I’ll be damned. It’s really here. After an offseason that felt like it lasted for an eternity—in which Thad Matta and Rick Pitino were both fired, Marvin Bagley III waited until the very last second to announce his commitment to Duke, Mitchell Robinson transferred to and from Western Kentucky roughly 30 different times, LiAngelo Ball became the nation’s leader in steals before ever playing a game, the NCAA gave a middle finger to NC State with one hand while patting North Carolina on the back with the other, John Calipari suspended his podcast, an FBI probe shook the entire sport to its core, Josh Pastner was blackmailed because he didn’t tell his friend happy birthday, Purdue almost won an international title before ever winning a national championship, Kyle Guy cut off his man bun, and Dan Dakich insulted six different people on Twitter by calling them a “fly on an elephants ass”—it’s finally arrived. Now the buzz is not only palpable, it’s through the ceiling and the roof. COLLEGE BASKETBALL IS BACK!!!
The best way to celebrate the start of a new season is to take part in what has quickly become one of my favorite November traditions: offering up my national player of the year candidates. Last season I masterfully nailed my list of preseason candidates (CTRL + F “Mason” = zero results!), which is why I’m so eager to take another stab. With that, here are 18 guys, divided up into tiers, who may (or may not) be named national player of the year come April. And so we’re clear: I cut down my list for formatting purposes. My original list included literally every player in NCAA men’s basketball, so if I turn out to be way off, keep in mind that I technically nailed the pick and it just got left on the editing room floor.
Grayson Allen, Duke
Heads up: The Grayson Allen Redemption Tour is coming. I know. I don’t like it either. But it’s happening, and there isn’t a damn thing you or I can do to stop it. That’s just the inevitable conclusion to his saga. Allen’s four years at Duke are following a familiar script: He exploded onto the scene as a true freshman, was hyped to an absurd level as a sophomore, and got ridiculed from the moment that the hype started feeling unwarranted as a junior. All that’s missing is Allen being applauded as Grayson 2.0 rises from the rubble to turn the narrative around during his senior year.
When Duke is ranked no. 1 in the AP poll in January and Allen is averaging 20 points per game without having tripped anyone, there’s no doubt in my mind that College GameDay will send Tom Rinaldi to Durham to sit down with Allen and talk about how much he’s matured both on and off the court. Or maybe ESPN will do that thing where it shows Allen walking around campus and shaking hands with average students as Rinaldi explains how Allen has come out of his shell after being afraid to show his face around Duke for six months because he was so embarrassed by his reputation. Or maybe, in an attempt to make Allen seem likable, GameDay will send him to Chapel Hill undercover and have him ask unsuspecting North Carolina fans how they feel about Grayson Allen, like Jimmy Kimmel did with Drake and Miley Cyrus. The point is that the Grayson Allen Redemption Tour is almost here. Prepare yourself accordingly.
Joel Berry II, North Carolina
Berry is a likable guy, at least from the standpoint that he plays hard, is fun to watch when he gets hot, doesn’t get into trouble off the court, becomes as upset playing video games as you and I do, and isn’t afraid to let the world know that he stopped shaving his chest hair over the summer. But the 2017 NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player is also the most recognizable face of a blueblood program that’s the defending national champion. That alone is reason enough for neutral fans to root against the guy. And now the feeling around college basketball is that Carolina got away with an entire generation of academic fraud. I think it’s fair to say that nobody outside of Chapel Hill wants good things to happen for the Tar Heels.
Allonzo Trier, Arizona
Look, I’m not here to point fingers. Who knows what caused Trier to fail a performance-enhancing drug test in 2016 and get suspended for the first 19 games of last season? Maybe there were steroids in his tap water. Maybe he was just walking to class in Tucson one day when a truck full of chemicals crashed into a nearby fire hydrant and one of the barrels busted open and spilled its contents all over him, like what happened to Alex Mack. Maybe the HGH shipments that showed up on his porch were meant for Peyton Manning’s wife. Or maybe the story that Arizona put forth—that Trier was involved in a car accident and unknowingly took a banned substance that was given to him by a family member to help him recover from injuries—is the truth. All I know is that Arizona’s media relations department will face an uphill battle in 2017-18 as it tries to get America to rally behind a guy who has previously been linked to PEDs and is now the headlining player on a probable top-five team that was recently implicated in an FBI sting investigation into college basketball corruption.
