College Basketball Preview: Top 30 under-the-radar performers

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

Javon McCrea (USATSI)
Buffalo's Javon McCrea was second in the MAC in scoring last season at 18.0 ppg. (USATSI)

It's time to look at the fellas at the smaller schools, the guys who will put up gaudy numbers and be headache inducers for opposing coaches. You won't see them on TV a lot, but it doesn't mean they won't matter in their league, or in certain instances, be NBA prospects. So who are the best from the rest?

Before we get to listing, know that I did implement some stipulations for players making this list. First, I believe we now have a new order of power in college basketball. There are three tiers of conferences. You've got the Fab Five: ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12. Then you've got four leagues that are assembled to be multi-bid leagues year in and year out. They might be as good in a given year as some of the Fab Five, but top to bottom, probably aren't as stout. Call them them the Fine Four: the American, Atlantic 10, Big East and Mountain West. (There is an argument that the West Coast Conference deserves inclusion, but I think it juuuust falls outside that realm -- for now.)

No players from these teams were eligible for consideration. Hey, the small schools get overlooked enough as is, so I had to pare down 30 players from the other 22 conferences to get this list right. Seems fair.

Also, you couldn't already be in our top 100 players rankings, so that eliminates big-time names at smaller schools like Towson's Jerrelle Benimon and Louisiana-Lafayette's Elfrid Payton. I didn't want to cross streams with other lists we've had, like our top transfers, meaning Georgia State's Ryan Harrow wasn't eligible.

No freshmen on this list, either. If you want 20 unheralded newcomers to the game to be on the lookout for, we already took care of that for ya right here. So let's get to knowing the unknowns right now.

1. Wesley Saunders

Harvard

Vitals: 6-5 | Wing

Comment: Harvard has two players on this list. I expect the Crimson to be fairly good, certainly with NCAA tourney expectations. Saunders was top-tier nationally in minutes played, effective field goal percentage, assist rate, steal percentage and free-throw rate, which means gets to the line a lot. He's tremendously valuable to what can be the best team in the history of the Ivy.


2. Javon McCrea

Buffalo

Vitals: 6-7 | PF

Comment: The senior Bull has been one of the best mid-major players for the span of his career. Will be playing under a new coach in Bobby Hurley but is likely to see his 18 points, 8 boards and 2 assists average from last season climb again.


3. Travis Bader

Oakland

Vitals: 6-4 | SG

Comment: Put up 22.1 points per game last season, more than anyone on this list and No. 5 in the country. Barring injury, Bader will break the record for more 3-pointers in NCAA history sometime in January or early February. And it's a good thing he can bomb away, because Oakland's defense was not good last year. Played more minutes for his team than any other player in the country last season.


4. Alan Williams

UCSB

Vitals: 6-7 | PF

Comment: I've been propping up Williams for two years now despite the fact he plays for a bad team. Averaged 17 points and 11 boards last year, was top five in rebound rate and top 10 in drawing fouls. And he either scored or assisted on 34 percent of the Gauchos' plays last year, making him the fourth-most involved player in the game in that respect. Only a junior.


5. Gary Bell, Jr.

Gonzaga

Vitals: 6-1 | SG

Comment: Feels a bit weird putting a Gonzaga guy on this list, but he qualifies since they play in the WCC. Doing some forecasting on my part here. I think Bell's in for a very big year, given he's been a productive, efficient scorer since he got to Spokane.


6. Chris Udofia

Denver

Vitals: 6-6 | PF

Comment: Very versatile (last year's line: 13/4/3) forward for the Pioneers. Now a senior, Udofia will be asked to carry this team to its first NCAA tournament as a first-year member of the Summit League.


7. Kyle Casey

Harvard

Vitals: 6-7 | PF

Comment: I could have Casey higher here, as he led Harvard in scoring in 2011-12, but he sat out for a year amid his inclusion to a school-wide academic scandal. His return, along with also-suspended Brandyn Curry, gives Harvard such a high ceiling.


8. Walt Lemon, Jr.

Bradley

Vitals: 6-3 | SG

Comment: With Creighton and Doug McDermott no longer in the Valley, Lemon could be the best player in the league now. Big-time shot- and playmaker. Creates well off the bounce and is also an exceptional rebounder for his size. Could average 2.5 steals this season as well.


9. Devon Saddler

Delaware

Vitals: 6-2 | SG

Comment: One of the best-kept secrets in all of college hoops. Was top-20 nationally in scoring (19.9) last season and rallies around his ability to make plays, sometimes out of thin air. Blue Hens can take the CAA as a dark horse if he and backcourt mate Jarvis Threatt play at all-league levels.


10. Troy Huff

North Dakota

Vitals: 6-5 | SF

Comment: What a player! Checks in at around 175 pounds, yet averaged seven boards last season. He also scored 19 points for the team currently without a moniker. In addition to sniffing the defensive glass so well, he's also a good defender and gets into the passing lanes so well.


11. Damion Lee

Drexel

Vitals: 6-6 | SG

Comment: The Dragons junior averaged 17 points, five rebounds and two assists last season. He took a lot of shots for a team that was hampered by injuries a year ago. Drexel has been waiting to break through and make a tourney for a long time now. Lee has to lead the charge. (Teammate Frantz Massenat could've made this list if he was more effective on O.)


12. D.J. Irving

Boston University

Vitals: 6-0 | PG

Comment: Preseason Patriot League Player of the Year put up 14/4/3 for the Terriers a season ago. Just one of those small guards who does it all. I think Boston U. is tournament-bound in large part because Irving's grown into a do-it-all player. He needs to curb the turnovers, however.


