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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | January 25, 2021

Tracking 9 leading contenders for the men's college basketball National Player of the Year

College basketball's top 10 preseason Player of the Year candidates

The college basketball season has entered the 2021 portion of the schedule. That means March Madness is just two months away, with conference play in full swing and the top teams and players will begin to separate themselves, if they haven't already.

With more than a month of men's basketball action in the books, I analyzed some of the leading National Player of the Year candidates.

The following players aren't listed in any particular order, other than Iowa's Luka Garza, the lone returning All-American from last season, being listed first. All stats and rankings are current through Jan. 24.

Joseph Cress | USA TODAY Sports Images Iowa's Luka Garza.

Luka Garza, Iowa

Year: Senior
Position: Forward
Stats: 26.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.8 bpg, 1.7 apg; 61.0 FG%, 46.2 3P%
Team record: 12-3 (6-2 Big Ten)
Team AP poll ranking: No. 7

Garza was the lone consensus First or Second Team All-American from last season who returned to school for the 2020-21 season, which made him the preseason favorite to be named National Player of the Year in the spring. He has more than lived up to those lofty expectations. He leads a top-five team in scoring, he's nearly averaging a double-double and he has made 3-pointers at a ridiculous rate through the first month-plus of the season.

Iowa owns the No. 1 adjusted offensive efficiency rating in the country (124.6 points per 100 possessions). That is thanks to a fast-paced, assist-happy offense that is centered around Garza, who's taking roughly 33 percent of the team's shots when he's on the floor. But he certainly warrants such a large share of the Hawkeyes's attempts, as his 133.4 offensive rating ranks No. 22 nationally, through Jan. 24. He's ranked No. 1 in kenpom.com's National Player of the Year standings.

In Iowa's first 15 games, Garza scored at least 30 points six times, including a 41-point game on 14-of-15 shooting against Southern in the second game of the season.

RANKS: Andy Katz ranks the top 10 conferences in men's hoops, right now 

Patrick Gorski | USA Today Sports Images Illinois's Ayo Dosunmu.

Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois

Year: Junior
Position: Guard
Stats: 21.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.9 apg; 49.0 FG%, 38.5 3P%
Team record: 10-5 (6-3 Big Ten)
Team ranking: No. 19

Illinois was a preseason top-10 team in the AP poll and the Illini peaked at No. 5 in the first month of the season, but a challenging non-conference slate and playing in the rigorous Big Ten saw Illinois take a 7-3 record into the New Year. That's by no means a bad record, especially when you consider one loss came to No. 2 Baylor and the other two came by three points on the road, but when the electric Dosunmu is compared to Iowa's Luka Garza, Baylor's Jared Butler or one of Gonzaga's stars, then Illinois' losses could potentially hurt Dosunmu's chances.

That's not to diminish his impressive start to his junior campaign, however. His scoring average has jumped roughly 6.5 points per game from last season and his advanced stats page on kenpom.com looks like a Christmas tree — there are bright, shiny things everywhere. While having a shot percentage that ranks in the top 40 nationally (he takes almost a third of Illinois' shots when he's on the floor), he has still remained efficient, with an offensive rating of 115.7. He's shooting 38.5 percent from behind the arc, which is one of the top 415 percentages nationally, he's drawing 5.3 fouls per 40 minutes and he's arguably a prolific defensive rebounder, despite playing a position that would suggest otherwise.

Against Penn State and Indiana, Dosunmu put up back-to-back 30-point games, which followed a 36-point outburst against Missouri and three double-doubles.

Tim Flores | USA TODAY Sports Images Baylor's Jared Butler.

Jared Butler, Baylor

Year: Junior
Position: Guard
Stats: 17.1 ppg, 5.4 apg, 3.2 rpg; 50.3 FG%, 49.4 3P%
Team record: 14-0 (7-0 Big 12)
Team ranking: No. 2

Butler presents an interesting National Player of the Year case because he's maybe the best and most well-known player on No. 2 Baylor's roster. So if his candidacy is one of "the best player on (potentially) the best team," Butler's got a solid argument for the award.

Butler is the team's primary ball-handler and he commands the highest usage rate on the team (27.1 percent). Baylor's ability to have four players ranked in the top 200 nationally in offensive rating — Flagler (43rd), Teague (89th), Butler (116th) and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (125th) — is at least in part because of Butler being the focal point for defenses and his ability to set up his teammates in spots where they can succeed.

Butler's 32.7-percent assist rate ranks in the top 60 nationally. You could make the case that Baylor is so good and so deep that it might actually limit Butler's per-game numbers at times because the Bears don't always need him to take over games or play more than 30 minutes per game. He's averaging 29.3 minutes per game and he has only played more than 30 minutes in a game just five times this season, including 39 minutes in a road win at TCU, where he scored 28 points.

Butler sits at No. 2 in kenpom.com's National Player of the Year standings.

LAST MARCH: Here's how March Madness contenders are playing compared to last spring

Kevin Jairaj | USA TODAY Sports Images Gonzaga's Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme.

Drew Timme, Gonzaga

Year: Sophomore
Position: Forward
Stats: 18.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 2.1 apg; 61.2 FG%
Team record: 15-0 (6-0 WCC)
Team ranking: No. 1

The biggest threat to Gonzaga's Drew Timme, Jalen Suggs or Corey Kispert winning National Player of the Year is probably one another. Sure, Iowa's Luka Garza is putting up ridiculous numbers, but the Bulldogs beat the Hawkeyes by 11, in addition to three other teams ranked in the top 20 at the time in Kansas, West Virginia and Virginia.

Gonzaga has been ranked No. 1 all season and the Zags might prove to be the best team in the country, which could certainly warrant a Bulldogs player winning the award. But the question would be, which one?

