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#pounditFriday, July 23, 2021

Top 7 National Player of the Year candidates

Frank Mason Kansas

Even though college basketball doesn’t have an award as prestigious as the Heisman, finding and recognizing the most noteworthy performances across the nation is just as important as it is for football. With more than 350 teams, it can be difficult to separate the good from the truly great.

We have identified seven players who have been good enough to not just attract interest and acclaim, but also to potentially receive college basketball’s most important individual awards. Here’s a look at the top 7 candidates for National Player of the Year in college hoops.

1. Josh Hart, Villanova

No player has a better shot at collecting national individual honors than Villanova’s senior swingman. Not only is Hart the best player on one of the nation’s best teams, he does absolutely everything for his club.

Hart is averaging 18.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.5 steals per game for Villanova, while playing super efficiently on both ends of the floor. He’s making 50 percent of his field goals and 40 percent of his three-point attempts.

When watching the Wildcats, it can certainly feel like Hart takes a backseat to the ball-dominance of Jalen Brunson or the volume shooting of Kris Jenkins, but at the end of the game, his line in the box score always stands out.

He’s been a silent killer this season, always waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Against Creighton this weekend, he was quiet offensively for most of the game, while rebounding and playing great team defense. Then in crunch time he exploded and finished with 16 points. It was the perfect Josh Hart game.

2. Frank Mason, Kansas

The Kansas point guard has also received some recognition as the most productive player on a good team, but Frank Mason is so much more than that. His 20 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds per game are what make the Jayhawks go. He’s 5-foot-10 on his best day and plays 36 minutes per contest, all with an intensity and ferocity that drives the Jayhawks.

It’s difficult to find a flaw in Mason’s game.

He’s lightning quick and can get by any defender, drawing the fourth most fouls per game in the Big XII. But any opponent who gives Mason a step will regret it, with the senior sinking more than half his threes this season. He averages only 2.4 turnovers per game, despite handling the ball for the entire game and facing harsh Big XII defenses.

Any coach facing Kansas in March will have a tough time finding an answer for Frank Mason, especially in the fast-paced world of tournament play.

3. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga

Before we allow the power conference and East Coast bias to cloud anyone’s thinking about Nigel Williams-Goss’ play this season, let’s just debunk both right away. Not only has Williams-Goss been the catalyst of Gonzaga’s march of destruction through the West Coast Conference, where the Zags finished with the highest scoring margin in conference play since 1999 per Ken Pomeroy, but he’s shown his ability against the best teams on the Bulldogs’ schedule.

He notched 14 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists against Florida. He finished with 18 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists in the Zags’ win over Iowa State. He added 10 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists against Arizona.

Mark Few has never had this much talent at Gonzaga.

Williams-Goss, Johnathan Williams, and Jordan Mathews are transfers from power conference programs. Freshman Zach Collins is the Zags’ first ever McDonald’s All-American. Przemek Karnowski is 290 pounds of Polish dominance in the paint. Meshing all of those pieces together is easier said than done, and Williams-Goss has been a maestro orchestrated the perfect balanced attack. He’s scored when he’s had to, topping 30 points three times, and facilitated other times, recording six or more assists in eight games.

4. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue

If National Player of the Year voters stick to players on the top 10 teams, Hart, Mason, or Williams-Goss likely takes home the award. If they truly look to recognize the best individual performance this season, Purdue sophomore big man Caleb Swanigan deserves the award.

While Purdue has been the best team in a struggling Big Ten this season, it has been Swanigan leading the way. The monster in the middle has recorded a double-double in 23 of the Boilermakers’ 29 games this season and is chasing the all-time NCAA record of 31, set by David Robinson at Navy.

It’s easy to be enamored by scoring and assist numbers, but Swanigan’s ability to attack and control the glass can change a game. He grabs the third-highest percentage of available defensive rebounds in the nation, and has more boards than any player in college basketball. That ability to force opponent’s into a one-and-done possessions makes the Purdue defense so tough to crack.

Meanwhile, his offensive game has flourished. He’s a beast on the block at 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds, but has improved from a 29-percent outside shooter to a 46-percent shooter. Last season Swanigan’s tendency to drift to the three-point line and hoist jumpers was a flaw, but he’s turned that area of his game into a weapon.

5. Luke Kennard, Duke

If you were picking a National Player of the Year candidate from Duke’s roster at the beginning of the season, you would have had a bevvy of options. Maybe you would have taken Grayson Allen, a returning 20 point per game scorer. Maybe you’d have preferred one of their super freshman and likely lottery picks, Harry Giles or Jayson Tatum. Few would have expected that from Luke Kennard, a sophomore who had a good but not otherworldly first season in Durham.

He’s been spectacular, posting the 2nd best offensive rating, 6th best effective field goal percentage, and fourth best true shooting percentage in the stacked ACC. Analytics aside, good things have happened for Duke when the ball has been in Kennard’s hands.

Without a traditional point guard in the lineup, Kennard has had to adjust and not only be a primary playmaker on offense, but also the lead ball handler against pressure and in crunch time. He is averaging only 1.6 turnovers in 35 minutes on the floor and sinking a 84 percent of his free throws. That is the kind of player who you want with the ball in a tight game.

6. Dillon Brooks, Oregon

Brooks has been the heart and soul for Dana Altman’s Ducks this season.

No player shoots a higher percentage of his team’s field goals in the Pac-12 than Brooks, but he’s not wasting those opportunities.

Brooks has hit 45 percent of his threes, and 52 percent of his field goals. Most notably, Brooks has been huge in the clutch for Oregon this season.

Look no further than his two game-winning shots in the final second of games against UCLA and Cal for perfect examples of his contributions in the biggest moments.

7. Marcus Keane, Central Michigan

A guy from a 16-13 team in the Mid-American conference isn’t going to win any national awards, but Marcus Keane has damn sure tried.

He leads the nation in a litany of categories: points, field goals, field goal attempts, threes attempted, threes made, and total points produced. He has put on a show across the midwest. He’s the king of the isolation offense, finding shots from everywhere on the court. He’s dropped more than 30 points in 15 games, more than 40 five times, and even hit 50 against Miami (OH). That game included an absurd 10 for 15 from outside the arc and a perfect 10 for 10 from the free throw line.

If you haven’t observed the Marcus Keane experience yet, you need to change that. Tune in during the MAC Tournament, where Keane will be trying to shoot the Chippewas into the Big Dance.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about college basketball and the NBA 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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