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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | March 1, 2021

Tracking 9 leading contenders for the men's college basketball National Player of the Year

College basketball's top 10 preseason Player of the Year candidates

It's officially March. That means March Madness is just weeks away, with conference play winding down and the top teams and players finalizing their respective positions, if they haven't already.

With roughly a month left in the season, I analyzed some of the leading National Player of the Year candidates.

The following players aren't listed in any particular order, other than Iowa's Luka Garza, the lone returning All-American from last season, being listed first. All stats and rankings are current through February.

Joseph Cress | USA TODAY Sports Images Iowa's Luka Garza.

Luka Garza, Iowa

Year: Senior
Position: Forward
Stats: 24.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 1.8 apg; 55.1 FG%, 45.5 3P%
Team record: 18-7 (12-6 Big Ten)
Team AP poll ranking: No. 5

Garza was the lone consensus First or Second Team All-American from last season who returned to school for the 2020-21 season, which made him the preseason favorite to be named National Player of the Year in the spring. He has more than lived up to those lofty expectations. He leads a top-five team in scoring, he's nearly averaging a double-double and he has made 3-pointers at a ridiculous rate.

Iowa owns the No. 2 adjusted offensive efficiency rating in the country (124.9 points per 100 possessions). That is thanks to a fast-paced, assist-happy offense that is centered around Garza, who's taking just over 33 percent of the team's shots when he's on the floor. But he certainly warrants such a large share of the Hawkeyes's attempts, as his 124.3 offensive rating ranks No. 57 nationally, through Feb. 28. He's ranked No. 1 in kenpom.com's National Player of the Year standings.

Garza scored at least 30 points seven times, including a 41-point game on 14-of-15 shooting against Southern in the second game of the season.

RANKS: Andy Katz ranks the top 10 conferences in men's hoops, right now 

Patrick Gorski | USA Today Sports Images Illinois's Ayo Dosunmu.

Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois

Year: Junior
Position: Guard
Stats: 21.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 5.3 apg; 48.6 FG%, 40.0 3P%
Team record: 18-6 (14-4 Big Ten)
Team ranking: No. 4

Illinois was a preseason top-10 team in the AP poll and the Illini peaked at No. 5 in the first month of the season, and they've since climbed to a season-best ranking of No. 4.

Dosunmu's scoring average has jumped roughly almost five points per game from last season and his advanced stats page on kenpom.com looks like a Christmas tree — there are bright, shiny things everywhere. While having a shot percentage that ranks in the top 40 nationally (he takes almost 32 percent of Illinois' shots when he's on the floor), he has still remained efficient, with an offensive rating of 112.4. He's shooting 40 percent from behind the arc, which is one of the top 250 percentages nationally, he's drawing 5.2 fouls per 40 minutes and he's arguably a prolific defensive rebounder for his position.

Dosunmu has recently missed time with a nose injury but he has scored in double figures in every game he has played this season, including four 30-point games and two triple-doubles in his last five games.

Tim Flores | USA TODAY Sports Images Baylor's Jared Butler.

Jared Butler, Baylor

Year: Junior
Position: Guard
Stats: 16.4 ppg, 4.9 apg, 3.2 rpg; 48.3 FG%, 43.4 3P%
Team record: 181 (10-1 Big 12)
Team ranking: No. 3

Butler presents an interesting National Player of the Year case because he's maybe the best and most well-known player on No. 3 Baylor's roster. So if his candidacy is one of "the best player on one of the best teams," then Butler has a solid argument for the award.

Butler is the team's primary ball-handler and he commands the highest usage rate on the team (26.7 percent). Baylor's ability to have five players ranked in the top 200 nationally in offensive rating — Adam Flagler (15th), Davion Mitchell (77th), Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (83rd), Teague (96th) and Butler (140th) — is at least in part because of Butler being the focal point for defenses and his ability to set up his teammates in spots where they can succeed.

Butler's 28.8-percent assist rate ranks in the top 100 nationally. You could make the case that Baylor is so good and so deep that it might actually limit Butler's per-game numbers at times because the Bears don't always need him to take over games or play more than 30 minutes per game. He's averaging 29.2 minutes per game and he has only played more than 30 minutes in a game just nine times this season.

Butler sits at No. 7 in kenpom.com's National Player of the Year standings.

LAST MARCH: Here's how March Madness contenders are playing compared to last spring

Kevin Jairaj | USA TODAY Sports Images Gonzaga's Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme.

Drew Timme, Gonzaga

Year: Sophomore
Position: Forward
Stats: 18.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.9 apg; 65.1 FG%
Team record: 24-0 (15-0 WCC)
Team ranking: No. 1

The biggest threat to Gonzaga's Drew Timme, Jalen Suggs or Corey Kispert winning National Player of the Year is probably one another.

Gonzaga has been ranked No. 1 all season and the Zags might prove to be the best team in the country, which could certainly warrant a Bulldogs player winning the award. But the question would be, which one?

