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#pounditSunday, March 3, 2024

Five potential breakout stars of March Madness

Devin Williams

Every March the Big Dance elevates a handful of players from excellent collegiate competitors to household names. Whether it’s the heart-and-soul point guard, the shot-swatting big man, or the clutch three-point marksman, each tournament produces breakout stars. This year will be no different and the field is ripe with players ready to make the jump to superstardom. Here are five players to keep an eye on this month.

Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall

The former Lincoln High Railsplitter is on some kind of tear. In Seton Hall’s last six games, the Pirates have three top-five victories, and Whitehead has been masterful in each contest. During this late-season run, the Pirates’ two-guard is averaging 25.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and five assists while shooting a blistering 40 percent from downtown. He’s also done a great job defensively for head coach Kevin Willard, locking down opponents’ primary scorers. If Whitehead can cut down on his turnovers, the Pirates may be on a collision course with Michigan State in the Sweet 16.

A.J. English, Iona

Iona’s leading scorer (22.4 ppg) can be a match-up nightmare when his shots are falling from the perimeter. The rangy senior shooting guard hoists over nine treys a game, connecting on 37.4 percent of them. The Gaels drew Iowa State in the first round of the tournament and both English and head coach Tim Cluess must be thrilled that they’re facing the nation’s 248th scoring defense. This will be English’s first NCAA Tournament game, but he’s no stranger to the postseason. English has twice played in the NIT, averaging 24.5 points per contest.

Want further proof he’s ready to light it up on the big stage? Iona faced fellow tournament team Tulsa back in December, and English finished with 31 points and six assists on 4-for-9 shooting from three-point range.

Ben Bentil, Providence

Kris Dunn received plenty of National Player of the Year hype in the preseason, but as it turns out, Dunn wasn’t even the best player on his own team. The sophomore stretch-four ratcheted his game up to a new level this season, averaging nearly 22 points and eight rebounds per game. Bentil’s stats made him a unanimous first-team All-Big East selection. If he can avoid foul trouble — an issue that sidelined him in the Big East semifinals — he has a chance to not only carry the Friars past USC in the first round, but also to throw a scare into the tournament’s top seed (UNC) in the Round of 32.

Jakob Poeltl, Utah

NBA talent evaluators are very familiar with Poeltl’s game and already have him pegged as a potential lottery pick this June. For fans in the rest of the country who choose sleep over Pac-12 basketball, March Madness will likely serve as Poeltl’s coming out party. The seven-foot Austrian import is an efficient scorer who is a handful in the paint. The Naismith Award semifinalist averaged 17.6 points and 9.4 rebounds against ranked opponents this year and enters the tournament shooting 65.6 percent from the floor.

Devin Williams, West Virginia

Both Williams and West Virginia seem to get lost in the Big XII shuffle as Kansas and Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield attracted all the headlines this season. Williams played a major role in the Mountaineers accomplishing the rare feat of leading the country in both offensive rebounding and steals per game. Up until this point in his career, Williams was known for his rec-specs and tenacity on the boards, but the junior’s play in the Big XII conference tournament has proven he’s ready to be a star.

Bob Huggins’ starting power forward averaged 19.3 points and 11.3 rebounds, while taking down Oklahoma and pushing Kansas to the brink in the championship game. Williams is the main reason some college basketball experts consider WVU a Final Four sleeper.


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