Keeping tabs on many of the best college basketball players in the country is easy enough. All you have to do is turn on the TV or open a website of any of the major sports news providers and have it screamed to you, in both voice and font. Not that they aren’t right, the Zion Williamson’s of the world do make for great entertainment. However, for every Williamson that we can’t turn a corner without hearing his name, there is an Obi Toppin lurking in the corner ready to make his appearance felt.
Let’s take a look at five mid-major names that all college basketball fans could be talking about by the end of next season.
(This list is in no particular order.)
Paul Atkinson, 6-10 Forward, Yale Bulldogs
As a team, the Yale Bulldogs as a team were pretty close to being widely recognized before everything was shut down due to Covid-19. They were favorites to win the Ivy league Tournament — assuming they would have finally knocked off pesky Harvard, who they lost to twice during conference play — and they were on seemingly everyone’s shortlist to be a bracket busting Cinderella in the NCAA Tournament. Bulldogs fans thought that door was closing, but when 6-10 reigning Ivy League Player of the Year forward Paul Atkinson announced he will be returning for his senior season, Yale fans rejoiced
His .661 field goal percentage for his career immediately jumps out to you. His junior season saw his field goal percentage drop down by six percent, but you’ll take that every time because his PPG rose from 9.1 his sophomore season to 17.6 his junior season. When you add his 7.3 rebounds a game, you are probably looking at a double-double machine. Atkinson has his eyes set on the NBA, but not before finishing some unfinished business with the Bulldogs.
Atkinson obviously has his fair share of dunks based on his absurdly high shooting percentage, but as you can see from the highlights below, his touch around the hoop shows he’s more than a slam dunk artist.
Stef Smith, 6-1 G, Vermont Catamounts
The Vermont Catamounts have been the toast of the America East Conference since 2003, winning seven conference tournaments. The most losses they’ve had in conference since the 08-09 season is five. Most recently, it was Anthony Lamb leading the charge as he had the Catamounts one win away from the NCAA tournament when the season was cancelled. Lamb is gone, and for the first time in a while Vermont fans wonder who on the roster can keep the success going. Stef Smith has the potential to be that guy.
Smith started the 19-20 season quietly, failing to score double digits in the first three games. That’s when Smith started being more aggressive, and with great results. In the team’s remaining 30 games, he scored double digits in 26 of those contests. If you like the long ball, Smith is your man, hoisting up 5.7 3-pt attempts per game this past season, connecting on 42.3%. He’s not all offense though, as he also averaged an impressive 1.1 steals per game on the defensive side of the ball.
Vermont will go as Smith does this coming season. Smith tested the NBA Draft waters this year, but announced in June he will be returning for his senior year. The eyes of the America East will be on him, and now hopefully some new eyes too.
Smith highlights are hard to come by, but if you can look past the potato quality of this YouTube video, you will see the skill is there.
Mason Faulkner 6-1 G, Western Carolina Catamounts
A player from the middle of the standings of the Southern conference? Now we are really talking under the radar!
Faulkner is another guy who took a look at the NBA draft, but decided to come back for his senior season at Western Carolina. Faulkner started his career at Northern Kentucky, averaging a modest 7.4 and 5.6 points per game during his two seasons there. After transferring to Western Carolina and sitting out a year, Faulkner improved his points per game to 17.7.
A role player at Northern Kentucky, he became a focal point for the Catamounts (two Catamount players in the same list?!?!) offense. Faulkner plays with a ferocity unmatched by many in basketball which allows him to play much taller than his listed height of 6-1. He averaged an impressive 6.0 rebounds per game, while dishing the ball to the tune of 6.1 assists a game. We talked about Atkinson being a double-double machine. Faulkner is close to being a triple-double machine, a feat he accomplished against Samford on February 26 in which he finished with the monster line of 16-10-12. He narrowly missed this feat against VMI on January 8, finishing one assist shy.
Faulkner fans would like to see his shooting percentages rise a tick (40.2% from field, 31.3% from 3) but when he’s doing virtually everything there is to do on a basketball court, it’s hard to fault him for some of these faults. Plus, the 1.2 steals he gives you on defense allows you to overlook some of those things.
Western Carolina has an uphill battle in a surprisingly tough Southern conference, but they have just the man to lead the charge.
Collin Welp, 6-9 Forward, UC Irvine Anteaters
The UC Irvine Anteaters won the Big West regular season, thanks to the boost in production from Collin Welp, who will be a junior this upcoming season. As a freshman, he played in 37 games, averaging 8.6 points in just over 15 minutes a contest. As a sophomore, his minutes shot up to 23.5 a game and he averaged 13.0 points. Anteaters fans can expect a jump in both of those numbers, as the Anteaters look to defend their regular season championship.
Welp certainly has the pedigree, as his late father, Christian Welp, was arguably the best player to ever suit up for the Washington Huskies, winning Pac-10 Player of the Year in 1986. The younger Welp is well on his way to filling his dad’s large shoes.
Welp was incredibly consistent last year and showed the capability to have huge games, as he did Nov. 30 against Eastern Michigan, where he scored 30 points, including 7-9 shooting behind the arc. The forward can play both inside and outside, shooting 44.2 percent from three, where he averaged 2.7 attempts per game. You can pencil him in at four positions on the court and he’ll know what he’s doing at all of them. His junior year will be one where he begins to get more national attention.
Here are some highlights from his double-double performance against the CSU Fullerton Tigers on Jan. 15.
Jhivvan Jackson, 6-0 Guard, UTSA Roadrunners
With the graduation of Marquette’s epic bucke-getter Markus Howard (27.8 ppg), Jhivvan Jackson is the highest returning scorer in the country, averaging 26.8 a contest last season. What Jackson is missing that the other four players on this list have is a potentially solid core surrounding him this season. The Roadrunners finished 13-19 overall and 7-11 in CUSA play.
Sometimes in college hoops a lot of the big time scorers seem to come from a team that plays below-average basketball. Is it that the player truly has talent or that his coach is asking him day-in and day-out to shoot because he can’t reliably count on anyone else on the team to do so at an effective clip? However, it’s hard to say that a player that averages 26.8 a game on any level of college basketball is totally without some real talent.
While the PPG is what jumps out at you most, the 5.6 rebounds per game for the 6’0 guard shouldn’t be ignored. Five times last season he recorded double-digit rebounds in a game.
If the long ball is your thing, then Jackson is your man. He averaged 10.7 3 attempts per game, knocking down 35.4 percent of them. He’s not afraid of contact, as shown by his aforementioned rebounding number, as well as his free throw attempts per game (5.7 at 85 percent). Additionally, Jackson scored 30-or-more 12 times last season.
There are worse ways to spend a night than watching Jackson fill it up for 40 minutes. Here he is dropping 46 against Western Kentucky.