The Marshall Thundering Herd. The Bowling Green Falcons. The University of Detroit Titans. The Eastern Michigan Eagles.
If you look at the top 100 players in the 2016 NCAA recruiting class, you can count on one hand the number who committed to Mid-major schools like the ones above. The major conferences are grabbing talent seemingly at will, and heck, Duke may have landed the top two picks in the next NBA draft.
Yet there is more Mid-major alum in the Association today than ever. The reigning back-to-back MVP Steph Curry went to Davidson. Portland’s backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C. J. McCollum went to Weber State and Lehigh. Want wing scoring? Gordon Hayward went to Butler. Shot blocking? Hassan Whiteside patrolled the paint for the Marshall Thundering Herd. Long, athletic wings your thing? Enter Kawhi Leonard and Paul George who were California dreaming at San Diego State and Fresno State.
Maybe handling swarms of defenders in college helped Steph Curry to get his shot off even quicker. Maybe Steve Nash’s court vision was heightened at Santa Clara having to pass through walls, being the focal point of every opposing D. Maybe Larry Bird’s infamous chip on his shoulder was born of being consistently doubled and doubted at Indiana State.
Whatever it is, we tend to love athletes nearly lost in the shuffle. Underdogs play with a desire to prove themselves more than a guy on nationally televised college games every week. So here are some of the best smaller program players NCAA ball has to offer in 2016-2017:
Gonzaga and Wichita State have had sustained success and coverage so we’ll forego them here.
If you don’t know the Rhode Island Rams, you will soon.
This long, athletic, wily squad had a productive season last year, but injuries derailed their chances at an at-large bid to the big dance. They are returning tons of talent and will be challenging for a six seed or better in the NCAA tournament. Driving the success for Rhode Island will be slippery lefty EC Matthews. After as stellar sophomore campaign where he averaged 17 points a game, a right knee injury red-shirted him his entire junior campaign.
Matthews will almost certainly be the focal point of an offense that remained fairly efficient in his absence. He’s a versatile offensive guard, using great footwork, head fakes, and changes of speed to keep defenders off balance; this arsenal allows himself to get looks in the midrange where he does the bulk of his damage. The lefty is an extremely capable three-point shooter off the catch, forcing defenders to make difficult decisions when he gets the ball swung to him. Rhode Island ain’t messing around this season.
Using a redshirt transfer year to improve your game, your body, and your maturity worked beautifully for Tyler Cavanaugh.
After playing his first two seasons at Wake Forest (Tim Duncan and Chris Paul’s alma mater), the 6’9” 230 pound Cavanaugh decided to play for the Colonials of George Washington University. His growth in production was outstanding. Developing all elements of his play, he skyrocketed from averaging 8.8 points and 3.8 rebounds as a sophomore to 16.8 and 7.6 as a junior. He also developed a deadly 3-point stroke, knocking down 41.7% of his triples on 3.3 attempts per game. A legitimate Stretch Four with good size, he is the kind of forward modern NBA teams look to stockpile. I fully expect the Atlantic 10 Conference to be the best conference outside of the Power 5.
Another power forward with shooting range that will get NBA looks is Valparaiso’s Alec Peters.
He’s 6’9” with a cold-blooded 43.8% three point stroke and a simple, but effective, post-up game. After freshman and sophomore campaigns where he played some small forward, he developed low post skills and started to play exclusively at power forward. The ability to slide down and lay in a simple drop step or baby hook may look like a simple adjustment, but the offensive diversity was huge for a guy who’s ability to drain corner threes was no secret to anyone nationwide. To add to his repertoire, Peters can put the ball on the floor, where he seems to always drive with purpose and never get out of control; a rare gift for a power forward.
A possible x-factor for Peters is his fierce loyalty; put on display this summer when he made a decision that shocked the college basketball world. A fast study, he was a three year graduate of his program, granting Alec the once in a blue moon gift to transfer to any program in the country without having to redshirt a year. Despite the opportunity to play anywhere, he decided to stay put with the Crusaders. At the next level, whether he is the primary option in your offense or a role player spacing the floor, he will fit in a lot of scenarios and NBA execs are taking notes.
