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College Basketball’s Player of the Year Race Will Follow a Familiar Script

We just don’t know which one yet

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

A new college basketball season begins Friday, which means it’s time to start asking some familiar questions. Who searches for their name on Twitter more often: Dan Dakich or Ted Valentine? How much weight did North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks lose during the offseason? Is there a drug on earth as potent as listening to Bill Walton call a game at 1:30 a.m.? And, of course, who will take home the national player of the year awards in April?

That last one is always tricky to predict, primarily because being the best player in college basketball is completely different from being the national player of the year. The best player in the country does win those awards pretty frequently, but every now and then someone like Evan Turner comes along and rides the coattails of a walk-on teammate with a blog, steals the spotlight that the media is trying to shine on his team, and cons voters into giving him John Wall’s trophies. Being talented isn’t enough to be the national player of the year. You also need solid campaign strategy. You need a story that voters can latch on to. You need THE NARRATIVE on your side.

Knowing this, we can’t just glance at mock drafts or preseason All-American lists to forecast who will win the 2016–17 awards. We need more context. That’s why it’s helpful to look back at the paths past winners took to get their trophies in an attempt to figure out which players in this season’s crop might follow similar trajectories. With that, here are the most powerful power rankings of college basketball’s national player of the year candidates, and the former winner that each guy’s campaign should try to emulate.

12. E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island

Recent POY comparison: Jameer Nelson, Saint Joseph’s (2004)

Matthews, a preseason second-team Atlantic-10 selection, is admittedly a long shot to even make All-American teams this March. But that’s not due to a lack of talent. The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 16.9 points per game as a sophomore two seasons ago, only to tear his ACL in the first half of Rhode Island’s opener against American last year. Should Matthews’s career return to the track it was on before he blew out his knee, there’s no telling how good he can be.

Like Nelson was in his POY season, Matthews is a fourth-year guard for an A-10 team that features one of the best backcourts in the country. Unlike Nelson, Matthews probably won’t play for a team that will stay undefeated until March, which was the main reason Nelson won awards that should have gone to UConn’s Emeka Okafor. Indulge me with a what-if for a second: Nelson hit a shot just inside half court to secure a win at Old Dominion in the third game of the 2003–04 season; if he had missed that and the Saint Joe’s undefeated story line had gotten squashed out of the gate, would Nelson have been viewed as a really good player on a really good team instead of the leader of the group that took the college basketball world by storm? Would he still have won national player of the year?

I say no, which is why, unless Matthews puts up video-game stats this season, his candidacy will hinge on Rhode Island becoming a national darling. That isn’t impossible, but it obviously won’t be easy.

Jack Gibbs (Davidson)
Jack Gibbs (Davidson)

11. Jack Gibbs, Davidson

Recent POY comparison: Jimmer Fredette, BYU (2011)

Gibbs averaged 23.5 points per game last season, seventh best in all of college basketball. Even though he has a different game than Fredette did, as his best attribute is quickness rather than the ability to rain in 3s from the parking lot, he’s still an undersize, volume-shooting scoring machine who plays for a mid-major team good enough to beat anyone in the country. It wasn’t just the scoring that made Fredette such a sensation in 2011, though. It was the absurdity of how he went about it. Watching Jimmer at BYU was like watching a highlight clip in real time, to the point that it felt like he was playing H-O-R-S-E against himself for the entire 2010–11 season.

Gibbs won’t regularly pull up from 35 feet like Jimmer did, but he’s still a showman. He’s got a solid stroke, great handles, and good vision to go with a killer hesitation move and phenomenal touch around the basket. The big difference between Gibbs’s campaign and Fredette’s will likely be team success, as Davidson isn’t expected to be a Final Four contender, while BYU was 27–2 and ranked third in the 2011 AP poll before some good old-fashioned hanky-panky submarined the Cougars’ season that March.

