Mail: Picking college basketball's player of the year, more

Thursday February 23rd, 2017

Note: Seth Davis will periodically answer questions posed to him over Twitter, Facebook and emails sent through SI.com. Be sure to check out his Hoop Thoughts column every Monday and to send questions during his Twenty for Tuesday Q&A on Twitter at @SethDavisHoops. Trolls not included. Questions may be edited for clarity.

We begin with an overriding question that I haven’t visited in a while. The answer could use some updating:

Who are your top three candidates for Player of the Year right now? — Z Betz (@Z_Betz)

I’m happy to provide my ever-changing ranking of candidates, but first a word about criteria. It’s interesting that the title of this award is Player of the Year. Not Most Outstanding player, or the much different Most Valuable Player. It’s Player of the Year, which means the person who wins it should stand for something beyond his own statistics.

On the other hand, this is Player of the Year, not Team of the Year. So it is by definition an individual award. Therefore, I think we need to be careful about over-rewarding great players on good teams while punishing great players on bad teams. If anything, it’s harder to accrue gaudy stats on a bad team because it means you don’t have teammates to ward off defensive pressure.

Looking at this list, I admit I fall prey to this tendency. My questioner only asked for three candidates, but I am feeling rather generous today. So I’m giving you my top 10:

1. Frank Mason, senior guard, Kansas. One of my favorite numbers in college basketball this season is 51.2. That is Mason’s three-point percentage following the Jayhawks’ win over TCU on Wednesday night. With all the great things Mason does, the fact that he has become such a lethal shooter (he made 32.7% as a freshman) is testament to how hard he has worked and how intensely he competes. He has rescued this team often this season, most recently in dramatic comeback wins over West Virginia and Baylor. The Jayhawks wear his personality, which is why they are currently my favorite to win the national championship.

2. Caleb Swanigan, sophomore forward, Purdue. For a player who stands 6' 9" and weighs 250 pounds, Swanigan has some ridiculous shooting percentages. Swanigan is making 54.1% from the floor, 46.8% from three and 78.3% from the foul line. He is pulling down 12.9 rebounds per game, which ranks second nationally. He leads the country with 23 double-doubles, including four 20–20 games. Swanigan is also dishing out nearly three assists per game. Shouldn’t that be against the rules?

College Basketball
Project Biggie: How Swanigan became the nation's top power forward

3. Lonzo Ball, freshman guard, UCLA. You’d be hard pressed to think of an example of a first-year player not only dominating the game but also completely transforming the culture of a program. Ball leads the nation in assists at 7.6 per game, and he is the perfect point guard for the Bruins’ high-octane offense. He has his ups and downs as a scorer, but he is still making 43.0% of his three-point shots, despite his funky shooting form. And whenever the Bruins need a huge bucket, Ball is the one who more often than not delivers. In doing so, he has taken a team that was a disaster last season and turned it into a Final Four contender.

4. Josh Hart, senior guard, Villanova. Hart has been riding atop these rankings for so long, you almost need to make a negative case against him to rank him this low. He has come back to earth the last month or so as his backcourtmate Jalen Brunson has surged, but Hart is still the most dynamic player on the reigning champs. He leads the Big East in scoring (18.7) while ranking in fourth in rebounds (6.4), sixth in steals (1.55), seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.8), 10th in assists (3.2) and 13th in three-point percentage (40.0%). Some guys do a little of everything, but Hart does a lot of everything.

5. Markelle Fultz, freshman guard, Washington. This is where I stray from my winning-team model and recognize individual excellence. Fultz is only a freshman, and because he plays on a losing team he faces intense defensive attention. Yet his numbers are off the charts. He averages 23.2 points, 5.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 47.6% from the floor and 41.3% from three. Heck, he even ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in blocks at 1.20 per game. You could make a very credible argument that Fultz is the best player in college basketball. He remains the odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. So we shouldn’t punish him because his team is losing, especially when it’s obviously not his fault.

