Friday, October 7, 2022

Candid Coaches: Who will be the best player in men’s college basketball in 2022-23?

CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander surveyed roughly 100 coaches for our annual Candid Coaches series. They polled everyone from head coaches at elite programs to assistants at small Division I schools. In exchange for complete anonymity, these coaches provided unfiltered honesty about a number of topics. Over the course of three weeks we are posting the results of our summer survey on the state of college basketball.

The 2022-23 season is poised to prominently feature as many big-time big men than any year college basketball has seen in a generation. Of course, this is a byproduct of the NBA no longer valuing traditional centers or lumbering power forwards the way it did for 60 years. But thanks to NIL, and because the college game still features myriad styles and more eclectic lineups than the pros, a litany of high-profile 4s and 5s will be back on the college hardwood. 

In a rarity, two CBS Sports First Team All-Americans are returning, something that hasn’t happened in a very long time. It also means the national race for player of the year should not only be compelling but should help college hoops’ popularity and Q rating among casuals. Some identifiable faces and recognizable names are not just in for another season, they’re in uniform for power-brand programs and highly ranked teams. 

Here’s who coaches believe will be the best. We asked our annual question, and it’s a three-man race (for now):

Who will be the best player in college basketball this season?

Others receiving multiple votes: Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana; Jaime Jaquez, UCLA; Marcus Sasser, Houston

Others receiving a single vote: Max Abmas, Oral Roberts; Hunter Dickinson, Michigan; Keyonte George, Baylor; Derrick Lively, Duke; Caleb Love, North Carolina; Nick Smith, Arkansas

Quotes that stood out

On Timme

  • “Timme’s won more games than any player in his class. He’s the best post player I’ve seen in college basketball in I-don’t-know-how-many many years and he’s a consummate winner. He’s nasty, tough, can score, his IQ is dependable. He doesn’t have a weakness other than analytics — yeah, yeah he got a little exposed vs. Baylor. He’s got a great ‘stache, too. Freddie Mercury.”
  • “We play them twice a year, so I get an up close and personal view of him. In the past couple of years he’s been the most dominant, hardest-to-prepare-for player we’ve faced. He finishes everything eight feet and in. You double him, he can pass out. He’s a complete nightmare. We’ve had to literally try every defense possible at him … and it seems like nothing has worked.”

  • “They (Gonzaga) still play a traditional style of basketball, inside out, moving parts, it’s not just 3s and layups. I don’t know if they go into all the stats and all those things, the KenPoms and that, I just know when I watch them play they do play the traditional style of basketball. To me, that’s the most exciting thing to watch in college basketball as a coach. He’s probably the best player in the country at playing that way.” 

On Tshiebwe

  • “I hate voting for a UK guy but that big f—– is really, really good. I don’t know if he’s going to be the leading scorer, but I think overall he’s going to be a guy that’s going to affect the game most.”

  • “He’s the returning player of the year. UK runs very few plays for him, yet he still managed to average 17 and 15. I have Bacot as a close second for the same reason. Both can dominate a game (and the glass) without demanding the ball nearly every possession.”
  • “The fact he can dominate a game without scoring a point makes him impossible to prepare for.”
  • “I will go with big Oscar. Think he has a chip on his shoulder with the way they ended last year, and another year with Kentucky will make him even more comfortable. Hard to match his motor and rebounding. I would be most scared to play him as a coach than any of the others.”

On Bacot

  • “Bacot’s numbers will be off the charts and old teammates around him will have them winning at high level.”
  • “He finished the season playing his best and I have to imagine the draft process kept him on the path of improvement and development. He is experienced, he has won at a high level and he has the ability to not only dictate an opponent’s defensive game plan, but also adjust their offensive game plan.” 

  • “In an era where the traditional big is becoming extinct, it is funny many of the best returners in college are more-traditional big men — and he is the best of that group. Can absolutely dominate the game by the pressure he puts on the backboard, and different from Tshiebwe. He has touch and skill around the rim.”

On Jaquez

  • “That guy’s awesome. What is not to like about him? … I do think if he was on the East Coast he’d get more love. He’s a good player, and the way he is about UCLA in terms of pride and wanting to be a representative of that program and that school, I love guys like that.” 

  • “Jaime Jaquez is the most underrated player in my mind.”

The takeaway

The margin/result of this poll surprised me. Tshiebwe was the consensus NPOY last season, winning the award not just here at CBS Sports but also all of the other distinguished national outlets: Naismith, Oscar Robertson, Associated Press, Wooden and NABC. He averaged 17.5 points and 15.1 rebounds, becoming the first player in more than 40 years to average more than 15.0 rebounds and 15.0 points. He guided Kentucky to a No. 2 seed … and then Kentucky was upended in a historic upset by Saint Peter’s. 

So between that, and given that Timme is also a proven and offensively reliable player for a title contender, I get it. I just thought Tshiebwe would narrowly edge Timme here. Instead, it’s Gonzaga’s BMOC who wins out with room to spare. 

One coach on why he took Timme over Tshiebwe: “I’m banking on a better team and lower ego around Timme. Timme is more of a natural scorer. That’s usually a thing too: if you score more. Better culture, less ego in his supporting cast and better team.”

That’s one way of saying that Timme doesn’t have players who are as talented around him as Tshiebwe does at Kentucky. I’m not sure that’s the case. Gonzaga will be ranked slightly ahead of UK at the start of the season. When the two face off in Spokane, Washington, on Nov. 20 it’s conceivable both will be ranked in the top five. Also, as was recently pointed out in my 68-things-to-know preseason special, Timme vs. Tshiebwe will mark the first time in almost 50 years that a returning player of the year and a two-time All-American face each other. A special square-off awaits.

Timme will have a shot at averaging 20 and 10. Tshiebwe may well average 18 and 18. Both bigs, but very different. 

I don’t think this will be a two-man race by midseason, though. 

The strong third center in this discussion is the guy who helped bring North Carolina to yet another championship game and set a tourney record in the process. Bacot was the first player to record six double-doubles in the NCAA Tournament. While Timme and Tshiebwe received a combined 77.6% of the vote, a few of the coaches I spoke with were enthusiastic and insistent that Bacot would become the most consistent guy in the country this season. He has a smaller but maybe more fervent set of believers. 

Part of that was due to UNC being in the ACC. Some coaches’ projection was that the Heels would win their league and that would help Bacot’s case all the more. I won’t be surprised if he winds up being the guy, though Caleb Love could also be a top-end player this season. 

If you look across who else received votes, Jackson-Davis and Jaquez are also bigs. Dickinson, too. The sport is going to be loaded with these types of players, and because of that, it’s going to be intriguing to see which guards wind up becoming the best players. Sasser, Love and George have the most support, though don’t forget that Abmas led the nation in scoring at Oral Roberts in 2020-21. 

If NIL legislation wasn’t in place, it’s safe to say at least a few of these players wouldn’t be back. Thankfully, they are. Tshiebwe, Timme, Bacot — these players will be able to sign deals that set them up to be millionaires while playing college basketball. It’s maybe the most important factor to keeping college basketball viable and relevant beyond the month of March and the first few days of April. 

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