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February 22, 2007

Handicapping the Player of the Year races

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With the regular season ending in less than two weeks, let's take a look at how conference player of the year races are shaping up across the country.

Some of the contenders are obvious, but a few dark horses are included for those who love to root for the underdog.

In addition, there are predictions regarding who will win the player of the year award along with an opinion about who should receive the honor.

Hope you enjoy.

Top contenders: Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina; Jared Dudley, Boston College.

Dark horses: Sean Singletary, Virginia; J.R. Reynolds, Virginia

The skinny: Dudley leads the league in scoring (19.7 points per game) and rebounding (8.5 per game), something no one has done in the ACC since North Carolina's Antawn Jamison in 1998. It doesn't hurt that the Eagles are in contention for the league title. Dudley has been as consistent as humanly possible in ACC play, scoring less than 13 points only once, with eight games of 20 or more. It's Dudley's award to lose, but his team's recent swoon could allow room for someone to overtake him.

Hansbrough is third in the league in scoring (18.5) and fourth in rebounding (7.7), not bad when you consider he has much more help up front (read: Brandan Wright) than he did a year ago. Still, he hasn't done much on the boards recently, including a five-game stretch in which he averaged 5.8 rebounds. Another thing that hurts his chances: Three of his best games in conference play came in the Tar Heels' three losses.

Singletary is fourth in the league in scoring (18.4), fifth in assists (4.8), second in free-throw percentage (.895), second in 3-pointers made (66) and second in 3-point percentage (.410). The Cavaliers (18-7, 9-3) have been a major surprise, too. Singletary's drawbacks are that his scoring average is down in league play (16.7), and teammate J.R. Reynolds could siphon off votes.

If Virginia wins out, Reynolds could walk away with the ACC's top honor. He's averaging 21.5 points per game in the conference, 18.4 overall (same as Singletary). He also was at his best when the Cavaliers won league games on the road. He scored 29 points at N.C. State, 18 at Clemson and 23 at Maryland. Reynolds also is averaging 4.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game.

My pick: Dudley.

The ACC will pick: Hansbrough, unless the Eagles win out.

Big East
Top contender: Aaron Gray, Pittsburgh.

Dark horses: Roy Hibbert, Georgetown; Herbert Hill, Providence.

The skinny: It's almost as if no one wants to win this award. It's easier to talk about the players in the Big East who haven't lived up to expectations this season (read: Dominic James) than it is to find someone worthy.

The big Pittsburgh center should bag this one with relative ease, though he went down with an ankle sprain on Saturday against Providence and didn't play on Monday night against Seton Hall. Still, he's averaging a double-double (14.5 points, 10 rebounds), and his team has led the conference standings all season.

Hibbert makes the list only because his team is among the hottest in the country at the moment. His numbers are modest (13.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.7 blocks), but he has played very well during the Hoyas' current nine-game winning streak. He won't win because of his pair of games against Villanova. The Wildcats put him on ice (six points and six rebounds total).

The Friars' big man has been at his best in league play. He actually leads the Big East in scoring (18.6) in conference games and is third in rebounding (9.4) in conference games. Too bad Providence (16-9, 6-6) is mired in the middle of the standings.

My pick: Hibbert, if Georgetown beats Pittsburgh on Saturday and Hibbert plays well.

The Big East will pick: Gray.

Big Ten
Top contenders: Alando Tucker, Wisconsin; Greg Oden, Ohio State.

Dark horses: None.

The skinny: Even if the Buckeyes beat the Badgers on Sunday, this one belongs to Tucker. UW (26-3, 12-2) would be a middle-of-the-road team without him. He's second in the Big Ten in scoring and 14th in rebounding. He has scored in double figures in every game this season. He scored at least 20 points in seven consecutive games before scoring 16 points in a 64-55 loss to Michigan State on Tuesday. He had 28 at Marquette and 32 against Pittsburgh.

Wisconsin beat Ohio State 72-69 on Jan. 9 in Madison. Tucker had 17 points, six rebounds and four assists. Oden had 10 points, seven rebounds and six blocks. The 7-foot freshman has been a more consistent scorer since. Remember, the loss to the Badgers was only Oden's ninth game since returning from wrist surgery. He has been dominant at times on defense (3.6 blocks). However, he won't wrest the player of the year honors from a senior who gets it done night in and night out despite everyone knowing he's the go-to guy.

My pick: Tucker.

The Big Ten will pick: Tucker.

