When teams from low-major conferences are looking for big men to fill out the roster, they often have to settle on some overlooked tall guy with the hopes of molding him into a forceful frontcourt player. Some never pan out, and others simply become solid role players. But every now and then a team will strike gold with such a player. Jason Thompson from Rider, Kenneth Faried from Morehead State, and Keith Benson from Oakland all come to mind as recent examples. It took each of them all four years to develop into NBA draft picks, but eventually they reached that level despite playing in weaker conferences where national exposure is limited.
While he's unlikely to follow those guys into the NBA ranks, Norfolk State's Kyle O'Quinn fills the bill as a unheralded big man. Actually, unheralded might be too friendly a word. His NSU Spartans compete in the MEAC, a league that's perennially ranked among the lowest performers in all of Division I. When Drew Cannon named his top 100 players in D-I this offseason, not a single individual from the MEAC was included. That's not necessarily a big surprise -- the conference's player of the year last season scored a bunch of points but did so as a high-volume player who shot rather terribly from the field. That's the case with a lot of the conference's top scorers, but not Kyle O'Quinn.
The Norfolk State center is the rare big man who actually gets better the more involved he is in the offense. In each of his three seasons with the Spartans, O'Quinn's offensive rating has increased steadily alongside his usage rate. As a junior in 2010-11, he finished with a 115 offensive rating while using about 23 percent of available possessions. Despite the increased role on offense, his turnover rate actually decreased from 20 percent as a sophomore to 16 percent in his junior campaign. Furthermore O'Quinn's free throw rate also increased dramatically last year. At 6-10 and 240 pounds, he stood out as one of the MEAC's most imposing players, and opposing teams often had no recourse but to foul him. He proved reliable at the charity stripe, too, connecting on 76 percent of his free throws.
O'Quinn's offensive improvement led to him being relied upon for longer stretches of games. While playing about 81 percent of available minutes, the Spartan improved on both his offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding rates. His 26 percent mark on the defensive glass stood out as the 14th best mark in the country. He also emerged as the MEAC's best defender, swatting away shots at an 11 percent clip.
Given the leaps he has taken in each of his years, O'Quinn stands to have a monster senior year. That is, unless the other teams in the MEAC have already figured out how to stop him. As conference play wore on last year, O'Quinn's offensive rating took a turn for the worse. This phenomenon is depicted in the following chart. First seen by SI.com's Luke Winn in a discussion on All-American candidates, a similar five-game running average of offensive rating is used here to show O'Quinn's season-long trend.
O'Quinn had a series of paltry performances against non-conference opponents at the beginning of the season (perhaps the lack of a breakout game or two against superior opponents is another reason why he has thus far gone overlooked). Once his team started MEAC play, though, the center began to look rather mighty on the offensive end. He trended upward until the halfway point of the conference season when all of a sudden he came back down to earth. After getting torched by the big Spartan early on, opponents started to game plan to limit his effectiveness in the return games. As the graph shows, opposing teams were largely successful in accomplishing this task, particularly during the MEAC tournament where O'Quinn struggled mightily.
For O'Quinn to truly dominate on the offensive end this season, he'll need to overcome the double coverage that is sure to come his way. This season double-teams will occur on a nightly basis rather than only during the second half of the year. In 2010-11, that increased defensive attention led to a slight increase in his turnover rate as the season wore on, while his assist rate remained stagnant. For O'Quinn to remain effective it would be helpful if he could continue to improve his passing out of double teams.
Though O'Quinn's potential for a breakout season on the offensive end is slightly tempered by the fact that he's likely to face extra coverage, there's little doubt about his defensive might. Because he has improved in each season he's played, it's not unreasonable to think O'Quinn could develop into one of the nation's top rebounders and shot blockers as a senior. The MEAC would benefit greatly from such an emergence. The league has been known in recent years for its top team (Morgan State) rather than for an individual player, but sometimes -- as was the case with Thompson, Faried, Benson, and others -- a low-major conference can receive an exposure boost thanks to a single dominant star.
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