Thirteen under-the-radar guys in NCAA tourney

While watching Tony Snell single-handedly dispose of UNLV in the Mountain West Conference tournament finals, the subsequent reaction, especially that of CBS announcer Reggie Miller, stood out.

In a one-point game against a Top-25-caliber opponent — one that had already beaten the Lobos in the Thompson & Mack Center earlier in the year—the junior swingman dropped 13 consecutive points to propel his team to the tourney title in the nation’s No. 1 RPI conference and a No. 3 seed in the NCAAs. With a loss, it’s conceivable the Lobos could have been handed a 4- or 5-seed. Instead, Snell kept the Lobos as dark horse favorites to reach Atlanta.

Miller called it Snell’s “Kodak moment.” In many ways, it was.

But there should be no surprise if Snell has an explosive March, and it got me thinking as to how the nation as a whole approaches the NCAA Tournament — focused on the big programs, the big stars it saw on TV week after week and then acting shocked when upsets inevitably happen and smaller schools steal the spotlight. 

Quick memo: There are solid college basketball players scattered around the country, at both high- and low-profile programs.

Snell, a former high school teammate of San Antonio Spurs’ starter Kawhi Leonard, is just one example of an under-the-radar player that could take over this NCAA Tournament and capture the attention of millions skipping out on work or school. Though he’s averaging just 12.6 points per game this season, the 6-foot-7 guard has the ability to step outside (22-for-39 from 3-point range over last five games) and he’s scored 20 or more points in seven games, including four such outings against NCAA tournament teams. 

He’s going to be a matchup problem for most teams in the West regional.

So, with Snell leading the way, here are 12 other under-the-radar names to keep in mind in this tournament: 

Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis

An avid “Parks and Rec” follower—his favorite character, of course, being Ron Swanson, which makes at least one writer wish he yelled out, “Bacon!” with every board—the First Team All-Atlantic 10 forward helps spearhead one of the top defenses in the country. In recent years, VCU and Butler have proven themselves to be mid-major tournament darlings, but the Billikens knocked off both the Rams and Bulldogs to capture both the regular season and tournament crowns. 

Evans (13.7 points, 7.7 rebounds) is a tough assignment in the not-so-favorable Midwest regional … so expect him to make himself known, at least in the early going.

Ian Clark, Belmont

It’s a good bet in March that a small school’s sharpshooter is going to emerge on the first weekend. Clark is as good a bet as any. The 6-foot-3 guard from Memphis has an effective field-goal percentage of 66.96 this season — thanks in large part to his 46.1 percent from 3-point range — good enough for the fourth-best mark in the country.

In December, Clark hit all 10 of his field-goal attempts against VCU, one of the most feared defensive teams around, en route to scoring 24 points. He’s hit double digits in scoring in all but three games this season and could become the player to watch in the West Regional. 

Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State

Before writing this, I asked my colleague Jay Clemons if Franklin truly qualifies as an “under-the-radar” player in this day and age of technology. His response was a question: “That’s the guy with the insane dunk, right?” Well, yes, Franklin has made his share of highlight reels. But he’s also one of the best 20 or 25 players in college basketball.

His season averages — 16.7 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.5 steals — qualify him as one of the most complete players in the tournament field, and with San Diego State featuring a top-10 defense the Aztecs could give the nation multiple opportunities to see Franklin take the floor. He scored 23 points and nabbed eight rebounds as a sophomore in last season’s tournament loss to N.C. State.

One key note to mention: Franklin shot 210 free throws this season (30th-most nationally), knocking down more than 78 percent of his attempts. He has the ability to lead the Aztecs to a tournament win at the line alone.  

Treveon Graham, VCU

Defense, defense, defense … that’s the name of the game for coach Shaka Smart’s Rams, and that won’t change this tournament. But while the Havoc defense wakes up the space, Graham, the team’s leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, will need to provide a consistent scoring threat. 

Surprising to some, the Rams are in fact more efficient offensively than on the defensive end, but Graham closed out the regular season on a sour note (7 of 29 shooting over last two games). If he can get it going again, much like he did against Richmond and Memphis, VCU’s that much more dangerous. 

