It has been 10 years since Anthony Davis won the only Wooden Award in Kentucky men's college basketball history, but Oscar Tshiebwe is beginning to separate from the pack in his quest to join The Brow on that list.
It's still a tight race for National Player of the Year with less than four weeks remaining in the 2021-22 regular season, though. Everyone currently in our top 10 still feels like a legitimate NPOY candidate, and there are at least a half-dozen others who could join that club with a big performance against the right opponent.
Up until now, we've been ranking the top 25 players in the country. But with Selection Sunday rapidly approaching, there simply aren't enough games left on the schedule for the 20th-best player to ascend all the way to No. 1.
Thus, we've trimmed the list down to a sweet 16—plus a "final four" of candidates for the mid-major player of the year award that doesn't exist but absolutely should. And when we run this back again in late February / early March, the list of viable candidates will be further reduced to an elite eight.
Welcome to NPOY Survivor.
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: James Akinjo, Hunter Dickinson, Collin Gillespie, Trayce Jackson-Davis, Johnny Juzang, Alondes Williams
Mid-Major No. 4: Orlando Robinson, Fresno State (Previous Rank: MM No. 1)
18.9 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.3 BPG, 1.0 SPG
Fresno State's versatile seven-footer had a double-double against Wyoming and went for 24 points and eight rebounds against Colorado State in the past two games, and yet the Bulldogs were still held below 60 points while losing each of those contests. Robinson is still one of the most intriguing mid-major draft prospects and is leading the nation in KenPom.com game MVPs, but Fresno State's recent struggles have made it difficult to argue for him as MWC POY, let alone the mid-major POY.
Mid-Major No. 3: Darius McGhee, Liberty (Previous Rank: None)
22.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.3 SPG, 40.5 3P%
For a guy who is responsible for more than 30 percent of his team's total field-goal attempts, McGhee is remarkably efficient. He does most of his damage from distance, but he also shoots 56.8 percent inside the arc and just a touch under 90 percent from the free-throw line. McGhee had 48 points earlier this season at FGCU and 41 in a close call against Stanford in Hawai'i. Between Liberty's slow tempo and this lead guard's ability to catch fire, the Flames could be a dangerous No. 14 or No. 15 seed if they ultimately earn the Atlantic Sun's auto bid.
Mid-Major No. 2: Max Abmas, Oral Roberts (Previous Rank: MM No. 2)
22.8 PPG, 3.9 APG, 3.3 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 40.7 3P%
Abmas is a slightly taller and already well-known version of McGhee. ORU's star hasn't had any 40 burgers, but he has scored at least 32 points on five occasions. That includes a preposterous performance against Western Illinois on Feb. 3 in which he was held scoreless in the first half before exploding for 33 after intermission. No one can get hot faster than Abmas.
Mid-Major No. 1: David Roddy, Colorado State (Previous Rank: None)
19.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.2 BPG, 1.1 SPG, 47.4 3P%
Fun fact: I looked back at my spreadsheet from the last set of rankings to try to figure out what the heck I was thinking in dropping Roddy from No. 2 among mid-majors on Jan. 19 to out of the conversation entirely on Feb. 2. It appears I accidentally deleted his row at some point and subsequently forgot about him. Whoops!
Hard to forget about him after the way he has been playing lately, though. Roddy averaged 22.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists while shooting 9-of-20 from three-point range in Colorado State's first four games in February as the Rams improved to 20-3. Unless he finds an even higher gear the rest of the way, he probably won't be one of the five finalists for the Wooden Watch. But it would be a surprise if Roddy does not appear in the top 15 when they announce the pared down list on or around March 6.
Mid-Major honorable mentions: Isiaih Mosley, Missouri State; Fardaqs Aimaq, Utah Valley; Hunter Maldonado/Graham Ike, Wyoming; Malachi Smith, Chattanooga; Yauhen Massalski, San Francisco; Bryce Hamilton, UNLV; Jordan Walker, UAB
No. 16: Justin Lewis, Marquette (Previous Rank: 17)
17.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, 36.0 3P%
Marquette has hit a bit of a rough patch in the past few weeks, but Lewis just keeps humming along. He had 19 points in a big win over Villanova, 17 in a loss to Connecticut and 27 in a loss to Butler with nine rebounds in each of those contests. It's pretty much a toss up between Lewis and Villanova's Collin Gillespie for Big East POY, but both deserve consideration for the All-American teams.
