Donovan Dent, Tucker DeVries and 4 more mid-major standouts to watch this week – The Athletic

By Sam VecenieMar 19, 2024

Every March, the mid-major ranks of men’s college basketball birth new stars. Cinderella gets fitted for a new slipper and enters the minds and hearts of everyone across the sports world.

This year will be no different, although I question how many upsets we end up seeing, especially at the No. 13 seed level and below. Will Warren did some statistical analysis, and this group of mid-majors at the lower-seed levels is not particularly strong. Since 2002, per KenPom, the gap between the No. 1 seeds and No. 16 seeds is the third-largest of the last 22 years, the gap between No. 2 and No. 15 seeds is fourth-largest, the gap between the No. 3 seeds and No. 14 seeds is the third-largest and the gap between the No. 4 seeds and No. 13 seeds is the second-largest. After a couple of years of total madness, this bracket is set up to be chalkier than most.

Advertisement

And yet, there will be upsets. They happen every year, even when the spreads are large, and I’m here to help you figure out where they will be and which players are most likely to drive them. Below, I’’ll break down six mid-major players in the men’s NCAA Tournament who could be household names by the end of the weekend,.

As I have done in the past, I forced myself to pick at least one player at each seed line, outside of 16th. This year, I included players from a No. 10 and a No. 11 seed because of the weakness of the lower lines. I also made sure to only cite players from teams in non-Power-6 conferences that would not have made the NCAA Tournament had they not won their conference tournament. That last bit allowed me to include a player from New Mexico instead of being forced into writing about anyone from the egregiously overseeded Duquesne.

GO DEEPER

March madness bracket prep: Capsule previews for all 68 teams, with strengths, weaknesses, outlooks and more

Donovan Dent

6-2 sophomore guard | No. 11 New Mexico

First matchup: vs. No. 6 Clemson in West Region Friday (about 3:10 p.m. ET, truTV)

Who is Donovan Dent? He’s one of the best guards in the country whom you don’t know about. If you made me choose one player nationally who I thought didn’t get enough attention this season, it probably would be Dent.

Dent is an incredibly sharp player who processes the game at an elite level and can make passes from any angle off a live dribble. He’ll throw them with either hand and puts the ball on target every time. He orchestrates the up-tempo New Mexico attack at an elite level, both in transition and in halfcourt ball screens. Dent is the epitome of a player who plays at his own pace. He knows how to draw help defenders toward him by keeping his own man on his hip and knows when to time his drives to work in conjunction with his roller. He averaged 5.6 assists per game and better than a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio.

Advertisement

As a scorer, Dent averaged 14 points per game on 52.3 percent from the field. He has fantastic touch on the interior and has immaculate body control to maneuver around defenders and find the tiniest creases in tight areas of the court. He’s constantly on balance and is a threat to pass or shoot at any point. The numbers don’t really do Dent justice, though. With seniors Jaelen House and Jamal Mashburn Jr. around him, as well as two terrific bigs in J.T. Toppin and Nelly Junior Joseph, New Mexico is loaded with talent and spreads around its production in a big way. Dent is the maestro who who will carry the Lobos as far as they can go.

What does the matchup look like? I think New Mexico is a more talented team than Clemson, seeding be damned. The metrics like the Lobos better, and the oddsmakers do too, posting New Mexico as 2.5-point favorites as the spread opened. P.J. Hall, the Tigers’ excellent forward who I think will get drafted this year, could post some issues for New Mexico’s defense due to his ability to play on the perimeter. However, the rest of the matchup should be somewhat worrisome for Clemson fans.

Particularly, New Mexico has a significant advantage in the backcourt. Clemson’s Joe Girard and Chase Hunter are terrific offensive players — Girard is a legitimate sniper from 3 and Hunter is a smart decision-maker — but neither possesses the athletic juice of Dent or House. I expect Clemson to have a significant issue keeping New Mexico out of the paint if the Tigers try to play man-to-man. The Tigers have the No. 67 adjusted defensive efficiency in the country according to KenPom and were middle of the pack on that end in the ACC. Their guards really struggle to stay in front of their matchup, and they’re facing a Lobos that can take advantage of that. (The Tigers did toy with zone defenses late in the season against Syracuse, Notre Dame and Boston College, so I bet we see coach Brad Brownell deploying it in stretches).

