— The race for national player of the year is starting to heat up. With that in mind, we have a rare opportunity Tuesday night and Wednesday night to observe the top candidates in action. Each one faces a different test and the results should shed some light on our eventual winner.
Notice I said it “should shed some light.” It’s way too early to determine a winner. There are too many games remaining to call the race or project anyone as the winner of the Wooden, Naismith, Associated Press or Oscar Robertson awards. But between now and early Thursday morning, we can pull out our evaluation sheets and takes notes on Kemba Walker, Jared Sullinger, Jimmer Fredette, and JaJuan Johnson.
Go back to the preseason and look at the predictions in all those annuals published back in September and October. Of our top candidates, Fredette is the only one who was a consensus first-team All-America pick.
So why have the others elevated themselves to this point? And what do they have to do the rest of the way to become the national player of the year? Keep those questions in mind as you watch this week’s games.
I don’t subscribe to the theory that the player of the year must be the best player on the best team. Sullinger is that guy, leading the Buckeyes in scoring (17.9) and rebounding (10.2). But the award should go well beyond those numbers. If Sullinger wins, it will be because of his ability to dominate in a conference as difficult as the Big Ten.
For the most part, I think voters have gotten over the notion that freshmen can’t win the national player of the year award. Thanks to Kevin Durant for clearing up that issue. Sullinger shows poise and patience well behind his years and he combines the two into the type of efficiency many seniors could only dream about.
“Well, I can tell you 10 coaches that wish it was the none-and-done rule,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan told AnnArbor.com. “Because coming out of high school, he would have been playing somewhere. But since you have to at least go [to college] one year, physically, he’s a man.”
Michael Rothstein of AnnArbor.com used Ryan’s words with site’s first national player of the year poll. The second poll comes out later this week but Walker led the first and Sullinger was second. Walker easily outdistanced Sullinger in first place votes, 28-13. Fredette was next with six.
If dominance and physical maturity is at the top of your criteria, then Sullinger would get your vote. His understanding of the game is a huge plus. But didn’t Sullinger benefit from having experienced players, such as David Lighty, William Buford and Jon Diebler, around him? Didn’t that make his transition into a leadership role easier?
Think about Walker. He went into the season knowing the young Huskies were going to depend on him for everything. Walker responded by taking charge on and off the court. He was on a Final Four team his freshman year and then observed how bad chemistry can rip a team apart during his sophomore season. Walker has hosted team meals, cooking with a recipe that has brought his teammates together away from the game. Now they have clearly bonded on the floor and that’s one of the reasons why UConn is 16-2, including a 12-0 non-conference record.
Walker struggled with his shot in wins over Villanova and Tennessee last week. But he hit the game-winning basket (when everyone knew the ball would be in his hands) against Villanova. His three-pointer that beat the halftime buzzer against Tennessee gave UConn a 32-31 lead and shifted the momentum to the Huskies. Despite 6 of 17 shooting against the Vols, he managed 16 points and seven assists.
Call that a bad game, if you want. I call it finding other ways to help your team. That is the type of player that coaches dream about. I guarantee you that Walker’s big smile makes Jim Calhoun smile more often these days.
Voters are attracted to the player who does so many things to help his team. Walker is a complete player and a complete person. He is in this race to the very end.
But so is Fredette. He knocks us out with a 47-point performance at Utah or by scoring 39 points at UNLV. But he is much more than that. His 4.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 41 percent shooting from three-point range are all part of the package. He is a senior leader and that will earn him some support just because of his track record and desire to be a good, old-fashioned college player.
The race is going to be a good. Perhaps, in the end, more than one player will be recognized. We have several trophies to go around.
But this week, college basketball fans are the winners. We get to watch them all perform over a period of just a few hours. Enjoy. Let the decision come later.