No. 15: Keegan Murray, Iowa (Previous Rank: 16)
23.3 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 2.0 BPG, 1.4 SPG, 1.1 APG, 37.1 3P%
I was about ready to drop Murray out of the conversation on account of his great-but-decreasing scoring average and Iowa's lack of quality wins. The latter point is still a concern, but he went for 24, 30 and 37 in consecutive wins over Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska to bounce right back into the hunt for the national scoring title. If he accomplishes that for a team that earns a single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament, he would join Doug McDermott, Jimmer Fredette and Adam Morrison as the only players in the past two decades to do so.
No. 14: Armando Bacot, North Carolina (Previous Rank: 14)
16.6 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 1.5 APG
Everyone in our top 13 plays on a team that is all but guaranteed a single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament. But if North Carolina finishes strong and makes the dance with room to spare, Bacot could still make a serious push for first-team All-American. UNC's big man has 19 double-doubles in 25 games played and is showing no signs of fatigue, despite shouldering a heavy load for a short-handed Tar Heels frontcourt. He's averaging roughly 18 and 13 thus far in February.
No. 13: Jabari Smith Jr., Auburn (Previous Rank: 12)
15.2 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 39.7 3P%
From late-November through late-January, Smith scored in double figures in 16 consecutive games with great defense and solid rebounding, blossoming into one of the premier candidates for the top pick in the upcoming NBA draft. He's still playing well on both ends of the floor, but his consistency has waned a bit to the tune of three single-digit performances in his past six games. There's no question at this point that teammate Walker Kessler has bypassed Smith in the NPOY race.
No. 12: Zach Edey, Purdue (Previous Rank: 8)
14.5 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.3 BPG
Despite limited minutes while platooning with Trevion Williams, Edey scored at least 16 points in nine of his first 17 games. However, he has hit that mark just once in the past nine games, sliding from our top five to outside of our top 10. He did still hit double figures in all but one of those games, but his field-goal percentage and overall per-minute impact just have not been the same lately.
No. 11: Paolo Banchero, Duke (Previous Rank: 6)
17.0 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.1 SPG, 31.6 3P%
Banchero is an unstoppable force when he wants to be. But when he doesn't, he can completely vanish, like in the second half of Duke's recent loss to Virginia in which he did not attempt a single shot until the final buzzer. No matter how good the defense is or how intently it is focused on you, there is no excuse for the possible No. 1 pick in the draft being that passive in a tight game. If he develops more of a killer instinct down the stretch, maybe he can get back into this race.
No. 10: Bennedict Mathurin, Arizona (Previous Rank: 18)
17.0 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.0 SPG, 37.0 3P%
Mathurin actually wasn't anything special in the marquee wins over UCLA and USC earlier this month, combining for just 19 points and 11 rebounds in those games. However, he was excellent in road wins over Washington State and Washington this past weekend. Now that Arizona is solidly entrenched on the projected No. 1 seed line, its MVP is even more intriguing as an NPOY candidate.
Part of the problem for Mathurin, though, is that one could still easily argue for either Christian Koloko or Azuolas Tubelis as the most important Wildcat. If he averages 20 a game the rest of the way while Arizona locks down that No. 1 seed, he could still storm into the mix for No. 1.
No. 9: Jaden Ivey, Purdue (Previous Rank: 9)
17.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.0 SPG, 40.5 3P%
As great as the center tandem of Zach Edey and Trevion Williams is, it's pretty clear that Purdue lives and dies with Ivey. He got out to a brutal start in Sunday's game against Maryland, and Purdue trailed 42-31 when he finally scored his first point midway through the second half. But he finished with 11, including what proved to be the game-winning and-one layup with about 13 seconds to go. Coupled with the buzzer beater he had against Ohio State in late January, this soon-to-be lottery pick has had a flair for the dramatic as of late.
No. 8: Drew Timme, Gonzaga (Previous Rank: 4)
17.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.0 BPG
No. 7: Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga (Previous Rank: 10)
14.5 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 3.3 BPG, 2.0 APG, 46.6 3P%
About a month ago, I was torn between Purdue's Jaden Ivey, Zach Edey and Trevion Williams in this general range of the rankings. But now the inability to decide whether Drew Timme or Chet Holmgren is actually Gonzaga's most valuable player is keeping both of those stars out of the top five.
Timme was the preseason favorite and has been more than fine. He's not as consistently dominant as we expected, but he has been pretty darn good when Gonzaga actually needs him. The Zags have played in just eight games decided by 20 points or fewer, and Timme has averaged 20.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists in those contests.
