Wednesday, December 31, 2003 Updated: January 2, 9:10 AM ET
Spreading a little 'love' around the country
By Jay Bilas Special to ESPN.com
For every preseason All-America candidate or all-conference selection, there are 10 underrated or under appreciated players. With 326 schools playing Division I basketball in 31 conferences or as independents, it is impossible to give every player his due. Or, as people like to say, "show them some love".
Well, in an effort to spread the love in each conference, here is a list of some of the nation's most underrated players I have seen this season:
ACC: Jamaal Levy, Wake Forest
Levy reminds me of a young James Posey. He is a long and athletic inside-outside performer. Levy averages 12.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals, making him among the most versatile performers in the league, and he slips in using his length and quickness to rank among the league's best offensive rebounders. The junior is very capable defensively, and still learning the game, so he will get better. With scorers like Justin Gray, Eric Williams and Chris Paul around him, Levy can sneak around and be a dangerous player.
Atlantic 10: Jameer Nelson, Saint Joseph's
I know ... Nelson is the best point guard in America, so how could he be underrated? As good as he is, I still don't think he is appreciated for just how special of a college basketball player he is. The truth is, if Nelson played at Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina or UCLA, we would all be falling all over ourselves to put him on more magazine covers than Heidi Klum. The guy is as strong as they come, and dominates the game from the point. He averages nearly 19 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds and nearly 4 steals per game. The only thing the senior doesn't do is shoot lights out, but he makes open shots and has to take a lot of tough shots. Nelson is a pro, and will be a darn good one.
Big 12: P.J. Tucker, Texas
Tucker may be just a freshman, but he's an absolute man on the floor, not to mention a terrific college player. He may never be a pro because of his size (6-foot-5) relative to his position (power forward), but he is productive as all get out, and he works his tail off. Tucker is tough, competitive and undersized, but a relentless rebounder. One thing that coaches will tell you, you can't teach a kid to be relentless. This kid is that. Tucker averages 14.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and shoots over 65 percent from the floor. Best of all, he grabs over five offensive rebounds per game. He is a bit limited offensively right now, but Tucker is a guy you want on your team.
Big East: Andre Barrett, Seton Hall
Maybe because he came in with Omar Cook and Taliek Brown, and was compared to the great New York point guards of the past, but for whatever reason, Barrett has been overlooked for what he is -- a terrific college point guard. Barrett can make open shots, and can really pass the ball. While his decisions have always been an issue, the senior leads the Big East in assists (6.7 apg) and is among the league's leading scorers (17.6 ppg). Barrett has also made the most 3's in the Big East this season (27 of 65, 41.5 percent), and if his team continues to win, he will get the recognition he deserved as as one of the best point guards in the country.
Conference USA: Charles Gaines, Southern Miss
Gaines, at 6-7, 220 pounds, is a load to handle and one of the most productive players in the country. If a team can limit his production (17.7 ppg, 10.5 rpg), it can beat Southern Miss. So, as a result, he sees a lot of defensive attention. Gaines ranks among the league leaders in both scoring and rebounding, while shooting over 54 percent from the floor and 80 percent from the line -- making him a weapon if teams foul him. Gaines is also good defensively, and is quick enough to get steals and block shots at a good clip.
MWC: Rafael Araujo, BYU/Aerick Sanders, San Diego State
OK, it's wimpy to pick two players out of the Mountain West, but both of these guys deserve the nod on this one. Talk about productive, Araujo leads the Mountain West in scoring (21.3 ppg), rebounding (10.8 rpg) and field goal percentage (67 percent) as the Cougars' huge post presence. While the 6-11, 265-pounder is not the best athlete, he understands how to use his body and seal off defenders. Sanders, meanwhile, is an outstanding athlete who is a terrific rebounder and is very active and bouncy. He is averaging over 15 points and 10 rebounds per game by grabbing rebounds out if his area. He averages a steal and block a game for Steve Fisher with his athleticism and timing. Sanders is what is known as a "garbage player," and a very good one.
SEC: Timmy Bowers, Mississippi State
Bowers is an excellent athlete who can shoot from the perimeter or take his defender off the bounce. The senior is handling lead-guard duties for the Bulldogs. His quickness and active hands also make him a very good off-ball defender. He is much improved at pressuring the ball and controlling the other team's ball handler. Offensively, he's leading MSU in scoring at just under 16 points a game, while dishing out nearly five assists a night. Bowers is an underrated player for an underrated team, so look for Mississippi State to contend for the SEC title again.
