Predicting the Top Mid-Major Stars for the 2014-15 College Basketball Season
In case you stopped counting a few years back, Division I college basketball has swelled to a whopping 351 teams. Of those 351, the bulk of our TV/talk radio/Internet reading traffic usually seems to center on about, oh, six or seven.
OK, that's an exaggeration, but it's slighter than you might think.
Some fans eyes may glaze over when we start throwing around the ever-fluid term "mid-major," since it's unlikely that those fans are hard-core enough to pay attention to any of these teams until they're trying to explain some of their head-scratching office pool picks every March.
Still, there's plenty of talent outside of the conferences with national TV deals on ESPN or Fox Sports 1. There are players who may be fun to watch if fans simply stay up late enough or spend a few extra minutes searching for the right streaming services.
These 20 players (and 20 honorable mention picks because we're really nice guys here at B/R) are ones who any serious college basketball fan should go seek out at least once this season. That way, you'll have a personal frame of reference when you're trying to pontificate on why Harvard or Georgia State will be NCAA tournament sleepers.
Players from the following conferences were not considered for this list: ACC, American, Atlantic 10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Mountain West, Pac-12 and SEC.
Plus, top programs Gonzaga (16 straight NCAA tournaments and 13 straight years of at least one AP Top 25 ranking) and Wichita State (a Final Four and a one-loss season in the past two years) were excluded.
20 Honorable Mentions
Just so you can't accuse us of lacking research depth, dig this alphabetical list of 20 honorable mention selections.
Lawrence Alexander, North Dakota State
The Bison lose five seniors and their head coach, but Alexander has started 98 games over his career. He's more than capable of taking over and keeping his team in the Summit League race.
D.J. Balentine, Evansville
The nation's third-leading returning scorer at 22.8 PPG, Balentine would get much more pub if the Purple Aces were more competitive in the Missouri Valley.
Craig Bradshaw, Belmont
Bradshaw exploded from a seldom-used reserve to a second-team All-OVC performer. He scored 22 on Kentucky in December, then averaged 21 PPG in a run to the NIT quarterfinals.
Julius Brown, Toledo
The MAC West champions return four starters, none more important than Brown. He's out to defend his conference assist title and improve on his team-high 14.9 PPG.
Kyle Collinsworth, BYU
Collinsworth would be in the top 20 if it wasn't for a pesky torn ACL that could cost him the first few games of this season. If fully healthy, he's an All-WCC first-team candidate.
Brett Comer, Florida Gulf Coast
Comer and Bernard Thompson are the only primary contributors left from the 2013 Sweet 16 run. FGCU may roll through the Atlantic Sun virtually unchallenged, and Comer will be a Player of the Year favorite.
A.J. English, Iona
English is a volume scorer (17.2 PPG on 40.6 percent shooting as a sophomore), but he's still the leading scorer on one of America's most underappreciated offenses.
Isaac Fotu, Hawaii
Without leading scorer and rebounder Christian Standhardinger, the Warriors need Fotu to assume both mantles. He's capable—after all, he was a first-team All-Big West pick—but Hawaii won't show up on your TV very often.
Chad Frazier, UAB
Frazier is Conference USA's top returning scorer. The Blazers may be a dark horse if Virginia Tech transfer Robert Brown joins Frazier as a serious threat.
Amir Garrett, Cal State Northridge
The St. John's transfer was a solid rebounder in the Big East, now let's see what he can do in the Big West. CSN returns two all-conference performers for coach Reggie Theus.
Javonte Green, Radford
Sports-Reference.com ranked Green second in America in player efficiency rating (PER) last season. The Highlanders return everyone of significance from last year's 22-win team.
Juan'ya Green, Hofstra
Green was a 17.1 PPG man over his two seasons at Niagara before following coach Joe Mihalich to Hofstra. With Delaware and Towson both taking heavy losses, there may be an opening at the top of the CAA.
Denzel Livingston, Incarnate Word
UIW won't be eligible for the NCAA tournament until 2018, so most of you will never see Livingston play. Still, he averaged 20.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.8 APG, 2.5 SPG and 1.4 BPG last season.
Shawn Long, Louisiana-Lafayette
There are only four returning players who averaged double-doubles last season. Long will have to become a major focus of the Ragin' Cajuns attack now that Elfrid Payton is headed to the NBA.
