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Sunday, February 23, 2020

Five big breakout players this college basketball season

Obi Toppin

The college football season has come to an end, bringing college basketball to the forefront. If you haven’t tuned in yet, you’ve missed an absolutely wild season to-date. Good teams have been upset left and right, leaving the media and fans totally lost when trying to figure out which teams could really advance to the Final Four in Atlanta.

On a more local level, we’ve seen enough games now to believe that some of the hot starts we’ve seen from players are not an aberration, but a real sign of growth. In a college basketball landscape that points tons of attention at the one-and-done freshmen, the development of upperclassmen can be forgotten.

These five players have improved so much this year, it would be impossible not to recognize their newfound success.

5. Daniel Oturu, Minnesota

The Big Ten is an absolute slaughterhouse this season, with every single team offering a tough test in conference play. KenPom is currently projecting 11 of the conferences 14 teams to finish between 11-9 and 9-11 in conference. The battles for conference tournament seeds and bubble superiority will be ruthless. That’s due in part to the emergence of players like Oturu. His elevation from a productive freshman who put up 11 points, 7 rebounds, and a block each game to a game-wrecking big man as a sophomore has changed Minnesota’s outlook.

Oturu is currently posting 20 points, 12 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game. His 29-point, 18-rebound effort on the road at Purdue proved that the Gophers won’t just be tough to beat at home at the Barn. They’ll mean business all over the conference, thanks in part to Oturu.

4. Luka Garza, Iowa

Elsewhere in the Big Ten, Iowa is also built around a dominant big man. Garza was a good player in previous seasons, averaging double-figure scoring in both of his seasons in Iowa City. This year, he has started the season on fire. Garza uses his size to overpower opposing big men and has a soft enough touch to finish all kinds of looks in the paint. He’s averaging 22.0 points and 10.8 rebounds per game and is drawing 7.2 fouls per 40 minutes in Big Ten play, the most in the conference.

3. Malachi Flynn, San Diego State

The nation’s most notable breakout team deserves a mention, with Flynn playing the role of breakout player for the undefeated Aztecs. He was a good player at Washington State before transferring, adding 15.8 points per game for the Cougars two years ago. After sitting out the requisite year for transferring, Flynn has returned as a better, more complete player. He’s more aggressive attacking the paint, while also refining his shot. Flynn increased his 3-point percentage from 34 percent as a sophomore to 42 percent this year despite the line being moved back in that time.

2. Jared Butler, Baylor

In a development that no one saw coming, Baylor has grown into one of the best teams in all of college basketball. Butler’s development as a sophomore is a huge reason for the Bears success. He’s increased from 10 points per game as a freshman to over 16 per contest this year, raising every one of his shooting percentages year-over-year. Butler’s development as an offensive playmaker has given the Bears a real go-to option — something they lacked last season as a middling NCAA Tournament team.

1. Obi Toppin, Dayton

No player has had a more eye-popping breakout season than Toppin. I’m not even sure how it would be possible to outdo his rise in his sophomore season. Last season, he was a contributor to a mediocre Dayton team that reached the NIT, pitching in 14 points per game, mostly coming off the bench. This season, Dayton is a bonafide top-10 team, and Toppin is a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate.

The 6-foot-9 power forward plays an inside-out game and has been dominant with the ball in the paint. He shoots the 12th-best 2-point percentage in the nation and the best in the Atlantic 10, at over 82 percent in conference play.

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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