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#pounditWednesday, August 12, 2020

5 leading candidates for college basketball’s National Player of the Year

Obi Toppin

As we careen towards March, one word will be ever-present in every college basketball broadcast, discussion, debate, and prediction this season: parity.

This season lacks a depth of great teams, with few, if any, surefire Elite Eight or Final Four clubs scattering the landscape. Instead, there are plausibly 35 teams that could make a deep run in the Big Dance, and at least a dozen teams with real hopes to cut down the nets in Atlanta.

Despite the excitement that parity might create, it has led to fewer blockbuster, must-see match-ups. Without those big games on the calendar each week, the National Player of the Year race has been quieted to an extent. Without a chance to impress in front of the brightest lights, this year’s top players haven’t been able to separate themselves and become household names.

These five players lead the race for the year end honors, though there is plenty of time for that to change down the stretch:

5. Vernon Carey, Duke

We’re splitting hairs to decipher who should receive the fifth spot. You can’t really go wrong in choosing from the handful of potential All-Americans that have played great this season, but there were a few reasons Carey elevated himself ever so slightly above Myles Powell of Seton Hall, Malachi Flynn of San Diego State, and Devon Dotson of Kansas. Of that group of four, Carey has been the most directly linked to his team’s success. Dotson is a part of a great team defense and sparks offense at Kansas, but has tons of help from talented teammates. Flynn is San Diego State’s best player, though the Aztecs have been incredibly well balanced. Powell puts up gaudy numbers but at a high volume, making him inefficient.

Duke has remained in the top five all season because Carey has anchored the paint for Coach K. When other Dukies battled injuries and shooting slumps, Carey was reliably in the middle, scoring and rebounding every night on the floor. He’s had only two single-digit scoring games and two games with fewer than five rebounds.

4. Markus Howard, Marquette

In his fourth season starring in Milwaukee, Howard has flown somewhat under-the-radar. That seems insane to say, given that he’s leading the nation in scoring, yet he’s received less hype and less recognition than other players this year. Howard’s fellow Big East senior guard Myles Powell receives a ton of attention, and rightfully so, but on an individual basis this year, it’s hard to argue that Powell has been superior to Howard.

Powell averages 21.7 points per game on 17.6 shots per game. Howard posts a national best 27.3 points on 19.5 shots per game. Howard also shoots a significantly better percentage from long range, is better at the free throw line (on far more attempts), and dishes out more assists. Seton Hall is a better team than Marquette, yet Howard has a leg up on Powell’s work this season. Fingers crossed that we hopefully see them square off at MSG in the Big East Tournament.

3. Payton Pritchard, Oregon

Speaking of senior point guards who aren’t receiving enough credit, Pritchard has been remarkable all season long. He has the Ducks tied atop the Pac-12 standings and has played the best basketball of his life this season.

Pritchard is notching 19.5 points, 5.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game this season, all while controlling the Oregon offense and playing lock-down defense. Dana Altman had always been able to rely on Pritchard, though not to the extent he’s had to this season. Pritchard is scoring more, shooting better, and seeing the floor better than ever, and it has the Ducks thinking Final Four once again.

2. Luka Garza, Iowa

There’s little doubt about who has been the best pure interior player in college basketball this season. Garza has dominated in the paint like few big men in recent past, hearkening back to the giants who controlled the game in the 1980s.

The junior center is scoring 23.7 points on 56 percent shooting from the field, while adding 9.7 rebounds per game. Garza has posted 13 double-doubles and 10 games with 25-or-more points this season. He’s consistently dismantled opposing frontcourts all season long. He’s even stretched his game to the perimeter.

Last season Garza shot under 30 percent on 72 attempts from outside the arc. This year, he’s already taken 85 threes and made 39 percent of his looks from long range.

1. Obi Toppin, Dayton

No player in college basketball has been as good from November to February as Toppin. He made a name for himself at the Maui Invitational, leading Dayton to the title game while averaging 22 points and 7 rebounds.

Toppin is a match-up nightmare, able to pound smaller defenders under the rim and blow by bigger, slower foes. In transition, he’s a freight train with trampoline-esque hops that allow him to finish in traffic. He’s the main reason Dayton hasn’t lost a game since December 21.

If he were to win National Player of the Year, he’d be the first mid-major player to do so since Jimmer Fredette in 2011, and just the fourth mid-major star to do so since 1997.

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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