The terms “star player” and “mid-major” aren’t always a compatible pair in the college basketball world. For the most part, the top high school talent goes to BCS or high mid-major conferences, leaving the lower level schools to try to find diamonds in the rough. The common perception is that big time schools win due to their high level of talented, yet young, players, while smaller schools win due to experienced rosters heavily weighed towards upperclassman.
However, several top talents ever year do escape the grasps of the big schools and find their way to the lower tiers. A lot of times these are smaller guards who can really stroke it from long-range, which is something that comes in quite handy in the NCAA tournament. Here are five big-time players playing under the radar in less than big-time conferences that could make some noise in this year’s tournament.
Stephen Curry – Davidson - #10 Midwest Region
First Round Opponent - Gonzaga
Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to call Davidson’s Stephen Curry unheralded, but any list of stars from lower-rated conferences has to have Curry on it. Actually, Curry and his Wildcats’ teammates are underrated compared to where they were at the starting of the year.
Big things were expected of Davidson at the starting of the year before they limped through an audacious out of conference schedule (including losses to North Carolina, Duke and UCLA). Now, after reeling off 22-straight Southern Conference wins, the Wildcats seem poised to make some tournament noise.
As expected, Del’s son, Stephen leads the way for the Wildcats and has topped the 20-point mark in 23 games this year. Proving that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, his 139 three-pointers made is tied for best in the nation.
Courtney Lee – Western Kentucky - #12 West Region
First Round Opponent - Drake
Fans of the Sun Belt Conference and/or NBA draft prospects are quite familiar with the Hilltoppers’ Courtney Lee. The conference’s Player of the Year, the 6’5” senior is also expected to be a late first round or early second round pick in this June’s NBA draft.
With 2176 career points, Lee knows how to find the bottom of the bucket. Not afraid of the big boys – this season he had 21-points versus Gonzaga, 22 versus Michigan and 23 versus Tennessee – Lee is poised to put a hurting on “The Drake” in the first round of the tournament.
Demetric Bennett – South Alabama- #10 East Region
First Round Opponent – Butler
Another Sun Belt team and player looking to make some noise are South Alabama and star Demetric Bennett. The explosive scoring Bennett (20.1ppg) is another long-range bomber, connecting on almost three three-pointers per game.
First round opponent Butler better keep their eye on Bennett, because he can really fill it up. This season he had 18 games with at least 20 points and four games with at least 30, including the Jaguars’ last game where he went off for 32. And when the competition gets tougher, so does Bennett. Check out the numbers he put up against some of the other NCAA tournament teams South Alabama faced this year - 28 points vs. San Diego, 25 vs. Vanderbilt and 39 vs. Mississippi State.
Garrison Carr – American - #15 East Region
First Round Opponent – Tennessee
Garrison Carr’s MVP performance during the Patriot League tournament helped propel the Eagles to their first league championship and first berth in the Big Dance. This is quite a revelation from a player who averaged less than 11 minutes and four points per game last season (this season’s totals are 35 minutes and 18 points per contest).
While American’s backcourt duo of Carr (5’11” 165lbs) and Derrick Mercer (5’9” 175lb) aren’t going to intimidate any opponents physically, they are the team’s best two players. Carr’s 129 long-bombs made is tied for fifth best in the country, and he has shown a couple of big name opponents (26 points and seven threes vs. Dayton, 16 and five threes vs. Georgetown) what he was made of.
Josh Akognon – Cal State Fullerton - #14 Midwest Region
First Round Opponent – Wisconsin
Josh Akognon played with a chip on his shoulder during the Big West tournament, due to the fact that he only made Second Team All-Conference. After being named the MVP of the conference’s tournament, he told the AP that being spurned from the all-conference team was “motivation”. NCAA tournament foes better beware if the Fullerton star takes that fire into the tourney with him.
Averaging a shade less than 20 points per game (19.9ppg to be exact) and knocking down 111 three-pointers, Akognon is another dangerous long-range threat. Earlier this year he hit Arizona up for 19 points and St. Mary’s for 16, and had multiple games where he hit seven three-pointers.
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