Each NCAA Tournament yields a new crop of Cinderella hopefuls. Who are some of the top mid-major stars to watch in March Madness?
Max Abmas. Jason Preston. Javion Hamlet. These are all names of mid-major guards who followed in the footsteps of Cinderella predecessors like Stephen Curry and CJ McCollum during last season’s NCAA Tournament. The end goal of the Big Dance is, of course, to be the final team cutting down the nets as national champions, but it also serves as a fresh canvas for a new story of a slipper-fitting mid-major.
With all 68 teams seeded and bracketed for the 2022 NCAA Tournament, there are several mid-major stars ready to put pen-to-paper on a new chapter of the Cinderella story. Some might already be household names who have competed in the Big Dance before, while others are looking to make their mark on the college basketball landscape.
Make no doubt about it, though: an NCAA Tournament without upsets isn’t an NCAA Tournament. The upsets will happen. So without any further ado, who are some of the most prime candidates to take center stage, on the biggest stage, in March?
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—Upset predictions | Questionable top seeds | Players to watch
Baylor Scheierman, South Dakota State
South Dakota State enters the NCAA Tournament with one of the most potent offenses in the history of double-digit seeds. The Jackrabbits ranked 12th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency during the regular season. They led the country in 3-point percentage while also ranking in the top 40 in turnover rate, 2-point percentage, and free throw percentage. Nobody had a bigger impact on generating this elite offensive efficiency than Baylor Scheierman.
The 6-6 junior simply does everything offensively for the Jackrabbits. He is not one of the nation’s top scorers by volume because of the talented pieces around him, but there’s no denying that he is one of the most impactful players in the sport. Scheierman averaged 16.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.4 steals per game for the campaign on insane shooting splits of .512/.473/.807.
He ranked second in the nation in offensive rating among players with a usage rate higher than 21 percent. His offensive profile is out of this world:
Ryan Davis and Ben Shungu, Vermont
There are a lot of great duos in college basketball this season. Perhaps the most notable among mid-major double-digit seeds, though, is Ben Shungu and Ryan Davis at Vermont. Shungu and Davis form a pair of battle-tested and experienced seniors in their fifth and fourth years with the program, respectively. This is just their second time reaching the NCAA Tournament together, and they were ousted in the first round in 2019 by Florida State.
Now back in the dance, the duo might have just needed a few more years together to blossom before trying on the Cinderalla slipper again.
Vermont is one of the most dangerous mid-majors in the field, entering the NCAA Tournament ranked at 59th on KenPom and 27th at EvanMiya. Shungu and Davis are the engines that drive this group, combining for 33.4 points per game on excellent efficiency. They both shot over 59 percent on 2-point attempts this season and over 41 percent from beyond the arc. Davis is the more well-known of the duo, having already won a pair of America East Player of the Year awards, while Shungu has seriously blossomed this season.
Only 11 players in the entire county exhibited a better than 61 percent effective field-goal percentage on at least a 25-percent usage rate this season. Davis and Shungu are both on that list, making Vermont the only team nationwide to have two such players. They make the Catamounts a very dangerous No. 12 seed.
Jordan “Jelly” Walker, UAB
“He a baller, shot caller, straight bucket guard … his name Jel-Walker.”
To paraphrase Sports Illustrated’s Kevin Sweeney on the Field of 68 this past weekend, having the best guard on the floor during March Madness is a tremendous luxury. UAB might only be a No. 12 seed, but good luck finding many better guards in the country than Jelly Walker. The 5-11 transfer from Tulane (formerly of Seton Hall as well) is an absolute demon of a scorer. He averaged 20.4 points per game for the season and has perhaps been at his best down the stretch of the campaign.
The CUSA was not an easy league to win this year, and Walker put the Blazers on his back over the last six games. He most notably dropped 40 points in a triple-OT semifinal victory over Middle Tennessee but is averaging 26.7 per game in total over his last six games. He has notched 25 points seven times in his last 16 games and 40 twice during that stretch.
Walker does a ton of damage from beyond the arc (113-for-275; 41.1 percent) but is also a fearless attacker of the rim. He might not be a great finisher (39.9 percent on 2-point attempts) but his 145 total free-throw attempts rank 108th nationally. He is a near-90 percent foul shooter, so he not only can pile up fouls on opposing defenders but also take advantage of his opportunities at the stripe.
UAB ranks 28th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and Walker is a major reason why. If the Blazers get their offense sizzling in the NCAA Tournament, there aren’t many teams that can slow them down.
Malachi Smith, Chattanooga
Only four players in the entire country earned more KenPom Game MVP awards than Malachi Smith (15) this season. The 6-4 guard took his game to a different level this year for the Mocs while blossoming into the best pure scorers in the country. He averaged 20.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the year on excellent shooting splits. He can make it rain from three (41.2 percent) but he does his damage mostly as an attacker.
