Under-the-Radar Contenders for College Basketball Player of the Year in 2015-16
Most viewed North Carolina's Marcus Paige as the favorite to win college basketball's national Player of the Year awards last season, but after a somewhat disappointing 2014-15 campaign, he now tops our list of under-the-radar contenders for those same awards in 2015-16.
There are about as many leaves on the ground as there are in the trees, which means it's finally that time of year when everyone starts ranking the top 25, 50 or 100 college basketball players. While we wait for all those lists to roll in, CBS Sports got a few weeks ahead of the curve by posting its consensus top 100 (and one) players in mid-October.
It does mention the following in its intro: "As a reminder, this list isn't about MVPs, MOPs or overall value to a team. ... This ranking is about basic talent and ability at the college level. How we see them now; how we think they project and compare to all other players for the entire season."
Duly noted, but every single player in its top 10 also appeared somewhere in its first, second and third preseason All-American teams from early October, so it seems pretty safe to assume that the top 10 players on its list are also its favorites for the Wooden Award.
Those 10 players—Kris Dunn, Ben Simmons, Buddy Hield, Kyle Wiltjer, Jamal Murray, Skal Labissiere, Melo Trimble, Georges Niang, Malcolm Brogdon and Fred VanVleet—were removed from the pool to form this list of under-the-radar candidates. Every other player in the country is fair game.
Our top 10 under-the-radar contenders are listed in ascending order of how shocking it would be if they didn't appear on the midseason Wooden Watch list of (theoretically) the 25 best players in the country.
It's a little weird to have an honorable-mentions section in a slideshow that is really just made up of honorable mentions, but in conjunction with CBS Sports' top 10 players, this gives us a top 25 for the preseason Wooden Watch. And you know how much college basketball loves its top 25s.
Sheldon McClellan, Miami
Because of his outstanding performances in the upset wins over Florida and Duke, Angel Rodriguez came to be regarded as Miami's most important player. In actuality, Sheldon McClellan was the Hurricanes' star.
If he continues to play as efficiently as he did for the majority of last season, he'll certainly be in the discussion for ACC Player of the Year—and with as strong as that conference will be this year, the ACC POY might as well be guaranteed a spot in the top three for National Player of the Year.
Gary Payton II, Oregon State
It's tough to foresee Oregon State being good enough to warrant consideration for national Player of the Year awards, but Gary Payton II is going to give those voters something to think about if he leads the nation in steals and leads the Beavers in every other category en route to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1990.
Danuel House, Texas A&M
The Aggies bring back most of their key players and add a handful of other goodies to a 2014-15 roster that was very talented but couldn't quite get over the hump against quality teams. In the world of prognosticating, that translates to a serious breakout candidate, of which Danuel House is pretty clearly the leader.
Grayson Allen, Duke
Assuming Duke is a top-10 team, someone from Duke will almost certainly be in the top 10 of the Wooden Watch. That's just how this game works.
Maybe it's one of the highly rated freshmen, or maybe it's an upperclassman such as Matt Jones or Amile Jefferson who makes the transformation from "role player" to "focal point of the offense." However, the smart money is on Grayson Allen building on his stardom in last year's Final Four and title games to become the face of this Blue Devils team.
Jaylen Brown, California
The experts have Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere in their top 10, but Jaylen Brown is the only other freshman on our list.
With apologies to Brandon Ingram (Duke), Diamond Stone (Maryland), Cheick Diallo (Kansas) and Henry Ellenson (Marquette), Brown is the frosh most likely to still be in the conversation at the end of the season—provided California plays as well as most seem to believe it will.
10. Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona
CBS Sports Rank: 68
Once upon a time, Kaleb Tarczewski was supposed to be the next big thing in college basketball. Rated by 247Sports as the seventh-best overall recruit in the class of 2012, he's the only member of that top seven who played three collegiate seasons—let alone came back for a fourth.
Arizona has played 111 games in the past three years, and Tarczewski started in 107 of them, including all 35 games the Wildcats played his freshman season. We certainly can't blame injury or inability to get on the court for his failure to ever develop into a star.
However, there's a fine line between being on the court and actually being part of the offensive game plan.
