Auburn’s Jabari Smith and SMU’s Kendric Davis are rising in our college basketball player rankings at The DPI Gradebook.
Happy New Year from The DPI Gradebook! Now that we’ve officially made it to the other side of 2021, let’s check in on our Gold Star Guide college basketball regional races.
Obviously, we’ve been missing a lot of games these days. The Omicron variant is playing hell on the season, and there’s not a clear end in sight for the smattering of cancellations and postponements. Perhaps testing and quarantine protocols will adapt over time in an effort to salvage as much of the season as possible.
There are already a few Chicken Littles out there foretelling of fallen skies, but we aren’t quite there yet. Regardless of what the future might hold, there is still basketball being played all over the country. And as long as that remains the case, we will be here to break it all down.
So sit back, relax, and enjoy what we do have.
As a reminder, we will be providing regular updates on the Gold Star race in the form of regional coverage. Below are the top 10 players from each region, as well as the five best individual performances to date from each of the country’s four quadrants.
For the uninitiated, the four Heat Check CBB regions are:
Heat Check CBB Northeast
- 82 total schools
- States represented: N.Y., Pa., Md., Mass., N.J., Conn., D.C., R.I., Del., N.H., Maine, Vt.
- Conferences represented: AEC, AAC, A10, ACC, Big East, Big Ten, CAA, Horizon, Ivy, MAC, MAAC, MEAC, NEC, Patriot
Heat Check CBB Southeast
- 118 total schools
- States represented: N.C., Va., Fla., La., S.C., Tenn., Ala., Ky., Ga., Miss., Ark., W.Va.
- Conferences represented: AAC, A10, ACC, ASUN, Big South, CAA, CUSA, Horizon, MEAC, OVC, SEC, SoCon, Southland, Sun Belt, SWAC
Heat Check CBB Midwest
- 72 total schools
- States represented: Ill., Ohio, Ind., Mich., Mo., Iowa, Wis., Okla., Kan., Neb., Minn., N.D., S.D.
- Conferences represented: AAC, A10, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Horizon, MAC, MVC, OVC, Summit, WAC
Heat Check CBB West
- 86 total schools
- States represented: Calif., Texas, Utah, Colo., Wash., Ariz., Ore., Idaho, Mont., N.M., Nev., Hawaii, Wyo.
- Conferences represented: AAC, B12, BSKY, BW, CUSA, MWC, P12, SEC, SL, SUM, SB, SWAC, WAC, WCC
For more information on the Gold Star Guide, read up on our explainer here.
Got it? Good. Let’s boogie.
We’ll start out in the Northeast, where we’re giving a pair of Philly-based teammates some brotherly love.
Northeast Spotlight Players: Jordan Hall & Taylor Funk
Following an 83-56 beatdown of Richmond in the Hawks’ A-10 opener, both Hall and Funk show up in the Northeast Region top 10 this week. Hall, a 6-7 point guard with real NBA potential, nearly went for a triple-double with 13 points, eight assists and eight rebounds against the Spiders. Funk, meanwhile, had 18 points and seven rebounds in the win. Hall is one of the top point guards at the country, currently holding the 12th-best assist rate in the land. Meanwhile, Funk is one of the nation’s better shooters at his size (6-8, 215 pounds), and his 66.7 true shooting percentage is a top-50 mark. This tandem will continue to cause problems for A-10 opponents.
The Friars are surging right now, and one of the major differences between this year and last season is the play of Noah Horchler. He is not Providence’s best player — that distinction still lies with Nate Watson — but Horchler has been incredibly important for the team. In truth, the 6-8 shooter actually started coming along at the end of last year, when he entered Ed Cooley’s starting lineup for the final nine games of the season. As seen in Providence’s win over Seton Hall, though, Horchler has improved on both ends of the floor in 2021-22. The former North Florida star has turned into a solid interior defender, and the shots are falling. That dog will hunt.
Southeast Spotlight Player: Jabari Smith
Auburn is quickly rising up the ranks as one of the best teams in the country, and while big man Walker Kessler might be the popular Tiger du jour, Smith has been a major catalyst behind the success. While guys like Paolo Banchero and Chet Holmgren will likely be drafted ahead of him, no freshman in the country is rated higher than Smith in the Gold Star Guide through the end of 2021. Auburn was supposed to struggle out the gates with the loss of Allen Flanigan, but Smith helped keep things afloat in the wing’s absence. Now that the team is at full strength, there is no telling just how high they might fly. Could Smith steal Freshman of the Year?
Southeast Spotlight Game: Jake Stephens vs. Wofford
Here at Heat Check CBB, one of our catchphrases is “We love a good middie.” Well, Stephens absolutely makes that list. One of the better mid-major players in the country that no one talks about, Stephens is a 6-10 sharpshooter who has improved in each of his four seasons at VMI. His skills were on full display against Wofford, as he went 9-of-9 on 2-pointers and 2-of-4 from beyond the arc, adding 12 rebounds and six assists. Stephens has always had a green light from downtown, but he is making the most of it this year. After shooting 33 percent on 3-pointers through his first three seasons, Stephens is hitting triples at a 43 percent clip in 2021-22.
Midwest Spotlight Player: E.J. Liddell
Ohio State hasn’t played in a while, but don’t let that take away from what Liddell has done to this point. At a usage rate nearing 35 percent, the Buckeye star has remained incredibly efficient. He has also helped the team out in just about every way other than scoring. Offensive boards, assists, blocks — you name it, E.J. probably does it. The last time we saw him was on Dec. 11, when he was dropping 28 points and nine boards on Wisconsin in an 18-point win. Especially considering the unceremonious way that last season ended, Liddell’s high-level performance in 2021-22 has been very fun to watch. He will likely be in contention for NPOY honors.
Southeast Spotlight Game: David Jones vs. Louisville
This one isn’t the freshest game, but it’s the most recent one in the Midwest top 5 right now. It also perfectly highlights just how import Deivi Jones is to DePaul. With him — and his herculean efforts — the Blue Demons knocked off Louisville on the road as part of a 9-1 start. However, when the team returned from a COVID pause without their sophomore forward, the result was a loss to Butler in their Big East opener. In his absence, DePaul went smaller and started 6-0 Jalen Terry. When they tried to go bigger, Yor Anei picked up four fouls and three turnovers in 12 minutes. Can DePaul regain their momentum once Jones finally returns to the lineup?
West Spotlight Player: Kendric Davis
There was a decent amount of buzz around SMU this offseason because of all the talent Tim Jankovich pulled from the transfer portal. However, all of those additions were simply complementary pieces to the Mustangs’ main star: Kendric Davis. Through 13 games, Davis has an assist rate well over 30 percent and is one of the best in the country at getting to the line (52.7 free throw rate) and converting from the stripe (88.8 percent). Losses to Oregon, Missouri and Loyola Marymount may preclude an at-large bid, but SMU has one of the top offenses in the American — and Davis is at the helm. A strong showing in the AAC could put SMU on the bubble.
Northeast Spotlight Game: Blaze Nield vs. Abilene Christian
Just before the end of the year, we finally got a new top-5 game out in the West Region thanks to Blaze Nield. The Utah Valley point guard has been solid for Mark Madsen and the Wolverines, but he often takes a backseat to teammate and rebounder extraordinaire Fardaws Aimaq. Against ACU, though, Nield was the star. Though UVU did not come away with the win, Nield notched career-highs in points, assists and rebounds — nearly registering a triple-double against one of the WAC’s best defenses. The former BYU guard was 7-of-9 from downtown and also showed out on defense, adding a block and two steals in the Wolverines’ WAC opener.