For the first time since 2017, the NCAA Tournament is returning to the Queen City.
Buffalo basketball fans will pack the stands at KeyBank Center for four first-round games on Thursday and two second-round games on Saturday.
With national names such as Iowa, UConn, Arkansas and Providence in the mix, the excitement for “The Big Dance” to come to Buffalo is clear.
Before you lock in your bracket or head to KeyBank Center, get to know the best players set to take the court in Buffalo.
From NBA hopefuls to fan-favorites, here are the 10 players to watch at KeyBank Center this week:
Jaylin Williams, Forward, Arkansas
The ninth-best center in his class according to Rivals, expectations for Jaylin Williams were understandably high.
And after being eased into the program by head coach Eric Mussleman, Williams is recognizing his potential in his sophomore season.
An elite rebounder and interior defender, the 6-foot-10, 240 lb. power forward is averaging 9.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game for the Razorbacks. He ranks 20th in the nation and second in the SEC in rebounding.
He’s also an efficient scorer in the paint, averaging 10.5 points per game and shooting 47.1% percent from the field.
With an above-average basketball IQ for a big man and a recent stretch of strong performances, Williams’ NBA Draft stock is beginning to rise — for good reason.
Expect Williams to add on to his NBA case Thursday at KeyBank Center.
Douglas Wilson, Forward, South Dakota State
One of the most efficient players in the country, senior forward Douglas Wilson is averaging 16.5 points and 5.5 rebounds while shooting a stellar 57% from the field (good for 20th in the country) for the 30-4 Jackrabbits.
A 6-foot-7 forward with the ability to stretch the floor with his jump shot, Wilson is also managing to shoot 40% from the three-point arc this season. The leading scorer on the nation’s second-highest scoring offense (86.7 points per game, second behind No. 1 seed Gonzaga), Wilson is one of the most underrated offensive weapons in the NCAA Tournament.
South Dakota State has the longest winning streak in Division I at 21 games largely due to Wilson’s efforts. The Jackrabbits went undefeated 18-0 in conference play and dominated the Summit League Tournament to earn an automatic bid to “The Big Dance.”
Wilson dropped 21 points and 11 rebounds in the Summit League Championship Game en route to being named the conference tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
Keegan Murray, Forward, Iowa
The crown jewel of the Buffalo games, sophomore forward Keegan Murray is the most coveted NBA Draft prospect playing at KeyBank Center on Thursday.
One of the most efficient players in Division I, Murray is averaging 23.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1.3 steals per game.
He shoots 55.5% from the field and 40.5% from three-point range. Arguably the best all-around player in the country, Murray is a versatile defender who can defend any position on the court.
After serving as the backup to Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp last year, Murray saw a 16.4-point increase from his freshman to his sophomore season.
Murray led the Hawkeyes with 25.7 points per game in the Big Ten Tournament, and there isn’t any reason to expect a dip in that production against Richmond on Thursday.
There aren’t any glaring flaws in his game and he’s the most intriguing player to watch during the NCAA Tournament in Buffalo.
Jacob Gilyard, Guard, Richmond
A quick look at the stat sheet would tell you that junior forward Tyler Burton (16.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, 46.7% shooting) is the top dog for the Atlantic 10 champions.
But graduate guard Jacob Gilyard — who stands at just 5-foot-9 — leads the nation with 3.1 steals per game. In fact, this is Gilyard’s third consecutive season leading Division I in steals.
The Kansas City native also leads the No. 12 seed Spiders with 5.4 assists and 38.5 minutes played per contest. The prototype scrappy point guard, Gilyard is a reliable playmaker and arguably the best perimeter defender in college basketball.
Look for Gilyard to put pressure on Iowa’s guards early and often in the Spiders’ matchup against the Hawkeyes.
R.J. Cole, Guard, UConn
After transferring from Howard and being forced to sit out the 2019-20 season due to the NCAA’s old transfer rules, Cole has become head coach Danny Hurley’s most reliable player over the past two seasons.
The graduate guard leads UConn with 15.7 points, 4.1 assists and 33.4 minutes played per game this season while shooting a healthy 41.4% from the field and 85.4% from the free-throw line. Cole is a key cog in the Huskies’ offense, often bringing the ball up the court and commanding nearly every offensive set.
Nate Watson, Center, Providence
Watson is the emotional leader for a Providence team that went 25-5 overall and 14-3 in conference play in a competitive Big East.
The fifth-year center is posting averages of 13.8 points and 5.4 rebounds while nearly averaging a block per contest. Watson is a formidable interior presence who thrived in chaos during the regular season, often diving on loose balls and pumping up the crowd in Providence’s home arena, the Dunkin’ Donuts Center (more commonly known as “The Dunk”).
While his statistics may not always tell the entire story, Watson is an invaluable piece and serves as the heartbeat of a gritty Providence team.
JD Notae, Guard, Arkansas
After transferring from Jacksonville following his sophomore season, senior guard JD Notae was finally able to shine in the national spotlight as he always desired.
The shifty shot maker made an immediate impact in his first year at Arkansas, scoring 12.8 points per game en route to winning Bleacher Report Sixth Man of the Year.
Notae has taken his game to the next level this season, leading the Razorbacks with 18.4 points, 3.7 assists and 2.2 steals per game.
One of the quickest guards in the country, Notae is among college basketball’s elite when it comes to creating his own shot. Between Notae and Williams, basketball fans will see two NBA-caliber talents when Arkansas faces Vermont Thursday at KeyBank Center.
Teddy Allen, Guard, New Mexico State
After playing for five different teams (West Virginia, Wichita State, Western Nebraska Community College, Nebraska and now New Mexico State), redshirt junior guard Teddy Allen has finally found his footing in Division I basketball.
The 2022 Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year and WAC Tournament MVP, Allen leads the Aggies with 19.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. If No. 12 seed New Mexico State’s game against UConn comes down to the wire, expect Allen to have the ball in his hands in the game’s final moments.
Ryan Davis, Forward, Vermont
Vermont absolutely ran through the America East Tournament, beating its opponents by an average margin of 36.7 points. Senior forward Ryan Davis averaged 17.3 points per game during that three-game span, right on pace with his 17.2 points per game average on the season.
Standing at 6-foot-8 and weighing 250 lb., Davis uses his large frame to be physical with defenders and score around the rim.
But his size may also be deceiving as he shoots a blistering 42.3% from the three-point line. Add onto that a 59% mark from the field and Davis is one of the more reliable offensive players in the NCAA Tournament.
Adama Sanogo, Forward, UConn
Standing at 6-foot-9 and 240 lb., sophomore forward Adama Sanogo is a force to be reckoned with in the paint for the Huskies.
A native of Bamako, Mali, Sanogo averaged 14.9 points and 8.9 rebounds per game while also serving as an elite screener in the pick and roll with Cole.
While Sanago doesn’t have the most refined offensive game, his brute power overwhelms defenders around the rim. As old school as a big man gets, Sanogo rarely leaves the paint and fights for offensive rebounds on nearly every possession.
On defense, he’s a superb rim protector who averages two blocks per game.
Teams always know what to expect when going up against Sanogo, but the hard part is figuring out how to stop him.
Anthony DeCicco is the senior sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @DeCicco42 on Twitter
Anthony DeCicco is the Editor-in-Chief of The Spectrum. His words have appeared in outlets such as SLAM Magazine andSyracuse.com. In 2020, he was awarded First Prize for Sports Column Writing at the Society of Professional Journalists' Region 1 Mark of Excellence Awards. In his free time, he can be found watching ‘90s Knicks games and reading NFL Mock Drafts at 3 a.m.