Midseason Awards for Big East Basketball
The second half of the Big East Conference regular season schedule is underway, and a championship isn't the only thing up for grabs. Individual awards are at stake, and this talent-heavy conference certainly isn't lacking for qualified candidates.
There is plenty of time for players and coaches to state their case with strong performances in pressure-packed late-season matchups. Others are sure to stumble down the final stretch and squander a chance at postseason accolades.
While championships are won as a team, a little hardware never hurt anyone. Here's a look at who may have the upper hand in the honors race five weeks into Big East action.
Player of the Year: Jack Cooley, Notre Dame
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The senior forward continues to improve his offensive arsenal, becoming one of the Big East's most potent scorers in the post. His ability to control the glass gives the Fighting Irish an edge inside on both ends of the court.
Cooley is pulling down more rebounds per game than anyone in the Big East. It's not even close.
The 6'9" Illinois native averages 11.3 boards per contest, ranked fifth in the nation. That's more than a three-rebound advantage over any other conference contemporary (Providence forward LaDontae Henton averages 8.1).
Cooley has registered 15 double-doubles through 23 games and posts big numbers when Notre Dame needs him most. In the team's last four conference wins, he is averaging 17 points and 14 rebounds.
Throw in the fact that Cooley ranks second in the conference with a 58 percent field-goal percentage and it's easy to see he is the anchor of this Fighting Irish squad. Notre Dame's postseason hopes hinge on Cooley carrying a dominant senior campaign into March.
Coach of the Year: Jim Boeheim, Syracuse
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Boeheim's trophy case is already brimming with awards, but at this rate, he may need to make room for one more. The four-time Big East Coach of the Year (1984, 1991, 2000, 2010) continues to steer Syracuse toward the top of conference standings in his 36th season with the program.
The Orange (19-3, 7-2 in Big East) started the season 18-1 before enduring a slight stumble with consecutive road losses at Villanova and Pittsburgh. Boeheim's bunch responded to its first losing streak with a commanding 63-47 victory on Monday against nationally ranked Notre Dame.
Syracuse took to the road on Jan. 19 and dealt top-ranked Louisville a loss. The Orange are 4-0 against teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and attack opponents with a devastating blend of offensive firepower and defensive prowess.
Syracuse is the highest-scoring team in the Big East while surrendering less than 60 points per contest. You have to give a tip of the cap to Marquette coach Buzz Williams in this category as well, but Boeheim's successful battles with the conference's top-ranked teams give the Hall of Famer an edge at the moment.
Defensive Player of the Year: Chris Obekpa, St. John's
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Obekpa provides an intimidating presence in the paint that is unrivaled in the Big East. The 6'9" freshman is far from a finished product on the offensive end, but he has already gained a reputation as a player who turns away shots at a stunning pace.
He has 101 blocked shots through 23 games, quickly becoming the kind of defensive force that slashing guards have nightmares about. Obekpa trails only fellow freshman Nerlens Noel of Kentucky among national leaders in blocks per game (4.5).
That amount is exactly what Rutgers center Hamady Ndiaye averaged when he collected Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2010. Ndiaye was a senior that year.
Obekpa has swatted at least five shots in 10 different contests—nearly half of his freshman season—and racked up 26 total blocks during a three-game span in December. He also adds averages of six rebounds and a steal per game.
Rookie of the Year: Jakarr Sampson, St. John's
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This conference always contains some of the nation's most impressive freshmen performers. Midway through the Big East season, it appears a member of the Red Storm could claim this award for the second straight year.
Forward Moe Harkless earned the accolade last season when he averaged 15 points and nine rebounds per contest. Sampson, a 6'8" forward out of Ohio, is posting 14 points and seven boards per game.
Those numbers are nice, but they don't illustrate the way Sampson has caught fire against conference competition.
