The Most Underrated Player on Every Top 25 College Basketball Team
Every Top 25 college basketball team reaches that status through the work of one or two stars, guys who qualify as the faces of the program. What's almost as essential is the role player, the guy who does his work quietly but efficiently, often coming off the bench.
These 25 players have helped their programs to a national ranking, and they do it without garnering headline after headline for themselves.
All statistics and rankings accurate through games as of December 25.
25. Missouri: Johnathan Williams
Missouri freshman Johnathan Williams, III wasn't a McDonald's All-American and he's not already suit shopping for the 2014 NBA draft. Despite all that, he's still a potential candidate for Freshman All-American teams.
A 49 percent true shooter so far, Williams isn't getting minutes for his explosive scoring. Where he really earns his keep is on the glass.
“I haven’t seen anyone attack offensive boards like he does,” Mizzou guard Jordan Clarkson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He’s just an animal, man. A machine. He’s going in there and doing everything the coaches ask of the players. When you say something, he’ll jump through a wall for you.”
Williams has two double-doubles already, including a dominant 17-rebound performance against Gardner-Webb and a 10-point, 15-board effort against UCLA. For the season, he's averaging 8.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, ranking in the SEC's top 10 in both. His 17.0 offensive rebounding percentage (OR%) ranks in the nation's top 20, according to Ken Pomeroy (subscription required).
While Missouri's backcourt gets all the attention, Williams will be the guy doing all the dirty work inside. Tigers coach Frank Haith promises that the lanky 6'9" forward will get some shine before the season's done.
"He will be a guy that you’ll see us feature and get more involved with what we do offensively," Haith told the Post-Dispatch. A consistent scoring game to go with his impressive rebounding effort would easily put Williams on a ton of SEC All-Freshman ballots.
24. Gonzaga: Gerard Coleman
At Providence, Gerard Coleman was a double-figure scorer in 30 minutes per game. Since coming to Gonzaga, he's hit the accelerator hard.
Coleman has struck for double-figure scoring in five of his first 12 games as a Bulldog. In those five, he's averaged less than 21 minutes a night, giving GU fans a clinic in what instant offense looks like. In other outings, however, he looks less like poetry in motion and more like gibberish in neutral.
“He tried to make something happen every time he touched it,” coach Mark Few told the Seattle Times after Coleman coughed up three turnovers in six minutes against West Virginia. Coleman suffered through a similarly rough night against Washington State three weeks prior.
In his two seasons at Providence, Coleman was a 42 percent shooter from the floor. At Gonzaga, he's found a groove more often than not, making nearly 55 percent in the early days of this season.
Former Zags assistant Ray Giacoletti—now head coach at Drake—helped recruit Coleman to Spokane, and he says the reason the school pursued the player is obvious.
“He’s a slasher, finisher and a runner in transition—I mean, an elite guy that way,” Giacoletti told the Times.
Coleman helped bail his team out when Kevin Pangos got off to a slow start against New Mexico State, draining 10-of-19 for 21 points. He's struggled since then, but just wait. Another explosion is just around the corner.
23. UMass: Maxie Esho
If most college coaches sat down in front of a sketch artist and described what they wanted in a sixth man, the most commonly named traits might be athleticism, an unstoppable motor and a relentless nature on defense. The final drawing might look a lot like UMass' Maxie Esho.
The 6'8" junior forward has been among the Atlantic 10's most capable defensive playmakers since he first stepped on campus in Amherst. According to StatSheet.com, he ranked in the conference's top 20 in block percentage in each of his first two seasons, and he's hovering around that level once again this year.
Esho has also been a consistent one-steal guy every game, ranking ninth in steal percentage as a freshman.
So far in 2013-14, Esho is averaging career highs in points (8.0), rebounds (5.8) and field-goal percentage (52.1). Over a three-game stretch that included battles with BYU and Ohio, Esho recorded 13.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game on 72 percent shooting.
Minutemen coach Derek Kellogg enjoys Esho's impact on the game and considers his strengths to be the things that don't necessarily show up in the box score. "I think his energy when he's involved in the game is something that really changes the complexion of what we do," Kellogg said to MassLive.com.