GO DEEPER

Six days on the bubble with America’s most eclectic team

Tucker DeVries

6-7 junior wing | No. 10 Drake

First matchup: vs. No. 7 Washington State in East Region Thursday (about 10:05 p.m., truTV)

Who is Tucker DeVries? He appears on this list for the second year in a row. The 6-foot-7 wing was a top-100 recruit nationally who decided to attend Drake to play for his father, Bulldogs coach Darian DeVries. That decision has paid off, as the younger DeVries has won back-to-back Missouri Valley Player of the Year awards. This season, he upped his scoring average to 21.8 points while also chipping in 3.6 assists per game.

Advertisement

DeVries is a basketball savant who keys everything Drake does. He moves incredibly well off the ball, running off high-end off-ball sets his father honed from years of working under Dana Altman and Greg McDermott. But this year, he expanded his offensive game far beyond that skill, operating in far more ball-screen actions this season and initiating Drake’s sets throughout most of the season. Surrounded by a number of high-end shooters such as Kevin Overton, Atin Wright and Conor Enright, DeVries would run off dribble-handoffs where he had his momentum going, as well as early drag screens to get him loose. Then, Drake would counter off those early actions with quick flare screens to free him up off the ball as soon as he got rid of it.

DeVries is a lethal option who is a constant threat to score across all three levels, so defenses must stay committed to stopping him at all times. Last year, in the first round, Miami did just that, forcing him into a disastrous 1-of-13 showing. It was the worst game of his Drake career, and he compounded his struggles by pressing as Miami defenders largely stayed in his hip as he came off screening actions. That won’t happen this year, though. With his increased ability to get his own shot — DeVries took 187 shots off the bounce this year and made 46 percent of his nearly three pull-up 3-point attempts per game, per Synergy — DeVries is a much more well-rounded offensive player than he was last season. Throw in his improved passing, and Washington State has its hands full in a big way with a guy I consider to be a legitimate NBA Draft prospect.

What does the matchup look like? Washington State is excellent defensive team with the size to cause DeVries matchup problems. The Cougars have a number of different longer options they can use to guard him. (In yet another example of awards incompetence, not a single Washington State player received an All-Defense vote in the Pac-12 this season despite the team having the second-best defense in the league.)

My guess is senior Andrej Jakimovski, a North Macedonian native who also flies off screens and shoots at volume, will get the DeVries assignment to start. Jakimovski is a really sharp, reliable defender who knows exactly what he’s supposed to do at all times out there. It’ll be harder for Drake to trick him with the variety of different looks it uses to free DeVries. Off the bench, Kymany Hounisou can bring length to the table to try to cut off DeVries’ angles, and even Jaylen Wells, Washington State’s third-leading scorer, could take minutes matching up with Drake’s star. All of these guys are somewhere between 6-7 and 6-8 and can move, replicating the size DeVries will give them. That’s what makes this matchup for DeVries so fascinating. There are precious few teams that possess as many well-sized, athletic options to try to slow him down.

Washington State also does a solid job of closing out and contesting at the 3-point line as a team, limiting the number of open 3s opponents shoot. My guess is Kyle Smith and company will plan to stay attached to DeVries at all times, close out hard on him and try to make him more of a midrange shooter. DeVries can score that way, but two points are fewer than 3, and DeVries is less dangerous from the midrange than he is from behind the arc. If that happens, Drake can counter by throwing DeVries on the block occasionally to allow him to create easier mismatch chances. But based on size, only Cougar guards Myles Rice and Isaiah Watts (both 6-3) would represent a mismatch in a switch.

