10 Mid-Major Stars You Should Know Before March Madness

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistMarch 14, 2013

10 Mid-Major Stars You Should Know Before March Madness

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    A major appeal of March Madness is its habit of catapulting little-known mid-major players into national prominence.

    Few had heard of Lehigh's C.J. McCollum before he scored 30 points in last year's first-round upset of Duke. Now he's a projected first-round NBA pick, according to NBADraft.net and DraftExpress.com.

    Davidson's Steph Curry was little more than a rumor until he poured in 30 points as a freshman in a first-round loss to Maryland in 2007. He became the talk of the tournament in 2008 when he led three upset victories. Now he's an NBA star.

    Our rankings of the 10 mid-major players you should know before March Madness were based on two elements: the player's relative lack of national attention and his potential impact in the NCAA tournament.

    We start with two players from mid-major conferences basketball fans already know. Then we'll count down 10 players you may not know, but may emerge in the NCAA tournament.

Two You Already Know

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    Doug McDermott of Creighton was a first-team All-American last season and is a good bet to repeat.

    Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk has a chance to join McDermott on that All-American team and plays on the nation's No. 1-ranked team.

    Both of these mid-major stars have received considerable publicity even though their conferences (Missouri Valley Conference and West Coast Conference) get limited television exposure.

    They need no further introduction heading into the NCAA tournament.

10. Khalif Wyatt (Temple)

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    Guard Khalif Wyatt of Temple was nearly included with Olynyk and McDermott as a player you already know. That's why he's only No. 10 on our list.

    You don't become the Atlantic-10 player of the year without considerable exposure, especially when you play in Philadelphia.

    However, a good portion of of the people tuning in to March Madness may only know Wyatt by reputation.

    Wyatt was not an immediate college star. He played just 19 minutes and scored only five points as a freshman.

    His numbers improved every year. As a senior, he's averaging 19.9 points, 15th best in the country, and scored 30 points or more five times this season. Two of those 30-point games came against ranked opponents, Syracuse and Virginia Commonwealth, suggesting he's capable of carrying the Owls with big games in the postseason.

9. Kendall Williams (New Mexico)

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    Even though New Mexico has been ranked most of the season, playing in Albuquerque, N.M., has made Lobos point guard Kendall Williams somewhat of a mystery man.

    His one bit of national acclaim came on February 26, when he hit 10 of 13 three-point shots and scored 46 points in a critical road victory over Colorado State, then ranked No. 22.

    That and the Lobos' first-place finish helped him be named Mountain West Conference player of the year.

    However, that 46-point performance is 22 points more than his second highest scoring output of the season. Williams was limited to single digits in scoring eight times.

    He is also a playmaker, though. He averages 5.0 assists, and had 21 points an 10 assists in the March 9 loss to Air Force.

8. Matthew Dellavedova (St. Mary's)

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    St. Mary's point guard Matthew Dellavedova is a master at handling pick-and-roll situations, according to Rob Dauster of NBCSports.com's College Basketball Talk. But people don't get much chance to appreciate that skill with the Gaels playing in the West Coast Conference.

    Dellavedova is not exactly an unknown. After all, he was the WCC player of the year last season, when the Gaels were ranked No. 18 in the final regular-season USA Today coaches poll.

    But he was overshadowed by Gonzaga's Olynyk this season, even though his numbers (15.6 points, 6.4 assists, 37.7 three-point percentage, 87.7 free-throw percentage) improved slightly.

    What people will see in the NCAA tournament, assuming the Gaels are invited, is the Dellavedova toughness that's not reflected in his statistics.

7. Rotnei Clarke (Butler)

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    Gordon Hayward led Butler to the NCAA championship game in 2010, and Shelvin Mack did the same in 2011.

    If Butler is to make another surprising run in the NCAA tournament this year, guard Rotnei Clarke is likely to be the reason.

    The nation caught a glimpse of his shooting prowess when he made five three-pointers in the Bulldogs' victory over Indiana. He also hit a game-winning 30-foot three-point shot to beat Marquette by a point. But he sat out Butler's thrilling win over Gonzaga because of a scary injury on January 12 that temporarily left him numb from the neck down, according to Sports Illustrated's Kelli Anderson.

    He returned to action after missing three games.

    CBSSports.com's Jeff Goodman ranked Clarke as the best long-range shooter in the country before the season began.

    He doesn't do much else. More than 63 percent of his field-goal attempts are three-point shots. But he has made better than 41 percent of them while averaging 16.7 points in his first season with Butler after transferring from Arkansas.

6. Jamal Olasewere (Long Island-Brooklyn)

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    If Long Island-Brooklyn pulls off a major first-round upset, Blackbirds forward Jamal Olasewere is likely to be the reason.

    Named the Northeast Conference player of the year this season, Olasewere gave a glimpse of his talent in last year's first-round loss to No. 1-seeded Michigan State. He had 17 points and eight rebounds that day and kept the Blackbirds in the game until foul trouble interrupted his effort and the Blackbirds' hopes.

    Olasewere is averaging 18.9 points and 8.5 rebounds this season, but his greatest asset is his ability to draw fouls. He is averaging 8.4 free-throw attempts per game, second highest in the country.

    His value was demonstrated when the Blackbirds went 0-2 in games Olasewere missed this season. He was one of four players suspended for two games for their involvement a September on-campus brawl, according to the Brooklyn Courier.

5. Zeke Marshall (Akron)

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    Akron center Zeke Marshall could be the shot-blocking sensation of the NCAA tournament.

    He may not have the effect David Robinson did in 1986, when Robinson led Navy to the Elite Eight. But if the Zips get into the NCAA tournament, the 7' Marshall may wow viewers with his ability to control the paint defensively.

    Marshall finished second to Ohio's D.J. Cooper in the Mid-American Conference player of the year voting, and he was named the MAC defensive player of the year.

    He's averaging 3.63 blocks, fifth best in the country, and he blocked nine shots in a win over Toledo.

    Marshall has progressed from a player who averaged 5.1 points and 3.9 rebounds as a freshman to one averaging 13.0 points an 6.9 rebounds this season as a senior.

    Marshall is still raw, and DraftExpress.com suggests Marshall lacks the strength needed to play in the NBA. However, a strong postseason showing could change that assessment.

4. Lamont "Momo" Jones (Iona)

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    Known mostly for his cocky on-court demeanor while at Arizona, guard Momo Jones has become a big-time scorer at Iona.

    Jones averages 23.0 points, third best in the country, and was named the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference player of the year, even though the Gaels finished fourth in the regular-season standings.

    He scored 32 points or more in four of the Gaels final 10 games, and he pumped in 40 points in an early-season game against Quinnipiac.

    Jones' performance, antics and statements during and after a victory over Cal while at Arizona in 2011 enhanced his image as a brash player, according to the Arizona Daily Star.

    He still carries a distinctive swagger at Iona and is unlikely to modify his style for the postseason.

3. Mike Muscala (Bucknell)

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    Bucknell center Mike Muscala doesn't get much media attention playing in isolated Lewisburg, Pa., while competing in the Patriot League.

    But NBADraft.net and DraftExpress.com both project Muscala to be taken early in the second round of the NBA draft. If Muscala carries the Bison to a first-round upset, he might be elevated to first-round status.

    He certainly has the numbers. The versatile 6'11" Muscala is averaging 19.0 points, 11.2 rebounds (fourth in the nation), 2.47 blocks and 2.4 assists. Until he had just one assist in the Patriot League title game, Muscala was one of just three players nationally who led his team in all four categories. He's even made four three-pointers this season.

    The two-time Patriot League player of the year missed an opportunity to show his stuff to the nation last year when Bucknell lost in the conference championship game. The Bison made it this time, so get ready to be impressed.

2. Nate Wolters (South Dakota State)

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    South Dakota State guard Nate Wolters spent the previous two seasons being called the best player nobody heard of, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

    That changed on February 7 when he scored 53 points in a victory over Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne. Now most people have heard of him, but few have seen him.

    Schools that play in the Summit League and are located in Bookings, S.D., don't get a lot of exposure, except to cold weather.

    Wolters is projected as a second-round NBA draft pick by NBADraft.net and DraftExpress.com, and his numbers are impossible to ignore. He's averaging 22.7 points (fourth best in the country), 5.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists and has almost single-handedly carried the Jackrabbits into the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.

    Wolters had just a so-so game in last year's NCAA tournament, collecting 19 points, four assists, four rebounds and five turnovers as the Jackrabbits gave Baylor a scare before losing 68-60.

1. Ian Clark (Belmont)

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    Belmont guard Ian Clark is awarded the top spot for three reasons:

    1. He was named co-player of the year in the Ohio Valley Conference, sharing the award with Murray State's Isaiah Canaan, who was an Associated Press preseason first-team All-American. One of the best shooters in the country, Clark is averaging 18.1 points while shooting 54.1 percent overall and 46.3 percent on three-pointers.

    2. Despite Clark's numbers, Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News wrote in early February that he is still relatively unknown. Perhaps it's because Belmont is new to the OVC, having played in the Atlantic Sun Conference last year. Perhaps it's because Clark was never a big-time scorer before, averaging 12.7 points last season as a junior. 

    3. Belmont is an unranked mid-major with a chance to pull of a major NCAA tournament upset. The Bruins have a No. 18 RPI ranking, according to NCAA.com, yet are projected by ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi and CBSSports.com's Jerry Palm to be seeded only 12th in the NCAA tournament field.  They are an outstanding shooting team that averages 8.5 made three-pointers and 77.2 points per game. That and the presence of Clark make them dangerous.