Mid-Major Stars to Watch in 2014-15 College Basketball Season

For all of you who grow fatigued by the BIG conferences and their subsequent BIG players, feel free to turn your attention to some of the lesser-known basketball properties.

The mid-majors always make some sort of a name for themselves come tournament time. The Gonzagas and the Wichita States of the college basketball landscapes are populated with lots of talent. The problem is we rarely hear of them until February and March. No more!

Read on to see 10 mid-major stars ready to make an impact from now through March.

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Meet R.J. Hunter, the Top Mid-Major 2015 NBA Draft Prospect

It’s not always easy to judge how valuable a mid-major NBA draft prospect is, as it’s tough to translate small-school success to the pro ranks.

But sometimes you just know a flat-out baller when you see one.

That’s the case for 6’5″ Georgia State junior R.J. Hunter, the sweet-shooting 2-guard who earned 2013-14 Sun Belt Player of the Year honors. As a sophomore, he scored 18.3 points per game, poured in 100 three-pointers and led the Panthers to the conference title game.

The 20-year-old from Indianapolis brought his elite skills to Georgia State because his father, Ron Hunter, is the squad’s head coach. Coming out of Pike High School, he received offers from programs such as Iowa, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and Oregon State.

It’s safe to say he’s far more than mid-major material. And in the near future, he’ll be NBA material.

Hunter’s draft appeal is driven largely by his combination of shooting prowess and size.

He’s got an ultra-fluid and incredibly quick delivery, and he’s long enough to release over wings at the next level. In addition to his 6’5″ stature, he owns a 6’9.5″ wingspan.

After drilling 73 triples as a freshman, he upped his volume and hit 100 during 2013-14. Despite hoisting more threes as a sophomore, he actually increased his efficiency beyond the arc from 37 percent to 40 percent.

Deep threes are no sweat for Hunter. He relishes scoring from NBA range (or farther), and he’s not afraid to attempt 10 or more three-pointers in a given game. Check out his range and overall instincts as he drops 31 points on UT Arlington to fuel Georgia State’s comeback:

He followed up his Sun Belt exploits with a head-turning display at the LeBron James Skills Academy in July. Hunter shot the ball exceptionally well against college peers and caught the attention of media and scouts.

Hunter told Doug Roberson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was pleased with his performance, and he knows onlookers took heed.

“I thought I shot it pretty well,” Hunter said. “I’m usually pretty streaky but I was consistent all throughout the week. I wasn’t doing anything outside my game. If there was a pass to be made I’d pass; if there was a shot, I’d shoot. I think people noticed.”

Terrific off-ball movement sets the table for his prolific shooting. Whether it’s a flare screen, a curl screen or a ball screen, he knows how to lose his defender expertly and catch the ball ready to score.

And once he gets the rock, he’s often more than just a catch-and-shoot player. No one will label him a dynamic dribbler or a great athlete, but he can attack with either hand and is quick and creative off the bounce. He’s wafer-thin, yet he scores quite proficiently through contact.

Kyle Nelson of DraftExpress broke down Hunter’s repertoire:

While his ball-handling ability is far from elite, he has a few moves, particularly a crossover and step back, which are particularly helpful for him to create shots off the dribble…Furthermore, he is a very adept shot creator out of the pick-and-roll, both for himself and his teammates. As a shooter, he does a very good job of using his size and savvy to see over screens, either hoisting up a long jumper or attacking the lane off of the dribble.

In 2013-14, Hunter asserted himself and got to the charity stripe frequently. He took 5.8 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes, and he coolly sank 88 percent of them. Perhaps more impressively, he committed just 1.4 turnovers per 40 minutes despite a hefty usage percentage of 26.1.

Looking forward to his offensive role in the NBA, he’ll be able to help his club in several ways. He can attack closeouts and drive using his length and dexterity, and he can also score from mid-range and collaborate brilliantly with teammates.

Ultimately, outside shooting is his greatest asset. He’ll be more than a spot-up specialist, but finding and making triples will make up the majority of his role. His collegiate stat comparisons put him in good company with some smart, savvy shooters:

Will he actually perform like any of these studs in the NBA?

The Reggie Miller comparisons are a bit premature; however, you can tell he shares the same traits as some top-tier perimeter players. He could become a poor man’s Kevin Martin (key phrase there is “poor man’s”), doing damage with and without the rock.

Projecting his defensive capabilities beyond the Sun Belt conference is a little tricky. Georgia State primarily plays zone defense, so there’s not much recent footage of his man-to-man skills.

According to Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress, one of the biggest questions scouts have about Hunter is whether he can defend NBA shooting guards.

As we touched on earlier, he’s not a top-shelf athlete. He’ll struggle to keep explosive guards in front of him, and he’ll have to rely on length and footwork.

