With over 5,200 players slated to play collegiate basketball in Division I this season, there are talented players from coast to coast. Some of them are household names, while there are plenty of players who people haven’t heard of, but are demanding of your attention.
The majority of fans tend to focus on the power five conferences, turning a blind eye to the smaller programs. When you dig deeper, you’ll see that the non-power five schools have players who could just as easily play for a power conference program.
As the 2016-17 season approaches, we will be looking at non-power five players who are on the brink of becoming household names during the 2016-2017 season. We’ve separated the lists between guards and forwards, and then again based on their year of eligibility.
Here are 10 non-power five junior forwards who will be household names in the very near future, plus 10 extras at the bottom to keep a flag on as their careers progress.
Tanner Leissner – New Hampshire Wildcats
2015-16 Stats: 15.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.5 apg; 43.7% FG, 75.2% FT, 28.6% 3PT
When Tanner Leissner was a freshman for the New Hampshire Wildcats, he took home America East Freshman of the Year honours after averaging 12.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per contest. After his sophomore season, Leissner is showing no signs of slowing down, and should be considered as one of the best up-and-coming forwards in the country.
He finished the 2015-16 season averaging 15.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per contest, both of which landed him in 4th spot in the America East Conference. He shot 43.7% from the field, and 75.2% from the free throw line.
Leissner is one of the more consistent forwards on the offensive end of the floor. He scored in double-figures in 23 of his 30 games, and he scored 20 or more points in 11 of those contests.
While Leissner has shown flashes of being able to shoot the three ball (28.6% in ’15-16), there’s still room to improve from beyond the arc. Developing a consistent jumper from outside would take his game up to the next level, and that wouldn’t be good news for the rest of the conference.
Jeremy Combs – North Texas Mean Green
2015-16 Stats: 14.9 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 0.8 apg, 1.4 spg; 60.1% FG, 58.4% FT
When we released our list of the Top 100 Players in College Basketball for the 2016-17 Season, North Texas’ Jeremy Combs kicked off the list at #100, and for good reason. Those close to the Mean Green thought the ranking was too low, while others thought others were better suited for the spot.
One thing is for certain, Combs is one of the top players in all of college basketball, and will become a household name in 2016-17.
As a sophomore, Combs averaged 14.9 points and 10.5 rebounds per contest, while shooting 60.1% from the floor. He started 31 games last year, only missing one contest. His big numbers earned him a spot on the All-Conference USA Second Team.
During conference play was when Combs was at his best. He recorded 14 double-doubles on the year, and 11 of them came against conference opponents. He pulled down a career-high 19 rebounds against the UTEP Miners.
Combs has the athleticism to be effective in the paint, grabbing rebounds and finishing at or above the rim. If North Texas can put together a strong season, consider Combs a top contender for Conference USA Player of the Year.
Nana Foulland – Bucknell Bison
2015-16 Stats: 11.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 0.8 apg, 1.4 bpg; 53.6% FG, 49.7% FT
Over his freshman and sophomore seasons, Nana Foulland has started every single game except for one. That game came this past season, on Senior Day, when Matt Banas made the start in place of Foulland.
Despite coming off the bench, Foulland still recorded 10 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks.
In 2015-16, Foulland finished second on the Bison in scoring, averaging 11.8 points per contest, and trailing only Chris Hass in terms of points. He added 6.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per contest.
Over his career, Foulland has been a consistent and durable forward for the Bison. His scoring numbers won’t blow you away, but his effectiveness is noteworthy. He gives the Bison a strong presence in the paint, which opens things up for the guards on the back end.
With the departure of Hass, the Bison will look to get more offensive production out of Foulland. The All-Patriot League Second Team member will be more than ready for the challenge, and will be among the conference’s best players in 2016-17.
Kevin Hervey – UT-Arlington Mavericks
2015-16 Stats: 18.1 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 2.9 apg; 45.3% FG, 75.7% FT, 32.3% 3PT
Fans of the UT-Arlington Mavericks still have to be asking the age-old question, ‘what if.’
What if Kevin Hervey didn’t get injured last season? Where would we have finished? Would we have won the conference title and gone to the NCAA Tournament? We’ll never know.
