Where Are They Now? March Madness Stars of Yesteryear

Fred VanVleet with Wichita State (TonyTheTiger [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0])

Every spring, previously unknown college basketball players become household names — if only for a weekend — because of their heroics during March Madness. The 64-team structure is the great equalizer in terms of exposure. During the regular season, the national TV slate is dominated by the big dogs in the ACC, Big Ten, and other power conferences. Only when March rolls around does the entire nation get to enjoy the exploits of guys like Jimmer Fredette (BYU), Fred Van Vleet (Wichita State), and Ali Farokhmanesh (Northern Iowa).

Not everyone responds well to the big stage. Some guys just aren’t meant for the spotlight, and that’s ok, every performance needs its secondary characters. But others relish playing the lead role and save their best for the biggest moment they’ll ever know.

While some March Madness standouts parlay their tournament success into NBA careers, the vast majority wind up taking their talento overseas or to the D-League, or giving up basketball altogether after college. They ebb from the national consciousness just as quickly as they flowed in. All you have to do is go back and watch a One Shining Moment montage from a few years ago and you’ll find yourself thinking, “Oh yeah, that guy! … What ever happened to him?”

Funny you should ask…


AARON CRAFT (PG) OHIO STATE (2010-14)

Why you remember the name

Because he hustled on every damn play! Because Ohio State made the tournament all four years he was there. Because he was the facilitator of the offense and the best defender on the floor in the final three of those. But mostly because he did this against Iowa State in 2013, sending his team to the Sweet 16:

Where he wound up

Craft never made the NBA; he couldn’t make up for his athletic limitations — or his lack of range — with sheer hustle. He joined the D-League (now G-League) after college, winning Defensive Player of the Year and a D-League championship in 2015 with the Santa Cruz Warriors. He’s bounced back and forth between the D-League and Europe since then and signed with AS Monaco in the French league for the upcoming season. He’ll be a pro in Europe for years, if he wants to. He has a good enough handle and vision to run point overseas, plus he thinks the game at a high level. That lattermost attribute is why I see him eventually earning big bucks this side of the Atlantic … just not as a player.

The props

  • Odds Aaron Craft plays a regular-season game in the NBA: 1,000/1
  • Odds Aaron Craft becomes an NCAA or NBA (assistant) coach: 2/1

BRYCE COTTON (PG) PROVIDENCE (2010-14)

Why you remember the name

Because he led the Friars to their first Big East tournament title in 20 years in 2014, averaging nearly 18 points and five dimes per game and winning tournament MVP in the process. And because he then had one of the best games in the history of March Madness against North Carolina: Providence was only given a no. 11 seed, earning a tough draw with no. 6 UNC. Though his team ended up falling 79-77, Cotton scored 36 points and added eight assists and five boards. He also played every single minute of the game, almost singlehandedly pulling the upset. His performance yielded a Game Score of 30, one of the highest ever in the tournament. (For those unfamiliar, Game Score is a measure of a player’s productivity, accounting for points, field-goal percentage, steals, assists, blocks, etc.)

Where he wound up

Despite his domination during his senior season, Cotton went undrafted. Like Craft, he joined the D-League the next year, making the Futures All-Star Team as a member of the San Antonio Spurs’ Austin-based affiliate. Unlike Craft, the 6’1 point guard parlayed his D-League success into a cup of NBA coffee, playing 15 games for the Jazz in 2014-15 and eight more, split between the Suns and Grizzlies, the next year. His career stats? 23 GP, 3.8 PPG, 0.8 APG, 0.8 RPG. Hey, it’s more than you!

Cotton headed overseas in 2016, singing in Turkey before continuing his circumnavigation of the globe and landing in Australia. He played most of last season for the Perth Wildcats of the NBL and saying it went well would be an understatement: not only did Perth win the championship, Cotton won the league’s scoring title (22.1 PPG) and a was named the finals MVP. He tried to turn his Aussie success into another crack at the NBA, but is heading back Down Under for 2017-18. Still, he’s just 24 and we may not have seen the last of Cotton on an NBA floor.

The props

  • Odds Bryce Cotton plays another NBA game: 5/1
  • Odds a Providence player posts a March Madness Game Score of 30 or better in the next 50 years: 11/2

ALI FAROKHMANESH (SG) NORTHERN IOWA (2008-10)

Why you remember the name

Because it’s incredibly long and looked really funny on the back of a jersey. Because whatever substance flows through his veins runs a temperature of zero degrees Kelvin. Because of this shot in 2010 that put no.1-overall seed Kansas to bed in the Round of 32:

That was actually the second time in two games that the unassuming guard had nailed a dagger three. Facing UNLV in the Round of 64, he broke a late tie with a deep triple, which you can see here if you don’t mind a little camera-jostling, to give UNI a 69-66 win. His heroics landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Where he wound up

Unlike the two guys above him on this list — and most of the guys below — Farokhmanesh wasn’t really a star in college; he was a role player who found his spot on the perimeter and jacked about six three-point attempts per game. He wasn’t even spectacular at that, hitting at a good-but-not-jaw-dropping 37.5-percent for his college career. He never had a chance at even cracking the D-League, let alone the NBA, despite his clutch gene. He did make some coin playing ball though, bouncing around Europe for a few years (Switzerland, Austria, Netherlands), before returning to the US to coach. He started way down the rung at Nebraska and has worked his way up to assistant coach at Drake under Peter Medved. Will his upward trajectory continue?

