On Thursday, I sent in my ballot for the Naismith Award's preseason watch list. It runs 50 players deep, sets the table for the national player of the year race, and tends to generate two things: fluffy press releases from athletic departments and debate from fans over how/why (insert deserving player's name here) was snubbed. I'm on the Board of Selectors for the award, and while there are no official rules for the voting, my guiding principle is simply, "Don't leave the eventual Naismith winner off of your preseason watch list." Because that would be embarrassing.
In the interest of maximum transparency -- and hopefully, a worthwhile look at a wide-open Player Of The Year landscape -- what follows is a breakdown of how I arrived at the final 50. I went through a seven-step process that yielded a pool of 69 players, and then had to make 19 cuts. Let's begin with the building:
Pool One: The most obvious upperclassmen (8/69)
Cole Aldrich, KansasCraig Brackins, Iowa StateSherron Collins, KansasLuke Harangody, Notre DameKalin Lucas, Michigan StatePatrick Patterson, KentuckyScottie Reynolds, VillanovaKyle Singler, Duke
These are the eight returning players I consider the favorites. All but two (Brackins and Harangody, who are statistical monsters) are on likely top-10 teams. I suspect that the question of whether Collins or Aldrich is the Jayhawks' better POY candidate is going to be a debate topic all season -- especially since they were just named the Big 12's preseason co-POYs this week.
(I side with Aldrich, but I also polled three opposing Big 12 assistants anonymously on that topic, and got two Collins votes and one Aldrich. Here's what they said:
Coach One: "If you polled our whole staff we'd probably be split down the middle, but for me it's Sherron. He's what makes that team tick. Cole is the anchor of Bill's defense, but KU would be more hurt if you took away Sherron."
Coach Two: "Cole's the higher draft pick, but Sherron is the one in control, and let's face it -- the point guard usually gets more credit in these kinds of things."
Coach Three: "How many centers like Cole do you have in college basketball? With [Hasheem] Thabeet gone I have a hard time finding one who'll make a bigger impact. I've gotta go with him.")
Pool Two: The scary freshmen (3/69)
The Naismith, unlike the Wooden Award, allows freshmen on its preseason watch list. I considered three high-impact rookies:
Avery Bradley, TexasDerrick Favors, Georgia TechJohn Wall, Kentucky
For some insight, I called Scout.com recruiting guru Dave Telep, who's been watching these kids longer than anyone. "Those are lofty expectations for freshmen," he said, "but Wall, Favors and Bradley have talent that's realistically better than 99 percent of what's out there in college basketball right now." Therefore, I couldn't exclude them.
Wall has just as much of a shot at POY as Aldrich or Collins, or anyone in Pool One, but Telep says that Wall's next step is "to take those unbelievable athletic gifts and put them into a team setting. If he does that, then Kentucky is dangerous." How quickly Wall does that will decide if he's a true contender. Bradley will have a shot if he emerges as the leader of a Texas team that could overtake Kansas in the Big 12. Meanwhile, Favors, who's a monster in the post, could get in the mix by putting up Harangody-like numbers at Georgia Tech.
Pool Three: The super sophs (14/69)
This is the pool that Blake Griffin emerged from last year, blowing away Tyler Hansbrough and the rest of the field to sweep the individual awards race. Not everyone on this list put up Naismith-worthy numbers as freshmen, but the potential is there:
Solomon Alabi, Florida StateAl-Farouq Aminu, Wake ForestLuke Babbitt, NevadaEd Davis, North CarolinaDevin Ebanks, West VirginiaGordon Hayward, ButlerSylven Landesberg, VirginiaGreg Monroe, GeorgetownSamardo Samuels, LouisvilleIsaiah Thomas, WashingtonKlay Thompson, Washington StateKemba Walker, UConnWillie Warren, OklahomaTerrico White, Ole Miss
There are some strong candidates here, especially Ebanks, who's ready to have a breakout season; Davis, who was the Tar Heels' best NBA prospect last year despite coming off the bench; Monroe, who should benefit from the Hoyas being back in contention in the Big East; and Warren, who will put up huge scoring numbers in Griffin's absence. At least one, if not two players on this list should grow into first team All-Americans by season's end.
Pool Four: The Establishment (35/69)
This crew of lesser upperclass stars makes up the bulk of the list. I separated it into two tiers; the first is a group of nine stars of ranked teams who could be darkhorse POY candidates:
Trevor Booker, ClemsonDa'Sean Butler, West VirginiaManny Harris, MichiganRobbie Hummel, PurdueDamion James, TexasJerome Randle, CalTyler Smith, TennesseeEvan Turner, Ohio StateJarvis Varnado, Mississippi State
I wouldn't be surprised if Turner, who's one of the nation's most complete players, emerges from this pack -- especially if the Buckeyes give Michigan State and Purdue a run for the Big Ten title.
The Second-Tier Establishment comprises the stars who face longer odds. They are as follows:
James Anderson, Oklahoma StateTalor Battle, Penn StateMatt Bouldin, GonzagaDenis Clemente, Kansas StateDevan Downey, South CarolinaJerome Dyson, ConnecticutCorey Fisher, VillanovaLazar Hayward, MarquetteJaJuan Johnson, PurdueJerome Jordan, TulsaTasmin Mitchell, LSUE'Twaun Moore, PurdueRaymar Morgan, Michigan StateA.J. Ogilvy, VanderbiltTajuan Porter, OregonStanley Robinson, UConnRakim Sanders, Boston CollegeJon Scheyer, DukeDeShawn Sims, MichiganDeon Thompson, North CarolinaJ.T. Tiller, MissouriGreivis Vasquez, MarylandDeonta Vaughn, CincinnatiMichael Washington, ArkansasNic Wise, ArizonaChris Wright, Dayton
As good as that crew is, it's also the pool from which most of the cuts will be made.