Before Hervey’s injury, the Mavericks were 13-3 overall, and looked like the team with the best chance of knocking off the Little Rock Trojans in the Sun Belt Conference. After Hervey’s injury, the team went 11-8. While it was still a winning record, and the team took part in the 2016 CIT, but Hervey’s impact on the team was never more noticeable when he wasn’t on the floor.
Over the 16 games he played in 2015-16, Hervey averaged a team-best 18.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per contest. He recorded 8 double-doubles, and put together three straight games with 15 rebounds (11/29 – 12/3).
He has the ability to stretch the floor with his shooting ability from beyond the arc. If he can stay healthy this year, Hervey will be considered by many as the front-runner for Sun Belt Player of the Year.
Rokas Gustys – Hofstra Pride
2015-16 Stats: 13.5 ppg, 13.0 rpg, 1.2 bpg; 66.0% FG, 43.6% FT
Four of the top five rebounders in the country last season have graduated. Fortunately for the Hofstra Pride, the #2 rebounder in the nation is back on campus for his junior season.
Rokas Gustys enjoyed a breakout season in 2015-16. He finished the season averaging a double-double of 13.5 points and 13.0 rebounds per contest. His 13.0 rebounds trailed only Egidijus Mockevicius‘ 14.0 per contest.
Gustys also ranked among the national leaders in field goal percentage, ranking 6th in the country with a mark of 66.0% from the floor. He recorded 23 double-doubles over the course of the year, and pulled down 20 or more rebounds on six occasions.
In the CAA final against the UNC-Wilmington Seahawks, Gustys pulled down a career-high 23 rebounds in the Pride’s overtime loss.
With Hofstra losing both Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley to graduation, Gustys becomes the go-to guy on offense. How he deals with consistent double-teams will be a big factor as to whether the Pride are a top contender in the conference, or rather a middle-of-the-pack squad.
Justin Strings – Sacramento State Hornets
2015-16 Stats: 15.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.0 apg; 49.2% FG, 77.1% FT, 39.5% 3PT
Night in and night out over the course of the 2015-16 season, Justin Strings was arguably the best player on the court for the Sacramento State Hornets. As he prepares for his junior season, fans are excited about the potential of the program moving forwards with him at the forefront.
Strings made 21 starts over the course of the year, and all 21 came within the last 22 games of the year. He started 20 consecutive games to close out the year. His 15.5 points per contest were tops on the team.
He was a consistent scorer throughout the season. He scored in double-figures in 28 of the team’s 31 games, including 12 straight to end the year. He is a legitimate three point threat, hitting on 39.5% of his attempts from beyond the arc. His ability to step out and shoot the long ball or to take it inside allows for Strings to create opportunities for himself and his teammates.
In addition to his strong scoring touch, he has incredible ball security, rarely committing turnovers. Strings committed just 29 turnovers in 976 minutes, which equals one turnover every 33.7 minutes.
He played some of his best basketball in conference play, upping his average to 16.4 points and 7.7 rebounds against Big Sky opponents. If Strings can pick up where heft off last season, he’ll be in for an even bigger year in 2016-17.
Tai Odiase – Illinois-Chicago Flames
2015-16 Stats: 9.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 3.2 bpg; 50.0% FG, 47.5% FT
The top shot blocker in 2015-16 wasn’t Chris Boucher, Vashil Fernandez, or even Jameel Warney. Instead, it was the lesser-known Tai Odiase who topped the nation in rejections per contest.
As a sophomore, the 6’9” Odiase averaged 3.2 blocks per contest. He recorded 97 blocked shots on the season, which ranks second all-time at UIC. When all was said and done, Odiase was named to the Horizon League All-Defensive Team.
Odiase flirted with a triple-double on a pair of occasions in 2015-16. On January 14th against the Green Bay Phoenix, he recorded 12 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 blocks. Then, on February 13th against the Northern Kentucky Norse, he recorded 12 points, 8 rebounds, and 9 blocks.
