NCAA BK

Smart choice for player of the year

Reid Forgrave on his pick for player of the year.
Reid Forgrave on his pick for player of the year.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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In a season as wide open as this one, it’s apropos that the national player of the year award in college basketball is staying incredibly wide open, even with the regular season in the rear-view mirror.

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But that’s not to say we don’t have a front-runner. On the regular season’s final day, the marquee matchup was in Ann Arbor on Sunday, as No. 2 Indiana faced No. 7 Michigan with a shot at winning the Big Ten title outright. I stated before the game that if the Hoosiers’ Victor Oladipo did what he has done all season and takes over the game when it matters most, he would be the odds-on favorite for player of the year. Conversely, I believed that if Michigan dictates the tempo, defends home court and wins a share of the Big Ten title, Wolverines point guard Trey Burke should win the award.

Well, the Hoosiers faced a five-point deficit with less than a minute remaining but scored the game’s final six points and withstood a failed last-second tip-in attempt to win the game 72-71, and the Big Ten bragging rights all to themselves. What’s more, Oladipo finished with 14 points (but on only 7-of-18 shooting) and a career-high 13 rebounds — seven on the offensive glass. So there you have it, Oladipo is your player of the year. Case closed, right? Well …

A funny thing happened on the way to the hardware store. As has been the case for much of this season, one player after another seeming to step into the favorite’s spot with a stellar weekend, a hot streak to take control of the conference, one of Oladipo’s own teammates stole the spotlight on Sunday and made the obvious well, perhaps not so obvious.

Sophomore big man Cody Zeller, considered by many to be the preseason favorite for the award, grabbed 10 rebounds of his own while pouring in a game-high 25 points. Most importantly, Zeller scored all six of the Hoosiers’ points in that last-minute run to steal the game from Michigan.

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So here we are, less than a week from Selection Sunday, and still quite a debate could justifiably rage when the question is asked, “Who is college basketball’s player of the year?”

In order to dig for an answer, we must first ask another question: What exactly are we looking for?

First of all, there are six player of the year awards handed out, each with their own nuances (Adolph Rupp Trophy, Associated Press College Basketball Player of the Year, John R. Wooden Award, NABC Player of the Year, Naismith College Player of the Year, Oscar Robertson Trophy). Over the past decade, there has been a consensus pick for those awards only six times, and two of those six years had a second player sharing at least one of the postseason awards with the consensus pick.

So clearly there’s no formula to pick the winner. Are we picking the player who has been most valuable to his team? Are we picking the guy who is destroying the stat sheets? Are we picking the player we most enjoy to watch? Or are we picking the player who wins games at all costs, whether pretty or down-and-dirty?

Here are six players who could win the award, and a seventh who should. It’s hard to argue against any of these guys. At the end will be my winner. Hint: Like much of this college basketball season, the winner is a surprise. But it will make as much sense as any.

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Victor Oladipo, junior guard, Indiana: Oladipo wasn’t on anyone’s preseason list — as stated earlier, it was Zeller who topped most preseason player of the year watch lists — but Oladipo might be the most improved player in college basketball since last season. When he committed to Indiana, one recruiting website had him as the nation’s 144th best recruit and described him as a “freaky athlete with great upside.” The humble, undervalued Oladipo reached that upside over the past few months. He entered the final weekend averaging nearly 14 points, six rebounds and 2.5 steals. He’s one of the top defenders in the country. And despite Sunday’s inaccuracy, most impressive this season has been his shooting percentage: more than 63 percent entering Sunday, which is ridiculous for a guard. Last year he shot 47 percent. Indiana coach Tom Crean said he’s the hardest worker on his team, which has led to Oladipo's breakout season. “He has made this his life’s calling on that court,” Crean said after the Hoosiers’ home loss to Ohio State this week. “When you coach a guy like Dwyane Wade, you’re certainly always looking for the next one. And you realize they’re really not out there, so you’re just trying to find those traits. And (Oladipo) had some of those.” Oladipo’s the type of player who a few weeks back blew up Twitter with a missed dunk. (It would have been the highlight of the year.)

Trey Burke, sophomore point guard, Michigan: Had Michigan defeated Indiana, the Wolverines would have won a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship and Burke would have become the closest to a sure thing that we have had in this year’s player of the year race. On a Michigan team dominated by inconsistent freshmen — three of their top five in minutes played are first-year players — it’s this 20-year-old elder statesman who has guided the ship for one of the most efficient offenses in college hoops. Burke has averaged 19.1 points and 6.9 assists, and he rarely turns the ball over. You know the last Big Ten sophomore point guard who had a similar statistical season? His name was Magic Johnson. He averaged 17.1 points and 8.4 assists (plus 7.3 rebounds, something 6-footer Burke can’t aim for) during Michigan State's 1979 national championship run. Despite Sunday’s struggles (35-percent shooting, 1 of 3 free throws made — including a key miss in that last-minute collapse, and as many turnovers as assists — 4-4) Burke passes the stat-sheet test, and he passes the leadership test, too.

