Underhyped CBB Superstars You Should Start Paying Attention To
Wofford's Fletcher Magee is on pace to break Stephen Curry's men's college basketball record for made three-pointers in a season, but if you read my piece on Magee from a month ago, you already knew to pay attention to him before the Terriers' huge upset of North Carolina.
Just like you already knew about Central Michigan's Marcus Keene long before he finished last season averaging 30 points per game.
As fun as it is to watch guys like Trae Young, Marvin Bagley III and Deandre Ayton whenever possible, minor-conference heroes need our love too. And the goal of this piece is to help you feel like you're ahead of the curve when some of these stars from smaller schools bust everyone's bracket, make an impact in the NBA or both.
The only qualification for being on this list is that the player cannot be from one of the seven major conferences—yes, we're including the AAC as major, at least temporarily—nor from Gonzaga, since everyone knows about the Bulldogs. Also, it can't be a player I've already written a feature about, so with apologies to Magee, we're going with 10 other guys and a few honorable mentions.
Players in the top 10 are listed in alphabetical order by school. Statistics are current through the start of play Jan. 10.
Jordan Howard, Central Arkansas
23.9 PPG, 3.2 APG, 3.2 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 40.1% 3PT
Just about everyone knows about Marquette's Markus Howard, who has drained 11 three-pointers in a game not once, but twice already this season. But did you know he has an older brother who is even more of a scoring threat? Jordan Howard is slightly ahead of Markus (22.8) in points per game. By the end of January, the Howard family will have scored more points than Brook and Robin Lopez did in their best season for Stanford a decade ago. On the off chance that Central Arkansas represents the Southland Conference in the NCAA tournament, watch out for this guy, who has already eclipsed 2,000 points in his career.
Matt Morgan, Cornell
24.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.3 APG, 39.6% 3PT
After averaging better than 18 points per game in each of his first two seasons, Matt Morgan is up to nearly 25 as a junior. The problem is: Cornell still isn't very good. The Big Red are much better than a few years ago, when they went 2-26, but it's still unlikely they'll even finish in the top half of the Ivy League standings to have a shot at a spot in the NCAA tournament. Put this guy (and team) on your radar for next season, though, as Cornell will get basically everyone back in 2018-19.
Joseph Chartouny, Fordham
11.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 4.1 APG, 3.7 SPG
On offense, Joseph Chartouny (and Fordham as a whole) is a bust. He's not a great shooter, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is far from stellar. But on defense, he has the national lead in steals per game. That's no big surprise, though, because he ranked No. 1 in steal percentage last season. Barring injury, he's on pace to finish his career with roughly 350 steals. The all-time leader is Providence's John Linehan with 385, and there's at least a shot Chartouny will get there.
Justin Wright-Foreman, Hofstra
25.4 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.1 APG
One thing you have to love about Justin Wright-Foreman: He leads the nation in percentage of minutes played. He isn't just wandering around out there for nearly 38 minutes per game either. Wright-Foreman averages 20.5 field-goal attempts per game. Compare that to his points per game, and it's a bit inefficient. But there aren't many better volume scorers out there this year.
Ria'n Holland, Mercer
20.2 PPG, 3.1 APG, 3.1 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 53.4% 3PT
Ria'n Holland shot 0-of-6 from three-point range in his last game, and he's still well over 50 percent from distance for the season and has the second-highest O-rating among players used on at least 24 percent of possessions. (Only Jalen Brunson is higher.) That's how lethal he has been for the Bears this season. But it's unlikely he will be a factor in March, since Mercer is 7-8 overall and 1-8 against teams in the KenPom top 250.
Erick Neal, Texas-Arlington
14.1 PPG, 8.1 APG, 4.0 RPG, 2.1 SPG
Six weeks ago, Erick Neal would have been a no-brainer inclusion. He had at least 10 assists in each of his first six games, including a triple-double against Texas-Dallas. But he has tapered off since then and has not hit double digits in assists in any of his past 10 games. He's still a great point guard who has improved defensively and who can occasionally score in bunches, but his teammate in our top 10 is much more noteworthy at the moment.
