Mid-Major Stars to Watch in the NCAA Tournament

Every year there is a small conference school that makes a deep run into the NCAA Tournament.

From the early years of Gonzaga’s Cinderella runs, to Stephen Curry and Davidson. From Bryce Drew and Valparaiso to Ali Farokhmanesh and Northern Iowa. There is potential for a Cinderella every year, and in a year where no team has established themselves as the favorite, there could be plenty of upsets featuring these underdogs. While there may be no explosive scorer like AJ English was for Iona last year, these players are more well rounded, as is the entire field.

Each Cinderella team has a go-to star and scorer. Here are the candidates to break out and have a huge month of March.

Brandon Goodwin, Florida Gulf Coast

The first thing to note is that this isn’t your father’s Florida Gulf Coast team that stunned college basketball in 2013 by becoming the first ever 15 seed to make the Sweet Sixteen. That team, dubbed “Dunk City”, is completely different with a new coach.

However, this team is still plenty exciting, and their junior guard leads it. Goodwin led the Eagles in points and assists with 18.2 and four per game, respectively. Goodwin’s 18.2 points per game was good for fifth in the Atlantic-Sun. He was held below ten points just twice on the year.

In their three games against Power-Five teams, Goodwin held his own. FGCU played Florida, Baylor and Michigan State, and in those contests, Goodwin scored 18 per game on 47% shooting from the field and 40% from deep. The Eagles almost upset the Spartans, losing by one and stayed close with Baylor, losing by nine.

While uber-athlete Rayjon Tucker may be a social media and highlight darling, Goodwin is the true leader of the upset-minded Eagles.

FGCU plays in-state opponent Florida State in the round of 64 as a 14 seed.

Anthony Lamb, Vermont

The Catamounts are back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, after smacking New Hampshire in the America East Conference Championship Game. Vermont is a balanced team, which makes finding a star difficult. But after some digging, one candidate stood out.

Anthony Lamb is just a freshman playing only 21 minutes a contest. However, he leads his team in points per game with 12.6, and has only improved as the year goes on. His best game came against UNH in February, where he scored 26 points on 9/16 shooting and grabbed 13 rebounds in the win.

Lamb went a perfect 10/10 from the field against Maine, and in the AEC Semi-Finals, Lamb scored 23 on 9/14 shooting in the win. In the AEC Championship Game, he had a double-double before fouling out.

Lamb has started to turn it up recently, scoring in double figures in eight straight games. But the Catamounts have a tough task in Purdue in the round of 64. Lamb will have to go up against one of the biggest dogs of the Big Ten to continue to make his name known across the country.

Vermont played pretty much nobody to note out of conference besides South Carolina and Butler. In those games, scored 12.5 ppg on 9/21 from the field.

Zach Thomas, Bucknell

Zach Thomas has been held under ten points just twice this year, with the last game coming on January 21st against Boston University (Boo BU, go BC). That’s about as consistent as it gets. The junior forward led the Bison is points and was second in rebounds and assists.

Averaging 16 points while shooting an efficient 47% from the floor, Thomas can also hurt teams from deep, hitting 1.6 threes a game on 41% shooting from three, and can take it to the hoop, getting to the line almost five times a night, hitting 81% of his shots from the free throw line. Thomas and Nan Foulland (10/10) create one of the better mid-major frontcourts in America.

Bucknell faced off against three (Mt. Saint Mary’s is in the tournament but they aren’t good) legitimate opponents this year, and Thomas had a mixed bag. In a 20 points blowout loss to Wake Forest, Thomas finished with 16 points on 6/12 shooting. Against Butler, Thomas struggled, shooting just 3/11 from the field. In a win against Vanderbilt, Thomas was a reliable 7/11 from the field, knocking down a three and scoring 17 points.

His best game of the year was against Holy Cross in an 82-68 win. In that matchup, Thomas dropped 27 despite only hitting seven shots from the field. He hit 4/5 threes and went 9/10 from the free throw line. Thomas also chipped in six rebounds.

The Bison matchup against West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. WVU was upset last year, and is looking to change their fortunes in 2017. West Virginia is known for their stifling defense. If Bucknell can control the ball and let Thomas get his touches, they could pull off the upset.

JaCorey Williams, Middle Tennessee

The team that destroyed by bracket last year (I’m sorry elderly gentleman on the train to Florida for telling you to pick Michigan State) is back in the field this year. However, JaCorey Williams was not on the that magical team from a year ago. Williams transferred in from Arkansas following the 2015 and sat out last year.

However, he has been the best player on a MTSU team looking to make another run. He is the leader scorer and rebounder on a 30-4 Blue Raiders roster that went 19-1 in conference play.

Despite playing less than 30 minutes a game, Williams is averaging 17.3 ppg and 7.3 rpg. While his defensive numbers aren’t off the charts, he is a lynchpin on one of the best team defenses in the NCAA.

Middle Tennessee played some quality competition out of conference, picking up wins over fellow 12 seed UNC Wilmington, a beatdown of Vanderbilt, a win over Belmont, who should have won the Ohio Valley Conference, a victory over Ole Miss (Ole Miss is bad, but it’s still the SEC) and a narrow loss to VCU.

Williams scored over ten points against those quality opponents, including double-doubles against Vanderbilt (13 and ten), Belmont (18 and 11) and VCU (17 and 14) in three consecutive games. Williams recorded 11 double-doubles on the year.

However, his best game was his breakout party, where he hung 31 on Toledo in an overtime victory. In the 73-70 thriller, Williams was 12/17 shooting, and hit 7/11 at the line while also corralling seven rebounds.

MTSU is a sexy Cinderella pick, and will be matched up with a surprising five seed in Minnesota, where they’ll look to make some more history.

Cameron Oliver, Nevada

Okay, fine. The Mountain West is nowhere near as bad as any of these other conferences, but Cameron Oliver is a player who is certainly on NBA scouts minds, but is not a household name for laid back fans.

The 6’8” sophomore had a strong freshman campaign, but didn’t have the notoriety to put himself in the draft. This year, he came back and expanded on his game. Oliver is one of five members of the Wolf Pack scoring in double figures. He’s second on the team in points and rebounds, but is still the hands down star for Nevada. While Marcus Marshall may score more, and Jordan Caroline averages more rebounds, Oliver is a two-way force.

Oliver has improved his three-point percentage from 32% to 38%, while upping his scoring from 13.4 ppg to 15.8 ppg. Oliver is still a great rebounder, grabbing 8.7 rebounds per game. Oliver’s interesting mix of shooting and athletic ability make him a force on offense, where he can drill a three or sky above the rim for a thunderous dunk.

On the defensive end, Oliver uses that athleticism and anticipation to swat shots away. Oliver swats 2.6 shots per game, establishing himself as an elite interior defender.

Nevada played a soft schedule, paying just two teams that reached the tournament. In the matchup against Saint Mary’s, Oliver was held in check, scoring just 13 points on 5/8 shooting, but did record five blocks. In the two games against Iona, dropping 22 in one contest but just ten in the other. However, he did hit 5/10 threes. He also swatted eight shots in those two games.

Oliver’s best game was against Air Force, where he scored 25 points on 9/12 shooting (2/4 from three, 5/5 from the free throw line) and brought in 15 rebounds.

Nevada will play Iowa State in the round of 64. Both teams are 10-2 in their last 12, and I expect it to be one of the best games of the first round.


Cover Photo RGJ





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