B/R's 2018-19 College Basketball Awards
When history recalls the 2018-19 men's college basketball season, Zion Williamson will be at the forefront of the discussion.
Duke's superstar freshman had become a viral sensation with thunderous dunks and a massive social media following, but expectations varied. Could he possibly match the hype? Or was Zion's physical stature overshadowing a future bust?
Williamson answered that question in resounding fashion, excelling on the court, earning his place as the likely No. 1 overall pick of the 2019 NBA draft and leading to the highest honor of the season: Bleacher Report's National Player of the Year.
There isn't anything more prestigious.
In all seriousness, though, Williamson headlines B/R's regular-season awards as selected by national writers Kerry Miller and David Kenyon.
Player of the Year: Zion Williamson, Duke
Tennessee star Grant Williams isn't far behind, but Zion Williamson―despite his late-season injury―is our Player of the Year.
Prior to that shoe-busting moment against North Carolina, the electrifying freshman piled up 21.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.8 blocks per game. Duke rattled off a 23-2 record with a healthy Williamson on the floor.
"For all the things said about him, seeing him live for the first time … he plays so dang hard," said Boston College coach Jim Christian, per Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune. "He changed the whole game. He comes up with more balls than anyone I've ever seen. That's a straight winner."
Williamson, whose status is favorable yet uncertain for the ACC tournament, could be the difference between Duke winning the national championship or exiting on the opening weekend.
Non-Zion Freshman of the Year: RJ Barrett
Williamson is our NPOY, so it logically follows he's also the Freshman of the Year. We could write another 10 sections on Zion but instead will focus on teammate RJ Barrett.
The young Canadian has poured in 23.4 points per game for Duke, nudging that average up to 26.2 without Williamson. Along the way, Barrett has earned a place in the program record book: He's already scored the most points by a Duke freshman.
And there's still the ACC and NCAA tourneys left to play.
Barrett has also tallied 7.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game and is likely bound for consensus All-American recognition.
Coach of the Year: Chris Beard, Texas Tech
Texas Tech wasn't supposed to be here.
In 2017-18, the program earned only its second NCAA tourney berth in 11 seasons and made the Elite Eight for the first time ever. But the Red Raiders lost five seniors from the rotation as well as unexpected one-and-done in NBA lottery pick Zhaire Smith.
Perhaps if things broke right, Texas Tech could return to the Big Dance. But this? A share of the Big 12 crown and regular top-15 rankings throughout the campaign? This was entirely unforeseen.
With the help of transfers Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens, the Red Raiders are eyeing a No. 3 seed in March. Sophomore guard Jarrett Culver has turned in an All-American-caliber year, and the team ranks No. 1 nationally in defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com.
Beard could be the first Texas Tech coach since the tournament expanded to 64 teams to oversee consecutive Sweet 16 runs.
Transfer of the Year: Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga
Brandon Clarke began his college career at San Jose State, and a sophomore campaign with 17.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game resulted in first-team All-Mountain West honors.
However, a coaching change pushed Clarke to leave. He saw an opportunity to join a thriving program and took full advantage.
After sitting out 2017-18 due to transfer rules, the forward has averaged 16.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.1 blocks. Only two players have swatted more shots than Clarke, who also boasts top-three national rankings in offensive (140.1, good for first) and defensive rating (83.9, third).
Season expectations were already high for Rui Hachimura, but Clarke has given Gonzaga a second All-American player.
Defensive Player of the Year: Zavier Simpson, Michigan
Zavier Simpson is a pest, an annoyance, a nightmare and every other noun that describes a lockdown defender.
"I tell everybody, I feel sorry for people when they have to go against (Simpson)," Michigan assistant coach DeAndre Haynes said, according to Brendan Quinn of The Athletic.
In addition to 9.1 points and 5.1 rebounds with a team-high 6.3 assists per game, Simpson has snatched 1.5 steals for the Wolverines. His 2.6 defensive win shares rank seventh nationally.
"He's our pit bull," teammate Isaiah Livers said, per Andrew Kahn of MLive. "When he's in the game, it's not just him guarding his man. He does all the intangibles. He'll help box out a big man down low if he sees him struggling. He'll go grab that 50-50 ball. And one-on-one iso defense, you're not going to get past Zavier."
Sixth Man of the Year: Nick Perkins, Buffalo
After opening the season unranked, Buffalo has appeared in every AP Top 25 since Nov. 12. That's in no small part because of Nick Perkins' contributions off the bench.
The senior forward has provided 14.8 points―the second-highest average on the team―7.3 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game. Perkins has connected on 46.4 percent of his attempts, including a career-best 37.3 clip from the perimeter.
According to Sports Reference, Perkins has nine games of 20-plus points. No other reserve in the nation has more than six.
Buffalo, which had never held an AP Top 25 ranking prior to 2018-19, is headed to its fourth NCAA tournament in five years.
Most Improved: PJ Washington, Kentucky
PJ Washington played a significant role for Kentucky as a freshman, but he wasn't this efficient or versatile.
The forward has become a more dangerous scorer. Last season, he attempted just 21 threes and made five (23.8 percent). This season, Washington has buried 30 triples in 71 attempts (42.3 percent) while elevating his free-throw clip from 60.6 to 67.3.
Additionally, in similar minutes, Washington has raised his rebound average from 5.7 to 7.5 and blocks from 0.8 to 1.1.
"All compliments to him for turning his game completely around from last year to this year," Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said of Washington after he posted 26 points, 12 rebounds, three steals and two assists during a late-January matchup.
Entering the season, Washington was an NBA draft afterthought. Five months later, he's a borderline lottery pick.
Most Underrated: Dylan Windler, Belmont
First question: Do you know who Dylan Windler is?
Look, Division I has 353 teams. You probably have a finite amount of time to devote for sportsball things, and not recognizing a kid from Belmont is both completely understandable and reasonable.
But this kid is special.
Heading into the postseason, Windler is averaging 21.4 points and shoots 54.8 percent overall. He boasts a 43.0 three-point clip while attempting 6.9 triples per game, also grabbing 10.7 rebounds and dishing 2.6 assists for the Ohio Valley Conference team.
Belmont is 26-5 but fell in the OVC tournament final to Murray State, so the Bruins are hoping to receive an at-large NCAA berth. If they do, Windler could become a March star.