Player of the year awards are tricky because they’re rarely chosen based on widely understood and agreed-upon criteria. Even MVP awards that are supposed to go to, you know, the most valuable player don’t always work out that way. (If they did, Adrian Peterson would have something like 47 NFL MVPs right now.) Some voters place an emphasis on stats, some place an emphasis on team success, some just automatically give it to the best player on the best team, and some try to send some sort of message by voting for a guy they know has no chance of winning. And then there are those who vote for players because they can’t get the names straight.
(This is in no way related to something as boneheaded as messing up a guy’s first name, but I want to get it off my chest anyway: In last week’s Dunk All-Stars post, I referred to Virginia’s Justin Anderson as “Josh Anderson.” I offer my sincerest apologies to Virginia fans and, most important, Jason Anderson. I still have no idea how it happened.)
There are many valid ways of approaching POY voting, but I’ve always believed in treating it like an MVP award. Guys who have to bring their A-games every night for their teams to win mean more to me than gaudy statistics. So I assembled this list of the Conference Player of the Year All-Stars by choosing players whose teams would be so bad without them that their fans would react like Nancy Kerrigan after she was attacked.
SEC: Scottie Wilbekin (Florida)
This might feel like a “best player on the best team” pick, but anybody who has followed Florida this season knows the Gators wouldn’t be ranked first in the country and riding a 22-game winning streak without Wilbekin. You might remember Billy Donovan suspending Wilbekin at the start of the season for “violating team rules,” something Donovan also did last year. At the time, Florida was dealing with illnesses, injuries, and eligibility issues, so Wilbekin’s suspension from a team that was already shorthanded frustrated Gator fans to no end. It could have been a bad omen — an indication of a long season full of inconsistency and off-court issues for Wilbekin and the Gators.
Instead, the suspension turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Wilbekin got his act together off the court and he has had a phenomenal season since returning to the team. He leads the Gators in assists, he’s third in scoring, he’s one of just two Florida players (Michael Frazier being the other) who can consistently knock down 3-pointers, and he has a knack for stepping up in Florida’s biggest games. Most important, Wilbekin is a defensive stud. He’s leading Florida with 1.5 steals per game, good enough for sixth in the SEC. And his defensive presence goes beyond statistics. Wilbekin’s job in Florida’s defense is to make ball handlers uncomfortable and force them to make rushed decisions. Sometimes this leads to Wilbekin stealing the ball, but just as often it leads to a bad pass that another Gator steals (or a pass that goes out of bounds) or a hurried shot that’s as good as a turnover. Gator fans would rather be reminded another 500 times that Wilbekin enrolled at Florida when he was just 17 than read what I’m about to write, but it’s still worth saying: Wilbekin is the player Aaron Craft’s biggest fans think Craft is. This is why he should be SEC Player of the Year.
American: Shabazz Napier (UConn)
I had a harder time choosing a POY for the AAC than for any other conference. You could make almost equally convincing arguments for Napier, Louisville’s Russ Smith, and Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick. If you asked 10 people on the street to rank these three players from best to worst, two would probably say they have no idea what you’re talking about, two others would reach for the Mace in their purse, and the remaining six would probably give you six different combinations. And honestly, they’d all be right.
Here’s why I’m giving my vote to Napier: I’m not sure the phrase “He put the team on his back” has ever described a player better than it does Napier. He is the hero baller’s hero. He leads the Huskies in points, assists, rebounds, steals, and free throw percentage. That alone is mind-blowing. But what Napier does in big games will have UConn fans talking about him for decades. He put up 18, 7, and 7 in UConn’s season-opening one-point win vs. Maryland. Two weeks later, he scored 27 in a one-point win over Indiana, and he scored or assisted on UConn’s final 11 points. Ten days after that, he scored 26 and hit a game winner against Florida, and no team has beaten the Gators since. In UConn’s five games this season against Memphis, Louisville, and Cincinnati, Napier is averaging 23 points, 5.2 boards, and 4 assists. This includes his 34-point game against Memphis on February 15, when he completed the 3-point play that sent it to overtime, almost hit a game-winning buzzer-beater at the end of regulation, and scored six points in OT to secure the win. I haven’t even mentioned his triple-double against Yale yet, or his 30-point game vs. Louisville, or the 27/9/5 he hung on Houston on New Year’s Eve. The list goes on forever.
Cincinnati and Louisville would be far worse off without Sean Kilpatrick and Russ Smith, but UConn without Shabazz Napier is like Sweden’s soccer team without The Zlatan. That’s why he’s my AAC Player of the Year and probably even my non–Doug McDermott national player of the year pick, too.
Big East: Doug McDermott (Creighton)
I said it at the beginning of the season and it’s worth repeating now: We live in a world where the best player in college basketball by a wide margin is a white walk-on named Doug who wears a T-shirt under his jersey. Making this even more absurd is the fact that he’s had the Wooden Award locked up for months. While the lack of suspense surrounding this season’s national awards has been a bummer, the silver lining has been watching my ESPN colleague Eamonn Brennan get more and more annoyed as he tries to write his Wooden Watch post each week. The man they call Doug McBuckets is reaching the end of one of the greatest careers in the history of the sport, and anybody who doesn’t vote him national player of the year should be locked in a room and forced to watch an endless loop of Ohio State, St. Louis, and Cincinnati offensive possessions from this season.
