NCAA Tournament 2021: Mid-major stars set to incite madness

Mid-major stars are a huge reason why the NCAA Tournament is so thrilling. From Steph Curry to Gordon Hayward to Jimmer Fredette to Ja Morant, these are the types of players who have taken the nation by storm with their play for undervalued programs. While those names are perhaps more recognizable than some on this list, the nation is always captivated by mid-major stars who flew under the radar compared to powerhouse stars. Upsets run rampant through March Madness and are seemingly always driven by a superstar mid-major.

As the 2021 edition of the NCAA Tournament tips off later this week, let’s take a dive into perhaps some of the more unknown mid-major stars ready to wreak havoc on the field. In the nature of wanting to give attention to those that deserve more of it, I excluded players on single-digits seeds and those who I already deem to be household names (Neemias Queta, for example, is already a known star for Utah State). These players range from competing for 10th-seeded teams hoping for a Cinderella run down to No. 16 seeds that will take the court in the First Four.

Will any of these players add their name to a long list of mid-major stars who made their mark in previous dances? They certainly have the talent to make their own “One Shining Moment.”

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Damian Chong-Qui, Mount St. Mary’s

Mount St. Mary’s will play on opening night of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 16 seed in the First Four. While it is unlikely that the Mountaineers will play more than two games in the Big Dance, Damian Chong-Qui is someone who everyone should have their eyes on Thursday night. A three-level scoring threat and superb creator, the 5-foot-8 guard does just about everything for this team. He also almost never takes a break as he ranks 23rd nationally in minutes percentage. Over his last five games, Chong-Qui is averaging a ridiculous 42 minutes per game.

Chong-Qui averaged 15.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game to lead the Mountaineers this season. He was named to both the All-Conference and All-Tournament teams for the NEC. With lightning-quick speed and superb craftiness as a ball-handler, he does a great job getting to his spots and also finding open teammates. His playmaking is a treat to watch and he is the star to watch in the matchup of No. 16 seeds on Thursday night.

Torrey Patton, Cleveland State

Head coach Dennis Gates led a remarkable turnaround this season at the helm of Cleveland State. This breakout year from the program wouldn’t have been possible without star Torrey Patton. The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 14.9 points, 8 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game during the regular season as the driving force of the Vikings’ success. He was named to the All-Horizon League team and was the MVP of the conference tournament.

Patton has been especially great as of late. Cleveland State is 7-2 over its last nine games while Patton has been posting 20.1 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per contest. His hot streak has propelled the team to new heights and he makes them dangerous as a No. 15 seed. The Vikings draw No. 2 seed Houston in the opening round and Patton will have his hands full with the Cougars’ excellent defense. If there is any shot at an upset, the senior will need to be at his best.

Asbjørn Midtgaard, Grand Canyon

Asbjørn Midtgaard is a two-way monster for Grand Canyon as an All-WAC First Team and All-Defense selection this year. This was his first season with the Antelopes after previously playing for Wichita State and he took his game to the next level. A true 7-footer who dominates the paint on both ends of the floor, he averaged 14 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game this year. He also posted these numbers on a whopping 70.6 percent shooting from the floor. He ranks second in the entire country in true shooting percentage and third in effective field-goal percentage.

Midtgaard will have his hands full in the opening round as he will match up with National Player of the Year frontrunner Luka Garza of No. 2 seed Iowa. The Antelopes are likely to be heavy underdogs in this matchup and their hope of an upset relies on Midtgaard holding his own against Garza on both ends of the floor. This is one of the most underrated position battles of the entire Round of 64. Midtgaard has truly blossomed into a star for the best team in the WAC. He brings a ton of size to the court and is remarkably efficient as a scorer.

Max Abmas, Oral Roberts

Oral Roberts might be a No. 15 seed but that doesn’t mean that it lacks offensive talent. Namely, you would have a difficult time finding a more talented player than Max Abmas. An absurdly efficient scorer, Abmas is the type of guard who might be able to make a No. 2 seed sweat (Ohio State, in this case). He is a 6-1 do-it-all sophomore who plays 95.1 percent of Oral Roberts’ total minutes. He also ranks 58th in offensive rating as he can fill it up at all times.

