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Four Early Player of the Year Candidates

Postseason awards are as much about hype as they are about hoops. Names get stuck in voter’s minds early and it’s difficult to dislodge them. But the awards aren’t for everyone. To win the Naismith Award as the Player of the Year it helps if you play for a school with great tradition (see Tyler Hansbrough and Evan Turner). It helps if you play for Coach K (see JJ Redick, Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Jason Williams, etc…). It helps if you’re an athletic freak (see Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant). And it helps if your name is Jimmer (see Jimmer).

Rather than throw out a list of names the staff at Run the Floor decided to take a different approach. One writer would comb through one class and bring a name (or names) to the group. Here they are:

THE SENIOR (by Andy Bottoms)

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Heading into the season, if you were going to pick a senior as Player of the Year, Wisconsin point guard Jordan Taylor would have been the most likely candidate. Turns out you had the right position, just the wrong guy.

After leading a couple of dramatic come-from-behind victories this week, my pick is Xavier senior Tu Holloway. I’m sure most Musketeer fans would prefer Holloway and the team to quit digging themselves a double-digit hole in the second half, but it’s certainly given him a chance to show just how dynamic he is.

For the season, Holloway is averaging 18.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 2.0 steals while playing over 35 minutes per game. With the exception of the steals, those numbers are actually down from what he posted last season in terms of raw averages.

However, his 123.2 ORtg through five games is an improvement compared to last season’s 114.1, which was good for 219th nationally. From a shooting perspective, his two-point percentage has decreased to 38.5 percent, but he’s hit 8-of-16 from beyond the arc. As a result, his eFG% and TS% are virtually identical to his junior year.

Holloway continues to draw fouls at an incredibly high rate, and he’s now attempted 42 free throws, which is good for a phenomenal 76.3 FT Rate. His assist rate is down just slightly, and despite committing five turnovers against Purdue on Saturday, his turnover rate is lower than last season. Holloway’s 3.2 steal percentage is up as well, but while his stats are impressive no matter what measuring stick you use, that doesn’t tell the entire story.

Let’s look at how Holloway responded when things were bleakest in the last two games.  After Xavier went down 41-31 against Vanderbilt, Holloway hit a three-pointer, got a steal, and made a layup to cut the lead to five. The Commodores ran off five straight points of their own and Holloway went back to work. He made a pair of free throws then assisted on a three-pointer to get it back to a workable margin.

In overtime he knocked down two key three-pointers and scored 10 points. Over the second half and overtime, Holloway scored 21 points, dished out three assists, had three steals, and was a perfect 8-of-8 from the free throw line. Whenever the Musketeers needed a basket, he gave it to them every time.

Fast forward to Saturday against Purdue. The Musketeers had a disastrous first half with 18 turnovers, and the second half didn’t start off much better as they fell behind by 19 points at the 10:46 mark. By the under eight minute media timeout, the lead was still at 14 points.

Holloway then assisted on a three-pointer, and after a Robbie Hummel jumper and a Mark Lyons three of his own, he hit a pair of free throws to trim the lead to eight with just over five minutes to play. Xavier chipped a few more points off of the lead but still trailed by five with less than two minutes to play. That’s when Tu put his cape on.

Over the next one minute and ten seconds, Holloway knocked down three triples to give Xavier the lead. He hit a pair of free throws to close things out, as he scored the last 11 points for the Muskies to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. In all, 17 of his 21 points came in the second half.

You can watch less than two minutes of any Xavier game and see just how much of a leader Holloway is and the respect he gets from his teammates. So while the gaudy point totals are impressive in their own right, perhaps most important is the fact that Holloway never panicked when things weren’t going well in these last couple games. Instead, he consistently made plays to get the game back within reach and eventually led helped the Musketeers close out the game.

Holloway makes everyone around him better and is at his best when the game is on the line, both of which are qualities possessed by the top performers in any sport. And since no other Player of the Year candidate has personified those characteristics more than Tu over the first month of the season, he’s the obvious choice for that honor.

THE JUNIOR (by Michael Rogner)

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A few years ago I vacationed in several of the National Parks in Utah and had I been thinking I would have done an experiment with my jump shot. Apparently there’s something in the water, and I blew my chance to prove it. The last 7 Naismith Award winners have Duke, Texas, UNC, Oklahoma and Ohio State sandwiched between two schools from the Beehive State: Utah and Brigham Young. If there’s any justice in the college basketball world voters should consider adding Weber State to that list.

If you took a poll in Ogden, Utah asking who the best junior in college basketball is, 98% would immediately answer Damian Lillard. The other 2% would think it was a trick question. They’d pause and try and remember if Lillard had received a medical redshirt or if he actually was a senior.

Lillard is, in fact, a junior for the 2nd straight season. And he can play. Just ask Jared Sullinger, Mason Plumlee, Thomas Robinson and rest of the players who participated in this summer’s Adidas Nations Camp. Or ask the players he’s been abusing during Big Sky Freshman of the Year and Big Sky Player of the Year seasons. He probably would have repeated as Big Sky POY last season had he not fractured his foot on December 16th.

