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Saturday, February 29, 2020

5 early candidates to win National Player of the Year

Devon Dotson

This college basketball season has been as jumpy and rickety so far as your favorite, or maybe I should say least favorite, roller coaster.

Five different teams have been ranked No. 1. There are only four unbeaten teams left, but only one of those clubs (Auburn) has played a top 200 ranked schedule to date, per KenPom. Picking a team to win the national title right now is a fool’s errand, let alone trying to single out the teams capable of surviving two weekends in March to advance to the Final Four in Atlanta. It might make even less sense to get even more granular and search for Player of the Year candidates. Usually the short list of names for the sport’s handful of season ending awards comes from the top of the AP Poll, with the best teams housing the best players.

Right now, it’s flat-out unclear who the best teams are. If you took a poll for national Player of the Year this week, you’d see some consensus, but some ballots would include multiple players that other ballots completely excluded.

Still, someone is bound to not only win the award, but also to earn recognition over the next several months. Based on the early going, these five names lead the Player of the Year race.

5. Cole Anthony, North Carolina

If we were basing awards simply on which player has performed the best so far this season, it would be hard not to reward Anthony for his current season. Surrounded by one of Roy Williams worst teams in memory, Anthony has carried the load essentially on his own, contributing 19.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. Everything the Tar Heels accomplish offensively, or even try to accomplish, runs through Cole Anthony’s hands.

His hands haven’t been the problem of late, with news that the freshman phenom will miss four to six weeks with an ankle injury. He’d have to be spectacular upon his return to earn buzz as National Player of the Year, yet he can’t really be counted out because he has the opportunity and talent to do so.

4. Markus Howard, Marquette

As a fourth year senior, some voters may be fatigued by Howard and require him to really post eye-popping stats to earn their recognition. So far, he’s doing just that. The 5-foot-11 guard is averaging 25.4 points per game and sinking 45 percent of the eight-plus threes he attempts every game. He has three nights over 38 points this season, including a night with 9 made threes and 51 points versus USC.

Since Markus Howard’s freshman season at Marquette, there have been 11 games in which a player scored 50 points. He has three such games. No one else has more than one.

3. Jordan Nwora, Louisville

Few players will be able to match Nwora’s credentials at season’s end in terms of team and individual success. The Cardinals have just one loss — a neutral court defeat at the hands of Texas Tech — and should compete for the ACC crown and a top seed in March. Meanwhile, Nwora has been the team’s heart and soul. He’s posting 21.3 points and 7.5 points per game, as a 6-foot-5 guard. Nwora’s 44 percent outside shooting and ruthlessness when attacking the rim make him one of the toughest players to stop in college basketball.

2. Obi Toppin, Dayton

If you’re looking for a candidate with a little more pizzazz and something of a “Heisman moment,” so to speak, Toppin is likely your leader in the clubhouse. At the Maui Invitational, Toppin looked like the best player in college basketball, carrying the Flyers to the title game. Though Dayton lost to Kansas in overtime, Toppin and the Flyers opened eyes across the nation. Toppin’s week may have peaked with a stare down of the Kansas bench with a soon-to-be-sunk three still in mid-flight. He’s averaging 21 points and 8 rebounds, with no game below 16 points yet this season.

It may be tough for an Atlantic 10 player to win a nation award, but with seven teams from the conference in the KenPom top 100, matching the American Athletic Conference, this could be the year to take advantage.

1. Devon Dotson, Kansas

In a season without any clear favorite for the award, the default vote is for the best player on the best team. For now, that looks like Dotson. Kansas is the current musical chairs champion atop the polls, holding the number one spot for the first time this season following a 9-1 start. The Jayhawks’ lone loss came in their season opener against Duke at the Champions Classic, by just two points in an ugly but close game.

Dotson has played better than the nominal “best player by default” and would be worthy of the award if he continues his current play throughout the season. The sophomore point guard is averaging 19.6 points, 4.8 assists, and 2.2 steals per game.

With the daunting Big XII schedule ahead for Kansas, Bill Self will rely on Dotson to steady the offense, defend opposing guards relentlessly, and continue to be aggressive. This season Dotson is attacking the paint, to the tune of nearly seven free throw attempts per night.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.


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