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March 10, 2011
Around the Rim
Walker for Player of the Year

by John Perrotto

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My mother taught me it was impolite to brag, so it would be bad form to mention that I was one of the first people on the Jimmer Fredette bandwagon. Last year, he got my vote for the Oscar Robertson Award, presented annually by the United States Basketball Writers Association to the nation's best player.

Ohio State's Evan Turner won and I had no problem with that. However, I still believe Fredette had the best season of anyone in the nation, especially when viewed through the prism of tempo-free statistics, which is what we do at Basketball Prospectus.

Because I rely on tempo-free statistics more than most voters, Fredette did not get my vote for the Oscar Robertson Award this season. Instead, I went with Connecticut junior guard Kemba Walker.

Yes, I realize Connecticut stumbled down the stretch in the regular season with four losses in its last five games and didn't even get one of eight byes in the Big East tournament. I also know that the Big East coaches picked Notre Dame's Ben Hansbrough as the conference's Player of the Year. However, Walker has meant as much more to the Huskies this season as Hansbrough did to Notre Dame this season or Fredette did to Brigham Young last season.

Connecticut failed to make the NCAA Tournament last season. Many prognosticators picked the young Huskies to not only miss the NCAAs again this season but possibly finish below .500.

However, Walker's 31-point performance in 23 minutes in a victory over Wichita State in first round of the Maui Invitational transformed Connecticut. The Huskies started believing they could play with anyone and then knocked off powerhouses Michigan State and Kentucky to win the tournament. Now, after winning their first two games in the Big East tournament, the Huskies are 23-9.

Walker's traditional statistics are outstanding as he is sixth in the nation in scoring with a 23.4 average. He is also averaging 5.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.8 steals in 37.3 minutes a game.

Walker is also all over the tempo-free leaderboard as he ranks 14th in percentage of minutes (91.6), 15th in fouls called per 40 minutes (1.4), 27th in percentage of shots (32.8), 31st in turnover rate (10.4), 32nd in percentage of possessions (30.4), 94th in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (6.1), 134th in offensive rating (117.1), 165th in assist rate (26.9) and 248th in steal percentage (2.9).

Joining Walker on my 10-man All-America ballot were Providence's Marshon Brooks, Fredette, Hansbrough, Purdue's JaJuan Johnson, Kentucky's Terrence Jones, Kansas' Marcus Morris, Duke's Nolan Smith, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Arizona's Derrick Williams.

Sullinger was my pick for the Wayman Tisdale National Freshman of the Year Award. He was the clear choice as he is is averaging 17.3 points and 9.8 rebounds in 31.2 minutes a game. Sullinger also ranks in the top 100 in the nation in five tempo-free categories: 15th in defensive rebounding percentage (26.6), 40th in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (6.7), 62nd in offensive rating (121.7), 70th in turnover rate (11.4) and 84th offensive rebounding (12.8).

Louisville's Rick Pitino got my vote for the Henry Iba Award, which goes to the nation's top coach. Following a summer of turmoil in which some very private details of his personal life were brought to light in an extortion trial, Pitino had one of his finest seasons. He guided Louisville into the top 25 even though it was expected to finish in the lower half of the Big East then suffered a string of injuries throughout the season. Pitino has accomplished plenty in his long career but he's never been better than this season.

Gillispie Could Return to Big 12

Billy Gillispie is surfacing as the favorite to become the next coach at Texas Tech, where Pat Knight was fired last week. Gillispie has been out of coaching the last two seasons since being fired at Kentucky following a drunken driving arrest.

Gillispie seems to be the perfect fit in Lubbock. He is a Texan who led both Texas-El Paso and Texas A&M to the NCAA Tournament.

There have been some rumblings that Texas Tech might approach New Mexico's Steve Alford. However, he is happy in Las Cruces and would only leave if he received an overwhelming contract. The same applies to Nebraska's Doc Sadler.

If Texas Tech and Gillispie are unable to work out a contract, other possibilities are Wichita State's Gregg Marshall, Akron's Keith Drambot and Utah Valley State's Dick Hunsaker.

Meanwhile, St. John's assistant coach Steve Dunlap has emerged as the frontrunner to replace the fired Heath Shroyer at Wyoming. Dunlap was one of two finalists for the Colorado job last spring but lost out to Tad Boyle. If Dunlap leaves the Red Storm, look for Steve Lavin to replace him with fired Manhattan coach Barry Rohrssen, a native New York and one of the nation's top recruiters.

In other coaching news, it appears that Providence will fire Keno Davis after three seasons. Look for Northeastern coach Bill Coen to get serious consideration as the replacement.

Sycamores Get Hot at the Right Time

One of the more unlikely teams that will be the NCAA Tournament's 68-team field is Indiana State, which won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament last weekend.

The Sycamores started 7-1 in the MVC but then faded to a seventh-place finish. However, they caught fire at the conference tourney at St. Louis, including beating two teams in Evansville and Wichita State that swept them in the regular season.

The NCAA berth comes following an offseason of turmoil. Head coach Kevin McKenna left in June to become Dana Altman's top assistant at Oregon and assistant coach Greg Lansing was promoted.

"These players deserve everything," Lansing said. "I wanted it so bad for them because they've been tremendous to me since I was hired. They've gotten on board with it and I'm just awfully excited to have the chance to keep playing."

This will be just the fourth time Indiana State will play in the NCAAs. Larry Bird led the Sycamores to the national championship game as a senior in 1979, but they did not return to the big dance until making back-to-back appearances in 2000 and 2001. Though Indiana State (20-13) will be making its first appearance in 10 years and will likely be a double-digit seed, Lansing isn't buying into the idea that his team will be one and done.

"I think we're a team people aren't going to want to play," Lansing said.

Big East Expected to Set Records

The Big East has had a record eight teams in three of the last five NCAA Tournaments. The conference figures to surpass that record when this year's field is announced Sunday.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who chairs the NCAA's selection committee when he isn't defending Buckeyes football coach Jim Tressel, says he would not be opposed to one conference dominating the brackets.

"We donít look at a conference," Smith said Wednesday during a teleconference with reporters. "We don't concern ourselves that way. We look at them as independent, individual institutions and try to be fair to create a national tournament."

Cincinnati, Connecticut, Georgetown, Louisville Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, St. John's, Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia all figured to have NCAA bids locked up before the Big East tournament started Tuesday. Marquette likely punched its ticket on Wednesday night by knocking off West Virginia in the second round.

John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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