Conference play is getting underway across the college basketball landscape, meaning that it’s time for Naismith Award candidates to stop fattening their stats against East Nowhere State. With some players’ numbers dipping and others' soaring—along with their teams’ performances—there have been some important changes since our last look at the Naismith favorites.
One new face among this edition’s front-runners started the year as one of the country’s most-hyped players. UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad is starting to live up to his billing, as he showed by lighting up then-No. 7 Missouri in an upset win at Pauley Pavilion.
Read on for more on Muhammad and the rest of the 20 most promising candidates to take home national Player of the Year hardware at season’s end.
Previous Ranking: 19
Nerlens Noel’s defensive numbers are still magnificent, but he took a real hit from Kentucky’s loss to Louisville. It’s a lot harder to sell people on great defense when your team isn’t winning.
Key Stats: 9.0 rebounds, 3.6 blocks, 2.7 steals per game
Winning Edge: Best all-purpose defender in the college ranks.
Biggest Flaw: Barely scoring in double digits.
Previous Ranking: 13
Individually, it’s hard to fault Isaiah Canaan’s performance, but a point guard (especially a senior) needs to turn his team into a winner. Canaan hasn’t done that, and Murray State is nearly as anonymous as it was two years ago.
Key Stats: 21.2 points, 4.1 assists per game, .415 three-point shooting
Winning Edge: Outstanding combination of scoring and passing.
Biggest Flaw: Team is sinking fast.
Previous Ranking: Unranked
6’4” Marcus Smart is a Jason Kidd-caliber rebounder from the point guard spot, and he does plenty of other things well too. He’d be a good deal higher if his team had not just suffered a painful loss at Gonzaga.
Key Stats: 13.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.6 steals per game
Winning Edge: Great point guard who also leads his team in rebounding.
Biggest Flaw: Hasn’t established himself as a winner.
Previous Ranking: 17
Just when it seemed Nate Wolters was going to get South Dakota State on track with an upset win over New Mexico, the Jackrabbits regressed. A dreadful conference loss at North Dakota State leaves Wolters stuck filling up stat sheets for a team nobody's heard of.
Key Stats: 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.6 assists,1.5 steals per game
Winning Edge: Most versatile player in the nation.
Biggest Flaw: Team has struggled even against a soft schedule.
Previous Ranking: Unranked
UCLA’s home upset of Missouri catapulted its star freshman into the Naismith conversation. Shabazz Muhammad’s scoring has climbed steadily since his suspension ended, and he’s flashed an even better long-range stroke than anticipated.
Key Stats: 19.6 points, 4.6 rebounds per game, .483 three-point shooting
Winning Edge: Explosive athlete with chance to rescue a dismal start for UCLA.
Biggest Flaw: Not contributing much outside of scoring.
Previous Ranking: 18
Peyton Siva’s share in staving off Kentucky’s second-half comeback further establishes him as a winner above all else. He’s also a fine passer and improving scorer.
Key Stats: 5.8 assists, 2.2 steals per game
Winning Edge: Best pure leader in the country.
Biggest Flaw: Measurables unimpressive compared to bumper crop of point guards.
Previous Ranking: 12
Jeff Withey’s shot-blocking numbers have slipped below record-breaking (or even country-leading) levels, but he’s still one of the top centers around. His defense did underline KU’s decisive win at Ohio State.
Key Stats: 13.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.9 blocks per game
Winning Edge: Overwhelming force as a shot-blocker.
Biggest Flaw: Indifferent scorer.
Previous Ranking: Unranked
In spite of Baylor’s rocky start, Pierre Jackson is putting up numbers that can’t be ignored. He’d be among the nation’s top pure point guards if he weren’t also the Bears’ leading scorer by more than five points per game.
Key Stats: 19.6 points, 6.3 assists, 2.2 steals per game
Winning Edge: Extraordinary all-around point guard with clutch ability.
Biggest Flaw: Hasn’t lifted underachieving team.
Previous Ranking: 14
Stuck in third place on the national scoring charts, Doug McDermott continues to tread water. He’s playing the same sensational basketball as usual but struggling to gain much ground in a crowded field.
Key Stats: 23.5 points, 7.0 rebounds per game, .500 three-point shooting
Winning Edge: Most dangerous inside-outside scorer in college game.
Biggest Flaw: Still only a hair above 2011-12 performance.
Previous Ranking: 11
Even with a slight dip in his dazzling numbers, Erick Green continues to be a scoring point guard par excellence. He does bear some blame, though, for Virginia Tech’s continued difficulties in the loss column.
Key Stats: 24.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.6 steals per game
Winning Edge: No. 2 scorer in nation is also a fine point guard in own right
Biggest Flaw: Hokie team he leads is still wildly inconsistent.
