ESPN BracketBusters: 13 Unsung Stars Ready for Primetime
For the hardcore college basketball junkie, there isn't a more enticing regular-season weekend than ESPN's BracketBusters.
Finally, a chance to eye all those intriguing mid-major teams that have been doing unmentionable things to their conference opponents, a chance to make some real apples-to-apples comparison and, most importantly, a chance to do see it all in real time.
But even if you're only in it for a bit of cursory, bracket-prepping detective work, there's plenty worth watching.
To get you started, we're plucking one marquee player from each of the 13 televised games—you know, the kind of Clark Kent that could turn superhero in a month or so.
Note: All tempo-free and advanced statistics courtesy of KenPom.com
Zeke Marshall, Akron
Season Stats: 12.6 ppg, 6.8 ppg, 3.5 bpg
What's Good: Akron is riding a nation-best 17-game win streak, and Marshall is the main reason why. The seven-footer is a fringe NBA prospect who ranks among the country's top ten in effective field goal percentage (8th), true shooting percentage (8th), block percentage (8th) and free-throw rate (7th). Few players are more dangerous within eight feet of the cylinder.
What's Bad: For his size and skill, Marshall is a poor rebounder. Overall, the Zips are a somewhat disappointing 114th in defensive rebounding.
BracketBuster Opponent: North Dakota State, Feb. 22, 7 p.m. ET
Opponent to Watch: Marshall Bjorklund, F
Taylor Smith, Stephen F. Austin
Season Stats: 15.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 3.1 bpg
What's Good: At 71.2 percent, Smith has the best effective field goal percentage in college basketball. And since Smith hasn't attempted a three-pointer all year, he shoots that exact same percentage from the floor. A 6'6" forward who plays much bigger than his size, Smith is also an excellent shot-blocker and rebounder for the 21-3 lumberjacks. His 14 points and four blocks keyed a non-conference upset over Oklahoma in December, and his interior presence has helped Stephen F. Austin to the fifth-best adjusted defensive efficiency rating in the country.
What's Bad: Smith is an abysmal 45.8 percent from the free-throw line this year in 120 attempts.
BracketBuster Opponent: Long Beach State, Feb. 22, 9 p.m. ET
Opponent to Watch: James Ennis, G/F
Jake Odum, Indiana State
Season Stats: 14.4 ppg, 4.6 apg, 4.4 rpg
What's Good: After a bit of digging I have two cool Jake Odum stats for you. One. he's one of just two players under 6'5" to rank in the nation's top 20 in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (Odum is 12th at 6.9 per). Two of those 20, only two—Army's Ella Ellis and Marquette's Devante Gardner—shoot a higher percentage from the line than Odum's 78.7 percent. That Odum also ranks second in the Missouri Valley in assist rate is a tribute to his complete offensive game. When Odum gets into the lane, the Sycamores are capable of hanging with anyone.
What's Bad: Odum is part of a defense that ranks among the nation's worst at forcing turnovers.
What's Bad: Iona, Feb.23, 11 a.m. ET
Opponent to Watch: Lamont Jones, G
Marcus Lewis, Eastern Kentucky
Season Stats: 5.9 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.5 spg
What's Good: This time we're ditching the stats for aesthetics. And with good reason. Marcus Lewis can flat out fly (see above and here). If we be worthy, basketball gods, bless us with another one of his glorious dunks on this, the festival of BracketBusterus. For it truly would be a sign of your grace.
What's Bad: Role player. Doesn't score much.
BracketBuster Opponent: Valparaiso, Feb. 23, 1 p.m. ET
Opponent to Watch: Ryan Broekhoff, F
Brian Voelkel, Vermont
Season Stats: 6.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 4.6 apg
What's Good: If you like incongruous skill sets (And why wouldn't you?) Brian Voelkel is your man. On offense, the junior forward plays like a pass-first point guard. When the other team is chucking, he's the best defensive rebounder in the America East conference. At 6'6", Voelkel is tied with Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams and Louisiana Monroe's Jayon James as the tallest players to rank among the nation's top 100 in assist rate.
What's Bad: Won't wow you as a scorer and shoots a mediocre percentage from the field.
BracketBuster Opponent: Canisius, Feb. 23, 1 p.m.
Opponent to Watch: Billy Baron, G
Shayne Whittington, Western Michigan
Season Stats: 12.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.6 bpg
What's Good: Like Zeke Marshall,Shayne Whittington (6'10") is another big body out of the MAC. And while he doesn't challenge Marshall as a scorer or shot-blocker, Whittington is the better rebounder by a healthy margin. Even against quality opponents like High Point, NC State, Ohio and Michigan, the native of Paw Paw, Mich. has made his presence felt along the boards.
What's Bad: Shoots an awfully low percentage (49.1 percent) for a big man in a mid-major conference.
