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Wayne Cavadi | | March 3, 2023

10 game-changing players to watch in the DII men's basketball championship

Northwest Missouri State wins DII National Championship

It's March and that means it's tourney time. The DII men's basketball championship kicks off March 11 across eight regional host sites. The quest for a spot in the DII Men's Elite Eight means teams will need to execute nearly flawless basketball over the three-day mini-tournaments within the tournament. 

That's why these players are more important than ever.

There are big-time scorers and specialized ball stoppers, but the following players seem to do it all. More impressively, most of these players have been getting the job done for a long time.

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Diego Bernard, Northwest Missouri State

NCAA Photos via Getty Images Diego Bernard

The Bearcats just wrapped up their 10th-straight MIAA title, the last five of which have been with Diego Bernard starting at guard. Sure, he's had plenty of help from the likes of Trevor Hudgins, Ryan Hawkins, Joey Witthus and a slew of others (like Luke Waters and Wes Dreamer who have been along for pretty much the entire ride as well), but Bernard has been the steady, high-intensity force behind one of the toughest defenses in the land. This season, per usual, he is leading the team in assists and steals, but unlike other seasons, he's the Bearcats' top point scorer while adding 4.9 rebounds per game. Bernard has already cemented his legacy and is likely a Small College Basketball Hall of Famer, but should he win four titles in his four full seasons, well, we're talking about the possible DII men's basketball GOAT.

RJ Sunahara, Nova Southeastern

Sunahara is tall and slender, making him a nightmare to post up against and fun to watch on a fast break. We knew he was a defensive menace, earning the 2022 SSC defensive player of the year, but his scoring abilities cannot be overlooked. Not only does he average just about 20 points per game, he does it on 62 percent shooting and is looking like he'll end his collegiate career with a field goal percentage north of 60 percent. Sunahara has good basketball IQ and is the perfect fit for this intense defense and offense able to contribute on both ends of the court each and every night. 

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Kaden Anderson, Point Loma

As a guest on Bearcat Rewind during the first week of the 2022-23 season, I said Point Loma was the team to watch. After a 4-3 start, most thought I was off my rocker... but the Sea Lions haven't lost since, becoming the first team to finish a PacWest season a perfect 20-0. Anderson has been the driving force, leading the team in scoring, rebounding and blocks while sitting second in assists and third in steals. He's a sure-fire Bevo Francis finalist come March 15 and has this team gelling on offense and defense. He, Brian Goracke and Luke Haupt have the same feel that Daulton Hommes, Preston Beverly and Ziggy Satterthwaite had back in 2019. That team made it to the championship game and Hommes was the DII player of the year. 

Sam Masten, Northern State

Remember a few years back, that amazing Northern State/Northwest Missouri State showdown in the regional final that was one of the greatest DII men's hoops games of all time? Names like Parker Fox, Trevor Hudgins, Ryan Hawkins and Diego Bernard (who proved to all be very good beyond that game by the way) erupted in a thriller. Because of Masten's impact on the Wolves' starting five, we have a chance to see that kind of matchup in the Central Region once again. He leads Northern State in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals, and the fact that he has four very good scorers at his disposal running the floor, his leadership is invaluable. 

Tyshaun Crawford, Augusta

We already know the impact Crawford makes for the Jaguars, leading his team to the championship game a year ago. He's been even better offensively this year, scoring four more points per game (up to 21.3) and shooting 3 percent better from the field (an outstanding 66.4 percent). However, at 7-foot-1, Crawford's main impact is being one of the few true centers in DII men's basketball, an intimidating force in the paint that has been the cause of many a shot landing in the first row over the past two seasons. He's also a force on the offensive boards, pulling down nearly four per game creating a multitude of second chances for the Jaguars.

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Brandon Knapper, Cal State San Bernardino

If any team is going to be a roadblock to the Sea Lions in the Wild West, it is the Coyotes. The Yotes are another team deep in talent, but Knapper has been one of DII's best for a couple years running. While the Yotes have scorers aplenty, Knapper stuffs the stat sheet with a little bit of everything. Knapper leads the team in scoring and assists while contributing 4.3 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game. Knapper joined the team last season and the Yotes have won back-to-back CCAA titles with him at the helm. Coincidence? Not likely. 

