College Basketball: 10 Dark-Horse Candidates for Player of the Year

Ryan SatskyContributor IIIOctober 9, 2012

College Basketball: 10 Dark-Horse Candidates for Player of the Year

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    Last season, neither Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson nor Draymond Green were selected as preseason first team All-Americans. Those three players were the top three vote-getters for the 2011-12 National Player of the Year award.

    Preseason hype doesn't necessarily result in postseason accolade. While early favorites Cody Zeller, Doug McDermott and Deshaun Thomas seem like ideal choices now, anything can happen during a long season.

    Classifying which players should be considered "dark horses" to win this season's award can be fairly ambiguous, so I decided to use Sporting News' preseason All-American teams to determine which players would be ineligible for this list.

    A player is not considered a "dark horse" if he appears on any of the three All-American rosters, therefore disqualifying 15 players from being selected for this list.

    Here are my 10 dark-horse candidates for the 2012-13 National Player of the Year in college basketball.

Kenny Boynton, Florida

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    As unimaginable as it seems, the super talented Kenny Boynton often played second fiddle to a freshman last season for the Florida Gators.

    Now, with that freshman, Brad Beal, no longer in Gainesville, Boynton is ready to solidify his spot among the elites of the SEC. He shoots one of the sweetest three-pointers in the nation, but his explosiveness attacking the rim often goes unnoticed.

    The 6'2'' shooting guard is entering his senior season. As a junior, he averaged 16 points per game and shot 41 percent beyond the arc. Even more noteworthy is that he has never averaged less than 14 points per game in college.

    Boynton may need to put up over 20 points per contest to enter the running for National Player of the Year, but as he becomes the focal point of Florida's offense, reaching that milestone is surprisingly quite reasonable.

Jack Cooley, Notre Dame

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    At the beginning of the 2011-12 season, Jack Cooley was really only known as the bench player that looked like former Notre Dame star Luke Harangody. By the end of the season, he was playing like Luke Harangody.

    Cooley is one of the hardest workers in college basketball. His ability to completely swing the momentum of a ballgame by just contributing numerous "effort plays" warrants his inclusion on this list. His hustle and determination single-handedly turned the Irish from a bubble team into a seven seed in the NCAA tournament.

    The 6'9'' senior power forward average 12.5 points per outing last season, which was a nine-point improvement from his sophomore season. His rebound total also jumped from three to nine per game.

    Cooley's massive improvement from year to year is what caught the eye of most college basketball fans. If the Notre Dame big man can replicate that outstanding maturation, there is no doubt he can compete to be named National Player of the Year.

Pierre Jackson, Baylor

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    The idea that a player as incredibly gifted as Pierre Jackson spent his freshman and sophomore years at College of Southern Idaho is astounding, but it's also a reality.

    Prior to last season, Jackson transferred from the NJCAA school to Baylor, immediately asserting himself as Baylor's starting point guard despite being only 5'10''. His blazing quickness and toughness off the dribble are reasons for his astonishing scoring ability.

    While Jackson did score 20 points five different times last season, he is more than just a shooter. His court vision is admirable, which led to him averaging six assists per contest last season.

    The surprise isn't that the Big 12 Conference named Jackson their preseason Player of the Year. Its that Sporting News left him absent from their All-American teams, rendering him eligible for the list.

    Jackson is a serious National Player of the Year candidate as he takes over as Baylor's top offensive weapon.

Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota

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    If last season was your first season closely following college basketball, you may not know Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe, who was sidelined with an knee injury after just appearing in seven games.

    Mbakwe, a 6'8'', 245-pound senior is widely regarded as the nation's most fundamentally sound power forward. He's a true workhorse on the boards, and can make defenders look silly with his impressive back-to-the-basket post moves.

    During the 2010-11 season, which was his first at Minnesota, Mbakwe totaled 14 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. The season before, at Miami Dade CC, he averaged 16 points and 13.5 rebounds per contest.

    Minnesota will likely be a mainstay in the Top 25, which helps Mbakwe's case. If he is fully healed and in top shape following his ACL tear, his stats alone may make him a National Player of the Year candidate.

Mike Moser, UNLV

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    UNLV's Mike Moser is certainly one of the nation's most tenacious rebounders, but that statement alone doesn't suffice to fully explain Moser's tremendous talents.

    The 6'8'' junior power forward may be the most versatile player in the land, but for some reason, he has the reputation of being one-dimensional. Aside from averaging a conference-leading 10.5 boards per game last season, he averaged 14 points, 2 assists, 2 steals, and a block per game.

    The road doesn't end there. Despite primarily being stationed on the low block, Moser managed to knock down 1.3 treys a night and shot 78 percent from the charity stripe, an impressive number for a big man.

    The former UCLA Bruin is dominant in the low post despite only weighing in 210 pounds. Moser knows how to use his body correctly to outperform defenders and should repeat his sophomore performance as one of the nation's most productive mid-major players.

    If Moser can lead UNLV to a consistent top-10 ranking in the polls, which is certainly plausible, then he should unquestionably contend for the National Player of the Year award.

