College Basketball Stars Already Exceeding Expectations in 2013-14

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistDecember 4, 2013

College Basketball Stars Already Exceeding Expectations in 2013-14

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    Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

    Last week, we talked about some college basketball players who've underachieved to start the 2013-14 season. As anyone who's been to school understands, for every kid who slouches in late and proceeds to fall asleep drooling on his desk, there's a bright-eyed kid with his hand in the air to answer every question and ruin the curve.

    Some of these 10 players may have been expected to succeed this year but are having starts beyond anyone's anticipation. Others are coming out of nowhere, putting up numbers that even their mamas would have thought impossible.

    They may not sustain their hot early production, but each one opened eyes in November and worked his way toward the top of opponents' scouting reports.

    All stats via unless otherwise noted. Stats current through games of December 3.

Kyle Anderson, UCLA

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    We weren't quite sure where Kyle Anderson was going to play under new UCLA coach Steve Alford. The 6'9" sophomore has electric ball skills but lacks the quickness to defend most opposing point guards.

    With UCLA averaging 90 points per game through eight outings, however, Alford appears content to let his team outscore the opponent and ask questions later. That has given Anderson plenty of freedom to run the offense, freedom that he's exploiting to maximum effect.

    Anderson is among the nation's top triple-double threats, and he proved it by posting 13 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists against Morehead State. For the season, he's averaging approximately 14 points, nine boards, eight assists and two steals. It's doubtful he can sustain that kind of pace through the Pac-12 schedule, but if he did, it would be a historic season.

    According to, the year most comparable to Anderson's hot start belongs to Quinnipiac guard Nate Pondexter in 1998-99. Pondexter put up a line of 14.4/8.6/5.3/2.0 as a junior that season. (Note: S-R's Season Finder goes back to 1997-98.)

    Anderson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the first few games under Alford have been a marked improvement from his year under Ben Howland. “I’m enjoying this role much more,” he said. “Coach Alford’s system is very open and he allows you to play.”

    At this rate, Alford would be foolish not to.

James Bell, Villanova

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    In case you can't tell, that is college basketball's anointed one, Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, being left in James Bell's dust in the picture at left. Bell's Villanova team knocked Kansas out of the Battle 4 Atlantis en route to winning the whole event.

    Nova had greater difficulty with Iowa in the final than it did in the semifinal against the Jayhawks, trailing by 12 midway through the second half. Bell caught fire there, dropping three triples in 1:25 to slice the lead to three. Others made the plays to take the game to overtime, but Bell's two offensive rebounds and three free throws in the final 24 seconds iced the victory for the Wildcats.

    Entering the season, Bell was a 6.3-PPG career scorer who struggled to shoot 40 percent from the floor. Seven games into his senior year, Bell's averages have ballooned to 17 PPG and 6.3 RPG. Most encouragingly, his shooting has improved to nearly 45 percent.

    Bell took home MVP honors from the Battle 4 Atlantis after his 20-point performance in the final. Continuing his present form could earn him additional honors, as an All-Big East selection would be well within reach.

DeAndre Kane, Iowa State

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    We all knew DeAndre Kane could stuff a stat sheet. Over his three seasons at Marshall, he averaged 15.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. The question was whether he could win consistently. The Thundering Herd posted a 56-45 record during Kane's tenure.

    Six games into his season at Iowa State, Kane's answering that question in the affirmative. The Cyclones are undefeated, including a win at home over Michigan and a last-minute victory at BYU. Kane's numbers (15.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG and 5.2 APG) are just as impressive as they were at Marshall. Perhaps even more so, since he's doing it all in a much more efficient manner.

    A career 41 percent shooter at Marshall, Kane is making 55 percent of his shots as a Cyclone while taking only 21 percent of the shots available while he's on the floor. As a member of the Herd, his shot percentage climbed as high as 29 percent in 2011-12.

    While he's got better talent around him in Ames, Kane can still take over when needed. He put up 13 points and seven rebounds in the second half at BYU, with his final basket tying the game. Kane did his team no favors by getting ejected for giving BYU's Eric Mika a Ric Flair-esque eye poke, but without his production, the Cougars would have continued to pull away.

