Otskey’s Observations: Episode XV, Player and Coach of the Year EditionPosted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on March 6th, 2014
Each week throughout the season, RTC columnist Brian Otskey (@botskey) will run down his observations from the previous week of college basketball.
As the college basketball regular season wraps up, I thought this would be a good time to run down my Coaches of the Year and Players of the Year in each of the major conferences. Here goes…
- POY: T.J. Warren, NC State (24.2 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.8 SPG). Warren has been a tremendous bright spot on an otherwise mediocre Wolfpack squad. Since a rough four-point game against Virginia on January 11, Warren has scored at least 20 points in every game he has played (he missed one game due to injury). At 6’8” and an athletic 215 pounds, Warren is a match-up problem for nearly every opponent. He has had eight 30+ point games (only one fewer than Doug McDermott), including Monday’s 41-point explosion in a road win at Pittsburgh. Some may disagree because NC State is not at the top of the ACC, but a season like this where Warren brought it night after night deserves special recognition.
- COY: Tony Bennett, Virginia (25-5, 16-1 ACC). Bennett’s teams have always been terrific defensively and this one is no exception. Ranked third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, Virginia has allowed only four ACC opponents to score 60 or more points this season. Even in a league with a tempo as slow as this year’s ACC, that is a remarkable statistic. Virginia was a trendy surprise pick but I am not sure anyone thought it would turn out to be this good. The Cavaliers were picked fourth in the preseason ACC poll but currently hold a three-game lead over Syracuse and North Carolina with just one game to play.
- POY: Russ Smith, Louisville (18.0 PPG, 4.5 APG, 2.0 SPG). This was a really close call between Smith and Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick but I am giving Smith the slightest of edges. Both mean so much to their respective teams but Smith’s decision to return to Louisville for his senior year has proven to be a wise one. Smith is enjoying the best shooting season of his career (46.8 percent) and has matured greatly. He is playing smarter and has led this Louisville team to a 25-5 overall record. The Cardinals again have the look of a Final Four contender and Smith is the primary reason why.
- COY: Mick Cronin, Cincinnati (24-5, 13-3 American). Although Cincinnati has lost three of its last five games, that does not take away from the job Cronin has done. This Rick Pitino protégé generated national headlines on Saturday for his confrontation with official Ted Valentine but what some people still do not realize is that Cronin is a darn good coach. His teams have always struggled offensively, but similar to Tony Bennett, Cronin gets his squad to play an incredibly tough and physical brand of defense that always keeps them in games. Also similar to Virginia, Cincinnati was picked fourth in the American preseason poll yet it sits tied with Louisville in the loss column with two games still to play.
- POY: DeAndre Kane, Iowa State (16.7 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 5.8 APG). Kane is your classic stat sheet stuffer. The transfer from Marshall has come to Ames and done it all for head coach Fred Hoiberg. He has been the proverbial straw that stirs the drink for the Cyclones and has filled the leadership void (along with Melvin Ejim) after Iowa State lost five seniors off of last year’s NCAA Tournament team. Kane’s ability to break down the defense and get to the rim, facilitate for others, and pull up and knock down a jumper is unmatched in the Big 12 and makes Kane arguably the most versatile player in all of college basketball.
- COY: Bill Self, Kansas (23-7, 14-3 Big 12). Is there any explanation necessary for this award? Yes, Kansas was picked to share the conference title with Oklahoma State but it says something that he was able to take one of the nation’s most inexperienced teams and still win a conference championship. The same cannot be said for the Cowboys. This is now the 10th consecutive regular season conference title for Self’s Kansas program, an outrageous achievement. Bill Self has more Big 12 titles than he does losses at Phog Allen Fieldhouse over that 10-year time frame. When you wrap your head around that, not much else needs to be said.
- POY: Doug McDermott, Creighton (25.9 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 43.6% 3FG). In the most obvious decision of all-time, McDermott will win the Big East POY as well as the National POY. Now ninth on the all-time NCAA scoring list, McDermott has been one of the most memorable college players of the last 25 years. Watching him play is like basketball fine art with how smoothly he moves and how smart he is on the floor. McDermott positions himself like no other player in the game and uses angles to create a great advantage. He can score from anywhere on the court and never stops moving. That makes him nearly impossible to defend and he almost never gets tired. There will not be a dry eye at CenturyLink Center Omaha on McDermott’s senior night this Saturday against Providence.
