B/R's 2014-15 Preseason College Basketball Award Picks
Kentucky has the best team—but who has the best player?
Duke boasts the top recruiting class. But which team has the best freshman?
Who is the country’s best defender? Which player is poised for a breakthrough season?
Who is college hoops' most underrated player? What about the best transfer?
Basketball may be a team sport, but it’s always fun to hand out individual awards before the season. Here are Bleacher Report’s predictions for college basketball’s superlatives in 2014-15.
Make sure to save this file for March to congratulate us for being spot on—or to ridicule us for missing the mark. Don’t worry; we can take it.
Player of the Year: Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Most coaches and analysts cringe when freshmen are tabbed as preseason All-Americans before they ever play a college game. They say it puts too much pressure on a player and creates unfair expectations.
That may be the case.
But Jahlil Okafor is ready to handle it.
In fact, we at Bleacher Report are smitten with Okafor’s size, skill set and, most of all, maturity. Therefore, along with preseason All-American honors, we’re dubbing the Duke center as the preseason national player of the year.
“If he were in the NBA right now,” one scout said, “he’d be one of the better big men in the entire league.”
Lofty praise for an 18-year-old, to be sure. But take one look at Okafor, and it’s easy to understand the hype. A chiseled 6’11’ and 270 pounds, Okafor will be one of the most physically imposing players in what should be his one and only season of college basketball.
But Okafor’s blend of size and athleticism isn’t the only thing that wows NBA scouts, most of whom predict he’ll be the No. 1 pick in next summer’s NBA draft. His impeccable footwork, soft shooting touch and arsenal of moves in the paint separate him from other players of his size.
“And he’s mature well beyond his years,” the scout said. “He doesn’t seek out the spotlight, but he’s learned to be comfortable in it.”
Okafor insists he isn’t consumed by all of the buzz surrounding his freshman season, adding that postseason accolades and awards won’t mean anything to him if Duke isn’t successful as a team.
If Okafor lives up to his billing—and we’re convinced he will—that shouldn’t be a problem.
Defensive Player of the Year: Tekele Cotton, Wichita State
Cleanthony Early, Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker received plenty of praise for Wichita State’s 35-1 season in 2013-14.
And rightfully so.
Still, anyone who followed the Shockers closely—and anyone who played against them—knew that Tekele Cotton was one of the biggest keys to their success. Cotton averaged 10.3 points and 4.0 rebounds, but his main contribution came on the defensive end, where he always guarded an opponent’s top perimeter player.
Along with setting the tone for the rest of his teammates, Cotton had grit and energy that landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a fitting tribute for a player who illustrates what the blue-collar Shockers are all about. Wichita State coaches are hoping Cotton's senior season will be his best.
Transfer of the Year: Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
A McDonald's All-American, Wiltjer was one of the top recruits in America when he signed with Kentucky out of high school, but he was caught in a numbers game during his two years in Lexington and transferred before he ever got a chance to shine.
He’ll get that chance at Gonzaga.
After sitting out the 2013-14 season, Wiltjer should be one of the key players for a loaded Zags squad that has realistic hopes of making the Final Four. Wiltjer’s strength is his outside shooting touch, but at 6’10”, he becomes a huge matchup problem when he puts the ball on the court and drives toward the lane.
Wiltjer will have to play well for Gonzaga to experience high-level success. We’re confident he will.
Freshman of the Year: Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Considering we’ve already tagged him as the preseason player of the year, handing Jahlil Okafor preseason freshman of the year honors was automatic.
Okafor will hardly resemble a first-year year player when he takes the court this week for Duke. In fact, in terms of both size and skill, he’ll look more like an NBA veteran.
While the 6’11”, 270-pound Okafor is the standout in college basketball’s freshman class, there are plenty of other fresh-faced newbies who should affect the game from the get-go.
Two of them—point guard Tyus Jones and small forward Justise Winslow—are expected to join Okafor in the starting lineup at Duke.
The Kansas Jayhawks are hoping McDonald’s All-Americans Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre can lead them back to the Final Four, and Arizona’s Stanley Johnson could end up being one of the country’s most exciting players.
Bottom line: It should be a good year for freshmen.
Breakthrough Player of the Year: Zak Irvin, Michigan
A 6’6” guard, Irvin averaged 6.7 points in just 15 minutes of action for the Wolverines last season. But his role should increase dramatically thanks to the departures of Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, both of whom left school early for the NBA.
Irvin proved a year ago that he could be one of the top long-range shooters in college basketball, as he made 62 of his 146 attempts (42.5 percent) from beyond the arc. Look for him to take a high number of shots this year for a program that usually has one of the most efficient offensive attacks in the country.
A sophomore, Irvin scored 27 points in the opening game of Michigan’s exhibition tour of Italy in August.
Most Underrated Player: Marcus Foster, Kansas State
In one year, Foster went from a low-level recruit to one of the top players in the Big 12—and he was only a freshman.
Even with opposing defenses geared to stop him, Foster averaged 15.5 points and shot a commendable 39.5 percent from three-point range for a Kansas State squad that went 20-13.
The Wildcats are hoping for even better things from the 6’2” Foster as a sophomore. One thing’s for sure: He won’t be able to sneak up on anyone this season.