With a month left before the NCAA tournament begins, there is a legitimate race for the National Player of the Year.
And in the Year of the Versatile Forward, it makes sense. College basketball hasn’t seen a year of top big men like this since 2009, when the top three finishers for the Wooden Award and the top four for the Naismith Award were all forwards and centers.
In that year, Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin ran away with both awards, blowing by Pittsburgh’s DeJuan Blair, Connecticut’s Hasheem Thabeet and the 2008 Wooden Award winner, North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough. The top college guard that season, Davidson’s Stephen Curry, had a standout season but his team ended up in the NIT.
That season did have a lot of talented, well-known guards, led by Curry, UNC’s Ty Lawson, Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks, Memphis’ Tyreke Evans and Arizona State’s James Harden. All were in the final ballot of that season's straw poll.
As for this season, the top six vote-getters in this week’s poll were forwards, and 12 of 17 players mentioned by the 54 pollsters who responded were forwards or centers. Players like Michigan State’s Draymond Green and West Virginia’s Kevin Jones, now among the best players in the nation, were freshmen during that 2009 season and are now in this straw poll as seniors.
For those who missed the first two polls, here’s a recap of how it all works: Each pollster sends us their top three. A first-place vote is worth three points, a second-place vote worth two and a third-place vote worth one. Every voter is granted anonymity. Every voter has a voice in at least one of the four major college basketball player of the year awards: Wooden, Naismith, Associated Press or Robertson (the USBWA award).
-- For the third straight ballot, 17 players were represented. They come from 11 conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Sky, Big Ten, MAAC, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Ohio Valley, SEC and West Coast). Just one school, Missouri, had multiple players on the ballot -- Denmon and Ratliffe.
-- Four players are making their first ballot of the season -- Johnson-Odom, Canaan, Anosike and Rob Jones. Five players dropped off from the second ballot: UNC’s Harrison Barnes, Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins, Maryland’s Terrell Stoglin, Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Miami (Ohio)’s Julian Mavunga. In addition, the poll had its first returning player after being knocked off the ballot. Denmon was in the first poll, off the second and returns for the third.
-- The biggest mover was Davis, who jumped from fourth to second. Even more so, he went from being on 16 ballots to 47 ballots and from 30 points to 112 points. He also went from four first-place votes to 20. McDermott had the biggest drop, falling from second to fourth and from 70 points to 15.
-- In what is shaping up as a two-man race, only Robinson and Davis received first-place votes. On the second ballot, seven players received first-place votes: Robinson, McDermott, Sullinger, Davis, Kevin Jones and two players completely off this poll -- Barnes and Jenkins.
-- Player on the poll who should be getting more attention: Scott. This is the second poll I’ve mentioned this. His statistical numbers might not be as strong as others, but he consistently faces opponent double-teams and the exceedingly slow pace the Cavaliers play at limits Scott’s possessions to put up huge numbers.
-- Three players not in the poll who should get more attention: Iona guard Scott Machado, who continues to be one of the nation’s top passers, averaging 10 assists a game. Iowa State forward Royce White, while not putting up monster numbers, has been the key cog to the Cyclones' attempt to make a run at the NCAA tournament and is a matchup nightmare for any team facing him. Syracuse guard Dion Waiters, who while being the Orange’s sixth man, has been a major reason for their success averaging 12.2 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists in just 23.7 minutes -- minutes much lower than any other contender. Three of the four players mentioned here two weeks ago ended up in this poll. The other was Seton Hall’s Herb Pope.
So what comes next? Here is a look at the next two weeks for the main contenders.
-- Sullinger has three marquee games that could give him one last push. He’ll be on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET Saturday against rival No. 19 Michigan, then faces elite big man Meyers Leonard and Illinois on Feb. 21 and No. 17 Wisconsin on Feb. 26.
-- Davis faces Ole Miss on Saturday, goes to Mississippi State on Feb. 21 and then faces Vanderbilt on Feb. 25.
-- Robinson has a major statement game on Feb. 25 against Missouri as well as three games against three teams at the bottom of the Big 12: Texas Tech (Saturday), Texas A&M (Feb. 22) and Oklahoma State (Feb. 27).