Predicting the Top Mid-Major Stars for the 2014-15 College Basketball Season

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistJune 26, 2014

Predicting the Top Mid-Major Stars for the 2014-15 College Basketball Season

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    Saunders and Chambers are the primary reasons Harvard remains a force in 2014-15.
    Saunders and Chambers are the primary reasons Harvard remains a force in 2014-15.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    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

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    Comer and backcourt mate Bernard Thompson are back for one more try at that #DunkCity magic.
    Comer and backcourt mate Bernard Thompson are back for one more try at that #DunkCity magic.Associated Press

    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 capableafter all, he was a first-team All-Big West pickbut 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 Krzyzewskior "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

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    The UC Irvine Anteatersone of the great names in all of college hoopsreturn 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 goesand it's possible that it could be bound for the NCAA tournamentNdiaye 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

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    USA TODAY Sports

    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

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    Donald Miralle/Getty Images

    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

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    USA TODAY Sports

    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

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    USA TODAY Sports

    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

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    USA TODAY Sports

    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

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    USA TODAY Sports

    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

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    USA TODAY Sports

    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

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    USA TODAY Sports

    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

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    USA TODAY Sports

    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

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    USA TODAY Sports

    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.

    Coach Tim Floyd could have as many as seven freshmen and sophomores in his rotation, led by Hunter and Scout.com 4-star guard Chris Sandifer. At this point, it would be a major upset if we don't see UTEP in at least one of the next three NCAA tournaments.

9. Kenneth 'Speedy' Smith, Louisiana Tech

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Louisiana Tech had an impressive eight players average more than 7.0 PPG last season. Four of them return, but it's likely none is more important than 7.8 PPG man Kenneth Smith, or "Speedy" if you're nasty.

    With Tech making an impressive debut in Conference USA last seasonmoving over from the WACSmith has now led two different conferences in assists. Last season's 7.7 dimes per game ranked Smith second in the nation, behind only Long Island's Jason Brickman.

    Smith not only keyed an offense that ranked 13th nationally in scoring, but he won the CUSA Defensive Player of the Year for spearheading Tech's smothering defense, which ranked third in the nation at forcing turnovers. Smith personally accounted for 2.5 steals per game, a figure on par with nationally renowned ball hawk Aaron Craft of Ohio State.

    Forward Michale Kyser, one of the nation's top shot-blockers, returns to allow Smith to keep gambling on the perimeter. Former all-conference guards Alex Hamilton and Raheem Appleby are still around to convert Smith's passes. So, it's not quite business as usual, but business should still be brisk.

    Over the past two seasons, Tech has won 56 games and two regular-season conference titles, but has no NCAA bid to show for the effort. With many of CUSA's top contenders losing even more talent than the Bulldogs, it's highly possible that we'll finally see Speedy jitterbugging across college basketball's biggest stage in 2015.

8. Siyani Chambers, Harvard

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    USA TODAY Sports

    It had been 30 years since an Ivy League school won NCAA tournament games in successive years. Then, along came a Harvard team that was getting some Top 25 votes during the preseason. Coming off a March 2013 win over New Mexico, the Crimson went and did it again by beating Cincinnati in 2014.

    Two years, two tourney wins for point guard Siyani Chambers. Chambers was rushed into the fire by predecessor Brandyn Curry's departure in 2012-13, then had to co-exist with Curry when he returned last year. This season, Harvard is 100 percent Chambers' team.

    Chambers has led the Ivy League in total assists in each of his first two seasons, falling just short of the APG crown as a sophomore. He'll still have some options to pass to, as Ivy POY Wesley Saunders returns along with veteran forwards Kenyatta Smith and Steve Moundou-Missi and touted bigs Zena Edosomwan and Chris Egi.

    A tough floor general who never leaves the court (36.0 MPG over his first two seasons), Chambers should join Saunders on the All-Ivy first team this year. Harvard may not blitz the field by four games again this season, but it should still come as a surprise if anyone knocks the Crimson from their perch.

7. R.J. Hunter, Georgia State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Georgia State lost only one conference game in its inaugural Sun Belt campaign. Unfortunately, the Panthers matched that total by blowing a nine-point lead to Louisiana-Lafayette in the final three minutes of the league tournament final.

