As we head into the start of conference tournament play, with less than a week left before Selection Sunday, Virginia is the consensus No. 1 team in the AP Poll.
They are also the consensus No. 1 team in the Coaches Poll.
And regardless of what happens over the course of the next five days, they are going to be the No. 1 overall seed with the bracket is released on Sunday evening.
All this from a team that wasn’t even ranked in the preseason, which is to say that no one — literally no one — can legitimately say that they saw this coming from Virginia.
To put it another way, in a year where there are a half-dozen coaches that, in a normal season, would be shoe-ins for the National Coach of the Year award, Tony Bennett is the clear choice.
That should not take away from what Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes did this season in leading Auburn and Tennessee to shares of the SEC title. And it shouldn’t put a damper on the year that Chris Holtmann had at Ohio State, or the job that Matt Painter and John Beilein did to turn Purdue and Michigan into legitimate threats to get to the Final Four. Brad Brownell saved his job at Clemson. Chris Beard might have won the Big 12 regular season title outright if his star point guard hadn’t gotten injured with three weeks left in the regular season. Hell, even Bill Self deserves a mention here for what he was able to do with a Kansas team that has more flaws than the ending to LOST.
But Bennett is the pick.
Because this is the best season that Bennett has had at Virginia to date despite the fact that this is far from his best roster.
I’ll tell you this much: Never again am I going to enter a season without putting Virginia in my top 25.
There is no right answer for National Player of the Year in 2018.
Trae Young became the first player to lead the nation in scoring and assists, but his efficiency went into the toilet during Big 12 play as Oklahoma struggled to find an answer when teams figured out how to slow him down. Young was not even named the Big 12’s Player of the Year this season — Devonte’ Graham was — and that might not have been the case if Keenan Evans didn’t spend the final three weeks of the season battling turf toe. Winning is the most important statistic when it comes to a Player of the Year candidate, and it’s hard to get behind a player for being the nation’s best when his team slowly slid into irrelevancy.
Marvin Bagley III and Deandre Ayton are both super-human talents that, essentially, averaged 20 points and 10 boards. But Duke’s biggest win and many of their best performances came when Bagley was injured while Ayton’s Arizona team struggled with off-the-court questions and consistency throughout the year.
That leaves us with Jalen Brunson, Villanova’s talisman and the centerpiece of a team that is college basketball’s best and most dangerous offense, and even his candidacy comes with flaws. The Wildcats, for the first time since the new Big East was formed, did not win the Big East regular season title and Brunson did not play his best basketball down the stretch.
But that had as much to do with some injury issues late in the year as anything.
What this decision came down to, for me, was simple: Brunson is the most important player on a national title contender, the most valuable piece on any team with a real shot of cutting down the nets on that final Monday of the season. His efficiency numbers are simply incredible as opposed to historically-unprecedented thanks to a late-season swoon, but he is still the one guy in the country that I want with the ball in his hands and the game on the line.
Villanova is not a perfect basketball team, and there’s a real chance that, for the fourth time in five season, the Wildcats could end up flaming out of the NCAA tournament after the first weekend.
But in a year where every first-team all-american has a real case for National Player of the Year — and enough warts to make that candidacy seem silly — Brunson is the pick.
The NBC Sports 2018 College Basketball All-American Teams
For much of the first three months of the season, Trae Young looked like a shoe-in to be college basketball’s National Player of the Year.
Then, in the final six weeks of the season, Young found himself second in the running for Big 12 Player of the Year.
For a while thereafter, Jalen Brunson looked like he would be the favorite to win the award, but he also had a rough end of the season. The end result is that there really isn’t a favorite to win the award at this point.
But there does, however, appear to be a pretty clear-cut group for First-Team All-America, all of whom have a real case to be the National Player of the Year.
Here is that team, and the 15 players that we will mark down as college basketball’s best in 2017-18.
Brunson is the NBC Sports National Player of the Year, so it only makes sense that the leads our crop of first-team all-americans. Brunson is the most important player on a national title contender, the most valuable piece on any team with a real shot of cutting down the nets on that final Monday of the season. His efficiency numbers are simply incredible as opposed to historically-unprecedented thanks to a late-season swoon, but he is still the one guy in the country that I want with the ball in his hands and the game on the line.
TRAE YOUNG, Oklahoma: 27.5 ppg, 8.9 apg, 3.9 rpg
Young led the nation in scoring and assists, becoming the first player in college basketball history to do so. At one point this season, Oklahoma was a top ten team. But that success was somewhat short-lived. By the middle of conference play, the secret was out on how to slow Young and the Sooners down, and Lon Kruger just didn’t have any answers. As far as I’m concerned, you cannot be considered for National Player of the Year if you are not on a title contender. You can, however, be a first-team all-american.
Graham, not Young, won the Big 12 Player of the Year award in 2018, and it was well-deserved. He was the anchor for a Kansas team that won their 14th straight Big 12 title despite having so many question marks. He made big shots, he was their best perimeter defender and he carried the Jayhawks for long stretches as a senior. Maybe we under-appreciated just how good a backcourt of Graham and Frank Mason III was a year ago.
MARVIN BAGLEY III, Duke: 20.7 ppg, 11.2 rpg
Bagley is a freak of nature. He’s one of college basketball’s best rebounders. He’s nearly unstoppable when he gets the ball in the paint. He has the kind of explosive athleticism most mere mortals only dream about, and he’s doing all of that for the team that I think is the best in college basketball. He might be the favorite to be National Player of the Year if Duke didn’t have long stretches where they seemed to function better without him.
Ayton or Bagley? That’s something that is going to be discussed by far too many people in basketball circles over the course of the next three months, whether we’re talking about college basketball postseason awards or where he is going to get picked in the NBA Draft. Ayton is the more physically-imposing of the two and probably the better defender, but his Arizona team has not had the same level of success as Duke.
