The race for the major player of the year awards in college basketball was a split decision in 2016. Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield won the Naismith and Wooden awards, while Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine was The Associated Press player of the year.
This season could see a similar divvying.
While there are two likely front-runners, several other players could force their way into the conversation when the AP announces its pick at the Final Four, the Naismith Award is given out on March 16 and the Wooden Award is handed out on April 7.
A rundown of the top candidates:
Frank Mason III, Kansas
The leader of the nation’s top-ranked team and possible No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament may be the leading candidate for player of the year. The senior guard is the Jayhawks’ top scorer at 20.3 points per game, dishes out 4.9 assists and grabs 4.0 rebounds. Mason shoots 48 percent from the floor and 50 percent from 3-point range and is the playmaker who led Kansas to its record 13th straight Big 12 title. He is also one of the most clutch players in the nation, the kind of late-game go-to guy every team wants.
Josh Hart, Villanova
The senior guard was expected do everything for the defending national champions this season and has done just that. Hart leads second-ranked Villanova with 18.3 points and 6.3 rebounds, while handing out 3.0 assists per game. The 6-foot-5 guard is equally adept at hitting 3-pointers — he’s made 64 so far this season — as getting to the rim. Hart also is a proven winner who led Villanova to its fourth straight Big East title and, like Mason, has a knack for hitting big shots when needed.
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
The 6-foot-9 sophomore has thrived in his second season with the 16th-ranked Boilermakers. Swanigan is a double-double machine, with 24 heading into Sunday’s game against Northwestern, most in the Big Ten in the past 31 years. That includes four games with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds. He helped lead Purdue to the Big Ten championship and tops the Boilermakers with 18.9 points and 12.5 rebounds per game. Swanigan is on pace to become the first major-college player since at least 1992-93 to have 600 points, 400 rebounds and 100 assists in a season.
Lonzo Ball, UCLA
Ball arrived in Westwood loaded with hype and has lived up to it for the No. 3 Bruins. The freshman point guard has been dynamic since his first college game, a 19-point, 11-assist and 8-rebound performance against Pacific. Ball leads the nation with 7.8 assists per game, averages 14.9 points and grabs 6.2 rebounds as a 6-6 guard. He is the ringleader for the nation’s top-scoring team (91.3 points per game) and has the Bruins in position for a No. 1 NCAA Tournament team, helping turn around a program that was on shaky ground just a year ago.
Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga
Williams-Goss has been superb since transferring across state from Washington. The 6-3 senior guard leads the fourth-ranked Zags with 16.4 points and 4.7 assists while grabbing 5.6 rebounds. He is shooting 51 percent from the floor and 91 percent from the free-throw line, good for seventh nationally. Williams-Goss led Gonzaga to 29 straight wins to open the season — the Zags finished 29-1 — and put it in position for a potential No. 1 NCAA seed.
Johnathan Motley, Baylor
The 6-10 junior forward has been dynamic for the 11th-ranked Bears, leading them with 17.5 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 51 percent from the floor. Motley leads the Big 12 with 13 double-doubles, including 10 in conference play. He also is the first player in school history to have 1,000 points, 600 rebounds, 100 assists and 100 blocked shots in his career.