In 2011, VCU and their dynamic young coach Shaka Smart earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament's First Four. No one could have predicted what would follow from there. The Rams finished the season with 28 wins and 12 losses, had lost to Old Dominion in the Colonial Athletic Conference Tournament's championship game and walked into the NCAA Tournament with no fanfare at all.
If you had picked them to make a deep tournament run before March Madness began, you would have been labeled a fool. But we know how things played out from there. They knocked out USC in the First Four, and proceeded to snuff Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas en route to one of the most remarkable and fun dashes to the Final Four that the tournament has ever witnessed.
I say all that to say, don't sleep on tonight's games in Dayton, which officially gets the 2017 NCAA Tournament under way. Mount St. Mary's and New Orleans face off to determine which of those No. 16 seeds gets to face the overall No. 1 seed Villanova in the the first game, followed by No. 11's Kansas State and Wake Forest, the winner of whom will get No. 6 Cincinnati.
So buckle up your chin straps and let's get ready to get it started. Here are the players that you want to be paying attention to tonight.
Erik Thomas, Forward, New Orleans - The Southland Conference Player of the Year is averaging 19.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.
The senior from Wesley Chapel, Florida native leads the Privateers in scoring, rebounding, steals (45), field goal percentage (59.1), and free throw percentage (78.3). Although he stands only 6-foot-5, his teammates call him "Charles Barkley" for his tenacity and all-around skills.
Junior Robinson, Guard, Mount St. Mary's - The Mountaineers are driven by their backcourt. Sophomore Elijah Long averages 15.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists, while freshman Miles Wilson chips in with 11.3 points per game. But the guy you won't be able to take your eyes off of is the 5-foot-5 sophomore from Mebane, North Carolina, Mr. Junior Robinson.
Lightning quick, he's the most important player for Mount St. Mary's. Shorty gets buckets, as evidenced by the 21 points he dropped on Michigan earlier this year when he splashed five of his six three point attempts. In the Northeast Conference tourney, he scored 22, 18 and 22 against Sacred Heart, Robert Morris and St. Francis (PA) en route to the championship.
John Collins, Power Forward/Center, Wake Forest
The Deamon Deacons have some very good guards that have flown under the radar this year in sophomores Bryant Crawford and Keyshawn Woods. But Collins is a certified beast who will certainly be a first-round pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. The 6-foot-10 sophomore from West Palm Beach, Florida was a viable conference player of the year candidate after averaging 19.1 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game while shooting 62.3 percent from the field.
Last year, Collins averaged seven points and four boards per game. This year, he suddenly became one of the best players in all of college basketball while being the focal point of one of the country's most efficient offenses. He's been a double-double machine all year, and gave out his best work against Duke a few weeks back to the tune of 31 points and 15 rebounds.
Kamau Stokes, Guard, Kansas State
The Wildcats have a balanced offensive attack led by senior swingman Wesley Iwundu, who averages a team-best 12.5 points and 6.4 rebounds and is one of four double-digit scorers for head coach Bruce Weber's squad. Sophomore guard Barry Brown averages 11.7 points and senior forward D.J. Johnson averages 11.2 points with a team-high 49 blocked shots.
But the guy that always gets me excited to watch Kansas State is the 6-foot point guard with the sweet stroke from Baltimore, Maryland, Kamau Stokes, who is averaging 11.6 points and 4.3 assist per game. In only his fifth college game last year as a true freshman, he lit up the North Carolina Tar Heels for 24 points while connected on 75% of his three-point attempts.
His 17 points against Texas Tech last year, while splashing 4 of 5 from deep, and his 20 points against Baylor while hitting 50 % from the field are signposts along the road to what should be a breakout next few years.
Stokes always seems to be constrained under Weber's micro-management, but if Kansas State wants to make a run, the coach might want to consider loosening the reins. He's an outstanding, intelligent, tough floor general, but the thing he does best is shoot the ball.