The best college basketball players you haven’t heard of (yet)

Firstly, happy March. The best month of the season for college basketball fans has finally arrived!

Secondly, this post is not really meant as much beyond an appreciation for some of the more overlooked talents of this strange sport. Every March, a good collection of players get their respective chances to make their March moments. Unfortunately, this means that many, many more don’t. Less than 20% of all college basketball teams will make this year’s NCAA Tournament, and in the post you’re going to see below, only one player belongs to a team that’s a lock to make the Field of 68. While you can likely expect two or three of the below ten to make some sort of March Madness appearance, a lot of these players won’t get their shot.

That’s why I’m writing it. Several of these players are having fabulous, historically impressive seasons that have largely gone unnoticed. They’ve racked up KenPom MVPs left and right while barely scratching the national surface if they have at all. That’s what I’m looking for: players who most college basketball fans likely haven’t heard of who deserve the recognition that would come with an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Beside each player and team is the current likelihood that said team will make the field of 68, per Bart Torvik’s site. These players are in no real order, as will be evident shortly. They’re simply ten college basketball players that are stuffing boxscores every night and are of serious interest to stats nerds like me.

Max Abmas (Oral Roberts)

Current odds of making the NCAA Tournament: 15%

Abmas stands as the nation’s leading scorer at 24.8 points per game, which somehow still undersells just how uniquely efficient he is. Abmas is one of two players in the nation (the other being Drew Timme) with a Usage Rate above 25% and an Offensive Rating above 125, and he’s a significantly more deadly shooter than Timme. Abmas is 84-for-182 (46.2%) from three this season and has scored 40+ twice:

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Abmas is that he’s doing this in a season filled with back-to-backs and rarely, if ever, sees the bench. Oral Roberts has played 20 games against Division I competition; Abmas has gone the full 40 minutes in 12 of them, including nine of their last 11 games. Again, this is in a season where every single Oral Roberts conference game but one has been part of a weekend back-to-back. Out of seven weekend series, Abmas has played every single minute in four of them.

Oral Roberts finished as the four seed in the Summit League despite Abmas’ insane heroics, mostly in part to having the 298th-ranked defense on KenPom. Objectively, they are no better than the third-best team in their own conference. And yet: the idea of seeing Max Abmas versus a 1 or 2 seed is one of those things I can’t help but root for.

Gaige Prim (Missouri State)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 9.1%

Prim’s odds of seeing March glory, along with a few others on this list, are quite slim. Missouri State did finish the year third in the MVC, but when the top two teams in the league are Loyola Chicago (11th in KenPom) and Drake (started the season 18-0), your chances of beating both are not terribly high. (Unsurprisingly, Missouri State went 0-4 against both schools, with only the Drake fixtures being somewhat close.) So this is more of a “let’s appreciate what Gaige Prim has done” post.

KenPom has 18 categories that he measures national rankings for. Prim is in the top 250 (of 2,132 eligible players) in ELEVEN of them and in the top 500 for an additional two more. Few players have ever had a season as well-rounded as his. Prim ranks 65th in eFG% at 61.7%, 32nd in OREB% at 13.8%, 216th in Assist Rate at 24.4%, top 500 in both Block and Steal Rates, and, just for fun, draws 5.2 fouls per game, which ranks 194th. In Bart Torvik’s database, which dates back to the 2007-08 season, Prim is the only player ever with a Usage Rate of 25% or more, an eFG% of 60% or greater, an OREB% and DREB% of 10% and 20%, and an Assist Rate of 20%.

Quite literally, there has not been a player in modern college basketball like Gaige Prim. Appreciate him while you still can, as it seems likely that this upcoming MVC Tournament —

YES!!!!!! Alright, you have a full extra year to appreciate what’s going on here. But also, just watch Missouri State this weekend.

