A pair of Big Ten superstars lead the NCAA basketball National Player of the Year rankings.
Conference play is in full swing across college basketball, and only nine weeks remain until Selection Sunday. With the 2021-22 season at its midpoint, several star players have stamped the campaign. Some preseason darlings have answered the call to sit among the nation’s best players, while super-sophomores are headlining breakout teams.
It is still too early to crown a National Player of the Year, but frontrunners are emerging. The last seven winners of the award – and 16 of the last 20 – have played for KenPom top-10 teams; playing on an elite squad is nearly mandatory to take home the hardware.
With this in mind, curating a frontrunners list for the award could leave some big names out. For example, Iowa’s Keegan Murray and Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis are talented enough to crack the list of top contenders for NPOY. However, neither of their teams ranks as highly as the others that fill out the list.
Additionally, some teams feature too much balance to maintain a true contender. Gonzaga, for instance, has two potential contenders in Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren. Neither has separated enough to warrant inclusion here, though that could change in the coming months.
Let’s dive into my current National Player of the Year power rankings now. Keep in mind that these rankings are not predictive of how the award might shake out in two months. They are a snapshot of how these players have performed to date.
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10. Jabari Smith, Auburn
Stats: 15.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.1 assists
Jabari Smith is the lone freshman cracking the National Player of the Year frontrunners list, but there is no denying his impact this season. The 6-10 forward has lived up to his five-star recruitment status. He stretches the floor well for his size (34-for-75; 45.3 percent from three), rebounds at a high rate, and is a strong defender. Smith is one of the only 41 players (two freshmen) in the country posting steal and block rates greater than 3 percent.
The potential No. 1 NBA Draft pick has put up strong individual numbers on both ends of the floor and has also propelled Auburn into the national spotlight. The Tigers hold a 14-1 overall record and are ranked in the top five. While he would be just the fourth freshman to win the award, Smith has been excellent and could continue to climb as long as Auburn remains at the forefront of the national conversation. He has scored in double figures in 12 straight games.
9. Jaden Ivey, Purdue
Stats: 16.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.0 assists
Purdue is a difficult team to figure out from a National Player of the Year perspective. Trevion Williams, Zach Edey and Jaden Ivey are all proven stars guiding the Boilermakers to their current top 10 status. Williams and Edey are the best big man tandem in the country and could individually warrant attention for this article. However, I favor sophomore guard Jaden Ivey for this No. 9 spot. He has started every game for Purdue, notching double figures as a scorer in all but one.
Ivey shot just 25-for-97 (25.8 percent) from three last season, but he has completely turned that around as a sophomore. Despite receiving ample defensive attention on the perimeter, he has upped his 3-point shooting to 32-for-73 (43.8 percent). That jump in volume, as well as efficiency, is remarkably impressive. Ivey leads Purdue in points and steals while also creating solid opportunities as a passer. He is an outstanding two-way player, and his defensive contributions are much-needed because the Boilermakers do not defend well as a unit.
8. Wendell Moore, Duke
Stats: 16.0 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.9 assists
Duke also has two potential contenders for the award. Freshman forward Paolo Banchero has been excellent, but Wendell Moore is making more diversified contributions. He has not only raised his scoring average this season but is much more efficient. Moore has also taken a gigantic leap in his playmaking. He ranks 136th nationally in assist rate while also managing to lower his career turnover rate. There is no denying his year-over-year improvements:
Duke is the clear favorite to win the ACC – even with an early loss to Miami-FL – and will likely remain in the national top 10. Moore dictates the offense with his combination of scoring and playmaking, even though he does not lead the team in points per game. Much of the Blue Devils’ No. 14 adjusted offensive efficiency runs through the upperclassman guard. His leap into stardom has been giant in Coach K’s final year.
7. Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky
Stats: 16.2 points, 15.2 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks
Oscar Tshiebwe has performed as one of the top transfer additions in the country for this season. The former West Virginia big man was always excellent, but he is taking his game to the next level while in Lexington. He is a living, breathing, walking double-double and is dominating the paint for John Calipari. He is the best statistical rebounder that the legendary head coach has ever had:
Tshiebwe ranks No. 1 in the nation in offensive (22.1 percent) and defensive rebounding rates (36.0 percent). Those are absurd numbers, and his dominance on the glass has made Kentucky arguably the best rebounding team in the country. Additionally, the 6-9 junior ranks in the top 100 nationally in offensive rating and effective field goal percentage. He is Kentucky’s best shot-blocker and is shooting 62.1 percent.
College basketball is oft-discussed as a guard-oriented game, but Tshiebwe has been superb, particularly on the glass.
6. James Akinjo, Baylor
Stats: 14.4 points, 6.1 assists, and 2.2 steals
Baylor is the No. 1 team in the country by just about every statistical measure: KenPom, Sagarin, KPI, SOR, NET and WAB. They are also the defending national champions and one of the only two undefeated teams remaining. It is impossible to ignore how dominant Baylor has been, and the team deserves a National Player of the Year contender. Enter James Akinjo.
The 6-1 guard arrived in Waco following two years at Georgetown and one at Arizona. He has experienced a well-traveled collegiate career, but his impact this season is undeniable. Replacing the likes of Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler is no easy task, but he has answered the call.
Akinjo is averaging career-highs in assists (6.1) and steals (2.2) per game while splashing 41.4 percent of his 3-pointers. After shooting 36.8 percent from the field during his first three collegiate seasons, Akinjo has upped his efficiency to 45.5 percent this year.
