Power Ranking the Naismith Player of the Year Candidates in College Basketball

Thad NovakCorrespondent IJanuary 27, 2013

Power Ranking the Naismith Player of the Year Candidates in College Basketball

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    Conference play has brought a blizzard of upsets in NCAA basketball, and some of the leading candidates for the Naismith Award have seen their teams go down to painful defeats. The ones who have kept winning since our last look at the front-runners are building Player of the Year credentials that go beyond their individual stats.

    Of course, it helps to be doing well in both categories, as Kansas’ Jeff Withey undoubtedly is. The senior center remains the second-leading shot-blocker in all of college hoops, and his defense has the Jayhawks on the nation's longest winning streak at 17 games and counting.

    Herein, a closer look at Withey and the rest of the 20 leading contenders to take home the Naismith hardware this season.

20. Nate Wolters, South Dakota State

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    Previous Ranking: 20

    Nate Wolters has finally righted the ship for the Jackrabbits, who have won five straight in conference play. Individually, the 6’4” senior continues to post big-time numbers in virtually every statistical category.

    Key Stats: 21 points, 5.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.7 steals per game

    Winning Edge: Most productive all-around player in the country.

    Biggest Flaw: Level of competition in Summit League a serious question.

19. Scottie Wilbekin, Florida

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    Previous Ranking: Unranked

    Florida has won its first six SEC games by at least 17 points each, and no single player deserves more credit for it than Scottie Wilbekin.

    He’s the team leader in steals as the point man in a brutal full-court press, and he’s kept a balanced offense clicking with his much-improved passing skills.

    Key Stats: 5.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game, .404 three-point shooting

    Winning Edge: Leader on both ends of the floor for SEC’s premier team.

    Biggest Flaw: Raw stats don't stand out compared to other Naismith-worthy PGs.

18. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State

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    Previous Ranking: 19

    Like his Oklahoma State team, freshman Marcus Smart’s performance has been all over the place in his first few Big 12 games.

    He’s gone from disastrous (three points and zero assists against Texas Tech) to devastating (12 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists against Baylor) in the space of 48 hours. That disparity makes it tough to say how well he’s adjusting to major-conference competition.

    Key Stats: 13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.7 steals per game

    Winning Edge: One of the best backcourt defenders in the nation is also a very good scoring point guard.

    Biggest Flaw: Wildly inconsistent in Big 12 action thus far.

17. Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA

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    Previous Ranking: 17

    Shabazz Muhammad has been at his best and his worst early in the Pac-12 schedule. The freshman sensation lit up No. 6 Arizona for 23 points in Tucson, but he limped to a 10-point finish in an ugly home loss to then-No. 21 Oregon.

    Key Stats: 18.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, .436 three-point shooting

    Winning Edge: Highlight-reel scorer and leader for Pac-12 contender.

    Biggest Flaw: When he’s off, he’s really off.

16. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky

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    Previous Ranking: Unranked

    A monster start to his SEC career has freshman Nerlens Noel back in the Player of the Year picture.

    He’s climbed to third in the country in blocked shots while raising his scoring average to 10.6 points per game, even if his Wildcats haven’t always turned his brilliant play into victories.

    Key Stats: 9.4 rebounds, 4.3 blocks and 2.4 steals per game

    Winning Edge: Nation’s most dominant individual defender.

    Biggest Flaw: A secondary factor (at best) as a scorer.

15. Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga

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    Previous Ranking: 15

    Kelly Olynyk wasn’t at his best in Gonzaga’s heartbreaking loss at Butler, but he continues to be the most dangerous player on the Zags’ roster.

    The seven-footer bounced back from the Butler defeat by wrecking BYU with 26 points, nine boards and five assists.

    Key Stats: 18.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game

    Winning Edge: Dominant center for season-long Top 10 fixture.

    Biggest Flaw: Invisible on defense.

14. Ben McLemore, Kansas

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    Previous Ranking: 18

    Kansas has bulldozed all comers in Big 12 action so far, with Ben McLemore providing the lion’s share of the offense. The redshirt freshman has nearly one-third of the made three-pointers for the entire Jayhawks team.

    Key Stats: 16.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, .456 three-point shooting

    Winning Edge: Carrying the offense for college hoops’ hottest team.

    Biggest Flaw: Still not dazzling with raw point-production.

13. Jack Cooley, Notre Dame

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    Previous Ranking: 10

    As fine a season as Jack Cooley has had, the last few weeks have not been kind to his stats. A season-low six points against South Florida is bad enough, but he’s scuffling on defense as well (just two blocks in his last three games).

    Key Stats: 14.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game

    Winning Edge: Best big man in nation’s most physical conference.

    Biggest Flaw: In a slump to match his team’s recent struggles.

12. Pierre Jackson, Baylor

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    Previous Ranking: 12

    Baylor had its worst game of the season in a 61-44 loss to Kansas, and Pierre Jackson (10 points, four assists) was no exception. He’s bounced back well, though, keying Saturday’s rout of TCU with 20 points and five assists.

    Key Stats: 18.7 points, 5.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game

    Winning Edge: As complete a point guard as there is in the country.

    Biggest Flaw: Defense has been lacking in Big 12 action.

11. Doug McDermott, Creighton

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    Previous Ranking: 11

    Creighton’s recent slide has come in spite of, not because of, the performance of superstar forward Doug McDermott.

