Five unlikely, worthy POY candidates

Much like the season, race for national player of the year remains unpredictable

Originally Published: March 7, 2013
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Late Tuesday, I emailed my vote for Michael Rothstein's player of the year straw poll that runs on ESPN.com, sending my top three in at 11:01 p.m., right after Ohio State beat Indiana.

Eight-plus hours and some deep thinking later -- at 7:35 a.m. Wednesday to be exact -- I sent an apology email and a do-over.

Apparently I'm not unusual. Rothstein replied that some voters had sent him revised rankings multiple times during the course of the week.

In this of all seasons, such waffling makes perfect sense. The No. 1 ranking and the No. 1 seeds are moving targets.

[+] EnlargeTrey Burke
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsThe Big Ten features two contenders for national POY honors: Michigan's Trey Burke and Indiana's Victor Oladipo.

Why should the player of the year be any more predictable?

Like the adage that claims in certain games, the team with the ball last wins, this might be the season in which the player with the last game takes the prize.

Not because people are lazy, shortsighted or merely reacting to "what have you done for me lately?" No, the indecision is based on legitimate confusion, and it's leading to the most fascinating award season in some time.

Debate in these sorts of things isn't unusual. Last year, it was a pick 'em between Anthony Davis and Thomas Robinson; the year before it came down to Jimmer Fredette or Kemba Walker. In 2007, Kevin Durant and Greg Oden each had supporters and in 2006, there was a J.J. Redick team and an Adam Morrison posse.

Except this season's race isn't a match race. This is like the Kentucky Derby when, by now, it should more closely resemble the Belmont Stakes. Usually by the third leg of the Triple Crown, the field has been whittled down from a crowd at the gate to a manageable number.

And typically by March we have, if not a consensus, at worst a two-headed argument about the player of the year.

Coming down the homestretch this season we have a solid five: Michigan's Trey Burke, Indiana's Victor Oladipo, Creighton's Doug McDermott, Georgetown's Otto Porter and, with the long-shot odds, Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk.

You can make a strong case for any of the five and not sound foolish, jumble them up in any order and still have an argument.

Brian Murphy, the senior adviser for the John R. Wooden Award, said 40 players have received votes for the award's final 15 spots this year. Of those 40, 25 have received more than one vote and only two players were picked on all 20 of the pollsters' ballots.

In the five years he has been conducting his nationwide poll of actual POY voters, Rothstein said that this is the first time he has had more than one in-season lead change. Not only has he had two atop the leaderboard, he has had three.

You'd have to go back to 2003 to find things this wide open. That's when David West was named AP Player of the Year and the Oscar Robertson Trophy Winner, while T.J. Ford earned Naismith and Wooden award honors, Carmelo Anthony took Syracuse to the national title and Dwyane Wade led Marquette to the Final Four.

What's equally fascinating this season, though, isn't just the crowd but who is in it.

Back to that horse analogy -- no one here is Secretariat.

Instead we've got thoroughbreds who have come along, if not slowly, quietly and suddenly.

Only two of the five even made the ESPNU 100 coming out of high school -- Porter at No. 42 in 2011 and Burke at 84 in the same year. Oladipo, McDermott and Olynyk were not on the national radar.

[+] EnlargeKelly Olynyk
James Snook/USA TODAY Sports Kelly Olynyk leads Gonzaga, the No. 1 team in the nation, in points (17.7) and blocks (1.2) per game.

And the unlikelihood of this quintet goes way deeper than the rankings.

Porter, hailing from a tiny, drive-through town in the Missouri bootheel, and without the benefit of résumé-building summer ball, took everyone by surprise in his freshman season at Georgetown. Even this year, it took a 33-point effort against Syracuse to force the nation to sit up and take notice of what Hoyas coach John Thompson III had been screaming all year: Porter, in Thompson's estimation, is the best player in the country.

Meanwhile, Burke was supposed to go to Penn State. Let's think about both the irony (the Nittany Lions pulled off the stunning upset of the Wolverines) and the improbability of that. By the time he changed his mind after he saw Penn State's struggles, most Big Ten schools were already content in their point guard searches. Burke wound up at Michigan almost by default.

Indiana was always supposed to have a national-player-of-the-year candidate on this season's roster. His name was supposed to be Cody Zeller. Instead here's Oladipo, a player whose own father hoped he would go to Harvard, earning hyperbolic comparisons to Michael Jordan.

A high school sixth man, McDermott wasn't even recruited by his own father. He was supposed to be at Northern Iowa while his dad coached at Iowa State. Only after his dad left for Creighton did McDermott become part of the ultimate package deal, switching his Missouri Valley allegiances to Omaha.

And finally there's Olynyk, a 7-footer who essentially benched himself for a season. He opted for a redshirt junior year so he could learn how to play like Mark Few wanted him to (namely like a 7-footer) instead of how he wanted to (a guard stuck in a 7-footer's body).

Some folks might find this confusion confounding and, with a vote for two of the four national awards plus Rothstein's straw poll, I'll admit there's something to be said for easy.

But since when should the award for best anything be simple? Popularity contests are easy; actually winning something on merit is meant to be hard.

Critics and naysayers will argue that this overcrowded race is just another example of how college basketball has become a watered-down shell of itself, that there are five OK choices and no great ones.

I'll take the half-full glass, thanks -- and also rely on my eyeballs . These five players aren't here by default. They're here because they deserve to be, and they're making it difficult because they're all good choices.

Competition, not complacency, makes for greatness.

In 1973, Secretariat won the Derby and the Preakness each by two and a half lengths, challenged by Sham in both races.

Of course, "Big Red" then went on to win the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths.

So hey, you never know. Someone could pull away any minute now. There's still some season left to play, which means there's still time to vote.

Or in some cases, revote.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball