Philadelphia, PA – As Doug McDermott leads Creighton into its new era in the Big East and other mid-major stars like C.J. McCollum and Isaiah Canaan are no longer around, a new crop of hidden gems waiting to be discovered have an open window.
Damian Lillard went from being a relatively unknown scoring guard at Weber State to the NBA Rookie of the Year. The one-and-done rule tends to build hype around the top incoming freshmen expected to make their schools contenders right away in a similar fashion to former Kentucky star Anthony Davis. However, there are plenty of professional prospects in the less-prominent conferences who are worthy of a look.
Travis Bader of Oakland and Tyler Haws of BYU are both potential All-Americans next season.
Bader was redshirted in 2009-10 as a freshman and netted 940 points in 71 games over his first two seasons of action. The Golden Grizzlies reached the CIT in 2012-13 as the 6-foot-5 guard averaged 22.1 points per game while leading all Division I players in 3-point field goal attempts and makes per game. He also paced the nation in minutes per game at 38.2.
Oakland will not be televised regularly for its star shooting guard's final campaign, but Bader's J.J. Reddick-like approach on the offensive end could help the Golden Grizzlies reach their first NCAA Tournament since his first active season.
Haws has a similar build to Bader, but he is much more aggressive in getting to the basket than Bader. The BYU guard is going to enter his junior year at the age of 22 not because of a delayed entry into the college ranks but rather the two-year mission he served in the Philippines for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints following his rookie year.
Haws contributed 11.3 points per game in 2009-10 while playing alongside the superb Jimmer Fredette and returned last season to build a reputation as one of the most prolific scorers in the nation with 21.7 points per contest.
Although Cougars came up just short of upsets of West Coast Conference rivals Saint Mary's and Gonzaga last season, they seem ready to take a stab at the league crown with their new Jimmer as the Gaels and Bulldogs lost some of their significant talent that helped them win the title the last two years, respectively.
Jerrelle Benimon may have had the most shocking season of anyone in college basketball at Towson in 2012-13. The 6-8 power forward seemed to be adding his name to the list of stellar high school players who don't pan out at the next level as he saw very limited action during his freshman and sophomore years as a Georgetown Hoya.
Benimon left Georgetown and enrolled at Towson only to watch the Tigers go 1-31 while he sat out one season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules. But not only did he manage to lead the Tigers to an 18-13 record - which marked the greatest single-season turnaround in Division I history - he also scooped up the Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year award with 17.4 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and two blocks per game.
Benimon is the leading returning rebounder among Division I players and has a strong chance of joining fellow Towson alum Gary Neal in the NBA after his career ends next spring.
New Mexico State has a pair of top-notch players looking to make a name for themselves in Daniel Mullings and Sim Bhullar. Mullings was at the front of the Aggies' charge that ended with a second-round loss to Saint Louis in the NCAA Tournament with 13.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game.
The crafty combo guard was not expected to be a superstar when he joined the NMSU program, but he took advantage of the opportunity to shine as a rookie after guard Christian Kabongo's abrupt departure from the program. Mullings has developed into one of the premier guards in the nation, though he has lacked the consistency to garner too much hype.
Mullings could have a much more open floor for his junior season if Bhullar develops his skills to go along with his massive 7-5, 355-pound frame. Bhullar was not matched physically by any opponent in 2012-13 as a freshman, but his averages of 10.1 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per contest left critics wanting more.
While he is heavy footed and only attempted 6.4 shots per game, his potential is immeasurable. NBA general managers have understandably been known to covet centers to anchor their franchises on the defensive end. Bhullar will certainly be given more attention than most because of his size. While the man in the middle for NMSU is a work in progress, he is an enticing one at that.
Green Bay has a similar one-two punch in Keifer Sykes and Alec Brown to work with next season. The Phoenix were disappointed to finish 18-16 in 2011-12 and faced some controversy over the offseason as coach Brian Wardle's job security was questioned following an investigation that he mistreated multiple players. The school announced Wardle would remain in his post and he can get back to developing his two budding stars.
Sykes, who played at Marshall High School in Chicago, would have been a much more coveted recruit if he were just a little bit taller. The 5-10 guard did not let that stop him from producing team-highs of 15.9 points and 4.3 assists per game as a sophomore. He improved his 3-point shooting accuracy from 23.3 to 43.2 percent from his first to second year as well.
While Sykes was named to the All-Horizon League first team in 2012-13, the 7-1 Brown earned second-team recognition. Most players would be more than happy to post 14.1 points and six rebounds per game, yet it was still a disappointing year for Green Bay's center. Brown's field goal efficiency has digressed each season though the first three years of his career. However, he has quietly developed a steady jumper from the outside that makes him a very valuable commodity.
A seven-footer with soft touch from distance forces opposing centers to abandon their comfort zone around the basket on the defensive end and opens up driving lines for teammates. Brown sometimes lurks around the perimeter a little more than he should, though. If he can figure out a way to balance his positioning offensively, Green Bay will be a solid pick to win the Horizon League.
Other players from mid-major programs to keep an eye on include Kyle Vinales (Central Connecticut State), Juvonte Reddic (Virginia Commonwealth), Final Four participant Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), Javon McCrea (Buffalo), Augustine Rubit (South Alabama) and Devon Saddler (Delaware).
The individual performances of mid-major stars can yield huge benefits for their respective schools. For example, Creighton had not seen a superstar on its campus in Omaha, Neb., since Kyle Korver was a member of the team.
McDermott has been arguably the best all-around player in college basketball since his first game. As the Bluejays begin their new era in the Big East, it is impossible not to give their All-American forward credit for the resurgence of the program that led to the very intriguing future.