The Biggest Surprise Stars in College Basketball
One of the joys of any NCAA basketball season is watching the emergence of unknowns as they blossom into stars. While some of this year’s new big names—Michael Carter-Williams, Anthony Bennett—were expected to put up monster years, others have come from far off the radar to excel in 2012-13.
One of the best of that group has been Ole Miss shooting guard Marshall Henderson. Two years removed from his last Division I action, the Utah transfer has devastated SEC defenses to seize control of the conference lead in scoring.
Read on for more on Henderson and the rest of the most unanticipated standouts of the season so far.
15. Nik Stauskas, Michigan
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Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary got all the preseason ink, but the scoring lead among Michigan’s ballyhooed freshmen belongs to an overlooked third member of John Beilein’s recruiting class.
Ontario native Nik Stauskas has carved out a niche as the best three-point shooter in an offense loaded with perimeter stars.
That Stauskas has averaged 12.6 points per game while draining a team-leading 47 three-pointers is impressive by itself.
That, as a true freshman, the 6’6” SG is hitting .495 from beyond the arc (and .493 from the floor overall) ranks him as one of the elite pure shooters in all of college basketball.
14. Javan Felix, Texas
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The Longhorns’ season was supposed to be defined by sophomore PG Myck Kabongo setting up a trio of talented freshman big men led by Cameron Ridley.
Instead, Kabongo has spent the entire season under suspension (he’ll be back mid-February). Meanwhile, the freshman who’s stolen the show for Texas is the team’s smallest player, Javan Felix.
The 5’10”, 190-lb Felix has been leaving it all on the floor, playing 35.8 minutes a night as Rick Barnes’ only point guard option.
He’s turned in a remarkable effort, including 6.0 assists and 1.4 steals per contest, even if he hasn’t been able to make winners out of the 8-10 Longhorns.
13. Alex Kirk, New Mexico
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Heading into the season, Alex Kirk was all unfulfilled potential. The 7’0”, 250-lb center had played a nondescript freshman season as a backup before redshirting in 2011-12.
Now, the towering Kirk is improving by the game, and 15th-ranked New Mexico is the better off for it. The sophomore is averaging team highs of 7.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per contest while also contributing 11.8 points a night.
Kirk turned in a heroic performance in the Lobos’ win over UNLV, outplaying the Rebels’ vaunted front line for 23 points and nine boards.
12. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State
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Wichita State had little choice but to count on unproven players after losing its top five scorers from a year ago. Of the many new faces in the Shockers’ rotation, none has been more of a revelation than juco transfer Cleanthony Early.
The 6’8” Early has blossomed into the team’s leading scorer, racking up 15.5 points per game. He’s also shown admirable versatility at the SF spot, doing damage from the perimeter (.342 long-range shooting) as well as inside (5.2 rebounds a night).
11. Quinn Cook, Duke
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As much as Duke has relied on its senior class this season, it’s sophomore Quinn Cook who’s stepped in to fill a crucial hole in the Blue Devil offense.
Despite having averaged all of 1.9 assists per game off the bench last season, Cook has become a first-rate point guard for a team with few natural distributors.
Cook has been feeding the Blue Devil three-point shooters (not to mention Mason Plumlee) for 6.1 assists per game. He’s also anchored Duke’s defense on the outside with 1.8 steals a night.
Wednesday’s debacle against Miami notwithstanding, Cook has done his share as a scorer, too. He's putting up 11.1 points per game on .391 long-range shooting.
10. Cory Jefferson, Baylor
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For the second year in a row, Baylor’s towering front line is driving the Bears’ success. One of the key cogs in this year’s frontcourt is 6’9” junior Cory Jefferson, who’s second on the team with 8.6 rebounds per game.
Jefferson, who's also scoring 13.1 points a night, has already played more minutes in 2012-13 than he did in the first two seasons of his college career combined.
The only part of his current success that was even hinted at while he was stuck on the bench has been his playmaking defense.
Jefferson blocked 1.2 shots per game as a reserve last season, and he’s up to a team-leading 2.3 rejections a night this time around.
9. Colton Iverson, Colorado State
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Colton Iverson played three nondescript years as a Minnesota reserve before transferring to Colorado State. The 6’10” senior was a safe bet to provide much-needed length to the undersized Rams, but he’s proven to be a lot more than just a big body.
Iverson is leading Colorado State with 14.5 points per game. His presence is providing a welcome interior complement to three-point gunners Dorian Green and Wes Eikmeier.
