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Meet James Daniel, college basketball's unlikely, undersized leading scorer

In a season where nothing has gone according to script, it's only right that the player scoring more points than anyone else is an undersized guard whom most fans have never heard of.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

With less than a month to go in college basketball's regular season, a glance at the national scoring leader race hits most fans with a handful of familiar names.

There's Buddy Hield, the runaway favorite to win national Player of the Year, sitting at No. 2 with an average of 25.7 points per game. Well-known non-power conference stars Jack Gibbs of Davidson (24.6 ppg) and Kahlil Felder of Oakland (24.6 ppg) are just behind him. Anthony "Cat" Barber from NC State (23.5 ppg) and Stefan Moody from Ole Miss (23.3 ppg) are also right there near the top.

But what about the guy with a firm grip on the top spot?

James Daniel has a boring name, he is, by basketball standards, a boring size (5'11, 165-pounds) and he plays for a Howard program which hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1992. He's also on pace to average more points in a season than any Division I player since Jimmer Fredette in 2010-11.

This wasn't supposed to happen for Daniel, who enters the weekend pouring in 27.4 points per contest. A season ago, he averaged a solid, but not spectacular 16.1 ppg while playing more of a traditional point guard role for the Bison. He knew he'd be asked to do more scoring in a junior season, but a rash of injuries to his teammates left Daniel -- who also goes by "J-Byrd" -- shouldering more of the offensive load than he could have ever imagined.

"I knew I'd have a scoring responsibility, that it would go up, but I didn't expect this," Daniel said in December. "You have to always stay aggressive and be a threat," Daniel said. "But it's also little things like knowing your personnel and knowing how to set screens up. Most of all, though, you have to capitalize on open shots -- all open shots."

Daniel says he's never been bashful on the basketball court, but injuries to teammates James Miller and Marcel Boyd have left him hoisting shots at an absurd rate. He's averaging just shy of 20 field goal attempts per game, and though he's only a 33.7 percent 3-point shooter, he's still letting an average of 8.4 shots fly from beyond the arc every game.

All this has left Daniel garnering some national attention for his sparkling points-per-game average, but it has also generated some heavy criticism from people who follow Howard basketball closely.

"Early in the year, it was ‘you're the greatest thing since sliced bread,'" Howard coach Kevin Nickelberry said. "Now it's ‘you take so many bad shots.' But it's necessary for us to be competitive in any game. He's like Allen Iverson. You know, the old school guys sit in the stands, ‘he's taking too many shots, he's doing this and that.' But the young kids come in and get excited, because he's so fast, he jumps so high on his three."

Though Howard is just 10-14 overall and currently in seventh place in the MEAC, Daniel's play and his pursuit of the national scoring title has provided the campus with an extra jolt of energy. Nickelberry says both home attendance and recruiting are on the uptick at Howard, and that it's largely because of his star guard, who hasn't scored fewer than 18 points in a game this season.

Even with the Bison currently riding a four-game losing streak, Nickelberry believes his program is headed in the right direction, and that the national headlines that Daniel is producing does wonders for everyone in the Howard community.

"We need this. The athletic program needs for basketball to be successful," Nickelberry said. "We've taken the jump, but getting in the Tournament, getting in the postseason validates it."

The postseason seems like a bit of a long shot for Howard at the moment, but the MEAC Tournament -- much like this season of college basketball -- is defined by its unpredictability as much as anything else. When you have the nation's leading scorer wearing your jersey, you've always got a shot.