    GSU will miss double-figure scorers Devonta White and Manny Atkins, but it will still be the team to beat in the Sun Belt as long as 6'5" shooting guard/coach's kid R.J. Hunter is taking the court every night.

    Hunter, who plays under father Ron, finished second in the Belt in steals and fourth in scoring as a sophomore while leading the league in three-pointers made. He drained a ridiculous 12-of-19 from deep in a win over Texas-San Antonio just before Christmas.

    The Panther backcourt is still stacked, with Hunter and ex-Kentucky guard Ryan Harrow (more on him in a bit) being joined by Louisville transfer Kevin Ware, he of the most famous broken leg since Joe Theismann. Ware was cleared to play immediately last week, and he'll have two years of eligibility just like Hunter.

    With Louisiana losing Elfrid Payton to the NBA draft and Western Kentucky bolting to Conference USA, it'll be a surprise if anyone other than GSU wins the Sun Belt this season. Likewise, it's reasonable to expect R.J. Hunter to get his hands on a scoring title and possibly his second straight SBC POY trophy.

6. Brian Williams, Louisiana-Lafayette

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    USA TODAY Sports

    As mentioned here a couple of times already, Louisiana-Lafayette will have to adapt to life after Elfrid Payton this season. Burly forward Shawn Long will throw his hat into the Sun Belt Player of the Year ring, but so will graduate transfer Brian Williams, formerly of Oklahoma State.

    Williams never quite recaptured the groove he found as a freshman in Stillwater after a wrist injury cost him half of his sophomore season. He averaged 6.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game as a junior, but was pulled from the starting lineup late in the season.

    He's never been a great shooter, but the Baton Rouge native is still an explosive athlete who can certainly make a highlight-reel play every week or two against Sun Belt defenses. Williams will also put in more than his share of work on the defensive end.

    While all of this doesn't sound like a recipe for national acclaim, Williams' status as a former Big 12 baller will draw some eyes to the Sun Belt, at least until Georgia State snows the rest of the conference under.

5. Tyler Lamb, Long Beach State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Speaking of power-conference refugees, we next turn our attention to Long Beach State guard Tyler Lamb, formerly of UCLA. He was a midseason addition to the 49ers' roster, and perhaps it's only fitting that he made his Beach debut against USC.

    The Trojans were reminded of why they were happy to see him leave the Pac-12, as Lamb dropped 20 points and three steals in leading LBSU to the upset.

    The Big West was anything but predictable last season, as the conference tournament came down to the fifth and seventh seeds battling for an NCAA bid. What can be expected next season is that Long Beach will sport one of the league's most explosive backcourts, pairing Lamb with all-conference guard Mike Caffey.

    Lamb averaged 15.4 PPG last season, shooting 37 percent from the arc. With a full slate of nonconference gameswhich are always tough for LBSU under coach Dan Monsonto get everyone into a groove, expect Lamb's numbers and the 49ers' 10-6 Big West record to improve.

4. Alan Williams, UC Santa Barbara

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Staying in the Big West one final time, consider the curious case of UC Santa Barbara's Alan Williams.

    It's a symptom of Division I's outlandish sprawl that a player who ranked 13th in the nation in scoring (21.3 PPG) and second in rebounding (11.5 RPG, his second straight double-figure season) is still largely anonymous outside of Santa Barbara, California.

    Williams isn't a physical freak overpowering the opposition. He's a vertically challenged 6'7" and a burly 260 pounds. And he still overpowers the opposition.

    That opposition isn't all Big West weaklings, either. Williams racked a combined 68 points and 29 rebounds in games against UNLV, UCLA and Cal by mid-December. The Gauchos beat UNLV and Cal. Williams also hung 26 and 10 on UC-Irvine and their monstrous center Mamadou Ndiaye in late January. You read about Ndiaye (or more likely scrolled past his name) early on. Remember, he's 7'6".

    Williamswho goes by the nicknames Big Al or Big Sauce interchangeablyhoisted 37.2 percent of his team's available shots when he was on the floor, fourth-most in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy (subscription required). Still, he sank 52 percent of those tries, usually in the faces of multiple defenders.

