At the beginning of the 2005-2006 basketball season, no one would have predicted that Connecticut’s Hilton Armstrong would play well enough to become a first-round NBA draft choice after the season. After all, he’d played limited minutes his previous three years in Storrs. The idea that South Florida’s Solomon Jones would become one of the best big men in the conference seemed equally ludicrous, yet he averaged practically a double-double for the season, and was drafted early in the second round. Seton Hall’s senior point guard Donald Copeland emerged as his team’s leading scorer after having been a relatively unknown complementary performer as a junior.
However, not all of the surprises were seniors. After averaging a double-double in scoring and rebounding, Pittsburgh’s junior center Aaron Gray would almost certainly have been a first-round draft pick had he chosen not to pull his name out. Yet after spending two previous seasons primarily watching games from the Panthers’ bench, no one could have foreseen his becoming a unanimous all-conference selection.
Who are this year’s major surprises as the non-conference portion of the season winds down? A number of players have demonstrated to this point that their games have reached new heights. Some names on this list of 10 players below are definitely more surprising than others, yet all 10 deserve recognition at this stage of the season.
Here’s the list of 10 of the most improved players in alphabetical order:
Jeff Adrien (Connecticut):
There’s no question the 6’6” sophomore forward showed signs of what he could do last year as a freshman. After all, he averaged 6.4 ppg and an impressive 4.9 rpg in only 16.0 mpg while shooting 61% from the field. His minutes last season were limited by the fact that all three of UConn’s frontcourt starters were sufficiently talented to warrant being taken in the first round of the NBA draft.
So far this season, Adrien has definitely taken his game up a notch or two. In 29.9 mpg, through December 26, he’s averaging 13.5 ppg, 10.0 rpg, and 1.7 blocks per game. His athleticism, strength, and relentlessness around the hoop make him a nightmare to defend. On what is almost certainly the youngest team in the country, Adrien, though only a sophomore, has also embraced a leadership role that will be essential if Coach Jim Calhoun’s squad is to once again make the NCAA Tournament.
Weyinmi Efejuku (Providence):
While an argument could be made for any of four Providence players as candidates for MIP in the league so far, Efejuku’s progress since last year has been astonishing. He has raised his scoring average from 7.8 ppg (in 22.4 mpg) to 16.4 ppg (in 30.1 mpg). His rebounding stats have improved from 2.4 rpg to 4.5 rpg. And his shooting percentages have risen substantially – from 35.2% to 55.2% overall and from 34.0% to 47.6% on three-pointers.
They key to his progress is a better understanding/feel for the game. He is making better decisions with the ball - taking far fewer ill-advised shots and reading the defense to take what it gives him. As a freshman, Efejuku flashed his considerable talent occasionally, but this year he has been a consistent force for the Friars. While fellow sophomores Geoff McDermott and Sharaud Curry still get most of the media attention, the 6’5” guard is making a name for himself as well. If he keeps playing the way he has so far, he could earn a spot on one of the all-conference teams at the end of the season.
Antonio Graves (Pittsburgh):
Few, if any, fans outside the Big East could probably identify which team Graves plays for, that is if they even recognize the name. A year ago he averaged 5.1 ppg in 18.6 mpg, shooting 38.6% overall and only 27.1% on three-pointers. Even most Pitt fans would have been hard pressed to envision Graves averaging more minutes per game than Ronald Ramon or transfer Michael Cook. Yet, after 13 games, the 6’3” senior guard is averaging 27.1 mpg.
Graves has more than doubled his scoring average to 10.5 ppg, and he’s improved his shooting percentages to 47.6% overall and 45% on treys. He’s had some of his most productive games against teams from major conferences, including Wisconsin (11 points), Auburn (14 points), Florida State (17 points), and Oklahoma State (17 points). In those four games combined, he made 10 of 18 three-pointers (55.6%). Coach Jamie Dixon knows Graves will not be the Panther’s leading scorer this year or their leading rebounder. Nor will he be Pitt’s leader in assists. However, if he continues to produce as he has so far, Graves will be a crucial component in the Panthers’ quest for the league title.
Rob Kurz (Notre Dame):
I wouldn’t be surprised if even now, someone might say, “Who?” However, if the 6’9” junior forward continues playing the way he has in the first 11 games of the season, fans across the country will know about him soon enough. He has already recorded five double-doubles, including a 14-point, 12-rebound game against nationally ranked Alabama and its strong front line. He also had 16 points and 5 boards against ACC foe, Maryland. Twice he’s scored over 20 points so far this year.
His averages of 15.3 ppg and 8.9 rpg are a far cry from last season when he averaged 6.4 ppg and 5.1 rpg in 21.2 mpg. He showed the ability to rebound last year, and he did hit 44% of his trey attempts. But he’s raised the level of his game tremendously. It is no stretch of the imagination to say that he, too, could earn all-conference honors.
Brian Laing (Seton Hall):
A quick look at Laing’s stats last season versus his stats this season show how much his production has improved. As a sophomore a year ago, the 6’5” wing averaged 5.8 ppg and 3.6 rpg in 23.1 mpg. He shot a mediocre 38.5% from the floor.
This year, in his first nine games, Laing has raised his scoring average to 14.8 ppg, his rebounding figure to a very respectable 6.8 rpg, and his shooting percentage to a solid 46.2%. He is still struggling from long range, however, as his three-point percentage of 25% illustrates. Still, the 6’5” junior has become a consistent scorer and rebounder for a team badly in need of both. He has scored in double figures in seven of the Pirates’ nine games. He had a double-double with 10 point and 10 rebounds against Big 10 foe, Penn State. On a team that possesses virtually no inside scoring threat, Laing’s abilities to attack the basket and create his own shot are invaluable.