BracketBuster Opponent: Pacific, Feb. 23, 2 p.m. ET
Opponent to Watch: Lorenzo McCloud, G
Will Cherry, Montana
Season Stats: 12.4 ppg, 4.5 apg, 4.4 rpg
What's Good: Montana is 15-2 since Cherry returned from an early season foot injury, and even though the Oakland-born guard isn't full strength, he's still the team's leading assist man and second-leading rebounder. On the defensive end, Cherry has the Big Sky's third-best steal percentage.
What's Bad: Cherry's range is limited, and he shoots just 29.3 percent from beyond.
BracketBuster Opponent: Davidson, Feb. 23, 3 p.m. ET
Opponent to Watch: Jake Cohen, F
Juan'ya Green, Niagara
Season Stats: 16.7 ppg, 5.0 apg, 4.1 rpg
What's Good: With lead scorer Antoine Mason nursing an ankle injury, Niagara guard Juan'ya Green has taken on an even bigger role for the Purple Eagles. Which is saying something, since there are only six players in America that log a greater share of their team's minutes than the Philadelphia native. Despite the heavy use, Green has scored 18 or more in each of his last three games to help keep Niagara atop the MAAC.
What's Bad: When Mason's healthy, he isn't even the best scorer on his own team.
BracketBuster Opponent: Northwestern State, Feb. 23, 3 p.m. ET
Opponent to Watch: DeQuan Hicks, F
Ray McCallum, Detroit
Season Stats: 18.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.7 apg
What's Good: Of all the players on this list, Ray McCallum is the one with the most NBA buzz. A top-rated recruit out of high school, McCallum chose Detroit so he could play under his dad, Ray Sr. So far the decision has paid off for the junior guard, who leads his team in points, assists, steals and minutes. But beyond numbers, scouts say it's McCallum's feel for the game that could land him on an NBA roster some day.
What's Bad: His outside shot could use work.
BracketBuster Opponent: Wichita State
Opponent to Watch: Carl Hall, F
Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's
Season Stats: 15.8 ppg, 6.4 apg, 3.1 rpg
What's Good: Dellavedova, who participated in last year's Olympics as a member of the Australian national team, has been one of St. Mary's best players four years running. A gifted scorer and passer, the 6'4" guard made his mark on the 2012-13 season with a 40-foot buzzer beater to stun BYU in Provo.
What's Bad: Not known as an elite defender.
BracketBuster Opponent: Creighton, 2/23 6 pm ET
Opponent to Watch: Gregory Echenique, C*
*We've played pretty loose with the "unsung" qualifier so far, but in no way does Creighton's Doug McDermot, a top-five POY candidate, count as unsung.
Nate Wolters, South Dakota State
Season Stats: 22.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.4 apg
The Good: Earlier this season, Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn compared Wolters to an "obscure-but-critically acclaimed indie show." College basketball insiders have been buzzing about the South Dakota State play-maker for three years, even drawing comparisons to NBA All-Star Steve Nash. But the Jackrabbits have only been in a D-I conference since 2007, and the school's remote location in Brookings, S.D. doesn't make for easy publicity. The SportsCenter crowd began to take notice after Wolters scored 53 in a game on February 7, and a similar performance in BracketBusters could do wonders for Nate the Great's national profile.
The Bad: Not a player who lives much above the rim.
BracketBuster Opponent: Murray State, Feb.23, 8 p.m. ET
Opponent to Watch: Isaiah Canaan, G
Chris Udofia, Denver
Season Stats: 12.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.3 apg
What's Good: Denver has two do-it-all forwards, Chris Udofia and Royce O'Neale. We'll go with Udofia here since he's the bigger difference-maker on defender. Among player's listed at under 6'7", Udofia has the nation's fourth-highest block percentage (and 54th-highest overall).
What's Bad: Shoots the three a bit much for a guy hitting just 30.2 percent from beyond.
BracketBuster Opponent: Northern Iowa
Opponent to Watch: Jake Koch, F
D.J. Cooper, Ohio
Season Stats: 13.6 ppg, 7.7 apg, 3.2 rpg
The Good: D.J. Cooper, a senior, has presided over one of the most successful eras in the history of Ohio University basketball. The Bobcats qualified for a postseason tournament in each of Cooper's first three seasons, and the Chicago native has led his team to NCAA wins over Georgetown (23 points), Michigan (21 points) and South Florida (19 point). Cooper continues to collect accolades in his farewell season, and could soon become the first ever D-I player ever to tally 2,000 points, 900 assists, 500 rebounds and 300 steals in a career.
The Bad: Though his shot has improved over the years, Cooper is still a pretty bad distance shooter for a guy attempts 5.7 threes a game.
BracketBuster Opponent: Belmont, Feb. 23, 10 p.m. ET
Opponent to Watch: Ian Clark, G