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February 9, 2010

Some stars still wait to shine on NCAA stage

As the NCAA wrestles with the decision to expand its 65-team tournament, let's take a moment to think of all the players who never have had a chance to experience March Madness firsthand.

More than two-thirds of the Big Six conference programs have played in the tournament at least once in the past two seasons, leaving 24 programs in those leagues with juniors and/or seniors without a tournament appearance on their resumes.

Although there are dozens of quality juniors and seniors from outside of the Big Six major conferences who haven't played in the tournament, this list is dedicated to the top upperclassmen from the power conferences who haven't made it. They are listed in order of their likelihood of appearing during the 2009-10 season -- though outside of the first guy on the list, their teams have some work to do.

F Gani Lawal, Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets' last NCAA tournament team was led by two one-and-dones (Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young). Tech likely will return to the tournament with a one-and-done in Derrick Favors, but the team leader is Lawal -- a junior who teams with Favors to give Tech the top frontcourt duo in the ACC. Those two combine to average more than 25 points and 17 rebounds per game.
Tournament chances this season: Looking good

G Malcolm Delaney, Virginia Tech
Delaney was a senior in high school when the Hokies last made the tournament, in 2007. With Delaney, the Hokies have made two NIT appearances. Delaney has struggled to gain attention in a conference that featured Ty Lawson and Toney Douglas last season and Jon Scheyer and Greivis Vasquez this season. Still, Delaney leads the ACC in scoring (20.3 ppg). Teammate Jeff Allen also could have made the list; he has topped 11 points and 7.5 rebounds in each of the past three seasons.
Tournament chances this season: Increasing, but still on the bubble

G Deonta Vaughn, Cincinnati
In Vaughn's first three seasons at Cincinnati, he was the Bearcats' only real scoring threat. He has a better surrounding cast now with Lance Stephenson and Yancy Gates, but Cincinnati still is seeking the right mix. Will Vaughn play point guard or shooting guard? If he plays the "two," who is the point? Whether coach Mick Cronin can find the answer could determine if the Bearcats reach their first NCAA tournament since 2005.
Tournament chances this season: Decreasing, though the Bearcats are on the bubble

G Dominique Jones, USF
It's safe to say the Big East didn't invite USF into the league because of the Bulls' basketball prowess. But USF's fortunes are starting to turn thanks to Jones. After going a combined 7-29 in the Big East in Jones' first two seasons, USF is 5-6 this season and has wins over Pittsburgh and Georgetown. Jones led the way with 37 points against the Panthers and 29 against the Hoyas. Those weren't even the best performances of the season. A 46-point, 10-rebound, eight-assist game against Providence on Jan. 23 showed the nation what Big East coaches already knew: USF isn't an easy out as long as Jones is playing.
Tournament chances this season: Slim, barely on the bubble

G John Roberson, Texas Tech
The Red Raiders began the season with plenty of promise, as a 12-2 start included a nine-game winning streak. But once conference play began, Texas Tech returned to its familiar place in the bottom third of the Big 12 standings. Roberson was the key to the Red Raiders' hot start, but he's been inconsistent since then. Teammate Mike Singletary could have been on this list, too.
Tournament chances this season: Slim, barely on the bubble

The majority of teams in the Big Six leagues have made the field in at least one of the past two tournaments. Here's a list of the 24 Big Six programs that haven't made the Big Dance in either of the past two seasons.
SchoolLast NCAAs
Georgia Tech2007
Iowa State2005
Ole Miss2002
N.C. State2006
Oregon State1990
Penn State2001
St. John's2002
Seton Hall2006
South Carolina2004
Texas Tech2007
Virginia Tech2007

G Jeremy Hazell, Seton Hall
The Pirates have finished under .500 in the Big East in each of Hazell's three seasons, but Hazell has been among the nation's scoring leaders in each of the past two seasons. Despite the arrival of forward Herb Pope, who is averaging a double-double per game, Hazell still is taking a ton of shots. Though Seton Hall could play itself onto the bubble, Hazell may never attempt a shot in the NCAA tournament.
Tournament chances this season: Slim, not even on the bubble right now

G Devan Downey, South Carolina
It's a real shame Downey hasn't played in the tournament. When he's at the top of his game, Downey can singlehandedly beat just about anyone -- as he did with a 30-point performance in the Gamecocks' upset of then-undefeated Kentucky. Downey has been a standout for two programs that have struggled to make the tournament in recent years. He played his freshman year at Cincinnati in the Bearcats' first season after the departure of Bob Huggins; the Bearcats had made 12 consecutive tournaments but missed out in Downey's freshman season. The Gamecocks won 10 SEC games last year, but the league was too watered down for the selection committee to give that total much credence. Downey is the kind of player who could help lead South Carolina to an NCAA appearance by running through the SEC tournament.
Tournament chances this season: Must win SEC tournament

F Craig Brackins, Iowa State
After averaging 20.2 points and 9.5 rebounds as a sophomore, Brackins spurned the NBA draft to return for his junior year. Did he make the right decision? The Cyclones aren't any closer to making the NCAA tournament than they were in Brackins' first two seasons, and Brackins' numbers have taken a dip to 17 points and 8.1 rebounds. While junior college transfer Marquis Gilstrap has given Iowa State some extra punch, Cyclones fans have to wonder what might have been if Wesley Johnson had stayed.
Tournament chances this season: Must win Big 12 tournament

G Cory Higgins, Colorado
Higgins has been one of the best free-throw shooters in the country the past two years, shooting better than 83 percent over that span. Alas, in his three years on campus, Colorado has won a total of six Big 12 games. Higgins, who is averaging 18 points per game, is getting help from freshman guard Alec Burks. But the Buffaloes still are struggling to compete with middle-of-the-pack Big 12 teams such as Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, never mind Kansas.
Tournament chances this season: Must win Big 12 tournament

G Talor Battle, Penn State
Battle's team was on the tournament bubble for most of last season, but the Nittany Lions at least made the most of their NIT appearance by winning the tournament. That's as close as Battle will get to the NCAA tournament, barring a miracle in the Big Ten tourney. As with a few other players in this list, it seems at time that Battle is a one-man team this season. He leads the Big Ten in scoring (19.1 ppg), but the Nittany Lions are winless in league play.
Tournament chances this season: Must win Big Ten tournament

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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