The buzz about the Wooden Award candidates for the 2021-22 men's college basketball season continues to grow. But just as winning the national award for Player of the Year is worthy of bragging rights, so too is winning a conference's Player of the Year award. This season, the competition to be the top player is tight across each conference in the country. But we're sure the next stretch of college basketball will separate each winner from his closest rival and the rest of the pack.
So, we sorted through the chaos, to give you a sense of the race for top player of each league.
Navigate to each league:
American | America East | ACC | Atlantic Sun | A-10 | Big 12 | Big East | Big Sky | Big South | Big Ten | Big West | CAA | C-USA | Horizon | Ivy | MAAC | MAC | MEAC | MVC | MW | NEC | OVC | Pac-12 | Patriot | SEC | SoCon | Southland | SWAC | Summit | Sun Belt | WCC | WAC
American Athletic Conference
In December, Kelvin Sampson lost both Marcus Sasser, the team's leading scorer, and key contributor Tramon Mark to season-ending injuries. Those developments would ruin most teams' conference title aspirations. But Houston will enter Wednesday's key home game against SMU with an unblemished league record. Give Carlton a lot of credit for that. The 6-11 senior is averaging 14.6 PPG in league play and has shot 62% from inside the arc. With Carlton on the floor, the Cougars have averaged 114 points per 100 possessions, while holding opposing teams to just 84 points per 100 possessions, per hooplens.com.
America East Conference
Davis is not only the top contender for America East's Player of the Year, he's also the league's most challenging matchup. The 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 18.5 PPG in league play for a Vermont squad that's 10-0 in conference play. Davis is also in the top 10 in the conference in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage: He's made 58% of his 3-point attempts during his team's unbeaten streak in conference action, too. If he loses the award, it will only be because it has gone to teammate Ben Shungu, who's also made a strong case for the honor.
Top Competition: Ben Shungu, Vermont Catamounts (18.6 PPG, 59% from 3 in America East play)
The senior joins Davis as Vermont's one-two punch, which has dominated the league thus far.
Atlantic Coast Conference
It's never easy to live up to the hype when you're a five-star prospect and projected top-three pick in the upcoming NBA draft. But Banchero has been the most dominant force in the ACC and is one of the best players in the entire country. The freshman is averaging 18.5 PPG (second in the league), 9.5 RPG and 1.2 BPG in conference action for a Duke team that's positioned to send Mike Krzyzewski off with his 13th ACC regular-season crown. He's a 6-10 athlete who embodies the positionless approach to the modern game. He posted 13 points and 10 rebounds in Saturday's 87-67 win at North Carolina -- and if he continues to play at this level, he could help Duke secure another gift for Coach K in his last season: a national championship.
Atlantic Sun Conference
When McGhee is on the floor, Liberty connects on 58% of its shots inside the arc and 40% of its shots from beyond the arc, per hooplens.com. McGhee also leads the Atlantic Sun at 22.4 PPG in conference play. The 5-9 senior is one of the top players in the country pound-for-pound. He's made 45% of his shots from 3 and 96% from the free throw line in conference play. With McGhee as its leader, Liberty -- which entered the week in first place in the Atlantic Sun's East division -- has only lost one game since Christmas (9-1).
Atlantic 10 Conference
Effective field goal percentage measures a player's success from the field by increasing the value of 3s. It's a more accurate assessment than the traditional stat. Brajkovic (19.4 PPG) entered the week with a 71 effective field goal percentage -- a ridiculous number and the top mark in the Atlantic 10. As the leader of the A-10's top team, he has, per hoop-math.com, also made 80% of his shots at the rim, 49% of his jump shots and 46% of his 3-point attempts, all as a 6-10 athlete. He's also made 73% of his free throws in conference play.
Top Competition: Gibson Jimerson, Saint Louis Billikens (19.4 PPG, 50% from 3 in Atlantic-10 play)
Jimerson has been the offensive catalyst of a Saint Louis squad that won five consecutive games entering the week.
Collin Gillespie makes a nice move for an and-1 bucket against St. John's.