Evans saw his numbers take a hit in the final five games of the regular season as he tried to battle through turf toe to win the Red Raiders a Big 12 title. It did not go as planned. If he gets back to 100 percent for the NCAA tournament, he would be my pick to go on a run the way that Shabazz Napier or Kemba Walker did before him.
Bluiett is the big-shot maker, the leading scorer and the face of the program that became the first team not named Villanova to win a Big East title since the new league was created. There aren’t three players in the country — if any — that I would want taking the final shot of a game.
His numbers are middling, but the impact he has on Cincinnati defensively is not. And for a team who wins because they are having an all-time great season stopping the ball, that is hard to overlook.
KEITA BATES-DIOP, Ohio State: 19.4 ppg, 8.8 rpg
Bates-Diop has been a revelation for the Buckeyes this season, as he’s finally developed into what the recruiting pundits thought he would be when he was rated as a five-star recruit coming out of high school. You have to think that if he was healthy all of last season, Chris Holtmann would still be at Butler because Thad Matta would still be employed.
JOCK LANDALE, Saint Mary’s: 21.3 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 2.1 apg
Landale is the best low-post scorer in the country. He’s a throw-back, with the kind of low-post moves that would make Kevin McHale jealous. Here’s to hoping that the Selection Committee makes the decision to put the Gaels in the NCAA tournament on Sunday.
He is college basketball’s best on-ball defender and the engine that allow Press Virginia to run the way that Bob Huggins wants it to run. He’s had a sensational, underrated career in Morgantown.
AARON HOLIDAY, UCLA: 20.1 ppg, 5.8 apg, 43.9% 3PT
Holiday really hasn’t gotten all that much attention this season because the Bruins have not been relevant since LaVar Ball stopped feuding with Donald Trump, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me that there has been a better point guard in college basketball outside of the Big 12 this season.
Edwards has been absolutely fantastic this season, Generously listed at 6-foot-1, he’s turned into one of the most dangerous scorers in the Big Ten and a huge piece of what Matt Painter wants to do offensively.
Bridges has not lived up to the hype that he had coming into the season. That does not, however, mean that he has had a bad season. We all just typecast him as a player that he wasn’t. Bridges is at his best when tasked with playing a role, not when he needs to be a go-to guy. It’s what will make him last in the NBA for 12 years.
LUKE MAYE, North Carolina: 17.7 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 2.4 apg, 46.3% 3PT
College basketball’s most improved player. Who had Luke Maye, not Joel Berry II, being the obvious pick as UNC’s all-american this season?
USBWA announces finalists for three major individual awards
On Thursday the United States Basketball Writers Association released its list of finalists for three major individual awards: the Oscar Robertson (national Player of the Year), Wayman Tisdale (national Freshman of the Year) and Henry Iba (national Coach of the Year) awards. The Robertson Award list of finalists consists of 15 players, while the Tisdale and Iba awards lists have six and ten names, respectively.
The finalists for the Oscar Robertson Award are:
G/F Kyle Anderson (UCLA)
F Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico)
F Cleanthony Early (Wichita State)
F Melvin Ejim (Iowa State)
G Tyler Ennis (Syracuse)
F C.J. Fair (Syracuse)
G Nick Johnson (Arizona)
G Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati)
F Doug McDermott (Creighton)
G Shabazz Napier (UConn)
F Jabari Parker (Duke)
F Casey Prather (Florida)
F Julius Randle (Kentucky)
G Russ Smith (Louisville)
G Andrew Wiggins (Kansas)
If there’s one beef to be had with this list it may be in regard to which Florida Gator deserves inclusion. Prather’s enjoyed an excellent senior season, as he’s averaging 14.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game after accounting for just 6.2 points and 3.7 rebounds per game as a junior. But would point guard Scottie Wilbekin be a better choice?
Wilbekin’s the clear leader for the Gators on the floor, something that seemed a bit far-fetched before the season began as he was looking to work his way back into the good graces of head coach Billy Donovan. Wilbekin’s averaging 13.9 points, 3.9 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game, but the numbers alone don’t fully illustrate his impact.
Also of note are the omissions of Nik Stauskas (Michigan) and Xavier Thames (San Diego State), two players who have been key figures for teams that could win their respective conference titles.
The finalists for the Wayman Tisdale Award are:
C Joel Embiid (Kansas)
G Tyler Ennis (Syracuse)
F Aaron Gordon (Arizona)
F Jabari Parker (Duke)
F Julius Randle (Kentucky)
G Andrew Wiggins (Kansas)
Three of the six freshmen on this list are also finalists for the Robertson Award: Ennis, Parker and Wiggins, and it’s difficult to argue against any of these six players.
And the ten finalists for the Henry Iba Award are:
John Beilein (Michigan)
Tony Bennett (Virginia)
Larry Brown (SMU)
Jim Crews (Saint Louis)
Mick Cronin (Cincinnati)
Billy Donovan (Florida)
Steve Fisher (San Diego State)
Gregg Marshall (Wichita State)
Greg McDermott (Creighton)
Jay Wright (Villanova)
Of the ten coaches on the list four have players on the Robertson Award list (Cronin, Donovan, Marshall and McDermott), but names such as Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Sean Miller (Arizona) and Bill Self (Kansas) are noticeably absent. Sure all three of their teams entered the season with high expectations, but that shouldn’t overshadow the work they’ve done.
And in the case of Self his program has already wrapped up at least a share of its tenth consecutive Big 12 regular season title. But there can only be ten, and the coaches on the list are all deserving of the honor. The USBWA will announced the winners of the awards during Final Four weekend in early April.