Still, whenever a perceived underdog goes nuts in the national spotlight, America eats that shit up. Jimmer took full advantage of this, dropping 33 points on Arizona and 25 on UCLA before lighting up UNLV for 39 points. And in three matchups against a Kawhi Leonard–led San Diego State team that boasted one of the best defenses in the country, Jimmer averaged 32.7 points per game. Gibbs will have plenty of chances to follow in Fredette’s footsteps and show what he can do on a prominent stage: Davidson will play Clemson, North Carolina, and Kansas before taking on an Atlantic-10 schedule that includes the likes of Rhode Island, Dayton, and VCU.

10. Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, Kentucky

Recent POY comparison: Blake Griffin, Oklahoma (2009)

I apologize in advance, because Griffin wasn’t as one-dimensional at Oklahoma as I’m about to make him seem. It’s just that, when I think back on his college career, the same sequence plays out in my mind. He dunked, he rebounded, he dunked even harder, and then he rebounded some more. He did that over and over and over and over until you just sat there slack-jawed, thinking, “This man is a lab experiment gone either horribly wrong or perfectly right.”

Griffin’s 2008–09 season was a lot like a father playing pool basketball against his 8-year-old sons. It didn’t matter if he wasn’t great at dribbling and shooting, because he was such a superior athlete that it felt like he was going against third-graders. If there’s anyone who might be able to tap into that someone-check-that-man’s-birth-certificate dominance this season, it’s Adebayo. Feast your eyes on this:

Adebayo will play on a team loaded with talent, so it remains to be seen if he’ll become a focal point for the Wildcats. But it won’t matter how much of coach John Calipari’s offense will run through him. If Adebayo makes it his mission to grab every rebound and dunk on the world every time he gets the ball within 5 feet of the basket, Kentucky will destroy all of the teams in its path, and Adebayo will be a household name by March.

9. Tyler Lydon, Syracuse

Recent POY comparison: Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin (2015)

Can I interest you in a lanky matchup nightmare who will have a 3-inch height advantage on most of the defenders he goes against, who can put the ball on the deck, and who can score from anywhere on the floor? What if he was relatively unheralded coming out of high school and has the “I had to work my ass off to get where I am” thing going for him? If I told you that same player averaged 1.1 steals, 1.8 blocks, and 6.3 rebounds per game as a freshman, would it make your naughty parts tickle?

Lydon is basically a shorter, more skilled version of Kaminsky, all the way down to the part where he plays for a curmudgeonly head coach who favors a distinct style. That last bit is key. Guys who play for coaches with recognizable systems — like Bo Ryan, Jim Boeheim, Tony Bennett, Rick Pitino, and Bill Self — are often at a disadvantage when it comes to pursuing individual awards because those coaches tend to treat their players like cogs in a machine. (Just ask NBA fans for their thoughts on Andrew Wiggins’s lone season at Kansas.) But when the right player who is supremely talented and perfect for his coach’s system comes along, a campaign like Kaminsky’s in 2014–15 is possible. Lydon’s length on defense and versatility on offense make him an ideal fit for Boeheim’s approach, which is why I expect the 6-foot-8 sophomore to emerge as a star.

8. Miles Bridges, Michigan State

Recent POY comparison: Kevin Durant, Texas (2007)

Durant has a case as one of the 10 most talented college basketball players of all time, so I should be clear that I’m not trying to tag Bridges with an impossible expectation. All I’m saying is that the Spartans freshman should be in a situation similar to Durant’s in that he’ll be given a ton of freedom to shine. Durant arrived at Texas as the most prized piece of a blockbuster 2006 recruiting class that consisted of guys like D.J. Augustin, Damion James, and Dexter Pittman. The Longhorns had ups and downs throughout the 2006–07 season, but their one constant was Durant’s brilliance. His POY campaign boiled down to: Who cares what the score is? I’m talented as shit and you know you can’t get enough of me.

That could be Bridges in 2016–17. Michigan State should be better than Durant’s Texas team was, and the Spartans will also rely heavily on a loaded freshmen class, so Bridges will be asked to carry the team in spurts. That’s what differentiates him from freshmen around the country who may be slightly more talented, such as Kansas’s Josh Jackson or Duke’s Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum. Bridges is a 6-foot-7 do-it-all wing who should provide a ton of highlights and stuff the stat sheet every time he takes the floor. If Michigan State contends for a Big Ten title and Bridges lives up to his billing, it stands to reason he could be in the player of the year picture this spring.

