Mid-Major Basketball’s Breakout Stars in 2017-18

By Kevin Sweeney

Each year, I spend much of the offseason looking for the next superstar: guys with solid numbers early in their careers who explode and turn into college basketball’s elite. Now in the heart of the conference season, I’ll take a look at the guys who have done just that. Some of these breakout stars were easy to see coming, others absolutely came out of nowhere. Here’s my top 10 breakout stars at the mid-major level.

Luwane Pipkins (UMass)

Matt McCall has quickly started to change the culture at UMass, and the biggest beneficiary of that has been Pipkins. After a solid freshman campaign a season ago, Pipkins has established himself as one of the A10’s best this season, upping his scoring efficiency across the board en route to averaging nearly 20 points and 4 assists per game. Still just a sophomore, the sky is the limit for the Chicago native.

Jerrick Harding (Weber State)

Randy Rahe has made a living from developing his players over 4 years, and Harding is no exception. The sophomore has become one of the elite scorers in all of college basketball, more than doubling his scoring output from his freshman season. He’s coming off a recent 10-game stretch in which he averaged 24.8 points per game while shooting 57% from the field. When you combine that type of efficiency with the scoring mentality that Harding has, it’s impossible to stop.

Max Heidegger (UCSB)

Heideger’s number increases this season are honestly a bit hard to believe. He went from an inefficient volume bench scorer as a freshman to an high-level shooter and pure scorer this season. To me, he’s the frontrunner for Big West Player of the Year and a huge reason Joe Pasternack has been able to execute such a massive turnaround this season.

Nathan Knight (William & Mary)

I picked Knight as my breakout player of the year in the CAA, but even I didn’t expect him to be this good. Tony Shaver has designed his offensive system with 4 guards on the perimeter surrounding the big man Knight, giving him lots of space to operate in the post. Knight protects the rim, rebounds the ball proficiently, and is an efficient scorer on the low block- in short, everything you want in a mid-major big man.

Ajdin Penava (Marshall)

Penava was a solid bench big for his first 2 seasons in Huntington, but has blossomed into an absolute star in his junior season. Not only has he diversified his offensive game to be able to score inside and out, he currently leads the nation in blocked shots per game at a ridiculous 4.4 per contest. His ability to make such a big impact on games at both ends of the floor makes him one of the most indispensable players in the country.

Isaiah Reese (Canisius)

Reese showed some promise in his freshman campaign in Buffalo, but I didn’t see the explosion that Reese has had this season coming. The 6-5 sophomore from Miami looks like a legitimate candidate for MAAC Player of the Year and even a sneaky NBA prospect. He brings limitless range and the ability to run the show on offense to the table, as well as a silky-smoothness that is just plain fun to watch.

Dylan Windler (Belmont)

Mostly known as a 3-point shooter last season, Windler has improved his all-around game this season to help replace Evan Bradds’ production. He’s an extremely efficient offensive weapon now, shooting 56% from the field and a lights-out 45% from downtown. Windler is also a force on the glass, snatching 9 caroms per game for the Ohio Valley leaders.

Kevon Harris (Stephen F. Austin)

Harris has asserted himself as the best player on a SFA team that is 16-3 and one of the best mid-major clubs in college basketball. The 6-6 sophomore has really improved as a shooter from his freshman season, as he went from a middling 33% to an elite 46% from downtown this season. Watch out for this guy and the Lumberjacks come March Madness.

Matej Kavas (Seattle U)

Cameron Dollar left one amazing present for Jim Hayford after being fired: Matej Kavas. After playing solid basketball in his first season, Hayford has gotten the most out of the Slovenian sophomore this season. At 6-8 with guard skills, Kavas is a massive matchup nightmare for WAC opposition, and is on track for a special career as one of the building blocks of Hayford’s program.

Yoeli Childs (BYU)

Putting Childs on my WCC preseason first team was one of my best takes of the preseason. Simply put, he’s been a beast. In a league where Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s (especially Jock Landale) get all the publicity, Childs has flown under the radar as one of the best big men in country. The scariest part: Childs is only getting better, and it is going to be really fun to watch him develop over the rest of his career in Provo.