Pool 5: The marvelous mids (7/69)
With Butler's Hayward and Nevada's Babbitt already on the board in Pool Three, these were the other seven mid-major stars I considered:
Marqus Blakely, VermontRandy Culpepper, UTEPOsiris Eldridge, Illinois StateMatt Howard, ButlerLarry Sanders, VCURyan Thompson, RiderEdwin Ubiles, Siena
If Butler is a top-10 team, and Howard produces at a higher statistical level than Hayward does, it's possible that the hobbit-haired postman could get in the POY mix. And as the face of a Siena team that should get early top 25 votes, Ubiles belongs.
Pool Six: The transfers (2/69)
I could only envision two transfers making a monster impact this season:
Jordan Crawford, XavierWesley Johnson, Syracuse
People around the Xavier program last year said that Crawford's talent level is off the charts -- as in, there's a chance he could be an early draft entrant if he can refine his game and become a polished all-around player. Johnson, meanwhile, is being hyped as a versatile wing who can fill in some of Syracuse's Flynn-and-Devo scoring void.
How did I get from 69 to 50? My goal wasn't necessarily to have the 50 best players, but rather to have the 50 most likely contenders, while recognizing a fair portion of mid-major stars. It took five rounds to reach 19 cuts.
First Cut: The overshadowed (6/19)
You could make a national title contender out of this group, but it's difficult to envision any of them being the clear star of their current team.
Corey Fisher, Villanova (overshadowed by Reynolds) E'Twaun Moore, Purdue (Hummel and Johnson) Stanley Robinson, UConn (Dyson and Walker) Deon Thompson, UNC (Davis) Jon Scheyer, Duke (Singler) DeShawn Sims, Michigan (Harris)
Second Cut: More size/potential than production (1/19)
Solomon Alabi, Florida State
I drew the defensive center line at Mississippi State's Varnado, Tulsa's Jordan and VCU's Sanders. Alabi will eventually be a first-round draft pick, but he didn't even score double-digits as a freshman, and I doubt his numbers will reach a Naismith level this season.
Third Cut: The bubble dwellers (7/19)
I went through the second-tier establishment and took out the five guys who seemed to face the biggest uphill battles; none of them are likely to be playing for conference champs, and some will be playing in the NIT. I also sliced off Crawford and Johnson; they're both talented, but it seems unrealistic that either would be a mega-star right out of the gate.
Lazar Hayward, MarquetteTajuan Porter, OregonRakim Sanders, Boston CollegeDeonta Vaughn, CincinnatiMichael Washington, ArkansasJordan Crawford, XavierWesley Johnson, SyracuseFourth Cut: Too Gluey (1/19)
J.T. Tiller, Missouri
I love his game, and he'll be Mizzou's most valuable player, but he's not enough of a scorer to contend for the Naismith. If they made an official Naismith Glue Award, though, Tiller would be on the short list.
Fifth Cut: Trimming the midsection (4/19)
My mid-major litmus test came down to, "Can these guys transcend mid-majordom and become national names?" These four didn't make the cut:
Marqus Blakely, VermontRandy Culpepper, UTEPOsiris Eldridge, Illinois StateRyan Thompson, Rider
With that, I shrunk the list to the final 50 -- a pool which, I'm confident, contains the eventual winner:
Presented in alphabetical order:
Cole Aldrich, KansasAl-Farouq Aminu, Wake ForestJames Anderson, Oklahoma StateTalor Battle, Penn StateLuke Babbitt, NevadaTrevor Booker, ClemsonMatt Bouldin, GonzagaCraig Brackins, Iowa StateAvery Bradley, TexasDa'Sean Butler, West VirginiaDenis Clemente, Kansas StateSherron Collins, KansasEd Davis, North CarolinaDevan Downey, South CarolinaJerome Dyson, ConnecticutDevin Ebanks, West VirginiaDerrick Favors, Georgia TechLuke Harangody, Notre DameGordon Hayward, ButlerManny Harris, MichiganMatt Howard, ButlerRobbie Hummel, PurdueDamion James, TexasJaJuan Johnson, PurdueJerome Jordan, TulsaSylven Landesberg, VirginiaKalin Lucas, Michigan StateTasmin Mitchell, LSUGreg Monroe, GeorgetownRaymar Morgan, Michigan StateA.J. Ogilvy, VanderbiltPatrick Patterson, KentuckyJerome Randle, CalScottie Reynolds, VillanovaSamardo Samuels, LouisvilleLarry Sanders, VCUKyle Singler, DukeTyler Smith, TennesseeIsaiah Thomas, WashingtonKlay Thompson, Washington StateEvan Turner, Ohio StateEdwin Ubiles, SienaJarvis Varnado, Mississippi StateGreivis Vasquez, MarylandKemba Walker, UConnJohn Wall, KentuckyWillie Warren, OklahomaTerrico White, Ole MissNic Wise, ArizonaChris Wright, Dayton