Thomas Bryant (Getty Images
Thomas Bryant (Getty Images

7. Thomas Bryant, Indiana

Recent POY comparison: Andrew Bogut, Utah (2005)

Bogut was the 2005 national player of the year thanks largely to his traditional approach to playing center. He had an array of post moves and dominated the paint on both ends of the floor. He stepped out and hit some 3s for the Utes, but didn’t hunt for outside shots like a lot of big men do in the pick-and-pop, spread-the-floor brand of basketball that’s popular today. He seemed to embrace establishing himself as a true center, a label that almost comes with a stigma these days, as if big men who are slow and robotic are called “centers” while those who are versatile and athletic are called “power forwards.”

Bryant is at his best when relishing the traditional center role. He should be the premier big man in college basketball this season and could wreak havoc on the low block with his size and athleticism. The concern is that Indiana’s system isn’t conducive to old-school center play. Last season, Bryant shot 68 percent from the field, yet drifted toward the 3-point line too often, setting screens for Indiana’s perimeter-oriented attack or even jacking up the occasional 3. When he did set up on the low block, his efforts frequently went unrewarded, as Indiana had no idea how to feed the ball into the post.

Following the graduation of Yogi Ferrell and Nick Zeisloft, the Hoosiers won’t have as many 3-point shooters on this season’s squad. Bryant, a sophomore, is now Indiana’s best player, so hopefully tweaks have been made to get him the ball near the rim more regularly. If so, the 6-foot-10 245-pounder is good enough to average 20-plus points and 10-plus rebounds per game.

6. Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson

Recent POY comparison: Doug McDermott, Creighton (2014)

The man they call McBuckets was essentially the wire-to-wire player of the year front-runner in 2013–14, or at least he was once everyone got sick of Marcus Smart’s bullshit at Oklahoma State. The hype for McDermott was there from the beginning of that season mostly because of what he’d already accomplished; heading into his senior year, McDermott was the two-time defending Missouri Valley Conference player of the year and had more than 2,000 career points on his résumé. He went on to average 26.7 points per game and become must-see TV all season, but so much of the praise he received that year had less to do with that particular campaign and more to do with his career as a whole. That was the theme of McDermott’s POY run: He deserved the honor not only as recognition of the season he was having, but also as a lifetime achievement award.

Blossomgame lacks McDermott’s credentials, as he’s been a star for only one season, when he averaged 18.7 points and 6.7 rebounds in 2015–16. Yet like McDermott, the 6-foot-7 Blossomgame will have the “senior who averages a ton of points and is almost single-handedly responsible for his team’s success” thing going for him. Part of McDermott’s allure came from his playing for Creighton, which hadn’t made the Sweet 16 since 1974. Likewise, Clemson hasn’t won a non-play-in tournament game since 1997. If Blossomgame can pour in the points as the Tigers rack up victories in the toughest conference in America, it won’t be difficult to envision the Blossomgame-as-savior story line taking hold and the senior hoisting some POY hardware.

5. Dennis Smith Jr., NC State

Recent POY comparison: Trey Burke, Michigan (2013)

In addition to being the best point guard in America, Burke had two other things working in his favor in 2012–13. First, the Big Ten was the best conference in the country that season, as Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, and Ohio State were all ranked in the top five of the AP poll at some point. It’s not as if Burke wouldn’t have gotten lots of exposure anyway, but having every conference game he played in take on the feel of a must-see matchup certainly helped his cause.

Second, Burke’s team was really fun to follow. Michigan had an unstoppable, perimeter-oriented offense that counted five future NBA players in its starting lineup, yet the Wolverines also somehow maintained a slight underdog vibe. (I’m sure it made sense at the time, but slotting a team that came a shot away from winning the Big Ten regular-season title and featured Burke, Nik Stauskas, Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III, and Mitch McGary as a no. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament almost seems criminal in retrospect.) Michigan was good enough to win a national title that season, but they weren’t so good that neutral fans felt like they were cheering for Goliath. As a result, the Wolverines bandwagon was packed to the brim, and the man leading the way (Burke) was showered with all sorts of praise.

