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Friday, January 26, 2007
Updated: January 29, 10:40 PM ET
POY race focuses in on Durant, Tucker

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

This season's national player of the year choices aren't so clear-cut, not like the past three seasons when names like Jameer Nelson and Emeka Okafor in 2004, Andrew Bogut in '05, and Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick last year dominated the chase.

Arguments are being formed and the debates are being waged, though, mainly for two players who are coming at the award from very opposite directions.

Yes, Oregon's Aaron Brooks, Nevada's Nick Fazekas, Marquette's Dominic James, Boston College's Jared Dudley, any of the four Florida juniors and a select group of others like Oklahoma State's Mario Boggan can make a case that they should be in the mix.

The main focus right now, though, is largely on two players.

Wisconsin senior Alando Tucker has been building toward this award for five seasons, weathering plenty of injuries and ascending to the top of the sport with the help of a mostly veteran, strong supporting cast.

So far, Tucker has led the Badgers to wins at Marquette and Georgia and over Ohio State and Pitt, with the team's only blemish being a neutral-site loss to Missouri State in South Padre Island, Texas, two months ago.

Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant carries the scoring load for a young Texas team.

Texas freshman Kevin Durant arguably is the most talented player in college basketball. He has been unstoppable at times. He has lit up a number of opponents, specifically putting 37 points on both Colorado and Oklahoma State. He's a walking double-double performer with praise following him on nearly every possession.

Naturally, there are partisan politics going on in the upper Midwest and deep in the Southwest.

"Alando makes us who we are," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but look at what Alando has done over five years in college basketball. He is the most valuable player out there. That doesn't mean a guy like Durant can't be considered to be the best player."

Texas coach Rick Barnes wants to make sure everyone understands that Durant isn't just the best freshman, but the nation's best player. He doesn't want to hear that Durant can win only the award for freshman of the year, not player of the year.

"If he's the best player in college basketball, then he should get it," Barnes said.

Barnes points out that Durant is scoring oodles of points and helping Texas win, despite having such a young squad around him that Texas plays much of the time with only freshmen and sophomores on the court.

"I haven't seen everybody, but Durant has to be one of the three or four best players in the country and deserves to be recognized as the player of the year, whether he's a freshman or not."
-- Oklahoma State coach Sean Sutton

Durant said a freshman should be able to win the national player of the year award, but he's not politicking for himself. He said if he had a vote, he would choose "that player from Wisconsin. He's playing great."

Still, Durant's abilities -- the way he can slice to the hoop, put the ball on the floor, nail 3-pointers and often score at will -- have convinced plenty of coaches that he's the best player in the country. He's a virtual lock to be one of the first two picks in June's NBA draft, assuming he declares in the spring. Does that mean he's the player of the year, too? Does he have to lead Texas deep into March to have a shot? Does he have to Carmelo-ize the Longhorns to the title?

"I haven't seen everybody, but Durant has to be one of the three or four best players in the country and deserves to be recognized as the player of the year, whether he's a freshman or not," said Oklahoma State coach Sean Sutton. "He's having a great season up to this point. His performance here was as good as any opponent we've played against. He can make timely shots. We were doing everything to slow him down and he got [defensive stopper] Marcus Dove to foul out.

"He'd have my vote. He's an unbelievable talent and highly, highly skilled. He seems to relish the pressure situations and that's what separates the good players from the great players. When the game is on the line, he wants the ball. I hope, nationally, people will give him great consideration."

The day after the triple-overtime loss at Oklahoma State, Durant said he's getting more and more comfortable playing inside. He said everyone knows he can shoot it and drive, but he wants to be able to take the ball in the post and score, too.

Still, Durant acknowledges that both he and the Horns have some room for improvement.

"I thought we could be better at closing out some games," Durant said. "We have focused on our weaknesses … sometimes, I settle too much. I'm trying to get to the basket even more."

Alando Tucker #42
Alando Tucker is leading a veteran Wisconsin squad.
Tucker and his team don't have those issues. Wisconsin has closed out every opponent save Missouri State. Sure, Tucker has more experienced players with him in the backcourt with Kammron Taylor and Michael Flowers, but he still is helping ice games and seemingly always has a role in the wins.

Barnes said Durant is having "the time of his life" this season and that the reason Durant is scoring at will is that he can play anywhere on the court. He said there are times when Texas is looking for him too much, especially with other options such as point guard D.J. Augustin, who probably would be the freshman of the year in the Big 12 if it weren't for Durant, and Justin Mason and A.J. Abrams on the wing.

Barnes said Durant isn't even thinking about the NBA, although Durant himself said it has crossed his mind. Still, Barnes understands that Durant's time in Austin could be short.

"After every game, I tell everyone that they better enjoy him. He wants to play. He enjoys the game so much. He knows he's got to get better."

Still, averaging 23 points and 11 rebounds a game provides reason for lofty praise. Durant is shooting 48.5 percent, 84.3 percent at the line and 36.5 percent on 3s. In Texas' losses to Michigan State, Gonzaga and Tennessee, Durant still scored over 20 points in each. He made clutch shot after clutch shot in the triple-overtime loss to Oklahoma State.

In an interview the day after that game, Durant said he was tired. It showed the ensuing Saturday as Villanova held him to a merely mortal 12 points in a loss. So what did he do to respond? He went to Nebraska and led the Longhorns to a win with 26 points and 15 boards.

But Tucker has been just as consistent for a better team, one that could win the national title. He is averaging 19 points and five rebounds, and is shooting 47.8 percent from the field. He is, however, shooting only 65.5 percent from the line and 27.8 percent from 3, but just as Durant has been money for the Longhorns, Tucker has saved his best for the big spots, making key buckets and scoring 20-plus points in wins over Florida State, Winthrop, Marquette, Pitt (32) and Georgia (29).

The precocious talent or the consummate leader? The freshman or the senior? Whom do you choose?

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.