Something to consider while building a preseason player of the year watch list: Last season's POY finalists were a true freshman (Kentucky's Anthony Davis) and a junior in his first season as a starter (Kansas' Thomas Robinson). Experience and past performance are relevant, but smart projections matter just as much.
My 50-man watch list for the Naismith Award is due on Monday, and in the interest of transparency, I'm running my ballot here along with my selection process. In the simplest terms, I want to have my bases covered. My biggest nightmare is not having the eventual winner on our preseason list.
The most sensible way for me to get to 50 is by using a grouping system. Thus this isn't an in-order ranking of the 50 best players in college hoops; the numbering is merely a way of showing how I reach my final 50.
Group 1 is the Obvious National Player of the Year Frontrunners, of which there are only two:
1. Cody Zeller, Soph. C, Indiana2. Doug McDermott, Jr. SF, Creighton
I'll be genuinely surprised if Zeller or McDermott doesn't win it. One has the aid of being on the country's No. 1 team, and the other will put up massive scoring numbers in a high-tempo offense.
Group 2 is the Major-Conference Shortlist, consisting of established players I believe will star for highly-ranked teams:
3. DeShaun Thomas, Jr. SF/PF, Ohio State4. Aaron Craft, Jr. PG, Ohio State5. Phil Pressey, Jr. PG, Missouri6. Michael Dixon Jr., Jr. PG/SG, Missouri7. Trey Burke, Soph., Michigan8. Pierre Jackson, Sr. PG, Baylor9. C.J. Leslie, Jr. PF, NC State10. Kenny Boynton, Sr. SG, Florida11. Jack Cooley, Sr. PF, Notre Dame12. Jeff Withey, Sr. C, Kansas
There is a bit of projecting here with Ohio State's Thomas, who played his first two seasons in Jared Sullinger's shadow; and Missouri's Dixon, who came off the bench last season behind Marcus Denmon. But both are high-volume, high-efficiency scorers who'll be household names by season's end.
Withey is included in this group because of his defense, which gets far too little consideration in player of the year votes. He has the potential to be the country's highest-impact defender, and that needs to be acknowledged.
Group 3 is the Non-BCS Conference Shortlist, consisting of established stars from the lesser leagues.
13. Isaiah Canaan, Sr. PG, Murray State14. Jamaal Franklin, Jr. SG, San Diego State15. Nate Wolters, Sr. PG, South Dakota State16. C.J. McCollum, Sr. SG, Lehigh17. Mike Moser, Jr. PF, UNLV18. Elias Harris, Sr. PF, Gonzaga19. Matthew Dellavedova, Sr. PG, St. Mary's
Canaan has the best shot at transcending mid-majordom and joining Zeller and McDermott among the Naismith finalists. The Murray State senior is already well-known after the Racers' long undefeated run last season, and should be considered the country's best scoring point guard.
Group 4 is the Instant-Impact Transfers, of which there's only one worthy candidate:
20. Rotnei Clarke, Sr. PG/SG, Butler
Clarke was a prolific shooter/scorer at Arkansas, and the Bulldogs are desperately in need of offense. He seems well-positioned to put up big numbers.
Group 5 is the Breakout Sophomores, consisting of players who could logically make the leap from "promising freshman" to All-American in their second season. This is where I start making projections:
21. Tony Mitchell, Soph. PF, North Texas22. Otto Porter, Soph. SF/PF, Georgetown23. James Michael McAdoo, Soph. PF, North Carolina24. B.J. Young, Soph. PG/SG, Arkansas25. Jarnell Stokes, Soph. PF, Tennessee26. Chane Behanan, Soph., PF, Louisville27. Kevin Pangos, Soph. PG, Gonzaga28. Adonis Thomas, Soph. SF, Memphis29. Michael Carter-Williams, Soph. PG, Syracuse
If Mitchell puts up Blake Griffin-at-Oklahoma-level numbers -- which I think is possible this season -- the fact that he's at North Texas shouldn't hold him back too much in the All-America race. There isn't exactly an abundance of established-star power forwards in the major conferences.
Carter-Williams is the longest projection of all, as he averaged just 2.7 points in 10.3 minutes while playing behind Scoop Jardine and Dion Waiters last season. But he's taking over the starting point-guard gig for the Orange, and he's capable of being a high-teens scorer with a 2-to-1 assist-turnover ratio on an elite team, which would put him in the awards conversation.
Group 6 is the Instant-Impact Freshmen, whom the Naismith Award is wise enough to make eligible for its watch list. The Wooden Award doesn't allow them, which is silly in an era where elite freshmen are capable of leading a team to a national title.
30. Shabazz Muhammad, Fr. SG/SF, UCLA31. Archie Goodwin, Fr. SG, Kentucky32. Marcus Smart, Fr. PG, Oklahoma State33. Nerlens Noel, Fr. C, Kentucky34. Kyle Anderson, Fr. PG/SF, UCLA35. Alex Poythress, Fr. PF, Kentucky36. Anthony Bennett, Fr. PF, UNLV37. Isaiah Austin, Fr. C, Baylor
Muhammad is the freshman with the most realistic shot at the Naismith Award, given that he's projected as the No. 1 NBA draft pick next season, and would have a clear, major scoring role at UCLA. The problem is that the NCAA has yet to deem him eligible. I have concerns that Muhammad could be suspended for a good chunk of the season, but in the interest of covering my bases, I have to give him a spot.
Despite Noel's ranking as the Class of 2012's No. 1 recruit, it appears that Goodwin could end up as Kentucky's leading scorer this season, so he needs to be included. Smart is the best point guard in the freshman class and should immediately be Oklahoma State's best player.
