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Mike Lopresti | | March 3, 2016

College basketball: Small guys thriving in a big man's game

  Players under six feet, like Kentucky's Tyler Ulis, are proving height isn't everything, even in basketball.

Let’s hear it for the smaller players, who certainly have proven one thing this college basketball season.

The leading scorer in the land, Howard’s James Daniel III with his 27.2 average, is 5-11.

The nation’s top assist man, Oakland’s Kay Felder at 9.4 a game, is 5-9.

The rock of Kentucky, Tyler Ulis and his 22.9 points and nine assists against ranked opponents, is 5-9.

The heart and soul of Indiana’s march to the Big Ten title, Yogi Ferrell, is 6-0. Maybe.

The driving force for Wichita State, Fred VanVleet with his two Missouri Valley Conference player of the year awards, is 5-11.

The prince in Monmouth’s fairy tale, Justin Robinson, is 5-8.

The leading scorer in the SEC, Mississippi’s Stefan Moody at just under 23 points a game, is 5-10.

Anyone notice a trend here?

They all seem to have something in common, besides having to look up at most of their peers. They have thrived in a big man’s game, and that takes pluck, persistence, a fire to fight perception, whatever.

Take Felder. When he isn’t passing, he’s scoring. Or vice versa. He is fifth in the nation in scoring to go with his first in assists, and is bordering on his points and assists adding up to 34 a game. The last guy to do that was from Davidson, by the name of Stephen Curry.

For as long as he can remember, Felder has heard he was too small to play. So he goes out there with a chip on his shoulder?

"Two of them,’’ he said. "Always.’’

Which tends to help his game.

"It makes me play angry. I play angry in a good way, to prove they’re wrong. I have to dive for the loose balls, go get a rebound from that big guy, make that steal – just so people will notice me and see it’s not all about height, it’s about heart.’’

But then, listen to Ulis.

"There are still people out there who doubt me. A lot of doubters. That is something that motivates me to just go out there and play.’’

Or Indiana’s Tom Crean, talking about Ferrell earlier this season.

"Yogi may not be large in size, but his heart and his mind and his toughness, that’s really big, and that’s what it has to be.’’

Or Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall describing VanVleet, after his senior star was left off the finalist list for the Bob Cousy Award for the nation’s top point guard..

"He’s been slighted enough his whole life and that’s why he is who he is, because he feeds off that.’’

So it has gone around the landscape.

Daniel’s low for Howard has been 15 points. He’s taken 56 more free throws than any other player in the country, and 14 more field goal attempts.

Ulis had 26 points and eight assists for Kentucky at Kansas, a combination not seen by the Wildcats in 40 years.

Michigan State’s Tum Tum Nairn Jr., at 5-10, is third in the nation in assist-turnover ratio, and trying to play his way back from injury.

Creighton’s Maurice Watson Jr., at 5-10, was national player of the week recently when he averaged 25 points, 7.5 assists, six rebounds and two steals in wins over Xavier and Marquette. In high school back in Philadelphia, he was MVP – of the cross-country team.

Robinson led Monmouth’s charge onto the national radar screen with 28 points against USC and Dayton, and 22 against Notre Dame.

Keon Johnson, at 5-7, averaged 20.2 points a game in Big South games for Winthrop, the only player in school history to top 20.

Easy to measure how vital it is has been to Wichita State to have VanVleet on the court. While he sat out injured earlier in the season, the Shockers started 2-4. Since he returned, they’ve gone 21-3.

Maybe the big men with their dunks get the bulk of the highlight show time, but coaches understand the value of the under-6-foot set.

Oakland’s Greg Kampe on Felder: "He’s almost indescribable because he puts up video game numbers. He’s going to run his stuff, and then if it’s not there, he’ll go get his. That’s what makes him special. He doesn’t have that 'I’m a scorer,’ mentality. He’s just a player.’’

Marshall on VanVleet: "I’d like to schedule the guys who make the Cousy list. If they can get a team together I’d like to schedule them because they obviously don’t see the value in a point guard like Fred VanVleet. To leave him of that list, I don’t know what you’re doing. He’s the winningest most accomplished point guard in college basketball.’’

Mike Krzyzewski on Ulis, after the Wildcat guard tormented Duke back in November: "I admired his presence throughout the game, and his face throughout the game. It was the face of a winner, and a really good leader . . . God was good to him. The gene pool was good. They didn’t give him height, but they gave him probably a heart that’s five times bigger than most people.’’

It would seem Ulis has company this season. Lots of big things from small – and motivated – packages.

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