Big East Conference
The fifth-year senior returned for another season after suffering a knee injury that ended his 2020-21 campaign just before the NCAA tournament. And now that he's healthy again, the Wildcats are chasing another Big East crown. What's more, he doesn't look like a player who had to spend a chunk of his preseason in rehab to get back to 100%. He's averaging 18.7 PPG and connecting on 39% of his shots from beyond the arc in league play. With Gillespie on the floor, Villanova has generated 110 points per 100 possessions and committed turnovers on just 14.1% of those possessions, per hooplens.com.
Top Competition: Justin Lewis, Marquette Golden Eagles (17.7 PPG)
The second-year player has shot 41% from 3 as Marquette remains in contention for a Big East title in Shaka Smart's first season at the helm.
Big Sky Conference
The NCAA's pandemic rules have paid off for the Weber State star, who's putting up 19.1 PPG and shooting 39% from 3 in league play in his sixth year with his third school (after stints at Marquette and Utah State). The 6-4 wing has shot 43% from 3 in transition, according to hoop-math.com. The Wildcats started the week atop the Big Sky standings, with McEwen leading the way for a program pursuing its first Big Sky tournament championship and NCAA tournament appearance since 2016. He is essential for Randy Rahe's squad.
Top Competition: Daylen Kountz, Northern Colorado Bears (23.0 PPG, 58% clip inside the arc in Big Sky)
Northern Colorado is hovering just above .500 in league play because of the efforts of the league's top scorer.
Big South Conference
The 6-9 forward would be following tradition if he secured the Big South's Player of the Year award: A player from Winthrop has captured the honor in the three of the past five seasons. It would be easy enough for him to do so, too: Burns is an automatic bucket whenever he gets touches in the paint. He's made 75% of his shots at the rim this season, per hoop-math.com. Which is also why the Eagles are 9-2 in their past 11 games. But Burns' defensive presence matters, too. He's averaged 2.9 BPG for the Eagles -- who started the week atop the Big South's south division -- in league play.
Christian Braun finds Ochai Agbaji for an emphatic alley-oop dunk in the second half vs. Texas Tech.
Big 12 Conference
Last summer, Agbaji could have rolled the dice and entered the NBA draft. Instead, the senior decided to work on his game and return to school. This season, Agbaji has turned himself into a projected first-round pick in this year's NBA draft, per ESPN's latest mock draft. He embodies what's possible when players follow their own paths. He entered the week leading the Big 12 with 22.0 PPG in conference games. He's shot 47% from 3 and 54% from inside the arc. A strong contender for the Wooden Award, Agbaji is rated as "excellent" (57.1% clip in transition, while holding opponents to 4-for-17 as a defender on iso plays) on offense and defense by Synergy Sports data. He's put together a special season with the Jayhawks and elevated his earning potential at the next level, too.
Johnny Davis makes a beautiful dish to Stephen Crowl, who snags it and finishes with a score.
Big Ten Conference
Davis racked up 6,572 yards and scored 90 touchdowns as a high school quarterback. Now, he's excelling at a different game. The 6-5 sophomore has turned Wisconsin -- a preseason afterthought -- into a Big Ten title contender with second-weekend aspirations, after averaging 20.8 PPG and 9.7 RPG through his first 12 Big Ten contests. His impact? When Davis isn't on the court for the Badgers, Greg Gard's squad averages just 95 points per 100 possessions.
Top Competition: Kofi Cockburn, Illinois Fighting Illini (20.5 PPG, 11.8 RPG)
No one would be surprised if the Illinois star, who's also a national Player of the Year contender, won the Big Ten's top honor.
Big West Conference
The top player for a squad that entered the week tied for first place with Long Beach State in the Big West, Anosike has made 46% of his shots against man-to-man defense and 61% of his shots against zone, according to Synergy Sports data. The 6-7 standout also has four double-doubles in league play thus far and has made 81% of his free throw attempts. He has a chance to lead the Titans to their second NCAA tournament appearance in 14 years.
Top Competition: Joel Murray, Long Beach State Beach (17.9 PPG in league play)
The junior guard had led Long Beach State, tied for first place in the Big West, on an eight-game winning streak entering the week.
Colonial Athletic Association
If you go back to his freshman year of high school, Estrada is on his fifth stop. He attended two different high schools, and Hofstra is his third college after stints at Oregon and Saint Peter's. But he's found a home with the Pride. The 6-3 junior is averaging 24.1 PPG in conference action for a squad that entered the week in a tie for third place in the league. He's also made 59% of his shots inside the arc during league play. Estrada's a difference-maker for the Pride: Hofstra has averaged an additional 13 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor compared to when he's on the bench, per hooplens.com.