Group 7 is the Second-Tier Establishment: the major-conference stars whom I think are more of a national POY long-shot than those in Group 2.
38. Christian Watford, Sr. PF, Indiana39. Gorgui Dieng, Jr. PF, Louisville40. Peyton Siva, Jr. PG, Louisville41. Trevor Mbakwe, Sr. PF, Minnesota42. Andre Roberson, Jr. PF, Colorado43. Mason Plumlee, Sr. PF, Duke44. Patric Young, Sr. PF, Florida45. Lorenzo Brown, Jr. PG, NC State46. Michael Snaer, Sr. SG/SF, Florida State47. Rodney McGruder, Sr. SG, Kansas State
If Big Ten defenses over-focus on Zeller, Watford has a chance to be the leading scorer on the nation's No. 1 team. Dieng is a defensive POY candidate who would need to make offensive strides to be considered for the Naismith. Plumlee and Young are NBA-bound big men who've yet to truly have a monster college season. Will it finally happen for either of them?
Group 8 is the Second-Tier Outsiders, or non-BCS stars who are more of a POY long-shot than those in Group 3:
48. D.J. Cooper, Sr. PG, Ohio49. Khalif Wyatt, Sr. SG, Temple50. Mike Muscala, Sr., C, Bucknell
Cooper outplayed Burke (a Group 2 guy) in the NCAA tournament and is one of the country's most under-appreciated point guards. Wyatt is a complete scorer who should contend for Atlantic 10 POY honors, and Muscala is the best center the mid-major ranks.
In hopes of avoiding as many "what-about-my-guy" comments as possible, here are players I considered but cut from the following groups:
Group 4 (Instant-Impact Transfers):Mark Lyons, Sr. PG, ArizonaAaric Murray, Jr. C, West VirginiaRyan Harrow, Soph. PG, Kentucky
Lyons will be valuable to the likely Pac-12 champs, but they'll be such a balanced team that it's unlikely a POY contender will emerge. Harrow is a solid point guard who's on a roster with bigger stars.
Group 5 (Breakout Sophomores):Alex Len, Soph. C, MarylandKentavious Caldwell-Pope, Soph. SG, GeorgiaLe'Bryan Nash, Soph. SF, Oklahoma StateBranden Dawson, Soph. SF, Michigan StateShelden McClellan, Soph. SG, TexasMyck Kabongo, Soph. PG, TexasAaron White, Soph. PF, IowaJohnny O'Bryant, Soph. C, LSUD'Angelo Harrison, Soph. SG, St. John's
Len is being hailed as a future first-rounder, and he may be an All-ACC big man this season, but his freshman stats don't even hint at the productivity level required to chase a POY award. Caldwell-Pope will score in bunches, but POYs don't come from non-NCAA tournament teams. Nash put up solid scoring numbers as a freshman but was so inefficient that I'm hesitant to peg him as a real star.
Group 6 (Instant-Impact Freshmen):Grant Jerrett, Fr. PF, ArizonaBrandon Ashley, Fr. PF, ArizonaKaleb Tarczewski, Fr. C, ArizonaSteven Adams, Fr. C, PittsburghGary Harris, Fr. SG, Michigan StateBen McLemore, Fr. SG, KansasYogi Ferrell, Fr. PG, Indiana
Arizona's trio are excellent players who seem bound to cancel each other out in a POY race -- and only two of them will start. While I have three Kentucky freshmen on my list, they're all starters who play distinctly different positions.
Group 7 (Second-Tier Establishment):Tim Frazier, Sr. PG, Penn StateAllen Crabbe, Jr. SG, CalReggie Bullock, Jr. SG/SF, North CarolinaShabazz Napier, Jr. PG, UConnJarred Berggren, Sr. PF, WisconsinReggie Johnson, Sr. PF, MiamiSean Kilpatrick, Jr. SG, CincinnatiBrandon Triche, Sr. SG, SyracuseSeth Curry, Sr. SG, DukeSolomon Hill, Sr. SF, ArizonaTim Hardaway Jr., Jr. SG/SF, MichiganElijah Johnson, Sr. PG, KansasBrock Motum, Sr. PF, Washington StateC.J. Wilcox, Jr. SG, Washington
Frazier is an elite point guard who's essentially out of the POY picture due to the (extremely low) quality of his team. I worry about leaving Bullock and Crabbe off my list the most; they're both talented wing scorers and important veterans on league-title contenders.
Group 8 (Second-Tier Outsiders):De'Mon Brooks, Jr. PF, DavidsonJackie Carmichael, Sr. C, Illinois StateKerron Johnson, Sr. PG, BelmontJake Cohen, Sr. PF, DavidsonJavon McCrea, Jr. PF, BuffaloBrandon Davies, Sr. PF, BYULangston Galloway, Jr. SG, St. Joseph'sRay McCallum, Jr. PG, DetroitJoe Jackson, Jr. PG/SG, MemphisDeAndre Kane, Jr. SG, MarshallDennis Tinnon, Sr. PF, MarshallTony Snell, Jr. SG, New Mexico
Brooks was my final cut from the list of 50. While it's unlikely that he'll actually be a Naismith finalist, he's a vastly under-hyped, highly productive scorer who should help Davidson get back to the NCAA tournament. Carmichael is a late-blooming NBA prospect who'll put up huge rebounding numbers, but it's inevitable that he'll be overshadowed in his own league by McDermott. There's only so much national pub to go around in the Valley.