Discovering the NBA Talent in March Madness

By Harron Lee, Reed Trimble, Sean Martin, Rishi Purohit, Seager Hunt, Lilly Hodge, Nell Cunningham, and Emerson Giese

In 1898, the National Basketball League (NBL) took its first shot at professional basketball amid the sport’s burgeoning popularity in the United States, ignited by James Naismith’s invention just seven years prior. While the initial NBL fizzled out by 1904, it found new life in 1938 with the rise of the Oshkosh All-Stars, led by Leroy “Cowboy” Edwards, a pioneering figure in the transition of college stars to professional success. Edwards’ trailblazing journey paved the way for a stream of top college talent entering the NBL, a trend that persisted when the NBL merged with the BAA in 1949 to form the NBA. College basketball, particularly highlighted by the annual March Madness tournament, serves as the NBA’s talent pool, with nearly 85% of NBA players having college basketball experience as of 2019. This symbiotic relationship between college basketball and the NBA has been exemplified by iconic moments like the 1979 championship clash between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, which captivated 40 million viewers, propelling both players to NBA superstardom and elevating the league’s global status.

In this article, we will try to articulate and predict what makes the flow of talent from college basketball to the NBA, particularly from March Madness, so important and enticing. We will achieve this by looking at three different aspects of March Madness: championship roster construction, iconic upsets, and the transitional value of individual stardom.


The analysis of championship roster construction in March Madness unveils a compelling pattern: a distinct preference for teams built around dominant big men over those reliant on star guards. By examining key statistical metrics and tournament outcomes, it becomes evident that teams emphasizing a dominant presence in the paint tend to outperform those centered on star guards.

Teams like the 2011-2012 Kentucky Wildcats, led by Anthony Davis, and the 2018-2019 Duke Blue Devils, featuring Zion Williamson, exemplify this trend. Kentucky averaged a remarkable 12.4 offensive rebounds per game during their championship run in 2012, while Duke maintained a strong average of 10.5 offensive rebounds per game throughout the 2019 tournament. Additionally, these teams showcased formidable shot-blocking capabilities, with Kentucky averaging 8.6 blocks per game and Duke registering an impressive 7.8 blocks per game.

Conversely, teams heavily reliant on the scoring output of a single prominent guard, such as the 2017-2018 Oklahoma Sooners with Trae Young, often struggle to make deep runs in March Madness. The Sooners averaged only 4.2 offensive rebounds per game and 3.5 blocks per game, significantly lower than their big man-focused counterparts. This disparity underscores the strategic advantage that dominant big men provide in terms of rebounding, rim protection, and ultimately, tournament success, suggesting a clear preference for a well-rounded scoring approach anchored by formidable inside presence, rather than a scoring attack primarily led by a single ball-dominant guard.

Moreover, while the correlation between roster construction and March Madness success is discernible, the translation of college success to the NBA remains less conclusive. While teams built around dominant big men have produced NBA stars like Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson, those built around dominant guards have produced similarly high-caliber players.

The fate of players from both center- and guard-focused teams varies significantly. For instance, Trae Young and Ja Morant both emerged as stars in the NBA after their collegiate careers with the Oklahoma Sooners and the Murray State Racers, showcasing the potential for guard-focused players to transition successfully. However, players like Jimmer Fredette, who led guard-focused teams such as the 2010-2011 BYU Cougars, experienced challenges in establishing themselves in the NBA. We have seen similar struggles in transitioning to the NBA for certain big men looking to carry their collegiate success over to the league, such as UNLV standout Anthony Bennett, or the more recent underwhelming NBA production of second overall pick James Wiseman from Memphis.

Despite this inconsistency, the evidence from this year’s March Madness tournament reaffirms the importance of roster construction, as teams like UConn and Purdue capitalized on dominant big men to secure deep runs. UConn’s national championship run relied heavily on the prowess of Donovan Clingan inside, while Purdue’s journey to the championship game was propelled by the sheer dominance of center Zach Edey in both rim protection and inside scoring. Conversely, teams heavily dependent on star guards, such as Kentucky and UNC, suffered early exits. Kentucky’s surprising loss to 14-seed Oakland and UNC’s defeat to 4-seed Alabama in the Sweet 16 highlight the risks associated with guard-focused roster constructions.

This year’s tournament outcomes underscore the significance of roster composition in maximizing a team’s potential for success in March, reinforcing the idea that prioritizing dominant big men over star guards enhances a team’s chances of championship contention. The resurgence of big men in basketball is evident as the 2020s see a shift from the small-ball era of the 2010s, typified by the Golden State Warriors. Three of the last four NBA champions have been built around power forwards or centers, with only the Warriors deviating from this trend. Furthermore, the recent MVPs, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokić, and Joel Embiid, emphasize the dominance of big men in today’s NBA landscape. This resurgence bodes well for NCAA standouts like Donovan Clingan and Zach Edey, assuming they are also able to expand upon the traditional big-man skill sets they already possess to meet the constantly evolving demands of today’s NBA game. While they may not reach the heights of MVP status, their potential contributions to NBA contenders could resemble those of players like Myles Turner or Rudy Gobert, showcasing their valuable positional versatility and potential impact at the next level. 