Top Competition: Camren Wynter, Drexel Dragons (16.7 PPG and a perfect 29-for-29 mark from the free throw line in CAA action entering the week)
Wynter leads a Drexel squad that is fourth in offensive efficiency in the CAA, per KenPom.
Louisiana Tech's Kenneth Lofton Jr. finishes off a strong and-1 for the Bulldogs.
If you ask the folks who covered the U-19 national team's run to the world championship -- Gonzaga's Chet Holmgren won MVP of the tournament -- Lofton was vital in winning the gold medal in Latvia. At 6-foot-7, 275 pounds, he's a big body with a high IQ who, as one NBA scout told ESPN recently, "just knows how to play the game." This season, Lofton's averaging 17.3 PPG and 11.0 RPG. He's shot 50% from inside the arc this season, too. Lofton is a fantastic player who has a chance to carry Louisiana Tech to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.
Davis has been on the floor for 94.5% of his team's available minutes, per KenPom. He's essentially everything for a Detroit team that entered the week with a 6-4 conference record. He's currently leading the country in scoring at 23.3 PPG. But Davis, the son of Detroit head coach Mike Davis, is also connecting on 38% of his 3-point shots and 88% of his free throw attempts. It would be a storybook season if the senior guard could win Player of the Year and lead his team to the NCAA tournament via the conference tournament championship -- which would give his father his first appearance in the field of 68 during his tenure in the Motor City.
Swain's 37-point performance in Yale's 83-72 win vs. Columbia last month established the top individual scoring mark of the Ivy League season thus far. Swain entered this week with 11 performances this season with at least 21 points. In conference play, first-place Yale has made 53.3% of its shots inside the arc with Swain on the floor and just 42% without him. That shows his significance for a team that's searching for its third NCAA tournament appearance under James Jones.
Top Competition: Noah Kirkwood, Harvard Crimson (21.0 PPG in Ivy League play)
Kirkwood leads a team that has lost a game to both Yale and Penn -- No. 1 and No. 2 in the Ivy League standings entering the week, respectively -- by just seven points combined.
Nelly Junior Joseph denies Alabama Crimson Tide with stuff
Rick Pitino didn't need a lot of time to remake Iona and turn the Gaels into a mid-major force again. Joseph has played a key role in that evolution, helping the Gaels win its first 11 MAAC games before Saturday's 80-71 road loss to Niagara. The 6-9 sophomore is averaging 12.8 PPG, 7.1 RPG and 1.8 BPG in league play thus far. With him on the floor, Iona has held opponents to just 91 points per 100 possessions, per hooplens.com. Iona has the most efficient offense in the league, but it's also second in defensive efficiency -- in part because of Joseph.
Last year, the Bobcats made a remarkable run to the NCAA tournament, with Jason Preston and his Disney-ready story -- he was playing rec league basketball when college coaches found him -- amplified when the team soared to a win over Virginia in the first round. Continuity, however, is the best sign of a good program. Sears played limited minutes at point guard behind Preston last season, but now he's the leader. And he's understood the assignment: the sophomore guard is averaging 21.3 PPG and 4.5 APG in MAC play for a squad that entered the week atop the MAC with a 10-1 record. Sears has been the anchor of a crew that has lost just one game since Dec. 1.
The MEAC schedule has been significantly disrupted by Covid-related interruptions. Entering the week, the teams in the league had played anywhere from five to seven conference games. For comparison: most of the Big Ten had played 12 games at the same stage. Through the chaos, Bryant has been a bright spark for first-place Norfolk State, averaging 21.1 PPG, No. 1 in the league. A MEAC tournament championship would give Bryant and the Spartans back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, and their second run to the Round of 32 since 2012, when 15-seed Kyle O'Quinn and Co. upset 2-seed Missouri.
Top Competition: Justin Wright, North Carolina Central Eagles (20.6 PPG in MEAC action)
Wright scored 20 points in last week's win over Norfolk State and finished with 25 points in his team's win over Coppin State on Saturday.
