Northern Iowa guard A.J. Green is the best player you’ve never heard of. He’s the best guard no one is talking about, but very soon, every college basketball fan will know about Green.
Green is lighting up the scoreboard and UNI is rising in the national polls. The Panthers (16-2, 5-1 in the Missouri Valley Conference) are receiving votes the AP Top 25 and they are fourth in our latest The Other Top 25 rankings.
Missouri Valley fans probably saw it coming, but nationally people have gone to sleep on this elite-level guard. He was a top-100 recruit in high school, where he won a state championship and was a three-time All-State selection.
The Cedar Falls, Iowa native was recruited by numerous high majors, but turned them down to stay home to play for the Panthers and his father Kyle Green, who is the Associate Head Coach on Ben Jacobson’s staff. A.J. has been around and has loved the program and coaching staff for years.
Last year, Green was the Valley’s Freshman of the Year and averaged 15.1 PPG. He topped the 20-point mark ten times. After a dismal first seven games this season, Green has become arguably the best guard no one is talking about nationally and perhaps the in the best true sophomore in college basketball.
The 6’4 guard has reached the 20-point mark in nine of his last 11 games and is averaging 25.8 points per Missouri Valley game. Since those opening seven games, he is converting 47% of his shots from deep — and we mean deep.
The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier’s UNI beat writer Nick Petaros says Green has made a shot from “every logo in the Valley.” While his range is limitless, teams fear guarding him too aggressively. He’s making 93% of his free throws. Green hasn’t missed any of his 32 attempts during Valley play — in fact, he converted 19 of his final 20 in league play last season, meaning Valley teams have seen him make 51 of his last 52 free throw attempts.
While not a point guard, Green is handing out three assists per game
Northern Iowa is surging. As usual, Jacobson’s teams are good at shooting threes and playing stingy defense, but this is UNI’s highest scoring team this century. This is the fourth time in 20 years that UNI has averaged over 70 PPG and so far, they are racking up 77.4 per contest.
Jacobson is utilizing a more European offensive style to maximize his team’s strengths and to utilize Green’s multi-faceted game. The 6’4 Green added muscle to his freshman frame and worked on his ball-handling during the offseason. He can now drive through contact, create his own shot and those added elements make him an intimidating offensive force.
When asked how to defend Green, Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said “You start with prayer.”
Apparently, Lansing prayed well, as the Sycamores held Green to conference-game low 15 points.
His leadership and competitiveness are second-to-none. He is one of those proverbial gym rats. His reputation for getting in the gym is legendary throughout the state. Even as a prep player, he was known as a guy that never left the gym.
Head coach Ben Jacobson told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier that Green is an extremely hard worker.
“It’s a unique deal,” Jacobson said. “He works so hard. I’m not surprised by any of it because of how hard he works.”
Rising to the Occasion
During a recent showdown with the Valley’s other outstanding sophomore guard (Valparaiso’s Javon Freeman-Liberty), Green responded by scoring 29 points in a back-and-forth contest. Coach Jacobson said there was something different about Green’s approach.
“Protecting the home court was big for him,” Jacobson said to the WCF Courier. “I think you could feel that starting in the second half. It got to the point where [he was thinking] ‘Man, I don’t want to lose at home. We’re going to protect our home court.’”
Green shines at the right time. During the Panthers’ three-point win over nationally ranked Colorado, he scored 20 points and sealed the victory with a late free throw. Against South Carolina, the sophomore tallied 26 points, with nine of them coming during the game’s final four minutes. In a first-place battle with Bradley, he racked up a career-high 35 points.
After the Colorado game, Jacobson said it was fun to watch his team perform in a high-level game and in particular to see Green hit a key three late in the contest.
“A.J. made a three right out of a time out right in front of our bench,” Jacobson said. “It’s fun to watch your players make big time plays in big time situations against a top 25 team.”
Green has grown into a dominant Missouri Valley Conference player. During his outstanding freshman season, he found he had room to grow.
“I found out you’ve got to bring it every night,” he said. “Anything can happen. I had to improve my ability to score at all three levels and learn to make the right [offensive] reads every time so that my teammates are more involved.”
His overall scoring average of 19.7 PPG is 30th nationally. Green is one of just eight Division 1 players averaging better than 25 points per conference game; Marquette’s Markus Howard leads that list at 31.7 PPG and Green is fifth.
He’s not on national television every night, and he isn’t a higlight reel player, but A.J. Green might be the best player no one is talking about. Yet.