Who is this season's conference player of the year?
A year ago, it would have taken about a half-second to answer that question. Everybody knew heading into last season that Creighton's Doug McDermott was not only the clear frontrunner for Big East Player of the Year, but probably for the Wooden and Naismith awards, too (he would go on to win both). McDermott was a four-year player, in the midst of one of the best careers ever in college basketball for one of the country's most dominant teams. All he had to do to win was keep up the good work.
This year, it couldn't be more different. McDermott's gone (now with the Chicago Bulls), and the Big East hasn't had a dominant star emerge from the pack yet. With just a handful of games left for the conference's ten teams, coaches only have a few more opportunities to decide which player is going to get their vote, and the field is wide open. Even when just considering who the frontrunners are, I can still come up with five or six guys that could win it. The coaches have awarded co-Players of the Year just six times since Georgetown's John Duren won the inaugural honor back in 1980, but if there is a year to do it again, it's probably this one.
So let's break this down. I'm pretty confident that one (or two) of the guys mentioned below will end up winning the conference's top honor, but to make this easier, I sorted them into tiers based on who has built the best resume up to this point:
1. The Frontrunners
2. The Villanova Tier
3. The "WTF?" Tier
4. The Long Shots
5. The Overshadowed
I understand that this is probably an exercise in futility, but hey, let's give it a shot.
Kris Dunn, Guard, Providence
LaDontae Henton, Forward, Providence
Any conversation about Player of the Year has to begin with Providence's star duo, who have enjoyed tremendous seasons since the start of conference play. However, while the duo has dominated nearly every game in the Big East, the biggest issue with each player's candidacy is that BOTH of them are having so much success.
Henton sits at the top of the conference scoring column with 20.5 points per game, jumping up a full six points from his average from last season by utilizing his physicality and inside-outside skillset. He hasn't scored less than 12 points in a game since Dec. 5, including three straight 20 point-plus performances against Xavier, No. 6 Villanova and Seton Hall in his last three games. Henton's also doing things like this, which always helps:
And then there's Dunn, who's exploded onto the scene in his second season at Providence. Henton's the clear top scoring threat for the Friars, but Dunn's been dominating in other areas of the stat sheet, averaging 7.6 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game. His point average isn't bad, either. The redshirt sophomore guard has put up 15.4 points per game this season, which is nearly four times what he averaged in four games last season before sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury. Dunn also dropped an impressive triple-double in late January against DePaul, finishing with 27 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists. Not only does he have the best single performance of the year in Big East play, Dunn is also the conference's best shot at getting a player into the NBA Draft this offseason, rising up to No. 39 on DraftExpress' last Top 100 Rankings.
My best guess is that one of these two guys ends up winning Player of the Year, but having to choose between the two is like a parent having to pick their favorite child. There is no wrong answer, but these two definitely have the upper hand at this point.
D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Guard, Georgetown
Smith-Rivera, a junior, was the popular preseason pick for the POY honor, and while he hasn't run away with anything this season, he's still right in the middle of the race. He's averaging 15.5 points and just over three rebounds and assists per game, and if everything keeps up over the final few games, he should have the Hoyas comfortably in the NCAA tournament. He's not necessarily flashy, but he's consistent, and he heats up just about as quick as any player in the conference. If Georgetown finishes strong, Smith-Rivera could be the biggest beneficiary of their success.
D'Angelo Harrison, Guard, St. John's
Harrison is an interesting case, as he's putting up career highs in points (19.1, second in the Big East) and rebounds (5.8) per game, field goal percentage (43.4 percent) and three-point percentage (38.1 percent) while his team struggled for a five week stretch, losing seven of ten games. However, the Red Storm look to have maybe gotten things back on track as of late, winning three straight behind huge performances from Harrison, including a pair of double-doubles and a 33-point game against DePaul. If St. John's' wins out or comes close to doing so and is expected to make the tournament, Harrison is a sneaky candidate to rise to the top.
Roosevelt Jones, Guard/Forward, Butler
After missing all of last season due to a wrist injury, Jones has adjusted to Big East competition brilliantly this year. He doesn't have the same quality of numbers as the other top candidates (heck, he's not even the top scorer on his team - that would be Kellen Dunham), but in terms of value to his team, Jones is one of the best. Butler has played Jones all over this season, having him run the offense as a "point forward" while racking up the assists for his teammates. The biggest argument against the redshirt junior is that he's inconsistent, and when he doesn't play well, like his 2-of-11 performance against Villanova this past weekend, the team usually doesn't either. It also hurts him a bit that he and Dunham often trade off as the team's leading scorer, but he's been too good this season to ignore in the POY race.
The Villanova Tier
Darrun Hilliard II, Guard/Forward
JayVaughn Pinkston, Forward
I didn't want to leave any of the No. 6 Wildcats out of the frontrunners section, as they are the undisputed best team in this conference, but part of what makes them so good is that they don't have one consistent standout player every time they take the floor. Villanova has six guys averaging over nine points per game this season, and their offense moves the ball around so well that everybody is a threat to score at any time. Defenses can do everything right for an entire possession, make one mistake, and get killed by the one guy that they leave open. Just ask Butler.
Speaking of Butler, Hilliard is probably Villanova's best POY candidate, as he's the team's leading scorer (14.1 points per game) and just dropped 31 points and hit the game-winning three on the road against the Bulldogs over the weekend. He's also connecting on an outrageous 45 percent of his shots from the field, taking the reins from JayVaughn Pinkston as the team's go-to guy as the season has gone on.