Missouri Valley Conference
Four years ago, Williamson was a freshman on a Loyola Chicago squad that made a wild run to the Final Four with Sister Jean, the popular nun who accompanied the team. Now he's the veteran leader and hoping to take the Ramblers farther than last season's Sweet 16 run since that Final Four trip. There's a new coach -- Drew Valentine is one of the youngest coaches in America at 30 years old -- but the pedigree remains. Williamson is averaging 16.0 PPG and connecting on 49% of his 3-point attempts in MVC action.
Mountain West Conference
Wyoming has a unique distinction as the team that competes at the highest altitude in Division I basketball (7,200 feet above sea level). The Cowboys are rising in the standings, too. Ike (21.0 PPG, 9.8 RPG in Mountain West play) has played a significant role in his team's status as one of two teams with just one conference loss in the league. Wyoming entered the week on a four-game winning streak that included victories over three top-60 KenPom teams (Boise State, Colorado State and Fresno State), which has helped the program play its way into the field of 68 in Joe Lunardi's latest bracketology. Ike's reliability -- he's shot 51% from inside the arc in league play -- has been the anchor of the Cowboys' success.
Undefeated and in first place in the league entering the week, Wagner has shot 57% inside the arc and forced turnovers on nearly one-quarter of its opponents' possessions with Morales on the court, per hooplens.com. The 6-6 guard is the reigning NEC Player of the Year, and he's coming for another trophy this season after averaging 17.3 PPG and 7.2 RPG in league play. He's also shot 39% from 3 this season -- although those numbers have slipped since conference play started. He's leading a program that's on a 13-game winning streak entering Thursday's game against Mount St. Mary's.
Top Competition: Peter Kiss, Bryant Bulldogs (17.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.5 APG, 2.0 SPG in NEC play)
If he can keep his emotions in check -- Kiss is currently serving a two-game suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct -- he is capable of leading Bryant to a conference crown.
Ohio Valley Conference
With his former team celebrating another win as it sits atop the Ohio Valley Conference standings, Ja Morant tweeted, "job not done." The Memphis Grizzlies star has been paying close attention as the Racers aim for their first trip to the NCAA tournament since he led them to the second round. Brown (15.6 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 3.1 APG, 81% from the free throw line in league play) was a member of that team, and now he's leading a program that has just one loss -- at No. 1 Auburn on Dec. 22 -- since Nov. 22. Nine of Murray State's 12 conference wins have been by double digits. Morant taught Brown, who has shot 40% from 3, well. He has been the catalyst for Murray State.
UCLA's Johnny Juzang sinks buzzer-beater to end the half
The Pac-12 Player of the Year race is complicated. You could make the case for four or five other players: Arizona has three contenders, and Washington's Terrell Brown Jr., and USC's Isaiah Mobley can't be overlooked, either. Even with the Bruins' back-to-back losses entering the week though, Juzang has been the most consistent player, and he's carrying the heaviest load for a legit Pac-12 contender. His 18.8 PPG and 37% clip from beyond the arc in Pac-12 play can't be ignored.
Top Competition: Bennedict Mathurin, Arizona Wildcats (15.8 PPG in league play)
Mathurin, Azuolas Tubelis or Christian Koloko could all win this award for a squad that entered the week in first place in the league's standings in Tommy Lloyd's first year at the helm.
At 6-10, Mathon is a dominant presence for a squad that entered the week third in the Patriot League, and he's essential for the Terriers' title aspirations. With Mathon on the floor, Boston University has held opposing teams to 94 points per 100 possessions, per hooplens.com. Mathon himself is averaging 17.7 PPG while leading the conference in rebounding (11.1 RPG). He's shot 56% inside and arc and registered at least 18 points in seven conference matchups. The senior forward could lead Boston University to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011. He is one of the most imposing players in the league.
Top Competition: Jalen Rucker, Army Black Knights (17.1 PPG, 41% from 3 in league play)
Rucker hopes to help Army -- one of the original Division I college basketball programs -- get hot in the coming weeks and go after its first ever NCAA tournament appearance.
Elijah Weaver drains a corner 3-pointer after a half-court assist from Malachi Smith.
