The 2021 NCAA Tournament field is set. It’s good to have the event back and with it comes some of the best talent in the country. Some are household names to college fans, while others might be just under-the-radar. Regardless, their value to each team is immeasurable in some cases.

Here’s a list of 25 players who have what it takes to be an X-factor when it comes down to how far their respective teams will last in this season’s tournament.

 

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The Yellow Jackets have made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010, and do so riding an eight-game winning streak as the ACC tournament champions. The senior Alvarado has been a big reason for the program’s resurgence this season. While he’s averaging 15.3 points, 4.1 assists, and 3.6 rebounds, Alvarado’s leadership goes beyond the numbers. He’s the heart and soul of this Georgia Tech team and, truly, as Alvarado goes so does this team. 

 

James Bouknight, Guard, Connecticut

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As a No. 7 seed facing Maryland in the first round, then possibly second-seeded Alabama, UConn will have to work to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. However, if Bouknight (19.0 points per game) can find the offensive form he enjoyed prior to shooing 32.0 percent and totaling 24 points in the Big East tournament, the Huskies could surprise. This is no longer a team that solely relies on Bouknight to lead the way offensively, but if we see the guy who scored 40 against Creighton in December, then UConn can be dangerous.

 

Jared Butler, Guard, Baylor

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Butler (17.1 ppg, 4.8 assists per game) is obviously one of the best players in the country, but great players need to play great in March. The Bears are deep enough to parlay that No. 1 seed into a Final Four berth, but if they are to win it all, Butler has to lead the way. He needs to be that guy who takes over games as he did in a recent overtime victory at West Virginia. (25 points, five 3-pointers 10-of-21 shooting, six assists).

 

Kofi Cockburn, Center, Illinois

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We know about Ayo Dosunmu and the consistently strong bench play of freshman Andre Curbello, but when the 7-foot Cockburn (17.6 ppg, 9.6 rebounds per game) is playing well the Illini seem practically unstoppable. Cockburn averaged 20.0 points during Illinois’ three-game run to the Big Ten tournament title. If the big man can stay out of foul trouble, then Illinois could return to the national championship game for the first time since 2005.

 

Cade Cunningham, Guard, Oklahoma State

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Plenty of eyes will be fixed on Cunningham, the freshman likely to be the NBA’s No. 1 overall pick this year. Assuming this will be his only NCAA Tournament appearance, Cunningham will be trying to help the fourth-seeded Cowboys make some noise at the Big Dance. Cunningham (20.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg) got better as the season went on, averaging 23.9 points on 50.4-percent shooting in his last eight contests, and is getting more comfortable taking over games.

 

LJ Figueroa, Guard-Forward, Oregon

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Ducks’ Chris Duarte and Eugene Omoruyi are two of the Pac-12’s best players, but the way Figueroa has played over the last month makes this squad truly one to watch as a seventh seed. The senior swingman and St. John’s transfer has averaged 16.2 points, shot 56.3 percent from the field, and gone 12-of-27 from 3-point range over his last six contests. If Figueroa can continue to provide that offensive support, the Ducks might be a sneaky Sweet 16 — or deeper — pick.

 

Quentin Grimes, Guard, Houston

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Not only is Grimes (18.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg) playing at a high level for the Cougars at the right time — 21.2 ppg, 49.4-percent 3-point shooting over the last nine games, but he has NCAA Tournament experience from his early collegiate days at Kansas. Grimes started both Jayhawks’ games during the 2019 tournament and scored 15 points in their second-round loss to Auburn. That kind of service can prove invaluable this time of year, and only increases Grimes’ overall worth to his team.

 

Sam Hauser, Forward, Virginia

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Transfer Hauser has provided a nice — and needed — offensive boost for the Cavaliers this season. He leads the team averaging 16.0 points and is one of the game’s best shooters at 51.8 percent (43.4 percent from three-point range). He’s also averaged 20.6 points on 38-of-69 shooting over the last five games entering the NCAAs. If Hauser can continue to shoot at that level, Virginia plays its usual stingy defense and the recent program-related COVID-19 issue doesn’t hinder its NCAA Tournament hopes, the reigning national champs might have a serious shot at repeating.

