When you think of college basketball in the Midwest you think of the Big Ten. That’s understandable, especially this year, when the conference has multiple teams capable of making Final Four runs. But when it comes to individual honors, the brightest stars in the Midwest—indeed the entire nation—are outside the Big Ten and in places off the national spotlight. TheSportsNotebook is picking Creighton’s Doug McDermott as national Player of the Year and St. Louis’ Jim Crews as Coach of the Year.
Actually it might be stretching a point to say McDermott is off the national spotlight. His school and the Missouri Valley Conference might be, but McDermott has been on the radar of college basketball fans all year. When Creighton struggled, his case seemed to be slipping away. But the Bluejays have turned it back around down the stretch and won the MVC regular season title and tournament crown. It goes without saying that McDermott was an essential part of that.
He averaged 23 points/8 rebounds per game, a statistical showing that showed the kind of dominance that’s rightfully expected of a candidate in a midmajor conference. And he gets his numbers with high efficiency, hitting 56 percent from the floor and an astonishing 50 percent from three-point range, taking a little more than four treys per game. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for McDermott this season, but he arrived in port safely and deserves to be Player of the Year.
Crews wasn’t a candidate for Coach of the Year when the season began—for that matter, he wasn’t even a head coach. He became the college basketball equivalent of Bruce Arians, the man who took the reins from Chuck Pagano with the Indianapolis Colts after Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia. It was the passing of Rick Majerus that put Crews in the interim role at St. Louis. He inherited not only a delicate situation, but a roster that didn’t have a true post player and an Atlantic 10 conference that was strengthened by the arrivals of Butler and Virginia Commonwealth. All the Billikens did was win the conference outright, including wins over both newcomers down the stretch with the championship in the balance. There were a lot of good coaching jobs done this year, but Crews was frankly a rather easy choice as Coach of the Year.
TheSportsNotebook’s college basketball coverage today also honors players and coaches at the conference level. Here’s who I’d pick for these awards in the eight major conferences…
Big East: Otto Porter became the consensus choice down the stretch and I would concur. The Georgetown forward averaged 16 points/8 rebounds, placing among the conference leaders in both categories. He showed some long-range capability, hitting 44 percent behind the arc and most important, he played his best basketball after the suspension of center Greg Whittington seemed to leave the Hoyas up the wrong creek. And Porter led his team to a piece of the conference title. Though I didn’t pick him nationally, I won’t throw a fuss if Porter brings home that honor too.
Marquette’s Buzz Williams is an easy choice for Big East coaching honors. He put together a roster that’s short on frontcourt talent and depth and managed to join with Georgetown and Louisville in sharing the conference championship.
ACC: I’m going with Virginia Tech’s Erick Green here. The Hokies might have had a rough year, but it wasn’t Green’s fault. He averaged 25 ppg, and this wasn’t the case of him being a ballhog—he shot 48 percent from the floor and 39 percent behind the arc, both high enough to justify high shot volumes. Get the guy some help. Duke and Miami—with candidates like Mason Plumlee or Shane Larkin—have enough balance to ensure you can’t key on one player. Virginia Tech has none of that, but Green still excelled.
Coach of the Year had a few good candidates, but no great ones. The instinctive choice would be Miami’s Jim Larranaga. He did a good job and won the conference, but regular readers know I’m also high on the ‘Canes talent level and felt it was underrated to begin with. Don’t overlook Roy Williams. This wasn’t a vintage North Carolina team, but they still got to 12-6 in the league. And if you really want to go under the radar look at Boston College’s Steve Donahue. His team was heavily laden with underclassmen, but he’s gotten them to 16-16 and as of this writing is still alive in the conference tournament as they get set for the quarterfinals.
So which direction does it go? I pushed the limits with Green and don’t think I’ll get overly cute with this pick. Let’s go Larranaga and honor Miami’s championship—who’d have thought they’d win this league in basketball before they did in football?
Big Ten: I really wanted to pick Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas, for averaging 20 ppg, shooting the ball well and leading a team that wasn’t as talented as Indiana or Michigan right into the heart of the conference race and ending up tied for second. But Thomas just doesn’t rebound enough. Meanwhile, Michigan guard Trey Burke is only a half-point behind Thomas on the per-game average and leads the league in assists. He did all this in spite of his team’s forwards showing their youth down the stretch. For all that, Burke gets the nod.
Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan was rebuilding in November, then he lost guard Josh Gasser for the year and he played in the toughest conference in the country. All Ryan did was churn out another top four finish in the Big Ten (he’s never finished outside the first four) and make himself an easy choice.
SEC: I’m going off the grid again in my Player of the Year pick. The choice is Georgia’s Octavious Caldwell-Pope. He averaged 18 points/7 rebounds per game and was literally the only player the Bulldogs had worth watching. And in spite of a losing year, they still found a way to beat Kentucky and knock off Tennessee twice. Admittedly this choice also says something about the quality of the field, but give Caldwell-Pope his due. He did it alone, whereas Florida was a balanced team and Ole Miss’ dynamic duo of guard Marshall Henderson and forward Murphy Holloway at least had each other.
There weren’t impressive candidates for Coach of the Year, but the best of the lot was Missouri’s Frank Haith. He had some rebuilding to do, he lost forward Laurence Bowers—his best player—for a good chunk of SEC play and still managed 22 wins, an 11-7 record and is a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
Big 12: Once again, I don’t like my choices for Player of the Year. Oklahoma State’s freshman guard Marcus Smart is a terrific player, but he’s one of three Cowboys among the conference leaders in scoring, isn’t a three-point shooter and isn’t among the league leaders in rebounding or assists. The phrase most valuable just isn’t jumping out at me. The best-balanced players are forwards Romero Osby (16/7) and Will Clyburn (15/7) at Oklahoma and Iowa State respectively, but those stat lines just don’t do it for me.
I hate myself for this, but I’m going to give a postseason honor to a member of the Baylor Bears. Pierre Jackson led the league in both scoring and assists. He shot 43 percent from the floor and 36 percent from trey range. His team might be a monumental disappointment, at least as they start quarterfinal play in the league tournament tonight, but I can’t blame Pierre.
Coach of the Year was much easier—Bruce Weber rejuvenated his career at Kansas State and did a fantastic job on a team without any really good frontcourt players, ending up with a share of the league title along with Kansas. Weber deserves to be in the national conversation for this award as well.
Pac-12: I lean Jahii Carson, the dynamic freshman point guard at Arizona State. He was among the leaders in both scoring an assists, at 18/5 and rejuvenated a dead program, as the Sun Devils won 21 games this year. They likely will miss the NCAA Tournament, but they made a good run at it and Carson is the reason the team turned around. I give him a slight edge over Stanford’s underrated forward Dwight Powell (16 points/8 rebounds). UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad gets a lot of ink and at 18 ppg, he’s a terrific scorer, but he’s on a good team and he doesn’t excel in either rebounding or distribution.
I thought about a second interim pick for Coach of the Year here, as USC’s Bob Cantu rescued the Trojans from a developing catastrophe and went 9-9 in league play. It was a nice showing, but splitting your games in the Pac-12 isn’t enough to be Coach of the Year. I’ll give the nod instead to Oregon’s Dana Altman. It was disappointing they coughed up the regular season title in the final week, but it’s a great credit to Altman they were even in position to do so.
Atlantic 10: We already honored Crews on the coaching front, and we’ll go to UMass point guard Chaz Williams as Player of the Year. His eight assists per game led the A-10 and averaged 15 points ppg to go with it. He’s the best of a group of very good A-10 guards that include Ramon Galloway at LaSalle, Semaj Christom for Xavier and leading scorer Khalif Wyatt at Temple.
Mountain West: This was a tough call on Player of the Year and for the right reasons. San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin and New Mexico’s Kendall Williams are both worthy candidates. Franklin is the best statistical package—17 points per game, the second-best rebounder in the league (from the guard position!) and seventh in assists. Williams was a solid scorer and passer, at 14 points/5 assists. Even though Franklin’s numbers are better, I’m going with Williams. I don’t like that Franklin tries over four three-pointers per game when he only makes 26 percent. Williams is more efficient and he erupted for 47 points in the biggest game of the conference schedule against Colorado State.
Williams’ coach is Steve Alford and that’s who the Coach of the Year choice is. New Mexico has talent, but there was no reason to expect them to run away and hide with the MWC title. But that’s what they did, beating out four other good teams and winning the league by two games.
We reached beyond the scope of these eight conferences for our national Player of the Year, and we need to also at least salute Gonzaga’s Mark Few, who produced the best team of his tenure in the Pacific Northwest. It surely bodes well for this Jesuit school that on the eve of March Madness, the Catholic Church elected its first Jesuit pope.