The thing about Florida forward Casey Prather delivering one of the most unexpected performances of the college basketball season to date is that, were it not for a multitude of misfortunes, his coach believes it would be completely expected.
“Going back to after his sophomore year, in the SEC Tournament and in the NCAA Tournament he was playing well,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said at a news conference. “It was good to see him close out his sophomore year on such a high note going into the offseason. Last year, he had to deal with two concussions. He got through that. Then he had a mid-foot sprain, we thought he had broken his foot, he was out for a while with that.
“This year he’s much freer mentally. His experiences here have served him well. He’s playing more to his own identity as a player. He’s not doing things offensively that are weaknesses for him, he’s playing to his strengths. That’s been a really good thing for us.”
Prather’s soaring senior season earns him recognition as one of the Most Surprising Players in the nation. Here, alphabetically, are the rest of the eye-openers:
Eric Atkins, Notre Dame
It’s not that Atkins has been unproductive. Far from it, as a four-year player and 1,000-point scorer. But it’s his ability to create for himself that bloomed into full view when best friend Jerian Grant was booted from school, as Atkins dropped 30 points on Canisius and then diced up Duke for 19 points and 11 assists in a season-reviving upset win for the Irish.
Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico
A senior revelation if ever there was one. The buildup of playing time was otherwise standard – 9.7 as a freshman, then 15.4, then 24.1, now 31.1 as a senior. But detonating for 20.4 points per game on 55.8 percent shooting after scoring less than 10 a game in 2012-13 is a stunner.
Tyler Ennis, Syracuse
One might expect the No. 22 recruit in the Class of 2013 to produce immediately. To produce nearly flawlessly while in complete command, though? Ennis’ most eye-grabbing numbers are 5.6 assists per game against just 1.2 turnovers, which he makes up for with 2.6 steals a night.
Dustin Hogue, Iowa State
Fellow transfer DeAndre Kane is a revelation in his own right, but he had a track record at Marshall. Hogue was but a second-team All-Region player at Indian Hills C.C. but immediately bolstered the Cyclones' frontline with 12.3 points and 9.6 rebounds per night to go with 57.7 percent shooting.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
From bit player benched for small mistakes during NCAA tournament games to 13.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game on 55.5 percent shooting, including a school-record 43-point outburst on Nov. 19 against North Dakota.
Marcus Paige, North Carolina
He needed to do something more, thanks to the off-court troubles of a couple teammates, but 17 points per game (up from 8.2) and 41 percent shooting (up from 35.6)? A quantum leap.
He has nearly tripled his scoring output from his junior to his senior year, going from 6.2 points in a bit role to 17 points per game and a stuffed stat sheet. Shooting 62.4 percent, snaring 5.5 rebounds per game, dishing out 2.1 assists.
Xavier Thames, San Diego State
An intriguing case of a player whose production rose, dipped, and now nearly exponentially jumped as a senior. Thames scored less as a junior than he did as a sophomore – just 9.5 points per game last year, actually -- but now he’s powering a top 25 team with 16.2 points per game and shooting 46 percent from long range.
Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
Maybe a simple case of a sophomore surge, but the 5-foot-11 guard’s minutes doubled and his production has nearly tripled, from 4.3 points to 12 points per game as he developed into a viable third option. For the Shockers, this has been positively ... wait for it ... good news.
Joseph Young, Oregon The 6-2 guard was very productive at Houston, yes, averaging 18 points per game in 2012-13. But that Young would be this good on a transfer-filled team this good is a bit of a eyebrow-raiser, as he leads the Ducks with 19.7 points per game on 53.1 percent shooting – hitting 43.4 percent of his three-point attempts to boot.