 

Herbert Jones, Guard-Forward, Alabama

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Is it possible that the best player in the SEC is still somewhat underrated? No. 2 seed Alabama is a sexy Final Four pick, and the senior swingman is obviously a major reason why. He’s averaging career-highs of 11.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.1 blocks. In the semifinals and final of the SEC tournament, Jones totaled 33 points, 24 boards, 10 assists, and five blocks. There might not be a more valuable performer to any team in this field than Jones is to Alabama.

 

Cameron Krutwig, Center, Loyola, Chicago

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The 6-9 Krutwig was a freshman starter on that 2018 Loyola squad that made its Cinderella run to the Final Four. Now a senior, Krutwig (15.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.0 apg) is one of the best post players in the nation. He might also be the most gifted passing big-man in the NCAA Tournament. If the Missouri Valley-champion Ramblers have another NCAA run in them as a No. 8 seed this time, Krutwig must dominate.

 

Isaiah Livers, Forward, Michigan

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If No. 1 seed Michigan is to make a run at the 2021 national title, Livers (13.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg) must be on the court. On Selection Sunday, Livers’ status for his return to the Wolverines’ lineup was uncertain due to a stress fracture in his foot. The senior, a starter on Michigan’s national runner-up squad from 2018, brings the experience needed at this time of the year. However, he must be healthy enough to contribute at a high level if the Wolverines are to have a chance.

 

David McCormack, Forward, Kansas

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Kevin McCullar, Guard, Texas Tech

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Red Raiders fans know Mac McClung will get his points, but where is the other consistent scoring going to come from? McCullar (10.1 ppg) might have the next-best potential to get hot. An early-season injury plagued the sophomore, but from Jan. 30 to March 2, McCullar shot 45.6 percent and 8-of-18 from three-point range. If he can heat up, sixth-seeded Texas Tech could make another deep tournament run.

 

Darius McGhee, Guard, Liberty

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One of the more intriguing first-round matchups is No. 13 seed Liberty taking on fourth-seeded Oklahoma State. We already touched on Cade Cunningham, but Liberty boasts one of the game’s most underrated talents in McGhee. The 5-9 junior can be a pest at both ends of the floor. He averages 15.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.1 assists for a Flames team that enters the NCAA Tournament on a 12-game winning streak.

 

JaQuori McLaughlin, Guard, UC Santa Barbara

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As a No. 12 seed taking on inconsistent, fifth-seeded Creighton to open NCAA play, the 22-4 Gauchos could have what it takes to pull off an upset. While UCSB is one of the top defensive teams in the tournament (62.8 points per game allowed), one-time Oregon State standout McLaughlin is the man at the offensive end of the court. He’s averaging 16.2 points on 48.9-percent shooting and 5.2 assists. McLaughlin’s scoring average rose to 20.3 during the Big West tournament. Remember the name.

 

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Matt Mitchell, San Diego State

Matt Mitchell, San Diego State

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San Diego State might be a 23-win darkhorse as a No. 6 seed, but Mitchell (15.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg) has the talent to possibly lead the Aztecs on a deep tournament run. The star of the Mountain West Conference, Mitchell has the complete game to take over an NCAA Tournament contest. If he’s not up to par, the Aztecs might not have what it takes to make much noise.

 

Moses Moody, Guard, Arkansas

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The talented Arkansas freshman has garnered a lot of attention while averaging 17.4 points and almost 6.0 rebounds. He’s also scored 28 points in three of the last four games for the No. 3 seed Razorbacks, who, if Moody continues to play at a high level, have a shot at turning even more heads during the Big Dance. This might be Arkansas’ best chance for a deep tournament run over the next few seasons with Moody considered an NBA lottery pick later this year.

