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Justin Champagnie and the Breakout Players Making Their Mark on the College Hoops Season

From Pitt's Champagnie to Rutgers's Ron Harper Jr., these standouts deserve more buzz for how they've risen their games in 2020–21.

We’re past the midway point of the men’s college basketball season. Sure, teams have played fewer games than usual. But given the compressed nature of the schedule and the fact that February is a few days away, it’s time to start believing some of what we’re seeing. Here are five much-improved players worth your time and attention the rest of the way, and who may have real roles to play in the big picture, even if they weren’t household names two months ago.

Justin Champagnie, Pittsburgh

It’s way past time to start talking about Champagnie, who’s gotten less credit than maybe any high-major player for his emergence as one of the best players in the country. Losses to Wake Forest and North Carolina in the past week have slowed Pitt’s national momentum a bit, but Champagnie is having a ridiculous season and carried his team to relevance, leaning on a unique skill set that opponents have been thus far unable to properly stop. Capably dominating gameflow without hijacking an offense—and doing it on a winning team—is star-quality stuff. Champagnie’s remarkable efficiency (61.6% true shooting), relentless work on both ends of the glass and timely shot blocking would have him squarely in the national player of the year discussion were he playing for a more prominent team. He should probably be part of it anyway.

Now averaging 20.2 points, 12.2 rebounds (3.4 on the offensive glass), 1.4 steals and 1.5 blocks while making 60% of his twos and 41% of his threes (on nearly four attempts per game), Champagnie’s stupidly good numbers speak for themselves. The list of major-conference players in the past 25 years to average 20 points, 12 rebounds, and more than a steal and a block per game includes Tim Duncan, Andrew Bogut, Michael Beasley, Blake Griffin and Champagnie, if he finishes the season at his current pace. That’s the list. What he’s doing deserves far more attention. It probably deserved an entire column, but I digress.

Pitt's Justin Champagnie reaches for a rebound

Champagnie’s dominance makes Pitt a legitimately dangerous team, even if its iffy shooting and inconsistent guard play ultimately holds it back. On a team that shoots just 32% from three, Champagnie’s clean-up work on the glass is a massive equalizer, thanks to an unusually quick burst off the floor and great instincts that compensate for his size. He looks comfortable catching and shooting the three, he can put the ball on the floor and attack closeouts, and he’s shown bits and pieces of playmaking and mid-range game while rarely turning the ball over.

Champagnie is still 19 years old and dominating like a senior. That trajectory almost certainly means he’s going to be playing in the NBA next season, regardless of his odd positional fit. He’s so good at so many things that smart teams will find a role for him. It’s almost nonsensical to look at what he’s doing and say he shouldn’t be part of the conversation for a first-round pick. So while it’s good to acknowledge what Jeff Capel is building at Pitt, also keep in mind that this might be the program’s best opportunity to make noise in March for at least a couple of years. And if Champagnie doesn’t get at least some real momentum for ACC Player of the Year, something’s wrong. We’ll see if the Panthers can string together some wins to help his case.

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Herbert Jones, Alabama

Jones was a holdover from the Avery Johnson era, and it feels like he’s been at Alabama forever. He received some way-too-early NBA hype (this author was among the guilty parties). His development stalled as a sophomore, but he quietly became a defensive standout last season and he has started to piece his skill set together on both sides of the ball in a real way this season. Alabama separated from the pack with a wildly impressive 9–0 start in the SEC under Nate Oats. The Crimson Tide play a balanced, fast style and rely on high-quality three-point shooters to carry the load. Jones has been a huge part of why it’s working so neatly.

The legitimacy of Jones’s all-around improvement is pretty clear by now, and it’s another player-development success story for Oats, who’s placed Alabama on the map for the foreseeable future. Jones ranks first or second among the team’s regulars in nearly every major statistical category, including field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks. The only exception is scoring, where he ranks third. He’s made 48% of his threes on 27 attempts—the most he’s ever attempted in a season—and his free throw clip is up to 80%, a massive development given he shot 49% from the line two years ago.

It would have seemed like a bit of a pipe dream two years that Jones might eventually be a critical piece of Alabama’s success on offense, but it’s happening. He’s always had great physical tools, with a long, 6' 8" frame that lets him disrupt the ball as a defender and guard different positions. After starting his career as a wing, he’s settled into more of a hybrid role that takes advantage of his passing skills. Jones can be a bit turnover-prone, but he’s second on the team with a 19.1% assist rate, and with the Tide relying less on the inconsistent Jahvon Quinerly, Jones is often the most capable passer on the floor, surrounded by quality shooters John Petty, Jaden Shackelford and Joshua Primo. He can drive and kick, play in ball screens, push in transition and defend the other team’s best player if needed. He’s been one of the best players in the SEC. The credit should be coming soon.

