College basketball's biggest breakout players take the stage

Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

In the one-and-done era, most of the big names in college basketball are freshmen. That's understandable -- they have the most hype and will be drafted with the top picks in the NBA draft. And that's still the case in 2017-18, as seven of the first eight picks in the latest mock draft from ESPN's Jonathan Givony are freshmen -- with the eighth being Real Madrid guard Luka Doncic. In fact, there's only one upperclassman in the lottery.

But this season in college basketball, we have seen several veterans on top-25 teams take a huge step in their development.

Here are six breakout players who will be heard from in March:

Mikal Bridges, Villanova Wildcats
Players progressing from role players as freshmen and sophomores to stars as upperclassmen has become a tradition at Villanova. There was Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins the past couple of years, and this year it has been Bridges. An under-recruited player in high school, Bridges redshirted his first season at Villanova but quickly became one of the best defenders in the Big East once he got on the court. As a junior, though, the 6-foot-7 small forward has added a lot more to his game.

"Mikal is clearly a worker," one Big East coach said. "For me it dates back to seeing him play with Team Final on the EYBL circuit, kind of losing track of his progress in his redshirt year, and then seeing what an impactful player he became in his second year on Villanova's campus. He's continued that trend -- in the course of the past year, he's become a more legitimate shooter, no longer a near-40 percent guy who only shoots open, rhythm shots. He's developing into a hungrier, more aggressive shot-maker who is a threat shooting 3s in transition, as well as on the move."

Bridges went from averaging 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds last season to 16.7 points and 6.0 rebounds this season. The biggest key in his rise to a projected first-round pick has been his perimeter shooting. He made just 23 3-pointers as a redshirt freshman, but as a redshirt junior, he is up to 2.4 3-pointers per game at a 42.5 percent clip. His length and athleticism make him the ideal 3-and-D type of player.

"For Mikal to double his amount of attempts per game -- and still increase his percentages -- suggest that his growth as a shooter is real," an opposing Big East coach said. "When you add that element to an already versatile game on both ends of the floor, is why you see him discussed as a potential lottery pick."

Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State Buckeyes
Bates-Diop was a solid player his first three years with the Buckeyes. He averaged around double figures as a sophomore and junior, shooting 50 percent from the field last season. When Chris Holtmann took over as coach for Thad Matta last June, it was assumed that Bates-Diop would have to shoulder a bit more of the scoring load. There simply wasn't a ton else on the roster -- or that's what people expected, at least.

Ohio State has been one of the biggest surprises in the country, and Bates-Diop is a legitimate All-American right now.

"From the first workout, we felt as a coaching staff, 'Hey, this guy gets it,'" Holtmann told ESPN on Wednesday. "He wants to get better. He wants to be coached. He's open to it. We felt right away, Keita Bates-Diop absolutely gets it. [He has a] 7-3 wingspan, who can move pretty well, and is skilled. He's working; he's as consistent in his everyday approach as anyone I've ever coached."

Bates-Diop is averaging 19.6 points and 8.8 rebounds for the Buckeyes. He jumped onto the national stage in early January, going for 32 points against Michigan State. He hit the 20-point mark in six of his last eight games heading into the week and is still shooting better than 37 percent from 3-point range, despite going three games in January without making a 3.

"I don't think anyone would have envisioned the consistent numbers he's produced," Holtmann said. "No one could have anticipated that. In the past, he's played with very talented players, and he's never had to be the focal point of a team like he's had to be for us this year. He got the sense pretty early we were going to ride him."

Luke Maye, North Carolina Tar Heels
Even as the Tar Heels have begun to struggle in ACC play, Maye hasn't slowed down since his early-season breakout games. He had 31 points and 12 rebounds in last weekend's home loss to NC State, on the heels of 23 points, nine rebounds and three 3-pointers in a loss to Virginia Tech on Jan. 22. Maye has now scored at least 20 points in 10 separate games and tallied double-doubles 12 times.

"Luke Maye's progression to becoming one of North Carolina's marquee players, if not their best player, has been amazing to witness," one opposing ACC coach said. "Carolina has even tweaked some of what they do offensively to cater to his skill set."

