The top 11 candidates so far for Player of the Year in college basketball

Buddy Hield has a good case that’s building more and more by the game. (USATSI)

College basketball’s nonconference slate is about 95 percent finished. We’ve already got a few conferences beginning league play, while the rest of the sport will finish up with its out-of-league slate over the next few days.

With that in mind, and with it being Christmas Eve, we wanted to hand out some presents and let you know what you might have missed from the beginning of the season. Drive-by fans of the sport will surely know a few of the names on this list, while the diehards will no doubt be happy to see a couple of surprise entrants near the bottom. It’s been a fun season so far.

We don’t have any outrageous inclusions, guys who were completely off the grid before the season started. Every player listed in this story appeared on our eminent preseason list of the top 101 players in the sport. In fact, six of the studs who cracked the top 10 back then are named below.

The best players in the sport through the first six weeks are a terrific blend of guys we expected to be here with varying styles of play. Each position is covered, as is the entire country. From Michigan to Rhode Island to Utah to Oregon, college hoops’ 2015-16 MVPs hail from all corners of the country. If you’re curious about those who didn’t make the list, just know that guys at Kansas, Duke, North Carolina and Louisville are getting close to crashing the party.

Here are the leaders, as of Dec. 24, for the National Player of the Year.

1. Denzel Valentine, senior, Michigan State

Rank on our preseason top 101 list: 13

Signature performance: Valentine put up a triple-double against fourth-ranked Kansas back on Nov. 17 at the Champions Classic. In a way, he’s been in command of the top spot for the national POY ever since he did the Jayhawks for 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists.

Case file: Valentine is averaging 18.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 7.1 assists and is shooting 40 percent from long range. He’s holding onto the top spot here despite the fact he’ll be out of commission for a couple of weeks due to minor knee surgery to repair cartilage. Michigan State’s off to the best start in school history, and it’s almost entirely because of Valentine. College hoops junkies knew he was a versatile player, but with how he’s reshaped his body and increased his effectiveness at every level, Valentine’s become the most valuable player in the sport and certainly among the most watchable. He could wind up with five triple-doubles by the end of the season and it wouldn’t be shocking.

2. Kris Dunn, redshirt junior, Providence

Rank on our preseason top 101 list: 1

Signature performance: Dunn opened the season with 32 points, eight steals, six rebounds, five assists and two blocks in PC’s 76-64 win against Harvard.

Case file: Dunn is averaging 16.5 points, 7.3 assists and 6.1 rebounds for a Providence team that wasn’t expected to be this good. In fact, we at would have had Dunn as our Preseason National Player of the Year if we had confidence that the Friars would easily reach the NCAA Tournament. Hard to believe now, but heading into the season there was concern Dunn’s teammates wouldn’t be able to carry the group to a third straight bid. Now the Friars are 11-1 and in the top 10 of the AP poll for the first time in almost four decades. Dunn has lived up to the hype. He might be No. 1 on our list if not for missing a couple of games due to illness earlier this month.

3. Buddy Hield, senior, Oklahoma

Rank on our preseason top 101 list: 3

Signature performance: In Oklahoma’s season-opener, the Sooners played on the road against Memphis. Hield started his 2015-16 POY campaign with 30 points, eight rebounds, three assists, three steals and a pair of blocks on 4-of-8 shooting from deep.

Case file: Hield is averaging 24.0 points, 5.1 rebounds and is shooting 53 percent from 3-point range. At 10-0, Oklahoma is the No. 1 team in KenPom and owns a defining 23-point win against Villanova. The Sooners’ gut-it-out victory at Hawaii on Wednesday night was surprisingly riveting. Hield came up big, notching his fourth straight game wherein he scored at least 25 point. Hield falls at No. 3 instead of No. 2 because, on the whole, he doesn’t do quite as much and hasn’t proven to be as completely vital as the two above him. But don’t get me wrong: He was my pick in October to win national POY. I still think that’s how this race will finish.

4. Georges Niang, senior, Iowa State

Rank on our preseason top 101 list: 8

Signature performance: Niang was a catalyst (16 points, six rebounds, five assists, two blocks, two steals) in the most impressive comeback in college basketball so far this season, keying Iowa State’s 20-point rally at home to topple hated in-state foe Iowa. Niang’s postgame quotes are some of the best I’ve seen from a college basketball player on a rivalry in a long time. ISU should etch them in granite and place the stones about campus.

Case file: Niang is averaging 19.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc. He and Monte Morris have pushed the Cyclones to a 10-1 start. Niang was a preseason first-teamer in the eyes of many. He hasn’t done anything to shove me off that belief. Being a player of the year candidate means your team has to win, and win a lot. It’s not everything, but it’s a lot of things. That’s why Niang is ahead of the No. 5 player on this list.

5. Ben Simmons, freshman, LSU

Rank on our preseason top 101 list: 2

Signature performance: The freshman phenom seems like he’s a threat to notch a triple-double any time he steps on the floor, but the reality is he hasn’t done it yet. His best overall game came against North Florida on Dec. 2. Simmons finished with 43 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, five steals and three blocks. On the whole, it’s the most impressive game from anyone so far in college hoops this season.

