Every season, Cinderella gets fitted for a new slipper across March, with star mid-major players rising to the occasion and leading their teams to upset victories over the biggest programs in college basketball. Trying to figure out who those players are, though, can often be the tough part when filling out your bracket.

I’m here to try to help you with that. Below, I’ve broken down six mid-major players in the men’s NCAA Tournament that, by the end of the weekend, could be household names. I created a few arbitrary rules for myself. I had to pick at least one player on each of the 12-, 13-, 14- and 15-seed lines, plus two additional players. I also had to pick at least one player from each region to write about in order to trickle across the bracket.


Max Abmas

  • 6-1 senior guard | No. 12 Oral Roberts (playing No. 5 Duke in East Region)

Who is Max Abmas? This is more like a “re-introduction,” as Abmas and Oral Roberts’ coach Paul Mills were the architects behind the Golden Eagles’ run to the Sweet 16 back in 2021 as No. 15 seed, beating Ohio State and Florida. After a year riddled with injuries in 2022, Abmas is back, carrying an Eagles’ team currently on a 17-game win streak. They’re slated to be a popular upset pick against Duke because of that name recognition and winning streak.

But there’s more to it than that. Whereas the two-time Summit League Player of the Year was actually leading the country in scoring back in 2021, he’s merely sixth this year as he’s surrounded by an even better core group of players. Arkansas transfer Connor Vanover is a 7-foot-5 pick-and-pop partner at the center position who can shoot over the top of nearly every opponent. Junior guard Isaac McBride is a Kansas transfer that gives the team a secondary ballhandler to make them even more dangerous when Abmas is on the weak side. Role players Kareem Thompson and Carlos Jurgens have gone from sophomores to seniors and become even more well-rounded. The big key here worth noting above all, though, is that Oral Roberts’ defense has drastically improved from the 2021 version. Whereas they were outside of the top 200 in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, in 2021, they’re actually hovering right around the top 100 now. Vanover’s ability to protect the paint and rebound is the biggest part of that. The Golden Eagles were one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country in 2021, but they’re actually above average this year.

Still, Abmas is the one that makes it all go. Within Mills’ spread ball-screen attack, Abmas is nearly unguardable unless you have versatile bigs who can move their feet on defense. They’ll set ball screens up to 30 feet away from the rim. With his unlimited range from 3, you can’t just leave him alone out there, either. According to Synergy, Abmas hit 35 percent of his 54 3-point attempts from at least 28 feet away from the rim this season. But because you have to respect him out there, it just opens up so much on the interior, too. That’s why this is a top-25 offense in the country. Look at the way they demolished North Dakota State big man Grant Nelson — an NBA Draft prospect in his own right  — in the first half of the Summit League title game. If Mills can find a weakness in your roster, he’s going to exploit it again and again. And notice how it wasn’t just Abmas; McBride and the others get in on the action. They’re an exceptionally difficult guard because of the oceans of space they put big men into.

What does the matchup look like? It’ll be fascinating, if only because the Blue Devils have mobile bigs and a number of different ways they can defend these high-screen actions. With star freshman Dereck Lively II, Duke has been versatile in screen coverages, though the preference is typically to play drop coverage where he sinks into the paint. But don’t expect that against Oral Roberts and Abmas. Lively has also showcased the ability to play more at the level of the screen and slide his feet until his guard can recover, or to even hard-hedge and almost blitz the ballhandler in order to get it out of the primary player’s hands. But merely by pulling Lively and his 7-foot-6 wingspan away from the rim, the Golden Eagles are winning. However, if that doesn’t work, the team can merely just decide to play “small” with 7-footer Kyle Filipowski at the five. Filipowski has gone underrated as a defensive player this season, with his ability to move his feet shining well while he plays the four next to Lively. Heck, if that also fails, the team could even go super small and play 6-8 freshman Mark Mitchell at the five and switch actions across the board, with lineups including Jeremy Roach, Tyrese Proctor, Dariq Whitehead and Jacob Grandison.