Hunter’s freshman year was shaky defensively, but, fortunately, he and the rest of Georgia State were more effective in 2013-14. His defensive rating in conference play went from 103.5 to 97.8, as he exhibited better footwork and alertness.

When you weigh his underwhelming tools against his respectable progress in 2013-14, Hunter looks like he’ll be somewhere around an average NBA defender. Not horrible, but certainly not a standout.

As he embarks on his pivotal junior campaign, look for him to post similar or better numbers from three-point land along with increased assist production. His point totals may not increase dramatically, but his overall offensive impact will grow.

Hunter won’t shine defensively, but don’t be surprised if his foul rate goes down while he maintains the same amount of steals.

If he makes those anticipated improvements, he’ll be well worth a first-round selection. ESPN’s Chad Ford (subscription required) reminds us that “shooters always rise in the draft, and Hunter has a ton of potential.”

His basement as a pro is a benchwarmer in the NBA, which would soon be followed by a trip overseas. His ceiling, however, is a key role player, someone providing an offensive boost in the rotation. Hunter will stretch opposing defenses as a sharpshooter and also find some buckets inside the arc.

Don’t sleep on him as he enters his junior year, because he’ll be the best mid-major product in the 2015 class.

 

Dan O’Brien covers the NBA draft for Bleacher Report.

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Predicting the Top Mid-Major Stars for the 2014-15 College Basketball Season

In case you stopped counting a few years back, Division I college basketball has swelled to a whopping 351 teams. Of those 351, the bulk of our TV/talk radio/Internet reading traffic usually seems to center on about, oh, six or seven.

OK, that’s an exaggeration, but it’s slighter than you might think.

Some fans eyes may glaze over when we start throwing around the ever-fluid term “mid-major,” since it’s unlikely that those fans are hard-core enough to pay attention to any of these teams until they’re trying to explain some of their head-scratching office pool picks every March.

Still, there’s plenty of talent outside of the conferences with national TV deals on ESPN or Fox Sports 1. There are players who may be fun to watch if fans simply stay up late enough or spend a few extra minutes searching for the right streaming services.

These 20 players (and 20 honorable mention picks because we’re really nice guys here at B/R) are ones who any serious college basketball fan should go seek out at least once this season. That way, you’ll have a personal frame of reference when you’re trying to pontificate on why Harvard or Georgia State will be NCAA tournament sleepers.

 

Players from the following conferences were not considered for this list: ACC, American, Atlantic 10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Mountain West, Pac-12 and SEC.

Plus, top programs Gonzaga (16 straight NCAA tournaments and 13 straight years of at least one AP Top 25 ranking) and Wichita State (a Final Four and a one-loss season in the past two years) were excluded.

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Mid-major teams that have Cinderella potential

USA TODAY Sports examines the best story lines for the 2014-15 college basketball season.

      
 

 

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Breaking down mid-major mania

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NBA Draft 2014: Previewing Top Mid-Major Conference Tournament Prospects

There aren’t many, but there will be a few NBA prospects playing in some of the mid-major tournaments coming up—and for draft fans, they deserve your attention. 

This is a chance to see some of those sleeper prospects who rarely hit national television. And any tournament setting is a chance for a prospect to make a statement. 

Every year we see players from lower-profile schools hear their names called on draft night. These are the guys who’ll be in the conversation should they choose to declare in 2014. 

Note: I did not consider the Big East Conference or the American Athletic Conference mid-major. 

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2014 NCAA Tournament: Mid-Major Conferences Most Likely to Grab at-Large Bids

For every extra Cinderella that enters the field of 68, a power conference bubble team loses its wings.

Bubble watching becomes a pastime in and of itself this time of year. Who will crack the dance? After the 31 automatic bids go out for conference tournament winners, it’s a land grab for the remaining at-large bids.

For the so-called power conferences, winning the tourney is almost a bonus for some teams. On the other end of the spectrum, the automatic bid is the only ticket to the dance for some of the lower mid-major leagues.

And then there are the conferences in the middle that have a foot in both camps. These are the leagues and teams that create bracketology’s true X-factor. Call them the middle of the mid-majors, if you like, but if you’re a fan of any basketball powerhouse school, you may be more likely to call them spoilers.

Here are the mid-major conferences and teams that could play that role this year by unexpectedly landing more at-large dance cards than expected. 

If you’re one of the fans who will be on the edge of your seat come Selection Sunday, consider this your pocket guide to some of the mid-major tournaments to keep a close eye on as the big moment approaches.

 

All stats provided by ESPN unless otherwise noted.

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March Madness 2014: Unheralded Mid-Major Teams Who Will Make Noise in Tournament

With Wichita State still holding on to a perfect season and Gonzaga having another strong campaign, it looks as though this could be a great year for mid-major teams in college basketball. The definition of “mid-major” seems to be evolving, though.

