Best of the best: Time to decide league players of the year


By Aaron Beard - AP Sports Writer



Duke's Luke Kennard (5) and Florida State's CJ Walker (2) chase the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. Duke won 75-70. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)


FILE - In this Dec. 31, 2016, file photo, North Carolina forward Justin Jackson (44) shoots as Georgia Tech forward Quinton Stephens (12) defends during an NCAA college basketball game in Atlanta. Jackson is averaging 18.4 points per game for the Tar Heels as a candidate for Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year. (AP Photo/John Amis, File)


Wake Forest's John Collins (20) dunks past Louisville's Anas Mahmoud (14) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Winston-Salem, N.C., Wednesday, March 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)


AP Basketball Writer

Eds: With AP Photos.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — For some of college basketball’s top leagues, there’s little doubt who should be the player of the year in the conference. In others, there are multiple worthy candidates that can walk away with the honor.

The five power conferences — the Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference— and the Big East wrap up regular-season play this weekend. Here’s a look at players down to their final chances to make a case for top individual awards:

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ACC

The ACC has a wide-open player of the year race with Duke’s Luke Kennard, North Carolina’s Justin Jackson and Wake Forest’s John Collins leading the way.

Kennard, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, has had a breakout season. He ranks second in the ACC at 19.8 points to go with 5.3 rebounds. He’s also shooting 50 percent from the floor, 85 percent from the foul line and 45 percent from behind the arc.

Jackson, a 6-8 junior, is averaging 18.4 points for a team that has already clinched the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament. Jackson and Kennard meet Saturday night in a rivalry game that could tip the balance in the race.

Then there’s Collins, a 6-10 sophomore who has become an efficient interior scorer. He’s averaging 19.3 points and 9.8 rebounds, while his 25-point, 11-rebound effort led Wednesday’s upset of No. 8 Louisville while marking his 12th consecutive 20-point performance.

“Hopefully I can go on and get that award,” Collins said this week, “but it definitely shows me I’m doing something right.”

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BIG 12

This race appears settled — see Kansas’ Frank Mason III.

The 5-11 senior made his mark early by hitting the last-second shot to beat preseason No. 1 Duke in November. He’s gone on to average 20.3 points and 4.9 assists to guide the Jayhawks to No. 1 in this week’s Top 25.

Kansas coach Bill Self praised Mason’s toughness after Monday’s Senior Night win against Oklahoma, showering him with some high praise as the “best guard I’ve ever coached.”

Baylor’s Johnathan Motley (17.5 points, 9.7 rebounds) would appear to be a longshot candidate after guiding the Bears to program’s first No. 1 ranking earlier this year.

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BIG EAST

Villanova’s Josh Hart is a top contender for national player of the year while leading the race for the top honor in the Big East.

The 6-5 senior and Associated Press preseason all-American is averaging 18.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting nearly 51 percent from the field.

He had 37 points and 11 rebounds against Notre Dame in December as well as a triple-double against St. Joseph’s, and has the reigning NCAA champions on course for a No. 1 seed in this year’s tournament.

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BIG TEN

Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan has made himself the clear player of the year front-runner in the Big Ten.

The 6-9 sophomore is averaging 18.6 points and 12.5 rebounds (second nationally) while tallying 24 double-doubles (tied for the most in Division I through Tuesday’s games). That includes four 20-point, 20-rebound performances to help the No. 16 Boilermakers claim at least a share of the league regular-season crown.

Iowa senior guard Peter Jok (Big Ten-best 20.6 points), Maryland junior Melo Trimble (16.9 points) and Wisconsin sophomore forward Ethan Happ (14.1 points, 9.0 rebounds) are the leading contenders behind Swanigan.

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PAC-12

Like the ACC, there’s a close race in the Pac-12 for player of the year honors.

There’s freshman point guard Lonzo Ball — a two-time league player of the week — leads No. 3 UCLA’s high-scoring offense. Sixth-ranked Oregon junior forward Dillon Brooks, an AP preseason all-American averaging 15.6 points, has captured player of the week honors three times.

And 7-foot freshman Lauri Markkanen (15.4 points, 7.4 rebounds) has helped No. 7 Arizona stay near the top of the league standings.

Ball — the nation’s assist leader at 7.6 per game — had 19 points, even rebounds and eight assists in Wednesday’s win against Washington. The Bruins close the regular season against Washington State on Saturday.

That same day, Brooks and the Ducks visit Oregon State, while Markkanen and the Wildcats travel to Arizona State.

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SEC

The SEC has a couple of worthy player of the year candidates, led by high-scoring freshman Malik Monk of league-leading Kentucky.

Monk is averaging 21.7 points, second only to Washington’s Markelle Fultz among all freshmen and 12th overall in Division I. He scored 20 of his 27 points after halftime Tuesday to help the No. 9 Wildcats rally from 19 down to beat Vanderbilt in their biggest comeback of the John Calipari era.

South Carolina senior guard Sindarius Thornwell has also put himself in contention. He’s second to Monk in scoring at 21 points per game while averaging 7.3 rebounds to put the Gamecocks within reach of their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2004.

Both teams close on the road Saturday. Kentucky visits Texas A&M, while South Carolina travels to Mississippi.

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25

Duke’s Luke Kennard (5) and Florida State’s CJ Walker (2) chase the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. Duke won 75-70. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
http://timesgazette.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/web1_115326967-6e7f3474ee4e4a4182d936b07629c05b.jpgDuke’s Luke Kennard (5) and Florida State’s CJ Walker (2) chase the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. Duke won 75-70. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

FILE – In this Dec. 31, 2016, file photo, North Carolina forward Justin Jackson (44) shoots as Georgia Tech forward Quinton Stephens (12) defends during an NCAA college basketball game in Atlanta. Jackson is averaging 18.4 points per game for the Tar Heels as a candidate for Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year. (AP Photo/John Amis, File)
http://timesgazette.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/web1_115326967-e3ef43c83aaf4e849ca8e1ff2a52a3f6.jpgFILE – In this Dec. 31, 2016, file photo, North Carolina forward Justin Jackson (44) shoots as Georgia Tech forward Quinton Stephens (12) defends during an NCAA college basketball game in Atlanta. Jackson is averaging 18.4 points per game for the Tar Heels as a candidate for Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year. (AP Photo/John Amis, File)

Wake Forest’s John Collins (20) dunks past Louisville’s Anas Mahmoud (14) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Winston-Salem, N.C., Wednesday, March 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
http://timesgazette.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/web1_115326967-00df638a21c84c869228acbedc50b2ad.jpgWake Forest’s John Collins (20) dunks past Louisville’s Anas Mahmoud (14) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Winston-Salem, N.C., Wednesday, March 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

By Aaron Beard

AP Sports Writer

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