Underhyped CBB Players You Should Start Paying Attention to ASAP
Evansville's DeAndre Williams and Liberty's Scottie James aren't household names, but they rank among college basketball's many minor-conference players putting up numbers that deserve more attention.
As fun as it is to watch the one-and-done talents and National Player of the Year candidates whenever possible, minor-conference heroes need our love, too. 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 primary 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.
We're also excluding Obi Toppin (Dayton) and Malachi Flynn (San Diego State), since they are legitimate National Player of the Year candidates on Final Four contenders that one would hope you are already watching as often as possible.
And, finally, Antoine Davis (Detroit), Jordan Ford (Saint Mary's), Anthony Lamb (Vermont) and Lamine Diane (CS Northridge) were all excluded because each one was either featured in last year's article (Ford and Lamb) or I devoted an entire column to him last season (Diane and Davis). After all, we're trying to promote the under-promoted stars here.
Even with all those caveats, there were plenty of worthy candidates for this list.
Players are listed in alphabetical order by last name. Statistics are current through the start of play Jan. 20.
Justin Bean, Utah State
Season Stats: 13.1 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.5 SPG
It's a shame we didn't publish this two weeks ago, because Justin Bean's numbers were even more impressive prior to a recent dry spell. Through 16 games, he was averaging 14.2 points and 11.4 rebounds, putting up at least eight and nine, respectively, in each contest.
He wasn't simply making mincemeat of a weak schedule, either. Bean racked up 14 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in a key neutral-site victory over LSU. One month later, he was again a pivotal performer against a likely NCAA tournament team from the SEC, finishing with 12 points, nine rebounds and four assists in a win against Florida.
Bean also had a double-double against Saint Mary's, scoring a career-high 24 points. However, it wasn't enough for Utah State to get the win. It was a similar story when he had 17 points and 11 rebounds in a 17-point loss to UNLV this month.
That's a little hard to comprehend, because Bean has been a pleasant surprise for the Aggies.
Sam Merrill and Neemias Queta were the primary reasons Utah State was ranked 17th in the preseason AP poll. Bean was merely the guy who replaced Quinn Taylor in the starting lineup when he graduated. This sophomore barely averaged 10 minutes per game as a freshman.
Then again, he's a whole heck of a lot older than your average sophomore. Bean served a two-year church mission from 2015 to '17 and then redshirted the 2017-18 season before seeing limited action last year. He was unproven until two months ago, but the Aggies have a grown man at power forward—to go along with a veteran guard (Merrill) who should reach 2,000 career points before the end of February.
If Utah State does make the NCAA tournament with Merrill, Bean and Queta all healthy, this team is going to be a tough out to say the least.
Juvaris Hayes, Merrimack
Season Stats: 10.0 PPG, 5.5 APG, 4.5 RPG, 3.7 SPG
If you've never even heard of Merrimack College—let alone Juvaris Hayes—rest assured you are not alone. This is the program's first year at the Division I level, but the Warriors are holding their own in the Northeast Conference with a 5-1 league record. They also pulled off a noteworthy upset over Northwestern during the opening weekend of the season.
As you would expect from a new D-I team, Merrimack doesn't do many things well. The Warriors rank outside the top 300 in adjusted offensive efficiency and they have one of the worst rebound margins in the nation (minus-nine per game).
But this little-known program is leading the nation in steal percentage, and Hayes is the star of that onslaught of pressure.
Merrimack's point guard hasn't been quite as dominant against D-I foes as he was last year, when he averaged 19.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 3.9 steals. But he's putting up similar numbers in the steals department and is leading the nation in that category. He only had three in the win over Northwestern, but he has already had nine and eight steals in games thus far in January.
Hayes did have 19 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in the Northwestern game, though, and has gotten as many as 13 assists in a game this season.
Could he join Lester Hudson to become just the second player in NCAA D-I history with a quadruple-double? Merrimack's lethargic pace of play does nothing to help his chances, but maybe it could happen in the team's regular-season finale at home against Central Connecticut.
