Small-School College Basketball Stars Whose Names You'll Hear in March
The past decade or so has seen opportunities expand for schools outside the traditional power conferences. The likes of George Mason, VCU, Butler and Wichita State reaching the Final Four gives hope to unheralded mid-major programs nationwide.
For those low-level conferences that needed hope, however, there wasn't much to inspire excitement until Florida Gulf Coast put Dunk City on the map. Players like Brett Comer, Chase Fieler and Bernard Thompson put themselves on the national map with superlative performances against Georgetown and San Diego State.
So who's next? Who is there among this season's lower-rung programs that could make himself a superstar with some big games in March?
The following eight players—presented alphabetically—possess both great supporting casts that could get them to the Big Dance and the talent to put up big numbers against a major foe when they get there.
Jerrelle Benimon, Towson
USA TODAY Sports
The transfer who bolts a major-conference program to find stardom elsewhere is a tailor-made storyline for NCAA tournament coverage. So is the rapid turnaround, in which a team spends a season getting pummeled by all comers, then makes a quick jump to a conference championship.
Towson and its dominating forward Jerrelle Benimon fill both those bills in 2013-14. While Benimon sat out a year following his move from Georgetown, the Tigers suffered through an embarrassing one-win season in 2011-12.
Once Benimon became eligible to play, all he did was win CAA Player of the Year, average more than 17 points per game and finish third in the nation at 11.3 rebounds per game.
Just as important, Towson made a superb 17-game improvement overall, the biggest one-year jump in NCAA history. The Tigers finished 13-5 in the CAA despite being ineligible for the NCAA tournament due to low Academic Progress Rate scores.
Towson returns four starters and adds deadly shooter Four McGlynn, a transfer from Vermont. The Tigers should be considered among the favorites to win the CAA this year, giving Benimon the kind of stage he was seeking when he first committed to Georgetown.
Davion Berry, Weber State
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Weber State saw an uptick in its profile when ex-star Damian Lillard became an NBA lottery pick and later the league's Rookie of the Year. Still, national recognition is slow in coming for a Big Sky program.
Despite 55 wins in the past two seasons and a trip to last season's CIT championship game, the Wildcats are still an unknown quantity nationally. Senior guard Davion Berry, an All-Big Sky first-team performer last season, could help change that.
Berry was a deadly 55 percent effective shooter and nosed over 60 percent as a true shooter last season, impressive figures for a guy who took two of every five shots from long range. He put up 15.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 5.4 assists per game during the CIT run, shooting 41 percent from long range.
The Wildcats were barely outdueled by Montana last season, but the Grizzlies have lost point guard Will Cherry to graduation. Weber has plenty of returning talent to finally end its six-year tournament drought, and Berry has the ability to inherit WSU's giant-killer mantle from the legendary Harold "The Show" Arceneaux.
Alec Brown, Green Bay
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The Green Bay Phoenix return four starters from last season's third-place Horizon League finisher. Not an exciting development on its own, but one of the four is the conference's best NBA prospect, 7'1" eraser Alec Brown.
Brown re-wrote the UWGB season blocked shot record in each of his first two campaigns, but he couldn't match the feat as a junior as offenses settled for more jumpers to avoid him. He did, however, have his best scoring season at 14.1 PPG. Part of that improvement was due to Brown extending his range out past the three-point arc, as he sank 30 of his 70 long shots—a very respectable 42.9 percent.
In a league where perennial heavyweights Valparaiso and Detroit lost multiple iconic stars, the race is wide-open for teams like Green Bay, Oakland and Youngstown State. UWGB's advantage lies in the sheer size of its frontcourt, where Brown is joined by 6'9" Greg Mays and 6'7" Jordan Rouse.
If the Phoenix can capture the Horizon's automatic bid, the biggest man on the court will be a natural main attraction.
Allan Chaney, High Point
Courtesy High Point Athletics
While High Point frontcourt mate John Brown will generate many of the highlights during the regular season, sixth-year grad student Allan Chaney will be the subject of a human interest feature if the Panthers make it to the NCAA tournament.
Chaney originally started with Florida in 2008, then spent three seasons at Virginia Tech while being totally unable to suit up. A near-fatal heart infection left him on the sidelines while he worked on his degree at VT, but once he was cleared to play ball again, he was on the move again to High Point.
Back on the court for the first time in over three years, Chaney crushed UNC Greensboro for 15 points and seven rebounds in only 16 minutes of action. In his overzealousness, he fouled out before he could approach a double-double.
