It happens every year, and is one of the reasons the NCAA tournament is so great: An obscure player from a team you perhaps have never heard of carries his team on his back into the final reaches of the bracket, becoming a nationally known name for at least a couple of weeks.
Here are a few players who could fit that bill starting Thursday, depending on if their teams can make some noise.
Ja Morant, Murray State: Ok, you’ve heard of him, but how much do you know? Only three players in 2019 played 1000-plus minutes while registering a PER of 31 and a usage rate of 33. Zion Williamson wasn’t included among the trio, and only one — Morant, the 6-foot-3 sophomore guard — will showcase his skill set in the NCAA tournament. Morant can control a game no matter the opponent: he is the only player in the CBB Reference database to average 20 or more points a game, 10-plus assists, and five rebounds while registering a true shooting percentage of at least 61 percent. What is perhaps most interesting is that the guard rarely attempts a bad shot. More than half of his shots are at the rim, and he converts 66 percent of those. The Division I average for points-per-shot at the rim is 1.20, per BartTorvik.com, yet Morant scores 1.30 PPS, which has never before been accomplished by a guard his size.
Davide Moretti, Texas Tech
The sophomore guard from Italy has missed all of six free throws all season, is shooting 47.8 percent from three-point range and compiled an offensive rating of 131.2, which ranked 10th nationally as compiled by stats guru Ken Pomeroy. He’s one of only 17 players in NCAA history to shoot better than 50 percent overall from the field, 50 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the foul line during conference play in a single season (minimum 100 field goal attempts). Sure, Moretti was named to the all-Big 12 third team — it may be a stretch to call a lauded power-conference player a “sleeper” — but he’s an offensive standout from a team known more for its defense and has made 26 of his last 42 three-point attempts (61.9 percent). That’s the kind of shooting that can propel teams to good things in March, when guard play can take on outsize importance.
Blake Reynolds, Yale
The 6-foot-7 senior forward is a versatile scorer who can stretch an opposing defense from the perimeter (45.2 percent shooting, ranked 41st nationally) as well as create near the basket (per Synergy Sports, .88 points per post-up, which ranks 26th among bigs in the NCAA field). But Reynolds’s greatest skill may be his passing, especially from the post: The Bulldogs score 1.3 points per Reynolds pass, which ranks in the 79th percentile of Division I.
Yale’s perimeter players, in particular, benefit the most from Reynolds’ passing acumen, as 20 of his assists (or 38 percent) have resulted in three-point field goals. Reynolds is perfectly suited to pick apart defenses that don’t immediately switch on screens or like to pressure the post. That includes first-round opponent LSU, which holds opponents to just .97 PPP, which ranks 62nd in Division I and seventh-worst of any 2019 at-large selection. The Tigers are ghastly defending the interior (per Synergy, they allow opposing bigs to score .91 PPP, ranking 13th in the SEC and in the 18th percentile nationally). Reynolds can utilize both his pick-and-pop skill set and his half-court vision to orchestrate a possible 14-3 upset.
Scottie James, Liberty
The Flames’ junior forward gained a bit of infamy during the Atlantic Sun tournament final on March 10 because of this rather preposterous flop:
But let’s not hold that against him too much. James also is averaging a team-high 13.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, and his 68.2 percent effective field goal percentage (which takes into account the added value of three-pointers) ranks seventh nationally. James also pulled down 15.6 percent of Liberty’s possible offensive rebounds, which ranked ninth nationally, and 27.6 percent of its possible defensive rebounds, ranking 23rd.
Jordan Ford, Saint Mary’s
Despite vastly more playing time this season, the guard essentially maintained his offensive efficiency from a year ago: an offensive rating of 120.6, while scoring 1.07 points per play. That rate ranks fourth in Division I — and leads all NCAA tournament players, per Synergy. Also via Synergy, more than 40 percent of Ford’s possessions are pick and rolls, and though the Gaels have the nation’s lowest assist rate, Coach Randy Bennett favors the mismatches that Ford creates — especially when he assists forward Malik Fitts, who has connected on 20 three-point field goals following a Ford pass. Even a versatile defense, like Villanova’s, shouldn’t bother Ford; the guard can generate his own offense (just 10 percent of his half-court buckets have been assisted), and his points per play+assist rate is third among guards (1.19) in March Madness.
Vasa Pusica, Northeastern
The Huskies are all about the three-pointer, and the Serbian point guard at the center of it all, averaging 4.2 assists per game and shooting 40.1 percent from behind the arc. He also spent his one year of U.S. high school at Sunrise Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kan., a little more than two hours to the southwest of the University of Kansas, which he and Northeastern play Thursday afternoon. He didn’t get a sniff from the Jayhawks and now will get a chance to take them down.
Sam Merrill, Utah State
Among teams that registered more than 2000 offensive possessions vs. man defense, Utah State’s points per play rate — .954 — ranks sixth in Division I. The Aggies have achieved that level of efficiency through a blend of passing (the team assists on an absurd 62 percent of its field goals, which also ranks sixth nationally) and individual scoring brilliance. Merrill provides the latter. The 6-foot-5 junior guard can get buckets with ease — his true shooting percentage the past five games is a whopping 66 percent — and just a handful of players have a smaller usage rate than Merrill’s (25.4 percent) while scoring with a higher efficiency (the guard’s offensive rating hovers at 125 points per 100 possessions). But Merrill’s contributions matter most when he operates within the team’s offensive fabric: per Synergy, his points per play+assist rate in the half-court cracks Division I’s 94th percentile, and the Aggies score 2.5 points per his assist, which tops March Madness.
Drew McDonald, Northern Kentucky
The 6-8 senior led the Norse in both scoring and rebounding and also was second on the team in assists, earning Horizon League first-team honors for the third straight season and being named the conference’s player of the year. He also shoots 40.9 percent from three-point range, and his long-range shot with 1.6 seconds left saved Northern Kentucky in their Horizon League tournament semifinal win over Oakland.
Cameron Jackson, Wofford
The 6-foot-8 Jackson is the field’s true sui generis player. Per CBB Reference, just a handful of players since 2009-10 possessed a multifaceted defensive skill set comparable to Jackson’s — players like Kenneth Faried (Morehead State) and Andre Roberson (Colorado). Not only does the senior forward grab a quarter of opponents’ misses, he also has posted block and steal rates of more than five and three percent, respectively. Oh, and he assists on 24 percent of the Terriers’ field goals. If Wofford wants to become the next mid-major darling, it’ll need Jackson’s passing touch to fuel its perimeter-oriented offense: 62 of his assists led to three-pointers, and the Terriers’s three-point percentage (41.6 percent) leads all teams in the NCAA tournament.
Jonathan Galloway, UC Irvine
Opponents shot just 40.6 percent from two-point range against the Anteaters (the lowest mark in the nation) and averaged only 63.3 points per game (which ranked 20th). At the heart of Irvine’s stinginess is Galloway, a 6-10 graduate student who was named Big West defensive player of the year for a record third straight season. The Anteaters don’t get a whole lot of scoring from Galloway (seven points per game), but he’s the program’s all-time leading rebounder.