Michael Hughes, Duquesne
Season Stats: 10.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.9 BPG, 1.5 APG, 1.2 SPG
Duquesne dropped off the national radar when its quest for an undefeated season ended in late December, but the Dukes are still 15-2 and are surprisingly tied for first place in the Atlantic 10 standings. The home game against Dayton on Jan. 29 should give us some indication of whether or not this is a legitimate top-50 type of team.
While we wait for that key showdown, let's be sure to make note of how impressive Michael Hughes has been in the paint for Duquesne.
His per-game numbers are rather pedestrian, but that's because the big man only plays 22.8 minutes per night. On a per-40 basis, he's putting up 18.1 points, 12.2 rebounds, 5.2 blocks, 2.7 assists and 2.2 steals.
By no means am I suggesting Michael Hughes is the next Anthony Davis, but it's interesting to note their similar per-40 numbers. Davis wrapped up his lone season at Kentucky averaging 17.7, 13.0, 5.8, 1.6 and 1.7, respectively.
Per Sports Reference, Hughes ranks second nationally in box plus/minus (14.7), fifth in win shares per 40 minutes (.292) and eighth in player efficiency rating (32.1). The only other players in the top 10 in all three categories are Dayton's Obi Toppin—arguably the National Player of the Year—and Evansville's DeAndre Williams, who we'll be discussing shortly.
The blocks are the most noteworthy part of Hughes' game, as he is leading Duquesne to the highest block percentage in the country. And he has kicked it up a notch thus far in league play, averaging 4.2 blocks through five games. We can't wait to see what happens when he tries to reject a Toppin dunk next week.
Jhivvan Jackson, UTSA
Season Stats: 25.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.4 SPG
Pint-sized, minor-conference guards with a permanent green light are always fun to watch.
Marcus Keene, at 5'11", averaged 22 field-goal attempts and 30.0 points per game for Central Michigan in 2016-17. Campbell's Chris Clemons, at 5'9", put up 20.6 shots and 30.1 points per game last year en route to finishing his college career in third place on the all-time leaderboard with 3,225 points.
This year's guy is UTSA's 6'0" Jhivvan Jackson.
Only Marquette's Markus Howard (27.3 PPG) is scoring more regularly than Jackson, who is averaging 21.2 field-goal attempts per game. And Jackson is just as comfortable inside the arc as he is beyond it, taking more than 10 shots per game from each of those areas.
Jackson has scored at least 20 in 16 of 19 games and has eclipsed 30 on seven occasions—most recently a 37-point performance in a convincing upset of Conference USA's best team, Louisiana Tech.
Sometimes it takes him 25 shots to score 25 points, but the Roadrunners are tough to beat when he's scoring efficiently.
And even though he's the only player on the roster shorter than 6'3", Jackson incredibly ranks second on the team in rebounds. In the season opener against Oklahoma, he had 24 points and 13 boards. He also put up 29 and 13 last week against UTEP.
However, UTSA lost both of those games and has almost no hope of reaching the NCAA tournament, in large part because this team is a disaster on defense. That's typical for teams with these types of players, though. During Keene's scoring bonanza, Central Michigan went 16-16. Campbell was 69-65 during Clemons' four years there.
But, hey, they're fun to watch.
Scottie James, Liberty
Season Stats: 10.4 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 1.2 APG
If you already know about Scottie James, it's probably not because he's playing well this year, but rather because he had one of the most egregious flops of all time in last year's Atlantic Sun Championship Game. The NCAA didn't explicitly name James when it implemented a new rule this offseason to try to get flopping out of basketball, but it could have. (A rule that has done nothing to combat this issue, by the way.)
James is Liberty's most valuable player, though. In fact, he is leading the nation with .311 win shares per 40 minutes.
His raw numbers aren't great at all, but you have to keep in mind he's playing 20.9 minutes per game for the slowest-paced team not named Virginia. Per 100 possessions, James is averaging 32.1 points and 23.2 rebounds.
