by Jon Burke (@Burkenstockss)
Welcome back to our series on college basketball mid-major rankings and players to watch. If you missed last week’s installment, check out Part 1. This week, we profile three more under-the-radar players that will dominate in 2019-20. While Sam Merrill, Charles Bassey, and Grant Riller are not currently household names to the average fan, they are among the most electrifying players in all of NCAA college basketball.
2019 College Basketball: Mid-Major Rankings and Players To Watch
Utah State’s Sam Merrill returns for his senior season with high expectations after last season’s breakout performance. While the Mountain West is much stronger than some other mid-major leagues, Merrill is easily one of the best players outside of the power conferences. He is one of the most vital pieces to his team in all of college basketball and led the MWC in minutes played. Last season, Merrill averaged 20.9 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. Over 35 starts for the Aggies last year, Merrill scored 20+ points 18 times, scoring double digits in all but one game. He also exceeded 30 points on 4 occasions, including a 38-point outburst against Colorado State.
As one of the best shooters in the country, Merrill can score from anywhere on the court. His career average from the three-point line is 42.4%, despite a small dip last year. He also averaged 14.1 FGA last season, which led to a 26% usage rate. The Utah native is nearly automatic from the foul line, as well. In 2019, Merrill shot 90.9% from the free-throw line with 5.4 attempts per game. Although his offensive skills set him apart, Merrill is a solid contributor on the defensive end. He averaged 1.1 steals per game last season, finishing the year with 3.6 defensive rebounds per contest.
These numbers led to an array of awards, including MWC Player of the Year and Tournament MVP. As a result, he was named to the 1st team all-conference and all-tourney teams. Last season, Utah State’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011 was in large part due to Merrill’s play, and he is a heavy favorite to repeat MWC POY honors. The Aggies expect to return to the Dance this year and are currently ranked in the top-20 in most preseason polls. Coach Craig Smith’s squad only needs to replace one starter from last year’s team and will return each of their top 4 leading scorers from last season. With a competent supporting cast and NCAA Tournament experience, Sam Merrill has an opportunity to exceed last season’s success. He is ready to solidify himself among the nation’s best players and is primed to put on a show in his senior year.
Charles Bassey took Conference USA by storm last season as a freshman, averaging 14.6 points and 10 rebounds per game. He also shot 62.7% from the field, including a .673 TS%. Per Mike Monaco, Bassey joined Anthony Davis as the only two freshmen since 1992 to average 14 PPG, 10 RPG, 2BPG, and shoot 60% from the field. The 6-foot-11 center led his team in points, rebounds, and blocks. He was first in CUSA in rebounds, PER, and TS%. Ranking #15 in the country with 17 double-doubles, he was a 10-and-10 machine.
It was no surprise when Bassey was named to the 2019 All-CUSA team, as well as the All-Defense and All-Freshman team. The awards didn’t end there, as he was also named CUSA Defensive Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year. He is extremely effective around the rim on both ends of the court, and his elite athleticism and strength are what set him apart. Because so much of his game is close to the hoop, Bassey draws his fair share of fouls. He attempted a team-high 143 free-throws and shot 76.9% from the line.
After his electric freshman year, Bassey declared his intentions to enter the NBA Draft, but he surprisingly decided to return to WKU for his sophomore season. Although he now plays at a mid-major, Bassey was a sought-after talent out of high school. He was a 5-star recruit and the number 6 player in his class. In fact, just one spot above him on the list was first overall pick Zion Williamson. Bassey is expected to re-enter the NBA Draft pool in 2020 and is currently projected as a late first-round pick. There were initially some concerns about his game translating to the NBA because he is sometimes labeled as more of an old-school center. While he is competent from 3-point range (9-20 last year), that part of his game is still developing. If he can continue to improve his mid-range and outside shooting, his draft stock could inch higher up in the first round.
College of Charleston
College of Charleston guard Grant Riller is one of the most prolific scorers in the nation, and he returns for his final season in 2019-20. Riller led his team with a career-high 21.9 PPG last season, and that number will almost certainly be higher this year. The redshirt senior was the model of consistency last season, dropping 20+ points in 21 games and scoring 30+ on 6 occasions. Riller shot 53.8% from the field and 33% from beyond the arc. He also made free throws at an 80% clip, a career high.
The Orlando native was a 2-star recruit out of high school, but has proven doubters wrong his entire career. In his true freshman year, Riller missed the entire season due to an ACL injury. In his redshirt freshman year, he was an instant contributor, starting 27 of 35 games and averaging 13.1 PPG. Since then, Riller started 65 of 66 games and led his team in points each year.
The most fascinating thing about Riller is that his already-high numbers have the potential to increase dramatically this year. One of the main reasons for that is the departure of Jarrell Brantley. Brantley was drafted last season, currently with the Utah Jazz. He carried at least a 25% usage rate in each of his four seasons at Charleston.
Last year, Riller and Brantley combined to total 60.4 of Charleston’s total usage percentage. Brantley was the only other COC player to score double-digit points last season, adding 19.4 to Riller’s 21.9. That obviously leaves a massive usage gap for the Cougars to fill. It is reasonable to expect their senior leader to expand his already-large role and take on as much responsibility as he can next season. As a result, Riller has the chance to be one of, if not the leading scorer in the nation. The expected uptick in stats for Riller would follow along with his career so far. Each season, he has doubled his APG and improved his rebounding numbers. Riller has a very realistic chance to average 25 points and 5 rebounds per game this year and is the favorite to win CAA POY.