College Basketball Preview: The All-Underappreciated Team

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 25: Thomas Robinson #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks smiles after a play against the Richmond Spiders during the southwest regional of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at the Alamodome on March 25, 2011 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

College basketball is fueled on hype, and for good reason. Elite prep prospects arrive on campuses across the country every year, briefly offer fans and coaches the hope of a national or conference title, and then bolt at the first sight of a favorable NBA Draft projection. It's a vicious cycle.

Roster turnover like this means the excitement level for incoming freshmen is unwaveringly high. Everyone wants to see how the new kids on the block will perform. Everyone wants to see if the incoming five-star is really the next John Wall or Derrick Rose.

Because of the sheer amount of pressure that gets put on these 18-year-olds from the jump, the kids who stick it out, fight for minutes, and eventually work their way into respected starters almost get tossed aside in all this freshman hoopla.

Even if they are still likely to receive accolades on a smaller scale, here are five guys that quite simply need more love on a national level. The All-Underappreciated Team, if you will...

  • Andrew Nicholson (St. Bonaventure) – How much attention can a guy playing for St. Bonaventure really garner? Because for as talented as the 6'9" Nicholson is, despite being selected to the Wooden Award preseason watch list, it's easy to glance at his numbers and casually dismiss this case as nothing more than a very good volume scorer on a moderately successful basketball team. Eye-popping stats can sometimes skew the big picture until you truly take into account variables like conference, strength of schedule and a player's usage rate. However, of the 16 players who averaged more points per game last year (20.8), the best field goal percentage out of the bunch was Charles Jenkins' 51.7%, and Nicholson absolutely crushed that number by posting a 57.1% mark. He can block shots effectively (12th in NCAA in Block% as a freshman), score points on par with the best the country has to offer (dropped 30+ on five occasions in 2010-11), and turn a high usage rate into unparalled efficiency for a big man (61.4% true shooting percentage last year; 81st in NCAA). Nicholson is the sole player credited for bringing the Bonnies' program "back from the underground," as head coach Mark Schmidt puts it. For his final act, Nicholson will attempt to get St. Bonaventure to the dance for the first time since 2000.
  • Thomas Robinson (Kansas) – For all the personal tragedy that Robinson has endured in his lifetime, it's amazing how lighthearted and jovial the former five-star recruit is on the floor. The No. 24 prospect in the '09 signing class, Robinson's arrival in Lawrence was overshadowed by fellow blue chipper Xavier Henry, the clear-cut phenom of the class. As such, seeing the court in year one would prove to be difficult. And with the highly-productive Morris twins ahead of him on the depth chart up until last year, Robinson played just 7.2 minutes per night as a freshman and 14.6 as a sophomore. But the glimpse we saw of T-Rob in 2011-12 was more than enough to unofficially crown the kid a budding star. But because he saw less than 40% of his team's minutes, Robinson was not eligible to be placed alongside his peers in some of the more advanced statistical categories. It's a shame too, as his 31.1% defensive rebounding percentage would have put him 2nd in the nation, right behind full-time glass cleaner Kenneth Faried. Robinson's per 40 minute averages were even more noteworthy: 20.82 pts, 17.53 rebs, 1.91 blks, 1.09 stls. This appears to be a case where an extremely talented player produced at an extremely high level, except that he never got enough minutes to make people stand up and applaud his production. Guess what? Those minutes are coming in 2011-12.
  • Jared Cunningham (Oregon State) – A consistent presence in the passing lanes, Cunningham was almost solely responsible for placing his Beavers among the sport's elite in steal percentage a year ago. Probably more of a dunker than a shooter as far as labels go, the junior finished tenth in the Pac-12 with 14.2 points per game last season and is one of the league's more impressive returning players. But the caveat here is that Cunningham attempted less than nine shots per night in 2010-11, which is an unheard of statistic for anyone who scores in double figures with regularity. He was even fifth on OSU's roster in the percentage of his team's shots taken while on the floor. The reason he was so productive is twofold. First, the aforementioned aggressiveness in the passing lanes is more than just a helping hand, as Cunningham might actually be the best in the country at swiping the ball and taking it the other way (NCAA Steal%: 5th in 2010-11, 20th in 2009-10). Secondly, not many guards that weigh 190lbs are capable of drawing contact and finishing the play off at the charity stripe. To put this in perspective, Cunningham drew almost as many fouls from his opponents as Arizona's 6'8", 240lb Derrick Williams did a year ago (8.0 vs. 6.7). If underachieving head coach Craig Robinson has any hopes of getting an NCAA bid and saving his job, it's going to take more than just another sneaky-excellent campaign out of his best player.
  • Kyle Weems (Missouri State) – The evidence is as plain as day. Breakout mid-major stars usually follow a surprisingly consistent blueprint to achieve greatness, and Missouri State swingman Kyle Weems is no different. Similar to how Cleveland State's Norris Cole poured in stats like a madman and vaulted himself into a legit NBA prospect, Weems enters his final year of college with three years of continued production behind him. The physically gifted forward took 29.7% of his team's shots when on the floor as a junior, and while it's still not in the ballpark of Cole's 32.4% from a year ago, an increase in 2011-12 is to be expected. But that's ultimately where the similarities between the two start to diverge. Weems is the kind of jack-of-all-trades player that you just don't see as often in the college game. With recruits nowadays coming in so specialized in certain aspects of their positions, it's rare to find a kid that can score, shoot, rebound, pass, defend, AND assume a leadership role. Weems is all of those things rolled up into a 6'6", 230lb frame. The Missouri Valley Conference has the makings of a mid-major juggernaut again this year, and the talented Weems is absolutely at the forefront.
  • Reggie Hamilton (Oakland) – Tucked away in the suburbs of Detroit, playing in the Summit League of all places, is the best point guard you don't know about yet. You probably heard of his team, his coach Greg Kampe, or maybe even his former running mate Keith Benson. But it's only a matter of time before the name Reggie Hamilton makes a firm imprint in your memory bank. Among max possession players, Hamilton was tied for sixth in the country in ORating last year, which is essentially the pinnacle of offensive statistics. And yet, most of the publicity that Oakland received for its impressive 2010-11 campaign went to Benson for his drool-worthy NBA potential. All Hamilton did while playing second fiddle was anchor the most frenetic offense in the country, one that scored 90+ points on eleven occasions and played at nearly a 73-possession pace. The Grizzlies might not be able to account for the loss of Benson on the inside, but with the program now on Hamilton's shoulders, the lightning-quick guard is expected to flourish.

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