Remember Ali Farokhmanesh? Well, he did this.
Before Stephen Curry was a two-time NBA MVP, he was an under-the-radar star of Cinderella Davidson.
NBA All-Star Anthony Davis was the centerpiece to a Kentucky national championship squad before he won a title with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Fred VanVleet was a point guard on a Final Four and Sweet 16 Wichita State team before he won a ring with the Toronto Raptors.
Star power in the NCAA Tournament is what brings to life the teams that go on deep runs and give us memorable One Shining Moments. It can be the unsung hero on a mid-major, the X-factor player on an underrated team, or an NBA-caliber talent who’s waiting to cash in on a pro paycheck in favor of March Madness glory.
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A look at the nine most important men’s players heading into the 2021 NCAA Tournament:
Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
The 6-8 do-everything guard is the projected No. 1 pick in the NBA draft for a reason, but it’s not just based on potential. Cunningham (20.2 ppg) has shown he’s a clutch player with several game-winning buckets in 2020-21. His 40 points and 11 rebounds in a Feb. 27 win over Oklahoma is evidence of his breakout ability.
Evan Mobley, USC
The 7-foot freshman, a projected draft lottery pick, gives the Trojans a dimension not many teams in this tournament have. Mobley (16.8 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 3.0 bpg) puts USC in a position to win every night with his offensive production, but it’s his defense that can help the Trojans go on an unexpected run to the second weekend.
Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
The freshman point guard came into his own in the West Coast Conference Tournament, finishing with 23 points and five assists in the Zags’ win over BYU in the final. While Corey Kispert is one of the reliable veterans for coach Mark Few, it’s Suggs – a five-star talent also expected to be an NBA draft lottery pick – who has matured fast and could be the difference-maker in keeping Gonzaga undefeated on its national title path.
While Ayo Dosunmu is the go-to player for the Fighting Illini, the 7-footer is the X-factor with his ability to corral the glass and protect the paint. Cockburn averages 17.6 points and 9.6 reboundswhile shooting 66% from the floor. If Illinois wins a national title, it’ll be because Cockburn stayed out of foul trouble and produced at a high rate on the low block.
Luka Garza, Iowa
The Hawkeyes’ all-time leading scorer, Garza (23.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg) was a national player of the year candidate the last two seasons as the centerpiece to Iowa’s talented squads. Garza spearheads the inside-out offensive attack with a core cast of guards for a mix that makes Iowa dangerous to surprise in this tournament.
Cameron Thomas, LSU
The 6-4 freshman averaged 22.6 points for a team that pushed Alabama to the brink in the SEC Tournament final. Thomas’ production will be instrumental in getting past Saint Bonaventure in the first round and possibly stunning an injury-affected Michigan team in the second round.
Mac McClung, Texas Tech
The junior guard, a Georgetown transfer, is the main offensive threat for a defensive-minded Red Raiders team that has yet to reach its full potential. He averages 15.7 points and needs to play well for this team to make a surprise run.
Jason Preston, Ohio
The Bobcats have a favorable draw at the No. 13-seed vs. No. 4 seed line against a vulnerable Virginia team. Preston is an exceptional playmaker, averaging 16.6 points and 7.2 assists – balancing his own scoring and facilitating for his teammates. His 27 points in the MAC Tournament helped Ohio bounce favorite Toledo to eventually punch the NCAA ticket. His 31 points and eight dimes almost helped Ohio upset No. 1 seed Illinois in November.
Max Abmas, Oral Roberts
The 15th-seeded Golden Eagles are a dark-horse Cinderella in the South Region capable of knocking off No. 2 Ohio State. Abmas (24.2 ppg, 43% three-point shooting) will be the driving force for any upset possibility. The sophomore guard scored 41 points in a Feb. 27 win over Western Illinois and 42 points in a Feb. 13 win over South Dakota State.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: March Madness: Nine most important men’s players at NCAA Tournament