When the Northeast Conference tips off tournament play on Feb. 28, college basketball's magical, madness-filled tourney journey will begin. No month on the sports calendar is as unforgettable or unpredictable -- the rare time when goliaths are actually slayed by Davids.
Given that this column is entirely devoted to Davids, there seemed no better platform to educate the masses on the biggest ballers among the mid-major ranks. These are the players poised to bust brackets in glass slippers. Competitors will give you 10 players to watch, but here in KC's Column of Complete Excellence you get 11. We go the extra mile. It's what makes this the most visited column on the internet. (Editor's note: This claim is not entirely substantiated.)
Without further ado:
Last March, when mainstream America was introduced to the Oral Roberts superstar, those of us who regularly plant our flag in mid-major soil wondered, "Where've ya been?" Abmas led Division I in scoring last season (24.5 PPG), then paired with Kevin Obanor in the NCAA tournament to lead the 15-seed Golden Eagles to upsets of 2-seed Ohio State and 7-seed Florida. Obanor left for Texas Tech in the offseason, while Abmas elected to remain in Tulsa (or did Coach Paul Mills bolt the door and beg him to stay?).
Either way, Abmas is, again, among the nation's top scorers -- as of Thursday, fifth in Division I at 22.8 PPG -- with five 30-point games this season, including two 38-point eruptions and an uber-exclusive inclusion on the Wooden Award Late Season Top 20 list.
Need a bucket? Dingle's your guy. Nobody in the Ivy League gets more.
Need international business or organizational behavioral advice from a Wharton School of Business student? Dingle's also your guy -- he's currently in his third year in the program.
The Quakers star missed last season after the Ivy League opted out, citing COVID-19 protocols, but elected to stay at Penn. And he's making up for lost time. On Saturday, the scintillating sophomore scorched Harvard for a career-high 33 points on 8-of-10 shooting from deep. His 20.1 PPG is on pace to be the most by a Penn player since Keven McDonald in 1977-78, one year prior to the school's miraculous Final Four run. Speaking of Final Fours: Jordan's Dad, Dana Dingle, was a starter on the Marcus Camby-led UMass squad that made it there in 1996.
Last Thursday, we introduced you to the nation's leading scorer, Antoine Davis of Detroit Mercy. And 'Toine was the nation's leading scorer. Then Kiss exploded for 37 that night in a road win at Sacred Heart and overtook him by 0.2 PPG.
The redshirt senior, along with Bulldogs sophomore Charles Pride, comprises one of the most dangerous combinations in mid-major hoops. Kiss has gone for 25 or more points in nine of Bryant's past 10 games, and his six 30-point games are the most in the Northeast Conference this season. God help us if Peter banks home a big shot in the NCAA tournament with Bill Raftery on the call.
Winning the Big Sky won't be easy. Montana State has ripped off 11 straight wins, Weber State is closing in on a 20-win season and Southern Utah can really score it.
But Kountz is a walking bucket who has terrorized teams all season, particularly in conference play (23.8 PPG). The Colorado transfer lit up Arizona in mid-December to the tune of 33 points (23 in the first half!) and currently ranks among the top 10 scorers in Division I (eighth overall at 21.4 PPG). Kountz was named MVP of the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu to start the season and, with a Big Sky-leading 17 20-point games, he's poised to finish the year with a flourish as well.
Colorado State's David Roddy will likely take home Mountain West Player of the Year honors, but no one in the conference is more capable of dominating than Maldonado. The senior star has gone for 20 or more points in 10 of the past 13 games, while averaging nearly 7 assists in 12 of those. He's the first Cowboy ever to take home national player of the week honors, and is the only player in Division I averaging 19 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists. Maldonado and Pokes star big man Graham Ike form the most formidable 1-2 combination in mid-major basketball -- and consecutive 30-plus point games in late January prove Hunter will be the hunted in March.
One of the single most combustible players in college basketball, McGhee set the mark for most points scored in a Division I game this season when he erupted for 48 in a Jan. 15 road win at Florida Gulf Coast. The senior sharpshooter is fourth overall in scoring at 22.9 PPG and leads the nation in total points (617). A lock to take home ASUN Player of the Year, McGhee is also tops in Division I in made 3s (116) -- more than 12 entire Division I teams. "What kind of scorer is he?" his coach, Ritchie McKay, asked in response to a question we posed earlier this season. "Any kind he wants to be."
Every self-respecting mid-major devotee knows how dangerous Mosley is. Now it's time the rest of the world got with the program. The Bears' assassin became the first MVC player since Hersey Hawkins to score 30-plus points in three straight games when he charred Northern Iowa (43), Southern Illinois (33) and Valparaiso (32) in early January -- then one week later pumped in 40 points in a win over Loyola. Mosley leads the MVC at 20.2 PPG, leads all of college basketball in made field goals (171) and is fourth in Division I with a 93% free throw percentage. Power 5 prima donnas, you've been warned.