Daniel Mullings, New Mexico State
Mullings was an honorable mention All-American selection by the Associated Press, but the Aggies' national presence was largely derived from Sim Bhullar gawkers. Look for Mullings to repeat as WAC Player of the Year.
Cameron Payne, Murray State
Payne finished in the OVC's top 10 in points, assists and steals as a freshman. Expect the Racers to enter the season as the conference favorite, as they went 13-3 and won the CIT in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
T.J. Price, Western Kentucky
Price was All-Sun Belt in each of the past two seasons, and now he'll try to add All-CUSA honors to his bio. He's flanked by solid backcourt talent, but don't expect last season's 15.5 PPG to drop much.
Marcus Thornton, William & Mary
Thornton dropped more than 18 PPG for the second straight season. He'll be key to the Tribe improving on last season, which saw them fall only seconds short of making the NCAA tournament.
Jarvis Williams, Murray State
See Cameron Payne. Williams was a superb addition to the Racers' roster as a junior college transfer, averaging 14.9 PPG and 9.9 RPG on a nation-leading 64.8 percent from the floor.
Kyle Wilson, Army
Army's never been to the NCAA tournament, but Wilson's two seasons (31 wins) have been the Black Knights' best span since some dude named Krzyzewski—or "Kriz-il-lon-ski or some other variation"—was the coach. Wilson led the Patriot League at 18.4 PPG last year. Plus, he's Army, so it's unpatriotic to leave him off the list.
20. Mamadou Ndiaye, UC Irvine
The UC Irvine Anteaters—one of the great names in all of college hoops—return nearly everyone from a 23-win team, including a pair of double-digit scorers.
So why is 7'6" sophomore Mamadou Ndiaye (8.0 PPG and 6.2 RPG, the latter of which didn't even lead the team) the major story? If you have to ask, go reread that last sentence.
He's seven-foot-bloody-six, people. And 290 pounds. Players with those dimensions don't just show up every day, and the ones that do quite often lack the coordination to spit and scratch their backsides simultaneously.
Ndiaye's no Hakeem Olajuwon in the post, but he's certainly quicker than most guys anywhere close to his size. He ranked eighth in the nation at 3.1 blocks per game while playing only 21.0 MPG.
Wherever Irvine goes—and it's possible that it could be bound for the NCAA tournament—Ndiaye will be the story. Is he one of America's 20 best mid-major players? No. But he will be one of the most watched any time that he plays outside the Pacific time zone.
19. Jameel Warney, Stony Brook
The America East Conference was largely invisible last season, save for two blips on the radar. Vermont caused Blue Devils fans and coaches severe palpitations by nearly knocking off Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and Albany hung with top-seeded Florida for a half in the NCAA tournament.
Meanwhile, Stony Brook big man Jameel Warney won the conference's Player of the Year award, but was the proverbial tree falling with no one to hear it, since the Seawolves still could not capture their elusive first NCAA bid. Warney put up 14.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game as a sophomore.
This season, Warney will need to carry an even bigger load. SBU has lost three seniors from last year's rotation, along with valuable freshman reserve Ahmad Walker. Warney and sophomore guard Carson Puriefoy are the only returnees who averaged more than 4.0 PPG last year.
While the AEC still isn't must-see TV, check back periodically and see if Warney is hovering near a 20/10 season. After all, this is the guy who blasted Florida Atlantic and Detroit for a combined 55 points and 40 rebounds in back-to-back games around Thanksgiving. So, the potential is certainly there.
18. Jacob Parker, Stephen F. Austin
Stephen F. Austin returns only three players who averaged better than 3.0 PPG from the team that took down VCU in this past March's NCAA tournament. Of course, the Lumberjacks entered last season down three starters, including the Southland Player of the Year, and only went 32-3 with the SLC's first unbeaten conference record in 40 years.
This season, SLC POY Jacob Parker is back, so expecting SFA to stumble too heavily may be foolish.
Parker posted 10 double-doubles en route to averages of 14.2 PPG and 7.1 RPG, but his finest night may have come against VCU in that second-round victory. He dropped a calm 22 points over the vaunted Havoc defense, sinking nine of his 14 shots in the process.
The Jacks may need Parker to expand his perimeter game this season, as 185 of the team's 248 made three-pointers departed with its three senior starters. Parker drilled 46.9 percent of his long jumpers last season, but that came on only 49 attempts.
If his jumper becomes a weapon from long range, expect Parker to challenge for another conference POY award and make a run at the scoring title to boot.