Since every college basketball fan in the country knows McDermott’s game, and his case for Big East POY couldn’t be more obvious, let’s instead try to figure out where he’ll finish on the all-time career scoring list. Right now, McDermott has 2,966 career points. Here’s the list of eight guys ahead of him:
|Player||School||Last year played||Career points|
|Freeman Williams||Portland State||1978||3,249|
|Lionel Simmons||La Salle||1986||3,217|
|Alphonso Ford||Mississippi Valley St.||1993||3,165|
|Harry Kelly||Texas Southern||1983||3,066|
|Keydren Clark||St. Peter’s||2006||3,058|
Creighton’s final regular-season game is Saturday against Providence, and it’s also McDermott’s senior night. Considering his dad is Creighton’s coach and Bluejays fans want nothing more than to see McDermott reach the 3,000-point milestone in his final home game, it’s not crazy to expect McDermott to score at least 34 on Saturday. For McDermott to surpass Maravich from there, he would have to average a shade more than 74 points per game, and Creighton would have to reach the Big East tournament championship and the national championship. That ain’t happening.
Freeman Williams’s second place spot is theoretically in reach, but Creighton would probably have to make the national championship for that to happen, too. To surpass Lionel Simmons, McDermott would need to score 34 on Saturday, have Creighton play in seven postseason games (make the Big East final and the Elite Eight), and average 31 points throughout the postseason. And to pass Alphonso Ford, he’d need to average 27.5 per over six postseason games (assuming he scores 34 on Saturday). Given how badly Creighton has been struggling recently, I’m thinking this is the number he’s shooting for. He should surpass Harry Kelly’s 3,066 without much trouble.
To recap: If you’re a McDermott fan, you’re hoping he scores 34 on Saturday to join the 3,000-point club. You’re then hoping Creighton makes the Big East final, reaches at least the Sweet Sixteen, and that McDermott averages almost 28 points per game in those six games to finish fourth on the all-time career scoring list. It won’t be easy, but it’s doable. If anyone is up for the challenge, it’s Doug McBuckets.
Big 12: Melvin Ejim (Iowa State)
I’m probably contradicting myself by not giving my Big 12 POY vote to West Virginia’s Juwan Staten, who leads the Mountaineers in points and assists, is second in rebounds, and is pretty much the only reason West Virginia isn’t 10 games under .500 right now. Staten also outplayed Ejim in the two West Virginia–Iowa State matchups this season. But Ejim — the leading scorer and second-leading rebounder in the conference — is arguably just as valuable to an Iowa State team that’s better than West Virginia, and he has something on his resume that Staten doesn’t: a 48-point, 18-rebound game.
I know that going for 48 and 18 against TCU is like killing a spider with an atomic bomb, and I know that calling TCU awful is such an understatement that a lot of awful teams would feel insulted by it. But every player in the Big 12 has had their chance to shoot atomic bombs at TCU, and nobody has come close to doing what Ejim did. In fact, the second-highest point total against TCU all season was Perry Ellis’s 32, and the second-highest rebound total was 16, by two different players.
What’s crazy is that I didn’t even flinch when I heard about Ejim’s game against TCU. This sort of scoring outburst is run-of-the-mill for him. Sure, he doesn’t explode quite like that every time out. But he’s morphed into college basketball’s Kevin Love — he scores 20 points and grabs 10 boards so frequently, it’s almost more noteworthy when he doesn’t get a double-double. Just think about this: Ejim had a 22-point, 13-rebound game against Oklahoma State in early February and it wasn’t even one of his three best games this season. What would be a CAREER game for 99 percent of college basketball isn’t even one of Ejim’s three best games THIS SEASON? That’s outrageous.
ACC: T.J. Warren (North Carolina State)
If the NBA draft were tomorrow, I’d probably take Jabari Parker with the first pick, but T.J. Warren has been the best player in the ACC all season and there’s not a close second. In my ACC preview I picked Warren as the most underrated player in the conference and said he’d “need to average something like 20 points and 10 rebounds for NC State to be on the bubble of the bubble.” At the time, I never thought he’d get close to those numbers. Whoops.
(I did predict that Warren would lead NC State to an upset over North Carolina in that same section. That didn’t exactly happen thanks to Marcus Paige’s last-second layup. But Warren did score 36 points, so if Paige’s shot hadn’t gone in, I’d look like a genius. Instead, here we are.)
NC State likely won’t make the big dance unless it wins the ACC tournament, but that won’t be Warren’s fault. After his 41-point outburst at Pitt on Monday, he’s fourth in the country in scoring, at 24.2 points per game, and eighth in the conference in field goal percentage despite shooting more than twice as much as everyone ahead of him on the list. He leads the Pack with 6.9 rebounds a game, and he’s third in the ACC in steals behind Syracuse’s guards. In 29 games this season, Warren has finished with single-digit points just once and finished with fewer than 15 points only two other times. Most impressive, he’s stepped up when his team needs him most by averaging 29.3 points over the course of NC State’s last seven games.
If you haven’t seen Warren play, you’ve missed out on the best old-man game in college basketball. There’s really no other way to describe what he does. He doesn’t have a natural position, he isn’t particularly explosive, and you’ll be surprised at how awkward his delivery is the first time you see him shoot. But he has a phenomenal feel for the game and he’s skilled at just about everything a basketball player can do. Just watch his highlights against Pitt.
Most mock drafts project Warren going in the mid-first round, so there’s a good chance we’ll never get to see him return and play the alpha dog for an NCAA tournament team. That’s a damn shame, because he’d be a perfect successor to Doug McDermott’s Appointment Viewing Throne.
Bench: Nik Stauskas (Michigan, Big Ten); Nick Johnson (Arizona, Pac-12); Cleanthony Early (Wichita State, Missouri Valley); Chaz Williams (UMass, A-10); Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico, Mountain West)