I initially assumed I would like Drake in this game, but the more I look at it, the more I think this is a strong matchup for the Cougars. For Drake to pull the upset, DeVries will need to be great.

Samford’s Achor Achor passes against UCF. (Andrew Bershaw / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Achor Achor

6-9 junior forward | No. 13 Samford

First matchup: vs. No. 4 Kansas in Midwest Region Thursday (about 9:55 p.m. ET, TBS)

Who is Achor Achor? Bucky Ball is here in the NCAA Tournament, and it’s glorious to watch. Samford, led by coach Bucky McMillan, has one of the more interesting styles of play in the Big Dance. The Bulldogs are chaos incarnate. They’re frenetic and energetic, flying all over the court with aggression. They deploy a full-court press with the goal of pressuring high up the court to force turnovers, but will fall back into a solid man-to-man defense that remains active in halfcourt situations. On offense, they want to push the tempo whenever and wherever they can, drive and kick, take a ton of 3s and win the math game. They’ve posted three straight seasons of at least 20 wins, but this season is the best of the bunch, as they are 29-5 and ran away with the Southern Conference.

The scheme has always been there, but the reason Samford is better this season is the presence of Achor, a 6-9 big man who has taken an enormous leap to turn into one of the best interior mid-major players in the country. Achor is extremely long and averages 15.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game while shooting 60 percent from the field and making 45 percent of his two 3s per game. He gives the Bulldogs a genuine difference-maker inside, and his athleticism and length is tailor-made for Bucky Ball.

An Australian from Melbourne, Achor started at the junior college level at Chipola College in Florida before moving up to Samford. He averaged only six points per game last year in 14 minutes per night, but has exploded this season as the Bulldogs use him in a variety of different ways. His partnership with Rylan Jones in ball screens has been superb, as he’s versatile enough to pick-and-pop or rim run into lobs and finishes inside. Other times, he’ll sit in the dunker spot underneath the basket and wait for dump-off passes. And if things break down and the Bulldogs need a bailout, they often throw the ball to Achor on the block and let him go to work with touch hook shots or quick moves to the rim. They also sometimes run post-up sets for him, which, because of their open style, typically results in all sorts of space for Achor to seal his man high and finish.

No matter the level, it’s hard to find players like Achor who are this big, this long, can finish inside and also move well enough to work within an active defensive scheme. He was named first-team All-SoCon this season and almost assuredly was the runner-up to Western Carolina’s Vonterius Woolbright in the league’s Player of the Year vote.

What does the matchup look like? This is among the most interesting matchups in the bracket because it’s so dependent on Kansas’ health. Assuming Hunter Dickinson is healthy after missing the Big 12 tournament with a shoulder issue, his matchup with Achor will be fascinating on both ends. My guess is the Bulldogs will do the typical thing where they try to run and beat Dickinson down the floor to get odd-man advantages, something Achor is very capable of doing. In halfcourt situations, because Achor is an adept 3-point shooter, my guess is Samford will likely try to run a bevy of pick-and-pop actions at Dickinson, who tends to sit in a drop coverage on defense. That could allow Samford to force help and get drive-and-kick opportunities, or it could result in pick-and-pop chances for Achor. Samford’s upset chances may come down to Achor making a few 3s.

Advertisement

On the other end, Kansas’ goal should be to get the ball down to Dickinson on the block, where he has an enormous strength advantage. Achor is long and holds his ground better than you’d think for someone this skinny, but he did not experience much success against Purdue’s Zach Edey earlier this season and fouled out in 14 minutes against Samford’s second-best opponent, VCU. Belmont got Achor in foul trouble as well, and he fouled out of games against Mercer, East Tennessee State and Western Carolina. Achor does play physically and can get a bit jumpy with his hands and body control. If I were Bill Self, I would throw the ball down to Dickinson early to see if he can draw a couple of early fouls on Achor to nullify his impact.

