College basketball loves an underdog, and there are few underdogs quite like a little man succeeding in a big man’s game. From Muggsy Bogues to Earl Boykins, there’s always been a special place in fans’ hearts for the smallest players on the floor.
The 2011-12 season will feature an array of standouts with more game than height. Whether they’re scorers like Florida’s Erving Walker or distributors like Peyton Siva of Louisville, undersized guards can have an outsized effect on their teams’ successes.
Herein, a look at the 10 best players in the country who stand less than six feet tall.
The smallest member of a microscopic USC backcourt in 2010-11—five Trojans were 6’0” or under—Maurice Jones was also one of the most accomplished.
Despite coming off the bench as a freshman, the 5’7” Jones finished second on the team with 3.3 assists and averaged a solid 9.9 points a game.
Jones also impressed on the defensive end of the floor, averaging 2.0 steals a night. With USC likely to rely heavily on its guard play in the absence of center Nikola Vucevic, expect Jones to see plenty of playing time and improve on his already-impressive freshman year.
The physical Big Ten isn’t an easy place to be an undersized guard, but 5’9” Lewis Jackson has carved out a niche for himself nonetheless. With E’Twaun Moore gone, Jackson will take over the primary leadership role for Purdue next season.
The senior point guard led the team with 3.9 assists a year ago, but his lack of a 3-point shot has held back his scoring numbers so far.
If he can raise his career-high 7.8-point average in the absence of Moore and JaJuan Johnson, Jackson and a resurgent Robbie Hummel could lead Purdue to a big season.
The only bright spot on Maryland-Baltimore County’s dreadful 2010-11 team, Chris De La Rosa did his best to provide a one-man offense for the Retrievers. The 5’10” De La Rosa led the team with 15.5 points and 6.0 assists a game last season.
Unfortunately for UMBC fans, it’s never a good sign when a 5’10” guard is the team’s leading returning rebounder (3.9 a night). Unless he gets a lot more help than he did last season, the senior standout will be hard-pressed to improve much on his team’s 5-25 record.
The only two-sport athlete on this list, 5’9” Bruce Ellington is a little-used wide receiver for Steve Spurrier’s football Gamecocks in addition to starring on the basketball team.
He’s achieved a good deal of more success on the court, where he started every game as a freshman and became one of the few bright spots for a struggling South Carolina team.
Ellington led the Gamecocks with 12.8 points and 3.2 assists a game in 2010-11. With forward Sam Muldrow lost to graduation, Ellington will likely carry even more of the offensive load this year.
Delaware State doesn’t get much in the way of press, but senior Jay Threatt deserves a place on the national stage. The 5’11” point guard is the nation’s returning leader in steals (3.1 a game last year), and he also averaged 6.0 assists a contest for the Hornets.
Threatt (no relation to former Laker Sedale) isn’t likely to get a shot at NCAA tournament notoriety, considering that Delaware State is coming off a 9-21 season.
Even so, he’ll give MEAC fans plenty of highlights in his final college season.
Image from dsuhornets.com
The younger of Missouri’s two Pressey brothers, 5’10” Phil Pressey stood out even in the crowded Tigers backcourt last season. The freshman led the team in assists (3.9) and steals (2.0) per game in 2010-11.
Pressey—whose father, Paul, was an outstanding passer and defender in his own right as a Milwaukee Bucks forward—will need to play at the top of his game if Missouri’s unreliable half-court offense is going to improve.
Still, new coach Frank Haith can take comfort in having a talented floor leader who will only get better for having a year of experience under his belt.
Few teams in college basketball endured a more hapless 2010-11 season than the TCU Horned Frogs, who went 1-15 in MWC conference play. Fans in Fort Worth still had something to cheer about, though, thanks to the play of junior PG Hank Thorns.
The 5’9” Thorns dished out 7.0 assists per game, fourth-best in the country last season. With his team’s top five scorers back (Thorns himself among them), he’ll put up plenty of impressive numbers again, though probably not in the win column.
Peyton Siva’s 9.9 points a game were just what the doctor ordered for a Louisville offense that relied on sharing the scoring load. The 5’11” point guard did plenty of passing as well, averaging 5.2 assists a night.
At 2.0 steals a game last season, Siva is no slouch on defense either. The Cardinals will need a big year out of the junior guard if they’re going to stay in contention in the crowded Big East.
One of the most impressive players you’ve probably never heard of, Ohio's D.J. Cooper is the country’s returning leader in assists at 7.5 per game. The 5’11” Cooper also led the Bobcats with 16.2 points a game last season.
Cooper does more than his share on the defensive end as well, averaging 2.3 steals a night in 2010-11. He’s only a junior this year, and with another big year he’ll give a middle-of-the-pack Ohio team a chance to contend in the MAC.
With Chandler Parsons off to the NBA, Erving Walker will take over the leadership mantle in Gainesville. The Gators will be in good hand with the 5’8” Walker, who led the team with 14.4 points a game last season.
Walker had averaged 4.9 assists as a sophomore before Parsons took over running the offense last season. If he can combine his roles as scorer and distributor as a senior, he’ll have the Gators in position for another deep tournament run in 2011-12.