Ranking the Top 25 Candidates for Men's College Basketball National POY

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 15, 2021

Ranking the Top 25 Candidates for Men's College Basketball National POY

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    Gonzaga's Drew Timme and Duke's Paolo Banchero
    Gonzaga's Drew Timme and Duke's Paolo BancheroLance King/Getty Images

    Though it still feels like the 2021-22 men's college basketball season has only just begun, we are already more than a quarter of the way through the regular season.

    And though the list of viable candidates for national player of the year (NPOY) is about as long as the list of teams that could feasibly earn an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament, we've cobbled together a ranking of the top 25 players in the country.

    Nos. 25-21 are reserved (at least for now) for mid-major stars. And, just to be clear, those aren't participation trophies.

    There's usually at least one mid-major star who makes it into the top 15 of the Wooden Watch in early March. (Western Kentucky's Charles Bassey last year; Dayton's Obi Toppin and San Diego State's Malachi Flynn the year before that; Murray State's Ja Morant and South Dakota State's Mike Daum in 2018-19; etc.) But it's a little too early in the year to try to juxtapose Justin Bean and David Roddy with EJ Liddell and Paolo Banchero.

    Beyond that, players are ranked based on a combination of individual stats/highlights and team success. The former is the larger piece of the puzzle, but the latter is an undeniable factor, as the NPOY and the top candidates for it just about always play for teams that earn a No. 4 seed or better in the Big Dance.  

Honorable Mentions

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    Michigan's Hunter Dickinson
    Michigan's Hunter DickinsonPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    Colin Castleton, Florida: Castleton is leading Florida in points, rebounds and blocks, all by a substantial margin. But he has been considerably less impressive since the calendar flipped to December, as have the Gators, with three losses in four games. 

           

    Hunter Dickinson, Michigan: Dickinson opened the season as pretty much a unanimous first-team All-American and one of the top candidates for NPOY. But he was a ghost in the loss to North Carolina (four points, five rebounds, three turnovers) and didn't do much better in the loss to Arizona, especially on the defensive end. If the Wolverines rally from their 6-4 start, though, he'll be right back in the mix.

         

    Tari Eason, LSU: Might Trevion Williams have a challenger for national sixth man of the year? This transfer from Cincinnati has been sensational off the bench for LSU and has been the biggest catalyst for its 9-0 start. Let's see what happens once the schedule gets tougher, though.

           

    Christian Koloko, Arizona: Teammate Bennedict Mathurin ranks in our top 20, but Koloko has actually been Arizona's most valuable player and would be my early pick for Pac-12 Player of the Year. The big man was outstanding on both ends of the floor in the marquee wins over Michigan and Illinois.

                

    Pete Nance, Northwestern: As with Eason, we're still waiting for Nance to face tournament-caliber competition, though he'll be tested repeatedly throughout January and February in the Big Ten. He did have a double-double in the win over Maryland and filled up the box score (15 points, seven rebounds, five assists, four blocks) in the overtime loss to Wake Forest.

           

    Jack Nunge, Xavier: Nunge had flashes during his four years at Iowa when it was clear he could be a key asset, but it never quite panned out, thanks in large part to Luka Garza stealing all the spotlight. But he has been awesome off the bench for 9-1 Xavier, especially in the important contests. He went off for 31 points and 15 rebounds in the rivalry victory over Cincinnati.

             

    Taz Sherman, West Virginia: Per KenPom.com, no one has been the MVP of more games this season than WVU's Sherman. The Mountaineers have struggled on offense as a whole, but Sherman is averaging 21.8 points per game, held below 17 just once. If he's even 80 percent this effective in Big 12 play, he'll start getting the type of national attention that Wisconsin's Johnny Davis has gotten.

            

    Jaden Shackelford/Jahvon Quinerly, Alabama: As Alabama continues to rise in the rankings and stakes its claim to a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, one of these two guards (or maybe JD Davison) is eventually going to vault into the top 10. The smart money is on Shackelford, but the Crimson Tide's early success has been more of a "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" situation than a specific star or two.

Nos. 25-21

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    Utah State's Justin Bean
    Utah State's Justin BeanJohn Locher/Associated Press

    For the time being, this space is reserved as a sort of "Mid-Major POY" section. Perhaps one of these guys will eventually crack the top 10 if he continues to dominate, but we realize they have little hope of actually winning the Wooden Award.