Emmett Naar, Saint Mary's
11.8 PPG, 9.0 APG, 3.4 RPG
I had a tough time deciding whether Emmett Naar counts as underhyped, since he's a four-year starter for a team that opened each of the last two seasons in the AP Top 25. But compared to teammate Jock Landale, Naar is egregiously underappreciated. The senior trails only Oklahoma's Trae Young for the national lead in assists per game, scores efficiently—though somewhat infrequently—and is the primary ball-handler for one of the best offenses. That's at least worth an honorable mention, even though he plays at a school that gets more national attention than any other on this list.
Tookie Brown, Georgia Southern
2017-18 Stats: 18.2 PPG, 4.4 APG, 4.3 RPG, 2.1 SPG, 50.0% 3PT
MVP Performance: 31 points, seven rebounds, four assists at Troy
In Tookie Brown's first two seasons at Georgia Southern, he was a volume scorer. Every once in a while—usually against Appalachian State for some reason—he would pop off 30 or more points in an efficient performance. The norm, though, was more like 16 points on a dozen or more shots, which didn't do much to get him noticed.
This year, his volume has decreased, but his efficiency is through the roof.
Brown averaged 13.2 field-goal attempts per game in each of his first two seasons while shooting just 41.9 percent from the field. Thus far in 2017-18, he's only taking 10.5 shots per game, but his scoring average is better than ever because his field-goal percentage is up to 56.2.
Shooting isn't the only area in which Brown has shown improvement. He is at career-high rates in rebounding, assists, steals and blocks. As of the start of play Wednesday, Brown is No. 8 in the nation in win shares per 40 minutes.
Moreover, he is leading a 12-5 Georgia Southern team that is ranked much better on KenPom (109) than either of the previous two seasons (195 and 210).
The Eagles have not been to the NCAA tournament since 1992, and they have never won a tournament game. Should they win the Sun Belt tournament, they would likely be looking at a No. 13 or No. 14 seed in the Big Dance. And if Brown gets cooking like he has on many occasions this season, it could be Upset City against a major-conference foe that backs into the tournament.
Jon Elmore, Marshall
2017-18 Stats: 23.2 PPG, 7.5 APG, 4.9 RPG, 1.7 SPG
MVP Performance: 32 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds, three steals at William & Mary
It's a shame that Jon Elmore is putting up these numbers in the same season that Trae Young is setting the college basketball world ablaze.
Aside from what those two guys are doing this year, the only player in the past two decades to average at least 23 points and seven assists per game was Oakland's Kay Felder in 2015-16. And even though Felder was doing his thing for a 12-loss team from the Horizon League, I had him at No. 10 in my Player of the Year rankings that January. Pretty much everyone in the country knew who he was.
Good luck finding anyone outside of his family or Marshall's campus who has any clue how well this guy has been playing.
The Thundering Herd's uptempo offense does play a key role in his numbers, but if you want to put that asterisk in his stat sheet, do the same for Felder and Young. They also play(ed) a ton of minutes for teams in the top 10 nationally in adjusted tempo. Besides, fast play doesn't guarantee big stats. If anything, we should probably be a little more impressed that Elmore is playing this efficiently at a breakneck pace.
Perhaps the nation's eyes would have been opened to Elmore if Marshall had pulled off the road upset of Xavier. The combo guard had 16 points, nine assists, three rebounds and two steals while leading a frantic comeback against the Musketeers. The Thundering Herd outscored Xavier by 16 points in the second half. Unfortunately, they were down by 20 at the intermission, and it wasn't enough.
Ajdin Penava, Marshall
2017-18 Stats: 16.7 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 4.3 BPG, 1.8 APG, 1.4 SPG, 40.0% 3PT
MVP Performance: 33 points, 15 rebounds, nine blocks, three steals, one assist vs. Ohio
Second MVP Performance: 13 points, 10 rebounds, nine blocks, seven assists, two steals vs. Eastern Kentucky
No, you're not seeing double. There are two players from Marshall on the list. And this one has multiple MVP performances. The first is more impressive than the second, but we would be remiss if we didn't point out Ajdin Penava's near-quadruple-double against Eastern Kentucky.
