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.

img_2404

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.”