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#pounditThursday, February 25, 2021

5 candidates to win college basketball’s National Player of the Year award

Luka Garza

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused programs across the country to pause, delay, reschedule, and relocate, college basketball is starting to settle in. A season that began with uncertainty is now barreling forward with the NCAA Tournament now set to be played entirely in Indiana this March and April.

With conference play underway, teams are beginning to rise and fall. Some are tournament-bound, and others have begun to struggle. Amidst that, we can start to see who the favorites are for the sport’s most notable individual awards.

Here are five players with a chance to take home those awards at season’s end.

Jalen Suggs, Drew Timme, and Corey Kispert – Gonzaga

It’s hard to separate the three Zags who have excelled so far this season, and it will be even more difficult for awards voters to do so. But if Alabama can have three of the top five finishers in the Heisman race, including the winner, then the same is possible in basketball. The nation’s best team deserves recognition –- it’s just a little difficult to parse who deserves the most credit for Gonzaga’s success.

Kispert, a fourth-year senior, is playing the best basketball of his life and leads the Zags in scoring at 21.6 points per game. He is shooting more than six 3-pointers per game and making more than half of those attempts. His shooting opens the Gonzaga offense up for all kinds of possibilities.

Jalen Suggs has been perhaps the best freshman in the nation. As the Zags’ main offensive initiator, he is carving up defenses and filling up boxscores. Suggs is averaging 13.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game. All of that is possibility outdone by his work on the defensive end, where he nabs 2.4 steals per night.

Lastly, Timme might be Mark Few’s most reliable player on a night-in and night-out basis. He has posted double-figure scoring in nine of Gonzaga’s 10 games, adding 7.3 rebounds per game. His ability to score on the block gives the lightning-fast Gonzaga attack a counter punch that teams simply can’t answer.

Other players will shine brighter than these Zags, without so much star power to compete with on their teams. Yet any of these three would be a worthy winner of the award.

Luka Garza – Iowa

Outside of Spokane, the first name mentioned for any national award will focus on Iowa’s Luka Garza. The big man is the nation’s second-leading scorer on a per game basis at 27.5 points per game. His lowest scoring game this year was a 16-point, 14-rebound, 4-block performance against North Carolina. With a body big enough to bruise on the block, and a jump shot that has resulted in 49 percent outside shooting, Garza is nearly impossible to contain for a 40-minute game.

His major drawback, and the reason you won’t see him mentioned in any NBA Draft discussions, is his defense. Garza is regularly flat-footed and out of position on that end of the floor. Voters will likely not factor that into their decisions, but it’s something to monitor as Iowa fights through the brutal Big Ten.

Ayo Dosunmu – Illinois

In any year without Garza in the conference, Ayo Dosunmu would be a shoo-in for Big Ten Player of the Year. The junior guard is posting 23.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game this season, while leading an Illini team with Final Four aspirations.

His ability to score or create offense for teammates off the dribble has fueled Illinois to a top-10 offense in the nation. The Illini shoot the 6th best 3-point percentage in the nation, in part due to the quality of shooter surrounding Dosunmu, but also thanks to the open looks he creates for other players on the perimeter.

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, Rotoballer, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

Photo: Alexander Jonesi/Flickr via CC-BY-SA 2.0

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