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College Basketball: Picking Dark Horses for Conference Player of the Year

Jordan McRae

Jordan McRae

What’s the fun in pinpointing that Doug McDermott is a strong contender for Big East Player of the Year? That’s a little obvious considering he’s the nation’s second leading scorer.

Of course, McDermott isn’t the only clear-cut player angling to be his league’s top player this season. The favorites for conference players of the year are more or less clear in many leagues.

Conference tournaments are roughly six weeks away, so we’re here to say the field for conference players of the year shouldn’t be set.

Granted, players like McDermott at Creighton, C.J. Fair at Syracuse, Jabari Parker at Duke and Nik Stauskas at Michigan are plenty deserving, but others are worth watching for top honors. These players maybe aren’t on the top teams, or they’re poised for great stretch runs, or they’ve only recently gone on hot streaks in league play.

Dark Horses for Conference Player of the Year honors

The Favorites: Tyler Ennis and C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Jabari Parker (Duke)

Dark Horse: Rodney Hood, Duke
If Hood converts his dunk against Syracuse or goes to the free throw line on a Rakeem Christmas foul on Saturday, maybe Hood is up there with the leaders. Either way, he’s still getting less fanfare thanks to playing with perhaps the nation’s best freshman in Jabari Parker. Hood is second on the Blue Devils at 16.9 points per game, but leads them in scoring in conference games (16.4 ppg).

Dark Horse II: Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia
Brogdon was 0 for 5 from the floor and scoreless in an embarrassing 87-52 loss to Tennessee on Dec. 30, but since then, he’s been Virginia’s most consistent player. Brogdon, who missed all of last season while recovering from foot surgery, has been more productive than teammate Joe Harris since conference play began. The sophomore guard is averaging 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists since league play began.

Dark Horse III: Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh
Patterson is second only to T.J. Warren in scoring in conference games at 18.8 points per game, but the Panthers don’t have any wins over top teams in the league like Syracuse, Duke and Virginia. That may be enough of a knock on Patterson to keep him off a few ballots despite an outstanding season.

The Favorites: Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati), Shabazz Napier (Connecticut) and Russ Smith (Louisville)

Dark Horse: Markus Kennedy, SMU
The NCAA gets flak for being cold to athletes at times. Not for Markus Kennedy, though. Kennedy was able to surprise his mother in Philadelphia with a visit Saturday before the sergeant in the Air Force was deployed to Kuwait. SMU obtained a waiver from the NCAA to pay for the flight, but not until after Kennedy was 10 for 10 from the floor with 21 points and 15 rebounds in a key win over Memphis. Kennedy has five double-doubles in American Athletic Conference play for a team that should make its first NCAA Tournament in 21 years.

Big 12
The Favorites: Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas)

Dark Horse: Melvin Ejim, Iowa State
Is Ejim even the best candidate on his own team? That’s debatable. DeAndre Kane is putting up 16.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and six assists per game. Before Iowa State’s brief swoon in conference play, Kane was an All-America contender. Ejim, though, has been a rock in a frontcourt who has helped lift the Cyclones out of their recent slump. Ejim scored 44 total points and added 29 total rebounds in a sweep of the Oklahoma schools in a span of three days to lift his average to 18.8 points and eight rebounds in conference play.

Dark Horse II: Juwan Staten, West Virginia
If the Mountaineers were closer to playing in the NCAA Tournament, Staten would get more of a run for league player of the year. Still, West Virginia has improved from a tough out to a team able to beat teams with better postseason resumes (Baylor and Kansas State). The Dayton transfer is averaging 20.4 points per game in league play.

Big East
The Favorite: Doug McDermott (Creighton)

Dark Horse: Bryce Cotton, Providence
This is the league race with the least amount of suspense. McDermott could cap his stellar career as the National Player of the Year. Big East Player of the Year seems to be a given. In any other year, though, Cotton likely would be the guy. The Friars veteran is fourth in the Big East in usage rate, not a surprise considering he averages 21.3 points, 5.8 assists and 39.5 minutes per game. In a head-to-head matchup, Cotton scored 23 points to McDermott's 21 in the Friars' win on Jan. 18

Big Ten
The Favorites: Gary Harris (Michigan State) and Nik Stauskas (Michigan)

Dark Horse: Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa
The Hawkeyes need to knock off one of the top teams in the league when the country is watching. Still, Iowa rarely plays down to its competition, and the Hawkeyes have no let downs on the schedule so far. Give credit to the veteran Marble, who averages 17 points per game in league play.

Dark Horse II: Terran Petteway, Nebraska
Another great player on a team that’s going to the NIT. The sophomore Petteway remade himself during his redshirt season after transferring from Texas Tech, and now the 6-6, 209-pound guard averages 18.2 points per game. His emergence came Jan. 26 with a 35-point performance against Minnesota.

The Favorite: Nick Johnson (Arizona)

Dark Horse: Chasson Randle, Stanford
Back from a sophomore slump, Randle is carrying Stanford to a potential Tournament bid. His shooting percentage has gone from below 40 percent last season to 48.1 all while the Cardinal has played most of the season without point guard Aaron Bright. Stanford still needs a few more key wins to feel good about a bid, but Randle is leading the way at 18.8 points per game.

Dark Horse II: Justin Cobbs, Cal
Cobbs’ season isn’t all that different from last year. He’s still averaging more than 15 points per game, and his efficiency numbers from the floor haven’t changed dramatically. But Cobbs is the go-to player this season after playing as the running mate to Allen Crabbe as a junior. Cobbs’ game-winning shot against Arizona, though, makes him a contender.

The Favorites: Jabari Brown (Missouri), Casey Prather (Florida) and Julius Randle (Kentucky)

Dark Horse: Jordan McRae, Tennessee
Jarnell Stokes is the only SEC player averaging a double-double in conference play, but McRae may be the most valuable down the stretch. McRae scored 34 against Arkansas and 26 in a critical win against fellow bubble-dweller Ole Miss. A year ago, McRae went on a streak of eight consecutive games with at least 15 points — including five in a row with at least 20 — down the stretch. After Wednesday's loss to Vanderbilt, Tennessee may need another stretch like that to make the NCAA Tournament.

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