It's a little ridiculous that Penava already has two games this season with at least 13 points, 10 rebounds and nine blocks. That line has only been achieved by 16 unique players in the past eight seasons—not one of the previous occurrences included seven or more assists—and it has only been done a total of four times (including Penava's two) this year.
Even if we exclude those two performances, though, Marshall's versatile big man is still averaging 15.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game. And he only plays 27.6 minutes per contest, so there's room for more from him.
Here's a fun note on Penava: Heading into play Wednesday, the top five players in the country in player efficiency rating were Trae Young (35.1), Bonzie Colson (33.9), Marvin Bagley III (33.5), Penava (33.5) and Jock Landale (33.3). To put it lightly, that's impressive company for a guy who could barely stay on the court for his first two collegiate seasons because of chronic foul trouble.
Nick King, Middle Tennessee
2017-18 Stats: 22.9 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 2.0 APG, 38.5% 3PT
MVP Performance: 32 points, 11 rebounds, four assists at Florida Gulf Coast
We often joke about guys like Perry Ellis somehow playing 10 years' worth of college basketball, but Nick King really has been on the college basketball radar for an absurdly long time.
According to 247Sports, King was a top-50 recruit in the class of 2013. He had offers from major-conference programs like Texas, Georgetown and Florida before choosing Memphis. He spent two seasons there, but he never managed to become a focal point for the Tigers. He then transferred to Alabama, sat out a season and played just seven games with the Crimson Tide because of a lung infection.
At long last, King is playing like a star with Middle Tennessee.
In just 15 games, he has already scored nearly as many points (343) as he did from 2013-17 (391). King put up 28 points in back-to-back games against USC and Miami (Fla.) in the Diamond Head Classic. In fact, he has scored at least 21 points in all but one of MTSU's eight games against the KenPom top 100, including a pair of 30-point performances against Murray State and Alabama-Birmingham.
My favorite part of King's game log is that he torched Florida Gulf Coast in back-to-back games. Granted, the games were separated by more than 10 days, and FGCU played four games in between. But for the Blue Raiders, it was two straight against the artists formerly known as Dunk City. He had 25 points, seven rebounds and three assists in the first game and increased each of those to 32, 11 and four, respectively, in the second one.
Middle Tennessee made serious waves two years ago with a 15-over-2 upset of Michigan State in the NCAA tournament, and King could lead the Blue Raiders to more March Madness. Despite a nonconference schedule that WarrenNolan.com ranks as the 11th-toughest in the nation, MTSU has not lost a game by more than a six-point margin. This team will not be an easy out if it makes the NCAA tournament.
Alize Johnson, Missouri State
2017-18 Stats: 15.1 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 2.4 APG
MVP Performance: 24 points, 20 rebounds, two blocks vs. Northern Iowa
If you're an avid follower of NBA mock drafts, Alize Johnson isn't underhyped. B/R's Jonathan Wasserman had Johnson at No. 28 in his preseason mock draft, and he still has him as a top-40 prospect in his most recent draft big board.
But if you're not into draft fodder beyond arguing about the top-five picks and are simply interested in the players the college basketball media talks about, this may well be your first time hearing about Johnson. Shame on all of us for that because he is immensely talented.
The big man averaged 14.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game last season and was a reliable three-point shooter at 38.8 percent. However, he did so for a team that went 17-16 without beating a single noteworthy opponent. Even when he put up 26 points and 20 rebounds in a win over Indiana State or 23 points and 21 rebounds in a win over Drake, he went unnoticed at a national level.
This year, both his scoring and rebounding are marginally better—he already has two games with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds—but the important parts are that he's playing well for a 13-4 team and that he's playing his best against Missouri State's toughest opponents.
In a 73-53 win over South Dakota State, Johnson had 20 points and 14 rebounds while limiting Mike Daum (coming up shortly on this list) to just seven points and three rebounds—arguably the worst performance of his entire career. In 10 games against teams in the KenPom top 175, Johnson has averaged 18.1 points and 13.5 rebounds with nine double-doubles.