In his first season at Arizona, Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill were clearly the focal points of the offense with Nick Johnson and Kevin Parrom holding down secondary roles as perimeter weapons. Zeus was the most valuable rebounder, but he attempted just 14.7 percent of the team's shots while he was on the floor.
Lyons, Hill and Parrom graduated, but Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson arrived with a bang, immediately joining Johnson on the list of primary scorers. Tarczewski's field-goal percentage increased considerably to 58.4, but in terms of percentage of shots taken, he was still responsible for fewer than one out of every six field-goal attempts. This past season, Stanley Johnson was the freshman through which the entire offense ran, keeping Zeus pretty well out of the mix for a third straight season.
Might this finally be his chance to shine, or will he once again allow new guys such as Allonzo Trier, Ryan Anderson and Kadeem Allen to steal his spotlight? The Wildcats lost their other four starters, leaving Tarczewski as the most experienced player on the team. If he wants to have the type of explosive senior season that Rakeem Christmas had with Syracuse last year, the opportunity is there.
9. Damian Jones, Vanderbilt
CBS Sports Rank: 28
Like Danuel House at Texas A&M, it almost seems inevitable that Damian Jones will serve as the MVP of an SEC team making the transformation from 2015 NIT to single-digit seed in the 2016 NCAA tournament. However, Jones cracked our top 10, and House just missed the cut because a dominant big man will almost always get more attention than a dominant wing.
Few paid any mind to Jones last season because, frankly, few were watching Vanderbilt. After a couple of brutal early losses to Rutgers and Georgia Tech, the seven-game losing streak in the first month of SEC play pretty much ended any hope the Commodores had of dancing.
All along, though, Jones consistently put up solid numbers. He played at least 25 minutes in 30 of Vanderbilt's 35 games, scoring in double figures 28 times and reaching 20 points on eight occasions. His only double-doubles of the year came in the first and last games of the regular season, and he only once recorded more than four blocks in a game. But Vanderbilt could usually count on him for at least six rebounds and two blocks in each game.
He'll need a huge box score here and there to really get into the race for Player of the Year, but it's a testament to his potential that even opponents the caliber of Kentucky, Baylor and Arkansas were unable to keep him from roughly reaching his season averages.
8. Alex Poythress, Kentucky
CBS Sports Rank: 87
Does anyone honestly think he or she knows what to expect from Alex Poythress this year?
Through the first 20 games of his career, the 2012 McDonald's All-American was averaging 13.2 points and 6.7 rebounds, possibly on the one-and-done track to the NBA. In the 61 games since then, he has averaged 6.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in addition to one torn ACL.
Even before suffering the injury, he wasn't doing very well this past season, as evidenced by the poor O-Rating and win shares ratio. We had to go back to Feb. 4, 2014, to find the last time he scored in double figures in a game.
Still, Poythress obviously knew how to play way back when he first arrived in Lexington, and once he proves he's healthy, he's going to be Kentucky's primary power forward this year.
John Calipari told Kyle Tucker of the Courier-Journal earlier this month, "A lot of what will happen for us and our team is going to be: How quickly can he start being who he is? A lot of what we do, it will center around Alex."
Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere are much higher on the list of players expected to excel, but what if Poythress actually ends up being Kentucky's most valuable player? Isn't it a foregone conclusion that player will be one of the final five players on the Wooden Award ballot?
7. Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame
CBS Sports Rank: 21
It would be difficult to overstate how interested we are to see what Demetrius Jackson can do this season as the singular ball-handler for Notre Dame.
You never know what you're going to get when a combo backcourt gets cut in half, but recent returns would suggest that individual optimism and team pessimism are a reasonable expectation.
Michigan State's Travis Trice blossomed into a star once he stopped sharing ball-handling duties with Keith Appling, but for the first four months of the season, the Spartans were nowhere near as good as the previous year. Same goes for Bryce Alford at UCLA after losing Kyle Anderson as a teammate, as well as Connecticut's Ryan Boatright without Shabazz Napier. We also saw Iowa State's Monte Morris flourish without DeAndre Kane, while the Cyclones played at almost exactly the same level in consecutive years.