Baylor is a balanced offensive team ranking fourth nationally in adjusted efficiency on that end. Akinjo is the straw that stirs the drink, leading the team in both points and assists.
5. EJ Liddell, Ohio State
Stats: 20.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks
EJ Liddell was an All-Big Ten performer a year ago, but he now appears to have his sights set on being named an All-American. He has upped his production seemingly across the board while emerging as one of the best two-way players in the sport. Liddell is currently leading the KenPom POTY race, and his statistical profile indicates why.
Liddell ranks 33rd nationally in defensive block rate, 10th in fouls drawn offensively, and is exceedingly efficient given his usage. He is also using his scoring ability to create for others at a higher rate this season. One of the mid-range kings of college basketball, Liddell is shooting 37-for-76 (48.7 percent) on “far 2s” this season; his ability to live in that area makes him so hard to defend.
Ohio State is a touch below the usual caliber of the team to feature a National Player of the Year performer, but Liddell has been extraordinary on both ends. The Buckeyes have a better resume than Big Ten counterparts Iowa (Murray) and Indiana (TJD), thus including Liddell over others.
The OSU star has also already posted a trio of big-time performances on the national stage:
4. Ochai Agbaji, Kansas
Stats: 20.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.5 assists
Despite its overall dominance as an elite regular-season program throughout the 21st century, Kansas has only featured one NPOY winner (Frank Mason III) over the past 33 years. Could now be the time to add another one? Ochai Agbaji is threatening to do exactly that with his remarkably efficient and high-volume scoring for the top-10-ranked Jayhawks.
He is currently posting over 20 points per game while shooting 58.3 percent on 2-pointers (108 total attempts) and 47.3 percent from beyond the arc (91 total attempts). Agbaji ranks 46th nationally in effective field goal percentage. He gets it done at all three levels and is the type of go-to scoring weapon that makes Kansas one of the best teams in the country.
It is also hard to blame Agbaji for the Jayhawks’ two losses to date. He scored 21 points (8-for-16 FG) in the one-point defeat to Dayton and recorded 24 points (7-for-12 FG) against Texas Tech. He has reached double figures as a scorer in every game this season. Agbaji is scoring at such a strong rate while guiding one of the top 10 teams in the country.
3. Bennedict Mathurin, Arizona
Stats: 18.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.1 assists
Arizona is one of the most pleasant surprises in the country this season. Many – myself included – thought that the Wildcats had a high ceiling, but very few could have predicted a launch into the nation’s top 5. First-year head coach Tommy Lloyd has integrated an up-tempo offense that is unleashing some beasts. Most notably, sophomore wing Bennedict Mathurin is making his mark on the national stage.
Mathurin leads the Wildcats in scoring and displays excellent efficiency. He is dominating in the paint (48-for-67, 71.6 percent on close twos) while also lighting it up from beyond the arc (32-for-83, 38.6 percent from three). Generating NPOY hype also takes having a “Heisman moment” or two. Mathurin’s 30-point outburst in a road win over Illinois certainly qualified. He also notched 25 against Wichita State and 24 against Wyoming, two at-large contenders.
Mathurin is putting up excellent numbers on one of the nation’s top teams. He is the clear No. 1 scorer on the roster and could continue to manufacturer attention if Arizona rolls through the Pac-12.
2. Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
Stats: 22.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks
Kofi Cockburn entered this campaign among the preseason favorites to win the National Player of the Year award. Yet, a suspension kept him on the sidelines for Illinois’ first three games. After the Illini lost in Cockburn’s return-to-action game, they sat at just 2-2 on the young season. Since then, Illinois has won nine of its last ten with Cockburn right at the center of everything.
The fact that the 7-footer has improved his numbers from last year speaks volumes. His improvement as a free throw shooting (now nearly 70 percent) makes him almost unfair. He is also creating at a much higher rate:
Cockburn was already a dominant force, but he has taken his game to a new level this season. The Illini have surrounded their star with more shooting – notably from Alfonso Plummer – with Andre Curbelo out, and it is paying significant dividends. Cockburn has dropped at least 20 points in four straight games. Being swallowed up by Arizona (13 points on 5-for-15) is the only blemish on his resume for this season.
Cockburn has been in the NPOY conversation since the onset of the campaign. With Illinois rising as of late – now No. 11 on KenPom – there is a good argument for him to be the favorite to win the award moving forward.
1. Johnny Davis, Wisconsin
Stats: 22.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 2.6 assists
There have been a lot of great college basketball players this season. However, no one has had a more enormous impact on their respective team than Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis. The stud sophomore is now trending as a lottery pick for the NBA Draft and he is the No. 1 reason Wisconsin is nationally ranked.
His per-game numbers are incredible, and his impact is displayed when analyzing Wisconsin’s best and worst analytical performances of the season:
Davis is averaging 26.6 points per game on remarkable shooting splits when Wisconsin is playing at its best. These include his “Heisman moments” against Purdue (37 points) and Houston (30 points). On the flip side, two of Wisconsin’s worst three games of the year have come with Davis on the sidelines. If that doesn’t speak to his value, I don’t know what does.
It is important to remember, though, that the last seven winners of the award – and 16 of the last 20 – have played for KenPom top-10 teams. Wisconsin is currently rated 30th in the efficiency-based metric. Nobody has won the Naismith Award to date for a team ranked that low in the KenPom era. Davis deserves to be the frontrunner right now, but there are a lot of worthy candidates.
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