Last year, Michigan guard Trey Burke won every major national player of the year award averaging 18.6 points and 6.7 assists per game, along with some exceptional tempo free numbers: a 121.2 offensive rating, 53% eFG shooting and a 37.3% assist rate coupled with just a 13.4% turnover rate. Couple that with doing it in the best conference in America last year and it was one of the better seasons in recent history.
This year, due to some high profile players coming back to school and one of the best incoming Freshman classes in the last decade, we have the potential for a truly special college basketball season and some strong potential national player of the year candidates to go with that. Here is one man's top 10: (note: this is more of who I think the voters will eventually choose, not my preseason All-American teams or anything like that).
10. Aaron Craft, Sr. guard, Ohio State
Craft's tempo free numbers aren't great, as he had just a 46.1% eFG for the Buckeyes, but a decent enough assist rate and a turnover rate under 20% is satisfactory, and his on ball defense is among the best in the country. He also, fair or not, has a reputation for making great plays at the right time and that will no doubt affect how he is viewed.
9. Adreran Payne, Sr. forward, Michigan State
If the preseason top 25 rankings were based on who the best team was when the season started, the Spartans would get my vote for #1. Payne leads a deep, veteran Michigan State squad looking for its first Final Four trip since 2010. The biggest bars to Payne's candidacy are the fact that he played just 25.6 minutes per game last year, and only took about a fifth of the team's shots when he was on the floor. He has excellent tempo free numbers however, with a 57.8% eFG and he was the Spartans' best offensive rebounder and one of the best defensive rebounders in the entire country. He also showed the ability to shoot from everywhere, making 38% of his threes, 58% of his twos and 85% of his free throws.
8. Cory Jefferson, Sr. forward, Baylor
Another tempo free monster, Jefferson had the 13th best offensive rating in the country last year. Like Payne he was an efficient scorer and rebounded very well. Jefferson's biggest challenges no doubt come from Isiah Austin wanting more shots as a Sophomore, and whether he will get as many looks with a new point guard running the show, as Pierre Jackson has graduated.
7. Cleanthony Early, Sr. forward, Wichita State
Wichita State made a surprising run to the final four last year, and their best player will definitely be helped by the exposure of that run and should find his way onto some preseason award watch lists.
Early will have to deal with the departure of the Shockers' other two best players, Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead, giving opponents more of a chance to key on the Senior, but he took a bulk of the attention last year and still led the team in scoring while carrying the offense and having an eFG over 50%. He probably does not rebound enough to have a serious shot at player of the year award honors (although it should be said that Wichita State was awesome at rebounding as a team, so maybe Early will benefit from having their two best rebounders gone) but he still belongs in the conversation.
6. Joe Harris, Sr. forward, Virginia
Harris probably looks less like a D1 basketball player than anyone else on this list, but don't let that fool you. He did not get to the rim often (23% of his shots) but still managed to shoot 50% from two last year. He also shot 42.5% from three last year, combining for a 56.2% eFG. Harris took about a fourth of the team's shots last year when he was on the floor, and that number could go up this season. If he raises either his assist or rebounding numbers, Harris could make a really good case for All America honors.
5. Julius Randle, Fr. forward, Kentucky
Randle is probably the 2nd best player in this year's Freshman class, and looked great in both the McDonald's All-American game as well as in the Nike Hoop Summit (though he looked much better in the former, probably due to the open, less game like nature of the contest). Randle can play both the 3 and the 4 and has the ability to run the floor very well for a big man, which should provide him plenty of opportunities to dunk the ball in transition. He'll score in plenty of ways and has a chance to be Kentucky's leading scorer and rebounder, which should put him in contention for player of the year honors assuming Kentucky grabs a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
4. Marcus Smart, So. guard, Oklahoma State
I have made it fairly publicly known that I'm not a Marcus Smart fan. He defends really well, to be fair, but his offensive game appears to be pretty lacking, and is a great teaching point as to why to not look at per game numbers.
Smart scored 15.4 points per game to lead the Cowboys, and averaged 4.2 assists per game, but Smart had an eFG of just 45.5%, and for some reason thought it was a good idea to shoot 131 threes despite making only 29% of them. Smart also had an assist rate of 26.8% paired with a 21.1% turnover rate, numbers that are slightly worse than Naadir Tharpe's, whom everyone thinks will torpedo Kansas's upcoming season.
Still, the media has fallen in love with Smart for some reason, and with the Cowboys likely to finish no worse than 2nd in the Big 12, the narrative should continue.
3. Russ Smith, Sr. guard, Louisville
Smith was the KenPom player of the year last year, thanks to his offensive rating of 109 while using almost a third of the national champion's possessions. Smith also went to the line a ton and made 80% of his free throws.
Defensively, Smith was the best on ball defender on one of the best defenses in the country, and that figures to continue next year.
This coming year Smith will indeed be the focus of the Cardinals offense, especially with Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng gone, and even though there will be more shots available for guys like Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell, Smith should use roughly the same amount of possessions and, assuming his assists will go up, if he stays at the same level of efficiency shooting wise, he should be a player of the year candidate.
2. Andrew Wiggins, Fr. forward, Kansas
Wiggins has been making waves in recruiting circles for what seems like forever, will probably be the #1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and has a pretty good chance of being the preseason national player of the year.
But, while Wiggins has served up plenty of YouTube worthy highlights, he is much more than a human highlight reel. It is no coincidence that the Hoop Summit international team won two years in a row for the first time with Wiggins on the roster. Though he shot poorly in this year's Hoop Summit, but added 9 rebounds and 6 assists. Wiggins is also a good defender, with the potential to be even better than that. And, given how Bill Self's teams defend, the chances of Wiggins becoming a monster on defense are very good indeed.
But if you're not interested in him as a complete player, just watch some crossovers and dunks.
1. Doug McDermott, Sr. forward, Creighton
McDermott has a real throwback game that media members and voters for these types of awards love, and as something he even cares about more I'm sure, he has the type of game I love to watch as well. McDermott, unlike the two players below him on this list, will provide no value defensively, but his offensive skills tend to make people forget about that.
McDermott can score in every different way: he took a basically equal number of shots at the rim, from two point jumpers, and from three. He shot 57% from two, 49% from three and 88% from the line. At 6'8" he can post up smaller players, but he is quick enough to get around most bigs who try to guard him. He took the 12th most shots of anyone in the country and had the 7th best true shooting percentage nationally, making him probably the best shooter in the country last year. He does not have the same upside as Wiggins or Randle (or even a guy like Smart probably) but people should know exactly what they are getting from McDermott, and that is a very valuable scorer.