TUCSON, Ariz. — With a few seconds remaining in the first half of Arizona’s 88-82 win over Alabama on Saturday, Collin Sexton made a futile attempt to direct a play, urging teammate John Petty to take the last shot.
Then he decided to become the play.
Idling at the top of the key, with Parker Jackson-Cartwright hoping to anticipate his next move, Sexton dribbled right and then left before he nailed a line-drive 3-pointer that banked off the glass. He then fell to the ground and admired the shot that gave Alabama a halftime lead and punctuated a run that erased an 11-point deficit.
The lottery-bound guard recorded 30 points — he finished 3-for-6 from the 3-point line — and put on a performance that impressed NBA execs and fans.
“They competed, and that’s really all you can ask for,” Sean Miller said of his team’s defense against Sexton. “The way Collin Sexton scores, it’s against the team. … All you want from a guy covering him is great effort and concentration, and they had that.”
Sexton is one of the most exciting players in America, a must-see talent. And that’s what the game needs.
We’ll debate the Wooden Award and the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft all season, but we’ve already identified the athletes who should compel us to set our DVRs and scour Twitter for highlights each night.
On Saturday, Sexton only confirmed the hype about his likely one-and-done campaign. A spin move in the first half made the opposing crowd gasp. He hit 3-pointers. He dribbled around his back and between his legs with ease.
Those who missed his 40-point effort in the epic “3-on-5” 89-84 loss to Minnesota last month in Brooklyn wonder how Sexton kept Alabama alive with just he and two of his teammates available in the final 10 minutes of the game. Well, late in that wild matchup, he hit a 3-pointer from the corner over three Gophers.
He’s just special. And exciting.
But he isn’t alone. Here’s a list of college basketball’s most exciting players.
Deandre Ayton, Arizona Wildcats
Find a replay of Saturday’s game. Ayton scored 29 points and grabbed 18 rebounds against Alabama in the most dominant performance of his career so far. He’s 7-foot-1 and 250 pounds of muscle. He’s explosive with excellent timing and offensive instincts.
His tip-dunk with his left hand in the first half of Saturday’s game was stunning. We haven’t witnessed a rising big man with this power since a young Dwight Howard was tearing rims down in Orlando a decade ago. But Howard didn’t have Ayton’s versatility then. With the game on the line, Ayton hit a pair of 15-footers to seal the win Saturday. He’s the greatest force in college basketball right now.
“His ability as a player, in my mind, is unmatched,” Miller said. “He’s so skilled and yet so big and athletic. Usually, there is one or the other. He has both.”
Tra Holder, Arizona State Sun Devils
When you score 29 points and finish with a 4-for-7 clip from the 3-point line at Allen Fieldhouse and leave with the win, you’re allowed to flex. Holder hit big shots, scored at the rim and guided an Arizona State squad that leads our latest Power Rankings and stands fifth in the AP poll (the Sun Devils got five first-place votes) after handing the Jayhawks their 11th home loss in the Bill Self era. Between the KU effort and his 40-point outing in a win over Xavier last month, Holder is high on the list of players to see in college basketball.
Alize Johnson, Missouri State Bears
The departures of Wichita State and Creighton in recent years diminished the profile of the Missouri Valley Conference. But Missouri State, which was picked to win the league, features a hidden gem in Johnson. In the first 10 minutes of his team’s win over Hampton last week, the double-double machine and NBA prospect had a dunk, a 15-footer and a 3-pointer on his stat sheet. But his one-handed dunk off a teammate’s miss early in that game highlighted the 6-foot-9 forward’s athleticism.
Mikal Bridges, Villanova Wildcats
Let’s discuss his dunk from last week’s game against Gonzaga in the Jimmy V Classic. You know the dunk: second half, near the eight-minute mark. Bridges drives to the rim and dunks on every player in the history of the Gonzaga program. Domantas Sabonis. Kelly Olynyk. Jeremy Pargo. John Stockton. The whole town of Spokane, Washington, felt that, too. Then Bridges swatted Silas Melson‘s shot on the other end. Watch him.
Mikal Bridges throws down with a big slam and follows it by rejecting Josh Perkins at the other end.
Trae Young, Oklahoma Sooners
Buddy Hield made Oklahoma basketball one of the game’s most exciting programs two years ago. Young, the freshman who entered the week leading America in scoring at 28.8 points, could duplicate Hield’s impact on the Oklahoma brand after a breathtaking start to a collegiate career that will not last beyond this season. He’s just slick. It’s like watching Barry Sanders with a basketball. He’s a unique talent.
