One of the wonderful aspects of NCAA basketball is the ability to generate stars in so many different ways.
Duke’s Paolo Banchero and Auburn’s Jabari Smith were elite basketball talents as high schoolers in 2020-21, but those who’ve watched the first two months of the current college basketball have had the opportunity to see on a grand stage how talented each of them is – and how much each one promises to the future of the game.
Purdue’s Jaden Ivey was not a nationally known recruit when he finished high school in 2020, his greatest claim to fame being that his mother was a former WNBA player who’d just been named to succeed Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw as head coach of the Notre Dame women’s team. He made a name for himself with an impressive freshman season that peaked near the end, but now he is showing himself to be one of the most gifted athletes in all of basketball.
Johnny Davis of Wisconsin and Keegan Murray of Iowa played smallish roles as freshmen, playing regularly but only occasionally feeling the freedom to shoot the basketball. Now they rank among college basketball’s leading scorers.
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As a result of these and other developments, college basketball is having an impressive year in the area of individual performances. Which made it a challenge to narrow down the right 15 players for the Sporting News midseason All-America team, and to put them in the proper order.
You may disagree with our conclusions. Which is OK, because the players involved – and you, of course – have two months to change our minds before SN presents the team that counts.
James Akinjo, Baylor
6-1, 190, Sr., G
Key stats: 13.9 ppg, 5.7 apg, 2.1 spg, .434 FG
Defining game: 20 points, 8 assists, 9-of-15 shooting in 76-64 win at TCU
Overview: Akinjo barely hung onto this distinction after a rough week on the eve of the selections. He scored a combined 20 points and shot 6-of-22 in consecutive Big 12 home losses, one of them to unranked Oklahoma State. But he’s been the most dangerous point guard in college hoops for much of this season and was a huge part of the reason Baylor opened the season with 15 consecutive victories, beat Michigan State, Villanova, Oregon and Iowa State and rose to the No. 1 AP poll ranking. He excels at finishing drives. If Baylor gets back to another Final Four, his decision to leave Arizona and play for Scott Drew likely will be the most significant reason.
Paolo Banchero, Duke
6-10, 250, Fr., F
Key stats: 17.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.1 spg, .505 FG
Defining game: 21 points, 5 rebounds, 3-of-8 3-PT in 84-81 victory over Gonzaga
Overview: Although not rated the No. 1 player in the 2021 recruiting class and not the name at the top of a lot of mock drafts, Banchero has been the most impactful freshman in college hoops. He announced what was to come with 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting in the Champions Classic victory over Kentucky and has yet to endure a single-figure scoring game as a collegian. He plays with the grace of a wing and the muscle of a big man. He isn’t just a rare talent; he plays with the drive, authority and confidence that has been elusive among many of the best young big men entering Division I.
Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
7-0, 285 , Jr., C
Key stats: 21.1 ppg, 11.8 rpg, .589 FG
Defining game: 17 points, 18 rebounds in 87-83 victory at Iowa
Overview: Cockburn is physically overwhelming for most collegians. In the decade or two before the Steph Curry revolution, there’s no way Cockburn would have been back at Illinois for his junior year. His might would have been too coveted by the NBA. But it’s a different game at that level now, and a low-post center who thrives on physicality is less appealing to scouts. It still works in Division I, though. Cockburn has produced four games of 25 points or more, three with at least 15 rebounds and 11 double-doubles in 14 games.
Johnny Davis, Wisconsin
6-5, 194, So., G
Key stats: 21.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.0 spg, .435 FG
Defining game: 37 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists in 74-69 victory at Purdue
Overview: It’s hard to remember a player who delivered a more dramatic leap in production from one year to the next. Davis joined a veteran team last season and so averaged only 24 minutes and six shots per game. As a sophomore, he has increased his scoring average by nearly 216 percent. He was ranked the No. 164 player in the 2020 recruiting class and now is one of the five best players in college basketball and a possible NBA Draft lottery pick. His game against Purdue and its dynamic sophomore wing, Jaden Ivey, might have been the single best performance by any college player in the 2021-22 season. Geez, what happened to the other 163 guys?
Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky
6-9, 255 , Jr., C
Key stats: 16.1 ppg, 14.8 rpg, .616 FG
Defining game: 16 points, 12 rebounds in 98-69 victory against North Carolina
Overview: Tshiebwe has played 18 games in his first season with the Wildcats after transferring from West Virginia; he failed to record double-figure rebounds in only two of them. He has grabbed at least 15 rebounds in eight games and has had four games with at least 20. Tshiebwe is one of those rare players, like Dennis Rodman or Paul Silas or Wes Unseld, who understands how to read a ball in flight and when to seize a position beneath the goal where the ball is likely to land – as well as the overwhelming power to assure that spot will belong to him. He also has improved his jumpshooting to become more versatile on offense, which periodically opens up the inside so dynamic teammates Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington can attack the rim.
Ochai Agbaji, Kansas
6-5, 215, Sr., G
Key stats: 19.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.1 spg, .521 FG, .473 3-PT
Defining game: 29 points, 9-of-17 shooting in 87-74 victory over Michigan State
Overview: The MSU game was in the opening-night Champions Classic, and it set a tone for how Agbaji’s final season as a collegian would go. It wasn’t just that he rang up a career high that night. It was more that he so obviously embraced the need for him to play as KU’s first option, to operate as a player who could take on the responsibility of challenging opposing defenses to stop him and thus make it easier for his teammates to operate. Agbaji has produced 10 double-figure scoring games in 17 starts and is making nearly half of more than six 3-point attempts per game.
Bennedict Mathurin, Arizona
6-6, 210, So., G
Key stats: 18.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.2 apg, .500 FG, .363 3-PT
Defining game: 30 points, 7 rebounds, 10-of-17 shooting in 83-79 victory at Illinois
Overview: Mathurin’s season started slowly, his 2-of-13 shooting in an otherwise comfortable victory over Northern Arizona suggesting his first season under coach Tommy Lloyd might take a while to get going. Within 10 days, though, he’d slapped 25 points on Wichita State and made it clear his sophomore slump would be brief. His 3-point accuracy has declined as his attempts have become more frequent, but nearly every major statistical category has seen a substantial increase. He excels at using his size against smaller defenders, hitting 62.8 percent of his 2-point attempts.
Keegan Murray, Iowa
6-8, 225, Sr., F
Key stats: 23.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg, .584 FG, .360 3-PT
Defining game: 25 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals in 81-71 victory at Minnesota
Overview: Much like Davis, whom he dueled in a January conference game, Murray has made extraordinary gains from his freshman-year production, in part because each worked diligently to improve and, more so, because he was ready when his moment arrived. Murray scored more than 20 points in his first six games and reached 35 against both Utah State and Maryland. Murray uses his size and extraordinary length to impact games as a rebounder and rim protector. He’s averaging more blocks per game than Purdue’s 7-4 Zach Edey, albeit in 11 more minutes per game. Murray is converting 2-point attempts at a 68.7 percent clip.
Jabari Smith, Auburn
6-10, 220, Sr., F
Key stats: 15.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, .457 FG, .430 3-PT
Defining game: 25 points, 7 rebounds, 4 blocks, 3-of-6 3-point shooting in 81-77 victory at Alabama
Overview: Much as we wrote about Anthony Davis nearly a decade ago, whether Smith ends up in this same position at year’s end, or on our first team where he probably belongs, could be largely up to him. He’s either the most talented player in college basketball or a very close second; how one rates him against Banchero might even just be a matter of personal taste. But Smith attempts only a dozen shots per game, a shade less than Banchero. But because Smith plays more on the perimeter, he gets fewer offensive rebounds and is fouled far less often. There’s another gear for him to reach, and it’s really only a matter of attempting to impact all games the way he did the Tigers’ impressive road win at Alabama.
Drew Timme, Gonzaga
6-10, 220, Sr., F
Key stats: 18.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg, .655 FG
Defining game: 30 points, 5 rebounds, 4 blocks, 13-of-14 FG shooting in 110-84 victory over BYU
Overview: Although Timme’s season high for points is 37 in an earlier victory over Texas, Timme’s game against BYU reestablished what he’s supposed to be about as a player after a fairly uninspiring stretch that started with a 7-point game in a Zags’ win over Texas Tech. Timme widely was expected to be this season’s dominant college player, and there’ve been several occasions when he justified this confidence. Lately, it seems like we’re headed more in that direction.
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Max Abmas, senior guard, Oral Roberts
Collin Gillespie, senior guard, Villanova
Jaden Ivey, sophomore guard, Purdue
Trayce Jackson-Davis, junior forward, Indiana
EJ Liddell, junior forward, Ohio State