The Media Darlings
Miles Bridges, Michigan State
There have been so many profiles written in the last month about the man who was essentially named AP preseason national player of the year that Spartans forward Nick Ward will have fouled out of at least six games by the time I finish reading them all. Bridges is ridiculously talented, plays for the most lovable coach in college hoops (Tom Izzo), is part of a program that people outside of Big Ten country (and Virginia) generally like, comes from the same city (Flint) as Michigan State’s legendary group of players who won the 2000 national title, and is the best dunker in America. Most importantly, Bridges turned down the chance to be an NBA lottery pick so he could come back to college and play FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME, and people like me who cover college basketball for a living eat that shit up. I’m already angry at the thought of fans and media members developing a sense of Bridges fatigue by mid-January. For now, though, his early POY campaign is one of the strongest that the sport has ever seen.
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
The one glaring weakness in Bridges’s campaign is that he’ll never have the underdog theme going for him like Colson does. Notre Dame’s star stands just 6-foot-6, yet he sometimes plays center for the Fighting Irish, a choice that is absurd enough on its own before factoring in that Colson dominates when he does it. There’s just something infectious about watching him play, like I can barely even process how a guy with his dimensions averaged 17.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game last season. So instead of trying to make sense of it, I just marvel at him and start deliriously giggling, as I did while watching him drop 31 on Duke in Cameron Indoor in 2016. I am far from alone in this line of thinking, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Colson will end up becoming the fan favorite to win national player of the year.
Landry Shamet, Wichita State
Speaking of underdogs, everybody in the national college basketball media loves Wichita State. EVERYBODY. I’m probably overstepping my bounds here, but I value transparency so I’m going to say it anyway: You can’t get membership in the U.S. Basketball Writers Association without declaring your love for the Shockers first. It’s true. I was kicked out of the USBWA for three years because I wrote “Wichita State is OK, I guess” during the team’s run to the Final Four in 2013. Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart facing off in the 2011 Final Four was every college basketball writer’s wet dream made reality, and we were desperate to recapture that feeling after Stevens left Butler for the Celtics and Smart’s VCU empire fizzled out before he bolted to take the Texas job. Now that head coach Gregg Marshall (a.k.a. Bizarro Tom Crean) is returning basically his entire 31-win roster from last season—led by Shamet, who was a stud in the 2017 tournament—and the Shockers are playing in a power conference (sort of) following their move to the AAC, the Wichita State hype machine is in full force. That’s fantastic news for Shamet’s POY candidacy.
The Dark-Horse Candidates
Ben Lammers, Georgia Tech
I know—I can’t fathom living in a world where Josh Pastner coaches the national player of the year, either. But there’s a way that it could happen. On top of being one of the best defenders in America (3.4 blocks and 1.2 steals per game) in 2016-17, Lammers averaged 14.2 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 2.1 assists. And now that Georgia Tech’s other returning double-digit scorers (Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson) are suspended indefinitely for receiving impermissible benefits, Lammers’s numbers should get an inevitable boost as he’s asked to do more.
Here’s the good news for Lammers’s case: He could conceivably average 15 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, and three blocks per game for an entire season, and Tim Duncan is the only power-conference player since 1992-93 to put up those kind of stats. The bad news: Team success matters in the national POY race, and Georgia Tech will probably be a mess if Okogie and Jackson miss a lot of time.
Moritz Wagner, Michigan
Here’s something you’re not going to believe: Wagner played well in only one and a half games last March. He scored 17 points in 18 minutes in an 84-77 win over Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, and then he completely blew up against Louisville in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Outside of that? Wagner was a foul-prone big man who didn’t rebound well and tried to do too much when he had the ball. If he were the head coach at a Sun Belt school instead of a player at Michigan, some dumb power-conference athletic director would have vastly overvalued that one great NCAA tournament game and offered him something like a five-year, $12 million contract. Those guys are idiots, aren’t they?
Anyway, back to my point: I think Wagner has an outside chance at being named the national player of the year this season. I mean, did you see him in that Louisville game? The dude is unstoppable!
