Most college basketball entities that give away national postseason awards don't hand out "breakout" or "surprise" player awards. In a sport with thousands of players spanned across more than 360 teams, however, there would no shortage of excellent candidates.
Just a month into the 2022-23 season, several players have already emerged on the national scene by exceeding preseason expectations. Last season, players like Iowa forward Keegan Murray and Wisconsin guard Johnny Davis broke out as stars in the first several weeks of the season. They proved capable of maintaining their high-level play and wound up as NBA Draft lottery picks.
While no multi-year college players have emerged quite to that degree this season, many are thriving in increased roles for quality teams. Can they can sustain it over the long haul like Davis and Murray did? Time will tell.
For now, our writers are using this week's Dribble Handoff to name their most surprising players.
Ricky Council, G, Arkansas
I always assumed Council would be good. I knew the staff was excited about his enrollment. But it's simply not common for somebody to transfer to a better league and better program and be significantly better, which is why Council has been one of the sport's biggest surprises. The 6-foot-6 guard averaged 12.0 points on 43.7% shooting from the field last season for a Wichita State team that finished 6-9 in the American Athletic Conference; now, he's now averaging 19.2 points while shooting 52.6% from the field for a 9-1 Arkansas team that's ranked seventh in the CBS Sports Top 25 And 1.
Council is actually leading the SEC in scoring. How unexpected is this?
So unexpected that even though had two Arkansas players on our preseason list of the Top 100 And 1 college basketball players (No. 13 Nick Smith and No. 44 Anthony Black), Council was nowhere to be found. That's looking like a miss, especially if Council leads the Razorbacks to their first Final Four since 1995. -- Gary Parrish
Jalen Pickett, G, Penn State
I don't know if Penn State is going to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, but Pickett will be among the biggest reasons if it does. The former Siena Saint was a buzzy transfer candidate in the spring of 2021 after he left the MAAC. At PSU last season, he played 37 minutes a night but shot 42.0% from the field and averaged a solid 13.3 points. This season, he's popped. Pickett ranks top 10 in KenPom's player of the year algorithm thanks to averages of 16.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.5 assists; he is the only player in the country averaging 16/7/7. He's been too good to be labeled a breakout player, but it's fair to say it's surprising just how good he's been through the first six weeks. If you normally aren't inclined to tune into PSU games, I'd change that. Pickett is worth the price of a ticket. -- Matt Norlander
Oumar Ballo, C, Arizona
To see Arizona big man Oumar Ballo develop into a bonafide star is, itself, no surprise. Four-star recruits frequently blossom into college stars, and he was a consensus top-80 talent in the Class of 2019 out of the NBA Academy. The way in which he has gotten here certainly has been, however.
Ballo signed with Gonzaga initially and took time getting comfortable. After redshirting, he played sparingly in 2020-21, averaging 6.3 minutes and 2.5 points per game. When Tommy Lloyd got the Arizona job, Ballo followed him to the desert. Even that didn't totally change his production profile. Last season, he played in a career-high 37 games and averaged a respectable 6.8 points in the rotation, but was still mostly just another guy in the mix.
But this year? Ballo's blossomed into a beast down low. He's started every game and is averaging 18.1 points and 9.4 boards per game for the 9-1 Wildcats. That puts him third among all Pac-12 players in points per game and first among all Pac-12 players in rebounds per game. And his 74.7% field goal percentage ranks first among players in the conference and top-20 nationally across all conferences. The Wildcats have the No. 1 offense in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency metrics and rate No. 1 in effective field goal percentage this season, building themselves a true contender behind one of the most surprising breakout stars of the sport in Ballo. -- Kyle Boone
Kam Jones, G, Marquette
Marquette made the 2022 NCAA Tournament in coach Shaka Smart's first season, but it was no given that it would maintain the momentum in 2022-23. With leading scorers Justin Lewis and Darryl Morsell departing after combining for 30.2 points per game, and no big-name transfers entering to replace that production, it was going to be on a crop of returners to pop. Several have answered the bell, but Jones stands out because of his offensive production. Through 11 games, he's more than doubled his scoring from last season with a team-high 16.4 points per game. The 6-foot-4 guard has been at his best in some of Marquette's biggest games, scoring 20 in a win over Baylor, 26 in a loss to Wisconsin and 25 in a win over Notre Dame.
Though Jones signed to play for Smart's predecessor, Steve Wojciechowski, he's proved to be an excellent fit for Smart's system. In an era when players often bolt over coaching changes, Jones and Smart are showing that it doesn't have to be that way. -- David Cobb