Men's College Basketball
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By Phil Neuffer, Assoc. Editor - Archive - Email
Preseason honor roll
Montrezl Harrell Word out of Louisville is that Montrezl Harrell has been working to polish his offensive game.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There are 218 days separating us from Shabazz Napier and the Connecticut Huskies' National Championship win over the Kentucky Wildcats.

Now there are only three days between us and the start of the next college basketball season. Seems as good a time as any to make some predictions about who will be taking home postseason hardware.

Award predictions have been made especially difficult this season because not a lot of would-be returning candidates are, well, returning. You could have written Doug McDermott's name in permanent marker on most voters' player of the year ballot last November and no one would have been upset. There are not as many clear-cut favorites this season. Making the crystal ball even murkier, not a single player from last season's AP All-American first, second or third team is still playing hoops at the collegiate level.

With that said, let's take a look at the favorites for some of the prestigious awards that are handed out at the end of each season.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR - Montrezl Harrell, Louisville

There are a lot of great players this season and a few that might seem to have a better shot at this title than Harrell. For example, Frank Kaminsky at Wisconsin and Aaron Harrison at Kentucky, who both had big moments in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, are worthy contenders.

However, Harrison still has to share the ball with the litany of scorers on Kentucky's roster, and Kaminsky can't realistically get much better than he was last season. Meanwhile, Harrell is the go-to guy at Louisville now and a player with still so much untapped potential.

Last season, the 6-foot-8 power forward averaged 14 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. He was second on the team in scoring, but will likely be given more chances now that Russ Smith has moved on to the NBA. That should work out just fine for the Cardinals, as Harrell was an extremely efficient scorer, finishing on 60.9 percent of his field goal attempts in 2013-14. To be fair, that was largely due to the ease of his scoring chances, which were mostly dunks, layups and short jumpers.

Word out of Louisville is that Harrell has been working hard to polish his offensive game, which should strike fear into the hearts of his new ACC adversaries, and the nation as a whole.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR - Briante Weber, VCU

Harrell is a contender for this award as well, but the speedy guard from VCU has the edge entering the season.

Although this is an honor that generally goes to frontcourt players, two of the last three have gone to guards, including Ohio State's Aaron Craft last season. In the previous 10 seasons, the trophy went to a power forward or a center.

Weber's ability to disrupt opposing backcourts and ruin a foe's hopes at controlling the tempo make him a much more important defensive player than someone who can swat shots into the stands. Last season, Weber led the country in steals with 121. UCLA's Jordan Adams was second in the category with 95. Weber also was a standout in more advanced statistics, ranking second in the country in defensive rating (85.6), and tying for seventh in defensive win shares (3.1).

Also aiding Weber's chances is the fact that he plays in a system that puts a premium on his style of play. VCU coach Shaka Smart's now famed HAVOC defensive scheme is all about creating turnovers and putting pressure on the ball from baseline to baseline. Weber is the anchor for the Rams at both ends. Expect him to continue to rack up steals this season, and a few pieces for the VCU trophy case as well.

FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR - Jahlil Okafor, Duke

Players like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Aaron Gordon made last year's crop of freshmen one of the best in history. Okafor leads a group that could be even better.

Considered the No. 1 recruit in the country by most scouting sources, Okafor chose to follow Parker to Duke, where he is set up to thrive from day one. He is built to withstand any number of post defenders, standing at 6-foot-11 and weighing 270 pounds. Even as a freshman he will be able to get to any spot in the paint and move players around to secure rebounds and utilize his bevy of offensive moves. That is one of the most enticing aspects of his game. Whereas some frontcourt prospects need time to learn how to score efficiently, Okafor already projects as a big-time scorer because he is just that dangerous on the low block. During his senior year in high school, he averaged 24.1 points per game, to go along with 11.3 caroms per contest.

Those numbers may dip some, but not by much. Okafor has already been showing off his skill in Duke's preseason exhibitions. In two contest he has already scored 30 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked seven shots in 45 combined minutes. The ceiling is so high for Okafor that freshman-only awards aren't the only honors he could earn.

COACH OF THE YEAR - Larry Krystkowiak, Utah

Greg Marshall won this award last season after he led his Wichita State Shockers to a 35-0 start to the campaign and earned the mid-major powerhouse a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Krystkowiak and the Utes aren't going to go 35-0. That would be a nearly impossible feat for any program, especially one that plays in the Pac-12, which means there are two games against Arizona on the schedule.

Still, in his third season in Salt Lake City, Krystkowiak has his best team. For those who have not been paying attention to Utah basketball recently, and there's little reason why you would have, Krystkowiak has been slowly building a contender. The team went 6-25 in his first season, 15-18 in his second, and last season finished at 21-12.

That upward trajectory should continue, especially if multi-faceted guard Delon Wright ascends to stardom and the rest of the experienced roster, which features four returning starters, continues to play well. If it all comes together, Utah won't just be among the field of 68 this season, it will be in the national spotlight for most of the season. Krystkowiak will, and should be given a lot of the credit when that happens.

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