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The Darkhorse Dozen: 12 Underrated Players Primed to Become Breakout Stars in March

College basketball's stars come out at tournament time, but real March legends are made when players in supporting roles step up in pivotal moments.

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A year ago, in looking ahead toward the NCAA tournament, presented its first edition of the Darkhorse Dozen, a list of 12 less-heralded players who could prove pivotal in March. After all, it can be easy to highlight a crop of obvious star players as the ones who will steer the postseason’s course. But, as we wrote then, March legends often end up in position to be enshrined in tourney lore because supporting players contributed beyond their usual role to help put their team over the top.

Cut to last April and Villanova’s national championship. Who is that week’s SI cover star? Donte DiVincenzo, an NBA prospect masquerading as a sixth man who was among the group of talented Wildcats whose profile was eclipsed by eventual National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson and lottery-bound wing Mikal Bridges. DiVincenzo actually wasn’t Villanova’s entry in the Darkhorse Dozen—that would be Phil Booth, who, despite a quiet national title game, did facilitate a semifinal blowout of Kansas with his 10 points and six assists. Yet even that effort was not tops among Nova’s non-stars against the Jayhawks: Eric Paschall, the team’s sixth-leading scorer in the regular season, went off for 24 in that game while making 10 of 11 field goals.

Of course, those are relatively drastic examples. More often it’s a matter of a player chipping in some timely buckets, coming up with key rebounds, or playing tight defense during an important stretch of a close game. Who will make their presence known this season? Here are a dozen guesses:

Marques Bolden, Duke

Also featured on last year’s list, the Blue Devils’ 6'11" big still offers enticing scoring upside despite his secondary role behind Duke’s fleet of freshman stars. This time he’s healthier and has improved on the defensive end, opening the path to more extensive playing time. In the right matchup, he could give opposing defenses enough trouble inside to make them pay for the attention paid to his lottery-bound teammates.

Immanuel Quickley, Kentucky

A starter for seven of the Wildcats’ first eight games, Quickley was swapped out of the lineup for Ashton Hagans in December and has come off the bench since. But given Kentucky’s short rotation, that has still meant significant minutes (16.8 per game) behind Hagans and Tyler Herro, and should either of his classmates struggle or get into foul trouble, the five-star recruit could, ahem, quickly find himself in a major role on the big stage.

Jay Huff, Virginia

The 7'1", 232-pound sophomore reserve doesn’t get extended playing time very often, but when he does, he makes it count: In the 11 games Huff has played 10-plus minutes, he has scored eight or more points seven times, including 12 points in 17 minutes against Louisville this past weekend. If the Cavaliers’ offense again struggles come tourney time, he could provide a needed lift, inside or out, off the bench.

Sterling Manley, North Carolina

The 6'11" sophomore has been out since the end of December with a knee injury, but has reportedly been practicing in a limited capacity of late. A strong rebounder who can block shots, Manley could be a valuable reinforcement to the Tar Heels’ front line and let Roy Williams deploy some bigger lineups when the matchups prove advantageous.

Isaiah Livers, Michigan

Though their defense may, like last year, be stifling enough that the Wolverines’ merely good offense doesn’t hold them back, one of the easiest ways for their scoring to get a quick boost would be through some well-timed threes. Livers, Michigan’s leading outside shooter at 43.9%, doesn’t pull up especially often—he averages just 3.2 three-point tries per game—but as defenses focus on stopping the Wolverines’ more likely shooters, he would make a sneaky candidate to provide a dagger or two.

Jeremy Jones, Gonzaga

A senior forward who’s averaging a career-high 14.5 minutes per game, the 6'7" Jones is quietly a very strong defensive rebounder (grabbing 19.0% of available boards on that end, roughly the same rate as teammate Brandon Clarke) and plays with an energy level befitting a former walk-on who originally entered college (at Rice) as a football player. His most important contributions this March may come beyond the box score, via defense and loose balls.

