Basketball people knew about Stephen Curry before he carried Davidson to the brink of the Final Four in 2008. But that’s where the future NBA MVP — and eventual Hall of Famer — was introduced to the rest of the country.
And that’s one of the things that’s so great about the NCAA Tournament, the rest of the country meets the outstanding players who have been playing at a superstar level outside of the spotlight. The list of those players is lengthy, and it is spectacular. Take a stroll down memory lane.
And now, here are five players who could join that list of famous Cinderellas in 2021.
UPSET ALERT: The sleeper picks most likely to bust your bracket
Max Abmas, Oral Roberts
Let’s start with this: Abmas led all Division I scorers at 24.2 points per game. That’s a good place to start a list of players from double-digit seeds that could carry their teams to an upset victory, wouldn’t you say? Abmas, a 6-1 sophomore, had a four-game stretch in February when he scored 37.3 points per game, and he knocked down at least four 3-pointers in a game 13 times this year. He’s shooting 43.3 percent beyond the arc. And he’s not intimidated by “bigger” competition; Abmas scored 33 against Oklahoma State, 28 against Wichita State and 20 against Oklahoma — three NCAA Tournament at-large teams — early this season. The No. 2 seed Ohio State Buckeyes will present a significant challenge for the 15-seeded Golden Eagles, but a little Abmas magic could make that one interesting.
Isaiah Miller, UNCG
I watched Miller in person a couple times during his freshman season, and it was immediately obvious this kid was special. He was the best player on the court at times, even though that was a very good UNCG team — the Spartans went 27-8, won the SoCon Tournament and pushed 4-seed Gonzaga to the brink before losing, 68-64, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — with a lot of juniors and seniors filling key roles. This year, his senior season, Miller is averaging 19.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.6 steals per game. He’s only 6-foot, but he makes his living inside the arc; he’s only made 10 3-pointers all season. He’s top 10 in three categories on the KenPom leaderboards: sixth in steal percentage, fourth in possession percentage and sixth in shot percentage. Make no mistake, as Miller goes, so goes UNCG. And he’s on a roll now, averaging 25.4 points in his past five contests.
Chandler Vaudrin, Winthrop
Vaudrin isn’t the same type of scorer as the others on this list, but his impact is undeniable. First thing, he’s a 6-7 point guard. Oh, and he’s left-handed. One more: He transferred to Winthrop from a Division II school, Walsh University. Yep. He’s recorded eight career triple-doubles (most of any active D-I player) and averaged 12.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game. His assist rate of 38.5 is ninth in the nation — and best of any player in the NCAA Tournament — as seen on KenPom.com. There’s a reason the Eagles — who are 23-1 this year — are a trendy upset pick in their 12-vs.-5 game with Villanova, and it starts with Vaudrin.
Jason Preston, Ohio
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better story in the tournament. Preston didn’t play much on a very talented high school team, and needed a highlight tape just to attract the attention of any colleges. Ohio liked Preston’s talent, and the rest, as they say, is history. Well, he’s still making history as a junior. Preston caught the nation’s attention in November, when Ohio went to Illinois and gave the host team — and eventual No. 1 seed — everything it could handle. Preston was phenomenal, scoring 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, handing out eight assists and grabbing six rebounds, while committing zero turnovers in 37 minutes. A big NCAA Tournament performance from the 6-4 junior point guard could further boost his NBA Draft stock, which is already on the rise.
Torrey Patton, Cleveland State
Look, this wouldn’t be the first time a team from Cleveland State sent shock waves through the NCAA Tournament. In 1986, the 14-seed Vikings beat Indiana in the opening round and then Saint Joseph’s in the second round to reach the Sweet 16. Patton is the kind of player who could lead Cleveland State to another miracle. He scored 23 points in the Horizon League championship, after pouring in 30 in the opener and 14 in the semifinal. He’s a 6-5 guard who loves to get inside and mix it up; he’s grabbed double-digit rebounds in four consecutive games. And, yeah, maybe it’s a long shot to think Cleveland State could upend No. 2 seed Houston in the opener, but way back in November, the Vikings played another team that wound up on the 2-seed line (Ohio State) and only lost by six points.