We've already made one comparison to a former Kentucky great in this list, so let's make that a trend by pointing out that those numbers are better than what Karl-Anthony Towns (30.6 and 19.9, respectively) or Julius Randle (29.5 and 20.5) did with the Wildcats.
If the Flames make the NCAA tournament this year, James will certainly be hoping to improve upon his play last year. He had averaged 15.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.0 turnovers in the 11 games leading up to the Big Dance, but he had a total of 10 points and 11 rebounds with six turnovers in Liberty's two tournament games.
If he brings his A-game, that defense is good enough to make a run to the second weekend.
Sha'Markus Kennedy and Dru Kuxhausen, McNeese State
Sha'Markus Kennedy: 16.4 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 3.0 BPG, 66.7 FG%
Dru Kuxhausen: 15.6 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.2 APG, 50.3 3P%
McNeese State is not good, and it hasn't been in nearly two decades. The Cowboys rank in the bottom 20 nationally in offensive turnover percentage, three-point defense, effective field-goal defense and adjusted defensive efficiency.
But they do shoot well and block a lot of shots, for which you can primarily thank these two guys.
Sha'Markus Kennedy is the block machine, averaging a trio of rejections per game. He had a triple-double in a mid-December win over UMBC, going for 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocks. He also scored 20 at Wisconsin, 22 at Texas and 26 at New Mexico, showing he can be a factor against stiffer competition, too. McNeese darn near won the game against Texas (73-71) because the Longhorns had no answer for his paint presence.
While Kennedy puts in work down low, Dru Kuxhausen is crushing it from downtown. The sharpshooter is making slightly better than half of his three-point attempts, despite averaging 8.6 attempts per game. (He is also shooting 96 percent from the free-throw line, though he rarely gets there.)
Kuxhausen has made multiple threes in every game and has shot at least 33 percent in each game, save for a 2-of-8 performance in the season opener against Western Michigan. He has had four games with at least seven makes, including shooting 10-of-18 against Paul Quinn College.
Maybe both Kennedy and Kuxhausen taper off over the next six weeks, but it certainly won't be because the schedule gets any tougher. The Cowboys already played their lone regular-season games against Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State. The rest of their games are all against teams outside the KenPom top 250, aside from two games against Nicholls State (No. 190).
Nathan Knight, William & Mary
Season Stats: 20.7 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.3 BPG
Only three players in the country are averaging at least 19.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Two of them—Iowa's Luka Garza and Minnesota's Daniel Oturu—play in the Big Ten. The other is William & Mary's Nathan Knight, who has racked up 37 double-doubles in his career with the Tribe.
After last season, William & Mary's roster was gutted. Of the six players who averaged at least four points per game, four transferred, one graduated and the lone returnee was Knight.
Turns out he's all the Tribe needed, because they already have as many wins this season (14) as they got in the entire 2018-19 campaign.
With the exception of one understandable dud on the road against Stanford—contributing to a 31-point loss for the Tribe—Knight has been spectacular all season. He has either recorded a double-double or scored at least 25 points in 18 of 19 games.
In seven games thus far in Colonial Athletic Association play, Knight is averaging 22.0 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists while shooting better than 90 percent from the free-throw line. W&M won six of those seven games.
Only Washington's Isaiah Stewart has more KenPom.com game MVPs than Knight. And Knight actually did have a 12th against D-III Goucher College that didn't count toward his total.
Josh Sharkey, Samford
Season Stats: 17.7 PPG, 7.8 APG, 3.1 SPG, 3.6 RPG
It was maybe two weeks ago when I noticed Josh Sharkey was leading the nation in both assists per game and steals per game. Samford's senior point guard has since dropped to No. 4 in both categories, but he is still well on pace to join a rather elite club of one.
In the past 28 years, only one player has finished a season averaging at least 15 points, eight assists and three steals per game. That player was Jason Kidd in 1993-94. Even if we drop the cutoff to 7.7 assists and 2.7 steals, that only adds in Brevin Knight from Stanford in 1996-97, and he also spent more than a decade in the NBA.