Esho doesn't start games, but he's usually instrumental in how they finish. He scored six of UMass' nine straight points in a late run to finish off Ohio.
22. Iowa: Mike Gesell
While Mike Gesell's sub-40 shooting percentage isn't sexy, his Iowa teammates know the value of his steady ball-handling at the point.
Junior forward Aaron White told The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), "He's taking care of the ball and you look at the stats in every game around the country and assist-to-turnover ratio, and I'm so proud of him because that's a big thing."
On an Iowa team featuring three of the Big Ten's top seven A/T ratios per StatSheet—teammates Anthony Clemmons and Roy Devyn Marble join him—Gesell's still stands out. The sophomore drops four dimes for every giveaway, and on some nights, he's been even better than that.
Seven assists and one turnover against Maryland Eastern Shore, then the same in a win over UTEP. Five-to-one against Fairleigh Dickinson. Six and zero in the Hawkeyes' loss to Iowa State.
Like every other position, point guard is a spot where Iowa coach Fran McCaffery has tremendous flexibility. Sophomore Anthony Clemmons and senior shooting guard Roy Devyn Marble have spent time on the ball, as well.
When Gesell is on, he's among the safest bets in the Big Ten. When he's off, he plays somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 minutes. He'll never be a spectacular All-Big Ten performer, but he's also not going to kill his team with mental mistakes very often.
21. Colorado: Wesley Gordon
During Wesley Gordon's redshirt year, Colorado coach Tad Boyle regularly fought the urge to suit him up and send him out.
Now in his first season of active college competition, Gordon has struggled with his consistency. He's balanced games like his nine-point, eight-rebound debut against Baylor with struggling outings against Colorado State and Oklahoma State.
As the Buffaloes prepare to start conference games after New Year's Day, Gordon sits in the Pac-12's top 20 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage and the top 10 in block percentage. His defense and rebounding make him a highly capable complement to the more explosive scoring of Josh Scott.
Point guard Spencer Dinwiddie laid some lavish praise on Gordon when comparing him to fellow Colorado Springs product Scott, who was in the midst of a Pac-12 All-Freshman season at the time.
"Josh is for sure the better scorer. I personally think Wesley is the better talent," Dinwiddie said to the Boulder Daily Camera. "They bring such a new dynamic to our team with the inside presence, the shot blocking and rebounding, that we've pretty much only had in (ex-forward Andre Roberson)."
While an endorsement like that doesn't scream "underrated," it's hard for a seven-PPG scorer to get a lot of shine behind guys like Scott and Dinwiddie. Gordon likely won't be a household name by March, but he could have a serious headline moment during whatever tournament run the Buffs make.
20. San Diego State: J.J. O'Brien
Either Creighton and Marquette aren't as good as we think, or San Diego State's J.J. O'Brien is a lot better than we think. After all, he essentially performed against both teams with one barely operable hand.
A collision with teammate Xavier Thames early in the Wooden Legacy matchup against Creighton severely bruised O'Brien's dominant right hand. He played through the injury well against the Bluejays, scoring 11 of his 15 points in the second half.
The next day, O'Brien played 28 minutes against Marquette, producing six points, five rebounds and three assists in 28 minutes. He's struggled since then as the injury continues to heal, but the Aztecs have largely rolled against overmatched opposition.
O'Brien's been a starter ever since he transferred in from Utah, but he's largely been a complementary piece behind the likes of Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley. When coach Steve Fisher needed scorers to step up this season, Thames and O'Brien were among the first to answer the bell.
The 6'7" junior is averaging a career-high 10.1 PPG, despite a career-low 26 minutes per game. A 19-point effort in SDSU's loss to Arizona started his campaign with a bang.
Capable of playing any position on the court, O'Brien should put up a few more solid lines like the Arizona game. If he's a double-digit scorer with a busted hand, what will he do in Mountain West play after the appendage heals?
19. North Carolina: Jackson Simmons
Yes, we have to go all the way to the end of the North Carolina bench to find a player who can possibly be called "underrated." Surrounded by former McDonald's All-Americans and assorted other top-100 prospects, junior forward/former walk-on Jackson Simmons often gets lost in the shuffle. When he comes to work, however, few players in the ACC will hustle harder.
