Men's College Basketball Players off to Surprisingly Hot Starts in 2022-23

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesFeatured Columnist IVDecember 2, 2022

Men's College Basketball Players off to Surprisingly Hot Starts in 2022-23

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    Iowa's Kris Murray
    AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

    Every season in men's college basketball, there are a bunch of breakout stars who alter the national landscape.

    Last year, Johnny Davis and Keegan Murray went from sixth men at their respective schools to first-team All-Americans. Walker Kessler and Tari Eason transferred out of backup roles and immediately became dominant SEC big men. All four were first-round picks in the 2022 NBA draft after averaging fewer than 7.5 points per game in 2020-21.

    While certainly not everyone on our list will be a first-round pick in 2023, they've made similar leaps in production through the first few weeks of the current campaign.

    Ten of the 11 players on our list are averaging at least twice as many points per game than they did last season, if they even played college basketball in 2021-22. And every team represented currently ranks in the top 55 on KenPom, which is unofficially NCAA tournament range.

    In other words, each of these players could be a major factor in March after making no impact on the national radar one year ago.

    Players are listed in alphabetical order by last name, save for the pair of teammates at the end.

    Statistics are current through the start of play on Thursday, Dec. 1.

Oumar Ballo, Arizona

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    LAHAINA, HI - NOVEMBER 23: Oumar Ballo #11 of the Arizona Wildcats dunks the ball in the second half of the game against the Creighton Bluejays during the Maui Invitational at Lahaina Civic Center on November 23, 2022 in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)
    Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

    Last Year: 6.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.2 BPG
    This Year: 19.0 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.5 BPG

    With Christian Koloko out of the picture, it was inevitable that Oumar Ballo would get more playing time this season.

    But this is much more than just some linear "increase minutes, increase statistics" situation.

    Ballo averaged 17.9 points, 11.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per 40 minutes last season, and he has increased each of those numbers by at least 33 percent to 29.4, 15.5 and 2.6, respectively.

    Put a different way: In 25.8 minutes per game, Ballo is putting up per-40 numbers on par with what Zach Edey gave Purdue (30.3, 16.2 and 2.5) in 19.0 minutes per game last season.

    Ballo isn't just flexing his muscles in early blowouts of No Name Tech, either. He scored 63 points and grabbed 32 rebounds in the Maui Invitational against Cincinnati, San Diego State and Creighton. He didn't start a single game last season, and now he's the MVP of one of the biggest early season tournaments.

    That's quite the transformation.

    Fouls—both drawn and committed—will be something to monitor with Ballo. He shot 9-of-20 from the charity stripe in Hawai'i and is just a 65.1 percent shooter for his career. "Foul-o-Ballo" could become a common strategy for slowing down this big man. Ballo also fouled out against San Diego State and has committed at least three fouls in five of six games played. His physicality can be both a gift and a curse at times.

Ricky Council IV, Arkansas

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    FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS - NOVEMBER 11:  Ricky Council IV #1 of the Arkansas Razorbacks celebrates after a big play during a game against the Fordham Rams at Bud Walton Arena on November 11, 2022 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The Razorbacks defeated the Rams 74-48.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Last Year (at Wichita State): 12.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.1 SPG
    This Year: 20.1 PPG, 3.0 APG, 3.0 RPG, 1.9 SPG

    Going from Wichita State to Arkansas isn't a gigantic leap as far as the recent success of the respective men's basketball programs is concerned, but there's no question it was a step up for Ricky Council IV.

    And while it's not often that a player "up-transfers" and becomes even more impactful, Council has done just that.

    Council has scored at least 15 points in each of Arkansas' first seven games, including 24 against Creighton in the Maui Invitational in what was one of the most entertaining games of the season thus far.

    However, even more impressive than the uptick in scoring is his improved passing.

    Council had just one assist in his final five games at Wichita State. Not one assist per game. One total assist in 157 minutes played. So for him to dole out multiple dimes in each of the Razorbacks' first six games was a surprise.

    Now that freshman phenom Nick Smith Jr. is finally playing (he logged six minutes in his season debut on Monday), we'll see what happens with Council's usage rate/minutes allotment. Arkansas announcing on Monday that Devo Davis will be "taking some time away from basketball" further clouds the crystal ball in terms of possible backcourt rotations.

    But for as well as he played in Smith's absence, you've got to think Council will remain a key cog for the Muss Bus.