           

    No. 25: Taran Armstrong, California Baptist
    12.0 PPG, 8.3 APG, 7.4 RPG, 0.200 WS/40

    Armstrong only has one triple-double (16 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds against San Jose State), but he does have three other games with at least 10, 10 and eight. If he's able to do that this weekend against Arizona, maybe this WAC star will start getting more national attention.

           

    No. 24: Fardaws Aimaq, Utah Valley
    19.8 PPG, 13.3 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 0.223 WS/40

    Aimaq might mess around and lead the nation in both points and rebounds. He just had a streak of eight consecutive double-doubles snapped, and one of the games during that run was when he went for 24 points, 22 rebounds, five steals, four assists and three blocks in a win over then-ranked BYU. That streak began with three consecutive games of at least 25 points and 14 rebounds.

           

    No. 23: Jamaree Bouyea, San Francisco
    20.0 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.6 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 0.277 WS/40

    Bouyea is the leader of one of the seven remaining undefeated teams, serving as the KenPom Game MVP in six of San Francisco's 10 games. He did struggle against the Dons' two most difficult opponents (UAB and Davidson), but it's all white noise anyway until the Jan. 6 game against Gonzaga. If he thrives in that one and San Francisco pulls off the massive road upset, Bouyea is going to skyrocket into the NPOY mix.

            

    No. 22: David Roddy, Colorado State
    20.7 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.3 BPG, 1.1 SPG, 0.304 WS/40

    Roddy also plays for one of the seven remaining undefeated teams, and he has been even a little better than Bouyea. He hit seven triples en route to 36 points in a win over Creighton, and he went for 19 points and seven boards in back-to-back wins over Saint Mary's and Mississippi State earlier this month.

           

    No. 21: Justin Bean, Utah State
    21.1 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.9 SPG, 0.348 WS/40

    My loyal readers (both of them) might recall my obsession with Utah State's Neemias Queta last year. I'm not quite there yet with Bean, but he has been incredible for the Aggies. In four games against Tier A+B competition, Bean has averaged 23.3 points, 12.5 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 2.3 assists. He'll have another big opportunity to make some noise this weekend against Iowa.

Nos. 20-16

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    Houston's Marcus Sasser
    Houston's Marcus SasserVasha Hunt/Associated Press

    No. 20: Marcus Sasser, Houston
    18.4 PPG, 2.7 APG, 2.6 RPG, 2.4 SPG, 45.1 3P%, 0.289 WS/40

    Sasser has never been shy about letting it fly from three-point range, but this year he's making 45 percent of his more than eight attempts per game. He has also ratcheted up the intensity on defense for a Cougars team that is one point against Alabama and two points against Wisconsin away from being undefeated. Playing in the AAC might limit his NPOY potential, but he'll get attention if the Cougars win all of their remaining games and get a No. 1 seed in the Dance (which isn't that far-fetched of a proposal).

          

    No. 19: Collin Gillespie, Villanova
    16.2 PPG, 3.4 APG, 3.2 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 43.4 3P%, 0.237 WS/40

    Going for just six points with one assist and three turnovers in Sunday's 57-36 loss to Baylor was a huge blow to Gillespie's NPOY campaign. But he had at least 14 points and three assists in each of Villanova's early games against UCLA, Tennessee, Purdue and Syracuse. If that tough nonconference slate leads to the Wildcats dominating the Big East, Gillespie will be back in the conversation in a hurry.

          

    No. 18: Wendell Moore Jr., Duke
    17.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 5.6 APG, 2.0 SPG, 0.290 WS/40

    Much like Christian Koloko, Moore is ranked behind a teammate (Paolo Banchero), even though he has been the brightest star. He had 20 points, six rebounds, six assists and six steals in the massive win over Gonzaga, and his 17 points, eight rebounds and five assists at Ohio State were the main reasons Duke was in position to win that one before wilting in the final minutes. Banchero might be the No. 1 pick in the draft, but Moore is the stat-sheet stuffing veteran leader who can guide Duke to a No. 1 seed.

           

    No. 17: Bennedict Mathurin, Arizona
    18.4 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.8 APG, 38.2 3P%, 0.251 WS/40

    During its 9-0 start, Arizona has only had two games decided by fewer than 18 points. And in those two contests, Mathurin scored 25 in the overtime game against Wichita State and 30 in Saturday's win at Illinois. He also put up 29 in the blowout win at Oregon State. Koloko has been the more surprising breakout star, but Mathurin's maturation into the go-to scorer has been impressive.