Sam Thompson, Ohio State

Under-the-radar guys are not limited to non-Power Six conference teams, and Thompson is a prime example of being overshadowed by star teammates Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas, and perhaps poised for an impactful tournament. He shot 14 of 20 in the Big Ten tourney and is the team’s best outside scoring threat (41 percent).

At 6-foot-7, Thompson is a guy who can contribute all over the floor for 2-seed Ohio State. 

Ryan Broekhoff, Valparaiso

Not only did the 6-foot-7 swingman invoke memories of his coach, Bryce Drew — the owner of one of the iconic moments in NCAA history — with his off-balance 3-pointer to knock off Green Bay in the Horizon League semifinals, but he also showed he has a flair for the dramatic. That’s pivotal in March. Another tall scorer shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range on this list, the senior is also an ultra-reliable free-throw shooter (26th-best nationally).

Briekhoff put up respectable numbers against NCAA tournament teams Saint Louis and New Mexico, but the Crusaders may need to utilize him on more than 23.2 percent of its possessions to have a chance at advancing. 

Khalif Wyatt, Temple

Wyatt, much like Franklin, is another player who should be bigger than a blip on the national radar. In last season’s lone tourney game — a loss to South Florida — the senior’s 19 points were not enough. But he’s back in the field and even more of a focal point this time around.

Though his shooting percentages have fallen off, the Owls look to Wyatt to handle the bulk of their offensive needs, and he responded by leading the Atlantic 10 with 22.4 points per game in conference play. If he can rebound from his recent shooting slump and continue to get to the free- throw line — he’s made 50 free throws in his last five games alone — N.C. State and the East Regional will have a dynamic scorer to contend with.  

Jordan Dykstra, South Dakota State 

Yes, Nate Wolters is the man that makes the Jackrabbits go. You don’t enter the NCAAs fourth nationally in scoring (22.7) without being your team’s go-to guy. But Dykstra stands to benefit from the attention heaped on his point guard, as his shooting and rebounding ability could prove invaluable in the opener against a defensively inefficient Michigan team. A career 46-percent 3-point shooter, don’t be shocked to see him hoisting quite a few shots as South Dakota State eyes an upset or two. 

Markel Starks, Georgetown 

Along the same lines as Dykstra, Starks will not be stealing headlines from his All-American teammate Otto Porter any time soon. However, when the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder Greg Whittington was deemed ineligible at midseason for academic reasons, it was been Starks that John Thompson III looked to for a second option.

A solid defender on one of the nation’s best defensive teams, Starks scored in double figures in 11 of the Hoyas’ final 14 Big East games. He’s averaging 12.5 points and 2.9 assists in Georgetown’s slow-it-down attack, but could become a big-time contributor for the South Regional’s 2-seed. 

Kareem Jamar, Montana 

The Grizzlies return to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season, and their 6-foot-5 wing will have to play a huge role in order to avoid another blowout. Jamar does it all for coach Wayne Tinkle’s 25-6 team, leading the team in points (14.5), rebounding (6.0) and assists (4.1).

Earlier this season, in 42 minutes of action in an overtime game against 14th-seeded Davidson, Jamar finished with 28 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. The Grizzlies may need a similar output in their first-round game versus Syracuse. 

Andre Roberson, Colorado 

Back to the Power Six conference players, although with the amount of seed-related respect given to the Pac-12, it’s hard to call it “powerful” in any way. No. 10 seed Colorado begs to differ, though, and its double-double machine is a big reason why. 

Roberson, averaging 10.9 points and 11.3 rebounds, is one of the better defensive rebounders in the country and should help limit tourney opponents to minimal possessions — only eight other players nationally grabbed a higher percentage of defensive rebounds when they were on the court (27.3). The 6-foot-7 forward should be a key factor in the Buffs’ opener against 7-seed Illinois.

De’Mon Brooks, Davidson

It’s nearly impossible for any Davidson Wildcat to go on the type of “tournament darling” quest that Stephen Curry went on a few years ago, but Brooks is an efficient scorer and solid rebounder and should be one of the better players on the floor in the Wildcats’ opener against Marquette. 

A career 52 percent shooter, the 6-foot-7 Brooks has posted double-digit scoring nights in each of his past seven games. Rare is the player who can take over a tournament like Curry, but Brooks and the rest of this group might at least give their teams a fighting chance.