Big 12
Top contender: Kevin Durant, Texas;

Dark horses: Acie Law, Texas A&M; Mario Boggan, Oklahoma State.

The skinny: There is no race here. You can go ahead and engrave the trophy for sensational Longhorns freshman Durant. He leads the league in scoring (24.7) and rebounding (11.5), and is well ahead of his nearest pursuers in both categories. The last freshman to win Big 12/Big Eight player of the year honors was Oklahoma's Wayman Tisdale in 1983, so this is no ordinary feat. The fact is Durant shouldn't just win this honor: He's a threat to be the national player of the year.

I mention Law and Boggan only because they deserve some recognition. Boggan is second in the league in scoring (20.8) and fourth in rebounding (7.9), and Law has been the catalyst for the Aggies (22-4, 10-2). The A&M guard is averaging 17.0 points and 5.5 assists.

My pick: Durant.

The Big 12 will pick: Durant.

Top contenders: Arron Afflalo, UCLA; Darren Collison, UCLA.

Dark horses: Nick Young, USC; Aaron Brooks, Oregon.

The skinny: The Bruins are the best team in the Pac-10, so there's a good chance the league POY is coming out of Los Angeles. But which Bruin would you pick? Each is essential to the success of Ben Howland's team. Afflalo, a shooting guard, is the leading scorer at 17.5 points per game (second in the league). He's also a top-notch defender. Collison, a point guard, is second on the team in scoring at 13.3 points per game (14th in the league). He's also the Bruins' top assist man and is second in the Pac-10 with 6.0 per game. On top of that, Collison leads the conference in steals. Collison is more the "glue" guy, but Afflalo has been 26 percent of the Bruins' scoring output in conference games.

Young has been a more consistent performer since the conference season started. He is the leading scorer for the Trojans (19-8, 9-5), who have played better than expected. Young is averaging 17.2 points and 4.7 rebounds. He also is shooting a stellar 47.7 percent from 3-point range. Young was outstanding in both games against Arizona (30 and 26 points), but faltered in his team's eight losses (13.0 points).

Brooks looked like a surefire bet for POY honors three weeks into January. He was lighting up the conference and hitting clutch shots like he was channeling Michael Jordan. He had a three-game stretch in which he had the game-winner over then-No. 1 UCLA, hit a pair of free throws in the waning seconds to seal off Arizona State then hit a shot off the glass over a pair of defenders with 2 seconds to play to beat Arizona. But he recently has hit the skids - and so have the Ducks. Oregon has lost six of its last eight, and Brooks all but disappeared in two of those games. He scored five points on 1-for-8 shooting in 34 minutes against Arizona State. He followed that up with six points on 2-for-14 shooting in 37 minutes against Arizona.

My pick: Collison.

The Pac-10 will pick: Afflalo.

Top contenders: Taurean Green, Florida; Joakim Noah, Florida; Corey Brewer, Florida; Derrick Byars, Vanderbilt

Dark horses: Jamont Gordon, Mississippi State; Randolph Morris, Kentucky.

The skinny: The third-ranked Gators are so deep and talented that they don't depend on one guy. They seem to be at their best when Green is hitting shots and playing under control. He is UF's leading scorer at 13.3 points per game, just ahead of Brewer (13.0) and Noah (12.7). Green also is 12th in the league in assists, and he is the No. 1 free-throw shooter - not something that should be underestimated for a point guard. Noah, talked about as a potential No. 1 overall NBA pick after his breakout NCAA Tournament last season, hasn't quite lived up to expectations. He's sixth in the league in rebounding and only eighth in blocks. Brewer is a big-time defender who sometimes takes on the scoring load when other guys can't get their shots. He does a little bit of everything for the Gators, but perhaps not enough of any one thing to be the POY.

The Gators could split enough votes to allow anyone else in, and the most likely guy is Byars. A transfer from Virginia a couple of years ago, the senior is enjoying a breakout season. He's averaging 16.8 points (fourth in the league), 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game. Byars has been at his best in big games, too, with 21 and 24 in the two meetings against Florida and 23 in a win at Kentucky. More importantly, he has led Vanderbilt (18-8, 8-4) to the second-best record in the SEC, something no one saw coming.

Neither Gordon nor Morris has much of a chance. The Mississippi State standout is in the SEC's top 10 in scoring, rebounding and assists - something no other player in the league can claim. Morris has been much improved, averaging 15.6 points and 7.6 rebounds. If the Wildcats win out he could be a factor.

My pick: Byars.

The SEC will pick: A Gator.

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