Stars will shine in NCAA Tournament week two

Here are some key players to look out for during March Madness’ second weekend.

March Madness’ atmosphere is unmatched and fans across the country will get to experience it. Boston, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Portland, Albany and New York are the host cities for the men’s and women’s tournaments. (Jordan Renville / Daily Trojan)

Each year during March Madness, there is always one player who shines under the bright lights and steals the hearts of millions across the country. Stephen Curry, Breanna Stewart, Jimmer Fredette and Arike Ogunbowale are just some names that come to mind.

This year, there were several men’s and women’s players who balled out during the first weekend of the tournament, but their teams didn’t advance. 

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On the men’s side, No. 14 seed Oakland University (24-12, 15-5 Horizon League) graduate guard Jack Gohlke became a national sensation, dropping 54 points on 16 3-pointers in two games against No. 3 seed Kentucky (23-10, 13-5 SEC) and No. 11 seed NC State (24-14, 9-11 ACC). Additionally, No. 11 seed Oregon (24-12, 12-8 Pac-12) senior guard Jermaine Couisnard went nuclear in his two NCAA Tournament games against No. 6 seed South Carolina (26-8, 13-5 SEC) and No. 3 seed Creighton University (25-9, 14-6 Big East), tallying 72 points and 12 rebounds.

In terms of the women, No. 5 seed Utah (23-11, 11-7, Pac-12) senior forward Alissa Pili put up 61 points on 57.5% shooting in two games against No. 12 seed South Dakota State University (27-6, 16-0 Summit League) and No. 4 seed Gonzaga University (32-3, 16-0 West Coast Conference). No. 7 seed Iowa State (21-12, 12-6 Big 12) freshman center Audi Crooks had a monster Round of 64 performance, totaling 40 points and 12 rebounds on 90% shooting in a comeback win against No. 10 Maryland (19-14, 9-9 Big Ten).  

While these players’ performances should be applauded, let’s look at the top players to look out for who still have a shot at taking home the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.

Men’s: Zach Edey, Purdue

The No. 1 seed Purdue’s (31-4, 17-3 Big Ten) senior big man has been nothing short of dominant in two games this March Madness. Edey posted 53 points and 35 rebounds combined in blowout wins against No. 16 seed Grambling State University (21-15, 14-4 SWAC) and No. 8 seed Utah State University (28-7, 14-4 Mountain West Conference). The Toronto native has also been a force on the defensive end, contributing three blocks in each game of the first weekend.

However, Edey is by no means a breakout player at March Madness. He won the 2023 Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year award and is the frontrunner for the award this season. The 7-foot-4 center led the nation in scoring with 24.5 points per game and was third in rebounds with 12.1 rebounds per game. If the Boilermakers want to beat No. 5 seed Gonzaga (27-7, 14-2 West Coast Conference) in the Sweet 16 — and eventually break their Final Four curse — they’ll need their First Team All-American to continue to be unstoppable.

Men’s: Mark Sears, Alabama

The senior guard has been the leader for No. 4 seed Alabama (23-11, 13-5 SEC) all year long, which hasn’t changed in the slightest this tournament. Sears — a Second Team All-American  — is averaging 21.5 points, 4.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game this season. The Ohio transfer made a huge jump in his second year in Tuscaloosa, improving his points per game by 9 points from last season. 

In the first two rounds, Sears averaged 28 points and eight rebounds per game on 47.1% shooting behind the 3-point arc in two victories over No. 13 seed College of Charleston (27-8, 15-3 Coastal Athletic Association) and No. 12 seed Grand Canyon University (30-5, 17-3 WAC). The Crimson Tide will rely on Sears to have another big game to upset No. 1 seed UNC (29-7, 17-3 ACC) and advance to the Elite Eight.

Men’s: DJ Burns Jr., NC State

Burns Jr. had lived up to his last name this tournament, blazing through the competition for the Wolfpack (24-14, 9-11 ACC). The graduate forward has scored 40 points in his two NCAA Tournament games, more than in any two-game stretch he’s had all season. The stars come out in March, and Burns Jr. — in his second season with NC State after transferring from Winthrop University —  is bursting onto the scene on the biggest stage.

The big man has helped the Wolfpack go on a seven-game winning streak as the No. 11-seeded NC State has started to turn into a Cinderella story. While the Wolfpack have not had the hardest road in the Big Dance so far — taking down the No. 6 and 14 seeds in their region — two of their wins in the ACC Tournament came against Sweet 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament. Burns Jr. and company have a much stiffer task against the No. 2 seed Marquette University Golden Eagles (27-9, 14-6 Big East), but if NC State makes its first Elite Eight since 1986, it’ll be Burns Jr. to thank.

Women’s: Caitlin Clark, Iowa

The biggest name in college basketball this season — men’s and women’s — has undoubtedly been senior guard Caitlin Clark. On par with Edey, she won the 2023 Naismith Women’s Player of the Year award and is in a position to win the award this season. The Iowa native led all players in scoring this year with 31.8 points per game and passing with 8.8 assists per game. Additionally, she became the NCAA men’s and women’s all-time leading scorer, passing Kelsey Plum and Pete “Pistol” Maravich.

But the First Team All-American wants more, and she is proving it this March Madness. Clark has yet to win a national championship. She is trying to get her No. 1 seed Hawkeyes (31-4, 15-3 Big Ten) there, tallying 59 points, 16 rebounds and 13 assists in two wins against No. 16 seed College of Holy Cross (21-13, 11-7 Patriot League) and No. 8 seed West Virginia (25-8, 12-6 Big 12). Clark will need to keep carrying Iowa on her back this weekend as she has all year.

Women’s: Reigan Richardson, Duke

Coming into the women’s tournament as an underdog rarely ends well. Through the first 48 games of women’s March Madness, there have been a whopping two upsets, and the top dog of the underdogs is indisputably Duke junior guard Reigan Richardson. Against No. 2-seeded Ohio State (26-6, 16-2 Big Ten), Richardson exploded for 28 points, seven rebounds and three steals. Her big night allowed the Blue Devils to overcome a 16-point first-half deficit, deposing the Buckeyes 75-63 to advance Duke to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2018.

Richardson averaged 11.9 points per game and 1.7 assists per game in the regular season, but during the NCAA Tournament, she has kicked it into second gear. In the Blue Devils’ first two games, Richardson has posted 26.5 points per game on 58.3% shooting and seven assists in each win. She is the first Duke women’s player to score at least 25 points in back-to-back tournament games since guard Alana Beard in 2003. If Richardson continues to play at this level, the dominance of Blue Bloods in men’s basketball may finally transfer to the women’s game.  

Women’s: JuJu Watkins, USC

The freshman phenom has been incredible all season and hasn’t shied away from the spotlight of March. The No. 1 recruit in 2023, according to ESPN, has lived up to the hype and then some, achieving Associated Press First Team All-American honors and breaking the women’s freshman scoring record — previously held by Clark. Watkins led No. 1 seed USC (28-5, 13-5 Pac-12) to its first Pac-12 Conference championship since 2014. 

The California native is making the most of her March Madness debut thus far, averaging 25.5 points, eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks in two matchups against No. 16 seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (23-9, 14-4 Southland Conference) and No. 8 seed Kansas (26-8, 13-5 Big 12). The Trojans are seeking their first Final Four berth since 1986 and will count on their star guard to take them to the promised land. First, she will need to get them past No. 5 seed Baylor (26-7, 12-6 Big 12) on Saturday. 

As the rounds go on, the star players step up to the challenge. Tune in this weekend to see which players can bring their teams to the Final Four and etch their names in history. 

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