Perhaps as much as any year, choosing a top player in the Big 12 involves play on both ends of the floor.
Kansas center Jeff Withey and Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart are among the league’s top 10 scorers, but they lead the Big 12 in defensive categories: Withey in blocks and Smart in steals.
There’s no wrong choice here, but The Star’s Big 12 Player of the Year call goes to Withey, who has as much to do with the Jayhawks leading the nation in field-goal percentage defense as anybody by averaging 4.1 blocked shots per game and altering countless others.
Withey, a senior who averages 13.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and shoots 58 percent from the field, is having the best season of his career.
Smart has driven Oklahoma State to its best finish since 2005 and fills up a stat sheet like nobody else in the conference. He averages 15.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Entering Saturday’s 76-70 victory over Kansas State that clinched third place for the Cowboys, Smart ranked among the league’s top 15 in all categories.
Kansas State’s Bruce Weber is The Star’s Big 12 Coach of the Year. He left Stillwater on Saturday angry with the loss, but by the time the Wildcats had returned to Manhattan they learned they finished the season as co-champions along with the Jayhawks.
Weber took over a Kansas State program refurbished by Frank Martin. Four starters returned from a team that went to the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament.
But until this year, Kansas State hadn’t finished first since winning the Big Eight in 1977. The Wildcats, 25-6 overall and 14-4 in the Big 12, set school records for victories in the regular season and in conference play.
Choices also were difficult in the Southeastern Conference. The Star’s first SEC Player of the Year goes to Georgia sophomore guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, an all-around talent who entered the season finale at Alabama as one of 10 players in Division I to score in double figures in all games this season. He’s one of three players this season to reach 500 points, 200 rebounds, 50 assists and 50 steals.
In a year when SEC teams spent much of the season knocking each other off, Florida rose above the rest. Billy Donovan is The Star’s SEC Coach of the Year. Florida lost at Kentucky on Saturday, but had clinched first place last week. The Gators are the league’s only ranked team.