10 Mid-Major Stars Ready to Make Their Teams This Year's Cinderella

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2014

10 Mid-Major Stars Ready to Make Their Teams This Year's Cinderella

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    Corey Walden hopes to lead his Eastern Kentucky team to a surprise NCAA tournament run.
    Corey Walden hopes to lead his Eastern Kentucky team to a surprise NCAA tournament run.Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

    In the classic fairy tale Cinderella, the prince was able to determine which mystery woman had stolen his heart by finding the foot that fit a glass slipper left behind at the castle.

    The NCAA tournament has adapted that story into a basketball-friendly version, with one significant change: There's no cap on the number of Cinderellas allowed.

    Each year at least one lesser-known team from the expansive "mid-major" portion of Division I steps out of the shadows and becomes America's darling, knocking off a big-time foe (often more than one) en route to newfound fame, glory and adoration.

    And those Cinderellas are usually piloted by a standout player, someone who to this point was only considered a stud by his teammates, coaches and the other teams in his off-the-radar conference.

    That is, until it's their team on the dance floor.

    (NOTE: All stats through games of Sunday, March 9)

Sean Armand, Iona

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    Skip Peterson/Associated Press

    Year: Senior

    Position: Guard

    Dimensions: 6'5", 200 lbs.

    Stats: 17.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists per game

    Iona is seeking its third straight NCAA tournament bid Monday night when it faces Manhattan in the MAAC final. But for the Gaels to be more than just a one-and-done visitor, they will need senior leadership from their most consistent all-around player.

    Sean Armand has vastly improved his shooting from last season, hitting 49.6 percent of his shots, including 45.1 percent from three-point range. A deadly outside shooter can spell doom for higher-seeded Goliaths who don't give the underdogs enough credit, but Armand was just 5-of-17 from the field in last year's second-round blowout loss to Ohio State.

Taylor Braun, North Dakota State

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    Mike Munden/Associated Press

    Year: Senior

    Position: Guard

    Dimensions: 6'7", 210 lbs.

    Stats: 18.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists per game

    The history of teams from the Dakotas in the NCAA tournament is very limited, but it's not without some star power. Taylor Braun hopes to add to that but bring a victory to the upper Plains as well.

    Braun leads the Bison in scoring, rebounding and assists, and he is shooting nearly 49 percent from the field and more than 41 percent from three-point range. He's a slightly less-prolific version of former South Dakota State star Nate Wolters, who led the Jackrabbits to back-to-back NCAA tourney berths in 2012 and 2013.

    North Dakota State hosts Denver in Monday's Summit League semifinals and with a win would face South Dakota State or Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne in Tuesday's title game for a chance at its first NCAA tourney bid since 2009.

R.J. Hunter, Georgia State

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Guard

    Dimensions: 6'5", 185 lbs.

    Stats: 18.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists per game

    Playing for a parent can be both a rewarding and stressful experience, but it can also lead to NCAA legends if the cards fall the right way. It's what R.J. Hunter is hoping will happen this year for Georgia State, led by Ron Hunter.

    R.J. Hunter is a key part of why the Panthers have lost just once in 22 games since a 3-6 start, logging four games of 30 or more points during a dominant 17-1 run through the Sun Belt. GSU has been aided by the addition of Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow, but this team is defined by its relation between coach and son.

    The dynamic is similar to the one Valparaiso had in 1998, when coach Homer Drew's best player was his son, Bryce. And it was Bryce Drew who scored the game-winning basket to upset Mississippi in the first round of the NCAA tourney in one of the greatest finishes in tournament history.

Jeremy Ingram, North Carolina Central

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    Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

    Year: Senior

    Position: Guard

    Dimensions: 6'3", 175 lbs.

    Stats: 20.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists per game

    North Carolina Central has only been a Division I program since the 2010-11 season, and it's as if the Eagles have been building toward this moment ever since that ascension. Not surprisingly, Jeremy Ingram's role on the team has increased more and more each year.

    His minutes and points have gone up each year, and in his senior campaign NC Central is the hottest thing to come out of the MEAC in years, winners of 17 straight. While nearly all of that has come against sub-standard competition, the Eagles did win at North Carolina State in November, getting a game-high 29 points from Ingram.

    The MEAC doesn't have a very lengthy NCAA tourney history, but it's had its share of memorable moments. Three of the seven No. 15 seeds to ever win a game have come from the league, including in 2012 when Norfolk State upset Missouri.

Lucky Jones, Robert Morris

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Year: Junior

    Position: Guard/forward

    Dimensions: 6'6", 210 lbs.