Holmgren, meanwhile, is leaving one heck of an impression on the WCC in what will surely be his only year of college hoops. In 10 conference games, he has averaged 16.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.1 blocks while shooting 21-of-36 (58.3 percent) from three-point range. He exploded for 20 points, 17 rebounds, six assists and five blocks in a recent blowout win at BYU.
The young unicorn gets the nod for now, but the season-ending road trip through San Francisco and Saint Mary's should determine which Zag ultimately lands among the five finalists.
No. 6: Kofi Cockburn, Illinois (Previous Rank: 11)
21.5 PPG, 11.4 RPG
It sure didn't take long for the 11th-place ranking on the morning of Feb. 2 to look dumb, because Cockburn went out that night and racked up 37 points (16-of-19 from the field) and 12 rebounds in a convincing win over Wisconsin.
I still have a hard time justifying putting him in the top five, though, because he was pretty well neutralized in both losses to Purdue, as well as a December loss to Arizona—the three games Illinois has played against an opponent that also has a formidable center. (Michigan's Hunter Dickinson was out when the Illini faced the Wolverines.) But closing out February against Michigan State (Marcus Bingham Jr.), Ohio State (E.J. Liddell) and Michigan (Dickinson) will give Cockburn a chance to erase that narrative and make a push for No. 1.
Season Stats: 11.6 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 4.6 BPG, 1.0 SPG
Previous Rank: 7
Jabari Smith Jr. is possibly (and deservedly) going to be the first Auburn player picked in the 2022 NBA draft, but Walker Kessler is the Tigers' MVP.
In 15 games played since mid-December, Kessler is averaging 13.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and a mind-boggling 5.4 blocks. If we trim that down even further to just the past nine games—thereby eliminating the back-to-back games against Alabama and Florida in mid-January in which he fouled out with a subpar stat line—Kessler is sitting at 15.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 5.8 blocks.
Just so we're clear, he's doing this against a formidable schedule. The SEC is arguably the second-best conference in the country, and the three non-SEC games in the past 15 were against NCAA tournament candidates Oklahoma, Murray State and Saint Louis.
Kessler had a triple-double (16 points, 11 blocks, 10 rebounds) in Auburn's SEC opener against LSU. He had another one (12 points, 11 rebounds, 12 blocks) this past Saturday in a win over Texas A&M.
Not a single player in the country had a points-rebounds-blocks triple-double in the entire 2020-21 season, and per Sports Reference, Kessler is the only player to record multiple points-rebounds-blocks triple-doubles since at least the start of the 2010-11 season.
Is it enough to unseat Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe as the SEC POY? Probably not, unless the big Wildcat sputters to the finish line. But Kessler deserves to be a near-unanimous first-team All-American if the season ended today.
(Good thing the Wooden Award voters are still allowed to choose players who did not appear on the "late season top 20 watch list" at the end of January, because Kessler's absence from that list was a horrendous snub.)
Season Stats: 20.3 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.3 SPG, 33.7 3P%
Previous Rank: 2
Two weeks ago, I questioned whether Johnny Davis had enough gas left in the tank to get his National Player of the Year campaign across the finish line. He had scored at least 13 points in every game played, but night after night as the clear No. 1 focus of opposing defenses was taking quite the toll on his efficiency.
Since then, he has oscillated between duds and gems.
In his first game after I dropped him from No. 1 to No. 2 in these rankings, Davis laid a gigantic egg in a 51-49 home win over Penn State. He shot 2-of-13 from the field, did not attempt a single free throw and finished with just four points.
He bounced back in a huge way three days later for 25 points (on just 11 field-goal attempts) in a critical road win over Michigan State. But in the next game after that, Davis was blanketed by Caleb McConnell and ended up with just 11 points and four turnovers in a home loss to Rutgers.
Fortunately for Wisconsin and for his NPOY campaign, that back-and-forth campaign continued in a huge way at Indiana on Tuesday night. Davis scored Wisconsin's final 13 points, finishing with 30 and 12 rebounds in a come-from-behind victory.
But going "one step forward, one step backward" for too long is a fine way to dance right out of the NPOY picture.
Davis is absolutely still in the mix for National Player of the Year. Depending on whom you ask, he even still has a slight leg up on the likes of Kofi Cockburn, E.J. Liddell, Jaden Ivey, Zach Edey, Keegan Murray, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Hunter Dickinson in the ridiculously loaded race for Big Ten Player of the Year, if only because of the quartet of memorable Herculean performances he has had this season.