Abmas averaged 24.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game during the regular season while nearly posting a 50/40/90 season. He finished on 53.4 percent of his 2-pointers, shot 43.8 percent on 208 3-point attempts, and connected on 89.9 percent of his 129 free-throws. There is seemingly no way to stop him from scoring and that is why he was named the Summit League Player of the Year. If anyone is going to pull a CJ McCollum-like upset this year, it will be Abmas and the Golden Eagles. He is that darn good.

Tanner Groves, Eastern Washington

Eastern Washington won 13 of its last 14 games en route to landing a No. 14 seed as the Big Sky’s automatic bid. Over the course of this tremendous season, it has been 6-foot-9 junior Tanner Groves at the forefront of their success. Groves was the Big Sky Player of the Year and Tournament MVP as a dominant frontcourt piece. He took a major step this year from averaging just 5.1 points per game as a sophomore to 16.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game this time around.

A threat from both inside and out, Groves finished on 61.6 percent of his 2-point attempts in the paint but also stepped out to hit 17 3-pointers (32.7 percent). With the 93rd-highest fouls drawn rate in the nation, he gets to the foul line at a very high rate and converts at nearly 80 percent. Add in his excellent defensive rebounding ability and he is the primary reason why the Eagles rank so well as a team in that category this year. Kansas could be missing frontcourt pieces in the opening round, which might open the door for Groves to make an upset push.

Johni Broome, Morehead State

Morehead State experienced one of the biggest year-over-year jumps in the country this season. After finishing at just No. 316 on KenPom a year ago, the Eagles sit at No. 128 heading into the Big Dance this time around. They landed a No. 14 seed and will face West Virginia in the opening round. The Mountaineers boast an excellent frontcourt but they will have their hands full against Morehead State’s freshman big man Johni Broome. An elite shot-blocker and finisher, Broome was the KenPom Game MVP in half of the Eagles’ last 18 contests.

Broome averaged 13.9 points, 9 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game this season while finishing on 57.6 percent of his total shot attempts. In addition to being named the OVC Rookie of the Year, Broome was also All-OVC and the conference tournament’s MVP. He might not quite be on the same level as the other mid-major stars on this list, but Broome is a name to know not just this year but also for the next couple of years as well. He is only a freshman and has a bright future ahead.

Jordan Burns, Colgate

Colgate is entering the NCAA Tournament having played 15 total games against only five unique opponents. Despite the familiarity that comes with facing the same teams over and over, nobody has had an answer for Jordan Burns yet this year. The 6-0 senior guard is an absolute stud and a major reason why the Raiders rank 43rd in adjusted offensive efficiency (fifth in effective field-goal percentage and fifth in turnover rate). Burns dictates the team’s up-tempo system and is at the center of everything.

With Colgate and Arkansas both ranking in the Top 25 in adjusted tempo this year, you can be sure that the opening-round matchup between these two teams will be a track meet. The Razorbacks are going to be the heavy favorite and are excellent defensively, but covering Burns is easier said than done. Burns averaged 16 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 1.6 steals per game on 42.2 percent shooting from three during this regular season. This was his third straight year with at least 15 points per game; stardom is not a new role for him.

Darius McGhee, Liberty

Liberty has traditionally been a defensive-oriented team in the past. While the Flames are still one of the slowest paced teams in the country this year, they have been remarkably efficient offensively all year long. They hold the nation’s 52nd-best adjusted offensive efficiency rating behind the fourth-best effective field-goal percentage and 19th-best turnover rate. At the core of their offensive success has been 5-foot-9 junior guard Darius McGhee. A dynamite scorer who also protects the ball well, McGhee has been at the core of Liberty winning 12 straight games coming into the Big Dance.

McGhee might lack size relative to other guards, but he is not short on talent. He is averaging 15.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game this season while shooting the lights out from 3-point range. He has connected on 93-of-225 (41.3 percent) from deep so far this year and has also finished better inside the arc (55.0 percent) than one would expect. McGhee is a big-time player who could cause problems for Oklahoma State in the first round. He is the top performer in Liberty’s highly efficient offensive unit.