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Ben McLemore, freshman guard, Kansas: There was a time not long ago when McLemore was the hottest thing in college basketball. His jump shot is silky smooth, he glides along the court, and he seems to hang in the air for a few minutes every time he jumps. It was this eye test that most impressed NBA scouts, plus a few eye-popping statistical games (33 points at home against Iowa State, 30 at home against Kansas State, 36 at home against West Virginia). Then we realized the Ben McLemore who takes over games at Allen Fieldhouse isn’t the same Ben McLemore prone to disappearing on the road (7 points at Oklahoma State, 7 at Iowa State). As it stands, he’ll get some votes, but without being more aggressive on the court, he’ll get no hardware. But the fact McLemore had to redshirt last year is a lesson in patience for college basketball phenoms. That year made McLemore, the 57th overall recruit in 2011, learn Kansas’ system, work on his shot, get more aggressive. “Sitting out was a blessing,” McLemore told FOXSports.com recently. “I tell my mom that sitting out was the best thing that could’ve happened for me. I’m a quiet, humble person. When I get on the court, I try to not be humble. I try to have that mentality to go out there and be aggressive, just play.”

Kelly Olynyk, junior forward, Gonzaga: The fact that teeny-tiny Gonzaga is No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll is reason enough to get its star big man on plenty of player of the year short lists. As half of what might be the best frontcourt in college basketball, Olynyk is, like McLemore, a testament to how productive a redshirt season can be for a player. Olynyk took a redshirt after two seasons in Spokane. He added muscle and learned to play like a true big. Now the 7-footer is one of the most versatile players in college hoops. Over the course of the regular season, he averaged 17.7 points and seven rebounds and was third in the nation in shooting percentage. Along with bulky frontcourt mate Elias Harris, who averages 14.6 points and 7.5 rebounds, Olynyk has made Spokane the college hoops capital of the West. And a win on Monday will make them WCC conference champs and most certainly wrap up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

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Otto Porter Jr., sophomore forward, Georgetown: Did anyone expect us to go into the Big East tournament with Georgetown the No. 1 seed after tying Louisville and Marquette for the regular-season crown? Well, no. Georgetown wasn’t even in the AP Top 25 to begin the season, but over the past month the Hoyas have been the hottest team in college basketball. Much of that is due to Porter. The Hoyas lost their three leading scorers from last year’s team, but Porter has more than filled in for this defensive-minded crew, averaging 16.4 points and 7.5 rebounds — both in the top 10 in the conference. Porter’s 33-point outburst to beat Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in late February rocketed him to the top of many player of the year lists. And his follow-up performance against the Orange this past Saturday, 10 points and nine rebounds in a 61-39 drubbing, cemented one honor for him: he was the only unanimous selection to the All-Big East first team.

Doug McDermott, junior forward, Creighton: McDermott likely won’t win any of these player of the year awards, even though his statistics justify it. Entering the weekend, McDermott ranked second in the nation in points scored, averaging 23.4 while adding 7.6 rebounds. He dropped a season-high 41 in Creighton’s last regular-season game on out-of-his-mind 15-for-18 shooting. But for McDermott to win this award, Creighton needs to be a nationally relevant team, and the Bluejays haven’t been. If they hadn’t dropped three conference games in a row in February, we might be talking about the “nationally ranked Creighton Bluejays.” But beating Wichita State in their final regular-season game to win the Missouri Valley title does not make a nationally relevant team. And beating the Shockers by only three points in Sunday’s MVC conference championship likely won’t do it, either. Therefore, McDermott won’t win any of these national awards.

So those six qualify to be national player of the year, depending on your criteria. Burke and Oladipo probably will win most of the awards. Porter might pick up one, too, and so could Olynyk if any of the voting blocs are feeling especially mid-major-oriented. But none of these is my pick for national player of the year. My pick is …

Marcus Smart, freshman point guard, Oklahoma State. College hoops player of the year awards should be thought of as the most valuable player award, and the word “valuable” is key: Who has been most essential to the success of a very good team? (Therefore, Erick Green, who is leading the nation in scoring with 25 points per game, doesn’t warrant a player of the year mention for a 13-18 Virginia Tech team.)

I can’t think of a player who has made more of a difference than Smart has to Oklahoma State. A year ago the Cowboys were 15-18, seventh in the Big 12, and even missed the NIT. But this season, after adding top-10 recruit Smart (and, to be fair, Smart’s best friend and high school roommate, the sharp-shooting Phil Forte), the Cowboys are 23-7 and ranked 13th in the nation. They’re my dark horse pick to make the Final Four. If the WAR (wins above replacement) statistical conversation that dominated baseball’s American League MVP race in 2012 were applied to college basketball this year, no single player has meant more wins to his squad than Smart. His statistics aren’t gaudy ... he doesn’t rank in the top 100 in the nation in points, assists, or rebounds, although his 5.7 rebounds a game are remarkable for a point guard and a testament to his toughness. But there’s no statistic that measures toughness and motor and what one player means to a team, and his drive is what makes Smart so valuable to Oklahoma State. He averages 3 steals a game, which is third in the nation, and that one statistic only begins to hint at how Smart has transformed this team’s defense.

This is undoubtedly his team, made in his image.

To say that about a freshman point guard — a position where young players often struggle to adjust to the college level — speaks exactly to why Marcus Smart ought to be player of the year.

Tagged: Indiana, Michigan, Creighton, Georgetown, Oklahoma, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Gonzaga, Kelly Olynyk, Victor Oladipo, Doug McDermott

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