Will Young Win NPOY In Spite Of OU's Struggles?
The most polarizing on-the-court debate in college basketball right now is whether or not Oklahoma freshman phenom Trae Young deserves National Player of the Year. CBS Sports' Matt Norlander explores whether or not Young will set the precedent of winning NPOY while on a bubble team.
Young was the unequivocal front-runner for the first 10 weeks of the season. But over the past six weeks, his production and efficiency have sloped downward.
With that dip has come a bigger swoon for the Sooners, including a 1-7 record in February that has put the team in jeopardy of missing in the NCAA Tournament. On Jan. 15: Oklahoma was 14-2, top-five in the polls, 4-1 in the Big 12 and the story of college basketball thanks to Young flirting with a 30-and-11 average in points and assists. Since then Oklahoma's gone 3-10 and Young has aggressively regressed to the mean.
Can a National Player of the Year come from a bubble team?
That precedent could be set this season, yes. Young's huge head start on the field -- combined with no other player having a dominant statistical season on a team vying for a No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 seed -- has allowed Oklahoma's 6-foot-2 engine of offense (and abundant creator of turnovers) to maintain a narrowing edge.
It does feel like the many NPOY awards could wind up getting split this year, though. As we head into the final weekend of the regular season, it seems as though we've been gifted with one of the more wide-open races of the past 10-15 seasons.
College hoops, for better or worse, does not have a Heisman Trophy equivalent. There are six traditional NPOY awards (Wooden, Naismith, Oscar Robertson, AP, NABC and Sporting News, which predates the other five). The voting deadline for those awards are not universal. Some will conclude at the end of the regular season. Others finalize once the league tournaments are done. Here at CBS Sports, we like to weigh some NCAA Tournament performance into our decision without having the national championship influence our thinking. Our All-America and Player of the Year picks are decided during the week leading up to the Final Four.
All of this is preamble for a primer on where Young stands vs. the rest of the field. Eight of the top 10 teams at KenPom.com have a contender; Virginia and Gonzaga are the only squads that don't have players who apply. All told, I count 13 (!) players who are worthy of at least discussing for NPOY at this point. That number might seem obscenely large, but I'm taking into account our own voting timeline for NPOY here at CBS Sports. Some players listed below will not reasonably be considered because they don't have enough time left to make up ground on the four players considered a level above.
But -- spoiler alert -- if Carsen Edwards averages 24 points en route to pushing Purdue to its first Final Four in decades then yeah, he'll have a great case for our National Player of the Year. If any one of these guys rallies their team to a Final Four and winds up posting numbers that equal or better their current averages, they'll have a great shot at of winning the honor here at CBS Sports.
Trae Young vs. everybody: Here's who's still in the NPOY mix. I've separated the players into three tiers. The top tier are the only players reasonably in the running to win NPOY by the end of this weekend. The second tier are guys who, if they have huge conference tournament performances, could well vault atop the list. The bottom tier are players who've had great seasons but would need big games and deep NCAA Tournament runs to come out on top.
1. Trae Young, Oklahoma freshman point guard
Young is still the favorite in the eyes and minds of a lot of college basketball coaches and media. After 29 games Young is averaging 28.0 points and 9.0 assists -- tops in the nation. Let's remember how impressive it is to average 28 points in a 40-minute college game, and particularly emphasize that Young has done it while playing in the toughest league in college basketball. Also, as you know, no one has ever led the nation in scoring and assists. To do so would be so historic it would be hard not to give NPOY to such a player. He's also one of the better-rebounding point guards in the nation (3.9 per game). Yes, the turnovers are glaring. Young gives it away 5.3 times per game. But Oklahoma averages 77 possessions per game -- fourth most in college hoops.
2. Jalen Brunson, Villanova junior point guard
Brunson has steadily built up a good case over the course of the year. His numbers (19.1 ppg, 4.8 apg, 3.0 rpg, 52.6 field goal percentage) are obviously worthy of NPOY status. On Wednesday night he willed Villanova to an overtime win against Seton Hall. Plus, he's on a team projected as a No. 1 seed, which is obviously boosting his case. Voters might take other things into account, such as the classic, intangible, philosophical question: Who do you want the ball with in the closing seconds of a one-possession game? For some, Brunson has become the undebatable pick. Still, mildly ironically, he could win this award despite Villanova failing to win the Big East regular-season crown (this will be settled this weekend) for the first time since that league went to 10 teams.
3. Devonte' Graham, Kansas senior point guard
For those who will put their votes in at the end of the regular season, Graham's the only other player with a shot to get a lot of votes and rub elbows with Brunson and Young. He's here thanks to a tremendous February in which he guided Kansas to a 6-2 record, averaged 18.9 points during the month and clinched a 14th straight regular season title for the Jayhawks. (He was spectacular last weekend.) This season, Graham's averaging 17.7 points, 7.2 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 1.6 steals. One glaring statistic: his 40.9 field goal percentage. But like Brunson, he's going to get votes because he's the star of a team currently on the 1 line.
4. Deandre Ayton, Arizona freshman center
I'd have Ayton ahead of Graham given how amazing he's been. Thing is, Arizonahasn't been as good as Kansas -- and obviously the recent/disputed reports about Ayton receiving six-figure payments to play for the Wildcats could hurt his chances. Bill Walton even said as much on last weekend's telecast of the Arizona-Oregon game. But on the floor? Ayton's a fascinating freak of an athlete. He's averaging 19.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks while shooting 61.1 percent. Half the time he truly looks unstoppable. If he averages 23 and 12 en route to an Arizona Pac-12 title, he will deserve serious consideration considering that Allonzo Trier may well not be on the floor to help Arizona and Sean Miller, well, we'll see what becomes of his situation soon.
