Duke forward Mason Plumlee is among the leading candidates for the AP National Player of the Year award. Each week throughout the season, we will check in on Plumlee's progress as well as the performance of other top candidates for college basketball's top honor.
Mason Plumlee, Duke: Plumlee has been the frontrunner for this award ever since the start of his stellar senior campaign, but his stock has fallen in recent weeks. He is still averaging 17.5 points and 11.4 rebounds per game this season, but after a hot start to the year Plumlee has come back to earth in the Blue Devils' previous four games, averaging just 11.5 points since Jan. 2. Plumlee scored a season-low eight points in Duke's win against Clemson last Tuesday and followed it up with an underwhelming 15 point, 11 rebound performance against N.C. State where he was shut down in the second half by Richard Howell.
His free throw shooting, which has gained national attention for is marked improvement this season, has struggled over this stretch as well. Plumlee has shot just 42.1 percent from the charity stripe in Duke's last four contests, and suddenly he is shooting a meager 65-percent clip from the line on the year. Luckily for Plumlee, other leading candidates for college basketball's top honor have not played inspired basketball over the previous weeks as well, otherwise the Warsaw, Ind. native would probably not still be the leader in the clubhouse at this point in the season.
Doug McDermott, Creighton: The 6-foot-8 forward has made his case for being more than just the best player in the Missouri Valley Conference this season. At 24.0 points per game, McDermott is the second-leading scorer in the country behind Virginia Tech's Erick Green and is most of the reason why the No. 12 Bluejays currently boast a 17-1 record. McDermott is widely considered to be next in line behind Plumlee in consideration for National Player of the Year, and has made quite the push with his strong play of late, posting 39 points in Creighton's win against Missouri State Friday and following it up with a 31-point performance against Northern Iowa last night. Ultimately, McDermott will be at a constant disadvantage for a national award because he faces inferior competition when compared to some of his fiercest competitors. But McDermott's off-the-chart numbers simply can't lie—he has added 7.2 rebounds per contest and is shooting 56.8 percent from the floor, a 50.7-percent clip from 3-point range and 87.2 percent from the charity stripe.
Trey Burke, Michigan: Burke has been one of the most dynamic guard in the nation this season, leading the Wolverines to 16 consecutive wins before the team suffered its first loss against Ohio State last weekend. Averaging 18.0 points and 7.1 assists per game, Burke has showcased his ability to get to the rim and hit from outside this season but has also been an excellent distributor for Michigan. Burke is clearly the centerpiece of the Wolverine offense, and with an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 4:1, he has lived up to his role as the team's primary ballhandler. After stellar performances against Central Michigan and Iowa had Burke pressing Plumlee in the discussion for the award's frontrunner, he has delivered underwhelming showings in a 62-47 win against Nebraska and Saturday's loss to the Buckeyes—when he went just 4-of-13 from the floor.
Russ Smith, Louisville: Topping 20 points in four of his last six contests, Smith has risen back into the National Player of the Year discussion as his Cardinals have reached the top spot in the AP Top 25. Smith took over Louisville's last win against a tough and well-coached Connecticut team, scoring a team-high 23 points as his team rallied in the second half to remain the No. 1 team in the country. Relentless pressure defense has been a hallmark of Smith's play this season, averaging 2.4 steals per contest. With Louisville sitting atop the polls, it is no question that its leader will continue to be in the discussion for National Player of the Year if he continues to play inspired basketball throughout Big East play.
On the outside looking in: Indiana forward Cody Zeller has not lived up to his preseason hype, but has gone under the radar since, still averaging 16.9 points and 7.9 boards on the year. Kansas guard Ben McLemore has vaulted his way into the national spotlight as well with an impressive 33-point performance against Iowa State last week. UNLV's Anthony Bennett has been the country's top freshman this season, averaging 19.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game this season, but UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad has laid claim to that title by improving his play lately as well. Kansas big man Jeff Withey has been the nation's top defender this season, averaging 4.7 blocks per game, but has been serviceable on the offensive end as well, posting 13.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per contest as well.