After only nine games, the Syracuse basketball team has moved up to second in the AP Top 25 and third in the USA Today coaches poll. Leading the way for the Orange is senior C.J. Fair, who was pegged as the preseason Player of the Year in the ACC.
As the go-to guy of a Top Five team, Fair has a good chance to take home that award. But if he leads the Orange to an ACC title or further, he could easily take home the Wooden Award as the nation's top player. Should Fair earn the Wooden hardware, he would be the first Syracuse player to do so since the award's inception in 1977.
But Fair will have his work cut out for him. With players such as Marcus Smart, Doug McDermott and Jabari Parker running around, there will be a lot of competition for the coveted award. Let's first take a look at how Fair stacks up statistically with some of the nation's top players.
|C.J. Fair (Syracuse)||17.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 46.2/33.3/82.9 field goal/three-point/free-throw percentages|
|Doug McDermott (Creighton)||25.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 50.3/45.3/86.7 percent shooting|
|Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State)||19.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.9 steals, 46.3/34.6/67.1 percent shooting|
|Jabari Parker (Duke)||22.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 54.8/46.7/72.5 percent shooting|
|Shabazz Napier (UConn)||15.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.1 steals, 50/57.1/78 percent shooting|
*all stats courtesy of ESPN.com
As you can see, with McDermott and Parker both going for over 20 a night and Napier and Smart stuffing the stat sheet, Fair's game will have to take another step up if he is going to outrun these guys in the Wooden race. Where can Fair improve to impress Wooden voters most? Read on to find out.
Beat Parker and Duke, Win ACC
As a new member of the ACC, Syracuse and Fair will go head-to-head twice with Parker and Duke. If Syracuse wins both of those games and Fair outshines the freshman Parker, Fair will start to get serious consideration as the best player in the land.
Additionally, if Syracuse comes in and takes the ACC title in its first year in the conference, a lot of attention will fall on the Orange. As the face of the team, Fair will certainly reap the benefits. With Duke showing a lack of interior defense early on in losses to Arizona and Kansas and a close win against Vermont, Fair will have ample opportunity to show off against the Blue Devils.
Make a Deep Tourney Run
Generally, players that lead their teams deep into March help cement their cases as award winners. Just ask Trey Burke. Burke's stellar play in last year's Final Four run for Michigan had to have played a part in him winning the Naismith and Wooden awards.
This year, Fair can replicate Burke's success. Incidentally, Burke's Michigan team gave Fair and Syracuse the ouster in last year's Final Four. Fair was the only player who played well for the Orange, scoring 22 of the team's 56 points.
If Fair throws the Orange on his back and carries them to a second straight Final Four, it will be hard to give the award to someone else.
Make a Few Statistical Improvements
Stats are the most useful tool for voters for any award. Naturally, voters can't watch every player play every game, so statistical output gives a reliable look at a player's performance.
Fair's stats are by no means unimpressive, but there are a few areas where he could improve to really stand out. His 5.3 rebounds per game are down from seven a night last year. Fair led last year's Orange on the boards, whereas this year he is second to Jerami Grant (5.9).
As a forward, getting outrebounded by guards like Napier and Smart can hurt Fair's candidacy. Grant's expanded role for the Orange is cutting into Fair's rebounding numbers, but Fair could still stand to be a bit more aggressive on the glass.
Additionally, Fair could stand to see his shooting percentages go up a bit. With Parker and McDermott shooting over 50 percent on more attempts per night than Fair, they are proving to be, at least early on, more efficient scorers.
Obviously, if Fair's shooting percentage improves, his scoring will improve, which will also help his case. His favorite shot is the mid-range jumper, which he has shown he can make consistently. But getting looks closer to the basket can help get that shooting percentage up a few points. If Fair is more aggressive when looking for his shot, it can also help him get to the free-throw line, a place he only visits 3.9 times a night, more frequently.
Fair definitely has the talent to become the nation's Player of the Year by the time March rolls around. But with stiff competition from Parker, McDermott, Smart and Napier, Fair will certainly have to earn it. There are also plenty of other players (Julius Randle, Jahii Carson, Russ Smith, Andrew Wiggins, Nick Johnson) who will make compelling cases as the season wears on.
The path to the nation's most coveted individual award isn't an easy one. But if Fair continues to improve and keeps Syracuse in contention, he has as good a case as anyone.