As for Pinkston, the senior forward has been a little bit disappointing this year. He's still one of the most talented big men in the Big East, but he's averaging just 9.8 points per game after putting up over 14 last season. His field goal percentage has dropped ten percent (from 52.1 percent to 42.1 percent) from the 2013-14 season, along with his rebounding numbers. However, he proved late in the second half against Butler that he can still get it done when the team needs him to, so if the coaches choose to recognize someone from Villanova, he has a shot.
I don't think either of the above guys will actually win Player of the Year, but if Villanova's success keeps up, their top duo will be in the picture for something much bigger this offseason.
The "WTF?" Tier
Sterling Gibbs, Guard, Seton Hall
Gibbs gets his own section in the WTF tier, as in "WTF happened to this kid over the last few weeks"? If the season had ended back in early January, Gibbs would probably have had the best shot at winning Player of the Year on a rising Seton Hall team that had just cracked the AP Top 25. I mean, remember when Gibbs hit the game-winner against Creighton on Jan. 10?
After that win against Creighton, Gibbs followed up with a 30-point performance in an overtime loss that kicked off a stretch that has now reached seven losses in Seton Hall's last nine games. Gibbs has still been good during that stretch, keeping his average at 16.9 points per game this season, but with the floor falling out under the Pirates' season, reports of Gibbs feuding with budding freshman stud Isaiah Whitehead in the locker room and last night's ejection for punching Villanova's Ryan Arcidiacano in the face, his case has clearly diminished. You can read our very own Sean Saint Jacques' story on Seton Hall's woes here.
The Long Shots
Matt Carlino, Guard, Marquette
Matt Stainbrook, Center, Xavier
Billy Garrett Jr., Guard, DePaul
This tier is meant to recognize the guys who have been putting up terrific individual seasons but haven't had the team success to vault them into the top group.
Nobody represents this definition better than Carlino, who I've referred to as the ultimate "Good Stats-Bad Team" guy in the Big East, borrowing a term from ESPN writer Bill Simmons. The senior transfer from BYU has been terrific in his first (and final) season at Marquette, averaging a career-high 14.5 points per game while shooting a ridiculous 42.6 percent from three-point range. Carlino's missed the last three games while recovering from a concussion, but even when he's healthy, it just hasn't been enough to get the Golden Eagles out of the Big East cellar.
Stainbrook edges out Xavier freshman Trevon Bluiett thanks to his activity on the boards, averaging 12.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. The big man is money in the lane, connecting on 62.2 percent of his shots from the field. However, he just doesn't feel as dominant as some of the other guys on this list, and he put up a weird zero-point dud in a win against Providence just a few weeks ago. It's been a nice year for Stainbrook, but he's going to need a huge final three weeks to move up this list.
After winning Big East Rookie of the Year last season, Garrett Jr. has increased his averages pretty much across the board in his sophomore year. DePaul has come a long way this season, and even though they've lost five of their last six games, the Blue Demons are no longer the punchline of the Big East. They owe a lot of that to Garrett, who has scored in double digits in all but three conference games. DePaul's slide as of late probably killed any momentum he had in this race, but it's a testament to the team that Garrett's even here.
Note: Up to this point, you may notice that I've tried to at least give props to one player from each team, even if some of them are pretty far away from actual POY contention. I've failed in that regard for Creighton, because sorry fans, it's just not happening this year. Their leading scorer is Austin Chatman, who you'll find all the way down in 23rd in the conference. The Bluejays have won three of their last five, so things are starting to click, but it's too late for them to get someone in the discussion at this point.
Kellen Dunham, Guard, Butler
Joshua Smith, Center, Georgetown
Sir'Dominic Pointer, Forward, St. John's
Our final tier is dedicated to a trio of guys that have been doing great things for winning squads, but are being held out of the race because of the success of their teammates.
As was previously mentioned, Dunham has been Butler's leading scorer for pretty much all of this season, sitting in fourth in the conference scoring column at 16.8 points per game. He's only gotten better as the games have gone on in his junior year, finding some consistency and confidence in his shot after a spotty stretch after the Thanksgiving holiday. Jones' presence is looming over Dunham's candidacy, but out of the above trio, he's got the best chance of swapping places with his teammate in the frontrunner group.
Smith has slowed down a bit as the Hoyas have lost three of their last five games, but it feels more like a lack of touches than anything. He only had more than four shot attempts once during that same stretch, which might explain the two-point performance against Creighton, and he's been in major foul trouble too. It doesn't take away from his other successes this season, but Smith-Rivera's is definitely Georgetown's candidate here.
And then there's Pointer, who's been an absolute beast since mid-January. He's coming off of a 9-of-10, 24-point performance against Xavier over the weekend, and he's connecting with Harrison and teammate Rysheed Jordan brilliantly as of late. Harrison's going to be the face of St. John's as they rally back up the standings, but for now, Pointer's probably content just doing stuff like this:
There's still a few weeks left, but somebody from this list is going to end up winning Big East Player of the Year honors. My best guess is still Dunn or Henton, but it's going to be a whole bunch of fun watching the cream rise to the top over the final stretch.
Comment below and tell us what you think: Who is this season's Big East POY?