While the Shockers and Zags are technically mid-majors due to the fact that they come from smaller conferences, the mid-major tag ends there. Both are big-time programs that have had a large measure of success in March over the years, and they won’t enter the NCAA tournament as underdogs by any stretch of the imagination.

True mid-majors are looked at as a group of Davids in comparison to the Goliaths of the power conferences. They aren’t expected to make it past the round of 64, and it is considered a triumph of epic proportions whenever they do.

For every Wichita State and Gonzaga, there are many more mid-major teams that will enter the NCAA tournament in hopes of becoming this year’s Florida Gulf Coast. Here are three programs that are in position to make that a reality.

 

Buffalo

A quick look at the MAC standings shows the Buffalo Bulls as the No. 4 team in the conference in terms of overall record at 16-8, but a deeper dive reveals much more. The Bulls are currently first in the MAC East with a 10-4 conference mark, and they have a golden opportunity to make their first NCAA tournament appearance this season.

UB has been on fire in MAC play, with three of its four conference losses coming by three points or less. The Bulls have beaten top competition like Akron and Western Michigan, and they will absolutely be in the mix for a MAC title along with Toledo and Ohio. While the MAC has a solid core of teams this year, it looks very much like a one-bid conference, which means that Buffalo will have to win the MAC tournament in order to take part in March Madness.

The driving force behind UB‘s surge this season has been the play of senior forward Javon McCrea. At 6’7″ and 250 pounds, McCrea is built like LeBron James, and he has decimated MAC competition to the tune of 19 points and 10 rebounds per game, along with better than two blocks and assists per game and nearly two steals per game.

Few players in college basketball stuff the stat sheet like McCrea, yet he hasn’t received the credit he so richly deserves. Following a dominant showing earlier in the month, UB head coach Bobby Hurley had high praise for his star forward:

McCrea may be a secret right now, but that won’t last much longer. The national media is finally starting to take notice, including Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports, who pegged McCrea as a name to keep in mind come tournament time:

McCrea rates third in the nation on player efficiency rating, according to ESPN.com, well ahead of stars like Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas’ Joel Embiid. McCrea won’t be able to do it all on his own, but if supporting players like Joshua Freelove and Will Regan step up in the latter stages of the season, then Buffalo will be a very dangerous team come tournament time.

 

Harvard

While Harvard is certainly better known for its academics than its athletics, the Crimson have built quite a competitive basketball program in recent years. Harvard is unquestionably the class of the Ivy League once again this season, and it already has some experience in terms of playing spoiler in the NCAA tournament.

Last year, Harvard knocked off No. 3 New Mexico as a No. 14 seed, and there is no reason why it can’t do something similar in 2014. Harvard boasts a record of 22-4 with some quality wins, including one over a Boston College team that handed Syracuse its first loss. Also, Harvard lost to Connecticut by just five points, which is proof positive that the Crimson can hang with power-conference giants.

Depth is the name of the game for Harvard, with six players averaging 9.5 points or more per game this season. Harvard also boasts a player who can take games over in the form of junior swingman Wesley Saunders. He has been a dominant force in the Ivy League, but Rothstein believes that he could be productive anywhere:

That will be put to the test come tournament time since Harvard will likely be faced with a big-name opponent. Even though the Crimson aren’t being talked about much right now, they are battle-tested and ready to break some hearts in the tourney once again.

 

Green Bay

The Green Bay Phoenix women’s basketball program has developed into a national power over the past several years, and that has naturally overshadowed the men’s team in many ways. The roles have suddenly reversed, however, and the men’s program now appears poised to potentially do some damage in March.

Green Bay has dominated the Horizon League to the tune of a 12-2 conference mark and 22-5 overall record. Although the Horizon League is viewed as weak by some, Green Bay has an impressive resume. The Phoenix beat a Virginian team that is now ranked No. 12 in the nation, and they lost by just three points to No. 14 Wisconsin. Add in the fact that diminutive point guard Keifer Sykes is averaging over 20 points per game, and there’s a lot to like about Green Bay with the season winding down.

One person who believes in the team’s tournament prospects is head coach Brian Wardle, who feels as though the underdog tag will work in Green Bay’s favor, according to Brian Hamilton of SI.com.

We have to keep our edge. We’ve got a lot of guys in that locker room that have chips on their shoulders, that want to prove to people what they’re made of. We need to keep that and stay grounded and humble and hungry. And if we have a little bit of luck, I’d love to have the opportunity to show people what Green Bay basketball is all about.

The Phoenix have everything that you look for in a potential bracket buster, with a pair of stars in Sykes and Alec Brown along with some quality performances against top teams. All of that points to Green Bay being one of the NCAA tournament’s most feared mid-majors.

 

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