The big man is also pulling down 9.3 boards a night, which (combined with team leader Pierce Hornung’s 9.9) are helping CSU rank fourth in the nation in rebounding as a team.
8. Treveon Graham, Virginia Commonwealth
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One of the biggest questions for Virginia Commonwealth heading into the season was where the Rams would get enough scoring to replace the graduated Bradford Burgess.
As it turned out, they had the answer on the bench, even though Treveon Graham had only managed seven points per game as a freshman.
The sweet-shooting Graham has exploded now that he’s playing starter’s minutes. He's averaging a team-high 16.2 points (along with 5.5 rebounds) per game.
Graham’s three-point marksmanship has been vital to the perimeter-focused VCU offense, as he’s knocking down treys at a .392 clip.
7. Andre Hollins, Minnesota
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Minnesota announced its arrival on the national scene this season with a resounding win over Memphis at the Battle 4 Atlantis.
The victory was even more of a coming-out party for sophomore guard Andre Hollins, who torched the then-No. 19 Tigers for 41 points on 12-for-16 shooting.
Hollins has stayed hot, leading the Gophers with 14.3 points and 3.7 assists per game. His performance has been a far cry from the 8.7 points and 1.8 assists he averaged in an unimpressive freshman year.
6. Jordan Adams, UCLA
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The fourth-best member of a team’s recruiting class isn’t supposed to be a difference-maker as a freshman.
UCLA’s Jordan Adams, however, is defying that expectation after entering the college game as ESPNU’s 41st-ranked recruit in the nation (behind teammates Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker).
Adams, a 6’5” SG, has been a first-class scorer from the moment the season opened, pouring in 15.2 points per game for the Bruins.
He’s ceded the team lead in that category to Muhammad, but he’s still UCLA’s top perimeter defender at 1.8 steals per contest.
5. Scottie Wilbekin, Florida
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Stuck behind Erving Walker for his first two seasons at Florida, Scottie Wilbekin had precious few chances to show what he could do.
From the brief glimpses they got of him, Gator fans could hardly have foreseen the performance he’s turned in as a first-time starter.
Wilbekin has been the glue that holds Florida’s offense together. He's handing out 4.8 assists per game for a team with no other effective passers.
He’s also been a vital part of the full-court press that’s made the Gators so devastating on defense, averaging 1.9 steals per contest.
4. Tyler Haws, BYU
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Way back in 2009-10, Tyler Haws turned in a solid freshman season at BYU.
After averaging 11.3 points per game that year (including a dazzling .917 free-throw percentage), he disappeared from the hoops landscape as he went on his two-year Mormon mission.
The Cougars couldn’t be happier to have him back.
Now a sophomore, the 6’5” Haws is lighting up the Mountain West to the tune of 21.6 points per game, the seventh-best figure in the nation.
He’s still a lethal free-throw shooter (.919), and now he’s added an improved long-range stroke (27 treys on .391 shooting).
3. Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss
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Well-traveled Marshall Henderson is with his fourth different program in as many years, but Ole Miss is thrilled that they’ve gotten him at the right time.
The 6’2” junior (who has also played for Utah, practiced for Texas Tech and played for South Plains College in the juco ranks) leads the SEC in scoring for the season.
A healthy percentage of Henderson’s 19.4 points per game is coming from beyond the arc, where he’s shooting .357 on the year. He’s no slouch on defense, either, as he’s grabbing 1.5 steals a night.
2. Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga
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After two years as an unimpressive backup, Kelly Olynyk took a redshirt season in 2011-12. Now a junior, Olynyk has proven that his year on the sidelines was time well spent.
The 7’0” center is leading 10th-ranked Gonzaga with 18 points per game, and he’s also pulling down 6.8 rebounds per contest to place second on the roster.
He’s making the best of his opportunities, too—Olynyk’s .657 field-goal percentage is the country’s eighth-best.
1. Erick Green, Virginia Tech
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As a junior, Erick Green was one of the few bright spots in Seth Greenberg’s swan song as Virginia Tech’s coach. As a senior, Green is the leading scorer in all of Division I.
The 6’3” combo guard has raised his scoring average by a full nine points per game to 24.6 points a night, overtaking Creighton's celebrated Doug McDermott for the national lead.
Green has also established himself as a surprisingly effective distributor. He's handing out a career-best 4.4 assists per contest in spite of how often he calls his own number.