Just like the role each of those guys played during the 2013-14 season, Jackson was pretty clearly the second fiddle in Notre Dame's backcourt, shooting and defending well while racking up enough assists to suggest that the transition to lead guard should be a quick and painless one. We're pretty confident he'll be able to put up big numbers before jumping to the NBA.
The big question for each of the aforementioned teams, though, was whether it would be able to find a new second fiddle. Trice, Alford and Boatright were pretty great, but Bryn Forbes (MSU), Isaac Hamilton (UCLA) and Rodney Purvis (UConn) all struggled to some degree in their new, increased roles, which led to less than stellar regular seasons for their respective teams. The main reasons Iowa State stayed competitive without Kane were the addition of Bryce Dejean-Jones and Naz Long's strong play as the primary shooting guard.
Jackson should be a stud, but whether Notre Dame is good enough for him to ultimately get into the Player of the Year discussion would seem to hinge on whether Steve Vasturia or incoming freshman Rex Pflueger is able to do for Jackson what he did for Jerian Grant last year.
6. Anthony Gill, Virginia
CBS Sports Rank: 29
Slowly but surely, the advanced-metrics revolution is making its way into the world of college basketball. Per-game numbers still rule the airwaves, but between Virginia's slow-paced defensive efficiency and Kentucky's platoon system, discussions of per-possession numbers certainly seemed to be more prevalent last year than ever before.
All hail the KenPom uprising.
At the forefront of the continuation of this shift is Anthony Gill.
Virginia is going to be very good for a third straight season. Because Malcolm Brogdon projects as the top scorer for the Cavaliers, the crowd that refuses to dig further into a player's true value than points per game hails him as a fringe Player of the Year candidate. Though Brogdon is a very good player worthy of such consideration, one quick look at O-Rating, win shares and box plus/minus shows that Gill is actually and quite clearly the most valuable player on this roster.
Whether the highest-scoring Cavalier or the most efficient one ends up on the end-of-season Player of the Year ballots will be a strong indicator of whether there has really been a transformation in the way we evaluate value.
5. Ron Baker, Wichita State
CBS Sports Rank: 16
"If he's not first- or second-team All-American, I don't know basketball."
According to Paul Suellentrop of the Wichita Eagle, ESPN's Fran Fraschilla—a man who knows a great deal about basketball—had that to say about Ron Baker after watching him compete in the Pan Am games this summer.
"He, arguably, was the best collegian. Most of them got better as the week went on, but he showed the most growth."
That's pretty much his career in a nutshell, isn't it?
Once a redshirt freshman who did little more than shoot threes, Baker has evolved into one of the better all-around players in the country. At 6'4", he led the Shockers in blocked shots last season, had more steals than turnovers and drained 80 three-pointers. He plays with both finesse and physicality, forever unafraid to fight for a loose ball.
The big unknown is whether he has anything extra to give. Baker has already been both a high-volume and high-efficiency player over the past two seasons, drawing KenPom.com similarities to such players as Marcus Paige, Nick Johnson, Shane Larkin and Markel Brown. It was enough for him to get into the final 15 of last year's Wooden Award ballot, but will he repeat or even improve upon the above numbers to get back into that tier again this season?
4. Monte Morris, Iowa State
CBS Sports Rank: 25
If Monte Morris played for a blue-blood program, he would almost certainly be in the top five of everyone's preseason player rankings. Of course, the primary argument against Morris' being recognized as an elite player is that he has benefited from Iowa State's uptempo style of play and couldn't do what he does elsewhere.
Regardless of the system, one doesn't lead the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio in consecutive seasons without being a doggone good point guard. And how often do you see a primary ball-handler record a steal-to-turnover ratio of 1.7?
Maybe if you're lucky you can find a guy with those ratios who is super careful with the ball and doesn't actually contribute all that much on offense, but Morris also ranked second on the Cyclones in points per game thanks in large part to a career 40.0 percent three-point stroke.
If you're like most of us who are punch-drunk in love with Kris Dunn as the favorite for the 2016 Wooden Award, perhaps a direct comparison between the two point guards will help you climb aboard the Morris bandwagon.