Smith is one of only 12 players in the nation listed 6-4 or shorter who attempted over 300 2-point shots for the year, and he was one of the most efficient on that list. He scored 312 unassisted points inside the 3-point arc on the season (9.8 per game); Smith is a dynamic self-creating bucket-getter, and those types of players can cause problems in March Madness.
If he gets it rolling off the dribble and at the free-throw line, Chattanooga could be the most dangerous No. 13 seed in the field. Smith is rated as the No. 3 overall player in the country by our Gold Start Guide at Heat Check CBB, only behind National Player of the Year frontrunners Oscar Tshiebwe (Kentucky) and Keegan Murray (Iowa)
Jamaree Bouyea, San Francisco
This selection might be cheating just a bit. San Francisco is an at-large team from a league that earned three total bids to the NCAA Tournament. Yet, most would still consider the West Coast Conference to be a mid-major and the Dons earned a double-digit seed. As a result, Jamaree Bouyea qualifies for inclusion as a potential leader of a Cinderella. The 6-2 senior has been electric this season as the go-to scorer for an analytics-darling.
San Francisco might have earned just a No. 10 seed, but it enters the NCAA Tournament as the 21st-best team in the country on KenPom. Whether or not the Dons can live up to that expectation will come down to Bouyea. He averaged 16.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 steals per game this season as the all-around leader of the Dons. He is one of only nine players nationwide to average 16/5/4 this season.
Bouyea almost never leaves the court for San Francisco. He has played all but two total available minutes for the Dons over their last four games. An ever-present cog on the court, his play can dictate the whole team’s performance.
Jacob Gilyard, Richmond
The steals king of college basketball is in the Big Dance! Fifth-year senior Jacob Gilyard is an absolute menace of an on-ball defender. Some might call him too much of a gambler, but if that’s truly the case, he must be counting cards. Gilyard’s 4.8 percent steal rate this season ranks in the top 10 nationally, his fifth straight season achieving such a strong national ranking. He is the all-time steals leader (466 and counting) in Division-I NCAA basketball.
Gilyard is more than just an opportunistic defender, though. With the end of his career potentially hanging in the balance, he stepped up in a monster way during the Atlantic 10 Tournament this past weekend. The 5-9 guard first notched 79 points across four games – all wins – while hitting 14 triples. Of course, he also ended up adding 16 total steals to pad his resume in that department.
Gilyard has been an ever-consistent presence for Richmond throughout his career and seems to be hitting his stride just as his final games wind down. The Spiders had a potential NCAA Tournament berth stolen from them in 2020 and it’s now the time for Gilyard to finally be able to show off his skills on the biggest stage. Gilyard is experienced and disciplined — two traits that resonate throughout the entire Richmond roster.
Gilyard is averaging 40.2 minutes per game over his last 11 contests. Figure that one out. Odds are that he won’t miss a second of the Big Dance as long as Richmond remains alive.
Foster Loyer, Davidson
Luka Brajkovic was the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year. Hyunjung Lee is Davidson’s leading scorer. So why is Foster Loyer on this list over both of them? Well, the narrative factor is significant here. Loyer spent the last three years of his career playing sparingly at Michigan State before transferring and exploding with an awesome year at Davidson. Now, entering his first NCAA Tournament as a full-time starter, he gets matched up with … Michigan State.
The potential for Loyer to put up a big performance in a first-round upset of his former team is too hard to pass up on this list. Also, it is important to mention that Loyer is a darn-good player in his own right. The 6-0 guard averaged 16.3 points per game during the regular season and is as deadeye of a shooter as there is in all of college basketball. Loyer is the only player in the nation to rank in the top 35 in both 3-point percentage (73-for-164; 44.5 percent) and free-throw percentage (113-for-121; 93.4%). When it gets to crunch time, he is incredibly reliable.
Loyer is more than just a shooter as well. He leads Davidson in assists while keeping his turnover rate down as well. He ranks 95th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.96.
The Wildcats are an offensively based unit who can splash from three (8th nationally in 3P%) and take care of the ball (15th nationally in TO%). Loyer, as the team’s point guard and one of its leaders, embodies both of those characteristics. The scary thing about Davidson is that he isn’t even one of its best two players. If he has it going as a shooter and distributor, that makes it all the more challenging to guard guys like Brajkovic and Lee.
Azar Swain, Yale
Yale is atop the Ivy League for the third consecutive season. The Bulldogs won the league’s automatic bid in 2019, were the No. 1 seed prior to cancellation in 2020, did not play in 2021, and upended Princeton this past weekend to earn the automatic bid this season. The most consistent presence through all of those years: Azar Swain. A bucket-getting guard throughout his career, Swain took his game to new heights this season while being named All-Ivy League for the second consecutive season.