- COY: Jay Wright, Villanova (26-3, 14-2 Big East). Coming into the season there were many questions about Villanova. Could the Wildcats contend in the new Big East after returning nearly all of last year’s team that lost 14 games and was bounced in the Round of 64? The answer has proved to be a resounding “yes.” Villanova has run roughshod over the Big East, losing only to Creighton (twice). The Wildcats have also survived three overtime road games in conference play, showing just how tough this team is and how well it plays together. The chemistry on this team is off the charts and the Wildcats are a great example of a unit that is greater than the sum of its parts. That credit is all Jay Wright’s.
- POY: Nik Stauskas, Michigan (17.3 PPG, 3.5 APG, 46.4% 3FG). There is a ton of talent in the Big Ten this year but I am giving Stauskas the nod here. He is the best player on the best team and 2013-14 has seen incredible growth in his overall game. Last year he was known only as a catch-and-shoot three-point specialist, but that scouting report can be torn up and thrown out. Stauskas added strength in the offseason and the payoff has been immediate. He is quicker and more explosive around the rim and has shown a terrific handle for a 6’6” player. That combination of strength, size and skill is difficult to contain and is a big reason why Michigan won the Big Ten.
- COY: John Beilein, Michigan (22-7, 14-3 Big Ten). Beilein has always been a renowned tactician and one of the best pure basketball coaches in the nation. However, the job he has done with this team ranks among the best of his career. Michigan was expected to be good but nobody had this team two games clear of the pack with one to go, especially after four early non-conference losses. The media narrative has been how Beilein “re-invented” Michigan after Mitch McGary was lost for the season due to back surgery, but the real story here is how Beilein lost Trey Burke to the NBA and still was able to get Michigan to run an elite offense. Burke was the best player in the nation last year and played the most important position in college basketball, point guard. With a freshman (Derrick Walton Jr.) running the point and Spike Albrecht backing him up this season, Beilein and Michigan have posted an adjusted offensive efficiency of 122.4, an increase of 2.1 points per 100 possessions. Without Burke in the lineup, that is simply remarkable.
- POY: Nick Johnson, Arizona (16.0 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 2.8 APG). Johnson’s statistics do not blow you away but they are still very good. However, it is his defense, leadership and other intangibles that Johnson brings to the table that push him to the top of my Pac-12 rankings. Johnson and Arizona have been the best team for the majority of this season and remain one of the favorites to cut down the nets in Arlington next month. Johnson is a good, not great, shooter but he always has the knack for hitting the big shot. He is a terrific defender as well and that is something that fans often ignore when debating and ranking players. It is not as glamorous as scoring but it is equally, if not more, important.
- COY: Sean Miller, Arizona (28-2, 15-2 Pac-12). Miller has his best defensive team ever, the main reason why his Wildcats are still my favorite to win the national championship. Despite a pair of road conference losses, I have felt Arizona has been the best team in the nation for quite some time now. Miller has done a great coaching job, especially since losing Brandon Ashley to injury. Since then, Arizona’s offense has actually improved. That was a major concern because Ashley was one of the Wildcats’ best offensive players. Miller has changed his offense to fit his personnel and Arizona is playing more efficient basketball since Ashley’s injury. That is the mark of a great coach.
- POY: Julius Randle, Kentucky (15.4 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 51.6% FG). While Florida’s Casey Prather is the leading scorer on the SEC’s best team (and the nation’s most improved player) he has struggled a bit in conference play. By contrast, Randle has been dominant nearly every night out as a freshman. While Kentucky’s top-ranked recruiting class has disappointed as a whole (relative to preseason expectations), Randle has not. He has been an impact player for the Wildcats from the moment he set foot on the Rupp Arena court in November. Randle commands a double-team in the low post and is an absolute beast on the boards. It is big time when you average a double-double as a freshman.
- COY: Billy Donovan, Florida (28-2, 17-0 SEC). Most people knew Florida would be very good but this was still a team picked second behind Kentucky and its ballyhooed recruiting class. If the Gators beat Kentucky on Saturday, they will win the SEC by an astonishing six games and complete an undefeated 18-0 conference season. We know the SEC does not have many quality teams but going 18-0 is a credit to Donovan, his staff and his team. Donovan has the nation’s No. 1 team as we enter March and a third national title is certainly not out of the question.