    Stats: 13.6 points, 6.8 rebounds per game

    Lucky Jones has already had a fitting for that glass slipper, but that came in last year's NIT when Robert Morris hosted (and beat) defending national champ Kentucky in maybe the oddest postseason matchup ever. This time around, he'd like it to be in the NCAA tourney. Jones was actually ejected from that game with under four minutes remaining after being called for a flagrant foul, but by then he'd scored 15 to help the Colonials build a strong lead.

    Jones isn't Robert Morris' leading scorer—that would be senior guard Karvel Anderson, at 19 points per game—but he is the driving force behind the Colonials' solid run through the NEC. Assuming they don't get upset in Tuesday's conference final against sub-.500 Mount St. Mary's (whom the Colonials fell to in the NEC semifinals last season), Jones might get his chance to knock off another power.

Devon Saddler, Delaware

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Year: Senior

    Position: Guard

    Dimensions: 6'2", 210 lbs.

    Stats: 19.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists per game

    Devon Saddler has a lot left to prove in his final few games as a Blue Hen. He has to not only show that he can lead his team back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999 but also that he is no longer the player who had to miss time earlier this season due to a suspension.

    Saddler missed seven games in November and December for a violation of team rules, and during that stretch Delaware fell short in chances to record program-defining wins at Notre Dame and Villanova. Since his return, the Hens have gone 19-5 heading into Monday night's Colonial final against William & Mary. His high point output in that stretch, 26, came against the Tribe in a win on Jan. 15.

Wesley Saunders, Harvard

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    Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

    Year: Junior

    Position: Guard/forward

    Dimensions: 6'5", 215 lbs.

    Stats: 14.0 points, 4.7 rebounds per game

    Who says lightning can't strike twice? Not Wesley Saunders, who's hoping Cinderella's slipper still fits him and his Crimson teammates.

    Harvard pulled off a shocker in the 2013 NCAA tournament, upsetting No. 3 seed New Mexico in the second round behind 18 points from Saunders. This year, the Crimson have a school-record 26 victories and might have had a 27th had Saunders not sat out a 61-56 loss at Connecticut in early January with a knee injury.

    The Ivy League champ is annually one of the most feared NCAA tournament opponents, and with Harvard's recent success, that level of fear is amplified.

Kenneth Smith, Louisiana Tech

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Year: Junior

    Position: Guard

    Dimensions: 6'3", 180 lbs.

    Stats: 7.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, 7.9 assists per game

    Louisiana Tech has made a splash in its first year in Conference USA, finishing in a four-way tie for first place. And while Kenneth Smith is far down on the Bulldogs' scoring list, he more than makes up for it with his energy and unselfishness.

    Smith is second nationally in assists per game, and his 3.25-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is ninth-best and tops for anyone with more than 180 dimes. His passing ability puts fuel into Tech's high-octane offense, which averages more than 81 points per game and has eight players logging at least 20 minutes per contest.

    Oklahoma got to feel that fury in late December, losing at home in overtime to the Bulldogs. If Tech can win the C-USA tournament and return to the NCAA field for the first time since 1991, some other unsuspecting power conference opponent might find out as well.

Corey Walden, Eastern Kentucky

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    Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

    Year: Junior

    Position: Guard

    Dimensions: 6'2", 206 lbs.

    Stats: 14.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists per game

    Eastern Kentucky was picked to win its division in the Ohio Valley Conference, but an 1-2 start in league play derailed those projections. The Colonels had to settle for the second seed from the East, which would mean having to potentially knock off both division champs en route to an OVC tournament title.

    No problem, said Corey Walden, who scored 24 points to beat Murray State in the semifinals and then dropped a career-high 29 in EKU's championship victory over Belmont not far from Belmont's campus in Nashville.

    Walden was 23-of-35 from the field along with 11 rebounds, 12 assists and 11 steals in EKU's three conference tourney games. With the run he's on, the Colonels won't be a walkover No. 14 or 15 seed next week.

Alan Williams, UCSB

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    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    Year: Junior

    Position: Forward

    Dimensions: 6'8", 280 lbs.

    Stats: 21.6 points, 11.6 rebounds per game

    It's hard not to notice Alan Williams, who isn't always the tallest but is usually the biggest guy on the court in most games. But even without his size, Williams' play has made him difficult to ignore as he tries to get the Gauchos back to the NCAA tourney after a three-year absence.

    Williams has 15 double-doubles, logging nine games with at least 15 rebounds as well as a pair of 30-point outings. He dropped 21 points and nine rebounds on UNLV and had 24 and 12 against California, both early-season upset wins, and for the year he's shooting a healthy 53.8 percent.

    UCSB is seeded second in the Big West tournament that begins Thursday in Anaheim. If the Gauchos can muscle their way through that field to get in the NCAA tourney, some team's big-man position coach is going to have a stressful few days preparing for Williams' interior presence.