He averaged a career-high 19.2 points per game this season while dramatically increasing his production inside the arc. Swain shot just 40.1 percent on 5.1 2-point attempts per game as a junior; that number boomed to 47.2 percent on 8.8 attempts this time around. He remains a reliable 3-point threat and was one of the nation’s best foul shooters (89.1 percent) this year. Swain was dominant down the stretch of this season as well, totaling 70 points over his last three games while shooting 11-for-24 from three.
Yale was perhaps over-seeded relative to bracketology expectations, earning a No. 14 seed from the committee. That placement pushes the Bulldogs into a better position to potentially pull off an upset. They lost by five in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament to LSU as a No. 14 seed. Might they be able to turn the tides this time against Purdue? As one of only two players on the roster averaging more than eight points per game, much of that potential rests on Swain’s shoulders.
Teddy Allen, New Mexico State
Teddy Allen is one of the journeymen of college basketball. He started his career at West Virginia, transferred to Wichita State (where he never played a game), and then played a year at Western Nebraska CC (JUCO) before returning to Division-I to play for Nebraska and then transferring again to finish his career at New Mexico State. He has been superb with the Aggies this season, averaging 19.3 points per game as an aggressive bucket-getter. Allen was subsequently named the WAC Player of the Year for his efforts.
Allen is known for his scoring ability and has proven it against high-major competition. He averaged 15.6 points in 15 Big Ten conference games last season while at Nebraska. With one of the highest usage rates in the country this year (30.5 percent of possessions with him on the floor end in him taking a shot), his impact on NMSU’s offense when he makes shots is immense.
Unsurprisingly, Allen’s performances have correlated strongly with how well New Mexico State has played. He averaged 20.3 points on 44.6 percent shooting in NMSU’s 26 wins this season, but only 15.3 points on 42.9 percent shooting in the team’s six losses. He notched 25 points – while playing all 40 minutes – in NMSU’s five-point win in the WAC semifinals. If the Aggies are going to pull off an upset over fifth-seeded UConn this week, Allen needs to have it going.
Braden Norris, Loyola Chicago
Lucas Williamson is the biggest “known commodity” on the Loyola Chicago roster. He is the Ramblers’ best player, a two-time All-Conference selection, a two-time MVC Defensive Player of the Year, and was a freshman when the program made the Final Four in 2018. The biggest X-Factor for first-year head coach Drew Valentine, though, will be the play of point guard Braden Norris. The former Oakland guard was an unsung piece last season but emerged as an All-MVC caliber talent this time around.
Norris averaged a career-high 10.3 points per game while displaying his usual clean stroke from beyond the arc. He shot a blistering 64-for-147 (43.5 percent) from three while leading the Ramblers in assists. He pairs with Williamson as the top two offensive weapons for one of the most balanced squads in America. Loyola Chicago remains defensively-oriented this season but ranks seventh nationally in effective field-goal percentage; Norris ranks 111th in true-shooting percentage and 277th in assist rate.
More importantly than anything else, though, Norris always seems to show up in the biggest games of his career. Over three collegiate seasons, the 6-0 guard is…
- 36-for-72 (50 percent) from three in 14 KenPom Tier-A games
- 75-for-167 (44.9 percent) from three in 33 KP Tier-A/B games
- 27-for-54 (50 percent) in 11 career conference and NCAA Tournament games
If he keeps it going in big games, the Ramblers are tough to beat.
DeShaun Wade, Longwood
Longwood enters the NCAA Tournament as a No. 14 seed but has the potential to be quite dangerous. The Lancers rolled through the Big South this season, winning 18 of 19 games against league opponents en route to winning the automatic bid. Some of the most dangerous low seeds in Big Dance history have been those that can shoot the lights out from three. Longwood can certainly splash from distance, ranking sixth nationally in 3-point percentage (38.6 percent) over the course of this season.
Justin Hill is Longwood’s leading scorer and playmaker, but watch for DeShaun Wade to be one of the biggest X-Factors of any double-digit seed. The 6-2 guard was one of the nation’s best snipers this season, connecting on 68-for-146 (46.6 percent) 3-pointers on the year. He has been particularly deadly down the stretch of this season, including shooting 14-for-21 from three over his last four games:
- First 16 Games: 9.3 points on 33.3 percent from three
- Last 16 Games: 14.4 points on 55.6 percent from three
Wade is averaging 5.1 3-point attempts per game this season. Longwood is 13-2 when he attempts six or more threes and 13-4 in all other games. Hill is the table-setter for the Lancers, and his ability to feed Wade – who makes 87.0 percent of his 3-pointers off assists – will be huge against Tennessee (their first-round opponent).
Header image courtesy of Chattanooga Athletics.
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