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Jeff Eisenberg

Nolan Smith's big night vaults him into player of the year race

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Seldom has the star player on perhaps the nation's most high-profile team ever been as underappreciated as Duke's Nolan Smith.

If Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette and Jared Sullinger have spent the past few months jockeying for position in the national player of the year race, Smith has become the forgotten candidate. The senior guard placed a distant fourth fourth in AnnArbor.com's most recent survey of player of the year voters, cracking the top three on only six of 50 ballots and earning just one first place vote.

That tally might have looked a little different had voters watched Smith will Duke back into contention against North Carolina on Wednesday night prior to turning in their ballots.

Smith was the best player on the floor throughout Duke's 79-73 victory, scoring 34 points on 13 of 23 shooting to help rally the Blue Devils from a 16-point deficit late in the first half. He scored 22 points on 8-for-11 from the field after halftime, shredding North Carolina freshman Kendall Marshall off the dribble and sinking three of six 3-pointers in order to keep defenders from playing too far off him.

Had this performance been an aberration, it would be easy to argue that one game doesn't make a player of the year contender. In reality, this game was reflective of what Smith has done all season, especially since Kyrie Irving's toe injury forced him to shoulder more of the load the past two months.

Smith has averaged 21.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists this season, career highs in all three categories. Since Irving's injury on Dec. 3 against Butler, he has averaged 22.7 points per game and failed to score 18 points or more only once.

While his scoring numbers aren't quite as gaudy as Fredette's 27.5 points per game, he's probably the more complete player when you factor in defense. And Smith compares favorably to Walker in many categories, most notably efficiency where he's shooting five percent better from the field and more consistently from behind the 3-point arc as well.

Evaluating him against Sullinger is more difficult since they play two different positions, but it's safe to say they're both the MVPs of two of the nation's top teams this season.

The bottom line is Smith is probably a smidge behind Fredette and perhaps Sullinger in the player of the year race at this point. The gap just isn't nearly as far as the national consensus seemed to be entering Wednesday night.

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