NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Houston

Guards win in March. It may sound simple, but it rings true year after year. They win big -- eight of the last nine Final Four Most Outstanding Players have been guards -- and they win America's hearts. Last year's surprise Final Four runs from San Diego State, Florida Atlantic and Miami were all guard-fueled. Princeton's Sweet 16 run? Guard Ryan Langborg was the leading scorer. We often see the smallest players carry the biggest loads. Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier led UConn titles of lore.

All NCAA Tournament teams are different, but the best ones have terrific, experienced guard play: players who have the mental toughness and the game that won't be overwhelmed in the big moments.

Here are 10 guards who fit the bill, from title contenders to bracket busters to Cinderellas.

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Title contenders

Seeds No. 1-4 

Tristen Newton, (1) UConn

Top attributes: complete game, toughness, championship experience

Adama Sanogo won Final Four Most Outstanding Player last year, but if there had been a championship game-only award, it would have gone to Newton, who had 19 points, 10 rebounds and four assists against San Diego State. This season -- his fifth in college -- Newton has built off that success as the only major-conference player averaging 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists. The rebounding especially stands out and is a huge reason Connecticut is a top-10 rebounding team nationally.

Newton isn't necessarily a huge volume scorer -- UConn's balanced attack with five double-digit scorers doesn't need him to be -- but he can fill that role when needed. He had 31 points in an early season contest against Kansas, 27 more against Creighton and 25 in both a one-point win at Villanova and a Big East Tournament semifinal win over St. John's

The advanced figures love Newton. He's third in's Player of the Year ratings and the highest-rated guard. He's remarkably consistent, and he orchestrates a UConn attack that can solve seemingly any problem.

Jamal Shead, (1) Houston

Top attributes: clutch factor, has that dog in him, leadership

Plenty of good guards have come through Houston under coach Kelvin Sampson. Great guards, even: Damyean Dotson. Rob Gray. Corey Davis. Quentin Grimes. Marcus Sasser. Jamal Shead is the latest, and he's hoping to be the one that gets the Cougars over the hump. Shead has embraced the spotlight this year, with the highlights being a 26-point performance in a huge regular-season win over Iowa State and a buzzer-beater against Oklahoma to open March.

Shead is a guy you'd go to war with. The ultimate competitor. Sampson called him "the greatest leader I've ever coached." Shead's baseline numbers aren't overwhelming, but advanced metrics appreciate his contributions much more. He's seventh in's Player of the Year ratings and second in's MVP rankings.

If it's not Shead leading the charge, it could be L.J. Cryer and/or Emanuel Sharp, who round out Sampson's excellent backcourt trio. Having an elite guard is great for March; having two more really good ones is even better.

RJ Davis, (1) North Carolina

Top attributes: explosive scorer, sharpshooter, been there before

Two seasons ago, Davis was part of North Carolina's "Iron Five" -- the starters who led a run to the title game. Last season, with massive expectations, the Tar Heels missed the tournament entirely, the first preseason No. 1 team to do so. Big changes happened over the offseason, none bigger than Caleb Love's departure to Arizona.

The split has proved prudent for both: Love won Pac-12 Player of the Year, and Davis won ACC Player of the Year. Both could easily make this list. Davis gets the slight nod thanks to his consistency and efficiency. He's on pace to become the first UNC player to average 20 points on 40% 3-point shooting since Antawn Jamison in 1997-98.

Davis has taken on a bigger role while improving his shooting and lowering his turnover rate. The 3-point shooting jump -- 35.5% his first three years, 40.6% this year -- has been remarkable. So, too, has the Tar Heels' pace. After ranking 99th in pace nationally last year, they're 41st this year, and Davis has been terrific in transition. He can lead the break or trail and find his spots, and he can shoot it from anywhere.

Reed Sheppard, (3) Kentucky

Top attributes: sharpshooter, closer, basketball IQ

I'm breaking my own rule here by including a freshman, but Sheppard plays like a veteran. He's averaging 12.8 points on absurd 54/52/83 shooting splits. That's right: 52% from 3, the best by a major-conference player since Markus Howard in 2016-17. His scoring average doesn't pop because Kentucky has so many capable scorers -- Antonio Reeves was also a candidate for this list, and Rob Dillingham is excellent -- but other numbers indicate Sheppard's true impact.

He's fourth in's MVP rankings. On a team with a ton of talent and depth, he's also sixth in "Most Indispensable Players," largely thanks to his terrific defense -- the end where Kentucky struggles. Sheppard doesn't start many games, but he finishes almost all of them. 

Terrence Shannon Jr., (3) Illinois

Top attributes: ridiculous athlete, attacks with abandon, explosive scorer

It's important to not fall too much for the recency bias. The Big Ten is the perfect example. Last year's conference tournament champion, Purdue, infamously lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Fairleigh Dickinson. In 2022, No. 5 Iowa fell to No. 12 Richmond. Even Illinois didn't make the second weekend after winning the Big Ten Tournament in 2021.

