Fri Jan 07 02:26pm EST
Unlike last season when Kentucky's John Wall and Ohio State's Evan Turner turned the national player of the year debate into a head-to-head battle, this year's race appears to be a bit more wide open.
UConn point guard Kemba Walker emerged as an early front runner thanks to his MVP performance at the Maui Invitational over Thanksgiving, but others have closed the gap or perhaps overtaken him since. Here's a look at how the player of the year race stacks up entering the first major weekend of conference play:
1. Jared Sullinger, Fr. Ohio State
The Associated Press had the right idea naming a freshman to its preseason All-American team, but they miscalculated by passing over Sullinger in favor of North Carolina's Harrison Barnes. The 6-foot-9 Sullinger has emerged as not only the best freshman in the nation but also the best back-to-the-basket big man, averaging 18.1 points and 10.2 rebounds and shooting 59.5 percent from the field for the second-ranked Buckeyes.
2. Kemba Walker, Jr., Connecticut
Walker has tallied 18 or more points in every game he's played so far this season to keep his scoring average at a ridiculous 26.1 points, but the burden of carrying UConn appears to be wearing on him of late. In the Huskies' first three Big East games, Walker is just 25 of 68 from the field, a product of facing higher quality defenses that are running two and three players at the 6-foot point guard in hopes of forcing somebody else on UConn to beat them.
3. Nolan Smith, Sr., Duke
The best player on the nation's top team has not been Final Four MVP Kyle Singler as many might have expected entering the season. Instead that title belongs to Smith, who has assumed more of a scoring point guard role since Kyrie Irving's injury last month and is now averaging 19.6 points and 5.6 assists and shooting 40.7 percent from three-point range for the undefeated Blue Devils.
4. Jimmer Fredette, G, BYU
If Fredette played in the Big East or the ACC instead of the Mountain West, he'd probably receive even more exposure than he gets now. The sweet-shooting senior is averaging a career-best 25.1 points per game and has raised his field goal percentage to 47.6 percent, all while facing defenses designed specifically to keep him from shaking free for any open perimeter looks.
Other contenders to watch: Jordan Hamilton, So., Texas; Derrick Williams, So., Arizona; Jon Leuer, Sr. Wisconsin; Terrence Jones, Fr., Kentucky; JaJuan Johnson, Sr., Purdue.