Pretender or Contender: A Look at Conference Play’s Early Overachievers

By Kevin Sweeney

Conference play is in full swing, and with that we finally have a better feel for the majority of the teams in the college basketball. As several teams have gotten off to unexpectedly hot starts to open the conference slate, now’s a great time to take a look at which teams we should believe in and which teams can’t be expected to remain at the top of their conference for the long term.

Atlantic Ten: Duquesne

Status: Pretender

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love what Keith Dambrot has done (and continues to do) in his first year at Duquesne. I just don’t think they can continue to fight for a top 3-4 spot in the A10, even with the league down. This team’s lack of depth will be a challenge as conference play wears on, and while the Dukes have been stout defensively, I’m not sure they will have thSe scoring punch to get to the 12 or so conference wins that it will take for a top 4 finish. That said, the fact that Dambrot has the Dukes in position to be a top half team in the A10 with a massive influx of talent coming next year is wildly impressive.

Big South: Radford

Status: Contender

The Big South has appeared much more wide open than the 3-horse race many expected it to be in the preseason, but perhaps the biggest surprise has been Radford. The Highlanders have quietly won 6 of 7 and 4 of 5 to start Big South play, including wins over perennial powers UNC-Asheville and Winthrop. Ed Polite has continued his emergence into one of the Big South’s best (20 ppg, 10.4 rpg in conference play), while freshman guard Carlik Jones has been proficient at scoring the basketball early in his collegiate career. I believe the Highlanders have a real chance to contend for a conference title.

CAA: William & Mary

Status: Contender

Tony Shaver’s club came into the 2017-18 season with low expectations from the media, but the Tribe have been wildly impressive so far. Nathan Knight has blossomed into one of the best big men in the country, and W&M runs remarkably efficient offense with excellent floor-spacing and distribution. With 3 of the next 4 on the road, we’ll learn quickly if my read on things is correct and the Tribe are ready to contend for a CAA title and their first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.

Horizon League: Wright State

Status: Contender

Perhaps no team has been a bigger surprise to start conference play than Wright State, who knocked off Youngstown State this afternoon to move to 6-0 in Horizon League play. Freshman big man Loudon Love has been a revelation, averaging close to a double-double while giving Scott Nagy a reliable frontcourt presence. Meanwhile, the midseason addition of Cole Gentry, a South Dakota State transfer, has been huge. Gentry has added another steady ballhandler and shooter to WSU’s rotation, and the Raiders are 8-0 in games he’s played at least 20 minutes in. With Oakland not living up to the preseason hype, the door has been opened for Wright State to make a run for the Horizon League title.

MAAC: Canisius

Status: Pretender

I went back and forth with this one, but I’m just not sold yet on this team. The trio of Jermaine Crumpton, Isaiah Reese, and Takal Molson has the capability of beating almost any team in the MAAC. That said, the Golden Griffins have been inconsistent this season and have enjoyed home court in 4 of their 6 conference games thus far. With 4 of their next 5 on the road including 3 of the top 5 teams in the conference, we’ll know quickly if Canisius, picked 9th in the MAAC in the preseason, can make a push towards the NCAA Tournament.

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Much of the core of last season’s Canisius team graduated, such as Phil Valenti (#22), Keifer Douse (#4), and Kassius Robertson (#5), yet the Golden Griffins have been one of the most impressive teams in the MAAC in the early-going. Photo by Kevin Sweeney/CBB Central

 Missouri Valley: Drake

Status: Contender

Drake’s massive turnaround in year one of the Niko Medved era has been one of the better stories of the college basketball season. Medved inherited a senior-laden roster and has led it to a 5-1 start to MVC play. Reed Timmer is one of the most underrated guards in college basketball, and Nick McGlynn has had a major breakout season to give the Bulldogs a big boost in the frontcourt. If they can survive the upcoming 3-game stretch of Northern Iowa, Missouri State, and Loyola, the Bulldogs should be in prime position for a top-3 seed in Arch Madness this March.