On the other hand ... Terrence Shannon Jr.

This season has really been four seasons in one. Illinois started 9-2 before suspending Shannon in late December after he was charged with rape stemming from a Sept. 8, 2023 incident. In early January, Shannon filed a temporary restraining order against the University of Illinois, claiming he was not granted due process in the suspension decision. A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction on Jan. 19, allowing Shannon to return. The Illini went 4-2 without him.

Over the next month, the Illini were out of whack, going 6-4. Then Shannon took over, and Illinois won seven of its last eight games. In the Big Ten Tournament, he scored a record 40 points in a semifinal win over Nebraska and 34 more in the final against Wisconsin. His 102 points total were second-most in a single Big Ten Tournament.

Shannon is impossible to defend. He's 6-foot-6 with runaway freight train speed in the open court, he finishes through contact with strength and outstanding body control, and he shoots 36% from 3. He scored 7.3 points per game in transition alone, the top mark in the country. He is the complete package offensively, and he's a solid defender. I understand the concerns about Illinois' defense, but if you're willing to come to terms with that when picking your bracket, Shannon could lead the Illini to their first Final Four since 2005. He's that good.

Bracket busters

Seeds No. 5-9

Max Abmas, (7) Texas

Top attributes: sharpshooter, been there before, free-throw machine

You probably know the name from Oral Roberts' Cinderella 2021 Sweet 16 run. Now, Abmas is back for more in his fifth year of college, donning a Longhorns uniform. If Illinois is a team I just can't trust, Texas is a team I just can't quit, and Abmas is a big reason why.

Abmas is a lights-out shooter. He's first in the Big 12 in points per spot-up possession and 16th in the country (min. 100 shots). He takes and makes tough shots and clutch shots. Abmas is also a 92% free-throw shooter, a huge plus in close games. A fully healthy Texas has a ton of potential and experience, and Abmas can lead them as a scorer, distributor or closer. He's already shredded brackets once. He could do it again.

Walter Clayton Jr., (7) Florida

Top attributes: explosive shooter, versatile scorer, free-throw machine

With Iona last season, Clayton put a first-round scare into eventual champion UConn. The sought-after transfer chose Florida over the offseason, and what a get it's been for coach Todd Golden. Clayton averaged a team-high 17.1 points this season, and that number jumped to 19.8 against ranked teams. Overall, his 198 points against ranked teams are fourth in Division I.

Clayton get catch fire quickly. He had four games with five or more 3-pointers and made a career-high seven in a late-January win at Kentucky. But he's much more than a shooter: He scored 100-plus points as a spot-up shooter, in transition and as a pick-and-roll ball handler. He presents all sorts of problems.

Johnell Davis, (8) FAU

Top attributes: been there before, sharpshooter, great size

If you know FAU as a 2023 Final Four team that brought back nearly everyone, you're right. If you know FAU as the team that beat Arizona, you're also right. And if you know FAU as the team that somehow lost to Bryant, Florida Gulf Coast and Temple this year, you're also right.

Regardless of how you know the Owls, you should know Davis shows up in the biggest moments. His 26.7 points per game against ranked teams is fifth in the nation, and he had 35 in the aforementioned win over Arizona. Davis is so smooth and can score in so many ways that it almost looks effortless. At 6-foot-4, Davis can shoot over smaller defenders, and he shoots 43% from 3, too. Davis vs. Northwestern's Boo Buie -- who could (and maybe should) be on this list as well -- will be a terrific matchup in the first round.


Seeds No. 10-16

Jaelen House, (11) New Mexico

Top attributes: big-game player, emotional leader, explosive scorer

House is the perfect fit for this list. Already a March hero? Check -- he was Mountain West Tournament MVP. Scores in bunches? Check -- he's averaged at least 16 points in three straight seasons. Competitor? Big, big check.

House's Lobos are favored over (6) Clemson in the first round, too. As for House, it's actually been a down year for him shooting, but if he's truly found his stoke of late, opponents will be in big trouble. Oh yeah, and he plays alongside the Lobos' two other excellent guards: Donovan Dent and Jamal Mashburn Jr.

Shahada Wells, (12) McNeese

Top attributes: sharpshooter, been there before, complete game

Wells has taken the road less traveled. After two years at Tyler Community College (including a JUCO player of the year award), he went to UT Arlington and was a Second Team All-Sun Belt selection. Then came two years at TCU, where he was mostly a rotational player, and now a year at McNeese.

This has been the perfect ending point. Wells is one of several former major-conference players on McNeese's roster, but he's the undisputed leader. The Southland Player of the Year is averaging 17.8 points, 4.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds this season. In nonconference action, he scored 36 points against Michigan, 30 against UAB and 23 against VCU, all impressive wins for the Cowboys. has Wells third in its MVP rankings, surrounded by two others on this list in Shead and Sheppard. Wells will be a handful for Gonzaga and potentially beyond. 

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