Dain Dainja, Illinois

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    Illinois' Dain Dainja (42) works the ball inside against Monmouth's Tahron Allen during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Michael Allio)
    AP Photo/Michael Allio

    Last Year (with Baylor): Nine minutes played
    This Year: 11.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 1.1 SPG

    The Big Ten is loaded with big men. There's Zach Edey at Purdue, Hunter Dickinson at Michigan, Trayce Jackson-Davis at Indiana and the list goes on. It's just about impossible to contend in that conference without a substantial presence in the paint.

    In Baylor transfer Dain Dainja, Illinois has clearly found that much-needed center.

    Dainja was a 4-star, top-100 recruit in the 2020 class, but he redshirted the 2020-21 campaign and entered the transfer portal one week into last season once it became clear he wasn't going to be a big part of Baylor's plans.

    Dainja landed at Illinois, where he had the unenviable, extremely-valuable-for-his-development task of going up against Kofi Cockburn in practice. And now he is emerging as a frontcourt star for the Illini.

    In his first three games in Champaign, Dainja played 58 minutes, totaling 52 points, 19 rebounds and nine blocks against Eastern Illinois, Kansas City and Monmouth. And against UCLA in the Continental Tire Main Event, "The Dainja Zone" officially became a thing, as the big man made all six of his field-goal attempts in helping lead the Illini to a win over the Bruins.

    He's still just getting warmed up, too. Dainja isn't even averaging 20 minutes per game. If he can reach his full potential this season, watch out for Illinois in March (and April).

Keyontae Johnson, Kansas State

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    Kansas State forward Keyontae Johnson drives during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas-Rio Grande Valley Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, in Manhattan, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
    AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

    Last Year (with Florida): Did Not Play
    This Year: 18.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.1 SPG, 54.5% 3PT

    With Keyontae Johnson, it's much more of a comeback story than a breakout situation. He was the preseason SEC Player of the Year heading into the 2020-21 campaign after averaging 14 points per game as a sophomore.

    All the same, no one had any clue what to expect from a player who collapsed on the court in December 2020 and had not played since—unless you want to count the one minute Johnson logged last season when Mike White put him on the floor for the opening tip on senior night.

    Certainly none of us expected Johnson to be even better than he was before going into cardiac arrest, but he has been.

    Johnson has scored at least 13 points in each game thus far, including a 28-point gem in an overtime victory over Nevada in the Cayman Islands Classic semifinals. And in the championship game—an undefeated showdown with LSU—Johnson hit the tie-breaking, game-winning bucket with five seconds remaining.

    Johnson had 13 double-doubles while with the Gators and just got his first of this season on Wednesday against Butler. He also had nine rebounds against both Nevada and Cal, and even got a little flirtatious with a triple-double against UMKC (19 points, seven rebounds, six assists).

    Kansas State was expected to finish last in the Big 12, and, well, that might still happen because that league is downright loaded. But with Johnson thriving like he has, the Wildcats are a serious threat to make the NCAA tournament.

Kris Murray, Iowa

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    NEWARK, NJ - NOVEMBER 16: Kris Murray #24 of the Iowa Hawkeyes in action against Tae Davis #22 of the Seton Hall Pirates during a college basketball game at Prudential Center on November 16, 2022 in Newark, New Jersey. Iowa defeated Seton Hall 83-67. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    Last Year: 9.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.1 APG
    This Year: 21.0 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.0 BPG

    On the one hand, Kris Murray's breakout isn't all that surprising because his brother, Keegan, did the same thing last year. Iowa went from Luka Garza to Keegan Murray without any drop in production, and thanks in part to one game against Indiana last year in which he racked up 29 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and three steals, we rather expected Kris Murray to flawlessly step into the spotlight.

    On the other hand, blossoming from a backup one year to a NPOY candidate the next isn't exactly normal, regardless of what his brother did.

    That aforementioned game against the Hoosiers was Murray's only double-double last season.

    Now he's averaging one.

    He matched that career high in scoring with 29 points at Seton Hall on Nov. 16, broke his personal record with 30 points against Omaha five days later, and then broke it again on Tuesday night in a 31-point, 20-rebound extravaganza against Georgia Tech. (He really should've scored more in that one, too, but he only attempted two shots in the final 10 minutes.)

    If ever there was a time for Murray to shine, though, it's this coming Tuesday against Duke at Madison Square Garden.