For his career, Simmons has averaged 1.5 points and 1.4 rebounds per game. While his stats aren't eye-popping, he's a known quantity for coach Roy Williams, a precious commodity in a season that is only now beginning to stabilize.
Simmons' first substantial playing time came last season on his 20th birthday, when he spurred the Tar Heels to a victory at Florida State. Simmons put up eight points and four rebounds—all offensive—and scored what would prove to be the game-winning basket.
“Happy birthday to Jackson,” Williams said to The Daily Tar Heel after the game. “I don’t know if the guys were teasing me about it or what but if that’s the case, I’m going to tell him every day is his freakin’ birthday.”
Simmons played 16 minutes per game during a five-game stretch last January, averaging 4.8 points and 3.6 rebounds during that span. This season, he's had three games of double-digit minutes, with a top effort of four points and five boards against Texas.
Opponents may not quiver in fear when Simmons enters a game, but they do need to get loose. Otherwise, the deceptively tough forward will run them into the floor.
18. Kentucky: Dakari Johnson
I know, I know: How can a McDonald's All-American be underrated? Considering that nearly every contributing player on the Kentucky roster was one, it makes the idea of an underrated Wildcat sound oxymoronic. Still, 7' freshman Dakari Johnson has been rendered a forgotten man by Willie Cauley-Stein's early dominance.
In Johnson's short stints, he has shown flashes. He's had four games of at least seven points and two with seven or more rebounds. If he had played enough minutes, his 19.5 OR% would rank eighth in the nation, according to StatSheet.
Johnson has split reserve minutes with classmate Marcus Lee, but Johnson brings a more polished interior scoring game than Lee. Lee is an athlete and shot-blocker, which makes him somewhat redundant with Cauley-Stein. Johnson can be the best scorer of the three if he finds consistent minutes.
17. Memphis: David Pellom
Memphis forward David Pellom, a graduate transfer from George Washington, started off the season in difficult fashion. A knee injury cost him the first three games, and he only added eight points in his first four games back. Since then, he's had at least eight points in each of his last three.
When Arkansas-Little Rock led Memphis 48-46 with nine minutes to go, Pellom scored two straight baskets to kick off a 21-5 run that buried the Trojans. Next time out, Pellom's 10 first-half points helped keep the Tigers close against Florida.
As the first frontcourt player off the bench, the 6'7", 225-pound Pellom has occasionally been the lone interior presence surrounded by the Tigers' four stellar guards. His OR% (13.1) and steal percentage (3.5) would both rank in the American Athletic Conference's top 10 if he had played enough games.
In 2011-12, Pellom averaged 10 points and six rebounds for GW. As he rounds into shape during American play, those could be attainable averages again, especially if anything happens to Shaq Goodwin or Austin Nichols. One way or another, Pellom will almost certainly end his career in a place he could never explore as a Colonial—the NCAA tournament.
16. Kansas: Andrew White
Sophomore Andrew White usually only sees substantial playing time as Bill Self's victory cigar. In four of White's appearances this season, he's played four or fewer minutes. In four others, he's scored six or more points up to a season high of 13.
Even last season, when his time was more sporadic than this year, White showed the ability to score in spurts. He put in eight points in eight minutes against Colorado, then followed that with 15 in 10 against Belmont. A February meeting with Oklahoma State was the ultimate, as White struck for six points in only one minute of action.
This season, White is a 39 percent shooter from outside the arc and a 71 percent shooter inside it. KU struggles from the arc, hitting only 32 percent—218th nationally, per Pomeroy (subscription required). Self can occasionally make good use of White's shooting ability, but it's hard to find the 6'6" guard steady minutes behind guys like Wayne Selden, Naadir Tharpe and Frank Mason.
KU's lengthy winter break (nine days off between Georgetown and Toledo) should give White time to recuperate from a hip injury suffered in practice last week. When he returns, Self will have several options on his bench should he decide that 32 percent three-point shooting just isn't working for him.