JaQuori McLaughlin (UC Santa Barbara)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 41.2%

Add JaQuori McLaughlin to the “players who make college basketball special” pile. McLaughlin is one of just eight players in the last 14 years to hold the following distinctions:

  • Usage Rate of 25% or higher
  • Offensive Rating of 120 or higher
  • eFG% of 55% or higher
  • Assist Rate of 30% or better

Some of the players on this list are fellow college basketball luminaries: Payton Pritchard of Oregon in 2019-20; Denzel Valentine of Michigan State in 2015-16; Thomas Walkup of Stephen F. Austin in 2015-16. McLaughlin belongs on that list. He only averages 15.9 points per game, but it’s his remarkable efficiency at all three levels of the floor (40.8% on threes, 45.2% on long twos, 62.7% at the rim) and solid defense that has elevated UCSB to its best season since 2001-02 if not further back. March needs McLaughlin.

Terry Taylor (Austin Peay)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 5.9%

Terry Taylor is perhaps this list’s Career Achievement Award recipient. None of Taylor’s Austin Peay teams have come close to making the NCAA Tournament, and this year’s group appears to have a similar future of falling out in the Ohio Valley semifinal. I don’t think it’s Taylor’s fault by any means. He has an extra year of eligibility if he wants it, and I don’t know if he’d spent it at Austin Peay or not, but his stats are so special that it requires a full breakdown.

  • 2,488 career points scored.
  • 1,232 rebounds secured, 508 of them offensive.
  • Averaged a double-double in both his junior and senior year, with nearly the exact same averages (21.8 PPG vs. 21.7 PPG; 11.0 RPG both seasons).
  • Averaged 5.1 offensive rebounds PER GAME this season.
  • In the last 14 seasons of college basketball, 28 players have posted the following collection of stats in a season of play: 110+ Offensive Rating, 20%+ Usage Rate, 10%+ OREB%, <15% TO%, 2.5%+ Block%, 90+ made free throws, and 20+ made threes.
    • Only two players have done it in multiple seasons. Luka Garza did it last year and this year. Terry Taylor did it in every season of his college career.

I would like to note two things here: TERRY TAYLOR IS 6’5” AND GETS ELEVEN REBOUNDS PER GAME. That really does require all capitals. Also, he and Luka Garza may be the only players ever to do this exact thing. It’s just Terry and the almost-certain National Player of the Year. No big deal.

Kendric Davis (SMU)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 28%

Davis and SMU are sort of on the periphery of the NCAA Tournament as of now; Bracket Matrix has them as the fourth team out of the field at the time of writing. I’ve been greatly disheartened by the Michigan State and Duke surges of late, because 1. Those don’t interest me whatsoever; 2. They dwindle down the spots available to extremely weird cases like SMU. SMU only got to play 15 games this season and went 0-2 against Houston, but they do own three KenPom Top 100 wins, rank higher than Michigan State in KenPom, and, most importantly, have Kendric Davis.

Davis is a TCU transfer that’s averaging 17.7 a game, which probably doesn’t sound all that notable at first. However, he’s one of just three players this season averaging at least 16 points and seven assists a game, and he’s easily the player that’s closest to making the field of 68. Davis is a fabulous passer, with 45.9% of SMU possessions when he’s on the court resulting in a Davis assist. He’s also the only way the SMU offense becomes watchable, as it’s 16 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court.

Tyson Etienne (Wichita State)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 15.2%

Etienne is the other AAC representative on this list. This has been a surprisingly good year for Wichita State, which goes to show just how low expectations felt after Gregg Marshall was rightfully fired before the season started. The team has banded around now-permanent head coach Isaac Brown, with Etienne as their leader. It’s been Etienne’s phenomenal shooting and overall smart play that’s helped the Shockers overachieve.

Etienne is 45-for-114 (39.5%) from three and has one of the lowest turnover rates in all of America at just 6.8%. He makes a ton of smart decisions with the ball, and it’s been his ability to stay on the court (1.6 fouls committed per 40 minutes) that helps Wichita be Wichita. Their sample size is very small thanks to multiple COVID pauses (17 total games played), but after luck and schedule adjustments, the Shockers go from a team ranking in the 120s to a team in the 40s when Etienne is off versus on the court. He’s the main reason they have at least a shot at being in the field two weeks from now.

