Heroes Of March

Kemba Walker and C.J. McCollum are names every college basketball fan knows. Walker willed him team to an NCAA tournament title, while McCollum was the phenomenon that took down Duke.

Now three more players have etched their name into that lore. Makai Mason, Josh Hagins and Thomas Walkup all had games for the ages during the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Those five players are the only ones to score at least 30 points, grab at least 5 rebounds, and dish out at least 4 assists in a win since the 2011 NCAA tournament.

From College Basketball Reference
From College Basketball Reference (click to enlarge)

This season all three drove major upsets. Mason helped Yale beat Baylor thanks to his early points and clutch jumpers down the stretch. Hagins drained the deep three that sent Arkansas-Little Rock into overtime against Purdue. And Walkup head faked, bobbed and weaved, and crossed over his way right through the West Virginia defense.

But as quickly as March creates heroes it can take them away. C.J. McCollum helped Lehigh past Duke, but he couldn’t lift the Mountain Hawks past Xavier in their next game. He shot just 5-22 from the field and scored 14 points as Lehigh fell to Musketeers.

As Mason, Hagins and Walkup take on Duke, Iowa State and Notre Dame respectively, they’ll be trying to play hero a second straight time.

For Walkup, the player who Twitter has decided most resembles his team’s mascot, it was all about just getting to this first moment once again. The 6’4″ senior tore his ACL twice and broke his foot in high school, leading him to the Southland Conference and forcing a redshirt during his freshman season. After all that he’s now the two time Southland Player of the Year and flummoxing defenses around the country.

Stories like Walkup are giving mid-majors a chance to play with and take out the big boys. Stephen F. Austin head coach Brad Underwood has seen the change himself.

“I was a longtime assistant at Western Illinois. We didn’t have players like Thomas Walkup. He was the best player on the court tonight,” Underwood said. “When you get seniors and you get a group that works — I mean, this young man wasn’t recruited out of high school. I mean, Division II schools recruit him. He comes to Stephen F. Austin, goes 19 of 20 from the free-throw line, and as a freshman was a 50-something percent free-throw shooter. He’s a self-made student-athlete. He’s everything that’s good about college sports.”

There were three of these games during this season’s first round, one of historic upsets. They were all mid-major players stepping up on the highest level.¬†And as more heroes of March play for the¬†darlings of the first weekend the balance of power shifts just ever so slightly.

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