turnovers. Smart was a third team All-American in 2014 and led the Cowboys to a pair of NCAA tournament appearances. He was drafted by Boston in 2013 and has been with the Celtics since. 

5. Udonis Haslem, Florida (1999- 2002)

At 39, Haslem is the oldest player on this list. While he doesn't suit up much for the Heat anymore, his veteran presence goes beyond the box score. Haslem was a veteran at Florida too, starting all four years and winning 97 games. He was a three-time All-SEC selection, making the first team twice as he finished with over 1,700 points and 800 rebounds. As a sophomore, Haslem was part of a Gators' team that reached the 2000 national championship game as a No. 5 seed and was named to the All-Tournament team. He is currently in his 17th season with Miami.

4. Grant Williams, Tennessee (2016-19)

Williams showed flashes of potential as a freshman at Tennessee, but broke out nationally as a sophomore. He won the first of his two SEC Player of the Year awards and guided the Volunteers to 26 wins and a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. Williams was even better as a junior. His field-goal percentage soared and with it, his scoring average in addition to a bump in rebounding, assist, steal and block totals. Tennessee tied a program record with 31 wins in 2019 and reached the Sweet 16 as Williams was named a first team All-American. He was drafted 22nd by Boston in the 2019 NBA draft. 

3. Carsen Edwards, Purdue (2016-19)

Edwards has a strong case for this list if you only consider his 2019 NCAA tournament run. But he spent three years lighting up scoreboards at Purdue. Believe it or not, Edwards didn't become a full-time starter until his sophomore year. His scoring jumped over eight points per game, earning him All-Big Ten honors and the Jerry West Award. But the Boilermakers' sharpshooter reached a new level in his final season. Edwards averaged over 24 points per game and was named a second team All-American before a white-hot shooting stretch during the 2019 NCAA tournament. The junior hit 28 3-point shots in four games and scored 42, 29 and 42 points in his last three games. Edwards was named the Most Outstanding Player of the South Region despite not advancing to the Final Four. Edwards is currently a rookie with the Boston Celtics. 

2. Gordon Hayward, Butler (2008-10)

The final shot of Gordon Hayward’s college basketball career is one of the great "what-if?" moments in sports. But Butler being in a position to win the 2010 NCAA tournament is, in part, a testament to how good Hayward was in two years with the Bulldogs. He started every game of his career, blossoming into the Horizon League Player of the Year as a sophomore after averaging 15.5 points and 8.2 rebounds, leading the charge during the Bulldogs’ run to the national championship game. Hayward has spent a decade in the NBA, joining the Celtics in 2017.

1. Kemba Walker, UConn (2008-11)

Few college basketball players have put together the kind of NCAA tournament run Kemba Walker had at UConn in 2011. The Huskies' championship run becomes even more impressive considering Walker played off the bench as a freshman before the team missed the NCAA tournament altogether in 2010. By Walker's final college season, there were few players better in big moments than the junior guard. He averaged 23.5 points and over 37 minutes per game, carrying UConn into the postseason. Over the Huskies' final 11 games, he was named MVP of the Big East Tournament before mowing down the likes of San Diego State, Arizona, Kentucky and Butler to win a championship. Walker rarely left the floor during that stretch, playing over 38 minutes a game. He's now the starting point guard of the Boston Celtics.

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