With the upsets sure to come, it's good to know which small-school players stand to become big stars by the end of the first weekend. A guy or two whom you can tell your buddies about at the bar and sound smarter in the process.
We know you want to know all there is to know with this field of 68. Fortunately, quite a few mid-majors -- and even the high-seeded teams like Gonzaga and New Mexico -- have guys with shot- and playmaking ability to carry their team to some wins.
Sweet 16 runs aren't guaranteed. But if we get any from the teams listed below, the players I'm detailing should be a major reason why. Who can be the next Stephen Curry or D.J. Cooper or Wally Szczerbiak? Here are the 10 most likely candidates from outside the six major conferences.
Nate Wolters (South Dakota State). The senior point guard for the Jackrabbits has gone from an unknown commodity to a cult figure in college basketball. He's now projected as an NBA draft pick. Earlier this season, he scored 53 points, the most of any player in college hoops in four years. He keeps the ball on a yo-yo and has a smooth game. Can kill a team with his deft play and deep shooting. As those in the know like to say, Naters Gonna Nate. Opponent: Michigan.
|Pangos can be so fun to watch. (USATSI)|
Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga). The sophomore point guard for the Bulldogs has a knack for banging down 3-pointers in a flurry. Gonzaga's a deep team with a lot of guys who have the ability to put up 20 in a game. No one in this group makes it look as fun or as wild as Pangos. He's got the Skinny White Guy factor going, always a bonus in March. Opponent: Southern.
Ian Clark (Belmont). The senior shooting guard for the Bruins is actually part of a backcourt that's among the top five in the field, in my opinion. Clark and Kerron Johnson are a duo that are as great on defense as they are on offense. Johnson was the one who hit big shots in the Ohio Valley tourney to send Belmont past Murray State and get to this point. He leads the team with 18.1 points per game and is an amazing decision-maker when it comes to taking the right shots. Opponent: Arizona.
Mike Muscala (Bucknell). The senior center for the Bison bucks convention and shows you don't need to be a small guy to make this list. Muscala has a Euro-like game and is probably the most efficient player overall of any player in this tournament. You heard me right. He can play high or low, can pass well, can face up or post up. He's the Patriot League Player of the Year and, at this point, should get a chance in the NBA. We don't often see big men have their March moments, but Muscala's as qualified for this as anyone in recent memory. Opponent: Butler.
Kendall Williams (New Mexico). The junior guard for the Lobos is what I call "good cocky." The right attitude to amp his team and just antagonistic enough to get into the heads of opponents. He also went for 46 points recently and set the Mountain West record for 3-pointers in a game. When he's dialed in, he's one of the most entertaining players in the country to watch. Opponent: Harvard.
Ryan Broekhoff (Valparaiso). The senior forward for the Crusaders puts up 16 points per game, grabs seven rebounds and can shoot 43 percent from deep. He hit the game-winning shot that sent this team to the tournament. You know Valpo, right? Bryce Drew in '98 hitting a legendary shot to beat Ole Miss. Yeah, Drew now coaches this program. And he lets Broekhoff have a long leash. He's a matchup problem for a lot of teams. The Aussie is the next-best thing to this next fella. Opponent: Michigan State.
Doug McDermott (Creighton). The junior forward for the Bluejays was a preseason All-American and thus is no secret to most of you reading this. For the drive-by types who just love March and want to know more: McDermott is an offensive machine with a quirky game that goes outside to in. I like to think of him as college basketball's version of Dirk Nowitzki, only obviously not quite as good as Dirk. Creighton is one of the best offensive teams in this field. When the Jays have it going and McDermott is feeling it, he's a threat for 35. Sweet 16 potential, if the defense shows up. Opponent: Cincinnati.
|Will Cherry is a sweet -- but strong -- player. (USATSI)|
Will Cherry (Montana). The senior point guard for the Grizzlies has been a big playmaker for Wayne Tinkle's team his entire career. At 6-1, he plays low on defense and has used his ability to win DPOY in the Big Sky twice. What's most remarkable: he has been sidelined twice this year with foot injuries but has been able to come back after going down in February, most recently. Incredible grit. Opponent: Syracuse.
Siyani Chambers (Harvard). The freshman point guard for the Crimson is going to be a star by this time next year -- when the Crimson could arguably be much, much better. But Chambers has had a breakout first season in the Ivy, averaging 13 points and turning into a dynamic player. If this team is going to be able to pull an upset, Chambers' spirited style will have to factor in. Opponent: New Mexico.
Derrick Marks (Boise State). The sophomore guard for the Broncos is an unknown weapon nationally. Boise State gets 16 points per game off 47-percent 3-point shooting from Marks. The Broncos are a deep-shooting team, and that stems from Marks, who has made some big-time shots late in games already this year. Nothing makes you a March star like taking big shots in the final few seconds. Opponent: La Salle.
Rotnei Clarke (Butler). The senior guard for the Bulldogs is, quite simply, one of the five best shooters in the country. Butler brought him in for one year via transfer from Arkansas, and it has all gone according to plan. In fact, Butler's a good team but not a great one. It has flaws. And it often gets boosts from Clarke, who banged home a crazy game-winner for this team back in Maui earlier this season. If it's a close game for Brad Stevens' team -- and it has many of them -- Clarke will find the ball in his hands. Opponent: Bucknell.
Matthew Dellavedova (Saint Mary's). The senior point guard for the Gaels is is the most vital piece to his team of any player on this list. The Gaels got a gift with a First Four invite. But, as a group, they've got a chance to make a run. Talent around Delly, but the guy who played in last year's Olympics for his home country of Australia has all the intangibles plus the terrific pick-and-roll game to keep defenses honest and off balance. Oh, and he did this earlier this year. Let's go, everybody. Opponent: Middle Tennessee State.
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