Hoops player of year:

Player of the year con­tenders may have fate tied to teams’ suc­cess

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Shane McNi­chol @rushthe­court rushthe­court.net Rushthe­court.net is an af­fil­i­ate of USA TO­DAY Sports dig­i­tal prop­er­ties

Siz­ing up top col­lege can­di­dates.

This sea­son has had no clear fa­vorite, as mul­ti­ple teams have taken turns atop the na­tional polls and even the very best teams sport a hand­ful of losses.

The na­tional player of the year race is equally fluid, as a num­ber of tal­ented play­ers have emerged as lead­ers, with no sin­gle player tak­ing con­trol. Let’s ex­am­ine

The seven most vi­able can­di­dates head­ing into Fe­bru­ary:

DEN­ZEL VALEN­TINE, MICHI­GAN STATE

Michi­gan State’s best player con­trib­utes to the team’s suc­cess in ev­ery way. He has two triple­dou­bles and is a threat to do so ev­ery night out — av­er­ag­ing 18.4 points, 7.8 re­bounds, and 6.7 as­sists a game, en­ter­ing the week. Tom Izzo’s teams are no strangers to Fi­nal Fours, and if this group makes an­other run, it will be on the back of the tal­ented se­nior. He has made all of his team­mates more ef­fec­tive. If the Spar­tans wins the Big Ten, ex­pect Valen­tine to be many vot­ers’ choice.

BUDDY HIELD, OK­LA­HOMA

Hield is prob­a­bly the cur­rent front-run­ner. He is the na­tion’s se­cond-lead­ing scorer at 26.2 points a game and hits three­p­oint­ers at a scorch­ing 52.4%. Even his ri­vals have taken no­tice. Af­ter a clas­sic three-over­time loss to Kansas at Allen Field­house, Hield — who dropped 46 points on 23 shots — re­ceived a stand­ing ova­tion from Jay­hawks fans. Thanks in large part to Hield’s hot hand, Ok­la­homa is the No. 1 team at the mo­ment. The Big 12 sched­ule is bru­tal, but if Hield keeps up his Stephen Curry-like shoot­ing at the col­lege level, he will rank first on many bal­lots.

BEN SIM­MONS, LSU

Most of the fo­cus on the LSU fresh­man has been as a fu­ture NBA player, but he has also made plenty of head­lines with his one­man show in Ba­ton Rouge. At 6-10, 225 pounds and with the pass­ing and ball­han­dling skills of a guard, he of­fers a unique chal­lenge for op­pos­ing de­fenses. The LSU for­ward ranks among the top 75 in the na­tion in scor­ing (19.5 points a game), re­bound­ing (12.5), and as­sists (4.9). De­spite all of his elite tools, LSU has dis­ap­pointed with eight losses. If the Tigers could go on a run over the next six weeks, Sim­mons could play his way into the con­ver­sa­tion.

JAR­ROD UTHOFF, IOWA

Iowa bas­ket­ball hasn’t looked this strong in years, as big re­cent wins against Michi­gan State and Pur­due have el­e­vated the Hawkeyes to among the na­tion’s best. Uthoff, a se­nior, leads the Big Ten in scor­ing at 18.4 points a game and av­er­ages 6.4 re­bounds and 2.8 blocks a con­test to help Iowa rise quickly up the na­tional polls. No Hawk­eye has ever won Big Ten player of the year, much less the na­tional award, but Uthoff will be in the mix if the Hawkeyes con­tinue to make waves.

KRIS DUNN, PROV­I­DENCE

The ver­sa­tile point guard has dom­i­nated on both ends of the floor as the Fri­ars have risen up the Big East stand­ings. His im­pact was on dis­play when he had 13 points, five re­bounds, 14 as­sists and four steals in a win against con­fer­ence-lead­ing Vil­lanova. Just an­other night at the of­fice for the player who leads the Big East in as­sists with 6.9 a game and ranks se­cond na­tion­ally with 3.2 steals a game. If Prov­i­dence can make a run to the top of the con­fer­ence, Dunn will be the driv­ing force.

GE­ORGES NIANG, IOWA STATE

The heady se­nior for­ward uses crafti­ness and po­si­tion­ing as well as any­body in col­lege bas­ket­ball. He scores 19 points a game from all over the court and was a big rea­son why the Cy­clones put to­gether re­cent eye-open­ing wins against Big 12 lead­ers Ok­la­homa and Kansas. Niang will re­main in the award dis­cus­sion as long as Iowa State hov­ers near the top of the na­tion’s most com­pet­i­tive con­fer­ence.

KAHLIL FELDER, OAK­LAND

One de­serv­ing stand­out from the mid­ma­jor ranks al­ways seems to get over­looked, and Felder is that guy this sea­son. The guard might be small (5-9), but he has big-time game. He’s third in the na­tion at 25.6 points a game, and a De­cem­ber three-game streak of 34, 38 and 37 points in­tro­duced him to the na­tion. He shows his ver­sa­til- ity with a na­tion-lead­ing 8.7 as­sists a game. While it’s un­likely he’ll get the nec­es­sary pub­lic­ity in the Hori­zon League to make a se­ri­ous run at the na­tional award, keep an eye out for his name in March.

MIKE CARTER, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

With 18.4 points and 7.8 re­bounds a game, Den­zel Valen­tine has Michi­gan State in strong po­si­tion.

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