San Diego State’s Malik Pope is a tantalizing NBA draft prospect that is far too intriguing not to spotlight. Coming out of high school, he courted offers from Arizona, Kansas, Oregon, and UCLA before deciding to play for the Aztecs of the Mountain West conference.
What won’t jump off the page about this springy small forward is the 7.3 points and 5 rebounds he averaged as a sophomore. But his cartoonish body proportions will; Pope stands at 6’8” without shoes, good size for a small forward. But what really stands out is his condor-like 7’2” wingspan. This tremendous length allows Pope to be disruptive in passing lanes defensively, and to finish over defenders when he attacks the hoop. He’s shown the ability to knock down threes at an efficient rate and exercises good shot selection.
If this sounds like deja vu, its because Pope has a lot in common with Aztec alumni Kawhi Leonard. After two years not living up to the hype, Malik Pope is poised for a breakout year. Even if he only shows minor improvement, his physical gifts could be enough for an NBA team to take a flyer in the second round.
Last but not least, there is Nevada Wolf Pack’s Cam Oliver.
He’s a muscular 6’8” 230 pound workhorse of a power forward in the Kenneth Faried mold. After a dominant freshman campaign where he averaged 13.4 points and 9.1 rebounds, he entered his name for the NBA draft and withdrew to return to Nevada.
Oliver plays even bigger than his frame, evidenced by his 9.1 rebounds a game, and even more by his eye popping 2.6 blocks. Expect tons of activity around both hoops when he’s on the floor, whether it is keeping a possession alive on offense, or swatting away layups on the back end.
He’s a Stretch Four by any means, but Cam shoots enough jump shots to keep defenders honest, converting on 32.8% behind the arc, an impressive clip for a freshman forward. Although playing on a mediocre squad, he checks tons of boxes and his tireless effort, serviceable shooting, shot blocking, and rebounding ability.
Cam Oliver will play at the next level, like a few darlings who came before him.
“Sons Of Naismith” is a regular column on NCAA ball from a Canadian perspective.
Grayson Allen is the Anti-Hero of the NCAA
Superhero movies generally fill several major character archetypes. Most have a hero and a villain. In mediocre movies, the hero is inherently likeable and the villain is often one dimensionally bad. Think Deadpool’s Ajax, the sadistic mutant who disfigured Deadpool for laughs. Ajax wasn’t particularly interesting and it was satisfying to see him defeated. On the other hand, some villains are engaging to the point of viewers wanting them to stay alive just to face the hero another day. Batman’s Joker has always been very adept at filling this role.
In recent times, we have been introduced to a new kind of superhero movie: that of the anti-hero. Catwoman was terrible (sorry Halle Berry fans), but nonetheless a good example of the genre. Deadpool was definitely an anti-hero with his mercenary ways and foul language. Even Batman toyed with the anti-hero thing. It’s trendy, ok?
With the rise of the anti-hero, there naturally has to be a contrasting force. Sure, you can just be badder than the anti-hero (Deadpool/Ajax) but you can also be an… anti-villain! Wikipedia tells me that’s already a thing, and it’s called a sympathetic villain. Whatever. Moving forward.
Now, everyone knows that superhero movies and their archetypes are basically an exaggerated microcosm of everyday life. All these archetypes exist in our politics, our justice systems, and most prominently: sports. Sports are where the anti-hero/sympathetic villain personas really come into play. It’s easy to make a comic book villain one-dimensional, but it’s a lot harder when it’s a real person. Kevin Durant is currently the NBA’s most prominent anti-hero. People love to hate him, but deep down, you know his heart, head, and shooting stroke are in the right place.
Draymond Green on the other hand, is a straight villain through and through. He accepts that persona and uses it to his personal advantage, much like the Joker. Being a villain suits him, and if anything, the hatred he receives from fans feeds his energy, making him even more unstoppable. Being a smaller power forward, having a reputation as a man who will do anything is a blessing/curse only Green could bear.
