Come June, all you’ll hear about is the guys expected to be lottery picks in the NBA Draft. Anthony Davis, Jared Sullinger, Thomas Robinson and the like.
March Madness, though, is about finding the gems hidden all season behind those frontline players on big-time schools. They’ll get their due — now it’s time for the unsung hoop heroes.
While these five NCAA Tournament sleepers aren’t necessarily all from schools you’d need a microscope to follow their progress on, you’re rarely going to find them given top billing before March. Given the stage of the tournament, however, we think they’ll shine and be just fine.
*** *** ***
Andrew Nicholson, St. Bonaventure: The 6-9, 225 senior beasted his way to 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks yesterday against Xavier in the A-10 final. And that was just his encore for the Bonnies this season after leaving a trail of scorched earth behind him during A-10 play. Without that win, no way the Bonnies make their way to Nashville to play No. 3 seed Florida. You can be sure he’ll be on the Gators’ scouting report with his 18.2 points per game average in conference play this year, and 8.3 boards. That led and was second, respectively, in the A-10 this season. Get him in the lane and he’s a high-percentage shooter at 57 percent.
Isaiah Canaan, Murray State: The Racers’ undefeated start through late February kept Canaan in several player of the year conversations as a darkhorse candidate. He averaged 19.2 points, second in his conference, and kept his teammates involved with 3.7 assists. He’s got incredible slashing ability and is confident like few others from three, shooting 47 percent. The scary thing was that the Racers’ had everything to lose as a mid-major. Only a few losses and they would have been out of consideration. With the Ohio Valley regular and tournament titles in the bag, check out what Canaan will do. They play No. 11 Colorado State in Louisville, just hours from Murray. It’ll be loud.
Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State: This guy has stones. He hit two game-winning shots this season, most recently in the Aztec’s first game in the Mountain West tournament. He pulled up from 24 feet with a Boise State defender in his face in San Diego State’s win, but it wasn’t the first big shot coach Steve Fisher has handed him this season after averaging 19.5 points in conference games, best in the MWC, plus 9.9 boards per game. Don’t think it’s all about his jump-shooting, though; he’ll jump over anyone with his crazy hops. Here’s a bet someone will be posterized by Franklin in the next three weeks. The Aztecs plays No. 11 seed N.C. State in Columbus, Ohio on Friday.
Scott Machado, Iona: The Gaels (25-7) were a longshot to get in, drawing a play-in game with BYU for a 14th seed. The 6-1, 180-pound Machado, however, has been a rising star all season that put the team in this position by outdueling North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall as the nation’s top assist man. He dropped 9.9 assists per game, falling just shy of accomplishing double-digit assists. That’s a feat only two other players in NCAA Division I history have done. He’s the new point guard to watch as far as we’re concerned with Ricky Rubio gone from the NBA. Machado isn’t flashy with the ball, but he can produce the pure point guard’s dream: getting the ball to the right guy at the right time. The winner of the play-in game plays Marquette in Louisville. If Iona makes it, watch his following grow nationally.