Tim Duncan, Shane Battier, Nick Collison and ... Nick Muszynski.
That's four of just nine players in the past 30 years to put up 1,800-plus points, 600-plus rebounds, 250-plus assists and 200-plus blocked shots! On Saturday, in the Bruins' win over Southeast Missouri State, Muszynski pumped in 21 points for his 100th career double-figure scoring game. The 2020 OVC Tournament MVP will become the first player in program history to be selected to four consecutive All-OVC first teams next month, and could set the school's all-time scoring record (1,921 points, Evan Bradd) in the process. Muszynski has a dynamite supporting cast, but Belmont will go as far as "Moose" will take them.
Sears played in the shadow of Jason Preston last season, but the sophomore guard is casting his own this season in a major way. A five-time MAC Player of the Week, the Bobcats sniper exploded for 27 points in the 2021-22 opener against Belmont, then torched South Carolina Upstate for 33 in mid-December to establish a new career high.
Sears has 13 games of at least 20 points this season while leading Ohio in assists 13 times. Just two players in Division I have made more free throws, and no one in the Mid-American Conference has scored more points (522).
"In Peace a Glorious Asset, In War a Tower of Strength."
It just so happens that the official motto of Virginia Military Institute also perfectly describes the 6-foot-11 Stephens, who's third in the SoCon in scoring (19.1 PPG) and first overall in rebounding (9.4 RPG) and field goal percentage (56%). Stephens poured in a career-high 34 points back on Jan. 13 at Mercer, then two days later inhaled a career-high 21 rebounds at The Citadel.
If Dan Earl doesn't win SoCon Coach of the Year, The Committee is launching an investigation. It's reasonable to think the Keydets could have the conference's player of the year as well.
Another gigantic success story via the transfer portal, "Jelly" has been both the spark and the flame in what has been a special season in Birmingham. On Jan. 22, Walker helped snap Louisiana Tech's 18-game home winning streak with a 36-point masterpiece that included nine 3-pointers. Three games later he broke the UAB school record -- held by his coach Andy Kennedy! -- when he erupted for 42 points in a win over Middle Tennessee. Walker has gone over 20 points in nine straight games, he's averaging 23.4 PPG in conference play, tops in C-USA and ranks among the top 10 in all of Division I in 3-pointers made 83. Good luck extinguishing the Blazers star in March.
Other mid-major mastery:
Southeastern Louisiana senior Jalyn Hinton went 15-of-16 from the field last week over two games, raising his FG% in Southland Conference play to 81%!
New Orleans coach Mark Slessinger tied Ron Greene for most wins in program history Saturday (146).
Incarnate Word senior R.J. Glasper has converted each of his past 30 free throw attempts. Glasper is shooting 96.2% from the line in Southland Conference play this season, tied for fifth best in Division I.
On Feb. 7, Southeast Missouri's Phillip Russell became just the second Division I freshman in the past 25 years to put up 35 points, 10 rebounds and 5 steals in a game. Russell did so in a road win at SIUE.
One night later (Feb. 8), Evansville beat Indiana State without either team collecting an offensive rebound! It's believed to be the first time that has happened since offensive rebounds became an official stat in the early 1990s.
Winthrop's Mark Prosser became the 15th head coach in Big South history to win at least 10 conference games in his first year, when the Eagles topped Presbyterian 65-61 on Saturday.
KC's Mid-Major Top 10 for this week:
1. Murray State Racers (Ohio Valley)
Last week: 1
Murray State's KJ Williams steals the ball and capitalizes on the other end with a nice flush.
Another week atop the most majestic perch in basketball for coach Matt McMahon's men, and boy did they earn it. On Thursday the Racers ran past Tennessee State behind a career-high 39 points from junior star KJ Williams. Then Saturday, in a hostile road environment, MSU rallied from nine down with 7:33 to go to clip Morehead State 57-53, extending the nation's second longest win streak to 14 in a row.
Miss next Thursday's home finale against Belmont, and face an immediate dishonorable discharge from KC's mid-major army.
Next up: vs. Austin Peay (Thursday)
2. North Texas Mean Green (Conference USA)
Last week: 7
No fan base is enjoying the bottle service and plush couches inside the swankiest club in basketball quite like the good folks in Denton.
The Mean Green rolled Rice 67-44 on Saturday in the first of three massive games away from "The Super Pit." Senior Thomas Bell matched his career high with 21 points as UNT extended its win streak to 10 games and 16-of-17 overall, tied for the best stretch in program history. Coach Grant McCasland's men are holding teams to 55.5 PPG, the fewest in all of Division I!
Next up: at Florida Atlantic (Thursday)
3. Loyola Chicago Ramblers (Missouri Valley)
Last week: 8
Six NBA titles over 13 glorious seasons ... the Michael Jordan era in Chicago will always be special. But the Windy City is currently enjoying a level of delirium unlike any other thanks to its beloved Ramblers spending another week inside KC's Top 10. Coach Drew Valentine's squad eviscerated Northern Iowa 85-58 on Sunday, then got a bucket from Chris Knight with 0:57 to play Wednesday to survive a major scare at Valparaiso, 71-69. Saturday's showdown with Drake inside "The Joe" figures to be the final major hurdle in the quest for a fourth MVC regular-season title in five years.
