The end of the college football season happens to come roughly at the midpoint of the college basketball season. It’s always a fine time to check in on how the national award races are shaping up. This week, let’s look at the leading candidates for player of the year.
It’s too soon to say we’re down to a two-man race, but there are two clear candidates standing above the rest of the field — Villanova’s Josh Hart and Kansas’ Frank Mason III.
Hart, a long, powerful senior shooting guard averaging about 20 points per game, has been — by far — the best player on what many see as an even stronger Wildcats team than the one that cut down the nets at the Final Four last season.
“That’s what veterans are about,” DePaul coach Dave Leitao said after Hart scored 25 in a late-December victory over the Blue Demons. “That’s what All-Americans are supposed to do.”
Mason, a rugged senior point guard, has been wonderfully well-rounded, averaging 19.9 points, 5.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds — all career highs. He’s also shooting better than 50 percent from the three-point line.
“He’s got things you can’t teach and intangibles that are as strong as anybody’s in America,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said.
Hart is talked about more, it seems, but don’t be surprised if Mason eventually surpasses him.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
No. 24 Minnesota at Michigan State (Wednesday, 6 p.m., BTN): How real is real with these Gophers, whose 3-1 Big Ten record puts them in a four-way tie with Nebraska, Purdue and the Spartans for first place in the conference? Sparty won by a single point in Minneapolis in the teams’ league opener.
No. 12 Butler at No. 8 Creighton (Wednesday, 8 p.m., FS1): Anyone have any doubts Butler can contend in the Big East after its decisive, impressive victory over previously untouchable Villanova? The Bluejays are right there, too, though. Creighton freshman seven-footer Justin Patton is a star in the making.
No. 7 Duke at No. 14 Louisville (Saturday, 11 a.m., ESPN): Another prove-it game for the Blue Devils, who played at ninth-ranked Florida State on Tuesday. If they ever get their roster intact, they might never lose again. Right now? They’re still vulnerable, especially against a Cardinals group that already has taken down Kentucky.
No. 9 Florida State at No. 11 North Carolina (Saturday, 1 p.m., ESPN): Justin Jackson gets better and better for the Tar Heels, who showed in a jaw-dropping 107-56 romp against North Carolina State that they’re ready to get on a roll. FSU is the rare opponent with more than enough length to throw at UNC.
No. 21 Saint Mary’s at No. 5 Gonzaga (Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN2): The Zags aren’t the only West Coast Conference team that would holds its own in one of the major leagues. The Gaels have a 20-and-10 true center in Jock Landale. His battle inside with 7-1, 300-pound Przemek Karnowski will make linemen from Clemson and Alabama proud.
Up: No. 6 Kentucky. The Wildcats are binge-scoring, averaging 94.2 points per game, and won their first three SEC games by a combined 91 points. The team is very young and, thus, imperfect, but that “6” next to the Kentucky name is kind of a joke.
Down: Ohio State. Off to an 0-3 start in Big Ten play? That’s rough enough. But with the next three at Wisconsin, against Michigan State and at Nebraska, it could get plenty worse.
Up: Caleb Swanigan, Purdue. The burly sophomore has taken over the national lead in rebounding, at 12.9 per game. Outstanding player.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.