Much like with most Samford games, this one will probably come down to the press. To get the ball to Dickinson on the block, Kansas needs to be able to handle Samford’s pressure. I have no worries about Dajuan Harris Jr. being able to do so, but Kansas will really need Kevin McCullar Jr. at full health in this one to have that secondary ballhandler out there. I haven’t seen much from Elmarko Jackson, Nick Timberlake or Johnny Furphy as ballhandlers this season that makes me believe they’re ready for the pressure McMillan and company will apply in the backcourt.

I think Kansas wins if McCullar and Dickinson play. If either sits out, Kansas is in real trouble. Given that McCullar has only played three games since Feb. 17, there seems to be some real uncertainty regarding his status, which gives Achor and Samford a chance.

Tyon Grant-Foster

6-7 senior wing | No. 12 Grand Canyon

First matchup: vs. No. 5 Saint Mary’s in West Region Friday (about 10:05 p.m., truTV)

Who is Tyon Grant-Foster? He’s one of the best stories in college basketball. In 2020, Grant-Foster was the best junior college player in the country and committed to Kansas. After a rough start, he transferred to DePaul following the season. There, a heart ailment threatened to end his career. He had multiple surgeries and essentially didn’t play for two seasons, ending up at Grand Canyon this season after getting a clear bill of health. Now, Grant-Foster has carried Grand Canyon to a superb 29-4 record and an NCAA Tournament berth.

Grant-Foster was named WAC Player of the Year and averaged 19.8 points, six rebounds and nearly two assists per game. He’s strong on the defensive end, where he averages 1.7 steals and 1.4 blocks per game playing on the wing. He’s a superb athlete and shot maker who has a diverse off-the-bounce game. He can play in ball screens and attack with patience to create a shot at the rim or in the midrange, or he can isolate against his man and use his length and athleticism to be a mismatch threat. He generally prefers to attack closeouts off spot-up situations and can even occasionally run off a screen and bury a shot from either 3 or in the midrange. When he wants to drive and get downhill, he lives at the foul line and does a great job drawing contact.

Having just turned 24 years old, Grant-Foster is one of the older players in the tournament, so I wouldn’t expect much stage fright. He has the kind of game that is hard to slow down because of the sheer number of ways he can get into his shots. He scored at least eight points in every game this season, notched double-digits in all but two and scored more than 20 in 15 games. He saved his best for the end of the season, too, winning WAC tournament MVP honors and averaging 23 points and seven rebounds while shooting 53 percent from the field, 36 percent from 3 and 75 percent from the line in his last seven games. In Grand Canyon’s toughest non-conference games, Grant-Foster had 16 against South Carolina, 28 against San Francisco and 18 against San Diego State. It’s really tough to slow him down.

Advertisement

What does the matchup look like? In some ways, this matchup is tailor-made for Grant-Foster. In other ways, not so much. Saint Mary’s top-20 defense has been superb this season at doing two things: Stopping teams from scoring efficiently on the interior, and stopping teams from getting open 3s. Particularly, I think Mitchell Saxen has gone under the radar this season. I would have had him as a semifinalist for National Defensive Player of the Year, as he does a fantastic job rotating around the paint, protecting the rim and making life difficult for post players. He also plays a significant role in Saint Mary’s being the best rebounding team in the country: The Gaels are top three in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate nationally.

With Saxen inside, Grant-Foster might be more of a jump shooter in this game than a driver and slasher, which is how he typically thrives. However, he can still be successful that way, and I think the matchups for him on the perimeter could be very enticing. Look for players like Mason Forbes and Luke Barrett to get the assignment on Grant-Foster, though given who the Gaels tend to start, my bet is that senior Alex Ducas will probably get the first look. If I coached Grand Canyon, I’d plan to run a lot of one/three and three/one screening actions with Ray Harrison and Grant-Foster to try to find more advantageous matchups where possible. Aidan Mahaney and Augustas Marciulionis represent arguably the best backcourt the Antelopes have faced this season. However, they’re both on the smaller and skinnier end, and if Grand Canyon can force switches, Grant-Foster can receive opportunities to shoot over the top or force help to create kickout or dump-off chances.