All he’s done this year is lead the nation in scoring (28.2 ppg with the next closest player coming in at 24.7) by knocking down 56% of his 2s, 44% of his 3s and 87% of his FTs. For high volume players (using 28% or more of their team’s possessions), his offensive rating only trails Creighton’s Doug McDermott. So, not only is he lighting things up, but his efficiency is off the charts. To top it off his assist rate is excellent (22.1), he takes care of the ball (12.0 turnover rate) and there are only 13 players in the country who are better at drawing fouls.

It’s the water. It’s got to be the water.

THE SOPHOMORE (by Dan Bonsall)

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The sophomore POY candidates are a tough group: they’re the NBA lockout candidates. It’s a crowded, uber-talented field:

Any discussion for the award really has to begin with Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Mr. ESPN. Not only is he putting up monster numbers (19 pts, 10 rebs, almost 2 assts) for the #2 ranked team in the country, and not only did he come up big in one of the most anticipated matchups of the year, going for 21-8-1 in the win against Duke, but he’s doing all of this efficiently. He’s using only 25% of OSU possessions, has an offensive rating over 130, and has a 63 eFG%. Yikes. Those gross numbers figure to only get better as the competition gets tougher in the Big 10 and his team starts leaning on him more. There has been no defensive matchup for the new, lighter, quicker Sullinger on display so far this season.

I think I’m next contractually obligated for follow any Sullinger mention with Harrison Barnes. Barnes has been good so far, 17-4-1, but maybe not great. He’s struggled to shoot the ball some in the early going (53 eFG%), and when he’s not scoring has otherwise been largely neutralized by good teams. Maybe I’m just low coming off the Kentucky loss, but in a down year in the ACC, Barnes needs to use the OOC schedule to really boost his POY resume.

The Lambs, Doron from Kentucky and Jeremy from UConn, are also having solid years. Unfortunately for Doron, freshman Anthony Davis has stolen the early show at Kentucky (and not just with that one block). Jeremy, on the other hand, is leading the Huskies in scoring at over 20 a game, but needs to limit turnovers. His best game was a 41 minute effort in a win over Florida State when he went for 19-4-2. If he doesn’t wear down over the year–he’s playing over 95% of all minuts–he’ll have a chance to put up numbers and headlines with his high efficiency and spotlight in the Big East.

Looking for a (really) under the radar sophomore candidate? Look at what Creighton’s Doug McDermott’s done so far. In addition to having the Blue Jays (7-0) in the top 20 in both polls and #45 in Pomeroy’s rating, and averaging over 23 points and 9 boards per game, the 6-7 forward is leading the country in offensive efficiency, has nearly 25% of his team’s rebounds has a 70 eFG%. True, the competition in the Missouri Valley may be limited, but he’s faced tests in Iowa, Nebraska and San Diego State in the early going with impressive results. Has any player more important to their team in the early going?

Okay, maybe Sullinger.

THE FRESHMAN (by Chris Burrows)

I didn’t want to be that guy. That guy with the obvious pick. I looked high and low for that freshman diamond in the rough, who, backed by quality tempo-free analysis, could make a chic choice for freshman player of the candidacy.

But despite solid freshman classes at St. John’s, Texas, UConn and Florida, there’s just no denying the raw and awesome talent of John Calipari’s freshman. Anthony Davis is the current top-to-bottom best freshman candidate for player of the year, despite my best efforts to be an edgy NCAA-hipster.

Plucked out of Chicago by a program known for taking top recruits and creating powerhouse young teams, Davis has lived up to every expectation that could be placed on a No. 1 recruit.

Davis, along with fellow freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague and sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones have the top-ranked team in the nation, just showed North Carolina who’s boss and have the fourth-most efficient defense in basketball (0.83 ppp).

As North Carolina’s John Henson found out Saturday with time winding down at Rupp Arena, Davis’ shot-blocking ability shouldn’t be doubted. He’s ninth among the nation’s most efficient blockers with one in 15.5 percent of his opportunities, and he was two blocks away from a triple double against St. John’s last week. Defensive rebounds? He’s got those too to the tune of one in 20.7 percent of his chances. Only LSU’s Johnny O`Bryant III is logging a better DR% among SEC freshman. Davis has impeccable timing for a 6-10 freshman who spent his last year of high school growing eight inches taller.

Calipari’s people are still constructing Davis’ offensive presence, but there was more than enough raw talent to begin with. Davis can dunk with the best of them, and provides mobile presence inside, but he also possesses a quality shooting stroke. His 67.2 percent effective field goal percentage is best among the Wildcats’ shooters, and good for 46th nationally — just five spots below Indiana freshman Cody Zeller (67.7 percent). He went 3 for 4 from inside the arc and 0 for 2 from outside against North Carolina. Davis’ offensive rebounding rate (11.7 percent) is also best on the Kentucky roster and 13th in the SEC.

He may not be the coolest choice for player of the year candidacy, but Davis simply cannot be ignored. He’s one the best defenders in basketball; he moves well despite his newfound height; and he’s a clutch performer being molded by the best in the business.

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