College hoops player of the year may not be a first-round pick

College hoops player of the year may not be a first-round pick

Early on, Oklahoma point guard Trae Young was supposed to be the front-runner. Lately, there has been plenty of chatter about big men Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III from Arizona and Duke, respectively. Some will argue Kansas senior Devonte’ Graham.

Young was sensational until teams adjusted to his style, and he got worn down by the bear that is the Big 12. Ayton and Bagley have been incredibly consistent. All three freshmen will likely be very good NBA players, if not great ones. Graham has had a very good year for Kansas, and has finished extremely well, leading the Jayhawks to an unprecedented 14th straight Big 12 crown.

But the player of the year in college basketball should be a simple choice. That player has little flash in his game. He may not even be a first-round pick. But he is the best player on the best team, I believe.

He is Jalen Brunson, who, barring a shocking vote by the Big East coaches, will be announced as the league’s player of the year on Wednesday night. The son of Rick Brunson, an eight-year NBA veteran, is averaging 19 points per game, 4.8 assists and 3.0 rebounds, all impressive numbers in the rugged Big East. But here’s what’s really impressive: The 6-foot-3 lead guard is shooting 52 percent from the field. Guards don’t shoot that kind of percentage. Graham, having a terrific year, is shooting 40 percent from the field.

Brunson, a smart and savvy southpaw who has the ball in his hands almost all of the time, is committing just 1.7 turnovers per game. He has a 2.8 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is absurdly good. In the two Villanova wins over Xavier, Brunson had 28 points, 13 assists and one turnover. He dominated those games without scoring a ton.

But the real reason why I would vote for Brunson can’t be quantified by any numbers. It’s his clutch gene, how he performs when the game is on the line.

There isn’t another player in the country I would want with the ball in his hands in the final seconds other than him.

Here is how I would vote for the other major awards:

Coach of the Year: Bruce Pearl, Auburn
Ignore the off-court drama, because that isn’t part of this award. Forget the fact Pearl may not even be Auburn’s coach next year, considering the Tigers were implicated in the FBI investigation into mass corruption in the sport, and had former assistant coach Chuck Person arrested and indicted on six federal charges. Here are the facts: The Tigers were picked to finish ninth in the SEC. They didn’t have projected starters Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley all season because of their role in the allegations. They shared the SEC title with Tennessee and will likely be a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament. The last time that happened to this program was 1999.

Runners-up: Tony Bennett, Virginia; Chris Holtmann, Ohio State

Freshman of the Year: Marvin Bagley III, Duke
Young’s struggles have turned this into a two-horse race between two players who will also vie to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft: Bagley and Ayton. The numbers and their dominance are similar. Bagley scores a shade more than Ayton (20.7 to 19.9) and Ayton edges him in rebounding (11.4 to 11.2) and blocked shots (1.9 to 1.0). But Bagley’s team has won more in a vastly superior conference, giving him the thinnest of edges.

Runners-up: Deandre Ayton, Arizona; Trae Young, Oklahoma

Bob Cousy Award (Point guard):
Jalen Brunson, Villanova
Expect a big March for Villanova and its junior leader.

Jerry West Award (Shooting guard): Marcus Foster, Creighton
The senior shot 42 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, adding a potent jumper to his slashing arsenal as a power guard.

Julius Erving Award (Small forward): Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State
Arguably the most improved player in the country led one of the season’s biggest surprise teams.

Karl Malone Award (Power Forward): Deandre Ayton, Arizona
We’ll split the difference. Bagley was our freshman of the year, so Ayton gets the nod here.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award (Center): Jock Landale, St. Mary’s
The best player in the country nobody talks about, he averaged a double-double of 21.3 points and 10.5 rebounds while shooting an absurd 63 percent from the field.

Games of the Week:

Big East Championship game at Madison Square Garden, Saturday, 6:30 p.m.

ACC Championship game at Barclays Center, Saturday, 8:30 p.m.

If chalk holds, the two title games being played in New York City could feature the four No. 1 seeds — third-ranked Xavier and No. 4 Villanova in the Big East, No. 1 Virginia and fifth-ranked Duke in the ACC — in the NCAA Tournament. With five losses, the Blue Devils have the most work to do — they would likely need to win the league crown and hope Kansas stumbles in the Big 12 tournament — but an ACC title would at least get them in the conversation given the type of teams Duke would have to beat to repeat last March’s feat.

Seedings:

1: Virginia, Xavier, Kansas, Villanova
2. Duke, Michigan State, Purdue, North Carolina
3. Michigan, Auburn, Cincinnati, Tennessee
4. Gonzaga, Texas Tech, Ohio State, West Virginia

Stock Watch

Up: Vermont
One of four teams to lose just once in conference play — Virginia, No. 7 Gonzaga and South Dakota State were the others — Vermont cruised through the first round of the America East Tournament, and just got back leading scorer Anthony Lamb from a foot injury that cost him 17 games. Remember, this group nearly upset Kentucky at Rupp Arena and lost by just two to likely tournament team St. Bonaventure. Don’t forget the Catamounts when filling out your bracket.


Up: Chris Mack

His stock has never been higher. His Musketeers snapped Villanova’s four-year reign atop the Big East, and will enter the conference tournament as the No. 1 seed. Barring an early upset, they should get a No. 1 seed in the tournament, too, which would be a program first. In Mack’s nine years as a head coach, Xavier has missed the dance once, reached four Sweet 16s, one Elite Eight, and won at least 21 games eight times. You have to figure Louisville will come calling. The question is whether Mack will be interested, after turning down other overtures in past years.

Dan HurleyAP

Down: Rhode Island
Is this a blip or an ominous sign of underlying issues creeping to the surface? No. 17 Rhode Island has lost two straight games, three of five, and barely escaped La Salle. If nothing else, back-to-back defeats to St. Joseph’s and Davidson will hurt the Rams’ seed significantly, considering their lack of quality wins in a down year for the Atlantic 10. Their NCAA Tournament status isn’t in question, but Rhode Island needs to right itself in its league tournament to get its mojo back after starting the season 21-3.

Down: Big Ten
Barring a stunner, the league will have just four NCAA Tournament teams, nearly half of its seven-team allotment from a year ago. Nebraska and Penn State needed to at least to get to the conference final to garner serious consideration, and neither did. The Nittany Lions’ résumé consists of three wins over 13th-ranked Ohio State and little else, while the Cornhuskers have a victory over No. 15 Michigan, and nothing much after that. While Michigan, which won the tournament, looks like a Final Four contender, Ohio State has been shaky, and something seems amiss with No. 2 Michigan State, which has the talent to win it all, but also the inconsistency to fail to get out of the first weekend.

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