Zach Laput, Bentley

Laput may actually be one of the most unheralded stars in all DII men's basketball. Last year, Laput was very good, helping Bentley get to the DII Elite Eight, but he was an even more impressive scorer this year. He closed the regular season leading the NE10 in scoring with 20.3 points per game and chipped in more than six rebounds per game for one of the best rebounding teams in the division. Repeating in the East is no easy task, it is almost unheard of, so the all-around game of Laput will be needed to propel the Falcons into the final eight. 

Bryce Butler, West Liberty

The Atlantic Region should be a fun one to watch with five really tough teams at the top. Butler will be pivotal in the high-powered West Liberty offense and aggressive defense should the Hilltoppers survive. Butler was a beast in the MEC, finishing the regular season tops in scoring, fifth in rebounding and assist-to-turnover ratio while contributing 1.3 steals per game. West Liberty was in the DII Elite Eight just two seasons ago and Butler was held quiet by the Bearcats' defense on that day. You can be sure he wants to get back and have another shot at a title run.

Chase Rankin, Lincoln Memorial

It is hard to pick just one player from this loaded offense. Five players are in double figures and two more chip in more than nine points per game. But Rankin is the great facilitator, finishing the regular season second in DII men's basketball with 7.1 assists per game. But that's not all he does. At just 6-foot-1, he's also second on the Railsplitters in rebounds and leads the team in steals all while scoring 12.7 points per game and a dangerous 46.1 percent from 3-point land. Yes, the Railsplitters have a ton of weapons for one of the best offenses in the division, but Rankin is clearly the motor that makes it run so smoothly. 

Akuel Kot, Fort Lewis

Who had Kot, who scored a very nice 16.6 points per game a year ago, as the second-leading scorer in the DII men's basketball season on their bingo card? Better yet, in a very tough RMAC, who had Fort Lewis finishing as co-regular-season champs? Minus those loyal Skyhawk-atics in Durango, Colo., Fort Lewis surprised a lot of us this year, never waning off its hot start and taking down South Central heavyweights time and time again, including defending champion Black Hills State twice. Kot contributes across the board, but his ability to take over a game offensively could prove too much down the stretch.

But wait, there's more:

Keep an eye on these five guys as well. 

  • Shawndale Jones, Indiana (PA): What makes the Crimson Hawks so good is that defense, and there are four starters with 40-plus steals. But they still need a go-to scorer and Jones fits the role so well.
  • Joel Scott, Black Hills State: While many didn't give Black Hills State much of a chance in last year's Elite Eight against undefeated Nova Southeastern, Scott went out and shot the lights out, dropping 25 points on 64 percent shooting and ripping down a game-high 13 rebounds in that memorable upset. Now, Scott is experienced and though the Yellow Jackets have hit a few road bumps down the stretch, he should have ample opportunity to show off his skills in the tournament again.
  • Kendrick Tchoua, UIndy: As the Greyhounds broke out this year, so did Tchoua, filling the paint and the box score with career highs in scoring and rebounds, while leading DII with an almost absurd 73.7 field goal percentage in the regular season. 
  • Blaise Threatt, Colorado Mesa: I recently discussed the Mavericks as one of the dark horses for the DII Elite Eight, and Threatt, who leads the Mavs in just about every statistical category, is a large reason why. 
  • Jaden Wells, Central Oklahoma: The Bronchos have shown they can beat the Bearcats, and while this team is deep with box score stuffers, Wells will have to lead the way if UCO wants to sneak past both Northwest Missouri and Northern State.

On the outside looking in: KJ Jones II, Emmanuel (GA). The Lions are currently on the outside looking in, not even a bubble team really. However, as the No. 2 seed in the Conference Carolinas tourney, they have a bye to the semifinals, meaning Emmanuel needs to win just two games to secure an auto bid to the DII tournament. If they do, then DII men's basketball's leading scorer, Jones, is dancing. Jones scores more than 26 points and also leads the team in rebounds and assists. Emmanuel may not be a premier team in DII, but if they go dancing Jones will be fun to watch. 

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