2014-15 Dunn: 47.4 FG% (50.5 2P% / 35.1 3P%), 7.5 APG, 2.7 SPG, 4.2 TPG, 103.0 O-Rating, .170 WS/40
2014-15 Morris: 50.7 FG% (54.7 2P% / 39.5 3P%), 5.2 APG, 1.9 SPG, 1.1 TPG, 126.2 O-Rating, .189 WS/40
Sure, Dunn did more scoring and rebounding as a result of being one of the only players on the roster capable of doing those things—and is going to do even more of both this year—but it's really surprising that more people aren't paying attention to the wildly efficient point guard on one of the 10 best teams in the country.
3. Caris LeVert, Michigan
CBS Sports Rank: 18
Caris LeVert only lasted about halfway into 2014-15 before suffering a season-ending foot injury, but it was more than enough time to demonstrate why so many experts had him pegged as a preseason first-team All-American.
A rare breed of player who gives his all on both ends of the court while still remaining a reliable shooter, LeVert was one of just three players in the country to average at least 13.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game while shooting at least 36 percent from three-point range—he cleared each of those plateaus with room to spare. The other two players were Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell and Harvard's Wesley Saunders.
However, out of sight, out of mind, it would appear. By not playing for the final two months of the season—and by playing the games that he did for a team that drastically underperformed—LeVert did not appear on CBS Sports' first, second or third preseason All-American team.
If he stays healthy and plays with the same skill and intensity that he did for 18 games last season, it will only be a matter of time before he is unofficially crowned the Comeback Player of the Year and a top candidate for Player of the Year. If he plays well and Michigan bounces back into contention in the Big Ten, his odds further improve.
2. Jakob Poeltl, Utah
CBS Sports Rank: 14
I fully appreciate the big difference between ranking players for one collegiate season and ranking them by projected NBA potential, but it's hard to rationalize why DraftExpress views Jakob Poeltl as the second-best non-freshman prospect in the country, while CBS Sports ranks him as its 10th-best non-freshman for this season.
If Utah is going to be a top-25 team—which most seem to believe will be the case—it's because Poeltl is going to be such a monster in the paint.
Partially because of an ankle injury and partially because of occasional foul trouble, he played fairly limited minutes last season, so his per-game numbers don't look all that great. However, he was good for 15.7 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per 40 minutes as a freshman, and good luck finding anyone who expects those numbers to decrease after an offseason spent at the Nike Basketball Academy before playing for Austria in the Trentino Cup.
The prevailing sentiment is that the international play will actually carry over into the upcoming season in the form of a new addition to his offensive arsenal. "He's going to hit quite a few three-pointers this season," wrote Matt Norlander in CBS Sports' ranking of Poeltl.
Even if he merely relies on last year's 68.4 two-point field-goal percentage while becoming a bigger focus of the offense without Delon Wright around to steer the ship, Poeltl could very realistically come to be viewed as the most valuable player in the country.
1. Marcus Paige, North Carolina
CBS Sports Rank: 15
Based on the 2014 preseason expectations of being a Wooden Award finalist for a Final Four-caliber team, Marcus Paige had a fairly disappointing junior season. But for someone who dealt with plantar fasciitis and spent nearly the entire 2014-15 season as North Carolina's only legitimate perimeter weapon, those are pretty incredible numbers.
Whether you agree with Paige's placement on this list will primarily depend on whether you're impressed by what he accomplished given the circumstances or bitter that he failed to live up to the hype. Obviously, we fall into the former camp and are intrigued to see what he can do with a little more support in the backcourt.
Not only are the Tar Heels adding a capable shooting guard in Kenny Williams, but they have a better idea of what both Joel Berry and Justin Jackson will bring to the table as sophomores.
Though he spent the entire season as the team's starting shooting guard, Jackson didn't really develop a three-point stroke until the final month of the season, sinking 17 of his final 38 attempts (44.7 percent) after opening the season 11-of-54 (20.4 percent). Likewise, Berry was a much better three-point shooter after returning from a midseason groin injury and should be a real asset in what could be a starting backcourt that shares both the shooting and ball-handling duties while Jackson slides to his natural position as a small forward.
Long story short, there should be significantly less pressure on Paige to do everything for a team that once again has very realistic Final Four expectations. His assist rate may drop a few ticks, but look for Paige's scoring average and shooting percentages to increase this season as he leads one of the best teams in the country.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.