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I've Got Five On It: Candidates to steal the show in March

The start of college basketball’s most famous and important month is just days away.

March has a way of minting household names and solidifying legacies, and this year’s installment will be no different. So while everyone knows the Coach Ks, Jabari Smiths and Oscar Tshiebwes of the world will be key players next month, has a look beyond the sport’s most famous names and examines some less-obvious candidates to become college basketball’s main character when we arrive at tournament time.


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2022 Rankings: Rivals150 | Team | Position

2023 Rankings: Rivals150

2024 Rankings: Top 40



Tommy Lloyd
Tommy Lloyd (AP Images)

Why he could be March's main character: The country’s most successful first-year head coach, Tommy Lloyd has Arizona in position to claim a No. 1 seed should things continue on their current path. This also gives the former Gonzaga assistant a chance to become the answer to a trivia question or two. No first-year head coach has ever won the NCAA Tournament. In fact, the last time one reached the Final Four was 1965, when Gary Thompson led Wichita State there. Lloyd has a chance to make some history should his 24-2 Arizona squad get hot at the right time.

The story of him taking over a proud program coming out of a major scandal lends itself to attention-grabbing headlines, as does the fact that the Wildcats haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2017. Lloyd’s name is already on the marquee due to what he’s accomplished so far, but the lights will become even brighter as the calendar turns.




Darius McGhee
Darius McGhee (USA Today)

Why he could be March's main character: Darius McGhee, like the Liberty team he leads, is small but mighty. The 5-foot-9 guard averages 23.8 points per game, which ranks second nationally. If the adage about everyone loving an underdog is still valid, McGhee could be next month’s sweetheart. The undersized floor general had no stars next to his name when he graduated from Virginia’s Blue Ridge High School in 2018. And while he willed the Flames to the NCAA Tournament a year ago, a quick first-round exit stopped him from becoming a national story.

The sharp-shooting McGee shoots just under 40 percent from three-point range and is as thrilling as any player in any league in America. He’s averaging a superhuman 32 points per game over his last five games, rebounds incredibly well for his stature and, with any luck, is capable of ending the season of a major program or two next month.



Chet Holmgren
Chet Holmgren (USA Today)

Why he could be March's main character: Chet Holmgren stealing the March spotlight wouldn’t exactly be a shock, as he’s projected to be the top pick in this year’s NBA Draft and plays for one of the country’s best teams. But casual fans, especially ones that only watch their favorite teams or go to sleep early, may not have had the chance to see the hyper-unique prospect live. Come March, that’ll change.

At 7-foot-2, the smooth, versatile and assertive Holmgren is unlike anyone else in the sport. He handles the ball like a guard, shoots it like a specialist and can change a game on defense as well as the glass. A person who has only viewed still photographs of the Gonzaga star would be hard-pressed to believe what he’s capable of doing on the floor. Alas, Holmgren is averaging 16.2 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in his last 10 games. He went for 16 points and seven rebounds in an early-season game against No. 7 Duke. Of the candidates to go No. 1 in the upcoming draft, Holmgren probably has the least national exposure. That is scheduled to change next month.



Ed Cooley
Ed Cooley (USA Today)

Why he could be March's main character: Ed Cooley, Providence’s longtime head coach, is armed with a talented team, an energized fan base and the kind of magnetic personality that could endear him to the nation in a hurry. The fact that he was born and raised miles from the school’s campus won’t hurt the narrative, either.

Still, the 52-year-old’s big personality and hometown-boy-made-good narrative shouldn’t distract from the fact that the team he’s built is a talented group with a flair for the dramatic, most recently showcased in wild, triple-overtime win over Xavier. Providence finished .500 a year ago, but now armed with a veteran roster Cooley looks poised to take March by storm and become a major player on the sport’s most important stage.



Malachi Smith (middle, in navy blue)
Malachi Smith (middle, in navy blue) (USA Today)

Why he could be March's main character: Chattanooga is a solid bet to pull an upset or two next month, and Malachi Smith is a big reason why. He’s been winning Southern Conference Player of the Week honors as often as some people do laundry and has become the first SoCon player since Steph Curry to capture the award four times in a season. Now he could be a few weeks away from taking the country by storm in March, like Curry did back in 2008.

Smith has eclipsed the 20-point mark in 17 games this season and ranks 13th nationally in scoring. His Chattanooga team looks like the class of the SoCon and should grab an automatic bid. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has the Mocs as a 13-seed, a historically prime position from which to make some waves as a low-major. Those that don't know Smith’s name now might be extremely familiar at this time next month.