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Courtney Ramey, Texas

Texas wasn’t exactly a sleeper team coming into the season. Noting Shaka Smart’s recent history of mixed results, there was still a degree of skepticism surrounding its legitimacy as a Big 12 contender. The solution for the Longhorns was always going to be their experienced guards stepping up. Andrew Jones and Matt Coleman have both been solid, but it’s Ramey who’s shown the most significant growth, and who gives their group a crucial creative element as a scorer. Texas has won primarily with defense, and has allowed 80 points just once (and it was without Ramey and Jericho Sims when that happened, in Tuesday’s loss to Oklahoma). It has a habit of being a tad too stagnant on offense. That’s where Ramey’s development and continued success will be crucial as the postseason draws closer.

While Texas has talent at every position—and two future NBA players in Greg Brown and Kai Jones—it’s not an elite three-point shooting team, nor is it replete with guys who can create off the dribble. Although some regression may be coming, Ramey has made a career-best 45% of his threes this season and is averaging three more points per game on roughly the same number of attempts, with improved percentages across the board. Coleman has actually been a tad more efficient on whole, and is more central to the operation of the team, but he’s a ball-screen dependent player and a true point guard, and his role centers more on moving the ball and trying to bend defenses. Jones has been playing quite well of late, but he’s still a streaky shooter and has relied increasingly on launching threes.

When the ball rotates, it’s Ramey who has to do damage, with the ability to maneuver and score from tough spots using his dribble, as well as the newfound threat of his jump shot forcing defenses to pay attention. His true shooting percentage (57.5%) is up nine points from last season. It’s the type of improvement that can radically boost the type of balanced offense Texas runs. Ramey isn’t Texas’s best player or prospect, but what he brings to its attack, particularly with Jones and Brown being inconsistent contributors, might be essential to its hopes in March.

Miles McBride, West Virginia

After coming off the bench and providing a spark on various occasions as a freshman, McBride has emerged as one of the better players in a Big 12 that’s loaded with quality guards. West Virginia’s turnover issues were glaring the past couple of seasons. When your style revolves around applying heavy pressure to create extra possessions with your defense, you can ill afford to just hand them back over. McBride’s reliability on that front while taking over a heavy-minute starting role has been a salve for the Mountaineers’ attack. He’s averaging 15.9 points and has elevated his three-point clip to 47.3% on nearly four attempts per game after a recent red-hot stretch in conference play.

Equally important: McBride’s 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio has been respectable, and his 25.3% assist rate and 13.9% turnover rate are better indicators of how good he’s been within the context of the team. His ability to knock down shots off the dribble gives West Virginia a viable late-clock scoring valve. He has a habit of settling for too many jumpers, but a shot attempt is always better than a turnover, and he’s managed to be efficient with what he’s getting. McBride has always been a pesky, physical defender. But the only real pathway for his team to make a leap on offense, given the lack of viable guards on the roster, was through his maturation, and the Mountaineers have proven exceptionally tough to put away.

The other factor to note here is that McBride might be back for another year— he’s viewed by the NBA as a more marginal prospect right now, and will eventually need to shore up his shot selection and prove he can get to the rim more often. McBride is a steady ballhandler now, but he’s still not a naturally creative player, and the bar to clear as a potential NBA bench guy is still pretty high. His defense and toughness will help his case. But if he’s back at West Virginia next year, there’s a real chance for that group to build on what’s already happening.

Rutgers forward Ron Harper Jr.

Ron Harper Jr., Rutgers

It’s taken Harper a couple of years to put it together, but he’s emerged as a unique talent in college basketball, averaging 18.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, shooting 40.2% from three-point range and effectively quarterbacking Rutgers from a frontcourt position, which you don’t see often at the college level. Harper hasn’t garnered many headlines outside of New Jersey, but upon close watch, he’s one of the headiest players you’ll find, offering direction to teammates, making quick decisions, and facilitating ball movement. His miniscule 4.1% turnover rate is pretty remarkable. You’d think Harper’s heavy frame would be better suited to playing inside, but it’s his perimeter skill set and ability to function efficiently that shines, and has begun to catch the attention of the NBA.

Despite entering college with minimal fanfare, Harper has become the centerpiece of Rutgers’s return to relevance under Steve Pikiell. He was off the radar as a recruit, despite his father being a well-established former NBA player. While the Scarlet Knights have dropped six of their last eight, partially because the Big Ten is unforgiving, it’s been concurrent with opposing teams starting to key in on limiting Harper’s easy three-point attempts. When he’s shooting it with confidence, Rutgers has the extra offensive firepower to hang with most opponents—Harper has made three or more three-pointers in six different games, including a win over Illinois and a narrow loss to Iowa. When he’s not getting easy looks at the basket, his impact can be much more subtle.

Rutgers still has a real opportunity to make the tournament, with a winnable slate of games to finish the season and two huge résumé opportunities at Iowa and Michigan. Figuring out how to utilize Harper more creatively should be a focus for the Scarlet Knights moving forward. But he’s still just 20 years old. His emergence is legit and if he opts to return for his senior year, Harper should get more credit as one of the best players in the conference.