Bestowing my major year-end awards for Big Six conferences
Critics slammed Harrison Barnes early, but he developed into the ACC's top frosh
UConn's Kemba Walker edges out Notre Dame's Ben Hansbrough as Big East POY
What Sean Miller has done in two short years at Arizona is truly remarkable
The hard work is done. The fun stuff is about to begin. So as we bid adieu to the 2010-11 regular season, your resident Hoop Thinker is ready to bestow the major year-end awards in each of the Big Six conferences. Herewith:
Player of the Year: Nolan Smith, senior guard, Duke
Smith didn't quite complete his bid to become the first player in ACC history to lead the league in points and assists -- but he was close. He finished first in scoring (23.4) in conference games and was second in assists to North Carolina freshman Kendall Marshall. As was the case for every Blue Devil, Smith's role changed dramatically when point guard Kyrie Irving was lost for the season in December, but he handled his responsibilities extremely well. He also ranked second in the conference in free-throw percentage (88.2), fifth in steals (1.5) and eighth in field-goal percentage.
Freshman of the Year: Harrison Barnes, forward, North Carolina
It's mystifying how quick so many people labeled Barnes a disappointment for not looking like LeBron right out of the gate. But he ended up having an all-ACC caliber season, leading the team and ranking seventh in the conference in scoring at 15.8 points per game, while draining 43.1 percent of his shots in league games.
Coach of the Year: Roy Williams, North Carolina
I would have picked Williams even if the Tar Heels had lost to Duke on Saturday, but that win made him an especially easy choice. This team finished ninth in the conference last season and got off to a shaky start, yet Williams righted the ship and piloted the Heels to an outright ACC regular season title. Before this season, no team that had finished below sixth in the league came back to win the conference the following year.
Player of the Year: Kemba Walker, junior guard, UConn
Statistically, this is a close call between Walker and Notre Dame's Ben Hansbrough. In league games, Walker is averaging 21.0 points, 4.7 assists, 1.7 steals. Hansbrough is averaging 20.6 points, 4.3 assists, 1.6 steals. I went with Walker because he was surrounded by far less experienced players. UConn ended up with a .500 record in the Big East, but Walker carried this team as far as it could possibly go. The Huskies could have never won a tough game on the road with Walker having fouled out with eight minutes to play, the way Notre Dame did at UConn -- sans Hansbrough -- on Saturday.
Freshman of the Year: Shabazz Napier, guard, UConn
It's hard to think of any good freshmen in the Big East, much less one who warranted being named the best. UConn was the league's only top team that relied heavily on freshmen. I went with Napier over his teammate Jeremy Lamb because Napier is a better defender and played a more valuable role as Walker's backup at the point. Napier was second on the team in assists (3.1) and finished seventh in the conference in steals (1.66).
Coach of the Year: Mike Brey, Notre Dame
This is the hardest choice on the board, but I went with Brey for two reasons: First, while I don't like to pick someone for COY just because he exceeded preseason expectations, it is amazing the Fighting Irish did not receive a single preseason top 25 vote in either poll -- yet here they are in the hunt for a No. 1 seed. Second, Notre Dame's excellence extends well beyond this season. It is the result of Brey's multi-year strategy to use transfers and redshirting to build the oldest, strongest roster in the Big East. The tactic has paid huge dividends and will continue to pay off for several years.
Player of the Year: JaJuan Johnson, senior forward, Purdue
It was not easy choosing between Johnson and Jared Sullinger. The Ohio State center staked a lead early on, but Johnson has been the better player down the stretch. In Big Ten games, Johnson averaged 20.7 points to Sullinger's 16.8, although Sullinger did average 1.2 more rebounds. Johnson also led the league in blocks (2.5), was third in free-throw percentage (87.6) and tied for 12th in steals (0.94). Plus, while Sullinger was Ohio State's most talented player, he did not have to be his team's leader. Johnson did.
Freshman of the Year: Jared Sullinger, center, Ohio State
Easy choice. The Big Fella ranked second in the Big Ten in rebounding, seventh in scoring and ninth in field-goal percentage while sinking 70.2 percent of his free throws. He has been credited with 38 assists this season, but he had a lot more "hockey" assists -- passes out of double teams that led to passes that led to baskets. His intelligence and maturity is as high as I've seen in a freshman in a long, long time.
Coach of the Year: Matt Painter, Purdue
Very few programs could withstand an injury to a player like Robbie Hummel and still be the runner-up behind the country's No. 1 team. The Boilermakers had a great year because Painter put a culture in place that's built around defense and toughness. He has also done a terrific job developing Johnson and E'Twaun Moore over the last four years.