17. Cody Larson, South Dakota State
It seems like another lifetime ago that Cody Larson was a 4-star recruit on Scout.com. Touted as a player who could play immediately at Florida, he could never stay out of Billy Donovan's doghouse and off-court issues got him booted from the team after scoring only 12 points. Not per game, but total.
The Sioux Falls, South Dakota, native decided to return home to South Dakota State, where he kept his nose clean and established himself as a key piece in the Jackrabbits' first post-Nate Wolters season.
Larson's 13.1 points and 7.0 rebounds per game both stand to improve next season, as he's one of only two returning players who averaged more than 4.0 points per game in 2013-14. He'll enter the season as an All-Summit first-team favorite after being named a second-teamer last year.
As a transfer from a powerhouse school with a redemption story to tell, Larson will be catnip for the TV networks if he can lead the Jackrabbits back to the NCAA tournament. It'll take a big season from him and his teammates, but he'll have help from another power-conference transfer. Former Wisconsin point guard George Marshall is eligible to suit up for SDSU this season.
16. Juwan Howard Jr., Detroit
Is Detroit senior wing Juwan Howard Jr. destined to be more famous for his name than his game? You betcha. Still, his game is pretty potent in its own right.
Howard assumed the scoring mantle vacated when star guard/coach's kid Ray McCallum Jr. left for the NBA draft. He blossomed to the tune of 18.2 PPG, good for fourth in the Horizon League.
Make no mistake, Howard's more of a volume shooter than a sniper, knocking down only 42 percent from the field and 34 percent from long range in his junior year. Still, he's going to keep getting all the shots he can handle, since the Titans need to find him some frontcourt help to go with a deep, decent backcourt.
If Detroit's going to improve on last season's 13 wins, Howard will have to balance a need to increase his scoring with an equally important improvement in his shot selection. He failed to shoot better than 50 percent against any Division I nonconference opponent last year, although he did post a solid 7 and 16 night against UConn.
Ultimately, though, Howard's profile will rise and fall with his team's. He'll be another great story that the TV networks can exploit if Detroit makes a tournament appearance, although his ex-Fab Five dad's schedule as an assistant coach for the Miami Heat could make him unavailable for the requisite crowd shots.
15. Brad Waldow, Saint Mary's
Saint Mary's failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years last season, suffering a bit of a hangover after the graduation of iconic point guard Matthew Dellavedova.
Like so many other programs, SMC will rely on a group of veteran transfers to pull itself off the canvas. While Joe Coleman (Minnesota), Aaron Bright (Stanford) and Desmond Simmons (Washington) will play major roles for the Gaels, the team will still build around its interior force, senior center Brad Waldow.
Waldow has steadily improved every season, earning first-team All-West Coast with his 15.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game last year. Where he needs improvement is in the big games. Waldow averaged only 9.3 points and 3.0 boards in the Gaels' three meetings with Gonzaga, then laid a total egg in NIT games against Utah and Minnesota.
It's hard to write off Saint Mary's as long as coach Randy Bennett's on the sideline, but if the Gaels are going to mount a serious challenge to the Zags for WCC supremacy, Waldow will need to put up a conference player of the year-caliber season.
14. Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa
Like Waldow at Saint Mary's, Seth Tuttle of Northern Iowa is the biggest piece for the primary challenger to a dominant conference foe. In this case, the Panthers are seeking to chase down the high-flying Wichita State Shockers, who have posted one of the greatest two-year runs in Missouri Valley Conference history.
UNI's well-equipped to make such a run, returning every significant piece while the Shockers must adapt to life without star forward Cleanthony Early. Tuttle will be pulling the largest weight again after a season that saw him finish seventh or better on the MVC scoring, rebounding, shot-blocking, field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage charts.
The 6'8", 220-pound forward is even working on an outside shot, but he'll need to shoot better than last season's 23.7 percent from the arc before he's respected in that neighborhood.
Tuttle nearly willed UNI back from a 19-point second-half deficit before it succumbed to Southern Illinois in the MVC tournament. His 17 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks stand as evidence that he was putting in the work.
More games like that and Tuttle will interject himself in the race for Missouri Valley Player of the Year, an award that already seems to have either Fred VanVleet or Ron Baker's name engraved on it. Don't discount Tuttle or his team just yet.
13. Jalan West, Northwestern State
While Northwestern State plays the nation's fastest game, according to Ken Pomeroy, it's complete folly to dismiss Demon junior guard Jalan West's numbers as a mere product of the system.