Case file: Simmons is averaging 19.1 points, 13.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists. If you’ve been following my Freshman of the Year Watch, you know Simmons has had the No. 1 spot on lock from the get-go. LSU is at 7-4 and has been very inconsistent. If the Tigers start to win some games against the top of the SEC, Simmons will almost surely be producing at a similar clip that he is now, which means his player of the year campaign will shoot right up to the top spot. Let’s just see how the next two weeks go for LSU.

6. Jakob Poeltl, sophomore, Utah

Rank on our preseason top 101 list: 14

Signature performance: In Utah’s coveted 83-75 home victory over in-state rival BYU on Dec. 2, Poeltl went for 26 points, 13 rebounds, five blocks and shot 69 percent.

Case file: Poeltl is averaging 18.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. He’s the No. 1 player in PER at the moment, something that might well be his crown by season’s end. You’ll see that Simmons and Hield are right on his heels, though. For Poeltl, it’s all the more impressive to see him be this much in the thick of it, considering Utah lost Delon Wright from last season’s team. It’s true that Wright did a lot on his own, but now that Poeltl’s the 1a, 1b and 1c on every scouting report, he’s still getting his. And his shot is now in play from two to 22 feet.

7. Melo Trimble, sophomore, Maryland

Rank on our preseason top 101 list: 7

Signature performance: Trimble did all he could in Maryland’s 89-81 loss at UNC on Dec. 1. The sophomore stud had 29 points and 12 assists — but got his team into trouble by coughing it over eight times. Turnovers don’t plague Trimble, but they are undoubtedly something he still hasn’t mastered cleaning up.

Case file: Trimble is averaging 15.0 points, 5.7 assists and 1.6 steals on 52-percent shooting. His line isn’t knock-you-off-your-seat good, but he is absolutely a player that must be watched in full to understand his consequence to the team. Maryland is 10-1 and fighting with Michigan State and Purdue for the right to be the Big Ten’s most feared team. Trimble’s style, gumption and floor ability have all improved. He’s got the most variance of any player on this list. Could realistically see him being as high as No. 2 or completely off the radar within the next three weeks.

Melo Trimble has kept Maryland in the national conversation and near the top of the polls. (USATSI)

8. A.J. Hammons, senior, Purdue

Rank on our preseason top 101 list: 43

Signature performance: His most recent one. In Purdue’s home romp over Vanderbilt and fellow projected first-rounder Damian Jones, Hammons took it to the Commodores to the tune of 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks.

Case file: Hammons is averaging 13.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.9 blocks and is shooting 62 percent. You can make the argument that Purdue hasn’t been this good overall since the 1990s. And while Purdue’s has some pretty good players since Gene Keady’s prime, nobody down low has been as viable for that program as Hammons is since … Glenn Robinson? Seems like it. Hammons has continued to improve, and he’s the rare case of a big man who’s going to be taken in the first round, yet needed four years of college to do so … and was an unknown on the national level for the first three seasons. Now he’s playing like the second or third best big man in the country and Purdue has designs on a super nice tourney seed.

9. Malcolm Brogdon, senior, Virginia

Rank on our preseason top 101 list: 9

Signature performance: Ironically, it came in Virginia’s only loss. George Washinton beat UVa back on Nov. 16; Brogdon finished with 28 points, eight boards, four dimes and two steals.

Case file: Brogdon is averaging 16.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists. He is the central figure to Virginia’s offense, which now ranks No. 2 in the country in efficiency. That’s right: UVA’s winning more because of its offense than its defense. And the Wahoos got an uncomfortably close and undeniably dramatic home victory in OT against Cal on Tuesday night. Brogdon has helped UVA take three straight wins that no other team in the country can match over the past two weeks: wins against ranked West Virginia and Nova, and then toppling talented California.

10. Gary Payton II, senior, Oregon State

Rank on our preseason top 101 list: 38

Signature performance: There are a lot of candidates, but I’ll go with this one: 77-69 win at Rice on Nov. 19. Payton’s line: 19 points, seven assists, six steals, five rebounds on 8-of-11 shooting.

Case file: The Mitten is averaging 16.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.5 steals. The reigning Pac-12 defensive player of the year is having an amazing senior season, one that will see him rise on this list of OSU can start beating the goods of the Pac-12. GP2 is putting up a line that’s mostly unprecedented in college basketball over the previous three decades. To be this well-rounded is not normal, and we’re way past due to give this guy some love.

11. Kay Felder, junior, Oakland

Rank on our preseason top 101 list: 73

Signature performance: It came Tuesday night, against the No. 1 team the country. Felder had 37 points, nine assists and three rebounds — and almost willed his team to a win over shorthanded Michigan State.

Case file: Felder is averaging 26.9 points, 8.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range. His points average is second-best in the country to Howard’s James Daniel (28.4), while his assists average is college basketball’s best by almost one full assist per game. (Milwaukee’s Jordan Johnson is putting up 8.0 per game, good enough for second in the country.) My colleague, Gary Parrish, wrote a nice profile on Felder earlier this week. There’s a good story there. Considering no player has ever ended the season leading the nation in points and assists, and the fact that Felder is flirting with that right now, we had to include him here.


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