Mid-major basketball has come a long way in the last 10 years.
We’ve seen programs burst onto the scene and into the national spotlight. Teams have navigated their way through the maze of conference realignment and come out on the other side, faced with greener pastures. A few have even come within arms reach of cutting down the nets for the national championship. You could make an argument that the gap between Power 5 conferences and mid-majors (read: everyone else) is as small as it’s ever been.
We’ll remember coaches from this decade like Shaka Smart, Gregg Marshall and Mark Few. We saw some all-time great teams have historic seasons like Wichita State’s undefeated run or Loyola University Chicago’s magical journey to the Final Four. Iconic moments are etched in our brain like UMBC’s upset of Virginia or Mercer’s Kevin Canevari busting a move after taking down Duke.
But above all else, we’ll remember the players that helped make those teams and moments so memorable.
Here are the players that helped shaped mid-major basketball over the last decade.
Jimmer Freddette - BYU
Jimmer Mania ushered in the decade with one of the most exciting seasons we’ve seen from a college basketball player in recent memory. His senior season at BYU became appointment viewing as he would go on to lead the nation in scoring (28.9 PPG) and took home nearly every Player of the Year Award imaginable.
His unlimited range and scoring binges thrust BYU into the national spotlight as the Cougars rose to as high as No. 3 in the AP Poll late in the season. In the NCAA Tournament, he delivered three consecutive 30-point games while BYU advanced to the Sweet 16 as a No. 3 seed before ultimately falling to Florida in overtime. Just a few weeks prior, Jimmer poured in 52 points against New Mexico in what would go on to be BYU’s last season in the Mountain West. Ultimately, Jimmer’s legacy will be that of one of the greatest scorers we’ve seen in modern college basketball.
And what better way to remember Jimmer Mania than to indulge in some highlights:
Gordon Hayward - Butler
Gordon Hayward owns what is perhaps the biggest what-if moment in college basketball history. You know the one.
If that shot goes in, it’s the greatest moment in college basketball history.
Although Hayward was only at Butler for two years and for only a brief part of the decade, you can’t tell Butler’s story without him. Since that run to the title game in 2010, Butler laid the blueprint for a mid-major’s meteoric rise. Hayward’s play in the tournament propelled the Bulldogs to the national title game, which capped Butler’s rise to prominence. From there, Butler made another national championship game the following year, moved on to the Atlantic 10 in 2012 and then bounced to the Big East in 2013. Its path to college basketball relevance has become one that every mid-major program has tried to emulate in the years following.
Hayward didn’t have the same gaudy numbers as some others on this list. He wasn’t a four-year player that carried his team to years of success. But his impact at Butler was part of one of the biggest Cinderella stories college basketball has ever seen, and that alone is worthy of inclusion on this list. He’ll be one of the more memorable faces from the decade for years to come.
Doug McDermott - Creighton
Doug McDermott was a transcendent player in the college ranks. A bonafide elite scorer who could post-up, drain threes, and work a mid-range jumper, all while standing at 6’8, McDermott managed to score 3,150 points in his four years, earn Missouri Valley Player of the Year twice, win a Naismith, and lead the Jays to back-to-back Valley titles before his senior season. He was our generation’s Pete Maravich, except instead of floppy wool socks it was his ill-fitting t-shirt beneath his jersey. He was the son of his head coach who’d bounced from Northern Iowa to Iowa State and eventually landed at an elite mid-major in Creighton.
His impact was tremendous for Creighton as the university transitioned from the Missouri Valley to the Big East between his junior and senior seasons, putting a national spotlight on the small Jesuit school from Omaha when it desperately needed it most. Doug’s accolades aside, it was beauty incarnate to watch him play the game. The off-ball movement to get free, the trailer threes from the top of the key, the way he worked angles down low to free up and seize upon the tiniest window of opportunity to score. So rarely are we treated to such talent and so soon we forget what his impact meant for mid-major basketball across the country.
- Alex Sindelar (@_sindelar)
Kelly Olynyk - Gonzaga
It’s hard to pick just one player from Gonzaga for this list. Hell, you could put together a pretty strong All-Decade team from Gonzaga players alone. However, Olynyk set the precedent for something that’s become vital to Gonzaga’s transformation into one of college basketball’s best programs: the value of the development year.
Olynyk took a redshirt year between his sophomore and junior season, and subsequently went from playing a minor bench role to becoming an All-American for the first Gonzaga team to obtain a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Following his junior season, Olynyk was a First Round pick in the NBA Draft, the first of five such Bulldogs to do so this decade.
Olynyk’s development opened the door for Mark Few to bring in elite players with the message that they would improve significantly during their year of ineligibility. Following Olynyk, guys like Nigel Williams-Goss, Kyle Wiltjer and Brandon Clarke came to the program and helped take it to new heights. Since Olynyk’s last season at Gonzaga in 2013, the Bulldogs have won 30 games four times, earned two No. 1 seeds and were minutes away from a national title in 2017.
Gonzaga is no longer a plucky underdog. It is a powerhouse program operating in a mid-major conference. With guys like Olynyk, Mark Few has built the Gonzaga program into one that fits in the same class as traditional blue bloods like Duke, Kansas and Kentucky.
Fred VanVleet - Wichita State
Save for Gonzaga, you’ll be hard pressed to find a mid-major program that had a better run of success than Wichita State did in the 2010s. The run featured a string of seven straight NCAA Tournament appearances — six of which came as members of the Missouri Valley — and was highlighted by a Final Four run in 2013. One of the core pieces of those teams was Fred VanVleet.