Tyler Hall, Montana State
I’m a simple man. I have 125,000 miles on my car, I own one pair of jeans, and my favorite kind of beer is “cold.” I’m blessed enough to have a loving family, a roof over my head, a full belly when I lay down at night. There’s not much that I desire in this life, with one major exception: a lights-out shooter from a small school who can drop 40 on any given night despite being triple-teamed. That shit is my lifeblood. It’s also my elevator pitch for why you should care about Hall. He averaged 23.1 points per game last season on 42.9 percent shooting from 3-point range (and 47.6 percent shooting from the field), and he had only one teammate who averaged double figures (Harald Frey, 12.7 points per game). Does Hall have a shot at winning national player of the year? Of course not. Does he have a shot at winning my heart? YOU BET YOUR SWEET ASS HE DOES.
The Guys We’ll Pretend Are Dark-Horse Picks Even Though They Aren’t
Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
Let’s just cut right to it: Delgado recorded 27 double-doubles last season. TWENTY-SEVEN! For those scoring at home, that’s 25 more than Grayson Allen had. Seton Hall hasn’t been nationally relevant since Eddie Griffin acted as an Anthony Davis precursor in 2000-01, so there’s a decent chance that Delgado will sneak up on casual fans this season as the Pirates, who return their top four scorers from an NCAA tournament team, make a run at the Big East title. But Delgado has always had the goods. He has a legit chance to be a first-team All-American, and if he breaks David Robinson’s single-season record for double-doubles (31) during a campaign in which the Pirates get the better of Villanova and Xavier (and that’s a decent-sized if), Delgado will have one hell of a national POY case.
Jock Landale, St. Mary’s
I’m sure ESPN has some half-baked formula that would argue otherwise, but I say that St. Mary’s has the best chance of any team to enter the 2018 NCAA tournament undefeated. This stance stems mostly from the fact the only ranked opponent currently on the Gaels’ schedule is Gonzaga, and the Zags likely won’t be half as good as they were in 2016-17. But part of my reasoning comes from the presence of Landale, the best center in college basketball. The 6-foot-11, 255-pound Aussie led St. Mary’s with 16.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game last season and finished third on the team in assists (1.7 per game) while shooting 61 percent from the floor. He’ll be a dark-horse POY candidate all season in the sense that national discussions won’t involve St. Mary’s unless the Gaels are undefeated. But in terms of the numbers that he’s expected to put up and the impact that he’s expected to have, Landale having a monster season shouldn’t surprise anybody.
Bruce Brown Jr., Miami
Brown is a dark-horse candidate if we’re judging by name recognition, as he gets my vote as the best player in the country who nobody has ever heard of. Nobody but NBA scouts and ACC fans, that is. The 6-foot-5 sophomore is a potential lottery pick who can do it all. Brown torched Duke to the tune of 25 points in a nationally televised 55-50 win last February and torched North Carolina for 30 in a 77-62 victory in January. He had a triple-double in his ninth career game, led Miami in steals (1.5 per game), finished second in rebounds (5.6 per game) and assists (3.2), and checked in third in scoring (11.8) … all while playing second fiddle on the wing to Davon Reed. Reed graduated and will be replaced by McDonald’s All American Lonnie Walker, meaning Brown will now be the leader of one of college basketball’s most exciting backcourts.
The Former Sidekicks
Jalen Brunson, Villanova
Things have worked out well for Brunson at Villanova. He was a freshman starter on a national championship team, he won 67 games and two Big East titles over his first two seasons, and the Wildcats have been ranked no. 1 at some point during both 2015-16 and 2016-17. Still, if you injected Brunson with truth serum and asked if he has been completely satisfied with his Villanova experience so far, my guess is that he’d say “not yet.” The one thing Brunson has been missing is an opportunity to be THE MAN. With all the talent that Jay Wright has brought through the program over the past couple of years, Brunson has had to pick his spots so that Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Ryan Arcidiacono, and Daniel Ochefu could still get theirs. Entering his junior campaign, though, Brunson is clearly the no. 1 option at Villanova—even if he will share the court with talented guys like Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth, and Donte DiVincenzo. I, for one, can’t wait to see what Brunson does with the opportunity.