6. Nigel Williams-Goss, junior guard, Gonzaga. Gonzaga is a remarkably balanced team, but Williams-Goss is the one player who gives the Zags their swagger. He is the point of attack on both ends of the floor, and he does so with great efficiency. He leads the West Coast Conference in steals (1.78 per game) and free throw percentage (90.3). He also ranks in the top five in scoring (16.3 ppg), assists (4.8) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.41).

7. Ethan Happ, sophomore forward, Wisconsin. Here’s another unconventional do-everything player. Happ leads the Badgers in points (14.7), rebounds (9.0), assists (2.9), steals (2.1) and blocks (1.1). He has the ability to initiate Wisconsin’s fast break by pushing the ball after a defensive rebound, and he is expert at making teams pay for double-teaming him with pinpoint passes.

College Basketball
The Ethan-vention: Happ's rise to stardom at Wisconsin

8. Justin Jackson, junior forward, North Carolina. Jackson’s improvement during his three years in Chapel Hill has been steady but striking. His size and frame make him a new-age matchup from hell, but he also has a lot of old school array of fades and floaters, not to mention a throwback mid-range game. He is the best player on what is increasingly looking like the nation’s most talented team, averaging 18.7 points (39.6% from three, up from 29.2% last season), 4.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game.

9. Luke Kennard, sophomore guard, Duke. Kennard has been both efficient and consistent. He has only failed to scored in double figures once all season. He has failed to reach the 16-point mark just six times. He is averaging 20.1 points for the Blue Devils (to go along with 5.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists) while making 51.8% percent from the floor, 46.1% from three and 84.9% percent from the foul line. Duke has lots of offensive options, but it also has no true point guard. When this team needs a big bucket, Kennard is usually the one to get it.

10. Dillon Brooks, junior forward, Oregon. Brooks missed the first three games of the season while he recovered from off-season foot surgery, and it took him a few weeks to return to form. Since the start of Pac-12 play, however, he has been sensational, averaging 17.7 points (on 55.0% shooting, including 46.6% from three), 3.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists. He has also hit two huge game-winners, at home against UCLA on Dec. 28 and Wednesday night at Cal.

Does Mark Fox survive this season at UGA? #hotseat — Justin Pursley (@J2Da_P)

Will Mark Fox be Georgia’s coach next season? — Stephen Elmo Weeks (@ElmoWeeks)

I always get lots of hot-seat questions, and most of the time they reflect the fans’ unrealistic expectations. Some fan bases have the right to be unrealistic because they obviously care deeply about their program and want to see results. Even in those cases, however, I often caution fans not to drive out the guy they have unless they know they can get the guy they want to replace him. Most of the time, the next guy isn’t any better than the current guy.

Georgia is a great example. The Bulldogs have been pretty competitive this season, although they have lost some tough games. They lost on the road in overtime to the best teams in the league, Kentucky and Florida, and they lost by a single basket at South Carolina two weeks ago. They lost at Texas A&M by one point when a clock error took away their chance to win the game with free throws. On Saturday, they played most of their game gainst Kentucky at home without their leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, junior Yante Maten, who went down early in the game with an injury and never returned. They still led most of the way until UK pulled out a five-point win in the final minute. Georgia is 6–8 in the SEC heading into Thursday night’s game at Alabama, but this is clearly a competitive team that plays the right way.

And yet, Georgia is currently averaging 7,323 fans per game, which ranks 12th out of 14 SEC teams and 69th nationally. You might say that’s Fox’s fault for not winning more, but consider that even Missouri is out-drawing this team with a 9,943 average. Look around the country and you see lots of struggling programs out-drawing Georgia: Nebraska (15,419), San Diego State (12,222), Illinois (11,893), New Mexico (11,612), Texas (10,136), UNLV (10,160), Vanderbilt (9,609), Oklahoma (9,217), UConn (8,446), Colorado (7,756). Heck, even Washington, which is 2–13 in the Pac 12, is pulling in 7,731 fans per game.

College Basketball
As elite coaches face twilight, who will follow legends at Duke, UNC, Syracuse and Louisville?