    Oh, and he's blocked 2.2 shots per game over his career. Again: 6'7" and 260.

    Any player who could crack these numbers for any power-conference school would be an object of lust for NBA scouts and a guy that every college basketball fan would claim to have seen play many, many times. But this one plays for UCSB, which means it'll take a writer with some serious stones to throw an All-American vote his way.

    And fans? They'll simply shrug and keep bigging up some third-string center for Kansas or North Carolina.

3. Tyler Haws, BYU

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Think about something with me for a moment. BYU will play this season without center Eric Mikagone for two years on his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionand guard Matt Carlino, who transferred to Marquette. Between the two, they took 690 shots, or 19.7 per game.

    You think a guy who's averaged 18.7 PPG over his career might take a few of those extra looks?

    Shooting guard Tyler Haws entered last season looking to follow up an epic 21.7 PPG return from his own LDS mission. All he did was improve the scoring average to 23.2 and push his three-point percentage north of 40. He didn't quite reach the All-American level that one of B/R's most handsome and talented basketball experts predicted, but he did earn an AP Honorable Mention for his superb work.

    Without Mika, BYU will be even more of a jump-shooting team than it was last year. That's saying something, considering only 28.5 percent of the Cougars' shots came at the rim according to Hoop-Math.com.

    Haws will be first in line to take a share of those shots, and it's almost certain that one of two things will happen: Either Haws leads the nation in scoring or he doubles his assist figures in the face of extra defenders charging out for the double-team. Either way, his name will be heard a lot as BYU tries again to unseat the West Coast colossus that is Gonzaga.

2. Wesley Saunders, Harvard

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    USA TODAY Sports

    If all you look at is the scoring column, Harvard's Wesley Saunders appeared to take a step back in 2013-14. He fell from 16.2 PPG as a sophomore to 14.2 as a junior. Looking at his entire line, though, paints a picture of just how versatile a player Saunders became under the Crimson's odd circumstances last season.

    With the return of former stars Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry after they had sat out the 2012-13 campaign, Harvard had a glut of talent all searching for minutes and shots. Saunders still led the team in scoring, but it was a well-balanced group with six players averaging at least 9.4 PPG.

    Saunders fit into the offense seamlessly, despite falling to eighth on the Ivy League scoring chart. Harvard became the only team in America to place two players in its conference's top three in assists, with Saunders slotting in third right behind point guard Siyani Chambers.

    With Casey, Curry and sniper Laurent Rivard gone, look for Saunders to charge back up the scoring list. The Crimson probably won't draw Top 25 votes like they did last preseason, but by March no one will want to draw Harvard on Selection Sunday. New Mexico and Cincinnati can tell them why.

1. Ryan Harrow, Georgia State

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    Bill Haber/Associated Press

    When Ryan Harrow first left Kentucky, a segment of the fanbase merely requested that he not let the doorknob hit him on the way out. John Calipari's critics were quick to accuse him of running Harrow off the team as a scapegoat for the 2013 NIT berth. The Atlanta native, in fact, headed to Georgia State to spend time with his ailing father.

    Harrow's story made him one of the 2013 offseason's highest-profile transfers, and his first season at GSU may have saved his career.

    The Panthers took the Sun Belt regular-season title and came within seconds of adding the league tournament title and an NCAA bid, losing the title game to Louisiana-Lafayette in overtime despite Harrow's 37 points and seven rebounds. Harrow joined backcourt mate R.J. Hunter on the Belt's all-conference team after ranking in the top six in scoring, assists, steals and free-throw percentage.

    This year, there's no Elfrid Payton to lead ULL, and Western Kentucky is gone to Conference USA. If there's a contender capable of hanging with the Panthers in the Sun Belt race, that team will be the proverbial out-of-nowhere story.

    Perhaps Harrow's story ends at GSU, or maybe he'll show something to convince NBA scouts that he's worth a pro contract. Either way, his meandering journey is still one worth watching, and it will be featured front and center if he leads the Panthers into March Madness.

     

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