Sullinger, Buckeyes still the ones to beat

Just about everyone has already or will begin conference play this weekend, so it’s the proper time to re-evaluate and dole out some midseason awards.

Obviously, my pick for the Preseason Player of the Year (North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes) doesn’t look all that promising right now. However, now I’m going with another guy I did have on my First Team Preseason All-Americans as the POY.

NATIONAL TITLE WINNER: I’m sticking with my preseason pick on this one – and I didn’t go with Duke like virtually everyone else. I tabbed Ohio State to win it all in a Final Four that included Duke, Michigan State and Missouri. I’ll stick with that even though I wouldn’t mind throwing Kansas in there somewhere.

BEST LEAD MAN: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State. The kid is just a beast and a winner. He didn’t walk into Columbus with all the swagger and try to act like it was his team; he’s just done his part. Sullinger is averaging a double-double, plays hard on nearly every possession and comes with no shortage of intangibles.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Kyle Singler. The Duke senior has just gone out there and accepted his role. His scoring has dropped slighty and so, too, have his rebounding numbers, but he’s still putting up quality numbers (17.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and has shown he’s a terrific team player.

NATIONAL FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR: Jared Sullinger. See above.

NATIONAL MIDSEASON COACH OF THE YEAR: Mike Brey, Notre Dame, and Donnie Jones, Central Florida. I couldn’t choose between these two guys, who entered the season with virtually no expectations, so I decided to share the award. Brey has done a phenomenal job with a veteran group despite losing Luke Harangody while Jones – in his first season at Central Florida – has the Knights undefeated and with a Top 25 ranking for the first time in school history.

MIDSEASON ALL-AMERICAN TEAM: I usually pick a guy at every position, but I opted to go with the three-guard lineup here because it was impossible to leave off any one of the backcourt guys I selected.

F – Jon Leuer, 6-10, 230, Sr, Wisconsin – This was the most difficult decision of the five, but Leuer is highly skilled and has become a complete player.

C – Jared Sullinger, 6-9, 280, Fr., Ohio State – The best big man in the country. He is tough to stop in the paint and is also a force on the glass.

G – Kemba Walker, 6-0, 175, Jr., UConn – Has struggled a bit of late, but has still carried a young, inexperienced Huskies team on his back to a Top 10 ranking.

G – Nolan Smith, 6-2, 185, Sr., Duke – Has done everything for the top-ranked Blue Devils. Scores when necessary, leads the team and now has moved over to the point with Kyrie Irving on the sidelines.

G – Jimmer Fredette, 6-2, 195, Sr., BYU – It’s just too bad he doesn’t get the exposure he deserves; If he played at a high-profile spot, everyone would be talking about him right now.

SURPRISE PLAYER: Marshon Brooks, Providence. Most of the country still has no clue who he is, but the senior from Georgia has been terrific all season, averaging 23.4 points, 8.3 rebounds while shooting 51 percent from the field, 36 percent from beyond the arc and 79 percent from the line.

SURPRISE TEAM: UConn. The Huskies have lost a couple of late, but no one expected the Huskies to crack the Top 25 all year long, never mind shoot all the way up into the Top 5 after their stellar play in winning the Maui Invitational.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: Vanderbilt’s Nigerian big man Festus Ezeli averaged just 3.8 points and 3.2 boards last season in a backup role to A.J. Ogilvy. He’s thrived (13 pph, 6.7 rpg, 2.4 bpg) in the starting lineup this year and is a major reason why the Commodores are in the Top 25.

MOST DISAPPOINTING: Florida. I came away from Gainesville in the preseason feeling as though the group was overrated a bit, but still didn’t figure on the Gators losing to Jacksonville and Central Florida. Billy Donovan’s team is still 11-3, but the backcourt has been difficult to watch for much of the season.

MOST IMPORTANT BODY PART: Kyrie Irving’s toe. In fact, it could wind up determining the national title. With the star freshman point guard, the Blue Devils are a notch above everyone else. Without him, they are mortal. Irving injured the toe against Butler and his return is still in question.

CUPCAKE AWARD: This one goes to the coach who devoured the most cupcakes in the non-conference slate and it belongs to … Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin. The undefeated Bearcats ranked 326th in the country in the RPI’s strength of schedule heading into Thursday night’s game against Xavier and have no right even being considered for the Top 25, never mind cracking it, with that slate.

BEST SEPTEMBER CALL-UP: Well, it wasn’t really a September call-up, but Kansas did add freshman guard Josh Selby after he was forced to sit nine games as part of an NCAA-imposed suspension for taking improper benefits. Selby is averaging 15 points in five games and gives the Jayhawks a guy who can make a play whenever he wants.

BEST VIDEO: In a landslide, the winner is when Mississippi State teammates Renardo Sidney and Elgin Bailey traded haymakers in the crowd at the Diamond Head Classic. Sidney has already been suspended twice, but will be on the floor for the SEC opener while Bailey was essentially kicked off the team.

JEKYLL AND HYDE: Tennessee. The Vols went out and beat arguably the Big East’s top two teams, Villanova (on a neutral court in New York) and Pittsburgh (on the road) – and then followed it up by losing four of six games – including three at home and a trio to mid-major programs.