Last season, UL Lafayette won a terrific Sun Belt championship game in overtime against Georgia State. It was the conclusion of a great season, and at the nerve center of it all was Shawn Long, doing what he did quite often.
In that championship game, the junior had 11 points and 14 rebounds – not quite career numbers, but another day at the office. He was the only player in the conference to average a double-double last season. For good measure, he’s one of just two players in the entire country to average a double-double each of the past two seasons. He could go 4-for-4 in that regard.
A big reason why Long is a solid pick as the best player no one knows about is that he is under-exposed in more ways than one. Besides playing in the Sun Belt Conference, where the best players are usually hidden from the casual fan, Long plays second fiddle even within the conference. The Sun Belt is also home to R.J. Hunter, an All-America candidate at Georgia State. Hunter, the son of Panther head coach Ron Hunter, is widely acknowledged as the best player in the conference. Long is right behind him, but overshadowed by him as well.
Here are a dozen more players who are also hidden gems.
D.J. Balantine, Jr. G, Evansville The nation’s third-leading returning scorer, he made a big jump last year after a promising freshman season. Part of why he went from 8.1 to 22.8 points per game was shooting the ball much better, including nearly 40 percent from long range.
Malcolm Brogdon, Jr. G, Virginia Sure, those who follow the ACC know a little about him. But Joe Harris understandably got a lot of the pub last year, even though Brogdon had a lot to do with the Cavs winning the regular season and tournament titles.
John Brown, Jr. F, High Point The reigning Big South Player of the Year is back and ready to be even better after leading them to the NIT last season.
Julius Brown, Sr. G, Toledo He makes the Rockets go, leading them in scoring and assists last season while leading a balanced team to 27 wins. For good measure, his assist-to-turnover ratio was better than 2.1 as well.
Buddy Hield, Jr. G, Oklahoma Perhaps no one epitomizes the Sooners like Hield. The Sooners are a sleeper team nationally this year, and Hield doesn’t get much pub but is a big reason why.
D.J. Newbill, Sr. G, Penn State Not only is he overshadowed by those on better teams in the Big Ten, but he was overshadowed by Tim Frazier. He’ll carry the Nittany Lions this year now that Frazier is gone.
Jon Severe, So. G, Fordham The Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year played for the conference’s worst team and during a historic year, so he’s hidden away. But he’s a big part of why there’s a little more optimism in the Bronx these days.
Keifer Sykes, Sr. G, Green Bay Big man Alec Brown is gone, so Sykes is the star that remains. The reigning Horizon League Player of the Year averaged over 20 points and just under five assists a game last season.
Marcus Thornton, Sr. G, William & Mary The CAA’s Preseason Player of the Year has steadily grown into the star he is now for a team that barely gets any exposure. If he can lead them to the NCAA Tournament, which he almost did last season, he’ll be that much less of a secret.
Jalan West, Jr. G, Northwestern State The reigning Southland Conference Defensive Player of the Year, he’s also the second-leading returning scorer in the conference and paced the Southland in assists last season as well.
Alan Williams, Sr. C, UC Santa Barbara The only player in the country besides Long to average a double-double each of the past two seasons, last year he led the Big West in scoring and led the country in rebounding.
Steve Zack, Sr. C, La Salle Quick, who led the Atlantic 10 in rebounding last season, in the conference’s best season ever? It was Zack, whose team struggled a year after reaching the NCAA Tournament. He’s one guy John Giannini can hang his hat on up front.