Before this turns into a bad Buzzfeed article, I’d like to direct your attention towards a very unique origin story that has been developing in front of our very eyes for the last year. Our protagonist of the hour’s name is Grayson Allen and he is nearing a pretty important phase of development. But first: let’s set the stage.
Two years and three months ago, a fresh-faced kid from Jacksonville, Florida took the floor for Duke University. He averaged 4.4 points and 9 minutes a game–not bad for a freshman, especially one on a basketball powerhouse like Duke. The kid was good. Then, in the span of one national championship game, the kid became great.
One might remember the 2014-15 Duke Blue Devils for a variety of reasons, all of them in the first year of their college careers. Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones were the freshmen to watch. Allen was the prodigal odd man out, coming off the bench behind his heavily discussed teammates to little fanfare. Then, the 2015 NCAA championship happened.
He scored 16 points, a season high for him in a game in which Okafor was contained to just 10 points by Wisconsin senior Frank Kaminsky. Despite his newfound success, he chose to be the only one in the freshman Duke trio to remain; both Jones and Okafor declared for the NBA draft following the season.
The next year, he came back as a leader. He claimed so many accolades, they can’t even fit them on one page on the Duke website. It was mostly a good season, except for one little issue: Allen had been reprimanded on two separate occasions for deliberate tripping. Not a great look for a team’s star player. Regardless, he apologized, expressed his regret, and moved on–or so it seemed. Once again, he put off declaring for the NBA draft.
This year was supposed to be his year. He was projected as Sports Illustrated’s Player of the year and was exceeding expectations by the time December hit. Averaging 16 points a game and leading his team in assists, Allen was a key part of Duke’s success.
Then, it happened again. Allen tripped Steven Santa Ana of Elon, then proceeded to throw a temper tantrum when slapped with the technical:
He proceeded to sob his way through his postgame interview like me when Rita died in Dexter (still not okay, thanks for asking). His intensity and immense lack of emotional composure caught fans off guard. Takes ranged from the predictable “he’s a baby” and “there’s no crying in basketball” to deep think pieces about potential mental illness.
That brings us more or less back to the present. Coach Mike Krzyzewski threw his star guard an “indefinite suspension” and stripped him of his captaincy. The suspension lasted one Duke loss, before Allen was re-instated, just in time for ACC play.
Regardless of your take on the effectiveness of his punishment, one cannot deny that Allen is at a key point of his career. If we’re talking superhero origin stories, Allen is about to become either an anti-hero or the least sympathetic sympathetic villain of all time.
Should he repent for the tripping and proceed to finish his college career in a clean fashion, he will be known as the troubled Duke player who reformed himself for the good of his team. Obviously, critics will still deem him dirty, but every anti-hero has their critics.
If he trips again, he will be forced to own it. He will have to accept and own the reputation Draymond-style, or his intensity will be his own downfall. You saw him in post-game interviews. He mentally will not be able to withstand his own nature. He’s always been his own harshest critic and never before have we seen such a conflicted villain.
Duke will take on Boston College on Saturday. Only time will tell if Allen has chosen his path. As all superhero fans know… there’s always a sequel. To be continued.
Sons of Naismith | Tip Off
125 years after Canadian Dr. James Naismith created the game of basketball, his sons are permeating the game more than he could have ever imagined. This past season there were 92 Canadians in NCAA Men’s Basketball, and the number is growing every year. More importantly, these Canadians are taking on bigger and bigger roles on winning teams. Here is a look at north of the border guys who are going to dominate college basketball this year.
Nazareth Mitrou-Long, who goes by Naz Long, is locked and loaded to terrorize Big 12 backcourts and lead the Iowa State Cyclones back to March Madness, where they have been a mainstay the last several years. This Mississauga, Ontario native isn’t the first canuck to take the court for the Cyclones, as fan favorite and Canadian National Team member Melvin Ejim also laced them up for Iowa State. Faulty hips caused Long to shut down after only eight games last season, but an NCAA-granted medical redshirt allowed him another year of eligibility. At age 23, Long will be trusted to lead a team who graduated a boatload of talent and production last year. Naz won’t light up the stat sheet, but his guidance and defensive toughness will ensure Cyclone success.