There are moments when you watch Tshiebwe (15.8 PPG, 15.2 RPG in SEC play) and you feel like a teacher should stop the game and tell him to go and play with the big kids. He has a physical advantage over every player in college basketball, which he has used to become the most dominant player in the country and a strong contender for the Wooden Award. He's an outstanding rebounding, and Kentucky thrives on those second-chance opportunities by connecting on 38% of its 3-point attempts, the top mark in the SEC. With Tshiebwe in the paint, John Calipari has a shot to win another national championship a decade after leading the Wildcats to a title in 2012. The Final Four will be held in New Orleans, the same city where Kentucky captured that title 10 years ago.
Smith is one of the top two-way players in college basketball. The Southern Conference's leader in steals (2.5 SPG), Smith leads a defensive unit that has held opponents to just 94 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, according to hooplens.com. But his offensive prowess is notable too: he entered the week averaging 20.9 PPG and connecting on 80% of his free throw attempts in league play. He's a star for a Chattanooga squad that entered the week in first place in league.
The Jacksonville State transfer leads a team that's navigating a conference season impacted by Covid-related interruptions and currently sits at the top of the league with a 9-1 record in its past 10 games. St. Hilaire is averaging 25.0 PPG in league play, and he has also made 81% of his attempts from the charity stripe and 1.8 steals per game. St. Hilaire hopes to lead the Privateers to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2017 and its second since 1996.
Last year, Abmas was one of the stars of the NCAA tournament when he led 15-seed Oral Roberts to the Sweet 16 via wins over Ohio State by scoring 29 points and Florida with 26 points before the Golden Eagles lost to Arkansas (he scored 25) in a thriller of a game. Abmas has picked up where he left off last season. The 6-0 guard (23.0 PPG) entered the week a few tenths of a point behind Detroit's Antoine Davis for the NCAA scoring title. His Oral Roberts squad meanwhile entered the week in second place in the league behind South Dakota State after a 9-2 stretch. Abmas, who has connected on 40% of his 3-point attempts in league play this season, hopes Oral Roberts will enjoy another run in the NCAA tournament.
Top Competition: Baylor Scheierman, South Dakota State Jackrabbits (17.9 PPG, 8.3 RPG in Summit League play)
He leads a team that's No. 1 in offensive and defensive efficiency in the conference, per KenPom.
Sun Belt Conference
With Delph on the floor, Appalachian State has committed turnovers on just 14.2% of its possessions and held opponents to just 92 points per 100 possessions, according to hooplens.com. He's averaging 19.8 PPG and has connected on 41% of his 3-point attempts in Sun Belt play for a team that's pushing for another conference title. Last year, Delph helped the Mountaineers win the Sun Belt tournament and the league's automatic berth to the NCAA tournament (Appalachian State would lose to Norfolk State in the First Four).
It's not uncommon for a top player to log major minutes for a team, especially at this point in the season. But Randolph puts in more time than any player in the country. Per KenPom, the senior guard has played 96.8% of the available minutes for his team. If he sustains this load, it would be tied for the highest tally since 2009. Randolph currently leads the SWAC with 20.2 PPG for a Florida A&M squad that entered the week one game out of first place.
Last season, Covid restrictions in New Mexico banned team competition for the state's Division I basketball teams, so the Aggies were forced to move to a resort in Phoenix. Now back home and comfortable, Allen (21.9 PPG, 7.2 RPG in WAC play) and Co. are demonstrating the fruits of that comfort, putting New Mexico State atop the league standings entering the week. It helps that the 6-6 junior has been sharp everywhere in league play: 40% from 3, 63% inside the arc and 85% from the free throw line.
West Coast Conference
The Minnesota native arrived as a projected top pick in this summer's NBA draft, and he has only backed up that hype. Something odd initially happened to him and the Zags early in the season: The Bulldogs lost to Duke and Alabama in a difficult stretch, and some of the buzz about their national title hopes simmered. But Holmgren has been cooking in the shadows. He's averaging 17.4 PPG, 10.6 RPG and 3.5 BPG in WCC action for a team pursuing another top seed in the NCAA tournament. The 7-1 center, who can run the floor like a guard, is everything we thought he would be at this level, and more.
Top Competition: Drew Timme, Gonzaga Bulldogs (19.1 PPG in WCC play)
If Holmgren loses the award, it will only be because he finished second to his teammate in the race.