15. UConn: Lasan Kromah
Entering the season, UConn's backcourt trio of Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun was rated as one of the finest. While Napier has been on an All-American pace and Boatright has provided able support, Calhoun has struggled mightily with his shot.
Enter grad transfer Lasan Kromah, formerly of George Washington.
Calhoun has shot an ugly 34 percent, including a sub-30 mark from behind the three-point line. Kromah, on the other hand, is shooting a career-best 54 percent overall and 47 percent from deep.
The most valuable contribution Kromah has made this season may actually be on defense, though. He put in solid work against Indiana playmaker Yogi Ferrell, helping to hold him to 6-of-19 shooting. In his next game, Kromah helped slow Loyola (Md.) sharpshooter Dylon Cormier, forcing him to take 22 shots to get 23 points.
Kromah's always been a threat on the defensive end. As a freshman at GW in 2009-10, he pulled two steals per game, getting strips on 4.7 percent of available possessions. That percentage ranked 10th in the country according to StatSheet.
UConn assistant Karl Hobbs was the head coach who recruited Kromah to GW. He summed up Kromah's skill set when he told the New Haven Register, "He’s always been a guy that makes an impact on the game. He’s guarding the other team’s best player, or he’s getting a key rebound or a key steal. He does those little things that help you win.”
14. Iowa State: Dustin Hogue
Junior college transfer Dustin Hogue, like Iowa State frontcourt mates Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang, isn't a specimen of imposing size. His production in his first 10 Division I games, however, has been huge.
After averaging only 12.9 points and 5.4 rebounds last season at Indian Hills Community College, Hogue's numbers have skyrocketed this year. He's putting up 13.6 points per game and stands 11th in the nation at 10.4 rebounds per game. His DR% ranks among the country's top 50, according to StatSheet. Niang, for one, isn't surprised.
"He's a mean cat, man. When he wants something, he gets it. Whether it's a sandwich after practice or a rebound. He's just determined," Niang told the Associated Press (via Miami Herald). "When you have determination like that, nothing's going to stop you."
Hogue's also displayed surprising offensive versatility. In his second game, he drained three three-pointers. For the season, Hogue is shooting 71 percent inside the arc and 40 percent outside it.
Putting up double-doubles against the likes of Michigan, Northern Iowa and Iowa, Hogue's success hasn't been merely a function of early-season cupcakes. While Ejim, Niang and DeAndre Kane get the bulk of the pre-game headlines, Hogue is usually the biggest topic of conversation afterward.
13. Florida: Scottie Wilbekin
On a team with former McDonald's All-Americans like Patric Young and Kasey Hill, along with talented transfer Dorian Finney-Smith, it's surprising to note that Scottie Wilbekin is Florida's second-leading scorer on average.
The leader in assists and steals per game, sure. That's been Wilbekin's thing since he skipped his senior year of high school to move across Gainesville and join the Gators as a 17-year-old freshman. But for a guy who averaged 2.5 PPG in about 16 minutes per game over his first two seasons, this year's 12.6-PPG average is heady stuff.
Wilbekin has spent time off the ball this season as super-quick freshman Hill has adapted to the point. A potential lineup of Hill, Wilbekin, Michael Frazier, Finney-Smith and Casey Prather could be one of the most dangerous scoring fives in the SEC, and one of the best three-point shooting groups in the nation.
Aside from a 2-for-12 struggle against Florida State, Wilbekin's shooting has been solid. He's proven over his career that he can defend nearly any position on the court.
“Scottie is one of those guys you can just put out on the floor,” coach Billy Donovan said to Gator Country. “He can play any position. He doesn’t care about it.”
12. Oregon: Johnathan Loyd
At 5'8", Oregon guard Johnathan Loyd frequently looks like a kid playing in the driveway with his older brothers and their friends. Despite his physical limitations, he's been a part-time starter during all four of his seasons in Eugene.
This season, an early suspension for sophomore Dominic Artis pressed Loyd into a full-time role, and he doesn't look like he's going to give the starting job back.
Loyd is averaging 10 points and a Pac-12-leading 6.8 assists per game as the Ducks have stampeded to an 11-0 start. He's put up a pair of signature performances against power-conference opposition, crushing Ole Miss for 25 points and 15 assists and following that up with six points in the final 28 seconds of a 71-64 win over Illinois.