Timme has had the breakout sophomore campaign that many analysts and fans predicted. The 6-10 forward's scoring average has almost doubled from last season. Timme owns the highest usage rate and shot rate on the team, which means the offense generally runs through him when he's on the floor. He's really efficient, too, with a 128.8 offensive rating.

Timme has made 67.1 percent of his shots inside the arc and he draws more than 6.5 fouls per 40 minutes, which has led to him attempting more than one free throw for every two field-goal attempts, on average.

The sophomore currently ranks second in kenpom.com's National Player of the Year standings.

Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga

Year: Freshman
Position: Guard
Stats: 13.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 45 apg; 50.4 FG%, 33.3 3P%
Team record: 24-0 (15-0 WCC)
Team ranking: No. 1

Suggs' offensive rating is 111.2, he's shooting nearly 60 percent from 2-point range and his 24.1-percent assist rate ranks in the top 250 nationally. The freshman has played his best when the lights have shined the brightest, too. In his college debut against Kansas, he had 24 points, eight assists, four rebounds and two steals, then he put up 27 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals against Iowa.

Corey Kispert, Gonzaga

Year: Senior
Position: Forward
Stats: 19.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.8 apg; 55.6 FG%, 46.3 3P%
Team record: 24-0 (15-0 WCC)
Team ranking: No. 1

Is there a world in which the leading scorer on the No. 1 team isn't definitively the best National Player of the Year candidate on the team? Just asking for a friend.

ispert has averaged nearly 20 points per game while ranking 10th in the country in offensive rating (135.8), thanks to a 46.3-percent 3-point percentage, 64.9 percent shooting inside the arc and an 88.9-percent accuracy from the free-throw line.

For now, there's quite literally less than 10 players who are more efficient than Kispert and no one in the country plays for a higher-ranked team than him, and that's a profile that's certainly deserving of serious National Player of the Year consideration.

WATCH: Hear Corey Kispert break down his career night in Gonzaga's rout of Virginia

David Butler II | USA Today Sports Images Villanova's Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova

Year: Sophomore
Position: Forward
Stats: 15.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 1.7 apg; 49.4 FG%
Team record: 15-4 (10-3 Big East)
Team ranking: No. 10

Robinson-Earl is first on the team in scoring and rebounding, while posting an offensive rating of 113.7, which is nationally ranked.

In the first month of the season, Robinson-Earl recorded a 28-point, eight-rebound performance against Arizona State, a 25-point, seven-rebound, six-assist effort against Saint Joseph's and an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double against Boston College.

Marc Lebryk | USA TODAY Sports Images Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis.

Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana

Year: Sophomore
Position: Forward
Stats: 19.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 1.5 apg; 52.1 FG%
Team record: 12-12 (7-10 Big Ten)
Team ranking: Not ranked

There are two major impediments to Jackson-Davis' National Player of the Year candidacy, and they're related. One is how good Indiana is in a loaded Big Ten, and the other is the presence of other — better? — National Player of the Year candidates in the conference.

Indiana is just .500 and it sits at 7-10 in Big Ten play through Feb. 28. More than half of the teams in the Big Ten could finish with a conference record that's between 12-8 and 8-12, as the league with a national-best six teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and many of its squads have cannibalized each other to some degree. That's good for strength-of-schedule metrics but it could be bad for some teams' win totals, including Indiana.

With Iowa's Garza and Illinois' Dosunmu putting up better numbers on better teams within Indiana's conference, Jackson-Davis might finish (at best) third for conference player of the year, which speaks to the challenge of him winning National Player of the Year. He gets to the free-throw line as often as almost anyone in the sport (he has taken 205 free throws this season compared to 326 field goals), he shoulders one of the greatest offensive loads nationally (his 30.2-percent shot rate ranks 49th) and his block percentage (4.9 percent) places him inside the 170 best rim-protectors in the country.

However, the Hoosiers have not won enough for Jackson-Davis to become a frontrunner for the award.

Rob Ferguson | USA Today Sports Images Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham.

Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

Year: Freshman
Position: Guard
Stats: 19.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.0 bpg; 45.3 FG%, 43.2 3P%
Team record: 16-6 (9-6 Big 12)
Team ranking: No. 17

Cunningham is one of the two leading contenders for numerous national freshman of the year awards, as he and Gonzaga's Suggs are the two most likely candidates. But Cunningham's sheer production and versatility should earn him a spot on All-America lists and potentially the National Player of the Year discussion, too. The 6-8 guard leads his team in scoring at nearly 20 points per game and he's second on the team in assists at 3.5 per game, and he's second in rebounding, while also initiating the Cowboys's offense. He's shooting better than 43 percent from deep on 95 attempts and he's leading Oklahoma State in assist rate, as he's assisting on roughly 21 percent of the team's baskets when he's on the floor.

Cunningham might be a First Team All-American who's stuck on a team that's not quite good enough to cement his National Player of the Year candidacy. However, after Oklahoma State started 3-4 in Big 12 play, the Cowboys are now 9-6.

 
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