NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament: Ranking the top 16 players in the Sweet 16


The Sweet 16 arrives Thursday night, and with every team from the top-two seed lines still in the NCAA Tournament, there’s plenty of star power in the remainder of the field. For what we lack in Cinderella stories, we make up for in big-time faces that are still on the Big Dance floor. 

Without further ado, let’s unveil my list of the top 16 players in the Sweet 16, with one big caveat: I could not use more than one player from a team. We definitely have multiple entries from UConn, North Carolina, and I would argue Purdue, so to keep everybody involved, we’re going with one from each team.

This was far from easy – well, after No. 1 at least – but here’s our list! 

1. Zach Edey, Purdue 

The back-to-back National Player of the Year is far and away in his own class in this sport, combining for 53 points, 35 rebounds and six blocks in two tournament games. Virginia scored 42 points as a TEAM in one tournament contest. Edey will carry a streak of 12 consecutive games with at least 22 points into a Sweet 16 matchup with Gonzaga.

No. 5 Gonzaga’s keys to slowing down Purdue, Zach Edey

2. Donovan Clingan, UConn

It might surprise you that he’s up to No. 2, but here’s why. You can negate guard play. You can have an answer for 3-point shooting. But it’s very hard to prepare for size and all that the 7-foot-2, 280-pound center is doing for Connecticut. His 14-point, 14-rebound, eight-block performance in the win over Northwestern on Sunday was the first performance of its kind in the NCAA Tournament since Navy’s David Robinson accomplished the feat in 1986. It’s not just about the numbers for me with Clingan. If you took him off the Huskies, they would not be anywhere close to the defensive team they’ve become. It’s his impact on both ends of the court that leads to him being this high on my list, and the fact he’s leading the best team in the country. 

3. RJ Davis, North Carolina

He’s the senior guard that makes everything happen for Hubert Davis’ Tar Heels, combining for 42 points on 7-of-14 shooting from beyond the arc in their first two tournament wins. His ability to create tempo and plays for others, combined with the attention he draws from a defense because he accounts for close to 30 points and 3.4 assists per game, makes UNC a national title contender. 

4. Dalton Knecht, Tennessee

He has Jimmer Fredette and Doug McDermott scoring qualities in his game with 13 performances of at least 24 points this season. I expect him to respond from a 5-for-18 performance against Texas this past weekend, but that being said, Knecht still hit a huge 3 late in the game to help the Vols secure the win. 

5. Terrence Shannon Jr., Illinois 

It is one of the biggest storylines in the sport that the senior guard has been allowed to play despite rape charges being filed from an alleged incident while he was visiting Lawrence, Kansas for a football game on Sept. 8. After he had a temporary restraining order granted to him in January which allowed him to play, Shannon has returned and is the primary reason why this Illini program is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005. In the last six games, the 6-6 guard is averaging 30.5 points per contest. After scoring 40 in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal win over Nebraska, he delivered 34 in the conference title game win over Wisconsin. He has scored 56 points over two games in the Big Dance.

6. Jamal Shead, Houston 

He is the toughest guard in this tournament, displaying constant leadership for the 32-4 Cougars. In the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, Shead totaled 32 points, 19 assists and eight rebounds while playing all 45 minutes in the Round of 32 overtime win over Texas A&M. 

7. Tyler Kolek, Marquette 

He is the nation’s assist leader, averaging 7.9 per game. Kolek is responsible for running Marquette’s offense and making the Golden Eagles a Final Four-caliber team. He hit the dagger shot against Colorado in Sunday’s 81-77 win and has combined for 39 points, 22 assists and 11 rebounds in the first two games of the Big Dance. 

8. Caleb Love, Arizona 

He’s an electrifying player who is a nightmare for the opposition when he gets downhill. Love helped lead North Carolina to an unforgettable run to the national championship game two years ago. In his first two tournament games this year, he combined for 37 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists. If we get Arizona-North Carolina in LA on Saturday, nobody in the country – outside of Caitlin Clark – will be discussed more this weekend than the UNC transfer. 

9. Mark Sears, Alabama 

In terms of explosive offensive abilities, the Alabama lead guard is second to none on this list. His first two NCAA Tournament games: 56 points, 16 rebounds, 11 assists. 

10. Baylor Scheierman, Creighton

There are just so many tools in his box to work with, averaging 18.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. His shot in the lane off one foot against Oregon on Saturday forced overtime and kept Creighton’s season alive.

11. Jaedon LeDee, San Diego State

The 6-9, 240-pound fifth-year senior is one of the most physically talented specimens in all of college basketball. Totaling at least 21 points in his last six games, including a combined 58 in two NCAA Tournament wins, LeDee has been near unstoppable in the Aztecs’ quest to get back to the Final Four. LeDee had a 34-and-16 game against UNLV in the Mountain West Tournament and also posted a 34-and-17 performance against Washington. He is a real load inside and will meet Clingan on Thursday night. 

12. Jared McCain, Duke 

Part of this is overall rankings, but part of it is who’s hot right now. McCain has it rolling into the Sweet 16 with the smoothest jump shot in college basketball at 42% from 3-point land. His 30-point performance in the win over James Madison on Sunday marked the second-highest scoring performance by a Duke freshman in program history, next to only Zion Williamson’s 32 points against UCF in the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

13. Tamin Lipsey, Iowa State

The 6-1 sophomore has taken a giant leap in leadership and just his overall skill set. Lipsey is averaging 12.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game while shooting an efficient 43% from the floor and 39% from 3-point territory. He also sets the tone for the No. 1 defense in the country, alongside Keshon Gilbert

14. Anton Watson, Gonzaga

The 6-8 senior has had a tremendous season and his first two NCAA Tournament games have been no different. He totaled a combined 34 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists in the first weekend of the Big Dance, showing a total package of his skill set. If I could give a Gonzaga honorable mention alongside him, it’s Ryan Nembhard, who had 21 assists in the two wins this past weekend. 

15. DJ Burns Jr., North Carolina State

My colleague at The Field of 68, Terrence Oglesby, calls him a walking refrigerator with ballerina feet, and he’s absolutely right. At 6-9 and 275 pounds, the fifth-year senior is one of the most enjoyable watches in this sport because of his size and scoring ability. He has combined for 40 points and 12 rebounds in the first two tournament games, and has averaged 16 and five during this seven-game winning streak for the Wolfpack. 

16. Chase Hunter, Clemson

He had one 20-point performance during the regular season. The fifth-year senior guard saved his best for the biggest time of year, with 21 against New Mexico and 20 against Baylor this past weekend, to go with a combined 12 assists for the Tigers. Think about this with Clemson: the program has been to the Sweet 16 just twice since 1997. Hunter’s mix of scoring and playmaking ability is why the 2023-24 group is dancing in Los Angeles and set to meet Arizona in a Sweet 16 showdown.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.



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