Previous Ranking: 8
Like the rest of his Buckeyes teammates, Deshaun Thomas is considerably worse off after getting thumped at home by Kansas. Thomas’ three-point shooting has also fallen from remarkable (.429) to very good (.397).
Key Stats: 19.8 points, 6.9 rebounds per game
Winning Edge: Can score from anywhere on the court (and do a little rebounding, too).
Biggest Flaw: Shooting percentages have dropped off noticeably in recent games.
Previous Ranking: 9
Lehigh’s loss to disappointing Bryant makes it that much tougher to take its star player seriously on the national scene. That said, C.J. McCollum is starting to run away with the national scoring title, which counts for quite a bit.
Key Stats: 25.7 points, 5.3 rebounds per game, .532 three-point shooting
Winning Edge: More than a full point per game ahead of closest competitor in national scoring race.
Biggest Flaw: Exceptionally weak schedule not helped by bad losses for Lehigh.
Previous Ranking: 10
Cooley has taken advantage of some overmatched opponents to give his numbers a nice boost over the last couple of weeks. If he can keep pushing his scoring average higher, he’ll be in a position to gain a lot of ground in the Naismith chase.
Key Stats: 15.2 points, 11.3 rebounds,1.7 blocks per game
Winning Edge: Top interior presence in country’s most physical conference.
Biggest Flaw: Despite vast improvement, still not an elite scorer in this company.
Previous Ranking: 6
No longer a threat to average 20 points and 10 boards, Jamaal Franklin is still one of the best all-around wings you’ll find at the college level. He showed his versatility in a tough loss to Arizona, struggling to score but contributing eight rebounds and six assists.
Key Stats: 17.2 points, 9.8 rebounds,1.6 steals per game
Winning Edge: Devastating mix of perimeter and low-post skills.
Biggest Flaw: Once-staggering stats starting to tail off.
Previous Ranking: 7
Another beneficiary of the Cardinals’ big win over Kentucky, Russ Smith's offensive game has caught up to his stellar defense. If the 6’1” Smith had the length to contribute in more stat categories, he’d be an even more promising Naismith candidate.
Key Stats: 19.8 points, 2.8 steals per game
Winning Edge: Top offensive and defensive weapon for Final Four contender.
Biggest Flaw: Not nearly as impressive in half-court offense compared to transition.
Previous Ranking: 5
Much like Doug McDermott, Cody Zeller just keeps plugging along with very good, not-quite-overpowering numbers. He’ll benefit from the start of Big Ten play, where tougher competition will mean more meaningful chances to show off his abilities.
Key Stats: 16.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.3 blocks per game
Winning Edge: Leads nation’s best offense, and can play some D, too.
Biggest Flaw: More consistent than explosive so far.
Previous Ranking: 3
Still the primary scorer on a ranked UNLV team, Anthony Bennett’s stats haven’t quite maintained their stratospheric early levels. He was also not helped by the Rebels’ hard-fought loss at erratic North Carolina.
Key Stats: 19.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.5 blocks per game
Winning Edge: True freshman who can compete with any big man in the country.
Biggest Flaw: Doesn’t play as physically as his 240 lbs might suggest.
Previous Ranking: 4
Every win in Michigan’s season-opening streak (now at 13 and counting) is another asset in Trey Burke’s ledger. In a conference with plenty of talent at point guard, Burke is the best passer as well as the best scorer of the bunch.
Key Stats: 17.8 points, 7.4 assists per game
Winning Edge: Big Ten assists leader for an undefeated team.
Biggest Flaw: Lackluster defense especially noticeable in this competition.
Previous Ranking: 1
Syracuse’s fall from the ranks of the unbeaten wasn’t even the biggest blow to Michael Carter-Williams’ Naismith case. The 6’6” point guard lost 0.6 assists per game off his nation-leading average, reducing a potential "best of the decade" showing to "best of the year."
Key Stats: 4.9 rebounds, 10.2 assists, 3.2 steals per game
Winning Edge: Ranked in top four nationally in both assists and steals.
Biggest Flaw: Unimpressive when forced to look for his own shot.
Previous Ranking: 2
Now that Michael Carter-Williams doesn’t look likely to rewrite the passing record books, there’s little doubt about who belongs in the No. 1 spot. Mason Plumlee continues to overpower all comers in the low post, and his Blue Devils still haven’t lost.
Key Stats: 19.5 points, 11.6 rebounds, 1.6 blocks per game
Winning Edge: The single best post player in college basketball.
Biggest Flaw: Even after vast improvement, still merely competent as a free-throw shooter (.692).