Alex Barcello (BYU)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 100%; projected 7 seed on Bracket Matrix

This BYU season caught a lot of people by surprise. The Cougars’ moment was supposed to be last year, when they had one of the best offenses in America and a roster loaded with seniors. Instead, most of their best players departed, and a new group was expected to pick up the slack. All the Cougars have done is go 19-5, be the second-best team in the WCC, and become an NCAA Tournament lock once again. A lot of this is due to Mark Pope being one of the most underrated coaches out there, but one would obviously be remiss to not give significant credit to BYU’s best player, Alex Barcello.

Barcello is an astounding 43-for-89 (48.3%) from three, which would be pretty notable on its own, but he’s also converted 54.7% of his twos and has become a deadly mid-range shooter, making 47.3% of his attempts there. Barcello has also stepped it up against his toughest competition: 23 in a win over Utah State, 22 against San Diego State, and 20 in BYU’s most recent outing against Gonzaga. I want to see what he can do in March, given that BYU is well overdue to show what they’re made of.

DeVante Jones (Coastal Carolina)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 13.3%

Two things of note here: yes, Cliff Ellis still coaches Coastal Carolina somehow, and yes, they are pretty unlikely to make the field of 68, even in the strangest Sun Belt season of all time. (Some teams have played 17 conference games, others have played 12, no team ranks higher than 148th in KenPom, and everyone has at least three in-conference losses.) What Coastal mainly has going for them is the sheer excitement that shooting guard DeVante Jones brings to the table.

Remember the 18 KenPom categories from earlier? Jones ranks in the top 500 in 13 of them and in the top 300 in nine. Jones is one of eight players this year to have a Usage Rate of 25% or above and an Offensive Rating of 120 or better. When you’re on the same list as Luka Garza and Drew Timme, you’re doing something correctly. (Abmas, Prim, and McLaughlin are all on this list, too.) Jones is really special, and I hope he gets his March moment somehow.

Loren Cristian Jackson (Akron)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 8.3%

I have posted about my infatuation with Loren Cristian Jackson, Akron’s 5’8” point guard, many times before. I even did it pretty recently! So why post about him again? Two reasons. Firstly, Akron’s NCAA Tournament hopes are very slim. They did get to 12-6 in MAC play, but that was only enough to make them the fourth-best team in the league. 

Secondly, Loren Cristian Jackson is a senior and has yet to say if he’ll come back for a fifth year or not. I can’t blame anyone for choosing either side of the possible coin here; you can either get paid or you can hope things get better in a non-COVID year. Still, there’s only so much time left to appreciate little LCJ, and he’s really made the most of it lately. Over Akron’s last eight games, Jackson has averaged 23.4 points per game and took a hilarious 28 shots against Buffalo in an 80-78 loss. He’s playing like he’s racing against the clock, which somehow only makes him more thrilling.

Obadiah Noel (UMass Lowell)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 4.1%

UMass Lowell is in an America East semifinal for the first time ever Saturday, where they’ll take on UMBC as a somewhat-heavy underdog. Lowell has done their thing in the middle-pack of the AE for years now after coming up from Division II. As stated above, they only have a 4.1% chance of making the NCAA Tournament, which is not high. And yet: I’m pretty fascinated by foul-drawer extraordinaire Obadiah Noel.

Noel isn’t extremely efficient, but he’s extremely unique: a backcourt player that draws 8 fouls per 40 minutes. Those are Sharife Cooper numbers, and I can almost guarantee Noel doesn’t get quite the same calls and/or respect from officials that Cooper has received. (Not complaining here, just stating a fact.) Noel was out with an injury for Lowell’s final four conference games, where they went 1-3 in his absence. He’s come back for the America East conference tournament, and through two games, he’s dropped 51 points on 33 shots and pretty much single-handedly led them to their win over New Hampshire. I don’t know how it’ll end up for him, but he’s quite a fun curiosity to keep track of as a 20.5 PPG scorer.