4 Small Conference Stars to Watch in the NCAA Tournament's First Round
The first round of the NCAA Tournament is a little different than what comes later. What we used to refer to as the play-in game, the first round now consists of multiple teams in a slightly expanded tournament that got in by the skin of their teeth.
Unlike in the rounds that follow, the attention of viewers is not divided among multiple games, all being played and televised at the same time. The players involved get to play in front of a hungry national audience, and they are the only show in town. This sets the stage for some potentially huge performances by players eager to show off on the national stage, and prove that their team deserved their opportunity to make it into the tournament.
For many of the stars from smaller conferences, this is the first opportunity to showcase their abilities for a national audience. We all know about the abilities of guys like T.J. Warren, Jarnell Stokes, and Roy Devyn Marble, and expect them to have outstanding first-round performances. But here, we introduce some lesser known studs that we expect to put on a show in round one.
Julian Norfleet, Mount St. Mary’s
The Mount comes into the NCAA Tournament led by 6'2'' senior guard, Julian Norfleet. This season, Norfleet has been an effective distributor, averaging 5.4 assists, which is good for 35th in the nation. He also is second on the team in points per game, averaging 17.5, to go along with 2.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals. Norfleet, and the Mountaineers as a team, play a fast-paced style of basketball, and thrive in the transition game. He is an excellent spot shooter as well, and is able to effectively get to the basket or draw defenders and dish to an open teammate. In his last six games for the Mount, Norfleet has consistently scored 16 or 17 points, and is averaging 6.5 assists. We should expect a similar performance from Norfleet against Albany.
Rashad Whack, Mount St. Mary’s
Norfleet is not the only player for Mount St. Mary's that's capable of taking over a basketball game on the offensive end. Senior Guard Rashad Whack is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 17.7 points per game. Like his teammate, Whack thrives on scoring in transition, and also leads the team in three-point shooting for the season. During every game of the Mountaineers’ improbable NEC conference run, he scored more than 20 points, including a season-high 28 against St. Francis on March 5. Expect him to play a key role in their first-round matchup.
Peter Hooley, Albany
Albany is not a great offensive team, as demonstrated by their 205th ranking in the country in offensive efficiency, and their ranking of 225th in adjusted offense. The one consistent weapon they have is freshman Peter Hooley, who comes into the tournament averaging 15.7 points per game. He's scored in excess of 20 points in a game seven times on the season, and is coming into the tournament hot, having scored a season high 30, followed by 26 in two of his last three games.
These scoring performances are particularly impressive in light of the fact that Albany plays at a painfully slow adjusted tempo of 63.2 possessions per game, making them the 313th-fastest team in the country. If the Mount is able to speed up the pace of the game against Albany, as they will try to do, this will result in more scoring opportunities for each team. This creates a likelihood that we could see a scoring performance from Hooley that eclipses his impressive recent performance and season averages.
Aaric Murray, Texas Southern
There is always a concern during tournament time that smaller conference stars will be exposed when matched up against bigger schools in tournament play. No such concerns should exist when it comes to Texas Southern big man Aaric Murray.
A 6'10'' senior with legitimate NBA-level talent, Murray is averaging 22.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. Murray was a part of the West Virginia program prior to transferring to Texas Southern following disciplinary issues and legal trouble. While a lot remains to be seen, Murray could be one of the better stories of redemption in college basketball that we have seen in a long time. He is capable of posting impressive stat lines against any team in the country, and there is certainly no one on the Cal Poly roster that can even begin to contain him. We should expect a huge performance from him in the first round.