On the defensive end is where Odiase stands out from the rest. He has a solid offensive game (9.6 ppg, 50% FG), but he’s known for his defensive prowess. In 2016-17, expect more of the same from Odiase near his own basket, while he continues to improve his scoring touch and all-around offensive game.
Josh Ibarra – Houston Baptist Huskies
2015-16 Stats: 10.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.0 apg, 1.4 bpg; 63.1% FG, 50.0% FT
The Southland Conference is full of big name talents and household names. One player who is underappreciated on a national scale, but more than worthy of your attention, is 6’10” Josh Ibarra of the Houston Baptist Huskies.
Ibarra had his 2015-16 season cut short, as he missed the team’s final 11 games. Before that, he was having himself a strong sophomore season that has led to a ton of optimism for his junior year in 2016-17.
Despite playing just 22.3 minutes per contest, Ibarra averaged 10.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per contest. He was third on the team in scoring, and first in rebounding. His field goal shooting of 63.1% was among the nation’s best.
One area of concern for Ibarra is his lack of free throws. He has only been to the free throw line 85 times over his two years in the NCAA. If he can draw some more fouls in the paint, and develop a more consistent free throw stroke (50.0% in ’15-16), he will become more of an impact player and lead the Huskies to the top of the conference.
Stephon Jelks – Mercer Bears
2015-16 Stats: 11.7 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.9 apg; 43.1% FG, 78.5% FT, 35.6% 3PT
Arguably the player with the brightest potential in the Southern Conference is Mercer forward Stephon Jelks. He was named to the All-Southern Conference team as a sophomore, and he’s only going to get better as his career progresses.
In 2015-16, Jelks averaged 11.9 points and 8.4 rebounds per contest, while shooting 43.1% from the field and 35.6% from three point range. He was the top rebounder in the conference, and he recorded double-digit rebound games on 13 occasions.
In four of those games, he recorded 15 or more rebounds.
While his point per game numbers won’t exactly blow you away, he was a steady force for the Bears. Jelks scored in double-figures 22 times, and recorded 10 double-doubles on the year.
Like Strings, Jelks has the shooting range that allows him to stretch the floor on offense. He can confidently shoot the three ball, and can hit with consistency. Jelks hit at least one three-pointer in 15 straight games, from December 5th to February 1st.
He did all of this while playing just 29.0 minutes per contest.
If his minutes increase in 2016-17, which there’s no reason why they shouldn’t, Jelks will put up bigger numbers, and the Bears will be a top contender to knock off the Chattanooga Mocs atop the conference.
Drick Bernstine – North Dakota Fighting Hawks
2015-16 Stats: 9.7 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 2.2 apg; 49.4% FG, 47.6% FT
Some of you may be asking, ‘who is Drick Bernstine?’ He’s a player that everyone should get familiar with, that’s who.
The transfer from Denver is one of the top rebounders in the Big Sky Conference, and the NCAA as a whole. His 9.1 rebounds per contest were the top mark in North Dakota history at the Division I level. In the Big Sky Tournament quarter-finals, Bernstine pulled down a North Dakota-record 21 rebounds against the Idaho State Bengals.
Oh, and he also added 14 points.
Bernstine is a top-tier rebounder, but he’s also an effective scorer. His 9.7 points per game were third on the team, behind only Quinton Hooker and Geno Grandall. He scored in double-figures 17 times, showing he’s got plenty more to offer than just rebounds.
With the core group of Hooker, Crandall, and Bernstine all back in a Fighting Hawks’ uniform in 2016-17, expect big things from the big man in the middle. A lot of attention will be on the guards, opening things up inside for Bernstine to go to work.
Ten More to Keep an Eye On:
Peyton Aldridge – Davidson Wildcats
Jalen Hayes – Oakland Golden Grizzlies
Justin Johnson – Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Earl Potts, Jr. – Fairleigh Dickinson Knights
Chris Cokley – UAB Blazers
Duby Okeke – Winthrop Eagles
Chaise Daniels – Quinnipiac Bobcats
Willie Rodriguez – Binghamton Bearcats
Marin Maric – Northern Illinois Huskies
Bogdan Bliznyuk – Eastern Washington Eagles
– T. Bennett