January 25, 2022

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College basketball player of the year rankings: Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji ahead of E.J. Liddell, Trevion Williams

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Without knowing just how badly college basketball’s schedule will be impacted by COVID cases spiking across the country, we can still say we’re nearly one-third of the way through the season. With that in mind, why not take a peek at the national player of the year race? I’ve identified 10 strong candidates, but will also acknowledge the obvious: there is a chance the eventual winner of the NPOY doesn’t come from this list. 

Here’s who’s been the most statistically impressive and valuable to some of the best teams in the country through the first six weeks of the season. 

Stat line: 22.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 61.9 2-pt%, 48.4 3-pt%
The Jayhawks would not have a reasonable forecast as a potential national champion if Agbaji wasn’t on the roster. The senior shooting guard has gotten appreciably better with each season in college; 2021-22 is the payoff. He’s a smart shooter, an efficient shooter, an alert passer and an improving defender. Everything Kansas does on offense is latched to what Agbaji can produce or help distract the defense with. He’s on the fast track to being a First Team All-American come March.

Stat line: 20.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.0 bpg, 56.0 FG%
Almost every player on this list has MVP-type value to their teams, but I think Liddell is the most vital to his team. I mentioned above that Kansas wouldn’t be a title contender without Agbaji. You take Liddell off of Ohio State and I think the Buckeyes a borderline NCAA Tournament team. Liddell easily rates No. 1 in KenPom.com’s KPOY metric, which clinched me putting him No. 2.    

Stat line: 13.8 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 2.9 apg, 61.2 FG%
I still can’t believe it. One of the best players in the country comes off the bench and averages 21.2 minutes. Look at those Williams splits despite barely playing over half the game. If you go per-40, Williams’ numbers are laughably good: 26.9 points, 17.6 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.5 steals and 7.6 foul-shot attempts. If not for Williams Purdue would have lost back-to-back games vs. Rutgers and NC State; his near triple-double (22 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists) saved the Boilermakers last week vs. the Wolfpack.

Stat line: 19.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 3.4 bpg, 60.2 FG%
Indiana is yet to get a win vs. a probable NCAA Tournament team, but that’s got little to do with how consistent Jackson-Davis has been in what was anticipated to be a huge junior season for the Hoosiers big man. An important factor in this: Jackson-Davis is not foul prone (he commits 1.2 per game) and is good at drawing contact (he ranked 43rd in fouls-drawn rate, per KenPom.com). The Hoosiers have a chance to get back to the NCAAs this season because they have a reliable, traditional veteran big who never takes a play off.

Stat line: 16.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.1 apg, 58.1 FG%
Expecting the freshman? While Paolo Banchero is also firmly in the mix, the truth is Moore has been the more consistent and reliable player. Moore’s efficiency has jumped as well. He’s been overshadowed by his teammate — Banchero could be the No. 1 pick next year — but the real reason Duke has been top-10-good can be credited to Moore’s significant leap as a junior lead guard. 

Stat line: 21.4 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 62.5 FG%
No surprise to see Cockburn’s name on the list. He’s ranked this high even after missing Illinois’ first three games due to a suspension tied to the sale of team gear prior to deciding he was coming back to college. No matter. Cockburn has progressed to be the domineering, modern-era mini-Shaq that so many expected him to be as a junior. The big man’s also drawing 7.7 fouls per 40 minutes, seventh most in the nation.

Stat line: 20.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 37.8 3-pt%
Wisconsin has been better than advertised and it’s obvious that Davis is the reason. Davis did not play in UW’s home game vs. Providence early in the season; the Badgers lost. He didn’t play in UW’s home game vs. Nicholls State this week; the Badgers only won by three. He changes everything for them and has become the breakout player in college hoops. If his efficiency can tick up just a smidge, the Badgers will have an All-American on their roster for the first time since Ethan Happ.

Stat line: 17.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 62.8 FG%
The preseason national player of the year pick hasn’t been as statistically wowing yet, but if you’ve seen GU play against its big-time opponents you’ve seen he’s still the most crucial piece. His knack around the rim remains one-of-a-kind in college hoops; he’ll put many a big into a blender and drop in two like it’s an afternoon run at the Y. Timme is also improved defensively, which he should get more credit for.

Stat line: 16.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 45.6 3-pt%
Smith is the No. 1 player in CBS Sports’ Frosh Watch, currently ahead of Banchero and Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren. It’s deserved. Auburn is 10-1 with the tantalizing Smith not forcing anything. He can score from all three levels, has good instincts around the rim and has put the Tigers in position to be a player in a compelling SEC race. If for whatever reason you’ve not yet seen Smith play, amend that as quickly as possible. He’ll probably be a top-five NBA pick. 

Stat line: 16.3 ppg, 14.2 rpg, 66.7 FG%
Rare is the player these days who can finish a season averaging better than 15 points and 15 rebounds. Tshiebwe’s going to have a shot. The player who told me he remains dedicated to getting, minimally 20 rebounds per night, is Kentucky’s most imposing force. John Calipari upgraded his team’s shooting capabilities this season, but ironically, it’s this traditional big who holds the key to getting UK back into the upper echelon of the SEC and into the NCAA Tournament.

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