He has registered double-digit scoring efforts in 10 of 11 Big East matchups and tallied at least 17 points in five of St. John's last seven games. He put up 21 in a crucial victory at Rutgers and followed that up with a 19-point performance versus Seton Hall.
Sampson helped the Red Storm overcome Connecticut on Wednesday night with 18 points. He is rapidly emerging as the offensive catalyst on a Red Storm squad that has won six of its last seven games to rise up conference standings.
Sampson already owns five Big East Rookie of the Week awards.
Most Improved Player: Vander Blue, Marquette
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Blue has been a big part of the puzzle for Marquette, a team that continues to exceed expectations after drawing seventh place in the Big East Preseason Coaches' Poll. He's helped lead the well-balanced Golden Eagles to a 7-2 start in conference play and a first-place tie with Syracuse.
The reason for his emergence isn't hard to locate. Blue's blossoming perimeter shooting has been paramount in his ability to make strides as a scorer.
The junior guard, who currently tops Marquette in scoring with more than 14 points per game, is developing a consistent outside jumper to compliment his excellent ball-handling abilities. Blue's three-point attempts have ballooned this year.
He hit just 12 three-pointers over the course of his freshman and sophomore seasons. Blue has already buried 25 threes as a junior, shooting 31 percent from beyond the arc.
His scoring average has increased more than six points from last season, and Blue's field-goal percentage has jumped from 41 percent as a sophomore to 46 percent. The Marquette guard seems to be hitting his stride at the right time.
Sixth Man Award: Davante Gardner, Marquette
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Gardner is one of two Marquette players (along with Blue) to hold a double-digit scoring average. Unlike Blue, the forward has done all of his damage off the bench.
The 6'8" junior isn't just giving the Golden Eagles a lift off the bench. He's shouldered the load when the team is in search of answers on offense.
Gardner tallied a total of 31 points and 14 rebounds in a pair of January overtime wins over Connecticut and Pittsburgh. He scored 12 or more points in each of Marquette's first six conference games.
Although he has cooled off considerably lately (14 total points in last three games), Gardner's track record suggests that he will shake off the recent funk. A quick rebound is imperative for Marquette.
The Virginia native has also consistently delivered a spirited defensive effort down low. Gardner is currently connecting on 85 percent of his free-throw attempts, up from 76 percent last season.
Offensive Performance of the Year: Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova (vs St. John's)
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I'm sure most of you weren't expecting to see Villanova's unheralded freshman guard in this slot, but he earned it with a scintillating performance against St. John's. Arcidiacono erupted for 32 points in the Jan. 2 Big East opener, putting on a clinic from three-point range throughout his conference debut.
He drilled 7-of-13 shots from long distance, leading the Wildcats to a wild 98-86 win in overtime. Arcidiacono also cashed in on 11 of his 13 attempts from the charity stripe.
Although Arcidiacono has crossed the 20-point threshold on just two other occasions all season, this sharpshooting performance was one heck of a way to begin his career against Big East opponents.
Defensive Performance of the Year: Chris Obekpa, St. Johns (vs. Fordham)
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When it comes defensive dominance in the Big East, it's always a safe bet to center on Obekpa. A freshman season filled with highlight swats may not get any better than the way we saw him dominate on Dec. 8 against New York rival Fordham.
Obekpa established a new St. John's record with 11 blocks in 31 minutes of action against the Rams. The Red Storm rolled to a 58-47 victory as Obekpa sealed off the paint throughout the contest.
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Guard: Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse—Leads nation with 8.5 assists per game.
Guard: Bryce Cotton, Providence—Big East scoring leader (20.9 points per game) ranks eighth in the country.
Guard: Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati—Bearcats star has scored 20 or more points in eight games.
Forward: Jack Cooley, Notre Dame—Ranks second nationally with 15 double-double performances.
Forward: Otto Porter Jr., Georgetown—Key member of the Big East's best defense gets the job done on offense (15 points per game, 46 percent three-point shooting) and is among conference rebound leaders.