For the season, Chaney carded 14.5 points and eight rebounds per game, shooting better than 50 percent from the floor and 80 percent from the line. Slightly overshadowed by Brown, Chaney was voted to the All-Big South second team.
This year, the Panthers are rated a Big South favorite behind their star forward duo and an improving backcourt. If CBS gets a chance to broadcast a High Point game in March, expect the big story to center on Chaney, probably with a title like "Heart of a Champion."
R.J. Hunter, Georgia State
Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports
Georgia State is headed to the new-look Sun Belt Conference, and it brings four potential stars with it. Three returnees—Devonta White, Manny Atkins and R.J. Hunter—combined for 46 PPG last season. Newcomer Ryan Harrow should find the Belt a cakewalk after struggling through a miserable season at Kentucky.
Still, the spotlight will shine brightest on Hunter, son of GSU coach Ron Hunter. In his one year in the Colonial, Hunter the younger won CAA Freshman of the Year honors and was named a first-team all-conference performer. He racked up 17 PPG, 5.1 RPG and 1.7 steals per game on the season.
Hunter is a guy who put up a double-double in his collegiate debut at Cameron Indoor Stadium. There shouldn't be much that can rattle him after that, and he may get the chance to find out this year. GSU could win the league if it can find a consistent post presence to combat SBC horses like Louisiana's Shawn Long and conference player of the year Augustine Rubit.
While Harrow may draw some of the eyeballs if GSU has a game on one of the tournament's major-network carriers, Hunter's the guy who'll deliver the steak behind the sizzle. A player who had 91 points over a three-game stretch as a freshman should be ready for prime time as a sophomore.
D.J. Irving, Boston University
Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports
Like Georgia State, Boston University has a chance to walk right into a new league and take it over. The Terriers are preparing for their inaugural season in the Patriot League, and point guard D.J. Irving can drive them all the way to the field of 68.
Irving is a two-time All-America East selection over a career in which he's started 88 of 94 games played. Last season, he put up 24 points each against better-known programs Rutgers and Harvard.
A 36-percent three-point shooter as a junior, Irving drilled seven long balls in a blowout win over Binghamton and five—including two in the final nine seconds of regulation—in an overtime win over eventual NCAA team Albany.
The senior playmaker is one of BU's five returning starters, to whom coach Joe Jones can also add 41 percent three-point gunner John Papale, touted Florida freshman Cedric Hankerson and seven-foot rookie Dylan Haines.
If the old saying about guard play being the most important thing in March holds true, BU could harbor upset hopes behind Irving and his talented cohorts.
Dyami Starks, Bryant
Courtesy Bryant University Athletics
Similar to Towson, Bryant University struggled through an ugly 2011-12 season, winning only twice. The win total leaped to 19 last season, equaling the Tigers' improvement. It's an incredibly impressive year for a program that had won only 20 times in its first four Division I seasons.
In its first year of postseason eligibility after moving up from Division II, the Bulldogs reached the CBI. All-Northeast Conference guard Dyami Starks was a major reason why.
Starks watched the two-win season from the sidelines as he sat out following his transfer from Columbia. He unleashed the frustration of that season all over Bryant's 2012-13 opponents, averaging 17.7 PPG on 56 percent effective shooting.
Starks brought big games against the more notable programs on BU's schedule. He scored 17 points in a win over Boston College. Among his 12 games of 20-plus points was a 29-point explosion against eventual Kentucky-killer Robert Morris.
If BU finds a reliable point guard to run next to Starks, the Northeast title is well within reach. And as Kentucky learned in the NIT, it's not always wise to overlook a NEC side.
Lucas Troutman, Elon
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The overriding storyline in the Southern Conference this season is the farewell tour for the league's perennial heavy, Davidson. The Wildcats have won regular-season or tournament titles in 10 of the last 12 SoCon campaigns, a run that's propelled them to next season's migration to the Atlantic 10.
Don't write it down in ink that Davidson will add either of the 2013-14 titles to its ledger because contenders, including Elon, are prepared to square up. The Fighting Phoenix (as opposed to Green Bay's pacifist Phoenix, perhaps?) return all five of their starters after winning the SoCon's North division title.
Elon will be led by 6'10" forward Lucas Troutman, who led the league at 2.1 blocks per game and finished fifth with a 15.1 scoring average. He rolled up a string of 22 straight double-figure scoring games that was only snapped when he sprained an ankle five minutes into a game against Furman.
Entering this season, Troutman is a member of the CollegeInsider.com Preseason All-America Team, honoring 25 of the top mid-major players in the nation. If he can get his team into the big dance, there's a chance the nation will find out exactly why.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron. Coming soon: the 32 in 32 conference preview series.