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Mid-Major Madness preseason awards: Jalen Crutcher is the preseason player of the year

Makur Maker and Na’Shon Hyland also take home honors.

NCAA Basketball: Dayton at Duquesne Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Mid-Major Madness staff expects Jalen Crutcher to be the best player in mid-major college basketball this year. The Dayton senior, who received four first-place votes, will be the key piece to a Flyers team looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament in a loaded Atlantic 10 conference.

Crutcher’s not the only one to take home individual (figurative) hardware. Our staff also handed out awards for the best freshman, breakout star, and breakout team. Here’s a look at who we think you should watch this year.

Player of the Year: Jalen Crutcher, Dayton

Also receiving multiple votes: Terry Taylor (Austin Peay)

When a first-team all-Atlantic 10 member returns to school after testing the NBA Draft waters, you expect him to at least be considered for a list like this one. We’ve spent plenty of time on this here website talking about why Crutcher is among the best players in the country, and it’s well deserved. The senior scored 15.1 points per game last year and ran a Flyers offense that was one of the best in college basketball. He saved some of his best performances for games against the conference’s best teams. Crutcher averaged 19 points per game in the Flyers’ six games against VCU, Saint Louis, and Rhode Island and is the guy responsible for preserving Dayton’s undefeated conference season.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Crutcher is even more efficient this year. The guy shot 44 percent from three and ranked in the top three in the A-10 in both effective and true shooting percentage. He will, however, be tasked with navigating an offense that lost three of its top five scorers from last year. Crutcher can score when needed, and that will be needed. He can distribute, and he will need to figure out how to get the new members of the starting lineup involved. He’s also steady with the ball and will need to maximize his team’s opportunities. Dayton’s an NCAA Tournament-caliber team again this year and we need to see Crutcher play in March.

Freshman of the Year: Makur Maker, Howard

Also receiving multiple votes: Jalen Suggs (Gonzaga)

Five-star prospects don’t often land in our corner of the Internet, but this year we got two of them in Maker and Suggs. Suggs was the highest-rated at six overall, according to ESPN, but Maker is our preseason Freshman of the Year. The center from Phoenix had his choice of blue bloods during the recruiting process, but instead chose Howard, bringing some much-needed publicity and discussion to the world of HBCU athletics. Stories like this from FiveThirtyEight show why even before a game has been played, Maker has already had a bigger impact than any freshman in the country.

Maker is the first five-star high school basketball recruit1 to commit to an HBCU since ESPN unveiled its recruiting database in 2007. In doing so, he eschewed offers from college basketball royalty, including UCLA and Kentucky. And so it is that a young Kenyan-born man with professional basketball aspirations chose a program that has lost more games than all but seven Division I teams since 2011.

“I have no idea why it’s been over 40 years that not even one five-star basketball player in the United States has decided to play basketball at an HBCU,” Maker said in an interview with Jerry Bembry of The Undefeated. “But I do know that in this Black Lives Matter movement that’s empowered and assembled many different people across the country and the world that it won’t be another 40 years until it happens again.”

As soon as Maker stepped on campus at Howard, he became the most talented player in the MEAC. He’s a 6’11 center who can run the court well, get to the rim, and rebound like a guy who actually knows what he’s doing — not something you can say for a lot of super-tall freshmen. Apparently, he’s not a bad shooter for a guy his size, either.

Breakout Player of the Year: Nah’Shon Hyland, VCU

Bones Hyland’s breakout story began before he even committed to VCU. The survivor of a devastating house fire in 2018 that claimed the lives of his grandmother and cousin, Hyland has dealt with adversity that few other players could imagine. His road back meant rehabbing a broken leg and dealing with the emotional toll the tragedy had taken on him. As a freshman at VCU, it took Hyland a few games to find his groove, but when he did, fans got to see the potential for a breakout star. His final stat line read: 9.9 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 1.8 APG. But starting with VCU’s loss to Dayton on Feb. 18, he averaged better than 12 points per game. He also hit at least one three in every game from Dec. 13 on and made at least three triples 11 times overall. Mike Rhoades spoke glowingly of his sophomore guard in this year’s edition of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook:

“Super talented, trying to turn into a leader, that’s what we’re asking him to do. There’s always going to be growing pains with that. He’s a great shooter and passer and makes his teammates better, which is the ultimate compliment in team sport. Now we need him to do it every day.”

Breakout Team: St. Bonaventure

A good recipe for a breakout team is to take a program that’s normally solid, was OK last year, and brings back all five starters. St. Bonaventure fits the bill and is primed to be a pest, nipping at the heels of the A-10’s elite all season. And the Bonnies have no seniors on the roster. Despite the team’s relative youth, it has a rock-solid backcourt, anchored by Kyle Lofton (14.1 PPG, 6.0 APG). Lofton’s a near-40-minute-a-game guy and was among the A-10’s best in three-point shooting (41%) and assist rate (29.2). Next to him, it’s fellow junior Jaren English (11.9 PPG, 40% 3PT) with Dominick Welch on the wing (11.8 PPG, 6.9 RPG). In the front court, Osun Osunniyi is a solid 10-and-8 guy who is one of the better interior defenders in the Atlantic 10.

We’ll see how good this team actually is rather quickly once the Bonnies actually take the court. Early games against Akron, Hofstra, and Buffalo will give them some quick tests, then it’s an A-10 opener against a tough Rhode Island team.