Six Returning Mid-Major Stars Who Could Add More Hardware in 2019-20

If you have a returning conference player of the year on your team, odds are expectations are high.
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Utah State basketball Sam Merrill

Most folks don’t pay much mind to mid-major collegiate basketball programs before conference tournament season, and even those people are outliers. The American public has little use for any of these teams until a select few become trendy Cinderella picks in shoddy-at-best office brackets. To the average viewer, midseason matchups between programs existing outside the public eye are a confusing mess of players you’ve never heard of playing for teams you know nothing about that belong to conferences you didn’t know existed. But if you find yourself with an itch for some off-hours hoops, the mid-majors might be the only thing to scratch it with.

To aid in your journey through the netherworlds of NCAA Division I men's basketball, here are six players from small schools who won player of the year in their respective conferences last season and are back for 2019-20. Logic would dictate that these guys take advantage of being crowned the best player in their conference and transfer to a bigger program if they have eligibility left. Some of them did; R.J. Cole bolted from Howard to UConn after nabbing the MEAC POY last year, and Jake Toolson landed at BYU after winning the WAC POY with Utah Valley State. Still, six of last year’s winners from the mid-majors both have eligibility left and returned to the programs with which they won the awards. Keep an eye out for these guys and their teams as you hide under a comforter and channel surf this coming winter.

Jon Axel Gudmundsson, Senior, Davidson

The Icelandic guard continued his strong upward trajectory in his third year with the Wildcats, averaging 16.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists while shooting 35.5% from three. He became the first player in school history to log 1,000 career points, 500 rebounds and 400 assists while also winning the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year award. He finished top five in the conference in points, rebounds, assists, player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage and win shares.

Gudmundsson scored 20 or more points 12 times, recorded the second most double doubles in the conference (nine) and logged the only triple double in the A-10 last season with 20/10/10 against Rhode Island. A 6’5”, 190-pound guard, the self-titled “Viking” declared for the NBA draft last season but withdrew his name in May to rejoin the other four starters from last year’s Davidson team that finished second in the A-10. Gudmundsson enters his senior year with the NBA once again in his sights, but it’s likely his decision to return to school stemmed from the feedback he received from NBA teams. That means Gudmundsson will be looking to put even more stat-stuffing performances on film, making him and an experienced Davidson team a solid A-10 squad to watch this season.

Anthony Lamb, Senior, Vermont

A strong, stocky forward at 6’6” and 217 pounds, Lamb returns to the Catamounts for his senior year after testing the waters at the NBA draft. A three-year starter at Vermont, Lamb was the unanimous choice for America East Player of the Year in a season where he led the conference in both scoring (21.2 points per game) and rebounding (7.8 rebounds per game). He won a bevy of other awards in 2018-19, highlighted by an AP All-American Honorable Mention and the America East Tournament MVP as the Catamounts rode their star forward to an appearance in the NCAA tournament.

His career statistics are impressive; nearly 1,400 points and over 500 rebounds with a 115.2 offensive rating, a 92.0 defensive rating and a player efficiency rating of 29.3. Lamb is also excellent on the glass, collecting 250 boards in 2018-19 while finishing first in the conference in defensive rebound percentage and sixth in offensive rebound percentage. A solid frontcourt defender who led the America East in defensive rating and defensive win shares last season, Lamb returns to Burlington to, “focus on helping Vermont return to the NCAA tournament.” A beast inside with a scorer’s touch both around the rim and from deep (36.9% from three in college), Lamb should be one of New England’s most exciting collegiate players this season as he readies for another crack at the NBA draft in 2020.

Lamine Diane, Redshirt Sophomore, CSU Northridge

A 6’7”, 205-pound forward from Dakar, Senegal first came to America in 2015 to pursue his NBA dreams. Just three years later, Diane put up monster numbers in his first collegiate basketball season, averaging 24.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 33 starts for CSUN. He won the Big West Player of the Year, Newcomer of the Year and Freshman of the Year while earning an AP All-American Honorable Mention. He broke CSUN single-season records for points (818), rebounds (368), blocks (72) and double doubles (20). Diane was an elite player on the national level too, one of only three freshmen to average a double double while leading the country in made field goals (340) and posting the sixth-best points per game and rebounds per game figures in the nation. A natural scorer with enough ballhandling skill to lead the break, Diane has plenty of room to grow in Year 2. He logged a good-not-great 101.5 defensive rating last year, shot just 52.2% from the free throw line and 30.8% from three. Diane has developed quickly since first enrolling at Findlay Prep in 2015, and another year spent filling some of the holes in his already stellar game should make Big West opponents extremely nervous.

