Feb. 5, 2009

By Anthony Oliva III

We’re three months into this already electric basketball season and we’ve seen our fair share of upsets, dramatic finishes and outstanding individual performances. There have been five teams ranked No. 1 so far and the race for who will be named the nation’s top player isn’t any less uncertain. But if you need a refresher, here’s a list of 10 of the nation’s best players so far.

DeJuan Blair – Pittsburgh
Twenty three points and 22 rebounds. That was Blair’s stat line versus Notre Dame Jan. 31. And that’s the kind of potential he has each and every night. He is averaging 14.9 points and 12.7 rebounds for the third-ranked Panthers (20-2, 7-2 Big East).

Pittsburgh is known for being a hard-nosed team, and Blair’s done a great job setting that tone for the Panthers. He may be only 6-foot-7, but his 265 pound frame makes him tough to handle in the post.  The sophomore forward is fourth in the nation in rebounding and second in the Big East.

On the offensive side, he’s shooting nearly 60 percent from the field and is a nice offensive complement to Sam Young and Levance Fields.

Stephen Curry – Davidson
The darling of last year’s NCAA Tournament has returned in full force this year – at a different position. Curry was moved to the point, but the results are the very much the same.

The 6-foot-3, paper-thin guard is leading the nation in scoring with 28.9 points a night, a total that’s actually up three points a game from last year. The junior has been asked to handle the ball the more and he has incorporated his teammates with much success. He is dishing out 6.5 assists a night, which is 10th in the nation. Defensively, he is eighth in the nation with 2.9 steals.

As Curry goes, Davidson (19-3, 12-0) goes. And if Curry keeps it up, there could be more March magic for the Wildcats, who made it to the Elite Eight and lost to eventual national champion Kansas last season. 

Blake Griffin - Oklahoma
First there was Kevin Durant. Then there was Michael Beasley. Now there is Blake Griffin. The sophomore forward has taken over the Big 12 this year much like his predecessors the previous two years.

The 6-foot-10 sophomore forward is averaging 22.1 points and 14.1 rebounds a night. He leads the nation in rebounding and leads the Big 12 in scoring, shooting 62.8 percent from the field. Griffin and his brother, Taylor, are a huge reason why the Sooners are 22-1 and ranked No. 2 in the nation.

They hype surrounding Griffin is justified and if he decided to go pro following this season his fate will be much like Durant’s and Beasley, who both were picked second in the NBA Draft.

Jordan Hill – Arizona
Arizona has a strong tradition of stellar guard and wing play, but Hill is leading this Wildcat team with tremendous production in the post. The junior forward leads the Pac-10 in rebounding, is second in the conference in blocks and is third in the Pac-10 in scoring.

Only once this year has the junior forward been held under 10 points and he is putting up a team-leading 18.2 points per contest. However, the 6-foot-10 Georgia native has been most productive on the boards. He is grabbing 12 a game and that is sixth in the nation. He has also compiled 14 double-doubles and 2.1 blocks per game.

If the Wildcats (14-8, 4-5), who are hovering around the AP top 25, want to make noise in March, they will need to rely heavily on Hill.

Tyler Hansbrough – North Carolina
Much to the delight of Tar Heel fans, Hansbrough, who won the Naismith and Wooden Awards as the nation’s best college basketball player last year, came back to Chapel Hill for one last campaign. He has not disappointed.

The 6-foot-9 forward is leading the ACC in scoring with 22.4 points a game and is shooting 52.6 percent from the field. He has scored at least 20 points in 14 of his 18 games this year is shooting a very efficient 52.9 percent from the floor.

The Missouri native is also one of the nation’s best team leaders. He plays with unparalleled emotion, earning him the nickname “Psycho T”. And if the Tar Heels, who are 19-2 and ranked third in the nation, are playing late in March, he’ll be one of the biggest reasons.

Luke Harangody – Notre Dame
Notre Dame is struggling right now, with losses in its last six games, but it is certainly not because of a lack of production from Harangody. The junior forward is averaging 25.3 points and 13.2 rebounds a game, both tops in the Big East.

Nationally he ranks fourth in scoring and third in rebounding. He has amassed 16 double-doubles and has scored at least 20 points in his last 14 games.

Things may not be going swimmingly in South Bend, but Harangody’s gaudy numbers cannot be ignored.

Jodie Meeks – Kentucky
There may be no more improved played in the country than Meeks. There also may be no more explosive player, as evidenced by his 54-point outburst on Jan. 13 vs. Tennessee, breaking Kentucky’s single-game scoring record.

Meeks averaged 8.8 points per game in an injury-shortened season last year. Currently the 6-foot-4 guard is first in the SEC and fifth in the nation in scoring with a 25.1 points per game average. He has scored at least 30 points in six games this year and is shooting 44 percent from 3-point range and 90.6 percent from the foul line, second and first in the SEC respectively.

Kentucky is 5-3 in the SEC this year and very much still in the running for the conference crown, thanks in large part to the outstanding production from Meeks.

Kyle Singler – Duke
Four of the last 10 years a Duke player has been crowned as Naismith Award and Wooden Award winner. The Blue Devils’ best chance to bring down some more hardware this year is Kyle Singler.

The 6-foot-8 Oregon native is averaging 16.2 points and 8.1 rebounds a night in the highly competitive ACC. Defensively he is a tough matchup, and he is a big reason why the Blue Devils surrender an ACC-low 60.4 points a contest.

Duke (19-3, 6-2) is tied for first place in the ACC and if the Blue Devils wish to come out on top, they will need a lot out of Singler.

Jeff Teague – Wake Forest
Teague has developed into one of the most explosive guards players in the country. He is pouring in 20.6 points a night which is good for second in the ACC, behind only Hansbrough.

The sophomore guard has played a key role in Wake Forest’s biggest wins this year. In a key four-game stretch that saw the Demon Deacons beat BYU, North Carolina, Boston College and Clemson, the Indiana native averaged 29.3 points per game.

Teague is efficient from long distance and shoots 50 percent from behind the arc, and on the defensive side he is second in the ACC with 2.1 steals a game.

Hasheem Thabeet – Connecticut
For Thabeet, a 7-foot-3 defensive force and raw offensive talent, the comparisons to former UConn great Emeka Okafor are undeniable. And, if Thabeet keeps anchoring this top-ranked Huskies team like has been, he could be a main reason why they accomplish something Okafor did in his tenure in Storrs – win a national championship.

The junior from Tanzania may be the biggest game changer in the country. He is averaging a Big East leading 4.0 blocks a game, but the amount of shots he alters in the paint in immeasurable. Amazingly, on Jan. 31 vs. Providence, he had a triple double with 15 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks. He is a big reason the Huskies (21-1, 10-1) are surrendering only 61.3 points a night. 

The junior who opted to skip the NBA draft last year is considered a defensive specialist but he is efficient on the offensive end, scoring 13 points a contest on 64.5 percent shooting.

Others to Watch:
Jeff Adrien (UConn), Talor Battle (Penn State), Derrick Brown (Xavier), Nick Calathes (Florida), James Harden (Arizona State), Gerald Henderson (Duke), Jerel McNeal (Marquette), Wesley Matthews (Marquette), Terrance Williams (Louisville), Sam Young (Pittsburgh).