Great college basketball teams can only go as far as their star players take them.
Where would UConn be last March without Shabazz Napier’s constant heroics? As the calendar flips to February and conference play intensifies, coaches are looking for their stars to separate themselves from the rest of the conference crowd and lead their teams deep into March.
Here is our list of top Conference Players of the Year contenders with a little more than a month left in the season.
The Favorite: Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
After sitting out most of last season for academic reasons, Jerian Grant has become the ACC’s most explosive and complete offensive weapon. Grant leads the Irish in points (17.4) and assists (4.6) while shooting better than 51 percent from the floor. After Wednesday’s 23-point, 12-assist, six rebound performance in a win over Duke, Grant has overthrown Jahlil Okafor as the favorite for ACC Player of the Year for the time being.
Other Candidates: Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, Virginia’s Justin Anderson
The Favorite: Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
The Sooners have slumped of late, but Hield is still averaging better than 20 points per game in league play. Overall, he leads the Big 12 in scoring (18.6 points per game) while contributing 5.5 rebounds. He’ll have a better shot of holding off other contenders if Oklahoma can turn its fortunes down the stretch.
Other Candidates: Iowa State’s Georges Niang, West Virginia’s Juwan Staten
The Favorite: LaDontae Henton, Providence
A year ago, Providence had Bryce Cotton leading the Friars to the NCAA Tournament. Now, Providence has another prolific scorer who has Ed Cooley’s team on the way to a second consecutive Tourney for the first time since 1989-90. Henton is ninth in the country in scoring at 20.8 points per game while averaging 5.6 rebounds. His season-high 38 points in a 75-74 win over Notre Dame back on Nov. 23 looks more impressive now than it did at the time.
Other Candidates: Butler’s Kellen Dunham, Seton Hall’s Sterling Gibbs
The Favorite: D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State
Russell is the most complete and physical guard in the nation. Second in the conference in scoring (19.4 points) and fourth in assists (5.1 assists), Russell has almost single-handedly kept Ohio State in the NCAA conversation. He has posted 21, 27, 33, and 22 points in his last four Big Ten games. The Buckeyes will only go as far as their freshman point guard takes them in March.
Other Candidates: Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell
The Favorite: Delon Wright, Utah
The 6-5 Wright has a sterling 6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio to add to his 129.9 offensive rating and 14.6 points per game, making the Los Angeles native one of the nation’s most efficient players. A lockdown defender, Wright is the heartbeat of the No. 11 Utes, playing 31 minutes and pulling in four rebounds per contest. If Utah wishes to dethrone Arizona as kings of the Pac-12, Wright’s continued success is going to be vital.
Others Candidates: Stanford’s Chasson Randle, Arizona’s Stanley Johnson
The Favorite: Bobby Portis, Arkansas
Portis is the most versatile piece in the Razorbacks' high-scoring offense. Able to connect from behind the arc or play on the block, the 6-11 Portis is a matchup nightmare. Ports leads the SEC in scoring (17.7 points) and is fourth in rebounds (8.5) all while shooting 56 percent both from 2 and from 3.
Other Candidates: Tennessee’s Josh Richardson, Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein
The Favorite: Ryan Boatright, UConn
With the departure of Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright is coach Kevin Ollie’s go-to player and senior leader. Boatright is responsible for 28.1 percent of the Huskies total scoring, shooting 27.1 percent of the team’s shots and connecting 42.7 percent of the time. The Huskies are a long-shot to make the Big Dance with just 11 wins, but if anyone knows about getting hot at the right time, it’s the American’s leading scorer and most efficient player.
Other candidates SMU’s Nic Moore, Tulsa’s Shaquille Harrison
-By Jake Rose