Maye was something of an afterthought off the bench the past two seasons -- until last year's NCAA tournament. He scored in double figures in three of the six tournament games, including making the game-winning shot against Kentucky in the Elite Eight. He has gone from averaging 1.2 points to 5.5 points to 18.0 points as a junior, and from 1.7 rebounds to 3.9 rebounds to now 10.4 rebounds. He's also shooting nearly 48 percent from behind the arc.

"He is a tough cover because of his ability to stretch the defense but also score inside," an ACC assistant said. "His turnaround jump shot is very hard to stop."

Bryce Brown, Auburn Tigers
When it became clear Auburn coach Bruce Pearl and the school were going to hold Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy out of competition, the Tigers needed another scorer besides Mustapha Heron to step up. Brown had shown the ability before, averaging 10.1 points as a freshman -- but he took a backseat as a sophomore, dipping to 7.5 points.

"Even this spring and summer, when those guys were playing, you could see Bryce was beginning to assert himself more," Pearl told ESPN on Tuesday. "I always had faith and trust in his ability, so I don't think it was just the fact we lost those guys. He's taking advantage of what he can do."

Brown has become arguably Auburn's most consistent offensive player, averaging 16.6 points and making better than 40 percent of his 3-pointers. He has also become more efficient offensively, even with much higher usage and more attempts. Brown has made at least three 3-pointers in each of Auburn's past 10 games.

The biggest jump Brown has made, though, is on the defensive end. Pearl called him one of the best on-ball defenders in the country.

"He's gone from being a shooter to a winner," Pearl said. "He can shoot with anybody, but now he's making plays on both sides of the ball. He always gets the other team's best scorer. Bryce has that matchup every game. He'll look at me, 'I've got him, don't switch.' OK, you've got him, he's all yours.

"Guys that can shoot and guard can play at the next level."

Carsen Edwards, Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue has improved despite the departure of All-American Caleb Swanigan last spring. Swanigan was one of the most productive players in college basketball and was downright dominant for long stretches of last season. So how are the Boilermakers better? The answer is Edwards. He's 8 inches shorter than Swanigan but has somehow replaced him in the lineup and improved Matt Painter's team.

"He makes them go," one opposing Big Ten coach said. "The ball in his hands as much as anyone."

What Edwards has given Painter is a little more dynamism in the backcourt -- someone who can go and get his own shot off the dribble or create a look for a teammate. After averaging 10.3 points and 1.8 assists, Edwards is now averaging 16.7 points and 3.0 assists while shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range. Playing alongside another ball handler in P.J. Thompson, Edwards also allows Dakota Mathias to focus on wing shooting and Vincent Edwards to create matchup problems as a 4-man.

"He's an elite, elite shot-maker," a Big Ten assistant said. "He makes shots at an amazing clip. You can't be soft on the ball with him at all. There can't be separation. Some guys, you have to challenge attempts; with him, you have to limit attempts. Because he'll make really, really hard 3s. Every game."

Jalen Hudson, Florida Gators
The most important player on Florida is Chris Chiozza, without question. But coach Mike White's leading scorer and most consistent point producer all season has been Hudson, the 6-foot-6 shooting guard who transferred from Virginia Tech two years ago. He was a quality piece for the Hokies, averaging 6.9 points and 8.4 points in his two seasons in Blacksburg, but his 3-point shooting was inconsistent.

"I'm not sure we noticed as much in his development as we noticed the overall talent level," White told ESPN on Wednesday. "He was the go-to guy on most game preps on the scout team. We were pretty open about Jalen being the best offensive player in our program [last year while he was sitting out]."

In Florida's offensive system, which relies heavily on Chiozza penetrating and kicking out to open perimeter shooters, White needed Hudson to knock down shots. And he has answered the call. Hudson is averaging 16.2 points and 4.0 rebounds while shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range. He dropped 35 points in a double-overtime win over Gonzaga back in November and followed that up with 24 points in a loss to Duke. Hudson has failed to hit double figures in points just three times all season.

"Jalen's really important to our offensive output," White said. "He often finds himself on the receiving end of Chiozza or [KeVaughn] Allen's passes. He's also probably, outside of Chris, our best playmaker in terms of creating his own shots. He's got an innate ability to create a little bit of separation. He's got an ability to knock down what some would consider a contested shot. For him, it's a pretty high-percentage shot."