    Behind Kane, the Cyclones have crashed the Top 25 once more. ISU's December 13 matchup with in-state rival Iowa should be a huge matchup with March implications.

Alex Kirk, New Mexico

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    The New Mexico Lobos get nearly 70 percent of their scoring from three players. The alpha wolf, like in many packs, is the biggest7-foot junior Alex Kirk.

    Kirk has been frequently dominant in the Lobos' 5-1 start, averaging nearly 21 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks. No player in Sports-Reference's Season Finder has combined those figures over the course of a full year, and Kirk can distance himself from the pack even further.

    Over the first six games, Kirk has drained seven three-point shots, including four in New Mexico's lone loss to UMass. That inside-out versatility is making him a puzzling matchup for UNM's opponents.

    Kirk is on an All-American pace, but it remains to be seen how he'll handle an opponent even bigger than himself. New Mexico's two meetings with in-state rival New Mexico State will answer that question, as the Aggies bring in 7'5", 340-pound behemoth Sim Bhullar and his 7'3" "little" brother Tanveer.

    If Kirk can keep his six-game double-double streak alive Wednesday night against State's twin towers, he may move beyond the All-American talk and begin national Player of the Year whispers.

Cady Lalanne, UMass

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    If the University of Massachusetts' football team had claimed some of the scalps its basketball team has in the early part of this season, SEC-obsessed analysts would be frantically scrambling for reasons to dismiss them from any national championship discussion.

    Boston College. LSU. Nebraska. New Mexico. Clemson. The Minutemen defeated them all in November.

    While waterbug point guard Chaz Williams has been the operator of the UMass offense, junior center Cady Lalanne has been the wrecking ball. Lalanne has already ripped off five double-doubles, including 16 points, 14 rebounds (10 offensive) and four blocks against New Mexico and the aforementioned Alex Kirk.

    Lalanne has doubled his scoring average (8.4 to 17.0) and done nearly the same in blocks (1.4 to 2.7). Throw in 11.4 rebounds per game and 63 percent shooting from the floor, and we're looking at one of the nation's most dominant big men over the first month of the season.

    The Atlantic 10 has a solid assortment of big men this year, and Lalanne will have heavy lifting to do to sustain this sizzling start. If he does, however, the Minutemen will be a difficult draw in March. After all, they're already proving they can knock off power-conference programs.

Marcus Paige, North Carolina

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    With P.J. Hairston suspended for the early part of this season, someone has to score for North Carolina, especially from the perimeter. Shifting last year's point guard to the 2 and allowing him to make it rain from the arc sounds like desperation, but it's mostly worked for coach Roy Williams this season.

    Sophomore Marcus Paige is finally shooting the way he was expected to out of high school. After a dreary shooting year that picked up late last season, Paige is flying out of the gate by making 45 percent of his three-point shots, 55 percent of his twos and 93 percent from the foul line.

    That shooting stroke came in handy when the Tar Heels beat then-No. 3 Louisville. Paige sank 9-of-12 from the floor and all 11 from the line en route to 32 points and a dominant victory.

    Unfortunately, the magic wore off a week later as Paige missed 10 shots, including all six threes, in a loss at UAB. That's easily his worst shooting game of the season so far, but it may be more the exception than the rule. After all, if a shooter can go off against top defensive teams like Louisville and Richmond, he can go off on anyone.

Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh

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    Pitt swingman Lamar Patterson had the week of his life en route to earning the most recent ACC Player of the Week honor.

    The Panthers stomped Texas Tech, Stanford and Duquesne behind Patterson's 21.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 4.0 steals per game. The Texas Tech and Stanford games both ended with the senior setting new career highs in scoring with 23 and 24, respectively.

    He didn't slack off in Pitt's Big Ten/ACC Challenge debut, either. The Panthers stayed unbeaten by defeating Penn State, and Patterson contributed 16 points to go with nine rebounds and five assists. Half of his points came in the final five minutes after Penn State had taken a one-point lead.