Get to know this guy now. That way, you won't be surprised when the Golden State Warriors draft him late in the first round before turning him into one of the best modern-day centers in the league.
Kendrick Nunn, Oakland
2017-18 Stats: 25.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.6 SPG, 40.6% 3PT
MVP Performance: 36 points, six assists, six rebounds, three steals vs. Fort Wayne
Kendrick Nunn is one of the names on this list you should already know. He scored more than 1,000 points in his three seasons with Illinois before being dismissed from the team after pleading guilty to "a misdemeanor battery charge stemming from a domestic violence arrest."
Greg Kampe and Oakland decided to give Nunn a second chance, and he has been thriving on the court in what will be his lone season with the Golden Grizzlies.
Nunn scored 36 points against Fort Wayne in Oakland's season opener Nov. 10, and he has been unstoppable for the past month. He is averaging 29.7 points in his last seven games, scoring at least 30 in five of those.
He was always a shooter, but he has become an unconscious gunner.
Dating back to the 2009-10 season, only Marshall Henderson (12.6) has averaged more three-point attempts per game in a single season than Nunn (11.8). And Nunn's average is still going up. He has averaged 13.6 attempts over his last eight games, including 18 against Wright State this past Sunday and 19 against Green Bay two games before that.
The wild part is he's also a more accurate shooter than ever before, connecting on 40.6 percent of his attempts compared to 37.9 percent while with Illinois. If he keeps it up, he's on pace to join an exclusive club. Dating back to 2007-08, only Travis Bader—college basketball's career leader in made three-pointers—and Stephen Curry have averaged at least 10 three-point attempts per game while shooting at least 40.5 percent.
Mike Daum, South Dakota State
2017-18 Stats: 22.7 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 1.6 APG, 40.4% 3PT
MVP Performance: 37 points, 15 rebounds, one block, one assist at North Dakota State
If you don't already know about Mike Daum, don't blame me. I've been hyping this dude since midway through his freshman season in 2015-16. In his career, Daum is averaging 30.2 points and 10.8 rebounds per 40 minutes while shooting 41.8 percent from three-point range and 84.7 percent from the free-throw line.
For as much as we love to make slightly outlandish NBA comparisons for college players, it's tough to come up with anyone who has that type of skill set. It might be ridiculous to compare Larry Bird to a guy playing in the Summit League, but it's one of the only comps that makes sense. (And it's not like Bird faced a murderers' row of opponents in his three years in the Missouri Valley with Indiana State.)
Whether "The Dauminator" is going to become "The Legend 2.0" or not, he has been a one-man wrecking crew for the Jackrabbits for the past three seasons.
While some big men will occasionally venture to the perimeter, Daum is a legitimate stretch 5, averaging 6.0 three-point attempts per game. Try to take away the three-point line, and he has a strong face-up game in the mid-range. Pressure him near the perimeter, and he'll back you all the way into the paint for a layup. And if you foul him at any point in that process, he's going to make you pay by converting the free throws.
If there's a formula for stopping Daum, I have no clue what it is. Neither do South Dakota State's recent opponents, as he has scored at least 35 points in three of his last six games, including shooting 16-of-16 from the free-throw line in the MVP performance noted above.
Daum is a defensive liability—though not as much of one as he used to be—but it's a small price to pay for his value added on offense.
Kevin Hervey, Texas-Arlington
2017-18 Stats: 21.2 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.6 SPG, 36.1% 3PT
MVP Performance: 30 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, two blocks at UT Rio Grande Valley
As noted in the honorable mentions, Texas-Arlington has an excellent point guard in Erick Neal. He has 664 assists in his career with the Mavericks and is probably going to end up in the top 30 in that category on the all-time leaderboard.
