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Posted: Wednesday January 20, 2010 2:44PM; Updated: Wednesday January 20, 2010 3:06PM
Seth Davis

Early awards debates, legitimate title contenders and much more

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Damion James
Versatile forward Damion James is the centerpiece of the 17-1 Longhorns.
Greg Nelson/SI

What is it about meaningless awards that give our life so much meaning?

Each Monday, every conference announces its player and rookie of the week awards, to be followed by end-of-year awards for player, rookie and coach. The season also ends with a slew of conference awards for player, rookie and coach, joined of course by a bevy of all-conference and All-America teams (including the all-important All-Glue Team). It never ceases to amaze me how much time, energy and space is devoted to what is really a silly and subjective exercise. And thank goodness for that. Otherwise, a guy like me would have to go out and get a real job.

Though there is no single award in college basketball that comes close to matching the hype of football's Heisman Trophy, the debates over national player and coach of the year override any other discussions. Those debates have already begun in earnest, as evidenced by the many e-mails I received about them this week. To wit:

All I hear about is John Wall for player of the year. It sounds like he pretty much has it sewn up. What about Damion James? He has the same number of ppg, better rpg, but less apg and half as many turnovers and more blocks. He's definitely the leader on a very talented Texas team. I think he deserves more love.
-- Jason, Austin, Texas

Should we just engrave the coach of the year award with Jamie Dixon's name? What he has done this year is astounding. A 4-0 start in the Big East with road wins at Cuse, Conn and Cincy. The guy loses 4 or 5 starters to pro ball (to in the NBA) and his team doesn't miss a beat. He is winning with players that Cuse or Conn wouldn't even recruit. Are you ready to jump on the Pitt bandwagon yet?
-- Sean Epstein, Pittsburgh

Jason's question is very timely, even though James played poorly in the Longhorns' loss at Kansas State Monday night. I would say Wall is still the man to beat, but while many of us nattering nabobs had proclaimed him to be the runaway favorite, there is no question he has come back to the pack -- and there is a case to be made that James is the leader of that pack. Over his last four games, Wall has averaged 16.5 points on 42.6 percent shooting, but he also has 17 turnovers to go with 19 assists. Meanwhile, in the four games before his nine-point, seven-rebound outing at Kansas State, James averaged 22.3 points (on 54.2 percent shooting) and 12.3 rebounds. Overall, their numbers are very similar: Wall is averaging 17.1 points, James is scoring 17.3. Wall obviously has more assists and James more rebounds, but surprisingly it is James who has the higher three-point percentage: 37.0 percent to Wall's 34.0. You also have to wonder how many voters will give James an edge because he's a senior, even though he only came back to Austin this year because he wasn't projected as a high enough draft pick.

Of course, neither might end up winning the award because Ohio State's Evan Turner is clearly the best all-around player in college basketball. Others have thrown Syracuse's Wesley Johnson and Duke's Jon Scheyer into the mix, but I don't think those guys will end up posting POY kind of numbers. Kansas' Sherron Collins will draw some consideration if he keeps up his current pace, but my personal sleeper is Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds.

As for the COY, there is no doubt Dixon has done a terrific job at Pitt, but I am a wait-and-see kind of guy. The Panthers' win at Syracuse was as good a win as any team has had this season, and while I would never pooh-pooh a road win inside the conference, their subsequent victories at Cincinnati and UConn, plus their overtime comeback win at home over Louisville, do not include a win over another team that is currently ranked. They've got Georgetown at home tonight, so maybe I won't be as skeptical if they win that, but I just want to see how they play over the long haul before I do any anointing.

But really, is the case for Dixon that much stronger than the case for Kansas State's Frank Martin? Why not Jim Boeheim, whose team started the season unranked but is now ranked ahead of both of them? BYU's Dave Rose has the Cougars off to their best start in more than two decades despite having to overcome pancreatic cancer in the offseason. The criteria for COY is very ill-defined, but too often we writers vote for the guy who most exceeded our own expectations. In other words, the more wrong we were, the better job a guy has done.

But if you really think about it, this thing shouldn't even be close. (WARNING!! SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT!!!) As I said on my new show Courtside on CBS College Sports this week, this should be the easiest COY race to handicap in the last 10 years. Just think for a minute what John Calipari is doing at Kentucky. He took over a school that was demoralized after not making the NCAA tournament and the firing of Billy Gillispie, and he instantly transformed it into a favorite to win the national championship. In many respects, what Dixon is doing is a lot easier because he has been at Pitt for several years and therefore has had a long time to recruit and develop players who benefited from learning from the examples of older players who came before. Calipari had none of that when he got to Lexington.

I've always felt that people didn't give nearly enough weight to recruiting when voting for COY -- even though everyone recognizes it is by far the most important part of the job. Not only did Calipari bring in the best freshman class in the nation (whatever you think about his methods), but he had to install a new system with the returning vets and take the whole show against a very demanding schedule. Despite all this, he is the coach of the last remaining unbeaten team in America and the team that will surely ascend to the No. 1 ranking if it beats Arkansas at home on Saturday. You can dope out this contest any way you want, but from where I type, the choice for coach of the year is easy.

I'm sure this is not the end of those debates -- I can just hear the dissenters pecking away at their keyboards now -- so I look forward to updating my take the rest of the season.

In the meantime, let's dip into the rest of the mailbag:

The group of legitimate national championship contenders is very small this year. I really don't see a team other than Texas, Kansas, Kentucky, 'Nova or Syracuse being able to sustain a run in March to win it all. Every other team has pretty big flaws. Duke has the same problems it always has -- shoots too many threes and is not very athletic. Michigan State has no inside game. Purdue just doesn't have the IT factor or any real star power. Tennessee and Georgetown lack depth. Gonzaga and Pitt can never get it over the hump come tourney time. Thoughts?
-- Brian Callahan, Washington, D.C.

While I have taken over Grant Wahl's duties on the Mailbag, I haven't yet assumed ownership of his Magic Eight. (I believe you have to go to court for that.) But if you're going to put together a Magic Five, Brian has come up with the correct quintet. The one quibble I would have is with his elimination of Duke, which I would consider 5-A. The Blue Devils may be efficient from behind the three-point line (they're second in the ACC in both percentage and makes), but this team butters its bread with defense and rebounding -- the two elements you most need to be successful in the tournament.

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