Small-School Guys Poised to Break Out in the 2021 NCAA Tournament
In most every March Madness, a low- or mid-major club will catch fire at the right time, win a few games against heavily favored opponents and capture the hearts of the nation.
George Mason's Jai Lewis and VCU's Jamie Skeen etched their names into history this way, and every so often a Stephen Curry or Gordon Hayward becomes a bigger star beyond these special few spring weeks.
With this college basketball regular season even more chaotic than usual, we're ripe for a higher-than-average number of Cinderellas.
To prepare for such a case, let's go over some of the names you might need to know in case their teams pull a surprise or two this weekend.
Max Abmas, Oral Roberts
Year after year, we see accomplished scorers lead their teams deep into March. In this vein, let's start simply. Max Abmas is the nation's leading scorer, and his presence makes Oral Roberts a threat to pull a massive upset over Ohio State on Friday.
Heading into the NCAA tournament, the Summit League champs rank 12th nationally in points per game and eighth in three-point efficiency, and Abmas is the architect-in-chief behind their high-flying attack. Despite standing just 6'1" and 165 pounds, the sophomore is a dynamite multi-level scorer, tallying 48.6/43.8/89.9 shooting splits while recording several noteworthy games against major-conference opponents, notably pouring in 64 total points in consecutive matchups with Wichita State and Oklahoma State in December.
Though the Buckeyes have a top-80 defense by KenPom's metrics, they still rank last in the Big Ten and are fresh off allowing 91 points to Illinois in the conference championship. With guards Duane Washington Jr. and CJ Walker among Ohio State's worst defenders, look for Abmas to make a big impression and perhaps lead the Golden Eagles to their first tournament victory in 47 years.
Darius McGhee, Liberty
A good way to pick upsets is to find low-major teams who consistently make the NCAA tournament and have postseason-tested veterans. Coming off a 2019 first-round victory over Mississippi State, Liberty fits this description like a glove, and Darius McGhee is the team's centrifugal force.
McGhee only played 12 minutes in that aforementioned tournament win, but he has blossomed in the ensuing years to become Liberty's leading scorer, transcending his 5'9" frame to average 15.6 points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and commanding the 52nd-best offense in the country this year, per KenPom. For his troubles, McGhee was named Atlantic Sun Player of the Year, becoming the second straight Flame to receive the honor after star swingman Caleb Homesley did so last season.
If Liberty is able to pull the upset over Oklahoma State this weekend, be prepared for it to become one of the defining headlines of the first round. Whichever team topples presumptive top draft pick Cade Cunningham will likely garner significant attention, but if a diminutive guard is able to lead a low-major school to that coveted victory, then it will become a massive story.
In that case, you heard the name Darius McGhee here first.
JaQuori McLaughlin, UC Santa Barbara
Between head coach Greg McDermott's off-court turmoil and a recent 25-point destruction at the hands of the red-hot Georgetown Hoyas, the Creighton Bluejays are ripe candidates to get caught unawares this weekend. Luckily for all us chaos fiends, the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos are just the team to take advantage of such a disorganized opponent.
UCSB has arguably been the most accomplished low-major team in the country this year, winning all but one of its games since the calendar flipped and finishing the regular season 69th in KenPom's overall rankings. The head of this formidable snake is point guard JaQuori McLaughlin, a former Oregon State starter who transferred midway through his sophomore season and has dominated the Big West ever since.
UCSB coach Joe Pasternack recently said the Big West Player of the Year and honorable mention All-American has NBA talent: "He's the total package. I've coached a lot of NBA players at Arizona and Gabe Vincent here at Santa Barbara. What JaQuori has is something you can't teach."
Every March, players rise out of relative obscurity to become NBA draft darlings. If UCSB delivers a strong showing this weekend, don't be surprised if McLaughlin becomes one of those promising future pros.
Isaiah Miller, UNC Greensboro
UNC Greensboro has a tough first-round draw, facing Leonard Hamilton's deep, athletic and big Florida State club. But the Spartans won't go quietly if Isaiah Miller has anything to say on the matter.
Sneakily one of the most decorated and prolific players in recent low-major history, Miller has been named Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year three times and Player of the Year twice. Surely he'll be looking to cap his banner career with a tournament victory, and if the last several weeks are any indication, Miller is more than prepared to put UNCG on his back and beat the odds himself.
Over the Spartans' last five matchups—four of which resulted in victories—their star point guard is averaging 25.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 3.0 steals per game while shooting 50.5 percent from the field.
UNC Greensboro hasn't dominated from start to finish the way several other low-major conference champions have this year. The team suffered several puzzling losses and has generally struggled to score efficiently. But Miller might be playing the best basketball of his storied career right now and is tough to stop with a head of steam.
If the Seminoles aren't on top of things this weekend, they might be in for an unpleasant surprise.
Jason Preston, Ohio
Jason Preston's inspiring life story has gotten a surprising amount of attention this year for a mid-major point guard. Slam magazine even did a profile on him in December. But the junior isn't satisfied with merely being an object of sympathy.
His play throughout this season has made him a dark-horse candidate to be selected in this summer's NBA draft, and a standout performance against the vaunted Virginia Cavaliers and potential later-round opponents this month could cement his place on big boards all over the sport.
A first-team All-MAC member and the MVP of the conference tournament, Preston dominated the competition this year, averaging at least 16 points, seven assists and six rebounds per game for the second straight season while shooting nearly 60 percent from two-point range and 40.8 percent from three.
This production translated to nonconference showings as well, as the junior memorably battled first-team All-American Ayo Dosunmu to a near-stalemate in November, recording 31 points, eight assists and six rebounds in a two-point loss to Illinois, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region.
With Virginia having had to withdraw from the ACC tournament due to a positive COVID-19 test, Preston could very well lead the Bobcats to March glory against a rusty Cavaliers club.
Chandler Vaudrin, Winthrop
Whether they're considered proper point guards like Luka Doncic and Ben Simmons or point forwards like Draymond Green and Bam Adebayo, big ball-handlers are all the rage in the NBA right now.
It's a stretch to compare Winthrop's Chandler Vaudrin to any of those All-Stars, but he's a threatening presence at the NCAA level for the same reasons.
After a productive first year, the redshirt sophomore was able to level up following the departures of two senior starters. Vaudrin became one of just two players nationwide to average at least 12 points, six rebounds and six assists per game this year (the other one, in fact, is the aforementioned Preston), leading Winthrop to a towering 23-1 record.
He's also a key cog in the team's statistically solid defense, helping the Eagles garner a top-60 ranking in steals per game while leading them in defensive box plus-minus (per Sports Reference).
It helps that Villanova—Winthrop's first-round opponent—is playing without Collin Gillespie, its star point guard. But Vaudrin's two-way versatility would have made it hard on Jay Wright's club anyway.
Expect Vaudrin to pick apart the Wildcats on Friday and either pull the upset outright or just scare them straight.