I’ll admit that while I’ve been known to criticize ESPN and other national sports media outlets, overall they do a terrific job promoting college sports. ESPNU, The Tim Brando Show, and most recently NBC & CBS Sports spend hours each day broadcasting and featuring college sports, educating fans on the top teams and players. But where all of these outlets fall short is in the lack of coverage they provide to mid-major and low-major stars. They think that they can drop Doug McDermott‘s name once a week and occasionally throw in a Murray State highlight featuring Isaiah Canaan and they’ve done their duty to the mid-major. It’s really a shame, especially in an era where there is a ton of talent at the lower echelon of college basketball.
McDermott (Creighton), Canaan (Murray State), Mike Muscala (Bucknell), Matthew Dellavedova (St. Mary’s), Kelly Olynyk (Gonzaga), Khalif Wyatt (Temple) and Nate Wolters (South Dakota State) are just a handful of mid-major stars who have dominated college basketball this season and very well may hear their names called by David Stern or Adam Silver in the NBA Draft this June. But even those guys have gotten some national love, either during broadcasts of their teams’ games or highlight shows. I’m hear to give some love to the unsung heroes of college basketball, the superstars who no one outside of their respective college towns have ever heard of. Remember some of these names come March, you won’t regret it.
Pierce Hornung, SF/PF, Colorado State
How many 6’5” players in the last 15 years of college basketball have averaged more than nine rebounds a game with 4.3 of those coming on the offensive end for a tournament team? I don’t have an answer but I’d guess you could count them on one hand. Hornung is a fighter, a modern day Dennis Rodman who plays within himself and absolutely busts it every second that he’s on the court. He is also shooting 57% from the floor and is a major reason why CSU has become one of the best teams in a loaded Mountain West Conference this season. He’s the guy who everyone wants to play with and no one wants to play against. and ESPN has mentioned his name approximately zero times since the college basketball season began.
Jake Odum, PG, Indiana State
Arguably the most complete player to wear ISU blue since Larry Bird, Odum is a high-IQ point guard who gives his team an opportunity to win every game they play in. On Christmas Day, he banked in a 15-foot game winner in overtime to knock off Miami. Just this past week, the Sycamores secured two top-25 wins over Wichita State on the road and Creighton at home, and Odum was a major reason why. The thing that separates him from other mid-major point guards is his patience and willingness to let the game come to him. He never forces the issue, picks his spots and impresses you in different ways every time you watch him play. ISU is currently third in the Missouri Valley Conference and likely needs to win the conference championship in order to advance to March Madness despite the two marquee wins last week. If anyone is capable of leading such a run, its Odum.
Travis Bader, SG/SF, Oakland
Diehard college basketball junkies remember Reggie Hamilton, the recent Oakland grad who tore the Summit league apart last season, erupting for 41 points in a win over Valparaiso and 40 in a win over Western Illinois, the first in his string of seven consecutive 30+ point games. Skip ahead to 2013, where Hamilton is doing his thing in Italy and Bader has taken his place as the go-to guy in Oakland. The 6’5” shooting guard with one of the purest strokes in the nation solidified himself as a dominant scorer when he netted 47 points in a rout of IUPUI last month. “Darth Bader” is averaging 24.7 points in conference games this season while shooting the lights out from behind the arc. Oakland is capable of beating anyone because of their high-powered offense, and Bader is a big reason why.
Chris Obekpa, PF/C, St. John’s
Obekpa is the lone high-major player on this list and he makes it for one reason aside from the fact that most people don’t know who the heck he is. The freshman from Nigeria is averaging a modest 3.8 points and 5.7 rebounds in 25 minutes per game for Steve Lavin, but his ability to block shots makes him a rare talent. Currently 2nd in the country behind fellow freshman Nerlens Noel with 4.4 blocks per game, Obekpa is a more impressive shot-blocker than his counterpart because he strikes fear into opposing players with his shot-blocking ability in a way that I haven’t seen since Dwight Howard’s high school highlights. Obekpa only averages 4.4 blocks per game because opposing players are afraid to put it up if he’s anywhere in the vicinity. Keep an eye on this guys development. If he can turn into a reliable offensive player, something like Gorgui Dieng at Louisville, and plays more minutes going forward, he could go down as one of the best collegiate shot-blockers ever.
Jerrelle Benimon, PF, Towson
This is the part of the article when you all shake your heads and discredit this piece, because how can a Towson basketball player possibly make such a list? Well Benimon is no ordinary Tiger, and this is no ordinary Towson team. The Georgetown transfer has led Towson to an 8-4 conference record this season while averaging 17.2 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. His combination of size, strength and ability to run the floor and finish in traffic has caused fits for the Colonial Conference all season. Benimon, along with Providence transfer Bilal Dixon, leads one of the best front-lines at the mid-major ranks this season.
Alex Francis, SF, Bryant
Since joining Division 1 in 2008-09, the Bryant Bulldogs finished 8-21, 1-29, 9-21 and 2-28 while playing in one of the weakest basketball conferences in the nation, the NEC. Francis, the program’s leading scorer since making the leap despite being just a junior, has helped turn around a program in shambles. Right now, Bryant has an overall record of 16-6 and they sit alone in first place in the NEC at 9-2. Francis averages 17 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, and while he may not be the most talented player in the conference, he is the most impressive because of what he’s done leading the program.