Sam Merrill Senior, Utah State

The Bountiful, Utah (yes, real town) native continued his steady ascent last season by winning the Mountain West Player of the Year, claiming the conference tournament MVP and earning an AP All-American Honorable Mention. The 6’5”, 205-pound guard logged double-digit points in all but one of his 35 games last season, averaging 20.9 points, 3.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists in his third year with the Aggies. Merrill lead the conference in points (731), field goals (228), free throw percentage (90.9) and win shares (7.5) and returned Utah State to the tournament for the first time since 2011. The Aggies were a unanimous No. 1 selection in the Mountain West preseason poll and even snuck into some nationwide preseason Top 25 lists, with Merrill earning MW preseason player of the year honors along the way.

Many expected him to declare for the draft after his breakout junior season, but Merrill returns to Logan after being “talked out of it” by an NBA source. He also mentioned a desire to improve his ballhandling and shooting in his final collegiate season; Merrill shot 37.6% from deep last year after canning 45.1% and 46.4% of his attempts in his first two seasons, respectively. He rejoins reigning Mountain West Freshman of the Year Neemias Queta for another run at the tournament after a disappointing performance against Washington last season, making Merrill and the Aggies one of the most exciting mid-major teams in college basketball this season.

Keith Braxton, Senior, Saint Francis (PA)

The reigning Northeast Conference Player of the Year and three-year starter for the Red Flash is a versatile beast on the boards, leading the NEC in total rebounds and defensive rebounds in each of his three years at St. Francis. He also led the conference in total rebounds per game the last two seasons, doing so as a 6’5”, 208-pound guard. No slouch on the offensive end, Braxton averaged 16.0 points and 3.8 assists to go with his 9.3 rebounds per game in 2018-19. He finished 13th in the country in double doubles with, 13 and posted top five marks in the NEC in field goals and points while leading the Red Flash to the conference finals.

On the defensive end, Braxton snatched 49 steals in 2018-19 and led the conference in defensive rebound percentage at 27.4. He was named to the preseason all-conference team and will look to repeat as POY as St. Francis is pegged to finish third in the NEC. With another strong season, Braxton could become the second player to win an All-NEC award in four separate seasons as well as the first 2,000-point, 1,000-rebound player in conference history. That is reason enough to not touch that dial on the off chance the Red Flash are live on your television this winter.

Rapolas Ivanauskas, Senior, Colgate

The more typical path for a college basketball player is from small school to Power 5 rather than the other way around. For the 6’10”, 210-pound Ivanauskas, he chose Robert Frost’s road less traveled by. He began his career at Northwestern, redshirting in 2016-17 and missing all but three games of the next season with injury. The four-star high school recruit migrated to upstate New York and dominated his first season in the Patriot League, starting all 35 of his games and averaging 15.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists en route to Patriot League Player of the Year honors, an AP All-American Honorable Mention and the Riley Wallace Award given to the top transfer in Division I men’s basketball.

The Lithuanian forward logged 10 double doubles while leading the Raiders in three-point shooting percentage at 43.4% despite being diagnosed with giant papillary conjunctivitis brought on by years of wearing poorly sized contact lenses. Despite the late season trouble with his eyes, Ivanauskas finished top five in the Patriot League in all rebounding metrics, logged a 102.1 defensive rating and chipped in 1.5 defensive win shares. GPC held Ivanauskas to just 16 minutes in Colgate’s tight opening round loss to Tennessee in the tournament, but he returns along with last year’s leading scorer Jordan Burns to pace the preseason conference favorite Raiders. It should be another great year for “Rap” and Colgate in the Patriot League, making them a solid team to watch at noon on a chilly Saturday morning in February.