All the pieces are in place for Smith — who might be the most talented player in the country — to have his season play out exactly the same way. NC State probably doesn’t have five future NBA guys on its roster, but the Wolfpack have plenty of talent to pair with the 6-foot-3 freshman point guard. And like Michigan in 2012–13, NC State should be good enough to contend in the ACC and maybe even make a deep tourney run, but not so good that neutral fans will feel conflicted cheering for it. The ACC will be a bloodbath for Smith, much like the Big Ten was for Burke, meaning Smith will have America’s full attention to show what he can do.

4. Josh Hart, Villanova

Recent POY comparison: Anthony Davis, Kentucky (2012)

When taking both career accomplishments and overall talent into account, I say Davis, despite playing just one season at Kentucky, is the third-best college basketball player since the turn of the millennium. (No matter what order you prefer to rank them, the top four are pretty clearly Shane Battier, Tyler Hansbrough, Jay Williams, and Davis.) That’s how dominant he was in 2011–12. I’m not even remotely suggesting that Hart could be as good as Davis was. It’s just that, other than blocked shots, Davis didn’t post eye-popping stats at Kentucky. He averaged 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, figures that are great, but by no means otherwordly. Fourteen other players averaged at least 14 and 10 that season, including All-Americans Draymond Green, at Michigan State, and Thomas Robinson, at Kansas.

What made Davis stand out were two things: (1) He was the best player on the best team in the country and (2) even if he didn’t put up huge numbers, anyone who watched a Kentucky game for five minutes noticed that Davis’s fingerprints were on every play. He so overwhelmingly demanded everyone’s attention that it almost seems like a stat-keeping error to look back and realize that he didn’t average 40 points and 20 rebounds per game.

Hart won’t be on Davis’s level this season, but that’s the ideal version of what he can be for Villanova. He’s great on both ends of the floor, and while he’ll almost certainly put up impressive stats (he averaged 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in 2015–16), he also personifies that cliché about doing things that don’t show up in a box score. Most importantly, Hart is the best player for a top-five team and the defending national champ. You won’t be able to watch a Villanova game this season without noticing Hart, which is great for his candidacy considering that the Wildcats will be in the spotlight all year.

Dillon Brooks (Getty Images)
Dillon Brooks (Getty Images)

3. Dillon Brooks, Oregon

Recent POY comparison: Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina (2008)

This comparison will probably leave Oregon and North Carolina fans feeling like I’ve insulted their players, which is fair in both respects. And I’ll admit that this is a bit of a stretch. But here’s how I’m going to make it work: Hansbrough basically willed his way to everything he accomplished in his college career. I don’t want to feed into the “Psycho T” mythos too much, but it’s fair to say that Hansbrough was a complete maniac on the basketball court. He wasn’t particularly great at any aspect of the game, unless you count WANTING IT MORE THAN THEY DO as a skill. He was the Tim Tebow of college basketball: At the end of the day, none of us wanted to acknowledge that he was the nation’s best player, but dammit, we couldn’t deny his greatness.

When I think back on Hansbrough’s career, three moments stick out: (1) when he traveled before dunking on 7-foot-7 Kenny George; (2) when Duke’s Gerald Henderson elbowed him in the face, leading to the most Hansbrough photograph in Hansbrough history; and (3) when he hit the game winner against Virginia Tech in the 2008 ACC tournament and celebrated by pretending to ride an oversized tricycle. That’s kind of interesting, isn’t it? Hansbrough had one of the greatest careers of all time, yet if I found myself in solitary confinement and my only option for entertainment was to watch a Psycho T highlight tape, I’d probably be content just staring at the wall.

I think that’s where I’m going with this: Brooks has more skill than Hansbrough did and isn’t nearly as intense, but the one big similarity between the two is that Brooks doesn’t exactly provide jaw-dropping highlights. He’s a bit of a tweener, at 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, and isn’t an exceptional athlete, yet he dominates by consistently working his ass off and doing a little bit of everything. He averaged 16.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.1 assists as a sophomore in 2015–16.

