The Race For Player Of The Year

We’re about halfway through the conference season, and teams are beginning to sift into tiers of Final Four contention. Now is when talk of college basketball’s individual honors starts to heat up, too. Some players who dominated last November have cooled off, while others have seen their stars rise. Interestingly, in each of the past five years (save when John Wall took the Rupp Award in 2010), one player each season has swept all six of the major Player of the Year honors: the Wooden, Naismith, Rupp, Robertson, AP and NABC. Last season, it was flashy BYU guard Jimmer Fredette who took home all the hardware.

Sportswriters traditionally make up the voting ranks of these awards, a class of people who enjoy the endless calculations involved in stratifying and ranking players from different programs with diverse backgrounds and with often wildly divergent games. Here are this season’s most likely, and most deserving, candidates.


Thomas Robinson, F, Jr., Kansas
A sentimental favorite, Robinson seems a natural choice for honors. And he’s certainly paid his dues. Despite being a highly sought-after recruit coming out of high school, Robinson sat behind All-American twin forwards for two seasons in Lawrence. He played as a reserve, and played well, but not often enough to make much of a name for himself. It was off the court that Robinson’s sophomore season was truly a nightmare. He lost both his grandparents in the span of a month, then his mother suffered a fatal heart attack only days after his grandfather’s funeral. The composure and strength he showed throughout this terrible period impressed observers in and out of the Kansas basketball family.

This season, with the Morris twins now in the NBA, Robinson finally got his chance to shine. He’s exceeded even the high expectations set for him. He opened the season with six double-doubles and has averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds a contest. Thanks to his incredible play, a less-than-usually-talented Jayhawks are within reach of a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.

Powerful, aggressive and fearless at the rim, Robinson tellingly has played his best when his team most needed him to, a mark of a truly great player. Of course, no one hands out Player of the Year trophies for overcoming adversity alone; but no one would deny Robinson was worthy of selection no matter what his personal story.

Jared Sullinger, F/C, So., Ohio State
Sullinger — or “Sully” as he’s known around Columbus — was many pundits’ choice behind Fredette last season. Notably slimmed down this year, he’s been as a good, maybe even better player for this season’s top-five Buckeyes.

A cerebral, physical and effective inside presence, Sullinger doesn’t possess the raw athletic gifts that the other big men on this list do, but he’s likely more skilled and definitely more efficient. This may come from lessons imparted by his father, a longtime high-school coach, and his two older brothers, who each reached Division I college basketball (including J.J., who played at Ohio State in the mid-2000s). A huge recruit before last season, Jared shocked many in the college basketball universe when he unequivocally stated his intention to return immediately following the Buckeyes’ loss to Kentucky in last year’s Sweet 16.

This year, with several key components gone from last year’s edition, Ohio State has barely missed a beat, going 21–4 thus far and leading a very strong Big Ten conference for most of the year. Sullinger posts 17-and-a-half points a game to go along with nine rebounds, but he’s also routinely double- and triple-teamed in the paint. Passing and vision are a huge part of Sullinger’s game. He’s not a shot blocker, but his floor game, effectiveness and integral role in the Buckeyes’ success have earned him Player of the Year consideration.

Anthony Davis, F/C, Fr., Kentucky
It’s impossible to know whether votes for these individual awards are earned more from season-long builds or by who’s currently trending up — likely it’s a little of both. But if it were solely the latter, there’s little doubt that Davis would be the odds-on choice as the nation’s top player. There’s no player in America right now who seems more dynamic.

Davis is clearly the nation’s top shot blocker and likely its top shot alterer, too. His defensive presence alone makes Kentucky, a supremely talented but not terribly deep team, the choice by many as the one team to beat in March. Standing 6’9” with a pterodactyl-like 7’5” wingspan, Davis’s length and reach force teams to change their offense, settling for outside shots, which he then blocks a bunch of as well. Davis’ impact on the offensive end is growing, as well, something opponents of the Wildcats did not want to see.