             

    No. 16: Zach Edey, Purdue
    14.6 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 0.356 WS/40

    See: Koloko and Moore, except Edey has two teammates ranked in our top 10. His per-40 numbers (33.2 points, 15.9 rebounds and 3.2 blocks) are ridiculous, and there's no question his 7'4" presence in the paint is a major deterrent to opposing offenses. However, at less than 18 minutes per game and with a pair of teammates who dominate the highlight reels, Edey figures to be the lowest ranked of the Boilermakers' terrific trio.

Nos. 15-11

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    Auburn's Jabari Smith
    Auburn's Jabari SmithHakim Wright Sr./Associated Press

    No. 15: Keegan Murray, Iowa
    22.2 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 1.6 SPG, 1.3 APG, 0.352 WS/40

    In college football, we talk about September Heismans, as in guys who get out to a phenomenal start to the year. And this season in hoops, Keegan Murray was the November Wooden/Naismith, opening the campaign with six consecutive games with at least 23 points. Unfortunately, Iowa is 0-3 in December, Murray missed one of those games and had a combined 28 points on 32 shots in the other two, so he has slipped outside of our top 10.

           

    No. 14: Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
    21.4 PPG, 12.0 RPG, 1.1 APG, 0.266 WS/40

    Cockburn missed Illinois' first three games because of a suspension and was held in check in Saturday's loss to Arizona5-of-15 for 13 points with 13 rebounds and five turnovers. And with Andre Curbelo out indefinitely because of a neck injury, the Illini haven't been anywhere near the championship contender we were anticipating. All the same, this big man is putting up big numbers and has already single-handedly willed the team to a few wins.

                   

    No. 13: Johnny Juzang, UCLA
    16.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.1 APG, 0.163 WS/40

    Juzang's win shares ratio is the worst among the 25 players we ranked, as he had a rough night in the loss to Gonzaga (11 points, four turnovers) and was not efficient in the games against Villanova and Marquette. But with UCLA already back up to No. 4 in the AP poll, the Bruins' leading scorer is all but guaranteed to get some NPOY love. Upcoming games against North Carolina (Dec. 18) and Arizona (Dec. 30) could be his ticket back into the top five.

           

    No. 12: Jabari Smith, Auburn
    17.3 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.8 SPG, 44.7 3P%, 0.299 WS/40

    The race for the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft was originally billed as Paolo Banchero vs. Chet Holmgren, but Smith has stormed into the mix in a big way with five 20-point performances this season. If you didn't make it a point to watch Auburn in the Battle 4 Atlantis (in which Smith scored 58 total points), there's a big one coming up on Dec. 29 against LSU.

             

    No. 11: James Akinjo, Baylor
    10.6 PPG, 6.0 APG, 2.2 SPG, 0.197 WS/40

    This is probably underselling the leader of the No. 1 team in the country, but the numbers aren't quite there compared to the guys in our top 10. Now, if Baylor is still No. 1 three months from now and Akinjo is still averaging around 10 points, six assists and two steals per game, he'll be a first-team All-American, if not the favorite for NPOY. After all, he was their MVP in the big wins over Michigan State and Villanova.

Nos. 10-6

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    Kansas' Ochai Agbaji
    Kansas' Ochai AgbajiIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    No. 10: Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana
    19.3 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 3.4 BPG, 1.6 APG, 0.304 WS/40

    It's a wee bit concerning that TJD merely had nine points, six rebounds and one block in Indiana's only game against a KenPom top 50 opponent (Wisconsin). But he already had a 43-point game this season against Marshall and has scored in double figures with multiple blocks against every opponent except for the Badgers. His improvement on defense has turned Indiana into a legitimate contender in the Big Ten. 

            

    No. 9: Johnny Davis, Wisconsin
    20.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.6 SPG, 37.8 3P%, 0.25 WS/40

    I've made this comparison before and I'll probably make it again, but Davis reminds me of former players such as Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick, Houston's Rob Gray Jr. and San Diego State's Xavier Thames. Not stylistically, but in the way that he is basically the entire offense for what is otherwise a slow-paced, defensive-minded team. He has at least 15 points in all nine games played, and the Badgers are 8-1 when he takes the floor.