Phil Pressey, Missouri

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    When Sporting News listed a Missouri guard as a member of its preseason second All-American squad, it should have been Phil Pressey. With all due respect to Michael Dixon, Pressey is the better option.

    Pressey, a 5'11'' junior point guard, embodies the definition of a floor general. He did a magnificent job of orchestrating one of the most enjoyable offenses to watch last season by creating a fast-paced, pass-heavy style of play.

    It seemed like no player ever had the ball in his hands for more than a few seconds, and that accomplishment can be credited to Pressey. He uses his quickness to advance the ball down the floor at an incredible rate, and he knows how to score the ball himself too.

    As a sophomore he put up 10.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 6.5 assists and two steals per contest. That assist total was good for fifth-best among the power six conferences.

    Pressey is one of the most dynamic, explosive and ultimately fun-to-watch players in the land. As was the case with Jimmer Fredette two seasons ago, sometimes that crazy, fun style of play earns you National Player of the Year honors. Pressey definitely can duplicate Fredette's accolades.

Andre Roberson, Colorado

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    If only Andre Roberson was a little taller and a had a little more help on his roster, the power forward from Colorado would be a National Player of the Year favorite, not just a dark horse.

    Roberson would be the quintessential power forward, except he only stands at 6'7''. Even with that disadvantage, Roberson has to be considered among the most skilled rebounders in the nation.

    Late last season, Roberson's muscular frame and endless motor carried the Buffaloes through the Pac-12 tournament en route to an automatic berth. He's probably more important to Colorado than any other player is for his respective team.

    In fact, the Buffaloes' 2013 NCAA tournament hopes are basically contingent on Roberson's continual development and ability to exceed last season's output.

    As a young sophomore last season, Roberson averaged 11.6 points, 11.1 rebounds and two blocks per outing, which are eye-popping numbers for someone as undersized for his position as Roberson is.

    Roberson is third-leading returning rebounder in the country. I don't think there is any doubt Roberson has a legitimate chance at topping that list this season, and if he does, he has to be considered for National Player of the Year.

Michael Snaer, Florida State

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    Michael Snaer tells ESPN he thinks he's "if not the best, then one of the best 2-guards in the country." Frankly, to say that I disagree would simply be disingenuous.

    Florida State's shooting guard has been producing at a high level for three consecutive years, but this is the year he steps his game up a notch and reaches superstar status. As he stated in the linked interview, he can't be guarded—at least not by most ACC wings.

    Snaer is lights-out from the outside, but knows how to attack the rim, and play above the rim as well. All facets of his offensive arsenal are well-rounded, but it doesn't stop there.

    The former 5-star recruit was selected to the ACC All-Defensive team last year as a junior. He averaged over a steal per game, but his quickness as an on-ball defender is what sets him apart. Snaer is definitely a prime candidate for the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

    Last season, Snaer's statistics consisted of 14 points, four boards and two assists per game. He also nailed more than 40 percent of his three-point shots, but none were bigger than his game-winner against Duke late in the regular season.

    Undoubtedly, 28-year-old military veteran Bernard James was Florida State's leader last season, but he graduated. Snaer should assume that leadership role while simultaneously accumulating impressive point totals en route to supporting his National Player of the Year candidacy.

Jeff Withey, Kansas

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    Last year, Kentucky's Anthony Davis may have set the single-season blocks record, but Kansas' Jeff Withey became the holder of a different record in the blocks department.

    Throughout his journey to the NCAA Championship, Withey totaled an NCAA tournament-record 31 blocks. Against NC State in the Sweet 16, the seven-foot Jayhawk amassed 10 blocked shots for the first time in his career.

    As expected, Withey needs to become more assertive on the offensive end of the floor. He often has stretches of five or seven minutes where he seems non-existent on offense, and frequently mishandles passes or misses easy shots.

    As a junior last season, Withey nine points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game. He's a terrific free-throw shooter for his size, knocking down 80 percent of his foul shots.

    Withey evidently needs to work on his consistency, but that can easily be accomplished through hard work in the offseason. If he can erase outputs like the ones he had against Missouri last season, in which he averaged one point, 2.5 rebounds, 0.5 blocks over two games, Withey will definitely be in the conversation for National Player of the Year.

Nate Wolters, South Dakota State

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    Doug McDermott and Isaiah Canaan are the well-known mid-majors, but South Dakota State's Nate Wolters might have the best shot at taking home National Player of the Year honors.

    Wolters is this year's Jimmer Fredette. He plays for a lesser known team, but he compiles statistics that you can't overlook. The Jackrabbits' stud is a legitimate NBA prospect, as he is a 6'4'' combo guard with a tremendously well-rounded game.

    If I were to point out one negative about Wolters, his three-point shot needs work. Luckily, that might be the one area that easily can be fixed.

    As a junior last year, Wolters averaged 21.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game leading the Jackrabbits to the Summit League crown. In fact, he was the only player in the nation to average "20-5-5."

    He'll probably compete with McDermott and Sacred Heart's Shane Gibson for the national scoring title, but I'd put my money on Wolters to end up on top. He could reasonably average 25 points per game, which would place him in the National Player of the Year race by default.