Bleacher Report's 2016-17 College Basketball Awards
It’s award season, and it’s time to remind everyone what we seem to forget in the preseason.
Upperclassmen usually are the best players in this sport.
Sure, freshmen have had a larger impact in the one-and-done era, but when it comes to end-of-season awards, the upperclassmen still dominate.
Only twice have freshmen won the Naismith Award, and a senior has won the last three. That streak should move to four soon with Villanova’s Josh Hart and Kansas’ Frank Mason III as the two favorites.
No one would have expected Mason to begin the year.
The preseason rankings featured Duke and Kentucky at the top. To the credit of college basketball experts, Duke’s Grayson Allen, a junior, was the popular pick for preseason National Player of the Year. So we at least favored an older guy. But the killer freshmen classes at Duke and UK are a big reason why those two programs topped the polls.
While UK’s freshman backcourt lived up to the hype and UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball transformed the Bruins, most of the teams at the top of the polls now are led by upperclassmen.
And the Bleacher Report award winners, especially the pick for National Player of the Year, should serve as reminders that the best players in college hoops don’t always have five stars next to their name when they arrive on campus.
National Player of the Year: Frank Mason III, Kansas
Frank Mason III is currently averaging 20.5 points per game and knocking down 49.3 percent of his three-pointers. He’s spent most of the year above 50 percent and shot exactly that in Big 12 play.
A Sports Reference search from the 1992-93 season to last year turned up this result for the number of guys who have averaged over 20 points and shot 50 percent or better from deep with at least 50 made threes.
(In case you didn’t click on that link, there are only two players on that list.)
The last time a NPOY candidate pulled off what Mason is threatening to do was Duke’s Christian Laettner in 1991-92. The Blue Devil great averaged 21.5 points and shot 55.7 percent from distance his senior season. Laettner swept the National Player of the Year awards. Mason should too.
Mason has a story as remarkable as his senior season. You may have heard he originally signed to play at Towson. It’s a line used endlessly on broadcasts, but that’s because it is pretty incredible that the best player on the No. 1 team in the country was supposed to go to Towson. He was also the least-heralded recruit in a six-man KU class that included Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Wayne Selden. Mason will be the one with his jersey hanging from the rafters.
Mason is also the point guard on the most efficient offense Bill Self has coached at Kansas. And in his best scoring season ever, he also is averaging a career-best 5.1 assists.
The numbers are awesome, but what truly makes Mason the pick here is how clutch he’s been. He started the year with a buzzer-beater to take down Duke in the second game of the season. Kansas has also made a habit of playing from behind, and when the outlook looks bleak, Mason calmly rips the opponent's heart out.
In a two-game stretch a couple weeks ago, KU trailed by 14 with 2:43 left in regulation against West Virginia and then by 12 with 41 seconds left in the first half against Baylor. But in the 28:24 that followed in those combined games, Mason had 34 points, five assists, missed just three shots and was perfect at the free-throw line. KU won both games.
He has the moments. He has the numbers. He has the wins. He made this pick easy. Frank Mason III is the Bleacher Report National Player of the Year.
Coach of the Year: Sean Miller, Arizona
In the preseason, Arizona lost wing Ray Smith, a five-star recruit who tore his ACL for a second time and decided to retire, and coach Sean Miller also found out leading returning scorer Allonzo Trier would be out for an unknown amount of time because he mistakenly used a banned performance-enhancing substance.
That’s two significant contributors out before a shot even went up. This was also a team that had graduated three of its four leading scorers, and with Trier out, was playing without all four.
During that stretch, the Wildcats also played six games without Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who had started at point guard before his injury.
By the time Trier returned and Miller had his entire roster to work with, it was 19 games in. Yet the Wildcats started 17-2 and 6-0 in Pac-12 play.
In contrast, Indiana lost fourth-leading scorer OG Anunoby 19 games into the season and leading scorer James Blackmon has battled injuries but only missed four games. The Hoosiers will likely miss the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats were co-champs of the Pac-12 with Oregon, a preseason top-five team, and beat out UCLA, which featured the best offense in college hoops.
We often reward coaches for doing more with less, and Miller fits in that category. But recruiting and roster building are also big parts of coaching in college basketball, and Miller annually reloads. His big get this time around was Finland’s Lauri Markannen, who had to play out of position during Trier’s absence.
Miller deserves recognition for having a roster that could withstand the early-season injuries and suspension of Trier and figure out a way to make it work.
And that recognition is National Coach of the Year.
Freshman of the Year: Lonzo Ball, UCLA
There are a lot of numbers that quantify the awesomeness of Lonzo Ball, but the most telling number is 17.
That’s the number of losses the Bruins had a season ago before Ball arrived. With him this season, UCLA transformed from a bottom-tier Pac-12 team to a national title contender that finished the regular season 28-3.
Ball made UCLA fun again by pushing the pace and playing with an unselfish Zen that rubbed off on the rest of his teammates. In an era of ball-dominant point guards, he got rid of the rock quickly and sparked beautiful ball movement.