           

    No. 8: Ochai Agbaji, Kansas
    22.4 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.7 APG, 49.1 3P%, 0.288 WS/40

    In case you thought Agbaji's 29-point performance against Michigan State in the Champions Classic was a fluke, he has been a scoring metronome for the Jayhawks, posting 17 to 25 points in each of their last eight games. Considering he's not the point guard, Agbaji's not tallying anywhere near as many assists as Frank Mason III's 5.2 when he won the Wooden Award in 2017. However, the consistent production and the sudden jump from good to elite three-point shooting in his fourth year in the program is eerily similar to what Mason did.

           

    No. 7: Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga
    13.5 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 3.8 BPG, 2.5 APG, 0.294 WS/40

    Holmgren took a lot of criticism for not putting up good enough numbers in the mid-November win over Texas (two points, five rebounds, two blocks). Since then, the lanky super frosh has had at least 10 points and three blocks in eight consecutive games, including posting a double-double in both of Gonzaga's December games. Some lot of good it did the Bulldogs in the losses to Duke and Alabama, but he certainly wasn't the reason for those minor missteps.

           

    No. 6: Jaden Ivey, Purdue
    16.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.5 SPG, 39.1 3P%, 0.256 WS/40

    Ivey is a human highlight reel who seems to have at least one ridiculous fast-break dunk and at least one other outrageously athletic play in every game. We've got a long way to go until June, but it sure seems like he is going to be this year's highest drafted non-freshman. However, between his lapses on defensehe gets a lot of steals, but he also completely loses his man on occasion—and the fact that Trevion Williams ranks in our top three, Ivey falls just short of our top five.

No. 5: Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky

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    Robert Franklin/Associated Press

    Stats: 16.3 PPG, 14.4 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 1.4 SPG, 1.2 APG, 0.381 WS/40

    When Oscar Tshiebwe opened the season with back-to-back 20-rebound performances (22 of them on the offensive glass), it didn't take a rocket scientist to know he would come back to earth to some degree. No one in the Sports Reference database since 1985-86 has averaged better than 15 rebounds per game in a season.

    It looks like Tshiebwe will flirt with that record, though, as he had at least 10 boards in each of Kentucky's first eight games and entered December with an average of 16.0. (A seven-rebound game against Notre Dame at least temporarily dropped him below 15.)

    He was relentless on the glass during his time at West Virginia, too. He led the nation in offensive rebound percentage in 2019-20 and was on pace to do so in 2020-21, as well, but didn't play enough minutes to qualify.

    Needless to say, everyone expected him to be Kentucky's top rebounder, and it's not much of a surprise that he has been the nation's top rebounder.

    The unknowns when he arrived in Lexington were scoring, defense and avoiding foul trouble, but he has been much better with the Wildcats than he was with the Mountaineers in all three of those areas. Tshiebwe already has four games with at least 20 points and at least four combined blocks and steals. He only had two such games in his 1.5 years in Morgantown.

    For him to seriously vie for NPOY, though, Kentucky needs to beat some quality opponents. To that end, there is a huge game this weekend in which Tshiebwe leads the Wildcats against EJ Liddell and the Ohio State Buckeyes. If there's a clear loser in that head-to-head battle, that player will surely drop out of our top five.

No. 4: Paolo Banchero, Duke

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Stats: 17.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.243 WS/40

    Paolo Banchero is the most difficult player to rank right now.

    He's not in the top 10 of the KenPom POY ratings, and he hasn't even been the most valuable player on his own team. But as the potential No. 1 overall pick in next summer's draft, he's getting way more national attention than Wendell Moore Jr. He's also either the favorite or second-favorite in all of the NPOY odds I was able to find.

    This much is certain, though: Banchero has been very good and would have even better numbers had he not been afflicted by leg cramps in the second halves against Kentucky and Gonzaga.

    He was particularly dominant in the first half of the Gonzaga game, scoring 20 points in the first 17 minutes. In what was billed as a battle for the No. 1 spot in the draft, he left Chet Holmgren in a cloud of dust, provided the draft scouts aren't irrationally concerned that the cramps might be a careerlong issue for Banchero.

    He did struggle in the loss at Ohio State (4-of-14 from the field with three turnovers) on a night when just about the entire Blue Devils rotation dealt with foul trouble. Considering EJ Liddell clearly won that head-to-head battle, we wanted to put the Buckeye ahead of the Dukie here.

    But having an off night in the first true road game of a guy's college career is hardly concerning. Banchero should dominate in a down year for the ACC to remain in the hunt for NPOY all season.