Next up: vs. Drake (Saturday)
4. Wyoming Cowboys (Mountain West)
Last week: 2
The white-glove treatment in Laramie was intoxicating. Complimentary keg stands at Buckhorn Bar, VIP access at Daylight Donuts -- you name it, it happened for a Pokes club enjoying "mid-major Beatlemania."
But a Tuesday trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico, was the basketball equivalent of a Yoko solo project for coach Jeff Linder's club, who was stunned by the Lobos 75-66. That said, Wyoming has just two losses since Christmas. So, while the six-game win streak and No. 2 ranking are both history, "something" tells us this group can "work it out."
Next up: vs. Air Force (Saturday)
5. Saint Mary's Gaels (WCC)
Last week: 6
Saint Mary's loses a game, but The Committee moves them up a spot? Well for starters, if you doubt the Grand Poobah of mid-major island again, the punishment will be severe.
But the concrete explanation is this: The loss came in Spokane to AP No. 1 Gonzaga; coach Randy Bennett's bunch did also win its 20th game last week; AND the computers love the Gaels. KenPom and the NET have 'em rated No. 21 and 22, respectively, in large part due to neutral site wins over Notre Dame and Oregon, plus road victories over Utah State and San Francisco.
Speaking of the Dons ...
Next up: vs. San Francisco (Thursday)
6. San Francisco Dons (WCC)
Last week: Unranked
The WCC goes back-to-back and belly-to-belly with San Francisco jumping back into the national conversation. Coach Todd Golden's squad walloped Pepperdine last Thursday by 44, then followed it up with a gigantic Quad 1 win over Santa Clara to finish off a season sweep of the Broncos. San Francisco has now won 20-plus games in five of the past six seasons.
Dons + Gaels on Thursday night in Moraga = mid-major nirvana. Come as you are.
Next up: at Saint Mary's (Thursday)
7. Colorado State Rams (Mountain West)
Last week: Unranked
Two more W's this past week for a Rams team we just can't quit.
Coach Niko Medved's men are back in the circle of trust thanks to a convincing home win over Fresno State last Friday, followed two nights later by arguably their biggest victory of the season. David Roddy's putback with 0:29 to go in overtime gave Colorado State the lead, and Isaiah Stevens' free throws with 0:04 on the clock finished off a 77-74 road dub at Boise State, an enormous Quad 1 win.
At 20-3 overall, the Rams have as many as three more Quad 1 win opportunities on the schedule before Mountain West tournament play!
Next up: at New Mexico (Thursday)
8. Boise State Broncos (Mountain West)
Last week: 5
Colorado State's Super Bowl Sunday gain was Boise's loss.
Coach Leon Rice's gang suffered its first home defeat in the OT heartbreaker, just its second L since November 30th. But it was encouraging to see the Broncos get back up on the, er, horse Wednesday, with an 85-59 thrashing of Air Force in Colorado Springs. The week ahead -- home games against Utah State and San Diego State -- will either cement BSU's place among college basketball's aristocracy, or eject it back among the unwashed masses.
Next up: vs. Utah State (Saturday)
9. UAB Blazers (Conference USA)
Last week: 3
We're not buying the narrative that UAB buckled under the enormous weight of glittering headlines from KC's Column of Excellence. This team is way too good. But, best believe coach Andy Kennedy will use Sunday's surprising loss at Old Dominion as a cautionary tale. The Blazers were upset by the Monarchs 81-72, their second loss in four games, and one that drops them two games back of North Texas.
Flowers and candy Monday earned you a hall pass. Use it Saturday when UAB hosts the Mean Green in what could be the game of the year in C-USA.
Next up: vs. Rice (Thursday)
10. South Dakota State Jackrabbits (Summit)
Last week: Unranked
As the whispers began to echo from Mount Rushmore to The Badlands, ya couldn't help but appreciate the gravity of the moment: The Jackrabbits were getting the call. So it is that Coach Eric Henderson's men cracked the big time for the first time -- a spot inside KC's Top 10 -- following another week of complete domination.
South Dakota State humbled Denver on Thursday (84-61), then Omaha on Saturday (82-61) to make it 14 consecutive wins. Just three teams in Division I remain unblemished in conference play: Gonzaga, Murray State and the Jacks, and only Gonzaga (28.3 PPG), Murray State (17.0) and Vermont (16.5) are winning their conference games by a larger margin than South Dakota State (15.7 PPG.)
Next up: vs. Western Illinois (Thursday)
Others receiving votes: Belmont, Davidson, San Diego State, BYU
Dropped out: Davidson (No. 4), Saint Louis (No. 9), Vermont (No. 10)
ESPN Stats & Information researcher Jared Berson contributed to this article.