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Patrick Hruby

Player's Ball

The Atlantic Sports Roundtable on college basketball's player of the year race

The Atlantic Online

Who's the player of the year in college basketball? In this week's Atlantic Sports Roundtable, at least, it depends on who you ask.

Hampton Stevens: ... Ben McLemore. Just a red-shirt freshman, McLemore might be the best athlete in a generation to play for KU. He's certainly the best shooting guard.

The obvious comparison to McLemore is Paul Pierce, the KU alum and Celtics legend. Both players are stealthy slashers and deadly shooters with a silky, minimalist stroke. As a kid, McLemore even went to Pierce's basketball camp.

Ben, though, can jump higher now than Pierce could when he left KU after his junior season. Pierce certainly never had the flair and ferocity around the bucket that Ben does. In that, and in his number 23, it's clear that Ben's game—right down to the "Air McLemore" nickname—is built on emulating Michael Jordan.

He's not done a half-bad job of it, either. The player-of-the-year race was over last weekend when McLemore had a performance--hyperbole or not--that has to be called Jordan-esque.

In a romp over West Virginia, Ben scored 36, and he did it virtually every way that it's possible for a player to score. He hit cold-blooded midrange jumpers. He dunked from the baseline off set plays. He dunked from the free-throw line on the fast-break. He hit three-pointers from everywhere, including a falling-backwards-off-one-foot buzzer-beater from two steps beyond the arc. It was ruthless. Late in the game, McLemore floated sideways at the top of the key, squared and dropped a 15-footer on a play so Jordandish you could almost hear Craig Ehlo cry.

Guys, to me it's obvious. Ben McLemore is most talented player in the college game ...

Jake Simpson: ... this season, no player has meant more to his team than Michigan's Trey Burke. The elusive point guard reminds me of a young Russell Westbrook, a terror off the dribble and on defense who will only get better as his shot improves. Burke is averaging 19 points and seven assists a game for Michigan, which in February reached the No. 1 ranking for the first time in two decades.

Hampton, one of the gushing sentences you wrote about McLemore demonstrates why Burke should actually win the Naismith award.

The player-of-the year race was over last weekend when McLemore had a performance—hyperbole or not—that has to be called Jordan-esque. In a romp over West Virginia, he scored 36, and did it virtually every way it's possible for a player to score.

The key words there are "West Virginia" and "romp". Beating up on a 13-17 Mountaineers squad in a blowout does not a player of the year make. And if you check his game log, McLemore averaged just 10.3 points in the four games around that West Virginia win. He's reached 10 rebounds just once—a season-opening win over SE Missouri St.—and hasn't cracked 10 assists in a single game.

What's determinative, always, is how athletes play in close games or against elite opposition. And that's where Burke stands out ...

Patrick Hruby: ... The national player of the year race is as muddled as the top 25.

Are we talking about the most indispensable player? I'd argue that McDermott is far more crucial to Creighton than Burke is to Michigan; after all, Burke has a pretty talented pair of wingmen in Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III, while McDermott has ... well, a bunch of guys whose fathers weren't NBA All-Stars. And what about Duke's Ryan Kelly? With him in the early-season lineup, teammate Mason Plumlee looked like a favorite for player of the year, the Blue Devils beat a trio of top-five-ranked teams in Ohio State, Kentucky, and Louisville, and rose to No. 1 in the rankings on the strength of elite team defense; without Kelly, Duke went 9-4, saw their defense slip and watched fans storm the court at North Carolina State, Miami, Maryland and Virginia. (Much to Mike Krzyzewski's chagrin).

Jake, you say that close games and elite opposition matters most. If that's our measuring stick, then a strong case can be made for Indiana's Victor Olapido, who starred in victories over Michigan and Michigan State ... Should efficiency count? Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk is the top player on the country's top-ranked team, averaging almost 18 points a game while shooting 70 percent from the field. How about overall production? Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart is averaging 14.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.9 steals. Perhaps our criteria should be all of the above. If that's the case, Deadspin's Dom Cosentino makes a compelling case that Georgetown's Otto Porter might be the country's best player ... the problem with choosing a player of the year is that we're supposed to make up our minds in early March—but this year, at least, we won't have a definitive answer until early April ...

Read the full article at The Atlantic online