Ohio Valley: Austin Peay

Status: Pretender

Yet another program with a hot start under a first-year head coach, what Matt Figger has done in year one at APSU is nothing short of remarkable. Behind a grad transfer and 2 stud freshmen, Figger has his club out to a 5-1 start in OVC play including an 87-67 drubbing of Jacksonville State on Saturday. That said, the Govs have had a fairly easy schedule early in conference play, and I still think they will struggle with Belmont and Murray State at the top of that conference.

Nico Clareth to Transfer From Siena

By Kevin Sweeney

The Nico Clareth era at Siena is over.

The Uber-talented but sometimes enigmatic junior guard will not return to the Siena men’s basketball program after taking a leave from the team last week, the School announced today. Clareth will attend Siena as a student in the spring before transferring. He’ll have 1 year of eligibility left after presumably sitting out the 2018-19 season.

Clareth began his tenure in Loudonville with a bang, wowing Siena fans with thunderous dunks and 3-point shooting frenzies en route to winning MAAC 6th Man of the Year as a freshman.

But a career in green and gold that once looked so promising hit roadblock after roadblock over the next 2 seasons. There was an offseason knee surgery that took longer than expected to heal. An indefinite leave of absence during his sophomore season. Rumblings of chemistry issues. But Clareth put those concerns on hold with a performance for the ages in the MAAC Tournament last season against Monmouth, where he exploded for 27 points in the second half on a bum ankle to lead the Saints to a thrilling victory.

After being named a captain in the offseason, it appeared that Clareth had turned a corner. But sources have told me that the Saints had chemistry issues once again, and Clareth left the team before the team’s game on 1/5. The Saints are 5-12 in a rebuilding campaign this season with a young team.

There is no doubt that Clareth has the talent to play at any level in college basketball. At 6-5, he can get to anywhere he wants on the floor, has plus athleticism, and a 3-point stroke that when hot is absolutely unstoppable. But there will be without a doubt concerns about what has transpired over the last 2 seasons as he looks for a new home for his final season of college basketball.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder if this departure is the nail in the coffin for Siena Head Coach Jimmy Patsos, as his team struggles the year after a disappointing 17-17 season. Patsos is 74-80 in his 5th year at Siena, and former Siena beat writer Tim Reynolds (now a writer for the AP in Florida) tweeted this last week: “There is a growing sentiment among people close to the Siena program that major changes are necessary. Some don’t want to wait until March, either.”

UMass, Duquesne Showing Just How Important Good Coaching Is

By Kevin Sweeney

In many ways, the UMass and Duquesne basketball programs are in the same place right now.

In other ways, they couldn’t be more different.

The UMass program is one with tradition, just 20 years removed from being perennial top 25 team in John Calipari’s tenure as head coach, an era capped by a Final Four trip in 1996. Duquesne on the other hand has always been little brother in its own city to mighty Pitt, without an NCAA Tournament appearance in the last 40 years and owning just two 20-wins seasons in that timeframe.

Yet both programs reached a crossroads this offseason, having to make coaching hires that would have a lasting impact on the uncertain futures of their programs. UMass chose the young Matt McCall, a 36-year-old with just 2 years of head coaching experience but an already-impressive resume from his time working his way up the coaching ladder at Florida under Billy Donovan. Meanwhile, Duquesne lured the 59-year-old Keith Dambrot, old enough to be McCall’s dad, from Akron to turn around their program. With more than 400 career wins to his name and the endorsement of LeBron James, Dambrot appeared a slam dunk to turn around the struggling Duquesne program.

Now, less than 10 months since taking over, both programs are in significantly better shape than they have been in quite a while. How? Despite their obvious differences, both McCall and Dambrot have employed similar strategies to bring their programs to relevance in such short amounts of time.

The Undervalued

Carl Pierre and Eric Williams Jr. might be the two best freshmen in the Atlantic Ten. They certainly are two of the most important.

Neither had a Division 1 offer at the conclusion of their senior season of high school basketball. Neither may be playing Division 1 basketball right now if not for the coaching changes that put McCall and Dambrot at the helm of their respective programs.