But it's a bit of a "chicken or the egg" debate because Neal wouldn't be getting all those assists without Kevin Hervey scoring nearly 1,500 points during that time. They make an excellent minor-conference duo, but it's clear from advanced metrics like win shares, box plus/minus and player efficiency rating that Hervey is the dominant half of this John Stockton-and-Karl Malone relationship.
Either way, the moral of the story is that you should be watching more Texas-Arlington games because there's enough talent on this roster to cause problems for unsuspecting major-conference teams in March. The Mavericks came one two-pointer from a road win over Alabama and put up a valiant effort in a 90-81 loss at Creighton.
Hervey had 24 points in each of those games, as well as 23 points and nine rebounds in UTA's big road win over Brigham Young. He has struggled to find his shooting stroke over the past two weeks, but he scored at least 20 points in 10 of his first 12 contests, averaging 23.8 points in nonconference play.
It's more than just the scoring, though. Hervey is also leading the Mavericks in rebounding and is arguably their most valuable/versatile defender.
Per RealGM.com, Texas-Arlington has never had a player make the NBA. Maybe a team won't draft Hervey this June, but he should put an end to that drought.
Devontae Cacok, UNC-Wilmington
2017-18 Stats: 17.9 PPG, 13.0 RPG
MVP Performance: 35 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals, one block at East Carolina
If all you care about in reading this piece is finding guys who might bust your bracket, don't worry about Devontae Cacok. UNC-Wilmington is 4-12 overall and is probably one more loss away from dropping out of the KenPom top 300. Anything can happen during championship week, but there's virtually no chance the Seahawks win the Colonial and reach the Big Dance.
But if you're interested in guys who are putting up absurd numbers, you'll be pleased to know that this 6'7" junior is ranked No. 5 in the nation in offensive rebound percentage and No. 2 in defensive rebound percentage.
Part of that is just a product of roster construction. Before he left for the North Carolina State job, Kevin Keatts loved working with undersized rosters, almost exclusively playing 6'5" guards as the de facto power forward. And it worked beautifully, as UNC-Wilmington went 54-14 and made the NCAA tournament in each of the previous two years.
However, when three starters from last season's roster graduated and a fourth transferred to NC State to stick with Keatts, UNC-Wilmington became Cacok or bust. And this team is still uncommonly small. Among the 10 team leaders in total minutes played, only Cacok and 6'7" Marcus Bryan are taller than 6'5". So, similar to Alan Williams during his run with UC Santa Barbara, Cacok is a solid rebounder whose numbers are inflated a bit by a lack of other rebounding options.
Regardless, he is putting up numbers like Caleb Swanigan (18.5 PPG, 12.5 RPG) did last year at Purdue. He has 12 double-doubles in 16 games, including six games with at least 16 points and 16 rebounds. There have been 70 such individual performances this season, but Cacok is the only one who has done it more than three times.
Not bad for a guy averaging just 27.7 minutes per game on a team that can't buy a win on most nights.
Nathan Knight, William & Mary
2017-18 Stats: 19.8 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.7 BPG, 2.1 APG
MVP Performance: 31 points, 11 rebounds, eight blocks, two assists vs. Hofstra
As a team, William & Mary is leading the nation in three-point percentage (46.2). But it isn't a perimeter shooter who is the star player for one of the only remaining programs that has been around for at least 75 years without ever making the NCAA tournament.
Rather, Nathan Knight is the outstanding exception to the rule for the Tribe, doing most of his damage inside the arc and on the glass.
The 6'10" sophomore has seven double-doubles and has flirted with a couple of triple-doubles, recording either six assists or blocks four times. He has scored in double figures in every contest this season, including road games against UCF, Ohio State and TCU. And he does it all efficiently, ranked eighth in the nation in player efficiency rating—one spot behind Deandre Ayton and one spot ahead of Jalen Brunson.
Knight is high efficiency and high volume. He is used on 31.9 percent of possessions, which is the 21st-highest rate in the country.
William & Mary has been playing a four-out, one-in offense for more than a decade, attempting a ton of threes—successfully so for the past five seasons. But the one thing this team had been lacking was a dominant big man. Now that it has one, this might finally be the year the Tribe break their tournament drought.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.