Now You Know…
Seven under the radar college players you can’t miss.
College basketball fans are annually force-fed a never ending smorgasbord of big time hoops action with all of the familiar faces. Thanks to the World Wide Leader, hardwood fanatics as well as casual followers can take in the very best the Big East, ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 have to offer. For the east coast ballers, the good folks at Fox Sports provide a steady stream of late-night Pac-10 action, and CBS is able to throw us weekend coverage of whatever the SEC is cooking that week. The big boys get so much coverage that even a player like North Carolina’s Bobby Frasor (15 minutes, 2.4 points per game) is an oft-recognized name when the discussion of college hoops is discussed on a national level.
What this entertaining, but limited scope of NCAA hoops leaves us with is thousands of people scratching their heads during the first week of March Madness. Typically, if a school’s name has a double-digit number next to it on that magical piece of paper known as a bracket, the vast majority of the country has never heard of it before. Even worse, when ESPN’s Bracket Busters Weekend rolls around in a couple of weeks, many will change the channel to something else. This isn’t necessarily because fans dislike (do I dare say it?) mid-major basketball, it’s because they simply don’t know any better.
There is plenty of talent just waiting to be unearthed out there. Will most of these players make it to the League? No, but that certainly shouldn’t diminish how well they perform at the collegiate level. If anything, knowing about these individuals will make watching afternoon hoops viewing a much more enriching experience. With that mindset in tow, here is a look at some of the players you might be missing out on.
Marqus Blakely (Vermont)
Okay, this likely isn’t going to be any sort of an epiphany, but I have to ease in some of the newbies. The reigning America East Player of the Year, this junior is one of the best athletes you may have never heard of. Don’t believe me? This should probably silence some of the doubters.
Granted, as a 6-5 power forward he probably isn’t looking at an NBA future, but he sure is fun to watch right now. Maryland and Pittsburgh both felt Blakely’s wrath early on in the year to the tune of 23 and 11 versus the Terps and a 19 and 14 showing on the road against the Panthers. The junior is extremely efficient around the rim, gets to the line at a ridiculous rate (6.7 times per game) and is a defensive force thanks to his excellent length and timing. With the Catamounts sitting atop their conference right now, Blakely might get a shot to show off his stuff on the big stage come March.
Stefon Jackson (UTEP)
How many times have you seen UTEP on TV this year? Well, unless you have ESPNU or live near the campus, the answer is zero. Many are missing a chance to watch the all-time leading scorer in the history of Conference USA put the final touches on an illustrious career. Jackson is actually one of the players with a shot to be wearing a pro jersey next season. At 6-5 and possessing a well developed offensive game, the senior has nice potential as a 2-guard. Jackson gets to the basket pretty well and has an outstanding mid-range game, able to create shots off the dribble with ease.
Improving on his perimeter game would go a long way to helping his stock though. One thing is certain though, the kid can flat out score. Whether it be the 31 points he dropped on Wake Forest in November or the 44 he notched against Santa Clara to end the 2008 calendar year, Jackson is capable of hanging a big game on anyone.
Ben Woodside (North Dakota State) and Ryan Toolson (Utah Valley)
Jodie Meeks’ 54-point performance a couple of weeks back was mind boggling—the highlights at least five or six times the next day. Well, it wasn’t the season’s high-scoring game, in fact it wasn’t even the second highest. Believe it or not, not one, but two players hit the 60-point mark this year. Woodside was the first to do it back in mid-December in a heartbreaking triple-overtime loss to Stephen F. Austin. The 5-11 senior, who shoots a devastating 47.3 percent from beyond the arc, actually did most of his damage at the charity stripe, hitting a ridiculous 30 of 35 attempts on his way to scoring 60 points.
Toolson, who stands five inches taller and shoots 9 percent lower from 3, had his big day just last week. The shooting guard went for 63 in a quadruple-overtime win over Chicago State. Toolson went 20-21 from the line and hit 7-11 3-point attempts. Not that either of these players are likely to be on ESPN’s Big Monday anytime soon, but make sure you check them out if you have an opportunity.
Kevin Tiggs (East Tennessee State)
How much Atlantic Sun basketball have you watched this season? Can you name a team in the Atlantic Sun aside from the one listed above? It’s okay, most can’t. The Buccaneers are sitting atop the conference standings though and they have their senior forward to thank in part for that. Tiggs started out playing JuCo ball before joining ETSU, but he was worth the wait, averaging over 20 ppg this season and eclipsing the 30-point mark three times. A good athlete, Tiggs makes his living going to the basket and running in transition. His 6-4, 210-pound frame allows him to overpower a lot of other perimeter players he encounters during the conference slate.
Larry Sanders (VCU)
Let’s be honest, there is always something intriguing about under the radar big men. Everyone wants to be there to witness the coming out party or to unearth the next Neon (Shaq’s character in the movie Blue Chips). Ladies and gentlemen, meet Larry Sanders.
By no means a future All-American, he is certainly capable of being a nightmare in the CAA as he continues to develop. Standing 6-9 and a rail-thin 205 pounds, the sophomore has a wingspan measuring 7 ½ feet and is naturally a shot blocking machine. As a freshman, showing little or no skill, Sanders led the country in blocks per forty minutes, and this year has seen his game improve tremendously. As a starter, he is averaging 10.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in just 24 minutes. While there is no question he is still raw and lacking much polish, games like his 16-point performance against Oklahoma and his 21 and 19 explosion in a win over Hampton are glimpses of what may be yet to come.
Josh Akognon (Cal State Fullerton)
You’ve heard of the Big West Conference before; it’s the one where every school starts with the letters “UC…” Well almost all of them, anyway. Fullerton produced its fair share of players, and Akognon (pronounced ah-Koy-uhn) is no exception. The 5-11 speedster has been a scoring machine for the Titans since he transferred over from Washington State. The senior does a little bit of everything, able to get into the lane at a consistent rate, he gets to the line often and has legitimate NBA range despite having some struggles from deep this year. Akognon had a chance to strut his stuff a couple of times on national television this year and he didn’t disappoint, scoring 24 points against Wake Forest and Saint Mary’s in back-to-back games at the 76 Classic in Anaheim.
Clearly, this is just a small sampling of the talent to hopefully whet your appetite for teams that don’t have a multi-million dollar travel budget. There are plenty of players worth watching, so don’t be too quick to change the channel and see Nowhere State going at it with Never Heard Of It A&M.