Pierre was leaning towards a year of prep school despite an outstanding career at BC High in Boston until McCall came calling. After seeing 7 players transfer out of the program following Derek Kellogg’s firing, McCall needed players who could contribute right away and fit the culture he was trying to build. The 6-4 sharpshooter known as an extremely hard worker and a gym rat was perfect for what McCall was looking. Now, Pierre is averaging more than 10 points per game and leads the A10 in 3-point percentage, and every time he plays it becomes harder and harder to fathom how he was available by the time McCall came calling in May.

Eric Williams put up excellent numbers and helped lead his team to a state championship in Michigan. Yet he didn’t receive his first Division 1 offer until April. He had developed a relationship with current Duquesne assistant Charles Thomas when he was with Dambrot at Akron, but it was far from a guarantee that Dambrot’s staff would have a scholarship available for Williams. But once at Duquesne, Dambrot had plenty of scholarships to work with, and after visiting campus, Williams was offered and committed to the Dukes. He’s currently averaging 14.2 ppg and 9.7 rpg and continues to impress with his composure for a freshman getting his first taste of Division 1 basketball. Williams is the type of kid that won Dambrot so many games at Akron, a hard worker who would take coaching and develop over 4 years into all-conference players.

The Transfers

While McCall and Dambrot each wanted to win right away, it would have been unrealistic to try to find enough immediately eligible talent to compete in the A10 given how late a start each got in building their rosters. Instead, the two programs cornered the market on transfers, with McCall bringing in 5 D1 transfers and Dambrot bringing in 6. Just two of those 11 combined were immediately eligible graduate transfers, and one of those, Jaylen Brantley of UMass, was unable to ever suit up for the Minutemen after a heart condition was discovered that ended his career. However, these sit-out transfers, who come from programs as large as Memphis, LSU, and Rutgers and as small as Miami (OH) and Akron, will provide massive talent injections to these two programs in 2018-19.

UMASS DUQUESNE

The entire list of transfers becoming eligible in 2018-19 for UMass and Duquesne

Changing the Culture

At UMass, McCall inherited a roster made up of some highly-regarded recruits, but the culture surrounding that program was a mess. The team reportedly had some major chemistry issues, and fans rued the team’s disorganization in-game. While several of those talented pieces followed Kellogg out the door, that allowed McCall to change the vibe around the program immediately. Now, the team plays with a discipline and organization not seen in the Kellogg era. A perfect example of this is how McCall handled sophomore forward Chris Baldwin. Baldwin was benched in the Minutemen’s loss to South Carolina after playing a key role early in the season, and after the game, McCall criticized Baldwin’s approach. With just 8 scholarship players at his disposal, McCall could have easily continued to play Baldwin, but he chose to bench the sophomore and establish the culture he wants for the program. Baldwin has worked his way back into McCall’s good graces and played a key role in his team’s upset win over Georgia.

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McCall’s (pictured) ability to change the culture surrounding this UMass program is a big reason for the Minutemen’s early success this season. Photo by Will Hannum, [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Meanwhile, one of the biggest and most consistent winners in college basketball inherited a program that hadn’t seen many victories in recent years.

“I’m trying to make them understand how to win,” Dambrot said in November, per an article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “When it’s 70-68 with three minutes to play, are they going to believe they can win or not? That’s going to be the key to the whole thing, because in the past they haven’t.

After struggling in close games early in the season, the Dukes have won 3 consecutive games decided by less than 10 points. That includes knocking off perennial A10 power Dayton 70-62 on Saturday in a game that the Dukes trailed 61-60 with less than 5 minutes to play. Simply put, Duquesne didn’t win those types of games under previous coaches.

A big part of that was getting all-A10 freshman Mike Lewis to buy into what Dambrot was selling, convincing him to stay at Duquesne and lead the program into the future. Lewis has thrived, averaging over 16 points per game, and the Dukes have improved on the defensive end, an area where Dambrot’s Akron teams always thrived.

Recruiting

It is commonly said that recruiting is the lifeblood of any college basketball program, and both McCall and Dambrot have put together dynamite classes that fit their program’s needs in 2018. UMass has 2 commits, landing top-150 wing Samba Diallo and 3-star point guard Tre’ Wood. Both are high-level talents and come from talent-rich areas, with Diallo coming from the metro New York area and Wood coming from Baltimore. Duquesne has already landed 5 commitments, including 4 of whom who stand 6-9 or taller. With Dambrot a coach who loves to play through the post with dominant big men, this is exactly the class Dambrot needed to build.