A career 34 percent shooter entering this season, Loyd's making a career-high 51 percent from the floor in 2013-14. Even if his shooting regresses to the mean, as long as Loyd remains a steady hand on the offense's tiller, he could continue to hold off Artis for primary ball-handling responsibilities.
11. Baylor: Royce O'Neale
Baylor's Royce O'Neale may be the most interesting man in college basketball. After all, he doesn't always shoot, but when he does, he makes sure that it goes in.
Through the Bears' first 11 games, O'Neale has a true shooting percentage of 70.3 and an even more eye-popping 75.0 eFG%.
The efficiency stems from a usage rate dwarfed by most teams' backup point guards. O'Neale uses less than 16 percent of Baylor's possessions while he's on the floor and takes the shot less than 10 percent of the time. He's shooting only three times per game, but some of those have been clutch.
O'Neale knocked down a three-pointer in the final two minutes of the Bears' Maui Invitational game against Dayton, a shot that kept the Bears within one possession and preserved their chance of pulling out the win.
The only times O'Neale has scored in double figures have been the three games in Maui. The rest of the time, he'll stuff the other columns. He's got five games of five or more rebounds and three games with four-plus assists.
His versatility has earned him a spot in coach Scott Drew's starting five, and greater familiarity with the offense will see him take more shots. By season's end, the Denver transfer will be a key cog on a tournament team.
10. Wichita State: Chadrack Lufile
Last season, Chadrack Lufile was a seldom-used big body on Wichita State's bench. He averaged fewer than eight minutes per game and missed nine games.
This year, the 6'9", 265-pound senior is part of a formidable three-headed low-post monster. Lufile, Darius Carter and Kadeem Coleby combine for 18.1 points, 12.8 rebounds and two blocks per game.
Lufile rolled up 26 points and 15 rebounds in back-to-back starts against Saint Louis and Oral Roberts. On the season, he's second on the team in block percentage behind Coleby and second in eFG% behind shooting stud Ron Baker. Lufile leads the team with a 12.7 OR%.
The difference between last year and this year appears to start between Lufile's ears.
“Now I am much more confident and it comes from my coach (Gregg Marshall) being confident in me,” Lufile said to the Wichita Eagle. “He looks at me now and sees an option. He just wants me to rebound the ball, play hard and handle my business."
All three missions are off to successful starts.
9. Duke: Matt Jones
Matt Jones' ESPN recruiting profile (Insider subscription required) painted him as a shooter first, second and third with defense somewhere around 47th on his list of priorities.
Fortunately for him, it took no time at all for him to realize that that's no way to get playing time for Mike Krzyzewski.
Jones' shooting has been the one thing that he hasn't done right so far, as he's only hit about 30 percent from the field. His defense, however, started off hot with a three-steal game in his debut against Davidson. He later had key defensive plays against Alabama and Gardner-Webb.
The freshman from Texas pulled substantial minutes while sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon rode the bench. Sulaimon's rebound game against UCLA is a bad omen for Jones, as Jones' minutes will be vultured unless he can begin hitting his shots.
As Bleacher Report examined earlier this week, minutes will be hard to come by for four potential Duke shooting guards. Someone will end up having to sit, and Jones will need to see offensive improvement to avoid drawing the short straw.
8. Villanova: Dylan Ennis
Rice transfer Dylan Ennis saw his Villanova debut postponed four games by a broken hand. When he finally recovered enough to play, he was thrown into the deep end of the Caribbean Sea.
Ennis' first three games came on three straight days at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. He didn't have soft opposition in front of him, facing USC, Kansas and Iowa. All he did was average 12 points, three rebounds and two assists per game, making 8-of-12 from three-point land.
The Wildcats could see a point guard controversy erupt soon, as their swaggering starter, Ryan Arcidiacono, has noticeably regressed from his solid freshman season. Since Ennis debuted, he has been more efficient than "Arch" by nearly every metric.
Ennis is shooting better, getting assists more consistently, rebounding well and attacking the rim much more effectively. In fewer than half the minutes, Ennis has drawn 25 free throws to Arch's 23.
