The race to determine college basketball's national player of the year may come down to a sprint to the finish.
From Michigan point guard Trey Burke, to Indiana wing Victor Oladipo, to Georgetown forward Otto Porter, a handful of strong contenders have emerged over the course of conference play. But much like the national championship picture, the player of the year race remains wide-open enough for any of the top candidates to claim it with a decisive finishing kick.
If the award goes to the best player on the top team in the nation's strongest league, then Oladipo would be the obvious choice.
The 6-foot-5 junior has eclipsed preseason player of the year candidate Cody Zeller as the Hoosiers team MVP because of his fierce perimeter defense, his remarkable 63.4 percent shooting from the field and his ability to come through in the clutch. Oladipo averages a modest 14.0 points per game, but he has averaged 20 points in Indiana's six games against ranked teams.
Also a player of the year contender from the Big Ten is Burke, the runaway choice for the nation's best point guard.
Burke is averaging 18.9 points per game, sinking 38.5 percent of his 3-pointers and compiling the nation's best assist-to-turnover ratio, but he proved Sunday that he can win a game other ways than just his offense. Two steals in the final 30 seconds of Michigan's win at Michigan State helped the Wolverines rebound from a bad loss to Penn State and move into a second-place tie in the Big Ten.
The candidate who carries the most momentum into March may be Porter, whose player of the year stock has mirrored Georgetown's rise to the top of the Big East.
Few teams count on one player to carry their offense more than the Hoyas do Porter, but he has handled the burden expertly. In addition to scoring 16.6 points, grabbing 7.7 boards and shooting over 50 percent from the field, Porter had his best performance in his team's biggest game, a 33-point eruption at Syracuse in the final game between the two Big East rivals in the Carrier Dome.
There are a handful of dark horse player of the year contenders that should at least garner first-team All-American votes.
Creighton's Doug McDermott is one of the nation's most prolific shooters and scorers, but his team's late-season inconsistency on the road knocked the Bluejays out of the AP Top 25 and may have taken his player of the year campaign with it. Duke's Mason Plumlee was the nation's best player in November and December, but he faded just a bit in the absence of forward Ryan Kelly. And Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk went from third fiddle in the Zags' frontcourt in November to perhaps the nation's best scoring big man, though critics will note he didn't face the same competition in the WCC that other contenders did elsewhere.
My choice out of all the aforementioned players? I'd probably give a slight nod to Oladipo because he impacts a game in so many different ways, but I concede you can make just as good a case for Burke, Porter, Olynyk and perhaps even some other guys. Here's a head-to-head comparison chart between those top four that only further illustrates just how difficult it is to favor one over another:
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