The future has been bright at both of these programs since the day their new coaches were hired, but the early success each coach has had gives me reason to believe UMass and Duquesne will be competing for Atlantic Ten titles sooner rather than later.

 

Notable Midseason Transfer Tracker

By Kevin Sweeney

As we reach the semester break across the country, we also reach the time for midseason transfers. Whether they be freshmen who quickly realized that their school is not the place for them or upperclassmen leaving the team for various reasons, there is certainly talent to be found midseason that could make a huge impact down the road. I’ll be keeping the list updated with impact guys who’ve announced they’ll transfer and where they wind up throughout the season.

Note: This is not a list of all midseason transfers. This is just a list of the top ones available. 

Curtis Jones, Indiana

A native of Richmond, VA, Jones saw his role diminishing under new head coach Archie Miller and elected to transfer. However, he’s a capable scorer on the wing who can shoot the 3 who’d be an excellent piece for a lot of clubs.

Update 1/1/18: Jones has committed to Oklahoma State, per Jeff Goodman of ESPN.

JaQuori McLaughlin, Oregon State

After a tremendous freshman campaign in which he averaged more than 10 points and 3 assists per game, McLaughlin struggled early on this season and dropped his production to under 3 points per game. A talented lead guard, look for a lot of Mountain West clubs to express interest in McLaughlin.

Jalen Harris, Louisiana Tech

Harris looks like an “up transfer” to me. The 6-5 sophomore wing was in the midst of a tremendous campaign, averaging over 15 points per game while shooting over 44% from downtown, but announced his intention to transfer on December 22. Look for lots high-major programs to be in contention for Harris’ services.

Preston Parks, Citadel

Markelle Fultz. Malik Monk. Dennis Smith Jr. Those were the only 3 freshmen to average more points per game than Parks did last season. The dynamic combo guard averaged 17.5 ppg in The Citadel’s up-tempo system last season, and was improving as a distributor this season while averaging over 13 ppg before announcing he’d be transferring in late November.

Update: Parks has committed to UT-Martin.

DeAndre “Pedro” Bradshaw, Belmont

A playmaking wing, Bradshaw was a 3-star prospect coming out of high school, but never played a game for the Bruins before it was announced he was transferring in early December. Tai Young of Verbal Commits tweeted that Bradshaw would be visiting Missouri State on 12/19 and Washington State 12/21-12/23, so we could be hearing shortly on where Bradshaw’s next destination will be.

Update 12/27: Bradshaw has committed to Eastern Kentucky, per Evan Daniels of 247Sports.

Jordan Tucker, Duke

Tucker leaves Duke after just 1 semester witch the program after seeing very little playing time. A former top-100 recruit who Duke swooped in to land late after missing out on Kevin Knox, Tucker will be a valued commodity on the transfer market. The 6-7 forward can play either the 3 or the 4 and has excellent floor-spacing ability. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Syracuse, who recruited Tucker hard before Duke got involved, makes a push to bring Tucker back to his home state.

Schnider Herard, Mississippi State

A 6-10 Big man who saw his role cut drastically after playing a big role as a freshman, Herard’s intention to transfer was announced on New Year’s Eve. Many saw Herard, a former top-100 recruit, as a breakout candidate this season after averaging 5 points and 5 rebounds in about 18 minutes per game for the Bulldogs last season, but the emergence of freshman Abdul Ado at the Center position has significantly cut Herard’s role on this team long-term. Look for plenty of Sun Belt and Conference USA programs to be interested in this Plano, Texas native.

Asante Gist, Eastern Kentucky

Gist put together a maginificent freshman campaign in 2016-17 at Eastern Kentucky, averaging nearly 16 points and 4 assists per game. But his numbers dropped precipitously this season, and Adam Zagoria reported that Gist has received his release from EKU. He’s the type of undersized combo guard that thrives at the mid-major level.

This list will continue to be updated as the transfer season goes on.

