Bouldin, Fredette top best non-BCS conference players; more mail
What does North Carolina need to do to make the NCAA tournament?
Record aside, new coach Sean Miller is doing an outstanding job at Arizona
One major-conference player who deserves far more national attention
It's not easy to come up with good ideas for column leads. (I only make it look easy.) So I am always grateful to all you Hoop Thinkers for coming up with terrific suggestions to start the day off right. So let's tip off this week's Mailbag with an intriguing question from Shane Hale of Las Vegas:
As I read your midseason awards, I noticed you didn't mention any non-BCS conference candidates for the Player of the Year award. It made me think of all of the sensational non-BCS players. In the near future, do you see any non-BCS players that could be the player of the year? If so, who?
First, I want to commend Shane for asking me to look at "non-BCS conferences" as opposed to "mid-majors." That term is very hard to define and you always insult people by including them. (My producers at CBS encourage me to use the phrase "non-power conference schools," which is a mouthful.) I tend to define "mid-major" as a school that competes in a non-BCS conference, but that raises two problems. One, most intelligent people rightly despise the BCS. Second, that category includes a few schools like Memphis, Xavier and Gonzaga, which have better facilities, resources and recent success in the NCAA tournament than a lot of schools from the Big Six.
As for Shane's question, you might think it's close to impossible for a player from one of those non-BCS schools to win POY, but a quick check of the past winners of the Wooden and/or Naismith awards reveals a surprisingly long list: Andrew Bogut, Utah, 2005; Jameer Nelson, Saint Joseph's, 2004; Marcus Camby, UMass, 1996; Larry Johnson, UNLV, 1991; Lionel Simmons, LaSalle, 1990; David Robinson, Navy, 1987; and Larry Bird, Indiana State, 1979. Will someone join that exclusive club this year?
My answer: Not bloody likely. But here is how I would rank the top six candidates from non-BCS colleges:
1. Matt Bouldin, 6-foot-5 senior guard, Gonzaga. Leads the 13th-ranked Zags in points, assists, steals, minutes and free throw percentage. Might be the most versatile player in America, and that includes Evan Turner.
2. Jimmer Fredette, 6-2 junior guard, BYU. A terrific point guard who can really score. Ask Arizona, which saw Fredette explode for 49 points on Dec. 28. Fredette leads the Mountain West in scoring (20.2 ppg) and free throw percentage (89.7), and he is ranked second in the league in assists (5.0) and seventh in steals (1.53).
3. Luke Babbitt, 6-9 sophomore forward, Nevada. Ranks third in the WAC in scoring (21.5), second in rebounding (10.0) and 10th in steals (1.2). A highly-skilled big man who can score around the rim and is also shooting 40.8 percent from three-point range.
4. Omar Samhan, 6-11 senior center, Saint Mary's. A devastating post player who leads the WCC in points (21.6), rebounds (10.7) and blocks (2.5). Believe me, there are plenty of BCS schools who would love to have a big stud like this in the middle.
5. Darington Hobson, 6-7 junior forward, New Mexico. A smooth, crafty lefty whose versatility has lifted the Lobos to the No. 23 ranking in this week's AP poll. Hobson ranks third in the Mountain West in rebounding (8.1), fourth in scoring (15.3) and fifth in assists (4.1).
6. Ryan Wittman, 6-6 senior guard, Cornell. There may be nobody in the country I'd rather have taking a last-second shot than Wittman. He drilled a 30-footer at the buzzer to beat Davidson in overtime and cap off a 30-point effort. Wittman, whose father, Randy, was a Big Ten player of the year at Indiana and is the former coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, is second in the Ivy League in points (18.2), field goal percentage (47.5), three-point percentage (42.2) and free throw percentage (86.0).
Great players all, but I don't think anyone will be able to claim national POY honors. However, one thing that is even more infrequent than a non-BCS player winning a POY award is a freshman winning it. That is a list of one: Kevin Durant, Texas, 2007. I've got a feeling another name will be added in a couple of months.
Now on to the rest of the 'Bag ...
As things currently stand, UNC is 12-7. They have 12 games remaining in the regular season -- all ACC contests. While ACC play this season suggests anything can happen during the conference tournament, let us assume that UNC wins no more than one game in Greensboro. That being the hypothetical case, how many games must UNC win the balance of the regular season to make the NCAA tournament? The Tar Heels have marquee wins over Michigan State and Ohio State, but given their schedule, could they go sub-.500 in ACC play?
This was written before the Tar Heels' road win at N.C. State Tuesday night, but even so the panic among North Carolina fans has been grossly premature. In the first place, did you really expect this to be one of the top teams in the country given all they lost from last season? I fear writer-voters like myself did you all a disservice by voting UNC sixth in the preseason AP poll. Adil makes a good point about their wins over Ohio State (with a healthy Evan Turner) and Michigan State, so they have more margin for error than people are recognizing. Plus, not nearly enough is being said about how much injuries have contributed this recent rough patch. That is something the selection committee will definitely take into consideration.
If this team can stay healthy, and assuming the young guys improve, I think they'll get to .500 in the ACC, which should put them into the tournament with room to spare. So take a deep breath, Tar Heel Nation. All will be well in due time.