Thursday March 24th, 2011

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- In the world of television, a strong Thursday-night lineup is critical. Young, affluent viewers tend to tune in en masse on Thursday, and restaurateurs and purveyors of beer, corn chips and movies covet one final crack at that key demographic group as it makes weekend plans. So kudos to the advertisers who bought time on CBS and TBS on Thursday night, because the NCAA tournament will deliver the kind of star-studded lineup Thursday TV hasn't seen since Cliff Huxtable, Sam Malone and Jerry Seinfeld shared the same night on NBC in 1991.

In Anaheim and on CBS, four legitimate player of the year candidates (Connecticut's Kemba Walker, San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard, Duke's Nolan Smith and Arizona's Derrick Williams) will lead their teams into the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, in New Orleans and on TBS, King of Queens reruns will give way to the King of Provo, a man known only by his first name and a definite article -- The Jimmer.

So if you could watch only one game and cheer for only one POY candidate, which would it be? The teammates of the stars have made a compelling case for each.

We'll start in Anaheim, which for one night won't just be another seemingly endless suburb with a Disney park stuck in the middle. Perez Hilton may be chasing actors and actresses 30 miles north on the Sunset Strip, but the real star power will be at the Honda Center. Walker's Huskies and Leonard's Aztecs will square off at 7:15 p.m. ET, followed by Smith's Blue Devils and Williams' Wildcats.

Walker was excellent all season, but after Notre Dame's Ben Hansbrough bypassed him for the Big East Player of the Year Award, Walker flipped a switch. In seven postseason games -- including an unprecedented five wins in five days in the Big East tournament -- Walker has averaged 25.9 points. Even more amazing, he has averaged 6.6 rebounds despite playing the position the greatest distance from the rim.

"All those guys are good. Nolan is having a great year. Jimmer is an incredible scorer. That kid Leonard, he can really play. But the reason I say Kemba's the best player in the country is he does it on both ends of the floor," fellow UConn guard Donnell Beverly said. "He rebounds. He's probably one of the best rebounding guards in the country. Not too many point guards who are 6-foot-1 are grabbing 12 rebounds against Syracuse."

As you decide which buttons to press on your remote, bear in mind that Walker's 33-point, 12-rebound performance against the Orange came a day after he did this against future No. 1 seed Pittsburgh.

Walker's larger teammates will have to contend Thursday with Leonard, a 6-7, 225-pound sophomore most easily identified by the puddles of drool left by the NBA scouts who flock to his games. College coaches weren't initially as enthusiastic when Leonard starred at King High in Riverside, Calif. Some Pac-10 schools recruited him late, but Leonard went with San Diego State, where coach Steve Fisher had been recruiting Leonard all along. Leonard has rewarded Fisher's faith in him by averaging 15.6 and 10.6 rebounds and locking down opponents' best players -- seemingly regardless of position. "For a guy to average a double-double like he does game-in and game-out is amazing," Aztecs guard D.J. Gay said. "It's not always points, but he can score. He can rebound. He can defend one through four. He's very versatile, and I think that would make him the player of the year."

More importantly, Gay said, Leonard has propelled San Diego State into another echelon. That's why, when asked to make an argument as to why Leonard is the nation's best player, Gay responded with the Aztecs' record. "Thirty-four and two," Gay said. "He's our leading scorer. He's our leading rebounder. If he wasn't on this team, we wouldn't be here at all."

That sounds fantastic, but what about the biggest cable star since Jon Stewart? BYU guard Jimmer Fredette, the focus of SI photographer Robert Beck's brilliant cover shot, leads the nation in scoring with 28.8 points a game. He is a genuine force of nature who could explode for 50 points (as he did against New Mexico earlier this month, totaling 52). Thursday he'll face Florida in a rematch of teams that played a double-overtime thriller in last year's NCAA tournament. "I haven't seen Jimmer have an off night yet, really this year," BYU teammate Jackson Emery said. "I guess you can consider it an off night if he doesn't score 30 or more."

The only drawback of Jimmermania, Emery said, is the fact that Fredette's popularity makes the Cougars a target. "We know with Jimmer there's a lot of YouTube videos, Facebook pages, there're T-shirts, whatever," Emery said. "It makes it fun, but at the same time we realize that because of that, teams want to beat us even more and we have to come prepared, and it makes our preparation a lot harder."

It also makes for excellent television.

In the second primetime window (9:45 p.m. tipoff), most of the nation's sports-loving eyeballs will be trained squarely on Anaheim, where Smith, a player people can't help but love, will lead Duke, the team much of America loves to hate. Smith leads the Blue Devils with 21 points a game, but he didn't turn into one of the nation's elite players until necessity forced him to elevate his game.

Coming into the season, Smith seemed like an excellent complement to super-freshman Kyrie Irving, but when Irving went down with a toe injury after only eight games and didn't come back for three months, Smith had to carry a much heavier load. No offense to Irving -- or to Bill Murray or to Sgt. Hulka -- but Smith has been Duke's big toe.

Why should Smith be considered the nation's best player? Because no less an authority than Irving, the potential No. 1 pick in this year's NBA draft, believes his teammate belongs on a very short list. "He separates himself by doing everything out there," Irving said. "All facets of the game, whether it's pressuring the ball or getting assists or scoring a lot. I always knew he was this good. He just needed an opportunity to have the ball in his hands."

Smith will share the court with Arizona's Williams, whose teammates have nicknamed him Superman. Why? Well, in two NCAA tournament games, he saved the day twice. A Williams block salvaged a win against Memphis last Friday. Two days later, Williams converted a three-point play in the final seconds to beat Texas.

Of course, the sophomore hasn't always been treated like a star by his own teammates. "I just talked a lot of smack to him," Arizona guard MoMo Jones said. "I told him how much of a bum he was. I told him how skinny he was. I tried to get into his head. You could tell he had a great upside. You could tell he could be something special."

And he is.

Jones, a Harlem native who played with Walker on the travel-ball circuit, now believes Williams has a skill set unmatched by any big man in the country. "Now he has the confidence," Jones said. "He has the game. He has the swagger. He has the belief in himself that nobody can guard him. And quite frankly, I don't think there is anybody in this country that can guard him. He's 6-8, 6-9. He can shoot the three. He can go off the dribble. He's got a 40-inch vertical. I mean there's nothing that the kid can't do."

So which one is the best? Which one would you choose to watch?

Thanks to picture-in-picture and a new TV contract that doesn't leave us at the mercy of our CBS overlords, you don't have to choose. Just sit back, keep your finger on the clicker and enjoy the star power on the ultimate night of Must-See TV.

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