Timme has had the breakout sophomore campaign that many analysts and fans predicted. The 6-10 forward's scoring average has almost doubled from last season. Timme owns the highest usage rate and shot rate on the team, which means the offense generally runs through him when he's on the floor. He's really efficient, too, with a 127.1 offensive rating.

Timme has made 62.7 percent of his shots inside the arc and he draws nearly six fouls per 40 minutes, which has led to him attempting roughly two free throws for every five field-goal attempts.

The sophomore currently ranks fourth in kenpom.com's National Player of the Year standings.

Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga

Year: Freshman
Position: Guard
Stats: 13.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.9 apg; 51.9 FG%, 354.9 3P%
Team record: 15-0 (6-0 WCC)
Team ranking: No. 1

You can mentally copy and paste the first two paragraphs under Timme's name for Suggs, then you might as well do the same for Kispert below, too. Suggs' National Player of the Year case might have some similarities to Baylor's Butler, too. Suggs ranks third on the team in scoring, even if he's often the player with the ball in his hands the most.

His offensive rating is 111.0, he's shooting 34.9 percent from three, nearly 60 percent from 2-point range and his 26.8-percent assist rate ranks in the top 160 nationally. The freshman has played his best when the lights have shined the brightest, too. In his college debut against Kansas, he had 24 points, eight assists, four rebounds and two steals, then he put up 27 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals against Iowa.

Corey Kispert, Gonzaga

Year: Senior
Position: Forward
Stats: 20.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.0 apg; 58.2 FG%, 49.0 3P%
Team record: 15-0 (6-0 WCC)
Team ranking: No. 1

Is there a world in which the leading scorer on the No. 1 team isn't definitively the best National Player of the Year candidate on the team? Just asking for a friend.

Through Jan. 24, Kispert has averaged a team-high 20.6 points per game while ranking fifth in the country in offensive rating (1459), thanks to a 49-percent 3-point percentage, 67.7 percent shooting inside the arc and an 89.4-percent accuracy from the free-throw line.

For now, there's quite literally only four players who are more efficient than Kispert and no one in the country plays for a higher-ranked team than him, and that's a profile that's certainly deserving of serious National Player of the Year consideration.

WATCH: Hear Corey Kispert break down his career night in Gonzaga's rout of Virginia

David Butler II | USA Today Sports Images Villanova's Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova

Year: Sophomore
Position: Forward
Stats: 14.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.9 apg; 50.4 FG%
Team record: 10-1 (5-0 Big East)
Team ranking: No. 3

Robinson-Earl is second on the team in scoring (14.8 points per game) and rebounding (6.7 rebounds per game), while posting an offensive rating of 110.4.

In the first month of the season, Robinson-Earl recorded a 28-point, eight-rebound performance against Arizona State, a 25-point, seven-rebound, six-assist effort against Saint Joseph's and an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double against Boston College.

Marc Lebryk | USA TODAY Sports Images Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis.

Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana

Year: Sophomore
Position: Forward
Stats: 20.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.8 bpg, 1.4 apg; 53.6 FG%
Team record: 9-7 (4-5 Big Ten)
Team ranking: Not ranked

There are two major impediments to Jackson-Davis' National Player of the Year candidacy, and they're related. One is how good Indiana is, or how good Indiana can be in a loaded Big Ten, and the other is the presence of other — better? — National Player of the Year candidates in the conference.

Indiana is just two games above .500 overall and it sits at 4-5 in Big Ten play through Jan. 24. More than half of the teams in the Big Ten could finish with a conference record that's between 12-8 and 8-12, as the league with a national-best seven teams ranked in the AP Top 25 will likely see many of its squads cannibalize each other. That would be good for strength-of-schedule metrics but it could be bad for some teams' win totals, including Indiana.

With Iowa's Garza and Illinois' Dosunmu putting up better numbers on better teams within Indiana's conference, Jackson-Davis might finish (at best) third for conference player of the year, which speaks to the challenge of him winning National Player of the Year. He gets to the free-throw line as often as almost anyone in the sport (he has taken 142 free throws this season compared to 211 field goals), he shoulders one of the greatest offensive loads nationally (his 31-percent usage rate ranks 33rd) and his block percentage (6.3 percent) places him just outside the 100 best rim-protectors in the country.

But unless Indiana can start making free throws and crashing the offensive glass harder — it ranks outside the top 280 nationally in both categories as of Jan. 24 — then the Hoosiers may not win enough for Jackson-Davis to become a frontrunner for the award.

Rob Ferguson | USA Today Sports Images Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham.

Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

Year: Freshman
Position: Guard
Stats: 18.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.0 bpg; 46.0 FG%, 38.8 3P%
Team record: 9-4 (3-4 Big 12)
Team ranking: Not ranked

Cunningham is one of the two leading contenders for numerous national freshman of the year awards, as he and Gonzaga's Suggs are the two most likely candidates. But Cunningham's sheer production and versatility should earn him a spot on All-America lists and potentially the National Player of the Year discussion, too. The 6-8 guard leads his team in scoring at 18 points per game and tied for first in assists at almost four per game, and he's second in rebounding, while also initiating the Cowboys's offense. He's shooting better than 38 percent from deep on 49 attempts through 12 games and he's leading Oklahoma State in assist rate, as he's assisting on roughly 22 percent of the team's baskets when he's on the floor.

Similarly to Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis, Cunningham might be a First Team All-American who's stuck on a team that's not quite good enough to cement his National Player of the Year candidacy. Oklahoma State has started 3-4 in Big 12 play after a 6-0 non-conference record, and as of Jan. 24, kenpom.com projects the Cowboys to finish below .500 in conference play.

 
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