5. Jock Landale, Saint Mary's senior center
Have you watched this guy play? He's unquestionably one of the sport's best. Landale is No. 1 in KenPom's player-of-the-year formula, too. I'd love to put him in the tier above, but the fact is that when you're at Saint Mary's and you don't even win your regular season title in a left coast league (Gonzaga again!), you're fighting an uphill battle. Still, the big Aussie is averaging 21.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists. His field goal percentage is 64.2 percent, which is the highest of any player on this list but also the best considering that he's taken 408 shots -- far more than anyone else in college hoops who is top-10 in field goal percentage. A pox on voters' houses if Landale keeps up his play in the WCC tourney and doesn't get First Team All-America honors.
6. Trevon Bluiett, Xavier senior shooting guard
Another player on a team vying for a No. 1 seed. Bluiett is an easy choice. His averages (19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 43.6 from 3) are only part of the story. The Musketeers have locked up a share of the regular-season title in the Big East, the first time they've done so. Bluiett has been a clutch performer all season; he's recognized as one of the best players in school history. His offensive rating at KenPom is a beautiful 122.2. If Xavier wins the Big East tournament to secure a No. 1 seed and Bluiett has a pair of 30-point games, how could anyone think Brunson deserves Player of the Year over him?
7. Marvin Bagley III, Duke freshman power forward
Interesting situation here, as Duke's maybe playing itself out of having a NPOY candidate despite having a good case for a No. 2 seed. When Bagley missed four games, Grayson Allen stepped in and returned to his sophomore season self. Bagley's struggled over the month of February; he's averaging 15.4 and 9.0 rebounds in the past five games he's played. Those are good numbers, but down from his averages of 20.7 points and 11.1 rebounds this season. He's also putting up 1.6 assists and shooting 60.3 percent. But if Bagley pulls out a couple of 30-and-15 games and Duke wins the ACC tournament, he's going to vault to legitimate contender.
8. Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State junior power forward
Here's your Big Ten Player of the year. Ohio State's the 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament in good portion because Bates-Diop finally tapped into his talent and motor to average 19.2 points, 8.9 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.7 blocks. You might think that a player such as him isn't deserving of being on this list, but I'd disagree. OSU's one of the best stories this season and Bates-Diop has been good, consistently, since November. That said, his only shot of winning NPOY would be here at CBS Sports, and in order to do so, he'd probably have to get Ohio State to the Final Four.
9. Miles Bridges, Michigan State sophomore small forward
Michigan State is 28-3. There are no other teams with three losses in college basketball, and the only team with fewer is 26-2 Virginia. Bridges was the overwhelming preseason NPOY favorite -- a reasonable groupthink turn of events that I was still skeptical of back in October -- so it's safe to say he's fallen short of those expectations. Still, Bridges has been a star: 16.8 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 46.6 field goal percentage this season. Thing is, Cassius Winston, who has been a maniac from 3-point range, is probably MSU's most valuable player. And Jaren Jackson Jr. is MSU's most talented. Nevertheless, Bridges has been the team's best overall. He should be on this list.
10. Luke Maye, North Carolina junior power forward
Maye's chances have taken a hit because UNC has as many losses as any other team represented on this list. And now comes a road game agains Duke. If UNC loses two more times before Selection Sunday, it's going to be really hard for Maye to overcome even with a deep NCAA Tournament push. Still, he's got to be on this list because he's got terrific numbers: 17.9 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 51.5 percent from the field. He's also a 46.2 percent shooter from 3. Few players have been as efficient and well-rounded as Maye.
11. Jevon Carter, West Virginia senior point guard
I know West Virginia has eight losses, but this is still a KenPom top-10 team. Carter could be this year's Sindarius Thornwell. Last season -- all of last season -- Thornwell was the best two-way player in college hoops. He balled out in the NCAA Tournament and got South Carolina to the Final Four. Because of that, we named him First Team All-America at CBS Sports and gave him strong NPOY consideration before giving it to Frank Mason of Kansas. If Carter got WVU to the Final Four, he'd be a similar candidate. His numbers are nice: 17.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.9 steals a game, but only 42 percent from the field.
12. Carsen Edwards, Purdue sophomore point guard
Purdue's got a great starting five, it's fighting for a No. 2 seed, and Carsen Edwards has emerged as one of the best sophomores in college basketball. He's a lot better than you realize: 18.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 47.4 from the field, 40.5 from 3 behind the arc. He's got no shot for NPOY recognition pre-Selection Sunday, but if Purdue gets to the Final Four and Edwards plays to average? We're going to have a fascinating decision to make.
13. Gary Clark, Cincinnati senior guard
Cincinnati's not a team overflowing with offense, but Clark has to be included here. He's been the best player in the American Athletic Conference, and he's second only to Carter on this list in terms of most consistent two-way players. Clark is putting up 13.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. Plus, only 1.0 turnovers while shooting 54.5 from 2 and 45.1 from 3. All told, those are really, really good numbers! His points average and Cincinnati's lack of high-profile victories are why he's so far down on the list. But like all other players in the third tier, a deep tourney run could change national perceptions.