This is one of the toughest games to call in the first round. My gut tells me Saint Mary’s has the advantage because of its ability to slow the game down, but that will require serious offensive execution from the Gaels’ guards to work effectively. Teams that play at a snail’s pace in elimination games certainly open themselves up to upsets if they don’t take full advantage of offensive opportunities when they arise. The good news for the Gaels: They’ve been the No. 5 seed that was a trendy pick to be upset in each of the last two seasons. They beat VCU by 12 last season, and they beat Indiana by approximately a billion in 2022. Randy Bennett and this staff are remarkably steady, and this team just so rarely makes mistakes.

But in what could be a close game, Grant-Foster getting loose could be the wild card for Grand Canyon. I think he’ll be the most talented player on the court.

Riley Minix dunks in an early-season game against Zach Edey’s Purdue. (Marc Lebryk / USA Today)

Riley Minix

6-7 wing | No. 14 Morehead State

First matchup: vs. No. 3 Illinois in East Region Thursday (3:10 p.m. ET, truTV)

Who is Riley Minix? Minix is another one of the coolest stories in college basketball. A two-time NAIA All-American at Southeastern University in Florida, Minix moved up to Morehead State and immediately took the Ohio Valley Conference by storm. The 2024 OVC Player of the Year averaged 20.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game while shooting an absurd 54.6 percent from the field, 34 percent from 3 and 83.4 percent from the line.

Every time I watch Minix, I’m struck by the polish of his game. He’s one of the most fundamentally sound players I’ve seen this season. He moves incredibly well without the ball, and Morehead State coach Preston Spradlin does an unbelievable job of getting him open looks within intricate offensive sets. Particularly, the Eagles love to get Minix flashing into the post with inside position, which allows him to seal his man and create an open lane to the rim. They also run him through of a ton of actions where he’s the on-ball screener, where he can roll all the way to the rim to finish with touch, short roll into open areas or pick-and-pop to either take a catch-and-shoot 3 or attack off the bounce. He’s also an awesome cutter and can consistently knock down shots off the catch in spot-up situations. Unsurprisingly, given his size and skill, Minix has a lot to gain from an NBA perspective if he can perform against Illinois.

Advertisement

While Minix has a bit of an “old-man” game that works best at lower levels, where he’s bigger, stronger, longer and more skilled than everyone, he also played well in Morehead State’s non-conference games against good teams. He scored 19 points against Alabama in the season opener, then had 18 points against Purdue. He struggled a bit against Penn State, with only seven points on 10 shots, but had 10 points and 11 rebounds against Indiana in Morehead State’s upset bid at Assembly Hall.

What does the matchup look like? If scouts want to know what Minix can do, this game provides an excellent evaluation context because Illinois is big, athletic and has real guys they can throw at him. At the same time, the Illini have significant defensive problems. They finished 93rd in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, including a ninth-place finish in the Big Ten, and those issues didn’t exactly improve in the Big Ten tournament despite their run to win the title. In fact, they’ve held their opponent to less than one point-per-possession just once since the middle of February.

Ball pressure tends to be Illinois’ biggest issue. Because the Illini are so big at each position and don’t have an immense amount of team speed, they can’t really disrupt much at the point of attack without risking difficult off-ball rotations. And yet, they also tend to have more help defense breakdowns than most tournament teams this season.

Illinois also likes to play up-tempo and fast when it can. Morehead State plays at a very slow pace; the Eagles want to get the game to a crawl and then out-execute you. A lot of times, it’s easier to play slow than fast. Morehead State may be able to grind this game down if it wants. But for the most part, the high-major teams that played Morehead State this season were able to force the Eagles to speed up. The Alabama, Purdue and Penn State games were played at about a 73 possession-per-game pace, nearly 10 more than Morehead State’s average. In total, 12 of Morehead State’s last 16 games were played at a pace of 64 possessions or fewer. My best bet here is Illinois will be able to force this game into a faster pace.