Isaiah Miller, UNC Greensboro

UNC Greensboro enters the NCAA Tournament with a 21-8 record, marking the program’s fifth consecutive season with at least 20 wins. Head coach Wes Miller has done an excellent job at the helm while Isaiah Miller has been a key cog for four of those years. The senior guard has started 79 of 131 games during his career while averaging 25.5 minutes per game. Miller is an above-the-rim finisher (103 career dunks) as an electrifying 6-0 guard who is currently in the midst of his best season to date. He is also the three-time SoCon Defensive Player of the Year.

Miller is perhaps a top mid-major candidate for a “March Moment.” He has been a star for three straight years (at least 15 points per game in each campaign) but is yet to win an NCAA Tournament game. He will face a grueling first-round matchup with Florida State’s length and athleticism but is a big-game performer. Miller is averaging career-highs in points (19.3), rebounds (6.9), and assists (4.0) this season while also coming away with 2.6 steals per game. He is not a major threat from 3-point range but attacks the basket ferociously to the tune of 16 2-point shot attempts per game.

Jason Preston, Ohio

Jason Preston is a flat-out, all-around killer. The 6-4 do-it-all junior is in the midst of an outstanding campaign and there are good reasons why he is earning looks as a potential NBA player. He brings great size to the guard position, can score at all three levels, rebounds extremely well, and is a dynamite playmaker. Preston is nationally ranked in the Top 250 in each of the following individual categories: points per possession, effective field-goal percentage, true shooting percentage, defensive rebounding rate, assist rate, 2-point percentage, and 3-point percentage.

Ohio’s offense registers as the 30th-most efficient by adjusted measures and Preston is a major reason why. There is a strong supporting cast around him that contributes to the Bobcats being a threat to make a run as a No. 13 seed, but Preston is at the core of it all. He is the team’s leading scorer (16.6 points), playmaker (7.2 assists), and swiper (1.6 steals) while also recording 6.8 rebounds per game. Preston is shooting 59.1 percent on 2-point attempts this year and 40.8 percent from three.

Star power wins in March and Preston might be the one to pull off an upset or two this weekend. The Bobcats have won nine of their last 10 games.

Javion Hamlet, North Texas

The “floater king of college basketball”, Javion Hamlet is dangerous with the tear drop. The 6-4 guard is an adept finisher and also a strong shooter from the perimeter as one of the best mid-major players in the country. North Texas has mostly been a defensively oriented team this year, ranking 41st in adjusted efficiency on that end of the floor, but Hamlet makes them an underrated offensive squad. The Mean Green did not play the toughest schedule, but they posted the nation’s 39th-best effective field-goal percentage throughout the year and are superb from beyond the arc.

Hamlet is the catalyst of everything offensively for UNT. He averaged 14.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game this season. His numbers might not pop like others on this list, but it is important to note that the Mean Green are the fifth-slowest-paced offensive team in the entire field of 68. They average 19 seconds per possession, the 326th-longest rate in the whole nation. Hamlet is a seasoned veteran who understands how to manipulate the game to fit UNT’s pace and create openings for himself and his teammates.

When it comes down to picking potential upset candidates this year, perhaps your first question should be: To be … or not to be? A former JUCO transfer, Hamlet has made his mark as an underdog throughout his career; I wouldn’t bet against him continuing to prove doubters wrong.

Jaquori McLaughlin, UC Santa Barbara

UC Santa Barbara is entering the Big Dance as one of the most well-rounded mid-majors in the country. With Top 85 rankings in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, the Gauchos have been consistently successful on both ends of the floor. Additionally, their “Four Factors” statistics indicate a team worthy of consideration for an upset bid. They will face No. 5 seed Creighton in the opening round this weekend.

In addition to predictive metrics indicating they might be able to keep up with Creighton, the Gauchos also have the star power to combat that of their Big East foe. One of the top hidden gems of the country, Jaquori McLaughlin is a name that everyone should be familiar with for the Big Dance. A dynamite senior guard who sets the tone for the Gauchos with his scoring and playmaking, he could be the guiding force in an upset. While UCSB is going to be the underdog against Creighton, McLaughlin could help to even the playing field a bit if he is on his game and slowing down Creighton’s up-tempo pace.