Saturday's game between Nova and Syracuse will be eagerly anticipated as more than just a battle between top-10 teams. Ennis and his younger brother, Tyler—Syracuse's star freshman point guard—will surely go nose-to-nose in what will be the key matchup of the day.
7. Oklahoma State: Kamari Murphy
Oklahoma State forward Kamari Murphy earned 15 starts as a freshman last season, but the closest he came to big headlines was when USA Today reported on coach Travis Ford calling him out in the run-up to the first Bedlam game against Oklahoma. Murphy didn't start another game the rest of the year.
This season, Murphy's firmly entrenched as a backup behind senior Michael Cobbins, but it's not hyperbole to say that the sophomore is outplaying his veteran teammate.
Compare their lines on KenPom.com (subscription required, of course) and the numbers are solid for both men. In nearly every relevant category except block percentage, however, it's advantage Murphy.
The Old Spice Classic provided an interesting point of comparison itself. In the games against Purdue, Butler and Memphis, Murphy put up 22 points and 20 rebounds, shooting 10-of-12 from the floor. Cobbins carded 11 points and 18 rebounds on 5-of-9 shooting.
With a tremendous backcourt led by Wooden Award candidate Marcus Smart drawing national interest, the Cowboys knew they needed production from the low post for offensive balance. Neither Murphy nor Cobbins will draw All-Big 12 buzz, but solid production from both will make the Cowboys a tough matchup for any opponent in March.
6. Louisville: Mangok Mathiang
Another member of a potent center committee, Louisville's Mangok Mathiang has a very defined goal for his development. He wants to emulate former Cardinal Gorgui Dieng. To that end, the Sudanese freshman speaks with the Minnesota Timberwolves rookie nearly every day.
"I have to be the Gorgui for this team," Mathiang told Rick Bozich of WDRB Louisville. "Step up every single day. Get ready to get better. Maybe have better numbers than I had today. Being all over the place. Intensity. Talking. Rebound. Blocking shots. Erasing their mistakes. I'm getting more confident. I feel that Coach P is getting more confident in me."
Dieng averaged 5.7 points and 4.4 rebounds in his freshman season. Mathiang is currently sitting on 5.0 and 4.7. His OR% (16.7) and block percentage (8.5) both rank in the American's top five according to StatSheet.
Mathiang is following a similar growth curve, which everyone connected with the Cardinal program hopes will have a similar end result. For now, he's still trying to pack on some muscle. Louisiana-Lafayette's Shawn Long and North Carolina duo Joel James and Kennedy Meeks both had no problem muscling the rookie around this season.
“I eat every two hours,” Mathiang said to the Louisville Courier-Journal's Jeff Greer. “I eat so many protein shakes it’s ridiculous. I get sick of drinking that stuff, but it’s part of getting better, of becoming a man. Maybe this is another little obstacle that God wants me to get over.”
5. Michigan State: Matt Costello
Even with flu-like symptoms that turned out to be mononucleosis, Matt Costello was singled out by Michigan State coach Tom Izzo for his effort in the Spartans' loss to North Carolina. Although, to hear many including Costello tell it, that's sort of a low bar.
"I'm just ticked that we lost," Costello told MLive.com's Diamond Leung after the game. "We should have won. We are a better team. We just played like crap. It was guys walking up and down the court."
That intensity is what earned Costello seven starts in his first eight games this season, lining up next to potential All-American center Adreian Payne. His effort level stands out, even if his statistics (3.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game) don't just yet.
Even after missing the past three games with his illness, Costello has recorded almost a quarter of MSU's blocked shots and stands third on the team in offensive rebounding percentage.
Not a tremendous scorer yet, Costello often loses minutes to a three-guard lineup featuring Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine. When he's in, however, the 6'9" 240-pounder may be Sparty's most reliable inside banger.
4. Wisconsin: Nigel Hayes
Wisconsin freshman Nigel Hayes is using his 6'7", 250-pound frame to full effect early in his debut campaign.