    With the Nittany Lions smelling upset, Patterson stroked a key three-point jumper, then helped ice the game with a layup-and-one to build Pitt's lead to eight nearing the final minute.

    Always fairly productive in coach Jamie Dixon's methodical system, Patterson's versatility has been the real revelation. He leads the team with 17 points and 5.4 assists per game while ranking second with 5.4 rebounds and 1.8 steals a night.

    Remember, this is a team whose leading scorer last season put up only 11.5 per game. This kind of production for any Pitt player should be savored while it lasts.

Casey Prather, Florida

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    Preseason excitement for the Florida Gators swirled around several different names. Freshmen Chris Walker and Kasey Hill's arrivals were eagerly anticipated, as were those of incoming transfers Dorian Finney-Smith, Damontre Harris and latecomer Eli Carter.

    But if you claim that you picked senior Casey Prather to lead this team in scoringnever mind ranking fifth in the SECthrough eight games, you, sir or madam, are a liar.

    Prather had a solid, efficient season as a key reserve last year, and in an ideal world, he'd be playing a similar part this season. However, the Gators' world has been anything but ideal thus far. Walker's academics, Hill and Carter's health and Harris' apparent lack of discipline have led to all four missing some or all of UF's first eight games.

    Coach Billy Donovan needed a spark, and Prather's been the one to step up and provide it. The 6'6" forward's three 20-point games could be blown off, since they came against weak sisters North Florida, Arkansas-Little Rock and Jacksonville. But, how to dismiss back-to-back 19-point games against Florida State and UConn?

    While Prather's 19 PPG and 5.9 RPG may not be sustainable, the last two games suggest that he is a legitimate threat to lead the Gators into SEC play. After all, someone's gotta score. Right?

Nik Stauskas, Michigan

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    If you haven't watched much Michigan basketball the past two seasons, the picture at left looks Photoshopped. Rest assured, however, sophomore Nik Stauskas can do more than just stand in the corner and hit threes. He can most certainly get to the basket, and yes, he can dunk.

    When Michigan's offense was orchestrated by Trey Burke, Stauskas didn't need to do much more than wait for the kickout. He made a perfectly good name for himself as a shooting threat during his freshman year.

    Now, with Burke gone, the Wolverine attack needs a spark from anywhere it can find one. Most often, it's come from Stauskas. The Canadian sniper put up five straight 20-point games before missing an easy win over Coppin State with an ankle injury. During that hot streak, he shot 53 percent from the floor including 46 percent from three.

    UM's loss at Duke was a downer for both the team and the player, with Stauskas getting off only two shots all night. Blue Devil bulldog Tyler Thornton and freshman Matt Jones teamed to deny Stauskas the ball at every opportunity.

    Others will likely find their groove for Michigan, whether it's expected star Glenn Robinson III or a surprise package like Caris LeVert or Zak Irvin. Stauskas may not average 18 PPG all season, but he won't be parked and idling in the corner every night, either. Look for him to generate a few more highlights than he did as a freshman.

Xavier Thames, San Diego State

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    With Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley departed from last season's San Diego State team, Aztecs coach Steve Fisher needed to find some scoring. While there are three players averaging double figures for SDSU thus far, the chief Aztec has been a guy who was a sickly 49 percent true shooter last season.

    Xavier Thames was a decent point guard two years ago after transferring in from Washington State, but he didn't seem to know how to shoot straight. So far this season, he's corrected that flaw, at least from deep range.

    Thames has hit 37 percent of his two-pointers, but the long ball is working beautifully. He's drained 16 of his first 27 three-point attempts, a 59.3 percent success rate. That includes an eyebrow-raising 9-for-11 performance against Creighton and Marquette at last week's Wooden Legacy tournament.

    The Aztecs defeated both of those touted opponents to win the event, and are now drawing top 25 votes. With the Mountain West not as potent as it was last year, San Diego State should be included in any discussion of league favorites. For State to make a run at New Mexico and Boise State, however, Thames' shot will need to stay warm, if not sizzling as it is right now.

    For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.