Davis looked to be a little-recruited 6’3” guard until a growth spurt, during his junior year of high school, produced a center with a point guard’s timing and skill set. The result has been a player widely acknowledged as the all-but-inked-in top overall pick in next summer’s NBA Draft. But the awards we’re talking about here are about college success, not pro potential, and Davis is rapidly accumulating that as well.

For the past month, the probable national freshman of the year has terrorized SEC teams on defense and demoralized them with his presence around the rim on offense. If the season were to end today, Davis’ body of work might be enough to earn him a few awards. But the season doesn’t end for another month-plus. If current trends hold, and if the Wildcats continue to reign as the nation’s No. 1 team into March, Davis stands a strong chance of being named the best player in the nation, and it would be hard to argue he wasn’t worthy.


Harrison Barnes, F, So., North Carolina
What’s fascinating when you watch Barnes play is his preternatural cool. He never gets rattled, and he rarely expresses emotion on the court. He’s great fun to watch on offense, with a fluid game that belies just how hard many of the shots he’s attempting (and often making) really are. But perhaps because of the ease with which he plays, Barnes has developed a reputation as aloof or even “soft.” Whether it’s earned or not is certainly up for debate. On a team chock full of former high-school All-Americans, Barnes’ excellence may be diminished in part by proxy.

Barnes also suffers from the unfortunate phenomenon whereby advance hype establishes a bar to which even a superior player cannot hope to ever live up. Picked as a preseason first-team All-American before he ever arrived in Chapel Hill, Barnes has been a great college player, but he hasn’t been otherworldly, and so his reputation has suffered, ridiculously, because of it. Still, if you were to take Barnes off the UNC team, there’s no doubt they wouldn’t be as good, but there’s not a sense that they would be a thoroughly different team. The same couldn’t be said about any of the three players listed above, which is why the talented sophomore likely won’t be named Player of the Year.

Doug McDermott, F, So., Creighton The early-season sheen is wearing off of the Bluejays, and that’s certainly affecting McDermott’s candidacy for individual accolades. After reaching a top-12 ranking nationally, Creighton has hit the hard middle of the conference season and has been tagged with a couple of losses. As a mid-major team, losses are less excusable for Creighton than they would be in the Big Ten or Big 12, even in the well-above-average Missouri Valley Conference.

Still, this has been a transcendent season for the sophomore, who is also the Creighton coach’s son. Coincidentally, McDermott’s high school teammate in Ames was none other than Harrison Barnes. Averaging 23 points and eight rebounds an outing, and an astonishing 60% from the field and nearly 50% from the three-point arc, McDermott has been this season’s Jimmer Fredette minus a lot of the pundit-love.

There’s still time for McDermott to make a late charge if Creighton finishes strong and McDermott is the driving force. But as the three leading candidates continue to play twice a week on national TV against competition that is regarded as (though may not necessarily actually be) of a higher caliber, it will be hard for McDermott to maintain pace down the stretch run.


Draymond Green, F, Sr., Michigan State If the national Player of the Year awards were to go to the guy whose game most resembled the greatest version of your uncle’s awkward below-the-rim game at the local Y, then Green would be a shoo-in. But it doesn’t. Green has everything you want in a college player — immense heart, versatile skills, leadership out the wazoo and a no-frills demeanor. But he lacks the wow factor that usually accompanies college basketball award winners. I’m sure he’d gladly settle for a Final Four as his Spartan legacy.

Marcus Denmon, G, Sr., Missouri
The surprising success of the Missouri Tigers has shone a light on a player few outside the Big 12 conference likely knew much about before this season. But as Mizzou continues to win, Denmon has continued to be a primary reason why. Denmon is the guy who hits the big shot, seemingly every time he’s asked. And he’s been asked plenty this season. Missouri’s success under first-year coach Frank Haith has been in many ways a team effort, but it’s been Denmon on whom the team has relied in its diciest moments, and that’s the kind of record of which Player of the Year candidacies are made.

Originally from Kentucky, Joshua Lars Weill now writes from Washington, DC. His take on things can be found at Agonica and on Twitter. Photo by SD Dirk, via Flickr.