6 mid-major stars to keep an eye on
When Stephen Curry ran circles around bigger opponents for little Davidson a few years ago, it was still kind of a novelty. Players from small schools just didn't do things like that, even then.
That's no longer the case. Good players are now readily found all over the country - no matter the size of the school.
Just look at Gordon Hayward at Butler last season.
Though thin, he was 6-foot-9, could shoot from long range and had no trouble mixing it up with the big boys. He ended up leading the Bulldogs to the national title game - in their hometown, no less - and nearly hit a halfcourt shot for what would have been the most improbable of championships.
This season, the mid-majors are loaded with talent, maybe more than ever. Here's a rundown of some of the biggest stars:
Jimmer Fredette, BYU. By now, nearly everyone is familiar with The Jimmer. The quick-shooting senior guard famously toughened up his game playing against prison inmates and made a name for himself by scoring 49 points against Arizona last season. The 6-foot-2 Fredette kept firing and hitting in the postseason, scoring 45 points against TCU in the Mountain West Conference tournament and 37 against Florida in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. After deciding to stick around for his senior season, Fredette leads the 15th-ranked Cougars with 25.1 points per game while shooting 47 percent, mostly from outside.
Keith Benson, Oakland (Mich). A thumb injury that led to offseason surgery put a dent on any thoughts Benson had of declaring for the NBA. The Golden Grizzlies certainly don't mind. Once an afterthought in the recruiting wars, Benson has developed into a potential NBA lottery pick. The reigning Summit League player of the year is 6-foot-11, strong and athletic. Benson led Oakland to the NCAA Tournament as a junior and has been dominating as a senior, averaging 17.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.4 blocked shots against a schedule coach Greg Kampe purposely made difficult to increase his star player's draft value.
Adrian Oliver, San Jose State. Oliver considered entering his name in the NBA draft after his junior season, but decided to stay after hearing concerns about not being able to lead his team to wins. Well, led by Oliver, the Spartans got off to a good start and, despite losing their first two WAC games, were 8-5 heading into Thursday night's game against Boise State. A 6-foot-4 guard, Oliver tied for fourth nationally in scoring last season at 22.5 points per game and is fourth alone this season, up to 24.4 points.
Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State. A late-bloomer, Leonard is making a name for himself as the sixth-ranked Aztecs peel off wins and race up the polls. A 6-foot-7 do-it-all forward, Leonard had a solid freshman season, earning MVP honors at the Mountain West Conference tournament. He's been dazzling this season, averaging 15.6 points on 48 percent shooting and 9.7 rebounds while hounding opponents defensively. Behind Leonard, San Diego State was ranked in The Associated Press poll for the first time and is eyeing a deep run in the NCAA Tournament thanks to a 16-game winning streak, longest in its 90-year history.
Kenneth Faried, Morehead State. Faried first drew attention at the 2009 NCAA Tournament, when he nearly led the Eagles to an upset over Louisville. Now, the 6-foot-8 hustler is drawing comparisons to Dennis Rodman. Willing to play defense and crash the glass, Faried is a high-energy player who doesn't need to have plays called for him to have an impact. A senior, Faried leads the nation in double-doubles with 13 in 15 games and in rebounding with 13.8 per game. He also tops the Eagles with 19.1 points and is shooting an impressive 64 percent from the field, quickly becoming an intriguing NBA draft prospect.
There are so many other talented mid-major players out there, we had to add an honorable mention category (and still couldn't mention them all): Aaric Murray, La Salle; Anatoly Bose, Nicholls St.; Donald Sims, Appalachia St.; Xavier Silas, Northern Illinois; C.J. McCollum, Lehigh; Elias Harris, Gonzaga; Shelvin Mack, Butler; George Odufuwa, North Texas; Ryan Rossiter, Siena; Randy Culpepper, UTEP; Lavoy Allen, Temple; Kevin Anderson, Richmond.