Xavier Tillman, Michigan State

A recent addition to the Spartans’ starting lineup, Tillman leads the team in blocks per game (1.5) and is second in rebounds (7.0) while being tops among rotation regulars in defensive rating (87.1). He’s also Michigan State’s best scorer on put-backs, averaging 1.45 points per possession, which puts him in the 93rd percentile nationally. Those second-chance points can be backbreakers in elimination games.

Kyle Alexander, Tennessee

With (generously) 6'7" Grant Williams at the four, the 6'11" Alexander’s height and length are key for the Volunteers, especially on the defensive end, where his block rate ranks ninth in the SEC. His usage rate on offense is often miniscule—he has accounted for less than 10% of Tennessee’s possessions in six of the team’s last 13 games—but he can be a highly efficient scorer when needed, making 64.8% of his two-pointers. That’s a good recipe for a darkhorse difference-maker.

Grady Eifert, Purdue

On a similar note, Eifert starts for the Boilermakers, plays 24.6 minutes per game, has the second-highest offensive rating (141.4) in the country ... and is used so sparingly that on Purdue’s kenpom team page he is listed in the tier labeled “Nearly Invisible.” The 6'6" wing can knock down threes (39.7%), and against Nebraska this weekend he showed a knack for heads-up plays late in the game.

Dejon Jarreau, Houston

Jarreau’s case for inclusion is an inversion of Alexander’s and Eifert’s: He doesn’t play a ton (17.4 minutes per game), but when he’s on the floor, he involves himself heavily on offense (a team-high 30.2% usage rate). The spindly former UMass guard has a high-energy style that lends itself to the kind of second-unit burst of production that can change a game.

Theo John, Marquette

The Golden Eagles may be driven by Markus Howard and the Hauser brothers’ scoring, but they will need their defense to step up if they’re going to string together wins against top-notch opponents. John, a 6'9", 240-pound sophomore who ranks 13th nationally in block rate (12.0%) and ninth in defensive box plus/minus, will be key to that effort and provide a safety net for his teammates guarding the perimeter.

Brandone Francis, Texas Tech

The lone top-100 recruit on the Red Raiders’ roster, Francis has been up and down since transferring from Florida two years ago, and his production has dipped this season despite an increase in playing time. But Francis has found his shooting stroke of late, following a 35.5% three-point shooting month in January with a 52.2% clip in February. A couple treys could go a long way toward helping Tech grind out a big win.

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Just when it looked like Kansas’s Big 12 regular season title streak was in true jeopardy, the Jayhawks came up with a big win to put themselves back in position to extend it.

By beating Kansas State on Monday, some 48 hours after being wrecked by Texas Tech, Kansas put itself within on game of the Big 12 lead with three games to play. Ahead of it in the standings are the Wildcats (by one full game) and the Red Raiders (by one game in the loss column), and ahead of it on the schedule are Oklahoma State and Oklahoma on the road, and a home finale with Baylor.

How this will shake out is hard to handicap. Kansas State finishes with home games against Baylor and Oklahoma and a trip to TCU. Red-hot Texas Tech will host Oklahoma State and Texas, and travel to TCU and Iowa State. The way the Big 12 has played out this year, it would be hard to bet on any of the contenders winning out; any one of them could lose multiple times in the final two weeks. This should be headed for a fun finish.

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High Five

1. Houston: Even with the AAC in its current down year, Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars deserve more love for their 26–1 season in which only two of their wins have come by fewer than five points. No team has allowed opponents a lower effective field goal percentage than Houston’s 42.0%.

2. Texas Tech: ...but does the Lone Star State’s best team play in Lubbock? Now just a half game back in the Big 12 standings, the Red Raiders have the best adjusted defensive efficiency since Kentucky’s in 2014–15 and a conference POY frontrunner in Jarrett Culver.

