It’s Wednesday, January 25th, and six of the 11 Big East men’s basketball teams have played 10 of their 20 league games. Tonight, three of the remaining squads will play their 10th games. This is close enough to the midway point of the league schedule, and with Marquette enjoying some off time until Saturday afternoon, it’s a good time to take a peek at the league and try to figure out who the leaders are for the postseason awards in the conference right now.
MID-SEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR
This is not an easy question to answer. Adama Sanogo, the preseason player of the year in the league, picked up two Player of the Week awards to start the season, and he’s leading the conference in scoring in the full picture of the entire season to this point. However, his UConn team is just 5-5 in Big East play, and it feels like you can’t have the POY coming from a team in fifth place unless he’s doing something special. Providence’s Bryce Hopkins is the conference play scoring leader at 18.6 per game, and he’s second in rebounding as well in Big East games, plus he did pick up a POTW award back on December 26th. The Friars are 7-2 in the conference and in third place by a half-game right now. Feels like a quality candidate.
However... we have to note that Marquette’s Kam Jones is quietly making his presence felt here. Jones just picked up his second Big East Player of the Week award on Monday, he’s 7th in the league in scoring overall and tied for fifth in conference games. I think his candidacy is hurt by the fact that Marquette’s success this season has been a “bigger than the sum of their parts” situation, and it’s clear that Tyler Kolek and Oso Ighodaro have major roles in making the Golden Eagles hum on offense, perhaps larger roles than Jones.
That makes us turn our attention to Xavier, since the Musketeers are in first place even with their loss to DePaul last week. But Xavier’s “problem” in getting the POY is figuring out which player deserves it. Overall, Souley Boum is their leading scorer, but in league games, that honor goes to Zach Freemantle. Boum has picked up two Player of the Week honors since mid-December, but Freemantle has one as well..... and so does XU big man Jack Nunge. Freemantle and Nunge picked up their weekly honors since Boum got his first, so it’s kind of like the Musketeers are taking turns carrying the team. If that’s the case, do any of the three of them deserve to be named as the best player in the league if they’re not even necessarily the definitive team MVP?
Lurking in the background: Creighton’s Ryan Kalkbrenner. The Bluejays suffered badly when he was ill and out of the lineup, and once he was back and ready to go, their only losses are at Connecticut and at Xavier. No one’s faulting anyone for taking those losses this year. Kalkbrenner is leading the Jays in scoring overall this season, although he’s only third in league play and that’s not because Trey Alexander and Baylor Scheierman are being boosted by Kalkbrenner’s absence as he only missed one Big East game. I don’t think he can be mid-season POY.... but if the Jays are at the top of the standings after another 10 games? That’s a different story.
My Pick: Bryce Hopkins, Providence. Providence turning on the jets since the calendar flipped to December is one of the best stories in the Big East this season, and the Kentucky transfer is a big reason why that happened.
MID-SEASON COACH OF THE YEAR
There are three candidates.
- Sean Miller, who took a team that won the NIT last year and turned them into a nationally relevant team. They were picked to finish second in the league though, and even snagged two first place votes, and they were earning preseason votes in the Associated Press poll, too.
- Ed Cooley, who has figured out the rotation with almost an entirely new crew of contributors as opposed to last year’s Big East regular season championship* squad, and has them running wild, nationally ranked, and contending for the league title again after being picked to finish fifth.
- Shaka Smart, who took a team that the rest of the league’s coaches decided had ninth place parts and moved them into the top 20 of the Associated Press poll and a half-game back of first place as we make the turn to the second half of the league slate.
My Pick: Shaka Smart, Marquette. Who are we kidding here?
MID-SEASON FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
I’m not breaking down any candidates here.
My Pick: Alex Karaban, Connecticut. Four Freshman of the Week awards, started 20 of 21 games for the Huskies with the one miss coming as the season opener, averaging 10/4/1 for a team with national championship peak potential. This isn’t a debate.
MID-SEASON SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR
I think there’s three candidates here, and I sifted through the entire league’s stats to make sure I wasn’t missing any bench players making notable contributions this year. I thought I had a quality candidate in Dylan Addae-Wusu from St. John’s, but he’s started the Red Storm’s last seven games, and if you’ve moved into the starting lineup for the majority of Big East play, you can’t be the top sub in the league.
My sifting uncovered DePaul’s Da’Sean Nelson, who has scattered four starts this season while appearing in all 21 games. He’s averaging double digits in scoring for the Blue Demons at 10.4 a night, adds 5.1 rebounds plus just short of two assists and a block. That’s pretty dang good.
The two guys I had in my head to start the process here were UConn’s Donovan Clingan and Marquette’s David Joplin. Joplin is going for 9.7 points and 3.2 rebounds per game while shooting just under 38% from long range this season..... but in league play, that shooting percentage is just 29%. Plus, his scoring average is a little propped up by his back-to-back explosions against Central Michigan and Purdue back in early November. Joplin does have the fact that he’s playing 19 minutes a game working for him, which means he’s coming off the bench and playing a big chunk of minutes for Marquette. Clingan’s participation and scoring doesn’t measure up to Joplin at less than 14 minutes a night and just 8.5 points per game. However, he is averaging 6.2 rebounds per game in that limited stretch and two full blocks per game. Marquette fans saw up close and personal exactly what kind of a difference maker the 7’2”, 265 pound freshman is, as Clingan provides UConn with a completely different kind of dominant inside presence as they’re getting from Adama Sanogo.
My Pick: Donovan Clingan, Connecticut. It’s close though, and if Marquette wins a regular season title or at least comes much closer than UConn does, David Joplin is going to get a lot of attention based on team success.
MID-SEASON DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
I have some candidates to kick around, but it’s not like I’m digging deep here. DePaul’s Umoja Gibson is the total steals leader at the moment, while Posh Alexander from St. John’s leads in steals per game. KC Ndefo from Seton Hall leads the conference in total blocks right now, and if the Pirates continue to have a top 20 national defense like they do right now (#18 per KenPom.com), then Ndefo’s going to get some attention for this one based on his versatility. However, there’s pretty much only one right answer here.....
My Pick: Ryan Kalkbrenner, Creighton. The Bluejays have the best defensive efficiency in Big East play right now, and Kalkbrenner’s 2.2 blocks per game lead the conference. As long as both of those two things hold up, the coaches are clearly just going to vote for the 2022 Big East Defensive Player of the Year again. There’s no reason to pretend that this is going to go in a different direction if that’s the case.