The message from Georgia fans is loud and clear: We don’t care about basketball. Even by the standards of football country, these numbers are low. I wonder if people have any idea how hard it is to recruit to a program like that. Sure, if the team started winning big, then people would turn out, but mostly they see the winter as a waiting period until the spring football game.

There is nothing wrong with this, but it does make it harder for me to sympathize with fans who want to get rid of the coach when the coach is clearly not the problem. Everyone in basketball knows Mark Fox is a capable coach and a man of high character. There is no savior ready to come through that door. My best advice for Georgia fans is to give better support to the guy you have, and he might be able produce more results you like.

With how bad the bubble is (every year really), isn’t it time to scrap the First Four and let every conference winner in without the play-in games? — Drew F (@Schneideur)

I was not a fan of the original so-called opening round game, which of course was really a play-in game, when it was first created in 1999. The reason was the birth of the Mountain West Conference, which had split off from the WAC. As a result, there was one too many automatic bids needed, so in order to make room, two of the lowest-ranked automatic qualifiers were forced to play their way into the main bracket.

I thought that was unfair. Instead of making a pair of 16 seeds go through that, I thought the NCAA should have required the last two at-large teams to do it. Then came the new contact with CBS and Turner in 2010, which begat the First Four to expand the at-large field to 36 teams. At least this time, the NCAA made it fairer by assigning two of the games to be played between the lowest four seeded at-large teams. The other two games have automatic qualifiers.

I think the First Four is worth keeping. The games between the 16 seeds are always some of the most entertaining of the tournament. Those kids are playing like their lives depended on it. However, if I had control, I would make one tweak: Let’s have each game feature an at-large team against an automatic qualifier. The pitting of Cinderellas against power conference teams is what gives the NCAA tournament its charm. I’d love to see us get four bites at that apple.

Streeter Lecka/Getty

We have player of the year and freshman of rear, but who is the sophomore of the year? — KMac (@novahoops0304)

Lists, lists, I love lists! Setting aside the sophomores listed in my POY rankings above, here you go:

1. Donovan Mitchell, Louisville
2. Jalen Brunson, Villanova
3. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State
4. John Collins, Wake Forest
5. Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
6. Thomas Bryant, Indiana
7. Edmond Sumner, Xavier
8. Tyler Dorsey, Oregon
9. Ivan Rabb, California
10. Kevaughn Allen, Florida

Are Wichita State and Illinois State both NCAA tournament locks? — Matthew (@HoosierGuy311)

Now here is a pair of interesting test cases. On the one hand, each team has just one top-50 RPI win, and that was the home game they played against each other. They each have one additional top-100 win. Wichita State’s came on the road at Colorado State. Illinois State’s was at home against New Mexico.

How weak is having one top-50 win and two top-100 wins? Consider that Nebraska, which is 6–8 in the Big Ten and has basically no shot of getting into the tournament, has three top-25 wins and six top-100 wins. Six! Georgetown has two top-25 wins, three top-50 wins and five top-100 wins. Penn State has three top-50 wins. Georgia Tech has four, including three against top-25 opponents.

College Basketball
Enemy Lines: ACC, Big 12, Big Ten coaches scout league opponents with brutal honesty

On the other hand, Wichita State has zero losses outside the top 50, while Illinois State has just one loss to a team ranked outside the top 100. There is something to be said for all that winning. In the Shockers’ case, all those wins have catapulted them to No. 25 in both the AP and the coaches’ polls. As for the metrics, the Shockers do extremely well in the predictive rankings (No. 12 on kenpom.com, No. 15 in Sagarin) but are poorer results-based ratings (No. 41 in the RPI, No. 43 on KPISports.net). Illinois State does worse in the metrics: 34th in the RPI, 52nd in kenpom.com, 53rd in KPI and 55th in Sagarin.

So I’d say on the whole, Wichita State looks to me like it can get an at-large bid if it fails to win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, while Illinois State has a tougher road. But when it comes to those last few spots, I honestly don’t believe the committee will feel comfortable going completely with teams that have more top-50 RPI wins just because they are in a major conference. At some point, they will have to go outside the power five to fill out this bracket. If and when they do, Wichita State should be one of the first teams they reach for.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.