Sluggish Start Too Much to Overcome for Providence

By Kevin Sweeney

To say that Providence limped into tonight’s matchup against Houston would be an understatement. Already without Emmitt Holt for the season due to injury, the Friars were without Maliek White and star guards Kyron Cartwright and Alpha Diallo weren’t close to 100%.

Those absences were evident from the start, and the Friars were unable to overcome a 20 point second half deficit despite a furious comeback, falling 70-59 to Houston at Mohegan Sun Arena as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase. Rob Gray led the way with 24 points for the Cougars, who grab another nice win for their resume come March.

For much of the night, the Friars couldn’t do anything on the offensive end with their best creator (Cartwright) and best wing scorer (Diallo) both extremely limited. Yet the Friars were able to hang around in the first half thanks to some stingy defense and went into the intermission trailing by just 8. However, they weren’t able to continue that defensive success in the second, as Gray exploded with his team’s first 8 points of the second half to help open up a lead that would balloon to as much as 56-35 with 11:55 to go.

Then, the Friars began to slowly chip away. A 13-2 run got the Friars back within striking distance, and Providence would get as close as 8. But the comeback just never seemed to quite get the spark it needed to be completed, as a few big buckets by Houston as well as a couple momemtum-changing misses by Providence kept the Cougars lead safe.

“We know the type of team we can be, Providence head coach Ed Cooley said. “When you are missing 3 or 4 starters, it’s hard.”

On the health of Cartwright and Diallo, Cooley said that both wanted to give it a go, but it was clear they weren’t healthy when they were out there. Health has to be the number one concern for the Friars going forward as they take on Sacred Heart on Friday before opening Big East play on December 28 at St. John’s. The Friars were led by Rodney Bullock, who had 24 points and 8 rebounds in the contest.

Meanwhile, Houston moves to 10-2 on the season behind Gray’s 24 points along with Galen Robinson’s 12 points and 6 assists. They open AAC play on December 28 on the road at South Florida.

Ponds Pushes St. John’s Past St. Joe’s, Red Storm Finish Non-Conference Strong

By Kevin Sweeney

By all accounts, it has been a successful non-conference slate for St. John’s. The Red Storm were off to a 9-2 start with some quality wins. Still, they had one more test to pass before entering Big East play, and they did so today, knocking off St. Joe’s 77-73. Shamorie Ponds led all scorers with 28 points, while Justin Simon flirted with a triple-double with 11 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists.

Facing a talented St. Joe’s team that has dealt with injuries early in the 2017-18 campaign, the Red Storm got all they could handle from the Hawks from the opening tip. It was a tight game throughout, with neither team ever able to claim a double digit advantage. While the Red Storm have been one of the best defensive teams in the country on the young season, the Hawks were able to find flow on offense from the get-go.

But when it mattered most, the Red Storm were able to find a way to string together stops on the defensive end. They held the Hawks to just 5 points in the final 4:59, with 2 of those coming on a meaningless lay-in by Newkirk with 3 seconds to go.

“That’s what coach has been preaching every game,” Simon said. “We won it down the stretch.”

Coming down the stretch of the first half, it seemed that St. John’s had all the momentum, regaining the lead after trailing for much of the first half to go into halftime with a 44-41 advantage. But the Hawks came out firing in the second half, with Shavar Newkirk posting 17 second-half points en route to 26 on the game and Taylor Funk finding his stroke from 3 to take a lead that would stretch to as much as 8. But the Johnnies had the answer, fighting back behind some big buckets from Ponds and locking in on defense late.

Simon and Ponds each played all 40 minutes, as St. John’s used just 7 players with Marcus LoVett injured. Bashir Ahmed added 16 points, and Tariq Owens provided a nice boost with 7 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 blocks.

St. Joe’s falls to 5-6 on the season, but there were plenty of encouraging signs in this one. Newkirk had his best game of the season as he continues to recover from a knee injury he suffered last season. Pierfrancesco Oliva posted 18 rebounds in the losing effort for the Hawks.

“We’ve shown our most improvement on the defensive end,” said Chris Mullin as he summed up his team’s non-conference slate. He said the team will have a few days off before refocusing for a matchup to open Big East play against Providence on December 28.