The NCAA Tournament has a way of creating overnight superstars every year. It's one of the best benefits to a single-elimination tournament, where it only takes one hot shooting game to turn a player you've never heard of into the talk of the country the next day.
It happens every year. What follows is our best attempt to guess who might become the breakout players of the 2015 tournament. Shout-out to St. Mary's Omar Samhan, Vermont's Taylor Coppenrath and the best damn car salesman in the state of West Virginia, Kevin Pittsnogle, for the inspiration.
Jameel McKay, Iowa State
Why is Iowa State becoming a trendy Final Four pick right now? It might because of the way the Cyclones ran through the Big 12 Tournament, or just some good old-fashioned Duke hate. If you're looking for a basketball reason, stop at McKay.
Simply put, Fred Hoiberg has never had a player like McKay on his roster. The Cyclones are the epitome of a small ball, uptempo, gun-from-deep team, but McKay finally gives them rim protection. The Marquette transfer is far from the most polished front court player in the tournament, but he's one of the fastest and most explosive:
Hoiberg has had a ton of high-impact transfers over the years, from Royce White to DeAndre Kane to Bryce Dejean-Jones. None of them have been a big man who can impact the game on both ends of the floor the way McKay can, though.
He might be giving up about 80 pounds to Przemek Karnowski in a potential Sweet 16 matchup, but he can also run circles around him. Iowa State is begging for a Final Four run, and with Hoiberg drawing more NBA interest every year, you never know how many chances are left. This might be their best shot, and McKay is a big reason why.
Realtime Bracket Game
Realtime Bracket Game
Justin Moss, Buffalo
Did you know MACtion extends to the hardwood, as well? It's true. That was the easiest takeaway from watching Buffalo's victory over Central Michigan in the MAC title game on Saturday -- the up-and-down, free-flowing style of play was almost identical to what makes MAC football a cult favorite.
The Bulls made 10 three-pointers in that game, and will need to keep hitting from deep if they have a shot against West Virginia in the 5-12 matchup. The battle inside will be just as important. That's where Buffalo junior Justin Moss, the MAC Player the Year, will have to handle Devin Williams and Jonathan Holton of the Mountaineers.
At 6'7, 240 pounds, Moss doesn't lack size in the MAC, but will be at a disadvantage against most big men in this tournament. Fortunately, West Virginia plays at one of the fastest tempos in the country and prefers mobile bigs over bruisers. If Moss can hold his own, Buffalo has a good shot at pulling the upset.
Tekele Cotton, Wichita State
Everyone says the same two things about Wichita State:
1) Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are one of the best backcourts in the nation.
2) This team sure misses CleAnthony Early.
Both of those things are true, but it simplifies the Shockers a little too much and marginalizes the contributions of Tekele Cotton. The 6'3 senior is the perimeter stopper for a Wichita defense that ranks No. 15 in efficiency, per KenPom. He also gives the Shockers some much needed athleticism on the wing:
With Cotton vs. Indiana's own human highlight reel Troy Williams in the round of 64, middle America is out to prove not everyone in this part of the country chubby and unkempt. Just most of us.
Pat Connaughton, Notre Dame
Jerian Grant is the best player on Notre Dame and arguably the best guard in the country, but Connaughton is the player who symbolizes this year's Irish better than anyone else. He's 6'5, 214 pounds, but slides anywhere from shooting guard to power forward. Notre Dame is built on spreading the floor and jacking threes, and Connaughton does it better than anyone. He made 43.6 percent of the six threes he took per game and posted a ridiculous 60.1 e-field goal percentage, which ranks No. 41 in the country.
The Irish need Connaughton's shooting, but they might need his rebounding just as much. Center Zach Auguste has been solid in a rim runner role for Notre Dame, but Connaughton is counted on to clean everything else up. He's averaging a team best 7.5 rebounds per game and also led the team in blocks this year.
And oh yeah, Connaughton is an even better baseball player. He also gave up over $500K to play basketball for Notre Dame this season:
The 6-foot-5, 214-pound right-hander was selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball draft last June and earned $428,100 in the process. However, multiple Major League Baseball sources told ESPN.com that number could have been somewhere closer to $1 million.
"He definitely cost himself some money," said one high-ranking MLB executive who believed Connaughton would have gone somewhere in the top two rounds if he hadn't been adamant about returning to Notre Dame.
Notre Dame has a long history of failing to breakthrough in the NCAAs, but after watching the way the Irish tore through the ACC Tournament, this could be their year. Grant and Connaughton are special athletes who probably never should have reached their senior season. Mike Brey needs to find a way to take advantage of it.
