- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Outside and beyond the well-heeled power conferences, there are hundreds of schools entering the 2008-09 season with dreams of NCAA Tournament glory. Here are 10 teams and 10 players that might have serious bracket impact four months from now.
Since a near-miss NCAA performance against Maryland two seasons ago during Stephen Curry's freshman year, Davidson has been squarely on the mid-major radar. So last year's Elite Eight run wasn't a complete shock. Now, the spotlight burns hotter, with nearly every one of the Wildcats' nonconference games being shown on national TV. Among players on Bob McKillop's roster who don't wear the number 30, pay attention to the development of junior guard Bryant Barr, whose three gigantic second-half 3s kept Davidson in the Kansas game while Curry struggled to find his shot. He would have been the subject of countless articles had the Wildcats won, but for now he's still a secret hiding in plain sight.
Creighton (Missouri Valley)
If the MVC returns to multi-bid status after a rare off year, its bellwether program could very well lead the way. The Bluejays have reached the Big Dance 16 times and have landed five No. 10 seeds in the past decade, and could make some more March noise if a deep and young backcourt delivers on the promise hinted at in a 22-11 (10-8 MVC) season a year ago. P'Allen Stinnett, a flashy and emotional sophomore guard (12.6 ppg in 2007-08), has already emerged as the player Valley opponents love to loathe.
Siena (Metro Atlantic)
The Saints struck a blow for the mighty little MAAC when they upset No. 4 Vanderbilt 83-62 for the league's fourth-ever round of 64 win, the widest NCAA victory margin in conference history. As a testament to the team's continued potential, Siena loaded the all-league preseason team with three big guns: dynamic guard Kenny Hasbrouck, multiple-position threat Edwin Ubiles and undersized post man Alex Franklin. The trio combined for 48.2 ppg a season ago.
Cleveland State (Horizon League)
The Vikings were one of the first Cinderellas of the 64-team era back in 1986, knocking off Saint Joseph's and Indiana before being denied an Elite Eight slot by a single point by David Robinson and Navy. With recent Horizon power Butler replacing the bulk of its scoring from its recent runs, Cleveland State looks poised to make a long-awaited return. Gary Waters' squad led the conference standings until a late losing streak allowed the Bulldogs to sneak by, but J'Nathan Bullock and Cedric Jackson (combined 28.7 ppg last season) will return as seniors with an eye on closing the deal.
Winthrop (Big South)
The Eagles have to replace four of their top five scorers, but rebuilding is nothing new for the perennial Big South champions. After one season under Randy Peele, Winthrop have reinvented itself as a defensive powerhouse (allowing just 58.5 ppg last season) that defeated two ACC squads from Georgia Tech and Miami before nabbing its fourth straight conference title. If the team sticks to those lockdown concepts, it could hold off challenges from Radford and new BSC entry Gardner-Webb, and return to the Dance for the ninth time in eleven seasons.
Middle Tennessee State (Sun Belt)
After the two-bid Belt of 2008, Western Kentucky lost league POY Courtney Lee to the NBA, while South Alabama lost mainstay Demetric Bennett to graduation. MTSU, the conference tournament runner-up a season ago, didn't lose anybody. A slow start and a 17-15 record kept the Blue Raiders far from an at-large of their own, but with three double-figure scorers and burgeoning depth at every position, this could be their time to break through. Keep an eye on 6-10 Theryn Hudson (9.1 ppg, 64.7 percent FG), a former project who's beginning to find some consistency.
San Diego (West Coast)
Gonzaga and Saint Mary's were the WCC teams that kept popping up in the national polls last season, but don't forget it ended up being tourney titlist San Diego that went the farthest. The Toreros' stunning OT win over Connecticut out of a No. 13 seed marked the first time in the past decade that the "G" team wasn't the one that struck deepest into the tournament. With former Zags assistant Bill Grier re-upping for a contract extension, the champs will enjoy the benefit of an element they didn't have during their 2008 run: senior leadership.
Kent State (Mid-American)
While the fortunes of mid-major programs generally rise and fall depending on coaching retention and uneven recruiting classes, the Golden Flashes' streak of 10 consecutive 20-win seasons is remarkable indeed. Kent State scored the MAC's first single-digit seed (a No. 9) with a 28-win season, but couldn't back it up, suffering a crushing 71-58 first-round loss at the hands of UNLV. Now, with assistant Geno Ford assuming control after Jim Christian's flight to TCU, returning league POY Al Fisher (13.9 ppg) and the returning Flashes will try to keep the decade-long run of excellence alive.
Belmont (Atlantic Sun)
As a 15-over-2 upset slipped away in the final seconds against Duke, the CBS cameras caught Bruins coach Rick Byrd mouthing an uncharacteristic curse word. A long summer has soothed the frustration from that one-point loss, and Belmont returns more formidable than ever. The multifaceted Andy Wicke (14 points and four 3s in that Duke game) leads a core of four senior starters that combined for 42.9 ppg last season, and that could easily be described with a different four-letter word: good.
North Dakota State (Summit League)
The Summit has been the domain of Oral Roberts for the past three seasons, but these Bison have been building for this moment since the league was known as the Mid-Continent. NDSU, a fledgling Division I program, redshirted an entire class four years ago so their senior campaign would coincide with the school's first year of national postseason eligibility. Now that it's arrived, players like PG Ben Woodside (20.7 ppg, 5.1 apg last season) and undersized big Brett Winkelman (19.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg) could reach March's big stage . If those names sound familiar, it's because they have a track record -- the Bison have upset nationally ranked Wisconsin and Marquette within the past three years.
Stephen Curry, Davidson, Jr.