No. 3: EJ Liddell, Ohio State

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Stats: 20.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 3.0 BPG, 2.7 APG, 0.276 WS/40

    Ohio State is enduring one of the most difficult schedules in the country. In addition to facing a 20-game Big Ten slate, the Buckeyes played at Xavier, faced Seton Hall and Florida in the Fort Myers Tip-Off, hosted Duke and will face Kentucky in Las Vegas this Saturday.

    And through the first 30 percent of that gauntlet, EJ Liddell has been awesome.

    Though the Buckeyes lost to Xavier, Liddell did all he could, finishing with 17 points, eight blocks and seven rebounds. Similar story in the close loss to Florida, in which he went for 23 points, five blocks and five rebounds. He simply got next-to-nothing (and a whole lot of live-ball turnovers) from his supporting cast on those nights.

    His 28 points, six rebounds and three blocks were enough to get the narrow win over Seton Hall, though. And while Zed Key's 20 points was the surprise development in the win over Duke, Liddell carried Ohio State through that one with 14 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, three blocks and solid overall defense.

    Liddell also filled up the box score with 28 points, nine rebounds, four assists, two blocks and a steal in this past weekend's blowout of Wisconsin. The Badgers actually seized an early eight-point lead in that game, but Liddell scored 12 of OSU's first 16 points. He then either scored or assisted on nine consecutive buckets in the second half as they blew the game open.

    Liddell is the runaway leader in the KenPom POY ratings, but we're giving the top two spots to guys on teams that are projected No. 1 seeds.

No. 2: Trevion Williams, Purdue

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Stats: 14.2 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.333 WS/40

    Not many players would accept being relegated to a reserve role after two years as a starter. Fewer still would embrace that change well enough to become one of the most unstoppable forces of nature in the country.

    But that's exactly what Trevion Williams has done for the Boilermakers.

    I don't know that Matt Painter has yet directly addressed why Williams is coming off the bench. Maybe it's because Williams waited until late June to make his decision about returning for one more year and Painter had already decided on Zach Edey and Caleb Furst as his frontcourt starters. Or maybe Painter is just a genius and realized it's impossible for Williams to pick up two fouls in the first five minutes if he doesn't play for the first five minutes.

    Either way, the fourth-year big manwho was already quite good in his first three seasonsis playing with all sorts of fire.

    Despite still getting into foul trouble in both games in Connecticut, Williams had a combined 29 points, eight rebounds and four steals in 33 minutes against North Carolina and Villanova. And with Furst struggling mightily as of late (two points, eight rebounds and five turnovers in 44 minutes over his last three games), Williams has kicked into a higher gear in December.

    In the three games against Iowa, Rutgers and North Carolina State, Williams accounted for: 56 points, 41 rebounds, 13 assists, four blocks and four steals in 81 minutes of work. And he simply took over late in the come-from-behind win over NC State, going for 14 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four blocks in the final 18 minutes of regulation/overtime.

No. 1: Drew Timme, Gonzaga

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    Stats: 18.4 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.9 BPG, 0.267 WS/40

    Has Drew Timme been the single most impressive player in the country thus far?

    You'd have a hard time finding anyone making that argument.

    Has he been pretty darn good, though? Does he play on one of the best teams in the country? Did he have at least one absurdly dominant performance against a quality opponent? And did he open the season as the prohibitive favorite for NPOY?

    Yes, yep, uh-huh and you betcha.

    Timme's season averages are deceptively low, because the Zags barely put him to work against the likes of Dixie State, Alcorn State, Central Michigan and Tarleton State. He has scored in double figures in every game this season, but he went for just 10 or 11 in each of those four contests.

    But the absurdly dominant performance was the 37-point game against Texas, in which he shot 15-of-19 from the field. Timme also went for 23 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and two blocks in the loss to Alabama, had 18 points and eight boards in the win over UCLA and put up 17 points, five rebounds and five assists in the loss to Duke.

    His averages against those four high-caliber opponents were 23.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists.

    Hard to argue with those numbers.

    Gonzaga might need to win every remaining regular-season game for Timme to remain the favorite for NPOY. But even in a better-than-usual year for much of the West Coast Conference, there's a decent chance that happens.

               

    Statistics courtesy of Sports Reference and KenPom, unless otherwise noted. Statistics are current through the start of play on Tuesday, Dec. 14.

    Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.

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