A simple definition of ‘underrated’ in college basketball is if a player is better in reality than the public perceives them to be.
With so much turnover in the sport year after year, it can be easy to cling to players we’re familiar with. In turn, that can lead to not giving fresh faces their just praise (excluding the Ben Simmons/Karl-Anthony Towns types who are obvious studs from the beginning).So that’s what we’ll do right here. Some of these guys are approaching ‘household name’ status, but absolutely deserve that title based on performance. Others are super important to their teams but don’t get as much recognition as they should.
With that in mind, here are eight of the most underrated players in college basketball right now.
C Ben Bentil, Providence
Bentil and the Friars are living proof of how unguardable a lineup featuring five players that can shoot 3s and handle the ball really is. Last season, Bentil was a small forward/power forward tweener.
Ed Cooley has him playing center this season, and he’s been an absolute monster. The 6-8 sophomore is averaging 17.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game for the Friars, and though he’s only making 30 percent of his 3’s, he’s enough of a threat to open up the floor and allow Kris Dunn to operate.
His offense has been great, but his defense is what has really impressed. At 230 pounds, he’s playing virtually all of his minutes at the center spot for the Friars per KenPom. Having a guy who can function as a small forward on offense and a center on defense is absolutely huge, and he’s a primary reason why the Friars are 9-1 to start 2015-16.
F/C Deyonta Davis, Michigan State
I’ve written about Davis before, and while everyone knows the springy Spartan big man is a force, he still doesn’t get enough credit. Take a look at the numbers across the board, and is there a freshman in the Big Ten you’d rather have?
Caleb Swanigan, Diamond Stone and Thomas Bryant were all more highly-touted than Davis in the 2015 class, but take a guess as to which players these per 40 minute averages belong to:
Player A: 14.0 points, 14.3 rebounds, 0.4 blocks, 13.5 PER (player efficiency rating)
Player B: 21.7 points, 8.9 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 22.8 PER
Player C: 19.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 23.8 PER
Player D: 19.3 points, 12.8 rebounds, 5.0 blocks, 27.5 PER
From A-D it goes Swanigan, Stone, Bryant, Davis. The Michigan State freshman is easily the best defender of the bunch, and his ability to slice to the rim on pick-and-rolls is exactly what Denzel Valentine needs out of a big man. Davis leads the No. 1 team in the country in defensive rating as a freshman, and come February and March, you’re going to hear a lot more about this guy.
F/C James Farr, Xavier
Xavier might be the most underrated team in the country right now, and Farr is its most unheralded player.
Going into this season, the senior was always steady, but had never averaged more than 4.6 points per game. This season, he’s low-key lighting the world on fire off of the Musketeer bench.
Farr only averages 18.9 minutes per game because he plays behind Jalen Reynolds, but he’s certainly made the most of that burn. And by ‘made the most of’ I mean that he’s rebounding everything in the Cincinnati zip code.
The senior is grabbing 18.4 rebounds per 40 minutes, which is just silly, to go along with 21.4 points on 52.2 percent shooting. His player efficiency rating is 29.8. Frank Kaminsky’s career PER at Wisconsin was 29.6.
No, Farr is not Kaminsky, and a bump in minutes would probably bring him back down to earth a bit. But it’s still quite a weapon for Chris Mack to be able to bring off of his bench.
G Al Freeman, Baylor
Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince get a lot of the hype for Baylor, and they’re great players. But there isn’t a more important cog to the Bears’ offense than Freeman.
Scott Drew lost Kenny Cherry and Royce O’Neal from last season’s 24-win team, and a lack of explosiveness from the guard spot held Baylor back in preseason projections. It needed someone to step up in the backcourt desperately.
Freeman has responded to that challenge in a huge way. The raw numbers, advanced metrics and eye test all say the same thing -- Freeman is really freaking good. The sophomore is averaging 13.8 points on almost 49 percent shooting from the floor and 42.1 percent from deep. He also averages less than a turnover per game.
But the biggest thing Freeman has going in his favor is that Baylor’s offense sputters without his shot creation on the court. The Bears average 139.3 points per 100 possessions with Freeman in the game; Prince, who leads Baylor in scoring, has an offensive rating of 108.5.
Early on, Freeman is looking like the reason Baylor could be even better than last season.
C Isaac Haas, Purdue
Purdue is No. 3 in KenPom rankings right now, and the Boilermakers have their best team in years. They have three all-conference caliber big men on their roster, the least talked about being Haas.
However, he’s been the best of the trio thus far. Another ABC exercise for you all, but I’ll spare you the actual ABC’s this time. These are Haas, Swanigan and A.J. Hammons’ per-40-minute numbers:
Swanigan: 14.0 points, 14.3 rebounds, 0.4 blocks, 13.5 PER, .413 FG%
Hammons: 23.9 points, 15.1 rebounds, 4.1 blocks, 30.7 PER .627 FG%
Haas: 30.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, 4.0 blocks, 38.2 (!!!!) PER, .639 FG%
Sports-reference started tracking PER in college basketball in 2009-10. Haas probably won’t keep this up, but if he does, his 38.2 figure will break Kelly Olynyk’s all-time single-season PER record of 36.16.
Want to know how good Purdue is? Haas only plays 17.9 minutes per game. That helps him maintain a freakish efficiency figure, but it’s easy to see why folks are bullish on the Boilers this year.
G/F Daniel Hamilton, UConn
Hamilton was quietly one of the best all-around players in college hoops last season, but he needed to get more efficient as a sophomore. He’s done exactly that through eight games.
The rangy wing leads UConn in points, rebounds and assists, and has upped his shooting accuracy from his freshman season by almost six percent. He’s also nailing a respectable 37 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Hamilton is the Huskies’ best perimeter defender, as well. Kevin Ollie had Rodney Purvis guard Melo Trimble for most of the Maryland game and slotted Hamilton and Jake Layman. Layman is a legitimate pro prospect, and though he’s struggled for the better part of this year, going up against Hamilton is a suboptimal remedy to bust a slump. The Terps’ small forward went just 3-for-9 from the floor against Connecticut.
F/C Amile Jefferson, Duke
Jefferson is the quintessential glue guy, but referring to him exclusively as that is an insult. Jefferson is an excellent player, and now he has the numbers to back it up.
The Blue Devil senior is averaging a double-double and is maintaining the stout defense that kept him on the floor during Duke’s 2014-15 title run. With Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow departing for the NBA, someone needed to step up in the Duke frontcourt. Most suspected it would be Brandon Ingram.
Ingram is coming on strong after a slow start, but Jefferson nearly doubling his scoring average from a year ago will be a key ingredient to a possible Duke Final Four run.
C Jakob Poeltl, Utah
Poeltl is a good center. That’s not news to anyone. It might be news to folks, however, that he’s the best big man in college basketball. Right now, that is absolutely true.
Poeltl’s 2015-16 totals: 21.3 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game with a 40.5 PER. And as impressive as Haas’ PER figure is, Poeltl is doing that while playing a starter’s minute load.
Do yourself a favor if you haven’t already, and make sure to catch a Utah game soon. Poeltl is worth the viewing experience alone.