Desmond Bane, TCU Horned Frogs
Jamie Dixon’s TCU squad features one of college basketball’s most interesting talents. Entering the week, Bane, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, had connected on 56 percent of his 3-point attempts, good for 23rd in the nation. He’s taking 4.3 per game, more than double last season’s rate. And he is shooting some of them from Waco, Dallas and Lubbock. If you’re into hot hands, check out Bane, who is one of America’s top marksmen right now.
Lonnie Walker IV, Miami Hurricanes
A summer knee injury ruined his offseason and bled into the regular season. The five-star prospect limped into 2017-18. But his burst is back, as proven in last week’s 26-point outing during a win over Boston University. He drove into traffic and scored. He moved well in space. It was his second consecutive double-digit performance. He entered the season surrounded by one-and-done hype. Now he is beginning to put on the show most anticipated when he signed with the Hurricanes.
Lindell Wigginton, Iowa State Cyclones
The Iowa State guard teamed with Duke commit R.J. Barrett and averaged 12.4 points for Canada’s U19 squad, which defeated the United States in the semifinals of the FIBA world championships last summer. Now Wigginton is the star of an Iowa State squad that has won seven in a row. He’s a stocky, fearless guard with springs in his calves. He has recorded 15 assists and eight turnovers in the past four games for the Cyclones. He’s a talented freshman carrying his weight and more in Ames, Iowa.
Grant Williams, Tennessee Volunteers
Nearly 10 minutes into Tennessee’s 81-71 victory over Lipscomb on Saturday, Williams spun and dunked over Rob Marberry and Eli Pepper. Then he swung on the rim for a theatrical finish within his strong performance (19 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 assists). But that isn’t the only reason to follow Tennessee’s top scorer, a 6-foot-7, 241-pound forward. Williams isn’t afraid to shoot 3-pointers. His 15.4 percent mark entering the week has not discouraged him because shooters shoot.
Remember: Marcus Lee picked Cal over Kentucky
In 2016, Marcus Lee announced his decision to leave the prestigious Kentucky program and finish his career at Cal. Lee had gone from a one-and-done prospect to a player in danger of losing minutes to the monster recruiting class John Calipari signed in 2016.
After sitting out last season because of NCAA rules, Lee made his debut for the Bears this season. When Lee picked Cal, the Bears were led by Cuonzo Martin, and they had a stunning young point guard named Charlie Moore. After Martin left for Missouri, Moore transferred to Kansas.
Lee entered the week averaging 11.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. But it’s the tree falling in the forest thing. Cal started the season 4-6 with losses to Division II Chaminade, UC Riverside and Central Arkansas.
Lee has found the starring role he desired when he left Calipari’s program. But he’s the most significant player on a team fighting to stay out of the bottom of the Pac-12, a mediocre league. He had an opportunity to contribute to a Kentucky squad last season that produced three first-round picks and reached the Elite Eight.
Wonder what he’d do if he could make the choice again. This isn’t a knock against the Bears or Lee. But it’s proof that more minutes and touches don’t guarantee success.
The Big 12 is interesting again
Although Arizona State beat Kansas on the road Sunday, it isn’t prudent to make assumptions about KU’s place in the Big 12 race.
Even so, Bill Self’s lineups that feature Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman are registering a lowly 24.1 percent offensive rebounding rate, per hooplens.com. The Jayhawks need more big bodies. That’s one issue.
The Jayhawks must fix their flaws before they face a collection of intriguing competitors in the Big 12 race. Entering the week, TCU was undefeated with a résumé anchored by a win over Nevada. Mohamed Bamba is the defensive force that nearly led Texas to wins over Gonzaga and Duke in the PK80 tournament in Portland, Oregon. West Virginia outplayed Virginia last week. Oklahoma, which defeated USC on Friday, might possess the Wooden Award winner with Trae Young.
Again, slow down on the “KU’s reign is over” stuff. Allen Fieldhouse is still a hostile environment that has helped Kansas win 13 consecutive Big 12 crowns. A rough week won’t change that.
But KU’s flaws could lead to a wonderful race in league play and an unexpected fight. A 14th consecutive Big 12 title will demand Self’s best effort as a coach.
The Golden State Warriors effect is real
Over the past decade, the 3-pointer has become a more significant weapon in the NBA, a movement led by Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors. We all know that. But the numbers tell the full story of its dramatic impact.
During the 2007-08 campaign, 51 teams finished the college basketball season with 3-point attempts accounting for 40 percent or more of their overall field goal attempts, per KenPom.com. By last season, the number had climbed to 84 teams.
It’s still early in 2017-18, too early to draw conclusions, but 116 teams were at 40 percent or higher entering the week. We’ll see if these numbers remain consistent all season.
The influence of the next level is a tremendous component to college basketball’s evolution, with more players adding — or attempting to add — range to their athletic palettes.