But the Eagles could have a chance if they can win the pace battle and force Illinois to execute its halfcourt defense. I’m skeptical they’ll be able to stop Illinois, which is why I think the Illini win the game. But there is a route to victory for Morehead State, and it involves making Illinois communicate through all the actions it puts Minix into with guards. Minix will need to prove he can finish on the interior against length such as Dain Dainja and Coleman Hawkins. He needs to go for 20-plus points for the Eagles to win.

Zeke Mayo

6-4 guard | No. 15 South Dakota State

First matchup: vs. No. 2 Iowa State in East Region Thursday (about 5:35 p.m. ET, truTV)

Who is Zeke Mayo? When picking a player on a No. 15 seed, odds are their tournament run will end quickly. The best upset chances, to me, come with teams that can really execute their game plans and feature a player who can get hot to will his team to a win. Think about Princeton’s Ryan Langborg and Blake Peters last year drilling nine 3s in the Round of 32 against Missouri, or Daryl Banks dropping 27 points against Kentucky in the first round for Saint Peter’s back in 2022.

Advertisement

Mayo was the Summit League Player of the Year this season, averaging 18.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, and has earned back-to-back first-team All-Summit honors. More than that, Mayo is a dynamite creator of 3-point attempts. He’s averaged nearly seven long-range shots per game over the last two years, with two-thirds of those this season being pull-ups. You can almost throw the percentages out the window with Mayo, because the shot difficulty on a lot of those tries is obscene. He drives everything for the South Dakota State offense and doesn’t come out of the game unless it’s a necessity.

The question for Mayo here is in his past performances against elite competition. In 10 career Tier A+B games the past two seasons, according to KenPom, he has a true shooting percentage below 50 and has struggled to drill his 3s. He had eight turnovers in a game against UCF this season, five miscues in a game against Kansas State, just nine points against Arkansas in 2022-23 and only 12 points on 15 shots in a game against Alabama in 2022-23. It’s been a bit of a struggle for him in the past when the athleticism and competition ramps up.

What does the matchup look like? It couldn’t be worse for Mayo. Iowa State has the best defense in the country, and the Cyclones, led by Tamin Lipsey, apply an immense amount of ball pressure. Keshon Gilbert and Curtis Jones also are quite aggressive, which will make it exceptionally hard for Mayo to get any room to breathe. Mayo will need to get shots off, and I think South Dakota State’s best bet is to play him off the ball at times to try to run him into open 3s off movement.

This is a weird coaching matchup that could lead to strange results. South Dakota State coach Eric Henderson was on staff with Cyclones head man T.J. Otzelberger when Otzelberger was the head coach at South Dakota State from 2016-19. He was also on staff at Iowa State with Otzelberger from 2006-09, when he was just starting his college coaching career. Henderson’s staff is filled with former Otzelberger staffers and assistants. They’re all very friendly, as many longtime staff members are with one another. Is there any chance Henderson feels like he has a scout on Iowa State whom he might not otherwise have against another team?

That’s the underdog’s best chance here. Maybe Henderson can figure out a way to coerce Iowa State into one of its disaster offensive performances that have been a bit too common this season — the team has nine games in which it scored under one point per possession, including a couple against Texas A&M and Virginia Tech, who don’t exactly have loaded defenses. But that seems like a big swing.

Still, maybe Mayo can get hot and just feel it for a night against the Cyclones. He’s certainly talented enough.

(Top photo of Donovan Dent and Tucker DeVries: Isaiah J. Downing, Jeff Curry: USA Today)

Get all-access to exclusive stories.

Subscribe to The Athletic for in-depth coverage of your favorite players, teams, leagues and clubs. Try a week on us.

Start Free Trial

Sam Vecenie covers the NBA Draft, college basketball and the NBA for The Athletic. His podcast, the Game Theory Podcast, is regularly ranked among the top podcasts on iTunes. Previously, he worked for CBS Sports, SB Nation, Sporting News, and Vice. Follow Sam on Twitter @Sam_Vecenie

Source

×