Despite playing slightly more than half the minutes of UW scoring leader Frank Kaminsky, Hayes has actually attempted one more free throw. One would expect that Wisconsin's newly minted single-game scoring king—Kaminsky dropped 43 on North Dakota in November—would have earned a few more hacks and trips to the line.
Hayes' most recent action produced his most gaudy stat line when he put up 17 points against Eastern Kentucky. However, he's also contributed great work against quality opposition like Florida and St. Louis.
Hayes played stronger defense than Kaminsky on Florida center Patric Young and set a career high with eight points on the other end. Against the Billikens, Hayes put up seven points, five rebounds and two blocks, rarely giving ground against SLU's taller frontcourt players.
His shooting and rebounding numbers aren't flashy early on, but Hayes is making a surprising number of defensive plays. He leads the Badgers in steal percentage and trails only the 7' Kaminsky in block rate.
While Ohio State is riding high in its own right, Buckeye Nation may wish it had been able to hang on to the burly Whitmer, Ohio product. Badger coach Bo Ryan is giving the kid license to use plenty of minutes and possessions, so he's definitely doing something right.
3. Ohio State: Marc Loving
Another Big Ten freshman making a mark is Ohio State forward Marc Loving. The 6'7", 215-pound rookie has demonstrated an ability to score from anywhere that lends coach Thad Matta the confidence to use him in place of proven producers like Lenzelle Smith or LaQuinton Ross.
Loving has already put up six or more points in eight of his 12 games, including double-figure nights against Morgan State and North Dakota State. He's second on the team in offensive rebounding percentage and third in true shooting percentage, according to Ken Pomeroy's figures (subscription required).
Where Loving may be most impressive is in his ability to make positive use of his possessions. Loving has turned the ball over only five times in nearly 150 minutes.
It's unlikely that he'll see a lot more than 12 minutes per game with OSU's starters firmly entrenched. If an injury befalls the Buckeyes' perimeter unit, however, look for the freshman to step into the opening and make Ohio State's fans chant "I'm Loving it."
2. Syracuse: DaJuan Coleman
Syracuse is yet another team with an impressive committee in the post. Senior Baye Keita and junior Rakeem Christmas both provide a strong backbone for the 2-3 zone and rugged work on the glass.
The most potent double-double threat on the bunch, however, is certainly sophomore DaJuan Coleman.
The 6'9", 280-pound banger averages five points and nearly five rebounds in 14 minutes per game, numbers that hint at the larger potential lurking inside. Coleman has put up a gaudy 20.7 OR%, according to Pomeroy, and if he played just another two minutes per game, that figure would rank him second in the nation.
If Coleman improves his defensive instincts, he'll see more chances to flex that scoring and rebounding muscle. "Once the guard penetrates, I'm stepping up," Coleman told Syracuse.com's Donna Ditota. "Just the little things. So I feel a lot more comfortable on defense. Now I just have to score on offense."
There are still facets of his offensive game that need work, as well, but Coleman has another two years of eligibility after this one. By his senior year, he could be among the most feared post players in the ACC, if not the country.
1. Arizona: Brandon Ashley
Most of the Arizona headlines this season have gone to freshman Aaron Gordon, with a few dedicated to junior guard Nick Johnson or transfer point guard T.J. McConnell. Meanwhile, sophomore forward Brandon Ashley shows up and goes to work.
Ashley has cracked double figures in 11 of the Wildcats' 13 games, with a season high of 18 set against Michigan and matched against Southern.
A shooter who rarely sought to step outside the arc last year, Ashley has made 8-of-18 from deep after taking only three shots from three as a freshman. The Cats can use any perimeter shooting he can provide, since Johnson (35 percent career entering the season) was the closest thing to a consistent threat in preseason previews.
Ashley's got a freakishly long frame that will help power Arizona's defense as much as its offense. Wildcat coach Sean Miller told CBS Sports, "Even though his height is close to 6-8, his wingspan is about 7-4. You really feel that when he's guarding you."
Ashley and classmate Kaleb Tarczewski had to defer to a host of veterans last season. This year, the sophomores carry much more responsibility. The No. 1 ranking suggests that so far, Ashley's more than up to whatever task Miller has in mind.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.
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