For one thing, coach Mike McConathy's quick, aggressive system doesn't work nearly as well without West's lightning hands disrupting opposing passers and handlers. West enters this season as the reigning Southland Conference Defensive Player of the Year after coming in ninth nationally at 2.5 steals per game.
Add to those steals 19.4 points, 4.0 rebounds and 6.4 assists, and you've got one of the nation's most unique stat lines. No other player in college basketball broke 19.0/4.0/6.0/2.5 last year. In fact, according to Sports-Reference.com, no one had done it since Hofstra's Speedy Claxton back in 1999-2000.
The Demons will miss leading rebounder DeQuan Hicks and veteran guard Brison White, but West and sophomore backcourt mate Zikiteran Woodley will still form the SLC's best guard tandem. If he doesn't get the kind of support he's used to, don't think West isn't capable of putting up the kind of numbers that fellow sub-6'0" mighty mite Claxton did during his legendary senior season.
As always with outsized stat lines, we must examine the competition level. West passes this test, too. He dropped 30 points on Auburn, 28 on Louisiana Tech and 36 against Stephen F. Austin in the Southland tournament. He put up nine assists and five steals against Memphis. His 26 points, seven rebounds and eight assists were key to the Demons taking Baylor into overtime.
The Southland doesn't get much television exposure, but West is certainly a player worth looking for.
12. John Brown, High Point
Pictured here bodying up Georgetown's Jabril Trawick, High Point forward John Brown was a YouTube kingpin before he even finished his freshman year. As a sophomore, he added some hardware to all the video views, winning the Big South's Player of the Year award.
HPU struggled through early January, slumping to 4-11 before catching fire in conference play. Brown's already solid numbers jumped to a different level during the Panthers' 12-2 run, as he put up 21.1 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 1.6 BPG and 1.6 SPG over the final 14 games of the season.
High Point will miss veteran forward Allan Chaney, whose star-crossed career was ended by a heart condition. However, the Panthers truly found their groove last season only after all concerns for Chaney's well-being were put to rest, so it could be a strange case of addition by subtraction.
The Panthers return six other veteran rotation players, but they're all on the court to support Brown's high-flying heroics. You're not likely to see High Point's games on ESPN until Championship Week, but keep an eye on SportsCenter's Top 10. Brown will do something to land himself there at least once this season.
11. Keifer Sykes, Green Bay
Of the 26 players who averaged more than 20 PPG last season, only nine return. One who could add to his 2013-14 numbers is the reigning Horizon League Player of the Year, Green Bay guard Keifer Sykes.
Sykes and the Phoenix dominated the HL's regular season, but stumbled against eventual tournament champion Milwaukee and fell short of the NCAA tournament. Sykes must now pick up some slack after the departure of versatile center Alec Brown, which will give him more than enough looks at the basket, albeit much more difficult ones.
Despite his 5'11" stature, there are few in the Horizon who can throw it down like Sykes, as this YouTube clip of a win over Illinois-Chicago demonstrates.
And don't oversimplify his numbers as being inflated in the face of weak opposition, either. Sykes averaged 26.0 points and 6.3 assists while shooting 50 percent against eventual field-of-68 teams Wisconsin, Harvard, Tulsa and Virginia. Green Bay actually defeated the latter two, ruining the homecoming of former Phoenix point guard/current Virginia coach Tony Bennett.
If Sykes gets some help to make up for the loss of Brown, look for GB to run the Horizon again. Maybe this time the Phoenix can rise all the way into the Big Dance.
10. Vince Hunter, UTEP
UTEP caught fire last year, oddly, after leading scorer McKenzie Moore and two other players were dismissed for gambling on the eve of the conference season. A big part of the Miners' renaissance was the play of Conference USA's eventual Freshman of the Year, forward Vince Hunter.
The 6'8" Hunter upped his scoring average from 10.5 in nonleague games to 14.5 in conference play, and he put on even bigger displays against the cream of the CUSA crop. In five meetings with the league's four regular-season co-champions (Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, Southern Miss and Tulsa), Hunter averaged a superb 19.6 PPG on 66.1 percent shooting.
This season, three of those four programs have lost significant players, Southern Miss lost its coach, and Tulsa has bolted for the American Athletic Conference. There's an opening atop CUSA, and the youthful Miners are well-equipped to fill it.