Jerel McNeal (Marquette):
McNeal made the all-rookie team as a freshman and would seem an unlikely candidate for MIP. After all, he averaged 11.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, and 2.7 apg last season, though he also led the conference in turnovers with 117 for the season.
Through 14 games this season, McNeal has raised his scoring average to 15.1 ppg, to go along with 4.6 rpg and 3.6 apg. In the CBE tournament semi-final game against Texas Tech’s highly-rated backcourt of Jarrius Jackson and Martin Zeno, McNeal finished with 19 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals in only 22 minutes (due to foul trouble). In the CBE final against Duke, McNeal had 17 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 steals. Presently McNeal is tied for fourth in the nation in steals per game at 3.6 spg. The 6’2” guard has not achieved the notoriety of pre-season all-American backcourt partner Dominic James; nevertheless, he is establishing his own reputation on the national scene for his all-around play.
Michael Nardi (Villanova):
Even though the senior guard is entering his fourth season as a starter for the Wildcats, it is his first time in a featured role. For his first three seasons, he played a complementary role behind Randy Foye and Allan Ray, and the past two years behind Kyle Lowry as well. But now Nardi is the main man in Villanova’s backcourt, which means he had to improve on his averages of 10.4 ppg and 2.0 apg last season as well as his field goal percentage of 38.8%.
That’s exactly what he’s done. He’s averaging 14.5 ppg and 4.6 apg, and is shooting 47% from the field. He has scored in double figures in 10 of the Wildcats’ 11 games. More importantly, he has also become the unquestioned floor leader of the team. Multi-talented fifth-year senior Curtis Sumpter may be the team’s most talented player, but Nardi is the one who runs the show. For Coach Jay Wright’s Wildcats to make the NCAA Tournament again, the 6’0” senior must continue to score, set up his teammates, and direct the action.
Demetris Nichols (Syracuse):
On a team returning four starters from a year ago, along with the addition of highly-touted freshman Paul Harris, no one could have expected the kind of stats forward Demitris Nichols has put up so far for the Orange. Last year, Nichols’ stats were certainly respectable – 13.3 ppg and 5.8 rpg in 33.3 mpg. However, this year he is averaging an impressive 19.6 ppg. Plus, his shooting percentage has climbed from 42.7% to 50.0%, and his three-point percentage has leaped from 35.4% to 50.0%. Even his free throw percentage has risen significantly, from 67.7% to 90.9%.
Nichols displayed tantalizing glimpses of his talent last year, but he was plagued by inconsistency. So far this year, he has scored in double figures in 13 of 14 games. Over his last five games, he averaged 26.6 ppg. During that stretch he scored 26 points against Oklahoma State, 28 points against Baylor, and 31 against a solid Drexel team. If he continues to score at such a prolific pace, the 6’8” senior will be in the running for the conference scoring championship and possibly Big East Player of the Year.
Alex Ruoff (West Virginia):
With the graduation of four starters and the sixth man from last year’s team, opportunities for playing time were abundant in Morgantown. Ruoff’s teammates, Joe Alexander and Darris Nichols, have also shown tremendous progress compared to last year, but the 6’6” sophomore has probably improved the most at this juncture. After appearing in only 21 of 33 games a year ago, in which he averaged a meager 4.0 mpg, 1.0 ppg, and 0.5 apg, Ruoff has become a main reason behind the Mountaineer’s success so far this season.
He is averaging a workmanlike 10.1 ppg despite taking just eight shots in his 30.5 mpg. However, even more impressive are his average of 4.9 apg and his assist/turnover ratio of 3.3/1.0. On top of that, he’s shooting a nifty 44.3% from beyond the arc. Ruoff’s diverse skills fit beautifully into coach John Beilein’s offensive system, but it is still a tribute to his own work ethic that he has come as far as he has in such a short time.
Terrence Williams (Louisville):
Like McNeal at Marquette, Williams was selected to the all-rookie team as a freshman last year when he averaged 8.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg, and 2.1 apg – all respectable numbers for a freshman, especially on a team that included Taquan Dean, David Padgett, and Juan Palacios.
With Coach Rick Pitino’s squad beset by injuries since the beginning of this season, Williams has stepped up his game and become the Cardinals’ most consistent performer. He has raised his scoring average by almost four points to 12.1 ppg, but more impressive are his 7.6 rpg and 4.3 apg. At this point in the season, he is Louisville’s leading scorer, tied with Palacios as the team leader in rebounds, and far and away the team’s leader in assists. He has had three double-doubles, including 13 points and 10 rebounds against nationally ranked Arizona and 18 points and 10 boards against Miami (FL). In short, this year he is bringing the entire offensive package – with one exception. While he’s shooting a respectable 46.4% on two-point field goals, his three-point shooting has been awful – 17.0%. If he ever starts knocking down his treys, he will be practically unstoppable.
Predicting how players will perform during the conference season based on their productivity in non-conference games is dangerous. In many instances the quality of the opponent is suspect to say the least, a problem which is more prevalent in some Big East teams’ early season schedules than in others’. Still, based on their level of play during the initial six weeks of the season, all 10 of the players listed have demonstrated marked increases in productivity compared to last season. At the end of the regular season, we’ll examine which individuals might qualify as legitimate candidates for the Most Improved Player in the conference.