    He’s continued putting up video-game numbers just as he has all season, including yet another double-double against Southern Illinois Sunday.

    Key Stats: 23.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, .488 three-point shooting

    Winning Edge: Ultra-reliable scoring machine is also an impact rebounder.

    Biggest Flaw: Team has hit an unexpected rough patch.

10. Russ Smith, Louisville

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    Previous Ranking: 8

    Big East defenses have wreaked havoc with Russ Smith’s scoring performance. Though he played brilliantly in a home loss to Syracuse, he’s been held to eight points by Villanova and 12 by Georgetown in his last two outings (both losses as well).

    Key Stats: 18.4 points and 2.4 steals per game.

    Winning Edge: Best two-way shooting guard in the nation.

    Biggest Flaw: Leading a team that’s currently in free fall.

9. Jeff Withey, Kansas

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    Previous Ranking: 13

    At 18-1 Kansas has leaned on its defense all season, a strategy that works mostly because of seven-footer Jeff Withey’s presence in the middle. The senior center is the country’s second-leading shot-blocker, and he also provides a stabilizing force as a rebounder.

    Key Stats: 13 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.3 blocks per game.

    Winning Edge: Game-changing defender for a Final Four favorite.

    Biggest Flaw: Offensive contributions are iffy.

8. Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State

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    Previous Ranking: 7

    Deshaun Thomas’ heroic effort against Michigan State (28 points and seven boards) wasn’t enough to pull out a road win for his Buckeyes.

    Oddly, he hasn’t looked nearly as good against two far weaker defenses since the Spartans game, combining for just 27 points against Penn State and Iowa.

    Key Stats: 20 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, .417 three-point shooting

    Winning Edge: Best offensive weapon in country’s best conference.

    Biggest Flaw: Has been playing down to level of competition.

7. Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State

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    Previous Ranking: 6

    The enormous load Jamaal Franklin is carrying in the San Diego State offense is starting to take its toll. After a sensational 27-point showing in a loss to UNLV, Franklin has been held to 14 points or under in three straight games.

    Key Stats: 17.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game.

    Winning Edge: Elite shooting guard with the rebounding prowess of a center.

    Biggest Flaw: Scoring has dipped with Aztecs’ offense wobbling.

6. Erick Green, Virginia Tech

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    Previous Ranking: 9

    The good news for Erick Green is that he put on an unforgettable show against one of the country’s toughest defenses, shredding Virginia for 35 points and nine rebounds.

    The bad news is that, again, his Virginia Tech squad came out on the wrong end of that game, part of an atrocious 2-4 ACC start.

    Key Stats: 25.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game

    Winning Edge: Division I’s top scorer is also a valuable point guard.

    Biggest Flaw: Hasn’t shown enough leadership skills to rally disappointing Hokies.

5. Anthony Bennett, UNLV

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    Previous Ranking: 5

    Anthony Bennett has really struggled on the road since conference play began. Back-to-back visits to San Diego State and Colorado State saw him held to nine points in each game.

    Even in scoring 17 in a return home against Wyoming, he managed only five points and (for the third time in four games) zero blocks.

    Key Stats: 18.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per game

    Winning Edge: Nation’s best freshman is one of the top big men of any age.

    Biggest Flaw: Mountain West opponents have drastically cut down his production.

4. Cody Zeller, Indiana

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    Previous Ranking: 4

    After he logged another double-double at Northwestern, the wheels fell off for Cody Zeller. He’s totaled all of 11 points in his last two games and was thoroughly outplayed by Michigan State’s Adreian Payne in Bloomington on Sunday.

    Key Stats: 16 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.

    Winning Edge: When he’s on, he’s the most unstoppable center in the country.

    Biggest Flaw: Passivity on offense is increasingly worrisome.

3. Mason Plumlee, Duke

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    Previous Ranking: 1

    Mason Plumlee bounced back in a home rout over Maryland, piling up 19 points and seven rebounds, but the damage had already been done by his previous two outings.

    That pair of sub-40 percent shooting efforts included a humiliating 27-point blowout by No. 25 Miami, whose hulking big men gave Plumlee fits for most of the night.

    Key Stats: 17.4 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game

    Winning Edge: Most productive post player in college hoops.

    Biggest Flaw: Has looked overmatched against the bigger, more physical centers of the ACC.

2. Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse

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    Previous Ranking: 3

    Michael Carter-Williams has managed the astounding feat of improving his scoring against Big East defenses.

    Even in Saturday’s upset loss at Villanova, Carter-Williams poured in 17 points (though he was held to four assists), the fourth time in five games he’s managed 16 or better.

    Key Stats: 12.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 8.9 assists and 3.0 steals per game

    Winning Edge: National assists leader is also No. 5 in steals and the heart of a top-10 team.

    Biggest Flaw: You won’t find a worse shooter on this list.

1. Trey Burke, Michigan

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    Previous Ranking: 2

    Road wins in the Big Ten have been tough to come by, but not for Trey Burke and the Wolverines.

    Burke’s electrifying offense has led Michigan to victories at then-No. 9 Minnesota and at Illinois, leaving his team primed to take over the No. 1 ranking in the AP poll just as he does the same in the Naismith race.

    Key Stats: 17.9 points, 7.1 assists and 1.4 steals per game

    Winning Edge: Unstoppable force as the leader of one of the best offenses in all of college basketball.

    Biggest Flaw: Good, not great, three-point shooter (especially by Wolverine standards).