Big Ten: Alando Tucker, Wisconsin
Even though Tucker missed the Badgers' first five games with a broken foot, and may be hampered by that foot again, Tucker proved in four games how valuable he is Wisconsin. The 6-5 sophomore is an undersized power forward who can create match-up problems for most big guys because of his quickness and speed. He has improved his shot, and he can get to the hole off the drive when he is crowded. Tucker is a good offensive rebounder and provides Wisconsin with an explosive athlete to add extra scoring punch (14 ppg). With him, Wisconsin can win another Big Ten title. Without him, life will be much more difficult in 2004.
Pac 10: Andre Iguodala, Arizona
Iguodala is not a polished offensive player, but is an outstanding prospect who can really impact a game. Originally committed to Arkansas, Iguodala is a great athlete with versatility. Iguodala has already put up a pair of triple-double against Texas and Liberty, and has the chance to be a truly special college player. He can rebound, pass and get out and run the lanes. The 6-6 sophomore's offensive game is improving rapidly as he builds on his average of 12.4 ppg, while leading the league (yes, he leads the Pac-10) in rebounding (9.9 rpg) and assists (6.1 apg). Oh, at the same time, he's averaging 1.6 steals a game.
WAC: Michael Kuebler, Hawaii
Kuebler is a terrific shooter who is the primary scorer for Riley Wallace on the island. He is averaging over 20 points per game on 53-percent shooting and can hit off of the catch or the dribble. Nevada's Kirk Snyder may be the best player in the WAC, and perhaps the conference's best pro prospect, but Kuebler is the league's most underrated player. Snyder has great versatility, but needs to work on his handle and limit his turnovers to improve his already solid game.
Horizon: Dylan Page, UW-Milwaukee
Page is a versatile big man who can step away from the basket and he has a scorer's mentality. Page averages over 20 points and 8 rebounds, and has played very well against top-flight competition -- scoring at least 20 points against Southern Illinois, N.C. State and Valparaiso. He is unafraid, and has the chops to compete against anyone. Illinois-Chicago is the best team in the Horizon, and Cedric Banks is arguably the league's best player, but Page is the most underrated for the things he does to help his team win.
MAAC: Luis Flores, Manhattan
With all due respect to Keydren Clark of St. Peter's, who could easily claim this title for the MAAC, I'm giving it to Flores. The Manhattan star is a pure scorer (20.9 ppg)who reminds me of a smaller Chauncey Billups. Watch him play, because he has a chance to play on the next level if the 6-2 senior can adjust to the point at the next level.
Ohio Valley: Ricky Minard, Morehead State
Minard is a complete guard, and can score on anyone. He made the right decision to return to school, and he is productive despite the attention he receives from opposing defenses. Minard averages 21 points and hits 2.5 threes per game, while hitting over 81 percent from the free-throw line. Another player to watch in the OVC is Murray State's Cuthbert Victor, who leads the league in rebounding (17.8 ppg, 11.5 rpg) for Mick Cronin.
MAC: Marcus Smallwood, Northern Illinois
Smallwood is an outstanding post player who commands defensive attention. He is a terrific rebounder and finisher around the basket, drawing double and sometimes triple teams that open up opportunities for his teammates to make open 3-pointers. To beat Northern Illinois, teams will have to deal with Smallwood (14.6 ppg, 11 rpg), but they cannot allow his teammates to piggy-back off of him to have big nights from beyond the arc.
Southern: Kevin Martin, Western Carolina
Martin leads the league in scoring, but you might be hard pressed to find anyone outside of the South that knows who he is. Martin averages over 28 points per game, but shoots 53 percent from the field in getting those points and hits over 48 percent of his 3-point attempts. At 6-7, Martin is long and a tough matchup, and he knows how to play. Although he is not among the league leaders in assists, few would want this kid passing up shots. Martin either scores or gets fouled, and gets to the line 10 times per game, hitting 79 percent of his free throws. He put up 33 points in a win against Arkansas, and had 44 against Georgia. If you think Martin can't play with anyone, remember that Jarvis Hayes led Western Carolina in scoring a few years ago, and Jason Conley was the nation's leading scorer at VMI before transferring to Missouri. This kid can play.
America East: Rashad Bell, Boston University
Bell stands 6-6, but is long, lanky and can get to the rim. He has put more of a priority on guarding people, and going after the ball on the glass, but he is a productive player on a good team. Along with Chaz Carr, Bell is one of the best players in the league, and stays within himself for BU coach Dennis Wolff. Bell is a smart kid with good skills and he is athletic enough to play with almost anyone. Taylor Coppenrath of Vermont is the league's best player, but Bell may be the most underrated.
Big West: Cardell Butler, Utah State
Butler is a very athletic player who can run the floor, get to the basket and knock down his free throws. He is by no means the best player in the league, but he is an underrated player on the league's best team, playing for the league's best coach in Stew Morrill. Butler is averaging 14 points on 53-percent shooting, while hitting 90 percent of his free throws.
Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst at ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send Jay a question to possibly answer in his weekly mailbag on ESPN.com.