(CBS Local)- The NCAA Tournament is often a launch pad for players from smaller schools, and sometimes from bigger ones as well, to a whole new level of stardom in the national consciousness. Think of Steph Curry’s run with Davidson that introduced us to a marksman who has gone on to become an even bigger star in the NBA. Or in 2019 when we fans across the country were introduced to 7’6″ center Tacko Fall as he battled Duke and future No. 1 pick Zion Williamson.
There are also plenty of names through the years of guys who didn’t necessarily go on to be NBA stars but gained popularity in the three short weeks of march. Ali Farookmanesh of Northern Iowa or R.J. Hunter of Georgia State come to mind. All of these players had magical March moments that live on in the highlight reels played as we remember tournaments past.
With the 2021 tournament set to begin tomorrow night with the First Four before the Round of 64 begins on Friday, we decided to take a look at the field and come up with a few players whose names you may see in headlines over the next few weeks. CBS Sports Network analyst Chris Walker joined us for the breakdown, giving his five guys you want to get to know this March.
Jaquori McLaughlin, Guard, UC Santa Barbara
Notable Stats: 16.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 5.2 APG, 40.4% 3PT
“This kid is 40 percent from three, 48 percent from the field as a guard which is incredible,” said Walker. “He’s a big guard and I think he has NBA potential. He’s a kid that has a chance to be a breakout star particularly if they get that first round upset versus Creighton.”
The Gauchos leading scorer, McLaughlin originally played at Oregon State before transferring to UCSB following his sophomore season with the Beavers. He has improved his scoring in each of his three seasons with UCSB and had eight games this season with 20 or more points. Against a Blue Jays team that allowed Georgetown to hit 10 of 26 threes in the conference title game, McLaughlin could have a breakout night.
Jason Preston, Guard, Ohio
Notable Stats: 16.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 7.2 APG, 40.8% 3PT
“I think he has the chance to be a LaMelo Ball type player. He is absolutely phenomenal,” said Walker. “He shoots it, he’s the engine that makes them go. He dealt with some injuries this year. He just has a great story as well. Starting out at UCF, being a kid playing pickup ball and all of a sudden being this breakout star. He’s a great story for the tournament and he will be in the NBA.”
Preston’s back story is one you will likely hear a lot during Ohio’s run. He had no offers out of high school and enrolled at UCF in journalism classes the summer after his senior year of high school, thinking that he’d at least want to be involved in the game that way. A couple weeks later, he was recruited to fill an empty spot on a team in an AAU tournament where he gained the attention of a prep school coach. After going to the prep school (Believe Prep Academy in Tennessee), he put together a mixtape of highlights of him playing on the academy’s third team which then drew the eye of Ohio who offered him a scholarship.
Three years later, here we are. The 6’4″ Preston is averaging a near triple double and is currently 34th on CBSSports.com’s NBA Draft big board. If Ohio were to pull the first round upset against Virginia and go on a run? Well, Preston’s stock may just continue to rise.
Cameron Krutwig, Center, Loyola-Chicago
Notable Stats: 15 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 3 APG, 57.9% FG
“I’m telling you right now, you go to the park, you’re not picking him for your team. But, this guy can score the basketball,
you put some shooters around him, he drops dimes on backdoor passes,” said Walker. “1,800 points, 500 rebounds, 400 assists. The only guys to do that are the Big O (Oscar Robertson), Larry Bird, and Hersey Hawkins, are the only other guys to do that in the Missouri Valley Conference. They have had a ton of great players and he does a great job of being the catalyst that makes that team go.”
Don’t be fooled by Krutwig’s looks, as Walker points out, he can flat out control a basketball game. The do it all center first arrived on the scene during the Ramblers tournament run in 2018 when he averaged 10 points, six rebounds and an assist per game as they ran to the Final Four. Now, three years later, he’s up to 15 points, close to seven boards and three assists. He also adds a steal and block per game on the defensive end for a Ramblers team that is the best defensive team in the country. Loyola has a tough task as the 8-seed in Illinois’ region. But, if they can win the opening round game and upset the Illini? We’re likely to be talking about Krutwig as a big reason why.
Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, Guard, VCU
Notable Stats: 19.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.9 SPG, 37.1% 3PT
“An electric scorer, shoots from deep, can really handle the basketball,” said Walker of Hyland. “He’s a big guard, has fantastic range. If he gets it going, he’s another guy that, you need guys to pull an upset off for us to be even talking about them past the first round. I think he’s another guy, player of the year in the Atlantic 10, that can really do some fantastic things. He’s a reason why I think VCU is going to pull an upset.”
The sophomore Hyland is the star for VCU, averaging nine more points per game than anyone else on the team and playing the most minutes per game of anybody. At 6’3″ he’ll bother opposing guards with his length as part of the Rams’ ‘Havoc’ defense collecting nearly two steals per game this season. If he gets rolling from beyond the arc, it can be a nightmare for opponents. He had seven games this season in which he knocked down four or more threes. A first round matchup with Oregon looms before a potential second round date against Iowa.
James Bouknight, Guard, UConn
Notable Stats: 19 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.2 SPG
“He’s going to be an NBA Draft prospect but I don’t think a lot of people have heard about him because he’s been hurt,”
said Walker. “UConn is 15-3 when he plays and 4-4 when he doesn’t. He makes them go. They cannot win without him. He’s in a long line of guys like Jeremy Lamb, Ray Allen, type guards they have had at UConn. James Bouknight is a tremendous player and if they can get it going and get past Maryland, I think them playing against Alabama is a very interesting prospect.”
Bouknight is currently the ninth rated prospect on the CBSSports.com NBA Draft Big Board. The 6’5″ sophomore guard increased every one of his statistical categories this season save for three point shooting percentage. The focal point of the Huskies offense, he will have the ball in his hands a lot so get used to hearing his name. With the Huskies facing the Terps in the Round of 64 before a potential date with Alabama in the Round of 32, he’s one to watch.