Overlooked Stars to Watch in Conference Play

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on December 30th, 2015

We already have a good idea about some of the star players that we will watch compete for league championships and carry their teams deep into this season’s NCAA Tournament. There are electrifying lottery-bound talents like Duke’s Brandon Ingram, Utah’s Jakob Poeltl and LSU’s Ben Simmons. There are seasoned veterans like Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine. But several very important players for excellent teams go unnoticed because they are overshadowed by brighter stars on their own teams or because their particular skills are difficult to appreciate. As we begin conference play this week, here are a few key under the radar players who will make a huge difference for their teams over the next three months.

Anthony Gill, F, Virginia

Anthony Gill might STILL be the most underrated player in the country. (Getty)

Anthony Gill might STILL be the most underrated player in the country. (Getty)

Is Gill one of the best players in the country? Of course not… right? Well, according to KenPom’s player rating system, he currently ranks fourth and, as a matter of fact, he came in seventh last year. Virginia may be Malcolm Brogdon’s team (incidentally, Brogdon sits at third on Pomeroy’s list), but the numbers support Gill’s value. His offensive rating is second nationally among players using at least 24 percent of his team’s possessions, and Gill achieves such great efficiency by staying within himself. He hasn’t attempted a three yet this season; he rarely turns the ball over; he shoots 57 percent from inside the arc; and he gets to the line frequently and shoots 80 percent when there. Combine this with a solid 6.5 rebounds per game and a prominent role in one of the nation’s most stifling defenses, and it’s easy to see why Gill is so valuable. For a Virginia team looking to make its first trip to the Final Four in three decades, he may be the Cavaliers’ X-factor.

James Farr, F, Xavier

Jalen Reynolds may be the post player at Xavier who is making scouts drool, but he only plays half of the Musketeers’ big man minutes. The other half belongs to Farr, and he makes good use of his time there. Long known as little more than a shooter in limited minutes off the bench, Farr has become a dominant inside presence seemingly out of nowhere this year. He currently leads the Big East in offensive and defensive rebounding rate — the only player to lead a major conference in both of those categories. He is also third in block rate. In fact, virtually all of his key statistics have taken a positive jump this year. The spotlight is crowded for an undefeated Xavier team, but as the Musketeers look to prove their legitimacy in the Big East and beyond, Farr will be an integral piece of the puzzle.

Devin Williams, F, West Virginia

 It’s hard to separate one player from West Virginia’s army of athletes, but Devin Williams is as good a candidate as any. The junior has always rebounded well, and his 9.5 rebounds per game this season are a testament to that. But the big change has been in his offensive efficiency. Last year, Williams shot 42 percent from the field in non-conference play; this year, he’s at 58 percent despite an increase in shot attempts. West Virginia languished at 291st nationally in effective field goal percentage a season ago, but the Mountaineers are at a respectable 72nd nationally this year. If that jump leads to more Big 12 and NCAA Tournament success, Bob Huggins’ team will have Williams to thank.

Kyle Kuzma, F, Utah

Kyle Kuzma gives the Utes a truly lethal 1-2 punch down low. (AP)

Kyle Kuzma gives the Utes a truly lethal 1-2 punch down low. (AP)

Kuzma justifiably gets overshadowed by Poeltl in the Utah frontcourt, but that might say more about the talent and potential of Poeltl than it does about Kuzma. The overlooked sophomore has the highest usage rate on the Utes, but still manages the fifth-best offensive rating in the Pac-12 among qualified players. He also rebounds the ball well, and his 21 points and eight rebounds in Utah’s big win against Duke shows how integral he is to the program competing with college basketball’s elite in the absence of Delon Wright.

Kelan Martin, G, Butler

Butler has the seventh-most efficient offense in the country this year, and Martin’s sophomore explosion is a big reason why. Martin is shooting a red hot 48 percent from three-point range and a perhaps even more impressive 59 percent from inside the arc. He also has the highest usage rate on the Bulldogs, which makes his efficiency even more impressive. He has also snared 20 percent of the team’s available defensive rebounds, which is very important, as Butler’s big men Andrew Chrabascz and Tyler Wideman aren’t particularly good on the defensive glass. Butler currently sits at No. 9 in the latest AP poll, and Martin’s contributions will be vital in the Bulldogs’ attempt to stay in the top 10 as Big East play moves forward.

Gary Payton II, G, Oregon State

Gary Payton II is probably the best college basketball player most people have never heard of (knowing about his father, also an Oregon State alumnus, doesn’t count). GPII does literally everything you could ask of a player. You want volume scoring? He puts up 17.0 points per game. You want efficiency? He’s third in the Pac-12 in offensive efficiency. You want assists? He’s third in the Pac-12 in assist rate. What about steals? He leads the Pac-12 in steal rate. Maybe rebounds too? Well, he gets 8.2 of those per game despite standing just 6’2” in socks. What else is there… blocks? He averages the second most blocks on the Beavers. And oh, by the way, he won the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award last season. Oregon State isn’t a lock to make the NCAA Tournament by any stretch, but if the Beavers manage to play themselves in, look for Payton, the team leader in just about everything, to be the primary reason why.

Honorable Mentions: Isaac Haas (Purdue), Chinanu Onuaku (Louisville), Jonathan Holton (West Virginia), Tonye Jekiri (Miami – FL), Mike Gesell (Iowa)

William Ezekowitz (30 Posts)

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