But a gap between Davis and those other stars that once seemed as wide as the Grand Canyon has now completely vanished.
Season Stats: 19.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.6 APG, 43.5 3P%
Previous Rank: 3
Over his past five games, Ochai Agbaji has averaged just 14.5 points while shooting 8-of-29 (27.6 percent) from three-point range.
However, all five of those games came against opponents who currently rank top 30 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, so we're more willing to forgive his recent struggles than we were Johnny Davis' shortcomings against the likes of Nebraska, Penn State and Rutgers.
All the same, Agbaji has definitely lost some ground on Oscar Tshiebwe. There is still one colossal opportunity for Agbaji to make things interesting again, though.
He had 18 points and nine rebounds in the Feb. 5 blowout of Baylor, and a similar (or better) performance in a road win over the Bears on the Feb. 26 would be worth its weight in gold.
If that happens, then you're talking about the MVP of the team likely headed for an outright regular-season title in the best conference in the country, as well as a guy who would add that night's performance to a season in which he already had a 37-point gem against Texas Tech, a 29-point season opener against Michigan State and a bunch of other strong showings in quality wins.
Unless he drops 40 in Waco next Saturday, Agbaji would still be at the mercy of Tshiebwe and Kentucky slowing down to some extent. But that's his chance to re-apply some serious pressure to the big Wildcat.
Season Stats: 20.1 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 2.9 APG, 2.5 BPG, 39.2 3P%
Previous Rank: 5
What if Johnny Davis—in addition to averaging around 20 points, eight rebounds and three assists—also blocked 2.5 shots per game?
Well, you'd have E.J. Liddell.
I mean, not really. But, statistically, the two stars entered play on Tuesday nearly identical in points, rebounds and assists, and they are both the clear-cut, go-to options for their respective Big Ten-title-contending offenses.
Liddell simply blocks (way) more shots than Davis, has significantly better effective field-goal and true shooting percentages than Davis and, if anything, actually seems to be gaining steam as we approach the finish line.
Liddell has put up 21.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.9 blocks while shooting 46 percent from three-point range over his past nine games, which includes a 46-point blowout of IUPUI in which he wasn't asked to do much. He was massive in Saturday's road win over Michigan—the Buckeyes' first quality road win of the season—out-dueling Hunter Dickinson to the tune of 28 points and three blocks.
If he continues to thrive, it's going to come at the expense of a bunch of other NPOY candidates. Ohio State gets Iowa (Keegan Murray) on Saturday, Indiana (Trayce Jackson-Davis) on Monday and Illinois (Kofi Cockburn) next Thursday before then closing the regular season with back-to-back games against Michigan State and Michigan.
I thought those early January duds against Nebraska and Indiana were going to be too much for Liddell to come back from to win the Wooden Award. But he has been excellent over the past month and could be three more good weeks away from overtaking Big O as the favorite.
Season Stats: 16.4 PPG, 15.3 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 1.4 BPG, 1.1 APG
Previous Rank: 1
You're never going to believe this, but Oscar Tshiebwe got a few more double-doubles since we last visited these rankings.
In fact, he had 27 points, 10 offensive rebounds and nine defensive rebounds in Saturday's 78-57 win over Florida. He also went for 10 and 15 in a road win over Alabama and racked up 18 and 14 against South Carolina.
Tshiebwe entered Tuesday's matchup with Tennessee on an eight-game streak of at least 14 rebounds, during which time he somehow increased his season average from 14.9 to 15.3.
But while the entire college basketball world seems to have taken notice of Tshiebwe's historic rebounding pace, have you realized what an impact he's making on the defensive end of the court, too?
Eight straight games with 14 rebounds is amazing, but when is the last time a 6'9", 255-pound center had a nine-game streak of multiple steals? Tshiebwe is averaging a combined 4.6 blocks and steals during that nine-game run—while, you know, still averaging more rebounds per game than the rest of Kentucky's starting lineup combined.
This race isn't over yet. Far from it. E.J. Liddell could torch a bunch of solid Big Ten frontcourts. Johnny Davis could catch fire again. Ochai Agbaji could propel Kansas back to a No. 1 seed. Walker Kessler could kick Tshiebwe's butt in the SEC championship. Or Big O could just suddenly string together a few rough performances to open the door to any number of challengers.
But if you're naming a National Player of the Year today, Tshiebwe is one of the top two candidates, and he ain't in second place.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics are from KenPom.com and Sports Reference and are current through the start of play on Tuesday, Feb. 15.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.
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