Arguing about the Big 12 Player of the Year

FORT WORTH, Texas — The sandwich was hot, but the server was a whole different kind of spicy. My server’s name was Doug at the dive restaurant I chose to eat my pregame meal at before No. 23 Oklahoma thrashed Texas Christian at Daniel-Meyer Coliseum on Saturday.

Naturally, he was a Horned Frogs fan, and he didn’t want to talk about the upcoming game. I didn’t blame him. TCU hadn’t won a game since December, and it wasn’t going to win one today. But he had some opinions about who he thought should win Big 12 Player of the Year (POY). Figures.

Everyone who’s watched what I believe is the most competitive college basketball league in the country has been treated to some of the best players in the country. And for the first time in some time, I believe you could make an argument for at least five — maybe six — players in the conference who are worthy of the award.

Now, I don’t get to vote for the award. That’s for the men and women who write for the broadsheets. I just cover the league’s second-best team for a damn fine website and have written about the Big 12 for the last three years. But Doug, he doesn’t cover any team at all, and that didn’t stop him from telling me Marcus Smart should be given the Big 12 POY award for a second straight year.

“He’s the best player anybody’s seen this year,” he said.

Well, I tend to think he’s up there. Sure. It’s hard to argue with 17.6 points, 5.7 boards and 4.7 assists per game — even if Smart didn’t play in three games due to suspension. According to KenPom.com, Smart also handles the ball 30 percent of the time for Oklahoma State and has come with another season of at least 90 steals. Solid season.

Smart’s one of the most complete players in college basketball and a potential top 5 NBA draft pick. But the Big 12 POY shouldn’t go to the player who will likely be the best pro. It should go to the player who was the best in the league — regardless of how his team finished.

This is why I, like Doug, don’t think Andrew Wiggins should win the award either. Fact is, Wiggins is really good. I mean REALLY good. His length, speed, size and grace all have NBA general managers salivating over what he could do for their clubs this time next year. And it’s not like he’s been biding his time at Kansas all year.

He leads the Jayhawks in points per game (16.0) and is good for nearly six boards per game. Let’s not forget the 41 points he dropped on West Virginia with just 19 shot attempts. I don’t care what you think he should’ve accomplished this season. What Wiggins has done is no small feat for a freshman in this league, even one as vaunted as he. But he’s not straw the stirs the drink in Lawrence, Kan.

That man didn’t play in the WVU game where Wiggins went bananas. In fact, you could argue the reason KU lost a game where Wiggins scores 41 is precisely because Joel Embiid wasn’t on the court. Now, I know Embiid runs real hot one second and real cold another, but his ability to change the outcome of a game by blocking shots — by altering shots — can’t be ignored. He might be the smoothest center in the college game, and he hasn’t been playing basketball for more than three years. Impressive stuff.

He’s got potential by the bucket loads, and that’s another reason the NBA can’t wait for him to take the leap. But that’s all he’s got right now. 11.2 points, 8.1 boards and 2.6 blocks per game are solid numbers. They’re not Big 12 POY numbers.

Iowa State has two fellas who deserve hard looks. DeAndre Kane’s 16.7 points, 6.7 boards and 5.8 assists per game are as good — no, better — than Smart’s numbers. And Kane’s team won more games. Problem is, we KNOW he had lots of help, particularly from the fella I thought would win the Big 12 POY two weeks ago: Melvin Ejim.

Ejim ranks first in the league in scoring per game (18.4 points) and second in rebounds per game (8.6 boards). His shining moment came in the Cyclones shellacking of TCU where he scored 48 points with a shot chart that looked more like a skilled marksman’s target than a scatter plot. I don’t know if ISU would be this good without Kane running the point, but I know the Cyclones wouldn’t stand a chance without Ejim in the post.

Still, there are role players on that team that can pick up the slack when Ejim seems out of sorts. I can’t really say that about West Virginia. They’ve got two fellas who do the bulk of the scoring for them in Eron Harris and Juwan Staten. But without Staten, Harris doesn’t get his opportunities to shoot the trey he’s so good at making.

Staten can score from beyond the arc, get to the basket and create shots for others. I wrote a bit about him here, but suffice it to say he’s a point guards point guard and a coach’s player. He should be named to the All-Big 12 first team. There aren’t five point guards in the entire country better than him. He’s my pick, and I told Doug so.

“But West Virginia sucks,” he said.

Nah, they don’t suck. The Mountaineers are pretty good and could be dancing come Selection Sunday. Fact is, they would be a heck of a lot worse of if Staten weren’t their point guard.

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