The examination of NBA talent emerging from Cinderella or upset teams in NCAA basketball also reveals a distinct trend compared to championship-winning squads. While championship teams often emphasize the dominance of big men, the spotlight on upset teams tends to highlight standout guards. This unique dynamic emphasizes the varied pathways to NBA success, with Cinderella upsets serving as a launching pad for guard-centric talents to make their mark in professional basketball. 

Both Davidson’s remarkable run in 2008 and NC State’s surprising performance in the recent March Madness tournament exemplify the transformative power of Cinderella upsets in shaping the careers of standout players. Steph Curry’s stellar performance for Davidson in 2008, where he averaged an exceptional 32 points per game throughout the tournament, not only propelled his team into the national spotlight but also significantly influenced his journey to the NBA. Curry’s dominance during Davidson’s Cinderella run undoubtedly enhanced his draft stock, ultimately leading to his selection as the seventh overall pick by the Golden State Warriors.

Similarly, DJ Horne’s standout performance for NC State in the recent tournament, averaging 17 points per game, showcases the pivotal role played by standout players in Cinderella teams. While NC State’s run may not have been as heliocentric as Davidson’s, Horne’s scoring prowess undoubtedly attracted attention from NBA scouts, potentially setting the stage for his professional basketball career.

The impact of Cinderella upsets extends beyond the NCAA tournament, serving as a catalyst for the transition of NCAA talent to the NBA. These upsets capture the imagination of basketball fans and industry insiders alike, shining a spotlight on standout players who seize the moment on the national stage. As witnessed with Curry’s meteoric rise following Davidson’s run, Ja Morant progressing from Murray State to the Memphis Grizzlies, and the potential trajectory for players like Horne from NC State, Cinderella upsets provide a platform for talented individuals to showcase their skills and elevate their prospects for professional success. Thus, the examination of upset teams not only highlights the unpredictability and excitement of March Madness but also underscores the pivotal role played by standout players in shaping the landscape of NCAA-to-NBA talent transition.


Examining the individual trajectories of NCAA stars like Steph Curry and Jimmer Fredette illuminates the intricate interplay between collegiate success and NBA potential. Curry’s illustrious collegiate career, marked by his superior scoring efficiency and three-point prowess, laid the foundation for his transformative impact in the NBA. With impressive stats such as a 41% three-point shooting percentage and a notable 9.7 attempts per game, Curry’s collegiate dominance hinted at his ability to excel at the professional level.

In contrast, Fredette’s collegiate success, while noteworthy, was marred by inefficiency, evidenced by his lower field goal and three-point shooting count compared to Curry. Despite similarities in their collegiate backgrounds as small shooters from non-Power 5 colleges, Curry’s statistical superiority foreshadowed his ascent to NBA stardom, while Fredette’s limitations became apparent upon transitioning to the professional league.

Shifting focus to the 2024 NCAA tournament, the emergence of Jared McCain as a standout guard for Duke University offers a contemporary case study in the NCAA-to-NBA transition. McCain’s performance during March Madness, averaging 21 points per game and showcasing a sharpshooting prowess reminiscent of Curry and Fredette, underscores his potential as a future NBA prospect. However, McCain’s statistical profile, characterized by a lower usage rate and emphasis on three-point shooting, distinguishes him as a modern guard prospect poised to adapt to the evolving demands of the NBA.

Comparing McCain’s statistical profile to that of Curry and Fredette reveals intriguing parallels and distinctions that provide insight into his NBA trajectory. While McCain exhibits offensive efficiency comparable to Curry and Fredette, his playmaking and defensive contributions present areas for further development. Despite these disparities, McCain’s potential impact in the NBA is undeniable, with projections ranging from a rotational player to a sharpshooting specialist akin to Seth Curry or JJ Redick. As McCain’s journey unfolds, his transition from college standout to NBA prospect epitomizes the unpredictable yet captivating narrative of NCAA-to-NBA talent transition.

Lessons Learned

In the ever-evolving landscape of basketball talent development, the symbiotic relationship between college basketball and the NBA remains steadfast. While recent years have witnessed the NBA exploring alternative avenues for talent recruitment, such as foreign leagues and the G-League Ignite, the dissolution of the Ignite program hints at a resurgence in the importance of college basketball as a breeding ground for future NBA stars. Despite occasional departures from tradition, such as allowing select teenagers to bypass college and enter the NBA directly from high school, the enduring significance of college basketball in NBA player development cannot be overstated.

This year’s collegiate talent pool may not produce the next Zion Williamson or Anthony Davis, but the likes of Jared McCain, Donovan Clingan, and DJ Horne have captured the hearts of basketball enthusiasts and elevated their draft stock through the electrifying platform of March Madness. As we look ahead to the future, the enduring allure and impact of college basketball on the NBA landscape reaffirm its status as the premier incubator for basketball talent, ensuring that the captivating journey from collegiate glory to professional stardom remains an integral part of basketball lore for generations to come.

HSAC’s Predictions

For fun, here’s who we predict as the next-level NBA talent that will develop from this year’s tournament, using numbered positions:

1- DJ Horne (NC State)

2- Jared McCain (Duke)

3- Grant Nelson (Alabama)

4- Donovan Clingan (UConn)

5- Zach Edey (Purdue)

Maybe check back in a few years 🙂

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