The Big West Player of the Year is entering the dance having averaged 16.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.6 steals per game in the regular season. This was also his second consecutive campaign shooting over 40 percent from 3-point range. With his 6-4 frame, McLaughlin can be a difficult matchup for any opposing guard. The former Oregon State product is dangerous.

Chandler Vaudrin, Winthrop

Chandler Vaudrin is a “stat sheet stuffer” in every way. With a 6-7 frame, elite playmaking ability, and strong all-around instincts, it is easy to see why he is at the core of everything that Winthrop does offensively. He recorded three triple-doubles during the regular season and is the type of player who can wreak havoc on a defense unprepared to defend his multi-faceted contributions. Over the course of this entire campaign, Vaudrin averaged 12.2 points, 76.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game. He is the primary reason why Winthrop enters the NCAA Tournament with the second-best winning percentage in the entire field. The Eagles are 23-1.

Winthrop will face Villanova in the opening round of the Big Dance and are a popular upset pick. The Wildcats have had trouble with pressure defenses in the past and the Eagles create turnovers on 22.5 percent of their defensive possessions (23rd-best nationally). Head coach Pat Kelsey’s team is also one of the very few to rank in the Top 15 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate. This is a disciplined group that forces mistakes and can be deadly from 3-point range.

Vaudrin’s versatile playing style epitomizes his team. The Eagles play up-tempo basketball, force turnovers, splash from three offensively, and are not familiar with the concept of losing this season. Vaudrin is electric and extremely fun to watch, particularly as a passer.

Tank Hemphill, Drake

ShanQuan “Tank” Hemphill missed Drake’s last nine games of the regular season due to injury but is expected to rejoin the team for the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs went 19-1 with Hemphill on the floor as opposed to 6-3 without him during the regular season. While this team will still be without star guard Roman Penn for the postseason, it is extremely positive news that Hemphill will be back in action. The 6-6 senior forward has been excellent this year as a dynamic finisher, superb rebounder, and underrated defender.

Hemphill is the team’s leading scorer when healthy. Over the course of this season, “Tank” is averaging 14.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per game on 83-for-118 (70.3 percent) shooting in at-the-rim situations. Considering fewer than 50 percent of those baskets were assisted, this is a superb player who gets downhill and finishes extremely well.

The Green Bay transfer is a major difference-maker who could push Drake not only to a First Four victory but perhaps further. It seems as though a First Four team is dangerous to reach the second weekend every year; could Drake be this year’s version? With Hemphill back in the mix, the Bulldogs are potentially a better team than the No. 11 seed next to their name.

Bones Hyland, VCU

Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland is probably the most well-known player on this list, but it still feels like he has flown under the radar far more than he should have this season. The VCU sophomore star is an absolute killer from all three levels as an extremely dangerous scorer. The Rams are a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament and could make some noise thanks to their pressure-heavy defense and Hyland’s offensive ability. He averaged 19.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.7 steals per game during the regular season while being named the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year. I would have selected Hyland as a Third Team All-American this season if I had a vote.

Hyland is also quite efficient for a high-volume scorer. Despite clearly being the No. 1 player on VCU’s scouting report, he was able to put up nearly 20 points a night on strong shooting splits. He finishes on 53.9 percent of his 2-pointers, has connected on 69-of-186 (37.1 percent) trifectas, and shoots over 85 percent from the foul line. Hyland might not be the most muscular player in the nation, but he is as smooth as they come from a scoring perspective. He is a flat-out assassin and one capable of knocking a team or two out of the field with his scoring ability.

VCU will have its hands full with a difficult first-round matchup against Oregon. Chris Duarte vs. Bones Hyland will be an intriguing individual matchup of fringe All-Americans. If Hyland comes back for his junior year, he should be a household name.

Lukas Harkins
Lukas Harkins

Heat Check CBB national writer and bracketologist



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