The props

  • Odds Ali Farokhmanesh becomes an NCAA head coach: 5/1
  • Odds a UNI player ever graces the cover of Sports Illustrated again: 99/1

JIMMER FREDETTE (PG) BYU (2007-2011)

Why you remember the name

Because it sounds like the love-child of a character from Big Love getting together with one of the Beverly Hillbillies. Because Fredette could straight ball, averaging nearly 29 points per game in his Wooden Award-winning senior season. Because he was at his best during the tourney, scoring over 30 points in four of seven March Madness games from 2008-2011. And because he actually had a comparatively long pro career, playing 235 games over five seasons with the Kings, Bulls, Pelicans, and Knicks.

Where he wound up

In short: China. Fredette was never able to bring his prolific scoring to the Association, averaging just six points per game in his career, and seeing his averages drop steadily over his five seasons. Eventually the league gave up on him, but he didn’t give up on basketball, signing with the Shanghai Sharks in 2016 and lighting up the Chinese Basketball Association to the tune of 37.6 points per game. Those gaudy numbers earned him the league’s “International” MVP award (it also gives out a “Domestic” MVP award, but the winner of that — Ding Yanyuhang — averaged a paltry 24 points per game; the International MVP is the real MVP) and led Shanghai to a 30-8 regular-season.

His performance led to NBA interest, but none of the offers guaranteed him a roster spot for the 2017-18 season, so Jimmer is heading back to China. At 28 years old, his window is closing. But another Sino-MVP season will generate more interest next year, and Fredette could decided that it’s time to come home and take his chances.

The props

  • Odds Jimmer Fredette plays another regular-season game in the NBA: 7/3
  • Odds Jimmer Fredette wins another MVP award in China: 6/5

FRED VANVLEET (SG) & RON BAKER (PG) WICHITA STATE (2012-2016)

Why you remember the names

Because they led Wichita State to a massive upset over no. 1-overall seed Gonzaga as freshmen in the 2013 tournament. Because they were March Madness mainstays the next three years, as well, taking the Shockers to a grand total of nine tournament wins over their four-year careers. Because (if we’re being completely honest) the name “Shockers” evokes certain, memorable feelings.

Where they wound up

Against all odds, they both made the NBA, Baker with the Knicks, Van Vleet with the Raptors.

Baker, the Manu Ginobili to VanVleet’s Tony Parker, was a particularly dark horse, given that he suffers from the same athletic deficiencies that hinder guys like Craft and Farokhmanesh. But at 6’4, the three-point specialist has the size to make up for a lack of lift. Don’t count on him sticking around the NBA long; he only hit 26.7-percent from three last year while playing 16.5 minutes per game for the abysmal Knicks. If he can’t stretch the floor, he doesn’t bring much to the table.

VanVleet could have a little more longevity. He was up-and-down between the Raptors and their D-League affiliate last year, and only averaged 7.9 minutes in 37 NBA appearances. But he didn’t look out of place when he was on the floor, and even scored double-digit points on three occasions when injuries gave him an expanded role.

The props

  • Over/Under length of Ron Baker’s NBA career: 2.5 years
  • Over/Under length of Fred VanVleet’s NBA career: 3.5 years

THOMAS WALKUP (PG) STEPHEN F. AUSTIN (2012-16)

Why you remember the name

Because it matches what he often did with the ball on the court. Because he had a sweet beard. Because he led no. 14 Stephen F. Austin to a 70-56 upset of no. 3 West Virginia in the 2016 tourney, scoring 33 points, snatching nine boards, and adding assists and four steals. Because he followed that up with 21 points, five rebounds, and five assists two days later when his Lumberjacks fell by one agonizing point to no. 6 Notre Dame. In sum, his memorable face put on a virtuoso performance for a scrappy underdog.

His coach, Brad Underwood, was much lauded for his work at Stephen F. Austin, and landed a power-conference job because of it. Underwood is undoubtedly a superb coach, but he owes Walkup a heaping helping of that multi-million dollar salary he’s now pulling in at Illinois. (Underwood’s short, one-year tenure at Oklahoma State is a story for another day.)

Where he wound up

Even though he has NBA size for a point guard (6’4, 195 pounds) Walkup was resigned to the D-League out of college. Like Craft, he doesn’t have the athleticism to stick with quicker guards in the NBA. He also can’t shoot well enough, hitting just 26-percent of his threes as a junior and senior at SFA. This past season was his first as a pro and it was a moderate success, averaging a shade under eight points and 3.5 assists for the Windy City Bulls. He also showed improved range, hitting at 28-percent from beyond the arc (which is NBA-distance in the D-League).

If Walkup can turn himself into more of a shooter and develop a little more explosiveness, he has a small chance to crack an NBA lineup one day. But don’t hold your breath.

The props

  • Odds Thomas Walkup plays a regular-season game in the NBA: 24/1
  • O/U length of Brad Underwood’s tenure at Illinois: 3.5 years