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Why Michael Beasley is the National Player of the Year

I have decided it's finally time to discuss this issue.  We are getting very close to the end of the season and all players in contention for national player of the year (POY) have a nearly full body of work from which to judge.

Most outlets have reached the assumption that the POY race comes down to our very own Michael Beasley and North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough.  Without any doubt, both are fine players.  But, piggybacking off Jeffrey Martin's excellent Big 12 report today, I believe Beasley is the player of the year, and I will show you why I believe that.

Let's start with the traditional method of measuring the nation's best player by looking at statistics.  Here is a comparison of the two players in the major statistical categories:

                                        Michael Beasley          Tyler Hansbrough
Points per game:   25.7          22.8
Rebounds per game: 12.6          10.6
FG%:               54.8          55.2
Three-point %:     41.9 (26-62)   0 (0-5)
         FT%:               74.0 (145/196) 81.4 (219-269)  
Assists per game:   1.33          0.85
Blocks per game:    1.625         0.31
Steals per game:    0.69          1.35
Fouls per game:     2.58          2.27
Turnovers per game: 2.96          2.12
Minutes per game:  30.6          32.5

What can we learn from these statistics?  First the obvious.  Beasley is a noticeably better scorer and rebounder than Hansbrough.  In two fewer games (Beasley has played 24, Hansbrough 26), Beasley has scored more points than Hansbrough (617 to 593) and grabbed more rebounds (303-276).

Hansbrough attempts fewer shots and makes a slightly higher percentage of them than Beasley.  But if you want to use that as an argument that Hansbrough is a more selfless player, I point to the fact that Beasley averages more assists per game, and has 10 more assists in two fewer games than Hansbrough does.  Beasley isn't out just to get his; if he was, we'd call him O.J. Mayo.  He makes his teammates better by finding the open man when he's doubled, which happens often.

As far as outside shooting goes, there's no comparison.  Hansbrough has yet to make a three-pointer this year in only five attempts, while Beasley has made 26 and shoots at a better than 40 percent clip.  But in continuing with the back-and-forth theme of this post, Hansbrough is a better free-throw shooter than Beasley (81 percent to 74 percent) and is better at getting to the line than Beasley (269 attempts to 196 attempts).

Defensively, the two are nearly a wash.  Beasley has almost five times the number of blocks Hansbrough has in two fewer games, which sounds kind of odd considering Hansbrough is considered a low-post only player, while Beasley is an inside-outside threat.  But Hansbrough has quicker hands, picking up quite a few more steals than Beasley.  Hansbrough also plays defense without fouling slightly better than Beasley, picking up three fewer fouls in two more games than Beasley.

One thing that I'd like to point out now is the minutes played per game.  Beasley averages a full two minutes fewer per game than Hansbrough.  Which is odd, considering Beasley gets knocked down by his detractors for being 'the only player on that team' (which is obviously wrong to anyone who has watched any K-State games.  He's not the only player, but he's so much better than everyone else, and would be so much better on any team that it just looks that way.)  Apparently Roy Williams finds it necessary to Carolina's success to play Hanbrough 32 minutes per game, whereas Frank Martin is getting K-State by on 30 from Beasley.

The second aspect of this argument is that Beasley amasses his already-gaudy statistics in a lot less time than Hansbrough.  For the season, Beasley has played 734 minutes to Hansbrough's 844.  To put that in a metric we'll all understand, I've divided each number by 40 (the minutes in a game, in case you wondered...) and then figured how many points and rebounds per "game" Beasley and Hansbrough average.  The numbers are below:

Beasley: 33.62 points per 40 minutes, 16.51 rebounds per 40 minutes
Hansbrough: 28.10 points per 40 minutes, 13.08 rebounds per 40 minutes

So as you can see, when you adjust for the actual number of minutes played, Beasley scores 5.5 points and almost 3.5 rebounds more per "game."

You may have noticed--I certainly hope you have--that I've done a purely statistical analysis thus far.  That's because I have always held the belief that a "player of the year" should be the best player in the given year.  Now that's probably a naive belief, given that it's the exception rather than the rule for the Heisman to go to college football's best or "most outstanding" player.

Of course, I would also be naive to believe there was nothing more than statistical analysis to the POY debate.  If statistics told the whole story, we'd never play the games and we'd give the awards to the players with the best stats.  Now wouldn't that lead to poor team play.

Anyway, as the Martin article notes, there are at least two big-name coaches throwing their support behind Hansbrough.  Of course, one of them is Hansbrough's own coach,Deputy Dog Roy Williams.  The other is, of course, Mike Krzyzewmadinejad (that's a Colbert Report reference, so simmer down.  I'm not comparing Coach K to the Iranian president).  Here's what those two have to say about Hansbrough...

...Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski --"Hansbrough is the best college player.... The best value, what he brings, his toughness.... He's a veteran -- he knows how to play"

...this priceless gem from his coach, Roy Williams:

"I get tickled listening to these people talk about national player of the year. Guys, there can't be anybody that gives more to college basketball than that guy."

(I get tickled pink listening to Roy Williams act all folksy.  You still think he "could give a shit about North Carolina"?  Phoniest coach in the business.)

"You don't give a player of the year... because somebody says he's a better pro prospect," Krzyzewski opined to the Los Angeles Times.

" (Hansbrough) is not in some ways maybe a popular choice because he's a blue-collar guy and he thrashes around in there," Williams said. "But bottom line is, that sucker can really play. He's been a load for a lot of people, and you can't be a better kid."

(It should be noted that, although they do their best to portray it in these quotes, Coach K and D. Dog are apparently not best buds.)

Whew, there's a lot to dig into there.  I'll take it quote-by-quote.

Krzyzewsky believes Hansbrough is the POY because of his toughness, because he's a veteran, because he knows how to play.  That's an impressive list.  But let's talk about how Beasley measures up in those categories.  First, toughness.  Beasley has been playing with a badly jammed toe all season, but hasn't complained about it and hasn't let it affect the quality of his play.  Second, veteran.  No question about it, Beasley's not a veteran, but the last time I checked, that wasn't one of the criteria for POY.  The award goes to the best player, young, old or adolescent.  Finally, knowing how to play.  You're right, Coach K, this Beasley kid has no idea what he's doing out there.  He's just a 19-year-old who's making players who are three and four years older than him look silly, not to mention generally out-stat-ing the other main contender for POY.

Next, we move to one of Deputy Dog's fantasy-land criteria, that being "giving to college basketball."  Again, I'm not sure what that has to do with being the best player, but I'll play along because Roy Williams is clearly a lot smarter than I am.  Beasley has given college basketball at least one year of watching an incredible talent, certainly one of the most talented freshmen ever to play the game and possibly one of the best talents, period, ever to play the college game.  Because of the NBA rule, he didn't have a choice, but he has relished it and made the most of his opportunity.  Would I love to see him stick around for at least three years, like Hansbrough has?  I hope you weren't anxiously awaiting my answer, because you ought to know it.  But I can't blame Beasley if he goes pro after this year.  I would have a hard time turning down $8 million, and I'm pretty sure Hansbrough would, too, if anybody ever offered that much to him.

Next, Coach K admonishes us that we should not choose the best player based on who is the best pro prospect.  Fair enough, but my general assumption about that argument was that it applied in situations where a certain player projected as a star at the next level but wasn't putting up the numbers some others in college were.  In this case, Beasley is putting up numbers that are at least as good as Hansbrough's, and in a lot of cases they are better, not to mention attained in fewer minutes.

Lastly, and this is my favorite, Williams thinks POY goes to Hansbrough because there isn't a nicer player in the game.  Yeah, that Beasley kid is a real thug.  It's not like he reaches out to kids with leukemia or takes time out to have his picture taken with the littlest K-State fans.

Let me make this very clear.  I take absolutely nothing away from Hansbrough.  He is a very, very good player and is worthy of POY consideration.  He leads Beasley in some important statistical categories.  He plays on what the self-proclaimed experts call a better team, one that he is supposed to lead to a Final Four.  But while those experts will tell you that is part of the reason Hansbrough is the POY, because he puts up impressive numbers while surrounded by more talent than Beasley, remember this.  Beasley has the expectations of the world on him.  He is asked--nay, required--to deliver big performances every single night.  And if Hansbrough is surrounded by so many big guns, by necessity other teams can't focus on him as much as Beasley's opponents can focus on him.  For proof of opponent focus on Beasley, I point no further than the first game against Nebraska, where a Nebraska defender's sole assignment was to stand in front of Beasley with his back to the ball.  Beasley only scored 35 points and grabbed 13 rebounds.

That's not to say he's surrounded by a bunch of slouches.  But sometimes Beasley makes it look so easy we forget how good he really is.  It's the same argument we see in golf with Tiger Woods and tennis with Roger Federer.  People forget how incredibly talented those guys are and thus dismiss their competition as a bunch of stiffs.  Tiger and Federer win because they are the most incredible athletes in their sports.  In any other era, Phil Mickelson would have won at least seven majors, while Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal would be considered the preeminent tennis players of their time.  Beasley is simply so much better than everyone else that it does two things.  One, it makes it look like he's not really giving maximum effort (isn't that a scary thought).  And two, it makes the players around him look worse than they are, because if they were just playing with a player of moderately superior--rather than incredibly superior--talent, they would look better by comparison.

In the end, folks, college basketball is still the same as it has always been.  It's not easier for a player to go out there and average 25 points and 13 rebounds; Beasley is just so good that it looks that way.  It is a relatively close race, but in the end, Michael Beasley is your 2007-08 national player of the year.