Ball leads the nation in assists (7.8 per game) and has also been an analytics darling by shooting almost all threes and layups. Ball has attempted only seven jumpers inside the arc in the half court setting all season, according to Synergy Sports.
He’s the one freshman in the National Player of the Year conversation and will likely end up a first-team All-American, UCLA’s first since Kevin Love in 2008.
Transfer of the Year: Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga
Nigel Williams-Goss is a good bet to land on most first-team All-American squads—he’ll be on ours—and if he’s selected as an Associated Press first-team All-American, he’ll be the first D-I transfer ever to earn such recognition.
Mark Few has done a masterful job mixing transfers with his own recruits and the blend this season at Gonzaga was almost perfect.
Williams-Goss made it all work by picking his spots and also distributing the ball to Gonzaga’s dominant frontline and sharpshooters.
He routinely filled up the stat sheet—averaging 16.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists—and did whatever the Zags needed to keep churning out wins.
It seems odd to say that a player transferred up, going from a Pac-12 school (Washington) to a school in the WCC, but that’s exactly what Williams-Goss did. He made a wise choice in choosing the Zags, who are a legitimate title threat, in large part due to the best transfer in college hoops.
Defensive Player of the Year: Isaiah Wilkins, Virginia
Virginia coach Tony Bennett has built his program into one of the most consistent elite teams in college basketball, thanks in large part to his pack-line defense.
This version of the pack-line was Bennett’s best—ranking first in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, for the first time. The Wahoos do this through working together, but also by relying on Isaiah Wilkins.
Wilkins was one of the best in the country at simply preventing his man from scoring. He held his man to 0.665 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports play-by-play tracking.
Wilkins also provided versatility by guarding multiple positions. He didn’t put up huge block or steal numbers—1.4 and 1.1 per game, respectively—but he’s like the defensive version of UCLA’s Lonzo Ball. His presence defensively just makes the game easier for everyone else around him.
Sixth Man of the Year: Aaron Holiday, UCLA
UCLA’s Aaron Holiday started every game as a freshman, but he slid into a sixth man role this season with the addition of Lonzo Ball.
Holiday thrived in a microwave man role off the bench, averaging 13.0 points per game. The Bruins are so hard to guard because their ball movement, pace and unselfishness produces endless open shots. Holiday excelled in that environment, shooting 43.1 percent from deep, 55.2 percent inside the arc and 80 percent at the line.
When UCLA needed someone to simply go get a bucket, Holiday also provided that luxury. He’s the Bruins' best scorer creating his own off the bounce and can take over a game in that way, as he did for a segment of the upset win at Kentucky.
Florida’s Canyon Barry was the runner-up in this category, but no player in the country is more feared off the bench than Holiday.
Most Improved Player: John Collins, Wake Forest
Wake Forest went hard after Duke's Harry Giles, who is from Winston-Salem and had he signed with Danny Manning, it would have been a program-defining moment.
It turns out the Demon Deacons had a better option already on campus.
John Collins emerged as one of the best big men in college basketball this season and now appears ahead of Giles on some NBA draft boards. Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman has Collins 18th and Giles 20th in his latest mock.
Collins has certainly outperformed Giles on the floor this season. The Wake Forest sophomore is averaging 19.1 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game.
No one saw this coming from the three-star recruit who averaged 7.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game as a freshman.
Manning got a shot as a head coach in part because of his success developing big men as an assistant at Kansas. But there he had the luxury of tutoring mostly five-star recruits. Collins’ development is now his crowning achievement and could be a game-changer for the program going forward. It also makes the Demon Deacons a feared team in March, if they're able to get a spot in the dance.
Most Underrated: Mike Daum, South Dakota State
A few years ago, South Dakota State had one of the best guards in the country in Nate Wolters. Wolters spent time in the NBA, proving he wasn't just productive because he played in a small league.
The same can be said for South Dakota State's current star, Mike Daum.
The Jackrabbits had a down year—going .500 in the Summit League—but that's in large part because they were rebuilding. They graduated three players and had to replace their coach from a NCAA tournament team a year ago.
Daum was the star for South Dakota State in 2015-16 as a freshman. Despite coming off the bench, he led the team in scoring (15.2 points per game) and rebounding (6.1) while averaging only 20.8 minutes.
This year, South Dakota State featured him even more prominently, and he responded by putting up 25.2 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. He's not just a chucker, either, as he shot an efficient 51.8 percent from the field and nailed 42.4 percent of his three-point attempts.
Daum also had one of the most impressive performances of the season, putting up 51 points and 15 rebounds in a win at Fort Wayne on Feb. 18. He has averaged 31.5 points over his last 11 games and scored 30 or more 11 times this season. Learn the name and make it a point to watch Daum next season as a junior or in the NCAA tournament if the Jackrabbits can make a run in the Summit League tourney.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball and football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @CJMooreBR.