13. DeQuan Hicks

Northwestern State

Vitals: 6-7 | PF

Comment: I mentioned Hummer's O Rating on KenPom above. The only player on this list who was better? Right here. Hicks is a beast of a player who should see career highs in points and rebounds this season. His team made the NCAAs last year; in the team's Round of 64 loss to Florida, Hicks went for 12 points and eight rebounds.


14. Rian Pearson

Toledo

Vitals: 6-4 | SG

Comment: Second-best player in the MAC to the No. 2 guy on this list. Was top-50 in scoring in the nation last season, getting 18/game. Snagging seven boards per game despite being under 6-5 is quite stellar.


15. Taylor Braun

North Dakota State

Vitals: 6-7 | Wing

Comment: Braun sat for five weeks last season due to injury. His team wound up falling behind in the Summit League chase because of it. If healthy, this team will go to the NCAAs this year because every starter returns and Braun is such a solid in-and-out reliability for the Bison.


16. Kareem Jamar

Montana

Vitals: 6-5 | SG

Comment: Last year's Big Sky Player of the Year came on and upstaged his senior teammate, Will Cherry, due to injuries Cherry was plagued by for most of the season. Jamar will probably scorer 17/game and win the league POY yet again. Few guys on this list do as much overall for their team as Jamar.


17. De'Mon Brooks

Davidson

Vitals: 6-7 | SF

Comment: Actually didn't have a tremendous campaign last season, but it was all relative. Jake Cohen, now graduated, was part of the dynamic duo that made Davidson such a SoCon threat. Cohen's gone, and I expect Brooks' versatile game and statistics to be at their best in his senior season.


18. Antoine Mason

Niagara

Vitals: 6-3 | SG

Comment: Top-40 in scoring last year, I actually think he's the best player in the MAAC this season despite the fact Niagara probably doesn't stand a chance to win the league. Few guys will log as many minutes this year as Mason.


19. Shawn Glover

Oral Roberts

Vitals: 6-7 | SF

Comment: Transfer from Utah fit in just fine in the Southland last season. ORU can get to the dance once again if Glover is a bit more physical and ups his points and boards lines by about two per game.


20. Daniel Mullings, Jr.

New Mexico State

Vitals: 6-2 | SG

Comment: NMSU is again the WAC favorite, and I had to decide whether to go with Mullings or the 7-5 Sim Bhullar. Going with the guard because I think he'll have more overall impact and is a more diverse player for the Aggies. Can average 15/6/3 this year.


21. Kendrick Perry

Youngstown State

Vitals: 6-0 | SG

Comment: Preseason Player of the Year in the Horizon. Youngstown State is almost never thought about because the program's now gone more than 15 years without a 20-win season. They probably won't win 20 this year, but it won't be because of Perry, who's just as good on D as he is with the ball.


22. Johnny Dee

San Diego

Vitals: 6-0 | SG

Comment: Can be a cult hero for West Coast Conference basketball. Made some big plays a season ago for an improving Toreros club. Loves to shoot it, and can shoot it well. From deep, from the line, from mid-range.


23. Cole Dickerson

San Francisco

Vitals: 6-7 | PF

Comment: Some coaches think Dickerson's got a ceiling that could make him the third-best player in the West Coast Conference. The San Fran big man would probably definitively be top-three if he had two more inches on him. As is, will average a double-double this season in addition to being a solid distributional guy.


24. Kyle Vinales

Central Connecticut State

Vitals: 6-1 | SG

Comment: Had a saga of should-I-or-shouldn't-I-transfer in the offseason. Opted to stay with CCSU. Was top 10 in the country in scoring last season, but he put up a lot of shots on the way to averaging 21.6 points. Will play a ton of minutes and be a possession hog -- in a needed way -- for the Blue Devils.


25. Pendarvis Williams

Norfolk State

Vitals: 6-6 | SG

Comment: Reliable shooter that can get the Spartans back to the NCAAs. Remember the last time they made it? Yep, beat Missouri in 2012. Williams is a senior who has a chance to shoot above 41 percent from 3-point range this year.


26. George Beamon

Manhattan

Vitals: 6-4 | Wing

Comment: A tremendous scorer who was injured four games into the season in 2012-13. Manhattan is the MAAC favorite, and Beamon's certainly a big reason why. Would be higher, but would like to see if he'll clearly be the alpha dog and can come back even better after the ankle injury.


27. Saah Nimley

Charleston Southern

Vitals: 5-8 | PG

Comment: Pint-sized point guard who DOES IT ALL for Charleston Southern. Similar to how Chaz Williams can be the best player in the A-10 despite his size, Nimley is the best player in the Big South. You see how tall he is. Know that he's less than 160 pounds. And then realize he scored 16 points, dished five assists -- and snagged 5.3 rebounds per game a year ago.


28. Sean Armand

Iona

Vitals: 6-5 | SG

Comment: If the Gaels are going to a third straight NCAA tournament, here's the guy who'll you'll get to know. A senior, Armand saw his points-per-game jump seven digits last season, up to more than 16. He grabbed five rebounds and earned three assists per, as well. Solidly built and doesn't tire.


29. Jason Brickman

LIU-Brooklyn

Vitals: 6-0 | PG

Comment: The compact Brickman is diminutive in personality but dynamic in play. The Blackbirds have been a fast-tempo team for years now, but have never been better than with Brickman running the show. He'll have huge challenges ahead with the graduation of Jamal Olasewere and yet another injury sideline sixth-year player Julian Boyd for at least the first two months of the season.


30. Rod Rucker

UAB

Vitals: 6-5 | PF

Comment: Conference USA lacks serious star power this season, but we're squeezing in Rucker because he's liable to be a double-double guy this year, as a senior, who can score 16/game for the Blazers.

 
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