As the season rolls on, there will be much discussion over who should be this season's player of the year and coach of the year. Normally, I'm not one that gets terribly interested in these honors. However, there is one award that I feel deserves a little more publicity: the Frances Pomeroy Naismith award. Of course, the fact that the award shares my name probably has something to do with my affinity for it. It's one of the more obscure college basketball honors out there. It will be given out sometime in mid-March with a press release that will likely only be distributed widely by the school of the winning player.
Unlike the more famous Naismith College Player of the Year Award, which goes to the nation's best player, only a special subset of players is eligible for the FPN. The award goes to a senior who is six feet or shorter. It's not like the award doesn't have tradition; it's been given out annually since 1969, just like the more popular award carrying Naismith's name. Last season, it was won by South Carolina's Tré Kelley, who while deserving, wasn't a household name. However, the three previous winners were familiar to even casual hoops fans: Dee Brown, Nate Robinson and Jameer Nelson.
This season, only about 130 players on D-I rosters fit the FPN criteria, and many of those are walk-ons or bit players who have no shot at the award. Unlike the other, more popular, awards, there's no preseason list of contenders and no buzz during the season on who will win the FPN. In my own mind, though, there has always been some buzz for the award, and this season I'm going to share that with you.
In reality, barring the unexpected, this is a two-player race this season. Given the current state of college hoops, though, it's also nice to put the spotlight on the short guys who have made it to their fourth year of action. So after scouring the country with my tape measure in hand, I present the players I believe should be the ten finalists for the FPN.
10. Tony Lee, Robert Morris. All you need to know about Tony Lee is that he made 67% of his two-pointers last season. It's not like he didn't shoot muc--he took 21.2% of the Colonials' shots when he played, and the lion's share of those attempts were two-pointers! Players six feet and shorter last season collectively made 44.1% of their two-pointers. Really, what he did was extremely rare for players his size, or any size for that matter. He is also a phenomenal rebounder. He grabbed 8.6% of his teammates' missed shots in 2007, a better rate than either Stanford's Brook Lopez or Arkansas' Steven Hill, who are both seven-footers. I should also point out that Lee is the only eligible player who comes in at more than 200 pounds. The guy has no shot at winning the FPN--he doesn't score enough--but he is an amazing player nonetheless. Witness his 19-point, 12-assist, eight-rebound line in the overtime loss to Seton Hall two Sundays ago.
9. Kevin Bell, Fresno State. Bell has started his senior season in style, averaging 18.5 points and 6.7 assists through six games. However, losses to Cal State Bakersfield and Sam Houston State will not help his efforts to get attention. With a couple of high-volume shooters, Quinton Hosley and Dominic McGuire, gone from last season's team, Bell's sudden surge in offense (he's never averaged double-digits over an entire season) is more than likely sustainable.
8. Jon Goode, Detroit. Goode might win the award if hairstyle is a factor. His 'do is unusual, but so is the fact that last season he frequently took the floor with two other six-foot-and-under players in Detroit's tiny three-guard lineup of interchangeable parts. Goode is off to a great start so far, averaging nearly 16 points per game, including a sweet 24-point, no-turnover performance against Western Michigan. He started the season in style by draining a three at the buzzer to knock off Kent State, 61-60, on November 10th.
7. Johnnie Bryant, Utah. Bryant's situation is interesting in that new coach Jim Boylen brought in juco Tyler Kepkay to essentially take over the point-guard duties from Bryant this season. Bryant is playing less, but scoring more, at least relative to his minutes played. He won't be a factor unless he wins the starting job back, but that just may happen. Bryant has the ability to put up some very solid numbers if he gets 30 minutes per game in the more uptempo system that Boylen is employing this season.
6. Drew Lavender, Xavier. At 5'7", Lavender is the shortest player on this list. (But not the shortest player in the nation. That distinction goes to 5'3" freshman Lance Olivier of San Jose State.) He's primarily a distributor, but a very effective one at that, assisting on 30.3% of his teammates' made field goals last season. He'll get some sentiment for his size, but there are too many eligible players who can both distribute and score for Lavender to be a serious candidate.
5. Daniel Ruffin, Bradley. Ruffin has been a four-year starter at Bradley, gradually improving his performance is just about every statistical category. He has solid assist and steal rates and is a consistent scorer to boot. He could improve his two-point percentage, and he's off to a good start, going 16-for-33 from there through six games. Of course, he's 20-for-46 on threes, so Bradley fans might not be wishing to see his inside game so much. Scoring a combined 47 points against Iowa and Vanderbilt in the South Padre Island Invitational last weekend has moved him, unexpectedly, into the top five.
4. Leemire Goldwire, Charlotte. The only married player among the finalists, the 5'11" Goldwire will have to win this award by hoisting shots, because that is the singular thing that he does well. So far, Goldwire has not disappointed in that area, launching 72 field goal attempts (51 of them threes) through five games, including a minimum of nine three-point attempts in each. He's made enough (47.9% eFG), but he'll have to do even better to get some FPN buzz.
3. Bo McCalebb, New Orleans. McCalebb is the Colt Brennan of this race: he'll put up lots of points against a weak schedule. Unfortunately for McCalebb, there's at least one other guy in the field that will put up lots of points against a strong schedule. McCalebb averaged 25 a game last season, which ranked him sixth in the country. He led the nation in possessions used and took just shy of 40% of his team's shots when he was on the floor, a grand total of 601. Somehow he also had the time to take nearly 250 free throws. McCalebb is a six-footer who plays 6'5". He rarely shoots the three, getting the bulk of his points attacking the hoop. The most admirable thing about McCalebb is his rebounding. On both ends of the floor, he does more than his fair share with an OR% of 8.5 and a DR% of 14.9%. If he's playing in a barn near you, he's worth the price of admission.
2. Drew Neitzel, Michigan State. Neitzel is shooting less and making more early on in his senior season. So far that hasn't hurt the Spartan offense; they've broken a point per possession in each of their five games, and with the exception of the UCLA game, easily in every one. Much of Neitzel's discretion can be traced to the lack of it by freshman guard Chris Allen, who by current estimates has taken an unfathomable 44% of his team's shots while on the floor. (Last season, McCalebb's 39.9% figure in this category was the second-highest in the country.) As Allen gets reigned in against better competition, Neitzel's involvement in the offense will increase, though probably not returning to last season's level. In 2007, he took more than 30% of his team's shots, making 54.8% in eFG terms and averaging 18 points per game. He'll probably need those kinds of numbers to topple the early favorite.
1. Sean Singletary, Virginia. As mentioned at the outset, this year's award is basically a two-man race, and in my mind, Singletary is the clear frontrunner. That's because he combines the best aspects of McCalebb and Neitzel into one player. Unlike Neitzel, he gets to the line frequently (and rarely misses when he gets there). Unlike McCalebb, he's a three-point threat. So far, Singletary has suffered without backcourt-mate J.R. Reynolds playing with him, becoming the sole focus of opposing defenses. While that hasn't affected his ability to get off shots or get to the line, it has affected his ability to make shots (his eFG% is 44.7 against mostly weak competition so far, compared to 49.3 last season).
The likely scenario is that Singletary finishes with a significantly better scoring average than Neitzel, but also with a significantly worse shooting percentage, which will make for an interesting decision by the members of the panel that decide on the award. Ultimately, the FPN is like any other award--the raw numbers win out. Singletary's scoring average will be challenged by few other major conference players, regardless of size.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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