    There will be many scouts in attendance to watch Dereck Lively II, Dariq Whitehead, Kyle Filipowski and the other NBA-bound Blue Devils, but perhaps Murray can steal the show with another 20-point, 10-rebound gem against a talented but inexperienced Duke frontcourt.

Sean Pedulla, Virginia Tech

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    Virginia Tech's Sean Pedulla (3) drives the basketball against the defense of College of Charleston's Ryan Larson (11) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game during the championship of the Charleston Classic in Charleston, S.C., Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
    AP Photo/Mic Smith

    Last Year: 5.4 PPG, 1.3 APG, 1.2 RPG
    This Year: 17.1 PPG, 4.0 APG, 3.4 RPG, 0.9 SPG

    Virginia Tech had to replace three starters from last season in Keve Aluma, Storm Murphy and Nahiem Alleyne, so it's little surprise that the Hokies' top reserves from yesteryear—Sean Pedulla and Darius Maddox—have stepped into much bigger roles as starters.

    All the same, Pedulla going straight from averaging 12.9 minutes as a freshman to quite possibly an All-ACC first-team guard as a sophomore was unexpected.

    Pedulla did flash breakout potential over the latter half of last season, including a 20-point performance at Florida State in late January and 19 points against Texas in the NCAA tournament. But now he's doing it on a nightly basis, averaging nearly three assists per turnover and shooting better than 50 percent from the field.

    To be fair, the competition hasn't been great, and he did have an off night (10 points on 13 field-goal attempts) in VT's lone game against a viable at-large candidate (Penn State). We'll have to wait to find out if dropping 18 points and eight dimes on Delaware State or 22 points against William & Mary translates into quality outings on a regular basis in the ACC.

    We don't need to wait long, though, as Virginia Tech hosts North Carolina on Sunday afternoon. The Tar Heels are no longer ranked No. 1, but that's still a huge opportunity for both Pedulla and the Hokies to become a national factor this season.

Mitchell Saxen, Saint Mary's

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    Saint Mary's center Mitchell Saxen (10) shoots over Santa Clara guard Giordan Williams (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/John Hefti)
    AP Photo/John Hefti

    Last Year: 3.3 PPG, 2.3 RPG
    This Year: 14.5 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.5 SPG, 1.1 BPG

    Once upon a time six years ago, Saint Mary's big man Jock Landale was arguably the top breakout star in the nation. He averaged 11.0 minutes and 5.7 points per game through his first two seasons in Moraga before exploding into a 19.1 PPG, 9.8 RPG sensation over his final two seasons.

    Mitchell Saxen appears to be on a similar career path.

    The Gaels' third-year big man averaged 8.5 minutes and 3.0 points over the previous two seasons. Though he did put up 10 points at Gonzaga as a freshman, it was the only time in his first 52 games that he scored in double figures.

    But with Matthias Tass and Dan Fotu both no longer on the roster, it's officially the Saxen Show down low for Saint Mary's.

    In the first start of his career, Saxen racked up 16 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals in 32 minutes of work against Oral Roberts.

    At least in the points and rebounds departments, not much has changed since then. In the Wooden Legacy against Vanderbilt and Washington, Saxen went for 19 and five and 19 and eight, respectively, even logging 43 minutes in the latter contest.

    Though he isn't blocking many shots, Saxen is making a huge impact on defense, as the Gaels rank among the nation's best at both two-point field-goal defense and defensive rebounding percentage.

    Massive opportunities on deck for Saxen and the Gaels with games away from home against Houston and San Diego State on each of the next two Saturdays. If he can hold his own against those defenses, there's not much the West Coast Conference will be able to do to shut him down.

Braden Smith, Purdue

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    PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 25: Braden Smith #3 of the Purdue Boilermakers brings the ball up court during the game against the Gonzaga Bulldogs at Moda Center on November 25, 2022 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Last Year: N/A (Freshman)
    This Year: 10.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.9 SPG, 40.0% 3PT

    Braden Smith was a 3-star recruit in the 2022 class, rated 196th overall by the 247Sports consensus.

    Last year's No. 196 recruit was Kobe Johnson, who averaged 7.5 minutes and 1.2 points per game in his freshman season at USC. No. 192 Bijan Cortes averaged 11.6 minutes and 2.0 points per game for Oklahoma. For No. 193 Seth Wilson, it was 7.5 minutes and 1.9 points per game at West Virginia. And No. 198 Jalen Miller got 7.7 minutes and 0.6 points per game for Rutgers last year.

