Some of college basketball’s smallest players are putting up some of its biggest numbers.
One of the funkier quirks of a season full of them is that four of the country’s top five scorers entering Friday’s games were 6 feet tall or shorter. At 5-foot-11, Howard guard James Daniel led the way with 27.9 points per game, followed by 5-foot-9 Oakland star Kahlil Felder (25.3), 6-foot Davidson standout Jack Gibbs (24.8) and Stefan Moody, all of 5-10, of Ole Miss (24.3).
The only player in the top 10 of the scoring race who’s taller than 6-3 is Oklahoma star Buddy Hield, with 25.9 points per game.
“You’ve got to be a special player to be under 6 feet tall and excel at this level. You’ve got to have an explosiveness to your game,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “For us, we’re not overly concerned with if you’re 5-10, 6-0 or 6-1. It’s really your package and the skill set you bring.”
For Daniels and the Bison, scoring in bunches has become a necessity.
Howard lost star James Carlton before the season, and three different starters have gone through injury issues. That left the Bison to lean on Daniel — nicknamed “J-Byrd” by teammates — and he hasn’t disappointed.
Daniel is averaging a staggering 19.7 shots a game, but shooting a respectable 40 percent and 34.7 percent on 3-pointers. Daniel has also excelled in getting to the line, where he shoots 86.1 percent.
Daniel said he’s encouraged to attack the basket more than ever, thanks to rule changes designed to free up movement in the paint combined with the respect opponents have to give him on the 3-point line.
“It has made getting to the free throw line easier,” Daniel said. “Getting to the free throw line early (in the shot clock is key). The 3 is always there.”
If Daniel keeps it up, he could end up with the best scoring average since BYU’s Jimmer Fredette — another shorter guard at 6-3 — averaged 28.9 points in 2010-11.
Felder and Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer were the only players from outside a major league on the 20-man watch list for the Oscar Robertson Trophy, given to the nation’s top player.
Michigan State and the rest of the country learned in December that Felder can play with anyone.
Felder torched the Spartans — who were ranked No. 1 at the time — for 37 points and nine assists, helping Oakland take Michigan State to OT before losing 99-93.
“Felder looked like one of the best players I’ve ever seen here,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said after that game about Felder, who is also the nation’s leader with 8.9 assists per game.
What Gibbs has done as a junior is due largely to opportunity and improvement.
Gibbs battled injuries and inexperience his freshman year. He broke through as a sophomore, scoring 16.2 points per game, and this season he’s blossomed.
Gibbs’ 3-point percentage has dipped this season, but he’s taking far more shots and 3-pointers than ever before. He’s attempting more than 18 shots per game and eight 3-pointers per game, shooting 44.7 percent overall and 34.8 percent on 3s. He’s also first in the A-10 with 5.3 assists per game.
If that wasn’t enough, Gibbs is pulling down 4.4 boards a night despite standing just six feet tall.
“He’s a very good shooter as well as a scorer. He has terrific touch around the rim,” said Davidson coach Bob McKillop, who also coached Golden State Warriors star and fellow shorter guard Steph Curry. “He’s strong and powerful and can get to the foul line.”
Moody is the only player from a major conference on the list, as bigger schools typically shy away from smaller players. But even Moody had to start out at lower-level Florida Atlantic before landing with Ole Miss, where he’s spearheaded a team that started just 2-5 in the SEC.
Daniel, Felder and Gibbs and Moody could all use a little more help from their teammates. As of now, none of them will reach the NCAA Tournament unless they carry their teams to league tournament titles.
But they’ve all shown through their brilliant play this season that height can be hugely overrated when it comes to putting up stats.
“Always,” Daniel said when asked he plays with a chip on his shoulder after being overlooked during recruiting because of his size. “Every game, you have to play like it’s everything.”