The nation's returning leading scorer has, in two short years, taken down college basketball's giants with his killer jump shot and ensured that nobody will ever mispronounce his name again (remember, it's STEFF-in). But can he play the point? With the graduation of rock-steady Jason Richards, Davidson enters the third year of the Curry Plan, a blueprint that originally dictated that he would assume his natural position as a junior, the one he played in high school at Charlotte Christian. While his scoring output may go down a bit from his 25.9 ppg total from last year, his dynamism and impact on games should only increase.
Patty Mills, Saint Mary's, So.
The West Coast Conference Freshman of the Year and a conference first-team selection in 2007-08, the 20-year-old Aussie phenom became known one of the nation's most exciting new guards. This summer, Mills made a global impact as well. The "Canberra Cannon" led the Australian national team with 14.2 ppg at the Beijing Olympics (all off the bench), including 20 against the gold-medal-bound U.S. team in the quarterfinals. If he can help lead the Gaels to a second consecutive NCAA bid, Mills might end up in the NBA draft next summer. It would be the only real challenge left for him.
Matt Howard, Butler, So.
On a team that won 30 games, hung around the Top 25 all season and reached the round of 32, the Bulldogs' 6-foot-8 newcomer was an instant-impact performer down low, scoring 12.3 ppg and grabbing 5.5 rpg. With the graduations of five of Butler's top seven scorers, Howard becomes somewhat of an elder statesman as a sophomore. The program's ability to keep its momentum going after a pair of NCAA seasons will hinge greatly on the big man's ability to score while a young backcourt finds its way.
Eric Maynor, Virginia Commonwealth, Sr.
The VCU star guard's college career was crystallized by the 3-pointer that felled Duke in the 2007 first round, a shot that capped a 22-point performance and has come to be known in CAA circles as "The Dagger." After Maynor's POY campaign (17.8 ppg, 5.4 apg) helped lead VCU to a regular-season championship in 2008, the Rams' semifinal loss to upstart William & Mary in the league tournament ensured that last season's Big Dance was a cutlery-free zone. After flirting with the NBA draft process, Maynor returned to school for a senior season to become a greater all-around threat.
Tremaine Townsend, Cal State Northridge, Sr.
The Matadors finished the 2007-08 season 20-10 and in a three-way tie for first after the Big West regular season, but weren't taken by the NIT. None of this was the fault of CSUN's 6-9 center, who compiled 10 double-doubles down the stretch, including the 16-and-16 performance in a first-round tourney loss to eventual titlist Fullerton. He finished with a conference-best 9.8 rpg, establishing himself as the league's superior inside force. Rewarded with a preseason all-conference nod, Townsend looks to lead the red and black to their first-ever BWC title.
Lester Hudson, Tennessee-Martin, Sr.
When a player declares early-exit intentions from the Ohio Valley Conference, a league that hasn't yielded an NCAA tournament win since 1989, there's got to be a punchline somewhere. But when the Skyhawks' star guard made the pre-draft camp rounds last spring after his junior season, nobody was laughing. After scoring 25.7 ppg as a juco transfer (including an ultra-rare quadruple-double), the rangy 6-2 combo guard was pegged as a second-round pick, but elected to return for a college degree and a chance for a better draft position. You can catch him in action Nov. 18 when UTM plays Tennessee.
Gary Wilkinson, Utah State, Sr.
The tattered WAC, coming off a rare one-bid year, now has to find a new set of stars -- every member of the postseason all-league teams from 2007-08 has moved on except one. So Wilkinson, the lone holdover, was granted preseason player of the year honors heading into the new season. The 6-9, 240-lb. Wilkinson is most effective when bullying his way to the basket, something he did early and often in compiling a 13.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg stat line last season. Like Hudson and Townsend, the former Salt Lake City CC product is a second-year senior who made the transition from juco standout to D-I level star.
Tywain McKee, Coppin State, Sr.
The Eagles found themselves with an abysmal 12-20 record heading into the MEAC tournament, but three straight game-clinching free throws and shots by 6-2 Philly native McKee sent Coppin to an improbable NCAA ticket, a run that ended in Dayton's play-in game. A Proposition 48 case at the start of his college career, he gained his lost year of eligibility with good grades, so he'll be a senior for a second straight season. If McKee is able to continue his string of last-minute magic, Coppin State might be known for something other than its endless guarantee-game road trips (the home fans won't get to see him play until Jan. 10).
Louis Dale, Cornell, Jr.
Cornell emphatically ended the Ivy League's Penn and Princeton era last season, after one P or the other had won every league championship since 1988. The Big Red's 5-11 mighty mite had a great deal to do with that, scoring 13.7 ppg, including at least 20 in three of the past four regular-season games as Cornell iced the title. Dale's load will be heavier with the temporary loss of fellow guard Adam Gore, who tore an ACL in practice and will be out until at least January. Gore should be equal to the task -- he's an all-purpose slicer-dicer, finishing in the Ivy's top 10 in six different categories.
Marqus Blakely, Vermont, Jr.
Vermont was last seen at the NCAA tournament four seasons ago, upending Syracuse as a No. 13 seed and sending loquacious coach Tom Brennan to a cozy "retirement" in Bristol. While Albany and UMBC have been representing the America East at the Dance, the next generation of Catamounts has been taking shape. As a freshman, the 6-5 forward became a YouTube star for his ferocious leaning dunk in a losing title-game effort, but blossomed into the league player of the year with 19.0 ppg, 11.0 rpg (both league highs) and 15 double-doubles. With an improved supporting cast this year (including Michigan State transfer Maurice Joseph), Blakely could help write the next chapter of Vermont NCAA lore.
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.