Player of the Year: Jacob Pullen, senior guard, Kansas State
It was a tough call between Pullen and Kansas forward Marcus Morris, who was named conference POY by the coaches, but Pullen gets my vote for turning around Kansas State's season through the sheer force of his will. He also has great numbers, leading the Big 12 in scoring (21.4), while ranking in the top 10 in steals (1.5), field-goal percentage (41.6, best among all Big 12 guards), assists (3.38), free-throw percentage (79.5), three-point percentage (40.2) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.06-to-1).
Freshman of the Year: Tristan Thompson, forward, Texas
Baylor's Perry Jones III also put up solid numbers, but Thompson was the more consistent player. He is also a far better defensive player, leading the league in blocked shots at 2.5 per game. (Jones averaged fewer than one block per game, which is criminal given his size, length and athleticism.) Thompson tied for third in the league in rebounding (7.6) and was 11th in scoring (14.6) and fourth in field-goal percentage (55.7).
Coach of the Year: Bill Self, Kansas
The Jayhawks lost two veteran starters who had won an NCAA championship in Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, plus a lottery pick in Xavier Henry. They had to integrate a freshman guard who missed the first nine games of the season. Plus, they had to deal with several injuries, suspensions to Mario Little and Tyshawn Taylor and a devastating tragedy when sophomore forward Thomas Robinson's mother unexpectedly died (just weeks after two grandparents passed away). Yet, all they did was win all but two games, capture their seventh consecutive Big 12 regular season title and essentially lock up a No. 1 seed. Self gets paid handsomely, and this season he earned every penny.
Player of the Year: Derrick Williams, sophomore forward, Arizona
For much of the season, Williams was locked in a dead heat with Washington guard Isaiah Thomas, but Williams pulled away convincingly down the stretch. Besides being a great scorer (ranked third in the Pac-10 at 18.5 ppg) and rebounder (fifth at 9.0), Williams would have been the top three-point shooter in the league by 12 percentage points if he had made the required 1.0 trey per game. (He fell a hair short, sinking 29 three-pointers in 31 games.) He is a dynamic talent who will likely be a top-five pick in the NBA draft in June.
Freshman of the Year: Allen Crabbe, guard, Cal
Crabbe worked his magic under the radar this season, but people are going to start paying attention very soon. He has excellent size and touch, and he maximizes both. In league games Crabbe led the Pac-10 in three-point shooting (48.1) and minutes played (36.7), and he ranked sixth in scoring (16.4) and seventh in free-throw shooting (82.1). He also grabbed 5.8 rebounds per game, ranking 14th.
Coach of the Year: Sean Miller, Arizona
What Miller has done in two short years in Tucson is truly remarkable. Yes, he was fortunate to have several recruits (especially Williams) fall into his lap shortly after taking the job, but he has done a masterful job camouflaging Arizona's deficiencies on the perimeter. Despite being a very young team, the Wildcats played consistent defense and had very few nights where they didn't show up. The future is bright in Tucson, but the present is looking pretty good, too.
Player of the Year: Chandler Parsons, senior forward, Florida
A guy has to be pretty special to be the fourth-leading scorer on his own team and still win POY. Parson's 11.4 points per game doesn't jump out at you (though it's not far behind the Gators' leading scorer, Erving Walker, who averages 14.5). However, Parsons leads his team in rebounds (7.8), assists (3.6) and three-point percentage (38.1). That is an unusual combination, and it is the main reason the Gators won the SEC East by a whopping three games. Kentucky's Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight and Vanderbilt's John Jenkins put up POY-worthy numbers, but Parsons was the best player on what was by far the best team in the league. To the victor goes the spoils.
Freshman of the Year: Brandon Knight, point guard, Kentucky
This was a pretty competitive category with Knight being challenged by his own teammate Terrence Jones as well as Tennessee forward Tobias Harris. Knight actually averaged slightly more points than Jones in league games (17.2 to Jones's 17.1), and was third in the league in assists (4.1), eighth in three-point shooting (41.4) and eighth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.4-to-1). He also led the league in minutes at 37.0 per game. Knight plays the hardest position on the floor at a program which brings more attention than any in the country, and he handled it all with aplomb. Knight is a great talent, but he's an even more impressive person.
Coach of the Year: Billy Donovan, Florida
Things did not look so rosy in Gainesville after the Gators lost at home to Jacksonville in late December, but Donovan held things together and steeled his team for a run to the conference crown. This roster does not have the eye-popping talent that some of the division's others teams have, but Florida prevailed thanks to its consistency, stability and efficiency. Donovan has also done a great job managing his roster by developing young reserves like Patric Young and Scottie Wilbekin, without upsetting chemistry.