Devonte’ Graham, Kansas
I’ll never forget when a coworker of mine (who I may or may not host a podcast with) offered up a “Graham is actually better than Frank Mason III” take early last season. It twisted my brain into a pretzel. When he (or she—we still haven’t identified who I’m talking about!) first said it, I was dumbfounded as to how someone could hold such a ludicrous opinion. But then I started watching Graham closely and found myself wondering if this was correct. It wasn’t, of course. It was a very, very dumb opinion. But for a fleeting moment, I seriously questioned whether, if Graham had the ball in his hands as much as Mason did in 2016-17, he would put up Mason’s numbers, too.
The answer is obviously no. But what if Graham had the freedom Mason had last season? Nah. The answer is always no. All I’m saying is that this same coworker stood on an island in 2016 with a “North Carolina is better without Marcus Paige because he just gets in Joel Berry’s way” take after Paige almost carried the Tar Heels to a national title (you’re never going to guess who this coworker is), and that turned out to be accurate. So maybe the same sort of thing will come into play at Kansas, and maybe Graham will go off now that he can dominate the ball, and maybe … nope, I’ll stop. I can’t believe I’ve entertained this for so long. Let’s just move on.
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
Happ was so good a season ago that he entered Big Ten player of the year conversations even though Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan was destroying everything that stood in his path on a nightly basis. In that sense, it may seem odd that Happ falls into “The Former Sidekicks” category. But these kinds of situations pop up in college basketball all the time, where the best player on a team still somehow functions as a sidekick simply because he has prominent older teammates who hog the spotlight. That was Happ. He was the Adam Banks to Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes’s Charlie Conway. With Koenig and Hayes gone now, though, Happ gets to become Adam Banks and Charlie Conway, which means that—WAIT, WHAT? HAPP IS SHOOTING 3s NOW???
LORD HAVE MERCY. The man has attempted five shots in his Badgers career from outside the paint. Five. And he was named a third-team AP All-American last season. Now he’s shooting 3s? I need to lie down.
The Draft Prospects (a.k.a. The Freshmen)
Michael Porter Jr., Missouri
Marvin Bagley III, Duke
DeAndre Ayton, Arizona
I pride myself on knowing next to nothing about recruits before they arrive on campus. I just can’t deal with the hype cycle anymore. I’ll never forget being told that Jabari Parker was a generational talent—the best recruit to come along since LeBron—only for Andrew Wiggins to reclassify into the 2013 class and take Parker’s no. 1 spot atop the recruiting boards. What the hell is going on? How can the best prospect in a generation not even be the best recruit in his class? And that’s how I feel about the 2017 class, too.
For the longest time, Porter was THE GUY. Like, I know this was just said about Ben Simmons two years ago, but Porter is going to change basketball as we know it. Only then Bagley reclassified into this class and enrolled at Duke, and now he’s going to forever change the sport too, leaving me back at square one trying to figure out how in God’s name we’ve had something like 39 “generational talents” arrive in college over the past five years.
Even Apple is impressed with the college basketball community’s ability to hype something up every year as being SO MUCH BETTER than the thing from the year prior even though both things are essentially the same. It’s exhausting trying to sort through it all. I know this makes me sound like a 4,000-year-old man yelling at clouds, but I don’t care. We have reached a point where basketball fans are certain that Porter is going to be the savior of whatever NBA team drafts him even though they possess such little knowledge of his game that they don’t even know he’s left-handed. And for the people who read that sentence and said to themselves, “Come on, man, I knew that Porter was left-handed”: I made that up. Porter is right-handed. Or maybe not. Or maybe, since he’s a generational talent, he’s ambidextrous and can shoot 45 percent from 3 with his knees.
Maybe Porter, Bagley, and Ayton will be every bit as good as advertised and dominate college basketball in 2017-18. Maybe they won’t. There’s no way of knowing what kind of impact they’ll have until the season starts, because the recent history of highly touted freshmen has produced a mixed bag of results. All we can do is wait until—what’s that? Did I see the photo of Ayton from Arizona’s scrimmage? What photo?
IMPORTANT REMINDER:— Arizona in the NBA (@ArizonaNBA) October 31, 2017
Deandre Ayton is bigger than you pic.twitter.com/1HfNhrumra
HOLY SHIT. I take it all back. If that guy is 7-foot-1, looks like that, and is the third-highest-rated player in the freshmen class, I’m all in. I’m going to watch YouTube highlights of these guys for the next 48 hours nonstop. In the meantime, I feel comfortable declaring this the greatest recruiting class in college basketball history. Just give one of them the national player of the year award now and call it a day.