If you’re looking for a hooper who embodies Canadian stereotypes like being reserved and over-polite, you aren’t going to find it with Xavier Rathan-Mayes. This Florida State sniper, known as “X” to friends and broadcasters, is going to blaze down the court, cross you over, then drain a deep three—and he isn’t going to say sorry.
Rathan-Mayes has a big personality and NBA aspirations, something you’d expect from a guy who played with Andrew Wiggins and Tyler Ennis on several AAU and international teams growing up. His dynamic scoring made headlines against Miami where he exploded for 30 points in 4:38 (seriously, think about that for a minute) in an inspiring comeback attempt that fell short. At 6’4” and 190 pounds, Xavier will be transitioning to more point this year in an attempt to improve his first round draft stock.
Here is extremely exciting news: The Oregon Ducks might be the best team in the NCAA, and they have so many Canadians they might as well be called the Oregon Loonies. Ranked #5 in the country going into the season, I’ve got them pegged to win the NCAA tournament. They start a trio of Canadians that arguably are the best players on the roster.
Their ringleader is Dillon Brooks, who is the straw that stirs the drink, and I will boldly predict he wins Player of the Year in College basketball this season. A versatile 6’7”, Brooks is ready to answer the call at both ends of the floor. He averaged 16.7 points alongside 5.4 boards and 3.1 dimes, while locking down wings and chipping in 1.1 steals a game. It will be very interesting to see if he decides to go pro after this season.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, anticipated Chris Boucher to succeed at the level he did for Oregon last year. A 6’9” beanpole out of Montreal, Boucher was a high school dropout with no college offers, working as a dishwasher to help support his family. His fortunes changed when a Junior College coach saw him dominating a pickup game, which lead to Boucher playing competitive ball again. After quickly developing his game, he won Junior College player of the year in 2014, which led Oregon coach Dana Altman to give him an opportunity.
Despite criticisms of Boucher’s slight frame, questionable basketball history, and unorthodox style, Altman threw him into the starting lineup where he became one of the Pac-12’s best big men. Boucher is a rare combination of shot blocking and three-point shooting. He set a new Pac-12 record this past season as the only player with over 100 blocks and 35 three-pointers in a year. When the Ducks dominates this season, expect Chris Boucher to become a folk hero in the pacific northwest.
The third member of Oregon’s Canadian trio is Dylan Ennis, a transfer from Villanova. He’s a prototypical glue guy that any college team would love to have. Ennis is the older brother of Houston Rocket Tyler Ennis (yes, older brother). Dylan is entering his sixth year of college basketball after being granted two redshirt years. A fellow pass first point guard, Dylan is a reliable distributor that looks to get his team into the offence quickly. Ennis’ veteran savvy could be the x-factor that gets Oregon deep into the tournament come March.
More Sons Of Naismith:
Mychal Mulder might be one of the best kept secrets in college basketball. Playing at Kentucky behind yet another Canadian Jamal Murray last year, this Windsor, Ontario guard didn’t get many minutes. But he was a four star recruit who will have a better opportunity to play now and show his worth.
Joseph Chartouny, a guard from Montreal, won Rookie of the Year in a very talented Atlantic-10 conference for the Fordham Rams, and I can’t wait to see what he follows up with this season.
And finally, these Canadians are on ESPN’s Top 100 recruiting class of 2017:
#29 Nickell Alexander-Walker (Toronto) is going to Virginia Tech.
#44 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Toronto) is uncommitted.
#49 Lindell Wigginton (Dartmouth, Nova Scotia) is going to Iowa State.
#83 Christian David (Milton, Ontario) is going to Butler.
Sons Of Naismith is a column on NCAA Basketball from a Canadian perspective.
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Trading Places | The Break | Episode 18
Christmas Day Showdowns | The Break | Episode 10
Western Conference Preview | The Break | Episode 1
Eastern Conference Preview | The Break | Episode 2
NBA & More Mailbag with Josh Howe — TWT 102
Memphis Grizzlies Season Preview with Keith Parish — TWT 101
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