 

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Justin Moore, Villanova

Justin Moore, Villanova

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With Collin Gillespie out, the Wildcats need somebody to run the show. Ideally, it would be Moore (12.60 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.9 apg), but he’s also dealing with an injury (ankle). Moore made it onto the floor for the Wildcats’ Big East tournament loss to Georgetown. If he’s healthy and fit enough to be a factor, then fifth-seeded Villanova has a chance to avoid an early upset and perhaps build some confidence going forward.

 

Jericho Sims, Forward, Texas

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Texas might have the best three-guard attack in the country with Andrew Jones, Matt Coleman III, and Courtney Ramey. However, a big reason for the Longhorns’ current five-game winning streak, which included a Big 12 tournament title, is the 6-10 senior Sims. He’s never averaged more than 9.7 points for a season, but over the last four games, Sims has put up 15.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per contest. If No. 3-seed Texas continues to get that kind of production from Sims in the NCAA Tournament, it could be in for a long stay.

 

Drew Timme, Forward, Gonzaga

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The 6-10 Timme went from a solid contributor last season as a freshman to one of the country’s best players on the nation’s best team. Timme (18.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.0 apg) has grown into a dominant post presence, thanks to some improved footwork and confidence around the rim. All Timme must do is remain a force that the opposition can’t defend and the Zags’ run to a national title and undefeated season won’t be derailed. 

 

Chandler Vaudrin, Guard, Winthrop

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The 12-5 seed matchup is one that’s often ripe for an upset. At 23-1, 12th-seeded Winthrop might have what it takes to stun short-handed No. 5 seed Villanova in the first round. One good reason is the 6-7 Vaudrin, who averages 12.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists entering this tournament. He just might be the most complete player in this year’s field and the kind of guy who has the ability to do-it-all and make a name for himself.

 

Duane Washington Jr., Guard, Ohio State

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Obviously, the health and status of forward Kyle Young is something to keep an eye on in regards to the Buckeyes’ NCAA Tournament chances. That said, Washington (16.3 ppg) has been a stud for Ohio State since the beginning of February. In the last three games of the Big Ten tournament, Washington averaged 25.3 points on 48.3-percent shooting and 6.3 rebounds. If Washington is on like that for the rest of March, the No. 2 seed Buckeyes could be Final Four bound.

 

Joe Wieskamp, Guard, Iowa

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Iowa’s Luka Garza is arguably the best player in the country and teammate CJ Fredrick is an elite defender. For our money, however, the key to the Hawkeyes’ success in this tournament is the shooting of Wieskamp. On the season, the junior is shooting 49.7 percent overall and 47.3 percent from 3, but he’s banged up and went 9-of-25 from the field and 3-of-11 from distance in Iowa’s last games of the Big Ten tournament against Wisconsin and Illinois. Even if not completely healthy, Wieskamp must improve on that most mini-slump if No. 2 seed Iowa has any chance of long-term success in the NCAAs.

 

Trevion Williams, Forward, Purdue

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As a fourth seed, don’t sleep on the Boilermakers. That’s because of the 6-10 Williams (15.6 ppg, 9.0 rpg). The junior has only got better in three years at Purdue and was stellar with 26 points and 14 boards against Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament. If Williams can put up those numbers in the Big Dance, then Purdue might be a Sweet 16 team with a shot at possibly upsetting a powerhouse like Baylor, from there.

 

Marcus Zegarowski, Guard, Creighton

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Creighton is an interesting team. There is plenty of talent and some decent depth, but it’s underachieved at times with losses to Xavier, Butler, Providence, and Marquette. Not to mention a 25-point defeat to an improved Georgetown team at the Big East tournament. It also seems that as Zegarowski goes, so do the Bluejays. The star junior is averaging a team-high 15.5 points but is shooting a career-worst 41.2 percent from three-point range. Zegarowski has not been completely healthy this season, but Creighton needs him at his best for any chance to make noise as a No. 5 seed.

Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.

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