Who Will Be Number One?
We’re a week away from March. There’s only a couple of regular season games left in most, if not every collegiate basketball team’s schedule. The “bracket” is starting to shape and the buzz around teams like Gonzaga and Miami are growing louder and louder. Potential post-season sub-plot are starting to brew and everyone around the country and the world anticipates what upsets will strike down which teams and what players will light up our screens. It’s the typical pre-Tournament hype that we see every season; except for one small thing: we still have no idea on which player will be crowned the Player of the Year and hence soar atop of this years NBA Draft and land a place in history amongst the most prestigious of company.
Even at this stage of the season, in the dying days of regulation play, there are still nine potential players who could be drafted with the first overall selection. The much heralded number one pick hasn’t been that debatable at this stage of the year for over a decade; at least since 2001 when Kwame Brown got the eventual nod. If we go through the names, each player has, at some stage in the season, been seen as a solid chance at being crowned the Player of the Year. We’ll begin with the pre-season favourite; the Sophomore from Indiana Cody Zeller. Coming off a spectacular individual freshman season last year, the lack of team success encouraged the young 7-footer to return to school in hopes of claiming college basketballs number one prize. His 16.6PPG and 8.1RPG statistics really tell the story of how dominant he has been in leading the team who has this year cemented themselves as one of the premier basketball programs in the nation.
On the flip side of Zeller’s anticipated All-American performance, another unlikely Hoosier has popped up from the proverbial abyss. Junior Victor Oladipo has continued to surprise hoops fans and experts alike since the beginning of the season. Averaging 14.0PPG, 6.0RPG and 2.4SPG, Oladipo has truly shown how important a player he can be on both the offensive and defensive end. He’s one of those players that never gives up on a play and every now and then does something that just makes you sit back and watch in awe. Where Zeller might be the brain of Indiana, Oladipo is the heart.
The latest flavour of the month, at least for Player of the Year honours is Kansas Freshman Ben McLemore. Here’s a guy who in the pre-season wasn’t even considered to be an ESPN Top 100 recruit. Coming into such a strong program in Kansas without that tag, you’re always going to struggle to find minutes. But to McLemore’s credit, he has done the hard yards and convinced Coach Self that, hey, we’re a better team when I’m on the floor. His 16.2PPG is unmatched by any of his Jayhawks teammates; and that’s shooting on .497% from the field and .426% from beyond the arc. In a team with a number of proven upperclassmen, McLemore has still managed to become one of the on court leaders. That’s what confidence can do, though.
Two more names that have been weighed up as possible Player of the Year candidates are the One and Two (respectively) High School recruits; the 6’10” Forward Nerlens Noel of Kentucky and the 6’6″ Guard Shabazz Muhammad of UCLA. Noel has shone in an unusually weak and comparatively untalented Kentucky team (at least compared to the last few years) with 10.5PPG, 9.5RPG and an NCAA-high 4.4BPG! He’s also shooting at a .590FG%. That’s a solid set of numbers. There hasn’t been a whole lot to be impressed with from a Kentucky fan’s point of view, but Noel has certainly provided those sombre supporters with a glimmer of hope and a plethora of highlights. Obvious comparisons have been made between Noel and former Kentucky Number One Overall pick Anthony Davis. He mightn’t be as good as Davis offensively, but he’s certainly a lot more threatening on the defensive end. The only thing that may stop him from claiming Player of the Year honours, as well as declaring for the draft, would be the injury he sustained a couple of weeks ago which put him out for the remainder of the year. If Noel is still keen for the NBA, he will still be a chance for the Number One spot and he can still make an impact. Kyrie Irving did it a couple of years ago after getting injured thirteen games into his collegiate career and look how he’s performing now.
Shabazz Muhammad on the other hand has been shooting the lights out consistently all season. Averaging 18.2PPG on .459% on field goals and .432% beyond the arc, Muhammad has really proved himself to be one of the purest shooters in the nation. He has certainly taken control of a struggling Bruins team who many expected to have a big year with a very highly rated recruiting class. The Bruins may have fallen short of that expectation but Muhammad has done anything bit. The season started off somewhat rocky for Muhammad, with an eligibility issue limiting his game time (I say limiting, but he really didn’t get a run until a good chunk into the season), but he has since bounced back and truly cemented himself for the Player of the Year candidate and potential First Overall draft pick.
Enough name’s for you? We’re not quite finished yet. There are still four more solid candidates who, depending on what happens at the Big Dance, could see themselves join the likes of Lebron James, Hakeem Olajuwon and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar).
We’ve only got two upperclassmen on our list, and only one of them is a Senior. 6’10” Forward Mason Plumlee has been a solid contributor for a very strong and consistent Duke since the beginning. Widely regarded as the best Plumlee brother out of the four, Mason has owned the boards and made them his own in multiple occasions this season. His presence inside the paint has been so beneficial for Duke all season, and it’s certainly helped him to be a legitimate candidate for the Player of the Year. Plumlee is averaging a double-double this season with 17.5PPG and 10.7RPG; not an easy feat in a big-bodied albeit struggling conference in the ACC. Marry these numbers with his .596% from the field and you have an almost unstoppable inside force.
UNLV’s Anthony Bennett is another one of those guys who has really come out of nowhere and really made a name for himself. With a 17.0PPG and 8.4RPG, it doesn’t take much for the 6’8″ Freshman to really grab hold of the game. Same goes for Marcus Smart from Oklahoma State. A livewire on both the offensive and defensive end, Smart has solid numbers around the board with a line of 15.oPPG, 5.7RPG and 4.3APG. A highly regarded freshman out of high school, Smart knows how to control and use the ball almost as good as anyone in the nation. Another player who seems to get his team going with the flick of a switch, he’s certainly climbed up the ranks and has performed as well as anyone else this season.
Lastly, but certainly not least, is the unforgettable and jaw-dropping 6’8″ Sophomore from Georgetown Otto Porter. An exciting, high energy player, Otto Porter gets the crowd and his players going and excited for more. His 15.9PPG and 7.7RPG proves his multi-dimensionality and reliability. He’s also shooting at .508% from the field including .453% from beyond the arc. He’s one of those guys that’s not afraid to take the game on and really wants the ball in his hands during the crunch. And more often that not, he will finish, too.
So there it is. Nine names, nine possible candidates. This post-season could really shape not only who is dubbed the Player of the Year, but how each team holding those valuable top handful of picks makes their selection. It’s one of those rare years where you almost don’t want to hold that number one selection in fear that hindsight will come back and bite you in the butt in two years time. If you had picks 5 through 8 or 9 however, the pressure will be off and you’ll still be able to have a crack at drafting someone who is arguably the most talented, or the most important (potentially or not) player. Of course certain teams have their needs and that may determine to some extent who gets chosen when as well, but you know the old mantra: chose the best available. It’s just that this year, that won’t be so easy.