The NCAA Tournament begins Thursday with the selection of 12 players from the final 15 for the 2021 John R. Wooden Award, this season’s version of March Madness. With that in mind, we asked our ESPN college basketball experts from the first and second rounds to give their thoughts on which player’s game – or potential game – is the most interesting.

Which Wooden Award finalist in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament of potential matchup do you find most exciting?

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I don’t think the selection committee would have put an undefeated Winthrop team at #12, despite the tight schedule. But Pat Kelsey’s Eagles are just five minutes away from an undefeated Selection Sunday, which could put them where they are now in the standings. Either way, Jeremy Robinson-Earl and Villanova will face a dangerous Winthrop team in the first round, even if there aren’t enough players.

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In two full games without Collin Gillespie – the Big East Player of the Year and Wooden Trophy finalist, who did not play in Game 3. March against Creighton, which suffered a knee injury that ended the season – the Wildcats scored 52 points in the loss against Providence and gave away 1.14 points per possession in the first round of the Big East tournament against a Georgetown team ranked eighth in offensive efficiency in the championship game. That puts more pressure on Robinson-Earl to push the reset button on a team that clearly lacks an experienced playmaker who was a rookie on the 2018 team. It’s too early to talk about Villanova’s possible second-round matchup against a Purdue team that enters the NCAA Tournament with a 5-1 record over its last six games, as Villanova’s opener could be a real battle against a talented mid-major team.



Illinois Ayo Dosunmu rides the big helmet.

Jeff Borzello, College Basketball Insider: I’m going to cheat a little bit as I pick two Illinois players, Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, when the Fighting Illini play Georgia Tech in the second round. The Yellow Jackets should have their representative on this list in ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright (although Wright was eliminated in the first round), and they have one of the best defenders in the country in point guard Jose Alvarado. I think Alvarado will be a real pest against Dosunmu when Dosunmu has the ball, and I’m curious if Tech can force Illinois into a turnover; the Fighting Illini are 12th out of 14 Big Ten teams in turnover margin in the league.

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And then, inside, Cockburn against Wright – if Wright can return – would be fascinating. Cockburn clearly has a length advantage over everyone he faces, but Wright played at an incredibly high level in the final weeks of the regular season, and his ability to break the offensive glass, block shots and collect assists – while finishing consistently – could cause problems.

John Gasaway, college basketball writer: Thank you for expanding these opportunities for potential matches. I’m going to use this lifeline to say that I’m intrigued by the prospect of USC’s Evan Mobley facing David McCormack and Kansas in the round of 32. That’s all that needs to be done first: Mobley and the Trojans should do well against Wichita State or Drake. McCormack should be able to play after missing the Big 12 Tournament due to COVID-19 protocol, and of course the Jayhawks need to get past Eastern Washington.



Evan Mobley had a dunk early in the first half that impressed the bench.

But if all the stars align, it could come to a collision. Mobley is a future lottery ticket who was just named Pac-12 Player of the Year and the league’s defensive POY. McCormack’s performance has improved significantly over the course of the season, and he can cause problems for opposing defenses by scoring ultra-high backs. When that happens, it’ll be fun.

Joe Lunardi, ESPN Bracketologist: I’m taking this with me. I’m not much of a matchup player, but I think Ohio State’s A.J. Liddell could do well against Oral Roberts’ Max Abmas, the country’s leading scorer. In terms of actual talent, this is not a 2-15 game in my opinion, but rather a 5-12 or even 6-11 game. The Buckeyes have been outmatched all season and, at least when compared to the rest of the Big Ten’s elite, they don’t deserve their spot.

On the other hand, thanks in part to Abmas and his 25 points per game, Oral Roberts was the most talented team in the underrated Summit League and ultimately won the conference tournament. If any 1 or 2 seed will be shipped in a package in the first round this year, it will be Ohio State. And ORU is exactly the kind of team that can do that.

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