Michael Qualls, Arkansas
You are morally obligated to love the Arkansas junior wing. His Twitter handle is @Mr_WALKONAIR and he also does stuff like this:
You might also remember that last season, HE HAD A TIP DUNK TO BEAT KENTUCKY IN OVERTIME AT THE BUZZER:
Qualls and Bobby Portis are one of the most slept on duos in this tournament. A potential round of 32 matchup with North Carolina could be a lot of fun.
Taurean Prince, Baylor
Scott Drew has become one of the country's most consistently maligned coaches for earning a reputation of accomplishing less with more. He's a great recruiter but poor tactician, with a 1-3-1 zone defense epitomizing most of the Bears' problems.
At the onset of the season, it seemed like this Baylor team didn't have as much talent as previous editions. There was no Perry Jones III or Quincy Miller or Isaiah Austin or Cory Jefferson. Which is to say: Hardly anyone expected Baylor to be this good, drawing a No. 3 seed in the tournament's toughest region next to Wisconsin and Arizona. The development of junior wing Taurean Prince is a major reason why Baylor was able to flip the script and actually overachieve.
Prince does not start, but he's doubled his scoring average from his sophomore season to become the team's leading scorer. He's an inside-out threat who has the size (6'7, 215) to bully defenders inside and a developing three-point stroke that saw him can over 39 percent of the 4.5 threes he took per game this season.
If Baylor was in any other bracket, it'd be tempting to push them into the Elite 8 and maybe the Final Four. A potential Sweet 16 matchup with Arizona would be a great game.
Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin
I wrote extensively about Koenig when Traevon Jackson went down with a fractured foot. I thought Koenig would be good, but he's been even better than just about anyone could have anticipated.
Since Jackson went down on Jan. 11 against Rutgers, Koenig has scored in double figures in 13 of 18 games. He was unstoppable in the Big Ten Tournament, pouring in 19 points in a blowout of Purdue and 18 in a tight title game win over Michigan State.
Wisconsin was tough even before the emergence of Koenig. You know all about Wooden Award favorite Frank Kaminsky and potential first-round pick Sam Dekker and rock solid sophomore Nigel Hayes. Now throw in another dynamic scorer in Koenig who looked like the seventh man in the rotation before Jackson's injury opened up a spot for him, and you can see why Wisconsin is a worthy No. 1 seed.
It's gotten to the point where there aren't many guards in this tournament you would take over Koenig, and I think that includes T.J. McConnell, the Arizona senior who could face the Badgers in the Elite 8. It would be an incredible game and a terrific matchup.
Josh Adams, Wyoming
Wyoming pretty much plays the least aseptically pleasing brand of basketball in the country. They milk the shot clock for 30 seconds every possession, defend like crazy and try to keep the score in the 40s. The 40s! It would be awful if they weren't so shameless about it, and that's what makes it endearing.
On a team with six seniors, Wyoming really does have to play like every possession might be their last. They had to win the Mountain West Tournament to make the NCAAs, and they upset San Diego State in the title game to do so. Now the Pokes are a frightening No. 12 seed matched up against Northern Iowa in the round of 64 and potentially Louisville in the round of 32.
On a team defined by defense, Adams is the guard most likely to hit a big shot. You know about Larry Nance Jr., but he can't do it himself. Adams is the team's second-leading scorer and has been on a tear lately, scoring 26 against San Jose State, 24 against UNLV and 27 in an upset win over Boise State in the MWC semifinals. Wyoming can pull an upset or two if he's dialed in.
Jack Gibbs, Davidson
You could choose anyone on Davidson, really. Tyler Kalinowski is the senior star who hit the game-winner in the Atlantic 10 Tournament to beat La Salle. Brian Sullivan has hit some huge shots this season. Peyton Aldridge is a do-it-all freshman. A team like Davidson, one that was supposed to finish last in its first season in the A10 this year, didn't win the conference because of the contributions of any one player.
We'll give the nod to Gibbs, though. The 5'11 sophomore guard was the team's leading scorer before tearing his meniscus earlier this season. He's been incredible since returning, scoring in double figures in all eight games he's appeared in post-injury.
Gibbs is undersized and he's going to spend most of the day jacking three-pointers (5-of-10 from deep against La Salle), so he's really the perfect symbol of Davidson basketball. Iowa could get run out of the gym if they're not careful, and Gonzaga won't sleep easy either if the Wildcats are their opponent in the round of 32.