3. North Carolina: Could the ACC get three No. 1 seeds? The Heels are making their case, sitting at 13–2 in league play with consecutive strong wins against Duke (minus Zion, but still) and Florida State.

4. Virginia Tech: The Hokies yet again knocked off Duke in Blacksburg in late February, making the fourth-place spot in the ACC all their own—and they did it without point guard Justin Robinson, who has missed eight games with a foot injury.

5. Wofford: The class of a notably strong SoCon, the Terriers are 16–0 in league play, have reached the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history and make 41.4% of their threes, which make up 43.6% of their shots. No one wants to see these guys in March.

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Top of the Classes

Senior: Mike Daum, South Dakota State forward

The latest accomplishment in Daum’s remarkable college career: becoming the 10th Division I men’s player to score 3,000 career points. He did it in style, with a 38-point, 20-rebound showing against Purdue-Fort Wayne, which he followed two days later with 25 points and seven boards against South Dakota.

Junior: Kerry Blackshear, Virginia Tech forward

One of the country’s most underrated bigs, the 6'10", 250-pound Blackshear put up 23 points and 10 boards on 7-of-11 shooting in the Hokies’ upset of Duke on Tuesday, after finishing with 22 points, 14 rebounds and three assists in a win over Notre Dame on Saturday.

Sophomore: Ja Morant, Murray State guard

The Racers star continues tearing it up on his (presumed) path to the NBA lottery, averaging 26.5 points, 10.5 assists and 2.0 steals while shooting 69.2% from the field in wins over Tennessee-Martin and Southeast Missouri State.

Freshman: R.J. Barrett, Duke guard

With Zion Williamson sidelined, Barrett is reminding everyone why he was No. 1 on so many recruiting lists, averaging 28.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists over three games. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, two of them have been losses.

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Bests of the Best

Each week, we’ll get to know one of the country’s best players a little better by asking them what they consider to be the best in various subjects. This week we welcome Hofstra guard Justin Wright-Foreman, who is averaging 26.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 3.0 assists while shooting 43.3% from three for the CAA-leading Pride. So, Justin, tell us about the best...

...player to pretend to be growing up. “Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant. I was a big Kobe fan when I was growing up and I used to use the Lakers when I would play NBA Live and stuff like that, and I also used to use Tracy McGrady and see how many points I could score—and I would just use him. They were scoring guards and when you’re younger you always want to be able to dunk, and I saw they could do all these fancy ones. That’s the main reason I looked up to them.” to binge-watch. The Following. It’s a show about a cult and this guy who is pretty much a serial killer. He activates people’s minds through TV and press conferences and stuff, to follow his lead and do what he sees fit. That was a cool show to watch. My freshman year, my teammates were all talking about it. I was like, all right, I'll give it a try. After the first episode, [my roommate and I] were like, This is so good. It got to the point where I had to put my TV in the middle of the room so we could both binge-watch it.” to play you in a movie. “I would say Denzel, but Denzel’s way too good to play me. It would have to be somebody around my age. Who’s the kid from Power who plays Tariq? [Ed. note: Michael Rainey Jr.] Probably him.”

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One to Watch: Kentucky at Tennessee, Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on CBS

When these two teams met two weeks ago, the Volunteers had won 19 in a row and were still enjoying their second-ever No. 1 AP poll ranking. Then the Wildcats handed them a 17-point loss, the first of two defeats Tennessee suffered in an eight-day span. Are those losses a blip or a cause for concern? After all, until facing Kentucky, the Vols hadn’t played a surefire NCAA tournament team since beating Gonzaga on Dec. 9, causing some people to question just how indicative their winning streak was of their true quality. Now Tennessee gets another crack—this time on their home court—at a Kentucky team that has recently cracked into the top tier of title contenders and may still be without grad transfer forward Reid Travis, who is recovering from a knee sprain suffered on Feb. 19. The winner could be in the driver’s seat for the SEC regular season title.