Players to watch from one-bid leagues include Weber State’s Jones, UNC Asheville’s Pember
By STEVE MEGARGEE – AP Sports Writer
Weber State’s Dillon Jones and UNC Asheville’s Drew Pember had every reason to decide they had done enough at this level.
But both returned to school in part because they wanted a better ending to their college careers.
Now they’re back for one more season as two of the most decorated players from traditional single-bid conferences.
“I’m not too emotional about it, but it would definitely be hard for me to take that step and not feel like I left it the right way,” Jones said.
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Jones, a 6-foot-6 forward, participated in the G League and NBA Elite Camp after leading Weber State in points (16.7), rebounds (10.9), assists (3.8) and steals (1.6) per the game last season. He ultimately decided to return to school rather than start his career.
He didn’t really consider transferring to a major.
“I was blessed enough to find a school where I could not only succeed but get better every year and really just play and not worry about things at a high level, like politics and those things everything,” Jones said. “I was able to be a good player here. That’s really all I wanted to do.
“My goal was never to play big-time basketball or play at a big school or all that stuff. That was not really my goal. My goal was to give myself the best chance to become a professional athlete. And I think that’s happened since I’ve been here, so why jeopardize that?”
Pember got a taste of the advanced experience. The 6-11 forward had 31 points in two seasons at Tennessee before his success at UNC Asheville. He is back for a fifth season of eligibility after becoming the first Big South player ever to lead the conference in scoring (20.9), rebounding (9.1) and blocks (2.3) in the same season.
Pember led all Division I men’s players in free throws made (266) and attempted (318). He produced three 40-point games and held a school record 48 against the Presbyterians – the highest single game total by any player in Division I last season.
“Pember honestly surprised me,” Pember said. “I really didn’t expect it to be like this. I never expected to be the focal point of a team, I guess.”
Pember decided to return for one more year to graduate and perhaps have a more successful run in the NCAA Tournament. Pember said the Bulldogs’ 86-53 first round loss that UCLA left a bad taste in his mouth.
“That was like an eye opener,” Pember said. The game was just bad in itself, just because they didn’t lose and I got personally flustered and I felt like the weight of the world was on our shoulders and all that kind of stuff. It wasn’t a great experience, but it was because of what we learned from it.”
Some other notable players from conferences that typically only receive one bid to the NCAA Tournament:
TUCKER DEVRIES, DRAKE
DeVries, son of Drake coach Darian DeVries, was the 2022-23 winner of the Larry Bird Trophy given annually to the Missouri Valley Conference’s top player. The 6-7 wing average 18.6 points and 5.7 rebounds and help Drake reach the NCAA Tournament.
ENRIQUE FREEMAN, AKRON
Freeman averaged 16.8 points and 11.2 rebounds per game last season, making him one of 12 Division I players to average a double-double. He was fourth in Division I in rebounds per game and led the Mid-American Conference with 1.4 blocks per game. It was the second consecutive season in which the 6-7 forward averaged a double-double.
RAY HARRISON, GRAND CANYON
The former Big South man of the year spent two seasons at Presbyterian before transferring to Grand Canyon of the Western Athletic Conference for the 2022-23 season. The 6-4 guard contributed to Grand Canyon earn an NCAA bid by becoming the first player since UConn’s Kemba Walker in the 2011 Big East Tournament with at least 80 points, 20 assists and 20 rebounds in a conference contest. Harrison scored 20 points in one NCAA Tournament loss to Gonzaga.
AJAY MITCHELL, UC SANTA BARBARA
Mitchell was the Big West player of the year last season and averaged 16.3 points and 5.1 assists in the league. Mitchell scored at least 20 points in each of UC Santa Barbara’s three Big West Tournament games to help the Gauchos reach the NCAA Tournament. The 6-5 guard has shot over 50% from the field each of his seasons at UC Santa Barbara.
ISAIAH STEVENS, COLORADO STATE
This 6-foot guard is Colorado State’s all-time assist leader. Stevens led the Mountain West Conference and was fourth in the country with 6.7 assists per game last season. His 3.07 assist-to-turnover ratio was sixth in the nation. Stevens also averaged 17.9 points and 3.4 rebounds per game.
VONTERIUS WOOLBRIGHT, WEST CAROLINA
Woolbright led the Southern Conference in assists (5.1), third in the league in rebounding (7.4) and 12th in the conference in scoring (14.5) last season. The 6-6 guard posted a triple in the regular season finale at Western Carolina last year and had 30 points and 11 rebounds in the Southern Conference Tournament overtime loss Furman.
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