This isn't some two-month fluke, either. This is Sharkey's fourth consecutive year ranking top-30 in assist rate and top-60 in steal rate, per KenPom. Barring injury, he's going to finish his career with somewhere in the vicinity of 1,500 points, 800 assists and 275 steals.
Not bad for a sub-30 percent career three-point shooter who wasn't even a full-time starter until his junior year.
In late December, Sharkey showed what he's capable of doing against major-conference foes. He had 18 points, 15 assists, four rebounds and three steals against Alabama. Three days later, he went for 24, seven, five and two, respectively, against Georgetown. Granted, he also committed a combined 15 turnovers and Samford never had much of a prayer in either game. Still, he was impressive in leading the Bulldogs to slaughter.
Don't be surprised if Sharkey plays a big part in ruining the slim at-large hopes for one of the Southern Conference's top teams. In the road win over Furman that almost single-handedly kept the Paladins out of last year's NCAA tournament, Sharkey had 21 points, 12 assists and three steals.
Terry Taylor, Austin Peay
Season Stats: 22.7 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 1.3 BPG, 65.7 2P%
Similar to Nathan Knight at William & Mary, Terry Taylor was basically Austin Peay's only returning player this year. The Governors went 22-11 with seven players averaging at least four points per game, but the other six left.
No matter. Taylor stepped up his game a little bit, a few guards have made an immediate impact as freshmen, and Austin Peay is still one of the three best teams in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Despite a rather rigorous nonconference schedule—true road games against West Virginia, Arkansas, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Tulsa and Western Kentucky—Taylor has had at least 13 points and six rebounds in every game. Nothing quite yet at the level of his 42 points and 18 rebounds last February against Morehead State, but he did have 37 points and 16 rebounds in a November win over Southeastern Louisiana and has reached the 30-point plateau four times.
He does it efficiently, too. Taylor has had a true shooting percentage north of 60 in each of his three seasons with Austin Peay, which is rather impressive for a power forward who attempts close to four three-pointers per game.
Through six OVC contests, he has scored 132 points on 90 field-goal attempts—while also averaging almost 10 rebounds per game.
If he stays healthy for the next season-and-a-half, he's on pace to finish his career with at least 2,600 points and 1,000 rebounds. The only other players to do that since 1992-93 were Tyler Hansbrough, Doug McDermott and Mike Daum. That would be good company, no?
DeAndre Williams, Evansville
Season Stats: 16.9 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.2 BPG, 1.1 SPG, 70.3 FG%, 48.3 3P%
You'd think if we're going to discuss a guy from Evansville, it would be the one who was most important in the shocking win over Kentucky one week into the season. However, DeAndre Williams was a bit off his game that night, scoring just nine points on nine shots with four rebounds and three assists.
There have been a few other games in which he struggled, but those were primarily due to early foul trouble—which has been basically his only weakness.
When this guy is on and free to play his game without fear of whistles, though, look out.
Williams shot 17-of-18 from the field in a December win over Miami (Ohio), finishing that contest with 37 points and 10 rebounds. It was one of seven games in which he shot better than 71 percent from the field.
Those aren't all dunks and layups, either. Williams is averaging just under two three-point attempts per game, and he is draining almost half of them. He's also a 79 percent free-throw shooter and a better-than-fine all-around player.
As previously mentioned, Williams is one of three players currently ranked in the top 10 in player efficiency rating, win shares per 40 minutes and box plus/minus. He is also leading the nation in true shooting percentage at 76.6 percent.
Perhaps the greatest example of his value added is how poorly Evansville has played in games in which he either struggled or didn't play at all.
Three times, Williams was limited to fewer than 20 minutes because of foul trouble. He has also missed the past four games with a back injury. In those seven contests, Evansville went 0-7, with five losses by at least 17 points.
Get well soon, big man. The Purple Aces aren't the same without you.