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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

College basketball’s 10 most under-the-radar stars

Tra Holder

College basketball has settled into its crazy season already. Ranked teams are losing so often that the rankings barely make sense anymore. Upsets have become the norm as conference play forces even the best teams to play in tough road environments. Thankfully for fans, all the craziness leads to more intriguing match-ups and reveals more players and teams worth watching. With about half the regular season already played, some unexpected heroes have revealed themselves across the landscape and some expected stars haven’t received the publicity they deserve. This group of players has earned your attention and each of them are worth scouring your TV listings for a chance to see as soon as you can.

Here are college basketball’s 10 most under-the-radar stars:

10. Khryi Thomas, Creighton

Villanova has won the Big East every year since the conference was rocked by the exodus of five schools to other leagues. This season, even though the Wildcats are ranked atop the polls, a host of teams will compete for the conference title. Creighton will be right in the mix, thanks in part to junior guard Khyri Thomas. The third-year starter is having his most productive season yet. Thomas is averaging a very balanced 14.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.1 assists. His biggest contributions come on the defensive end, where he is one of the nation’s best perimeter stoppers. Thomas will be key in the Bluejays biggest conference games as he’s tasked with guarding stars like Villanova’s Jalen Brunson and Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett.

9. Jaylen Barford, Arkansas

After giving the eventual national champions everything they could handle in the second round of last season’s NCAA Tournament, Arkansas came back this year hungry to accomplish more. Barford has led those efforts, playing like an absolute beast to date this season. His 6-foot-3, 202-pound frame makes for one of the toughest match-ups in the SEC. He bullies smaller guards and blows by any slower player who tries to guard him. Barford is making 74 percent of his looks around the rim, a massive number for a guard. He’s a terror with the ball in his hands and a full head of steam.

8. Caleb and Cody Martin, Nevada

When these twins decided to transfer away from North Carolina State, they were a hot commodity on the open market. They chose to attend a competitive mid-major, and have made Nevada one of the hottest smaller conference schools this season. The Wolfpack have just three losses this season and find themselves ranked in the KenPom top 35, thanks in large part to the contributions of Cody and Caleb Martin. The brothers are combining for more than 32 points and 10 rebounds per game. Cody has been an impressive playmaker, leading the Pack in assists, while Caleb has been a hot shooter this season. Caleb Martin is making 48 percent of his threes and knocked down six longballs in multiple games already this season.

7. Tony Carr, Penn State

Penn State, though not known for basketball success, pulled somewhat of a coup in its home state two years ago. Four players from Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High School, which had won the city and state championships, all committed to play in Happy Valley for coach Patrick Chambers. Carr was the real prize of the bunch, becoming one of the best scorers in the Big Ten as just a sophomore. His 18.9 points per game is good for third best in the conference. He’s shooting just below 50 percent from outside the arc, while also drawing 5.5 fouls per 40 minutes. His ability to efficiently drive the Nittany Lion offense could propel Penn State to its first NCAA Tournament since 2011.

6. Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State

Despite Purdue and Michigan State both being loaded with talent and poised for deep runs in March, Bates-Diop leads the Big Ten in scoring. He’s helped the Buckeyes be one of the most pleasantly surprising teams in college basketball by dropping 20 points and 9 rebounds on a nightly basis. Ohio State’s nonconference performance was fine, but not noteworthy. The Bucks beat lesser competition and lost to four top-40 teams. Once Bates-Diop and his teammates got a chance to make some noise in their conference, however, they didn’t let the opportunity pass. Bates-Diop cruised to 32 points on 12-21 shooting as Ohio State handled Michigan State, then the top ranked team in America. Expectations were low in Columbus, but thanks to Bates-Diop, a former role player returning from a season lost to injury, Ohio State has a chance to reach the Big Dance.

5. Tra Holder, Arizona State

Speaking of pleasant surprises, Arizona State was one of the most intriguing stories in the early going of this college basketball season. The Sun Devils started the season 12-0 and Holder, a senior point guard, was the catalyst for much of his team’s success. He’s scoring 22 points per game, while adding 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and nearly 2 steals. He’s one of the most complete guards in college basketball, despite being generously listed at 6-foot-1. Holder is a deadeye three-point shooter, a creator off the dribble, and an active defender. Every point guard in the Pac-12 is dreading the night they’ll spend with Tra Holder dogging them on one end and attacking them on the other.

4. Markus Howard, Marquette

Last season, Howard shot his way onto the scene as a freshman. Howard led the nation in three-point shooting percentage, making 55 percent of his longballs on 150 attempts. This season, his percentage has dipped a bit as Howard has increased his role in the offense. The sophomore has already attempted 167 outside shots this year and is sinking 40 percent of those shots. Howard has gotten particularly hot of late, scoring 52 points against Providence and 37 against Villanova in the last two weeks.  He made half of the 32 threes he attempted in those two games. This season he leads the nation in free throw shooting, having made all 51 foul shots he’s taken. That kind of shooting can help the Golden Eagles bolster a lead or close the gap in a comeback.

3. Jordan Murphy, Minnesota

The Gophers’ big man has been one of college basketball’s most reliable double-double machines. The junior is second in the Big Ten in scoring and leads the nation in rebounding. He’s all over the glass, averaging five offensive rebounds per contest. He knows exactly what to do with the ball once he snags an offensive board, with 28 percent of his field goals coming via putbacks. Murphy is shooting 86 percent on field goals attempted at the rim, making him a sure thing with the ball in the paint. He’s posted a double-double in every single Minnesota game this season, and there’s no sign that streak won’t continue.

2. Keenan Evans, Texas Tech

The Red Raiders seemed poised to enter the national conversation with a win over Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. Instead of praising Texas Tech, most pundits focused on Kansas’ struggles this season. Evans and his teammates deserved better after starting 14-1 with six wins over top-100 teams. Texas Tech is ranked in the top 40 of offensive and defensive efficiency, with Evans leading the way on both ends. The senior guard is a dependable playmaker within Chris Beard’s motion offense. He’s scoring 17.3 points per game while driving most of the action in the Tech offense. Only 25 of Evans’ 92 made field goals this season have come from an assist. He’s been the Raiders go-to-guy in late clock situations and down the stretch in close games.

1. Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s

Saint Mary’s has had a steady stream of Australians on the roster for a number of years now, with no sign of that pipeline closing off anytime soon. The current Gaels may have their best Aussie since Matthew Dellavedova was playing in Moraga. Jock Landale has a real chance to be West Coast Conference Player of the Year, a rare feat for a player from a school other than Gonzaga. A Zag has claimed the honor in 12 of the last 17 seasons and no Saint Mary’s player has won the award since Dellavedova in 2012. Landale is plenty deserving, pitching in 21 points and 10 rebounds per game this season. Those numbers are both good for best in the conference. He’s a true throwback player, excelling with his back to the basket on the block. Landale has more two-point baskets than any player in the nation this season. Once he catches the ball within 15 feet of the hoop, he’s a threat to make a move and score.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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