    It's simply not a spot in the recruiting rankings where you expect an annual contender from a major conference to find someone good enough to start from Day 1 as a freshman, but that's what the Boilermakers got in Smith.

    Smith had seven steals against Milwaukee in his collegiate debut and put up 20 points in a win over Marquette a week later—which looks even more impressive in the aftermath of the Golden Eagles destroying sixth-ranked Baylor on Tuesday night.

    The real eye opener, though, was his performance against Gonzaga in the Phil Knight Legacy. Zach Edey and Drew Timme got most of the attention, but Smith going for 14 points, seven assists and five rebounds with just one turnover was massive. Six of those seven dimes came in the final 10 minutes as Purdue turned a seven-point lead into an 18-point victory.

    After losing Jaden Ivey, Sasha Stefanovic, Eric Hunter and Isaiah Thompson, Purdue's backcourt situation was a great big question mark. But this 6'0" diamond in the rough is a big reason why the Boilermakers are one of the top early candidates to win it all.

Joel Soriano, St. John's

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    St. John's Joel Soriano (11) dunks in the second half of an NCAA college basketball championship game against Syracuse at the Good Samaritan Empire Classic, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
    AP Photo/John Minchillo

    Last Year: 6.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.7 BPG
    This Year: 15.3 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 1.4 BPG

    St. John's has gotten out to an 8-0 start while playing at a break-neck pace. Per KenPom, only Arizona operates at a faster adjusted tempo than the Red Storm.

    You might think that style of play would be an issue for a 6'11", 260-pound center like Joel Soriano. It certainly limited him last year, as he only managed to play 18.9 minutes per game, despite starting 26 contests.

    But he is excelling in it this year, recording double-doubles in seven of eight games played. (He had one double-double in the entire 2021-22 campaign.)

    Per the New York Post's Zach Braziller, head coach Mike Anderson credits Soriano's "improved work ethic and off-the-court discipline when it comes to his diet" for his offseason transformation.

    And now that he's physically capable of running with the bulls, the results have been...Tshiebwe-esque?

    Over his past five games against Nebraska, Temple, Syracuse, Niagara and LIU, Soriano has averaged 17.6 points and 14.6 rebounds. In the overtime game against Syracuse, he played 37 minutes and finished with 19 points and 14 rebounds. In fact, he has logged at least 32 minutes on three occasions already after maxing out at 29 minutes in one game last season.

    Circle the Dec. 28 game against Xavier on your calendars. Soriano vs. Jack Nunge should be a fun one, and it may give us a better indication of whether St. John's is a legitimate tournament candidate.

Steven Ashworth and Max Shulga, Utah State

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    Utah State's Steven Ashworth
    AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

    Steven Ashworth Last Year: 8.7 PPG, 3.6 APG, 2.5 RPG, 39.2% 3PT
    Steven Ashworth This Year: 19.0 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.2 RPG, 55.6% 3PT

    Max Shulga Last Year: 4.4 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.0 APG, 45.0% 3PT
    Max Shulga This Year: 11.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 3.8 APG, 47.8% 3PT

    Utah State went 18-16 last season before losing its two best players in Justin Bean and Brandon Horvath. As a result, expectations for the Aggies were low, as they were picked to finish eighth in the conference in the Mountain West media poll.

    But in addition to the successful integration of two key transfers—Taylor Funk from Saint Joseph's and Dan Akin from Cal Baptist—USU has benefitted from major breakouts by Steven Ashworth and Max Shulga.

    The former isn't even in the starting lineup yet, but he is leading the Aggies in both points and assists. Ashworth scored 28 against Bradley and put up 30 on Oral Roberts, and he has tallied at least four assists in each game. He's averaging 7.2 three-point attempts per game, but with a 55.6 percent success rate, perhaps he should be launching even more often.

    Shulga is also shooting quite well and is filling up the stat sheet. He had 10 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists against Oral Roberts.

    And while some of these early breakout stars have been padding their stats against competition that pales in comparison to what they'll face in league play, Utah State's early schedule (Utah Valley, Bradley, Santa Clara, San Diego and Oral Roberts) is only slightly worse than what it will face during its Mountain West slate. There's no good reason to assume Ashworth and Shulga can't maintain this hot start and maybe get the Aggies into the NCAA tournament.

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