Without sounding corny or too cliche, VanVleet embodied Gregg Marshall’s mantra of “Play Angry.” He was a floor general in the purest sense of the word. He was a great distributor and one of the best defenders at the point of attack throughout his career. He made big shots in big moments, and was the face of a program that burst onto the national scene during his tenure. Although he lacks the numbers that others on this list compiled over their careers, VanVleet had one of the most successful college careers of any four-year player this decade. Here are some of his accolades:
- Four NCAA Tournament appearances that include a Final Four, a Sweet Sixteen, and two Round of 32 finishes. His record in the NCAA Tournament was 9-4.
- A career record of 121-24 (91-15 as a starter), 63-9 in the MVC (51-3 as a starter)
- Two-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year
- Three-time First-Team All Missouri Valley Conference Selection
The guy just wins. He finished his career in the MVC’s top 10 in games, assists, steals, assists per game, steals per game, and win shares. It’s rare to see a college player with this level of sustained success and longevity in the college ranks, especially at the mid-major level. Thanks to VanVleet and the rest of the core of those mid 2010s Wichita State teams, the Shockers followed the path of predecessors like Butler and Creighton and made the leap to the AAC. That change ushered in a new era of the Missouri Valley Conference, and it’s one that hasn’t seen a team as dominant as the Shockers since.
Ja Morant - Murray State
Ja Morant’s 2018-19 season was, in a word, sensational. He broke through the ceiling for the type of numbers that a point guard could put up, and he did it in an electrifying manner. There’s a case to be made that he was the most dominant player in college basketball during his sophomore season when you account for the gap in talent between him and the rest of his competitors.
Morant was a highlight machine. He scored in bunches, rocked the rim with thunderous dunks, and was one of the best passers to ever roll through college basketball. In his sophomore season, he put up 24.5 points and 10.0 assists per game, becoming the first college basketball player to ever average 20 points and 10 assists per game. He was a First-Team All-American, and his triple-double in the NCAA Tournament against Marquette was only the eighth in tournament history. He was the first player in college basketball history to record a 40-point, 10-assist and five-steal game, and Morant broke a 32-year old OVC single season assist record. The entire season was spent rewriting record books with his name all over it.
He capped off his ascendant rise from little-known point guard to transcendent superstar by going No. 2 in the NBA Draft following his sophomore season. Although his tenure at Murray State was short lived, he still delivered one of the most exhilarating seasons that we’ve ever seen from a college basketball point guard.
Thomas Walkup - Stephen F. Austin
The star of one of the most memorable NCAA Tournament images over the last few years turned it up when the spotlight was the brightest. Thomas Walkup was a vital piece to Stephen F. Austin’s run of three straight NCAA Tournaments that turned the Lumberjacks into one of the most recognizable mid-major programs in the country. Walkup quite literally looked like a Lumberjack, making him that much more popular as he burst onto the scene in the Big Dance.
The apex of Walkup’s stardom came in the 2016 NCAA Tournament when SFA pulled off an upset of third-seeded West Virginia. Walkup delivered a 33-point outing, including a staggering 19-20 performance at the free throw line. In the 2014 NCAA Tournament that included a 12-5 upset of VCU, Walkup turned in double-doubles in both games for the Lumberjacks. A two-time Southland Player of the Year, Walkup compiled a career conference record of 69-3 that included the aforementioned pair of NCAA Tournament upsets and three Southland titles.
Most importantly, Walkup was just cool as hell.
Mike Daum - South Dakota State
Mike Daum was a walking bucket.
There might not have been a bigger mismatch problem in college basketball over the last five years than what Daum presented to opponents. He could take you down on the block and score in the post. At 6’9 with a high release, being a 40 percent three-point shooter on high volume was just unfair. Daum finished his college career as Division I’s No. 7 all-time scorer with 3,067 points, making him just one of 10 guys to ever eclipse the 3,000 point mark.
Daum’s dominance (sorry) of the Summit League is unmatched. He won Summit League Player of the Year three times and was part of three straight NCAA Tournament teams. His career scoring average of 22.4 points per game is the best mark in Summit League history. He was a two-time AP All-American Honorable Mention, and he’s currently fourth all-time in free throws made. He’ll go down as one of the most efficient and dominant scorers in college basketball history.
Chris Clemons - Campbell
Speaking of guys that got buckets, Chris Clemons can stake the claim to being the best scorer college basketball has seen since the inception of the three-point line. At 3,225 points, Clemons finished third on the all-time scoring list, trailing only Pete Maravich and Freeman Williams.
At just 5’9, Clemons was a point guard playing in a free safety’s body. Despite his short stature, the Camel point guard led the nation in scoring in 2018-19 by scoring over 30 points per game. He was a one-man offense that could bomb it from deep or score over bigger defenders at the rim. In 130 career games, he scored in single digits one (1) time. He scored at least 30 points 31 times, went over 40 six times, and delivered a career-high 51 points in the 2017 Big South Tournament. His 444 made threes rank fifth all-time in college basketball, and his 733 made free throws rank seventh. The only thing missing from his resume is an NCAA Tournament appearance, but Clemons will still maintain the reputation as one of college basketball’s all-time great scorers.
Fletcher Magee - Wofford
Fletcher Magee has a case as the best shooter in college basketball history. His credentials? He’s the all-time leader in threes made with 509 on 43.5 percent shooting for his career, and he also hit over 90 percent at the free throw line. He owns two of the top six single-season totals for threes made with 159 and 148 in 2018-19 and 2017-18, respectively.
As a two-time Southern Conference Player of the Year, Magee was one of the biggest names in one of the best mid-major conferences around. During his senior season, he was the star of a Wofford team that went undefeated in SoCon play and earned a 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament. In the First Round against Seton Hall, Magee went 7-12 from deep to propel the Terriers to their first tournament win in program history. His legacy, however, will be that of a sharpshooter that could warp a defense that resulted in one of the best shooting careers of all-time.