Brooks is coming off foot surgery, which will cause him to miss the start of this season, something that will likely hurt his POY chances (unless the media plays up his comeback story). When he does return, though, he’ll have an opportunity to get the “I don’t care if his highlight reel isn’t sexy — this guy put up incredible numbers for one of the best teams in the country, so I can’t not vote for him” treatment that Hansbrough got.

2. Markelle Fultz, Washington

Recent POY comparison: Evan Turner, Ohio State (2010)

It’s going to shake my entire belief system to its core to admit this, but Turner in 2009–10 will forever be the first guy I think of when remembering college basketball players who single-handedly carried their teams to heights they had no business reaching. (Yes, even before Steph Curry, Kemba Walker, or Shabazz Napier.) This is mostly because I was Turner’s teammate at Ohio State that season, so I got a firsthand look at just how reliant the Buckeyes were on his heroics. Our offense amounted to: “Get the ball to Evan and get the hell out of the way.” In fact, coach Thad Matta said that verbatim during a handful of timeout huddles. Turner did everything for us; he was third on the team in minutes per game, yet still led the Buckeyes in scoring, rebounding, and assists by a wide margin. He was also first in steals, second in blocks per game, and the runaway leader in pulling off the “I forgot my wallet, but if you pay this time I’ll get you back next time” move at dinner.

Fultz is going to be Washington’s version of Turner. Say what you want about Huskies head coach Lorenzo Romar — and I have — but he’s never been scared to give his players freedom. Fultz, a 6-foot-4 freshman point guard who was a five-star recruit in the 2016 class, will be on the floor a ton this season, and he’ll be asked to make one huge play after another every night. He’ll have the ball in his hands virtually every time down the floor, which means that he might put up the occasional Turner triple-double (points, rebounds, and turnovers), but should also get a few real triple-doubles as well. Basically, if you were in a college basketball fantasy league and had the first pick, you should take Fultz, set the rest of the picks to auto-draft, and start counting your money now.

1. Grayson Allen, Duke

Recent POY comparison: J.J. Redick, Duke (2006)

I know. I’m already sick of the Allen-Redick comparisons, too. At this point, the You hate him only because he’s a white guy at Duke! argument is more infuriating than any Duke white guy has ever been. So let’s get this out of the way: People hated Redick because he was cocky as shit and they hate Allen because he trips guys and gets away with it. That’s it. Some might also cite their punchable faces, but the hate doesn’t go beyond that. So spare me the takes about how Allen and Redick are misunderstood victims of fandom taken too far. I know there are plenty of Duke players who were hated solely because they were white (poor Greg Paulus never stood a chance), but Allen and Redick aren’t on that list.

There are two different paths Allen could take to winning national player of the year awards in 2016–17. In the first scenario, he doesn’t buy into his own hype. He realizes Duke is so loaded that he might be the third-best player on the team despite averaging 21.6 points and 4.6 rebounds last season, which could actually be a good thing. If he were to just direct the offense and play within himself, he would put up great numbers, Duke would be unstoppable, and everyone on the Blue Devils would come out a winner.

In the second scenario, he tries to become Redick 2.0. He calls a team meeting the night before the first game and addresses his teammates:

“Listen here, you sons of bitches. I don’t give a damn where you show up on mock drafts or how good you think you were in high school. I’m the face of this franchise. I’m the one who gets ripped apart on Twitter because everyone is jealous of how sexy my bangs look. I’m the one who can’t warm up on the road without a bunch of cheesedicks telling me they banged my mom. So here’s how this is going to work: I’m going to shoot whenever I damn well please. Your jobs are to screen for me, pass me the rock, and rebound when I miss. In the rare instances I do pass to you, it’s understood that you will pass it right back unless I give you permission to shoot by saying the code phrase, ‘MISS THIS AND I’LL KILL YOU.’ I have to stick out my neck — and sometimes my foot — for this program every goddamn night. I’m not about to let you dipshits in diapers steal my thunder.”

I have no idea how good Duke would be this season if Allen went in this direction, but I desperately want to find out.