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.