Many mid-major programs fly under the radar all season long then showcase what they’ve got in March.
In the early rounds last year, for example, we were introduced to players like Jeremy Morgan of Northern Iowa, Makai Mason of Yale, Stephen F. Austin’s Thomas Walkup and Arkansas-Little Rock’s Josh Hagins. So who might be the mid-major stars of this year’s opening weekend?
Here are six of the strongest candidates, sorted by their team's RPI.
Kevin Hervey | UT Arlington
UT Arlington isn’t the easiest team to figure out. The same group that went into Saint Mary’s and beat the Gaels by 14 has dropped some clunkers to teams like Texas State and Troy. Still, Hervey has shown up just about every night.
The 6-foot-9, 230-pound forward is leading the way in points (17.1) and rebounds (8.4) per game. He’s been on a tear since the calendar flipped to 2017, putting up 20.6 and 9.5 a night while shooting 62.9 percent since January. Of course, that has come against Sun Belt opponents. Still, he's the main guy on a very intriguing Mavericks team.
Spent some time last night watching video of UT Arlington. You do NOT want your team facing them in 1st rd. Kevin Hervey is a problem.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) February 25, 2017
Hervey has a nice inside-outside game that can match up well with just about anyone. He’s usually good for a few triples a game, but he doesn’t live out there and can play in the paint if the situation calls for it. UT Arlington is a balanced team that gets high-percentage shots. If one player is going to carry the load, though, it will be the junior Hervey.
JaCorey Williams | Middle Tennessee
If Middle Tennessee’s ground-shaking upset of second-seeded Michigan State last year is still fresh in your mind, names like Reggie Upshaw or Giddy Potts might immediately ring a bell. After all, the two combined for 40 points and made some huge shots down the stretch to help the Blue Raiders pull off the miracle.
Those two are still there and having very good seasons. But the Blue Raiders’ leading scorer is Williams, a 6-foot-8 Arkansas transfer who sat out last season. The Birmingham, Ala., native has immediately stepped in and led his team with 17.5 points and 7.6 rebounds a game, shooting at a tidy 52.9 percent rate.
Middle Tennessee is most likely going to be a very popular Cinderella pick, and for good reason. It’s cleaned up in Conference USA play, has some good non-conference victories and is a candidate to get an at-large bid even if it is upset in the conference tournament. The Blue Raiders’ main draw is the number of weapons they have; the biggest one is Williams.
Justin Robinson | Monmouth
Many people were waiting for Robinson to lead an entertaining Monmouth squad into the tournament last year, where the Hawks would be a trendy pick. That never happened, though, because of a tight loss to Iona in the Metro Atlantic championship game. Monmouth was sent on a trip to the NIT instead.
Now, a Hawks team that returns nine of its top 10 scorers is back with a vengeance, storming through the MAAC to the tune of an 18-2 record. While anything can happen in the conference tournament, this team has all the pieces to make a run in March.
Out front is Robinson, a 5-foot-8 point guard who was previously featured on the list of the best players in the country under 5-10. He is averaging more than 19 points a game for the second season in a row while dishing out nearly five assists a night. His 40-point game against Siena was one of 24 such performances nationally this year.
Devin Cannady | Princeton
A common trend in recent years is that you don’t want to see yourself draw the Ivy League champion in the first round. Yale knocked out Baylor last year. Harvard took North Carolina to the brink in 2015 after knocking out Cincinnati and New Mexico in successive years before that.
This year’s Princeton team, which joins Vermont as the final unbeaten in conference play, has received a huge boost from the sophomore sharpshooter Cannaday, and it could look to ride his hot hand to a possible upset. The 6-foot-1 guard can get ice cold from time to time — he has five games with six points or fewer, including a goose egg at Harvard — but when he’s on he can fill it up. And he has been on lately.
Princeton 38, Yale 29 | Half— Princeton Basketball (@Princeton_Hoops) February 18, 2017
Devin Cannady has 20 points... at the half. Tigers: 8-15 from 3. pic.twitter.com/6CUjkMnT7l
The Mishawaka, Ind., product has hit six or more 3-pointers in three of the Tigers’ last four games, including a 7-of-8, 29-point showing against Yale. Upsets are often led by players who just can’t miss, and that has certainly described Cannaday at times. The sophomore is shooting 45.1 percent from outside in Ivy League play.
Granted, Princeton will have to enter some uncharted waters in order to make the Big Dance. The Ivy League will have its first-ever conference tournament this year, whereas in years past it would have only needed one more win to clinch the bid. But the Tigers are unbeaten in 12 tries in-conference, which makes them a good choice to be the Ivy's representative in March.
Evan Bradds | Belmont
If Belmont can carry its 15-1 regular-season Ohio Valley Conference record into a tournament bid, Bradds is going to be an intriguing player to watch as the Bruins go for a big upset. It’s no mystery what Belmont will be doing on offense; feeding the 6-foot-7 forward.
Bradds averaged just short of 21 points a game in the regular season along with 8.6 rebounds. He's efficient, too, shooting at a 64.1 percent clip, eighth in the nation. And that’s after leading the nation in the category a season ago. His 67.4 percent career shooting percentage is third all-time.
He’s not going to make or attempt many 3-pointers (only eight tries this season), but when he gets the ball in his hand it’s very likely that he’s going to find a good look and cash it in. He’s been held under 50 percent in a game only three times this season, and he’s coming off a 10-for-10 performance in the regular-season finale. It will be awfully fun to see if he can manage to single-handedly steal a win for the Bruins in the first round, where they figure to be a 12-14 seed if they earn the automatic bid.
Alec Peters | Valparaiso
If Peters’ name sounds familiar, it might be from the 2015 tournament when he led the Crusaders to a near upset of Maryland. Or, perhaps, it’s just from looking at the stat leaders throughout the season.
The senior ranks seventh in the nation in scoring at 23 points per game as he looks to cap off his college career by grabbing Valpo’s first tournament win since its Sweet Sixteen run in 1998. Peters is maybe a tad undersized at 6-foot-9, but he erases any deficiencies with a deadly combination of great post work and a soft shooting touch. He’s put up 20 points in 23 of his 29 games. He also averages a double-double per game.
Don’t think he just beats up on weaker Horizon League players, either. In the Crusaders’ three games against ranked teams, he averaged 24.7 points per game and poured in 26 against a BYU team that just beat Gonzaga.
Valpo is far from a sure thing to make the tournament — it’s currently tied atop the conference standings with Oakland, which it lost to in both regular-season meetings — but if the Crusaders can hoist the Horizon League trophy, watch out for Peters’ swan song.