In the first 10 years of the Big 12's existence, the Player of the Year came from the team that won the conference's regular season title every year except 1999, when it was won by some Nebraska player named Venson Hamilton who now plays for Ikaros Kallitheas in Greece (Am I the only one with ZERO recollection of this guy?)
In the last four years, no one from the regular season champs has won the award. That could be good news for Jacob Pullen, who faces his toughest competition in Kansas' Marcus Morris and Texas' Jordan Hamilton. Or it could just be a reflection of the dominance of Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Blake Griffin, and to a slightly lesser extent, James Anderson.
Then again, if we're using history as our guide, Pullen's status as preseason Big 12 Player of the Year is not good news. Griffin is the only preseason POY to actually win the award in the last five seasons.
Hopefully, though, history won't matter. Contenders should be judged on their performance on the court (and circumstances that might have kept them from being on the court, which we'll come back to later), and with that criteria, there's no doubt that Jacob Pullen belongs on the short list. I'm here to present the evidence for why he should be at the top.
In my mind, that list stops after Morris, Pullen and Hamilton, although Alec Burks, Marcus Denmon and possibly LaceDarius Dunn could be considered fringe candidates. If anyone wants to make an argument for any of those three (and Mike Anderson does), I'd be willing to listen, but I'm going to focus on comparing Pullen to the big three.
First of all, let's clear some things up. Even the most ardent KU fans would surely agree that Jake was the conference's best player in February, when K-State went 6-2. He averaged 23.4 points, 4.1 assists and 2 steals per game while shooting 45.3% from the field, 50% from beyond the arc and 80.6% from the free throw line. That doesn't even include the remarkable transformation we saw from him in terms of leadership or his toughness that surely inspired his teammates to elevate their game.
All that being said, it's just as sure that he had given Hamilton and Morris quite a head start in the first two and a half months of the season. There's a reason that despite Pullen's meteoric rise up the charts (at least 132 spots nationally), he remains far behind Morris and Hamilton in KenPom's offensive ratings.
Of course, part of that is the difference in supporting casts. Marcus Morris ranks #32 because he plays on probably the deepest, most talented team in the country, although it's worth noting that without that benefit he would certainly average more than 27.2 minutes and 17.1 points. Hamilton's recent slump has dropped him to #281, but Texas still has plenty of support around him. Pullen's efficiency won't be as good because he's asked to do more and thus ends up forcing things a lot more than Hamilton or Morris.
It's easier to compare Pullen to Hamilton since they both play on the perimeter, so let's take a look at some stats. I didn't include assists or rebounds because Pullen as a small point guard-ish would obviously have an advantage with the former, while Hamilton as a bigger forward-ish dominates the latter. Statistics in conference play only are listed first, while overall season stats are in parentheses.
Jacob Pullen Jordan Hamilton
MPG 34.2 (32.3) 32.9 (31.9)
PPG 21.7 (19.7) 17.7 (18.7)
ORtg N/A (111.9) N/A (113.2)
eFG % N/A(50.7) N/A (53.8)
3FG % 39.8 (37.3) 37.4 (40.2)
FG % 42 (42.4) 42.1 (44)
FTM 98 (145) 46 (86)
FTA 124 (189) 54 (110)
It is worth noting that Pullen is ranked 16th nationally and two spots ahead of Burks among players who contribute (shoot the final field goal attempt or commit a turnover) to more than 28% of their team's possessions ("go-to-guys").
You probably didn't need stats to tell you this, but it's abundantly clear that Pullen has been better in conference play, while Hamilton has been marginally better overall. Defensively I would say they're about equal, because while Pullen has been good, Shane Southwell has been getting some of the toughest assignments lately and Hamilton's size allows him to be more versatile and guard more players.
In terms of intangibles, Pullen definitely gets the advantage. You can't completely discount his poor effort in two of K-State's biggest nonconference games (vs. Duke and @ Washington St.), but all season long he has been the Wildcats go-to-guy and come through more often than not. Hamilton was great against Pittsburgh, Illinois, Michigan St. and North Carolina, but he hasn't been as good in Big 12 play, which should matter more for this award.
As for Marcus Morris, there's virtually no doubt in my mind that KU's biggest star has a brighter future and should be ahead of Pullen on everyone's All-America ballots. His consistent efficiency (eFG of 64.4% and double digits in every Big 12 game this season) is remarkable, and I imagine he could do more if he wasn't on a team as loaded as Kansas.
He even has stepped up his game in Big 12 play, improving his averages to 18.6 points and 7.4 rebounds from 15.7 and 6.3. I don't think I'll be mad if Marcus Morris wins this award.
But in terms of Big 12 POY, Pullen does have an argument against him. Everything K-State does revolves around Jake, everyone knows this, but he still has stepped his game up late in conference play, when it mattered most. It's also worth noting that Morris had his two worst scoring nights in conference play against K-State, while Pullen had his best game of the year against Kansas.
Unfortunately, we simply can't have this discussion without mentioning Pullen's three-game suspension. It was irresponsible, probably cost his team a loss, and was the exact opposite of what you look for in a leader. I wouldn't necessarily blame voters for holding it against him, but I'd like to think he used it positively to help make himself a better player and better representative of his team and conference. That's got to be worth something.
I realize POY doesn't stand for Most Valuable Player, but I think that's got to be a little bit of a factor. It's always tough to say definitively how much a player means to his team, but I think K-State's reliance on Jake has taken its toll on him, and it took him a little while to learn how to deal with those expectations. It didn't help that Curtis Kelly almost never lived up to his billing as an All-Big 12 First Team player.
Unlike the last four years, there's no clear-cut front-runner for the final iteration of the Big 12's top award. Instead, there are three strong contenders who all have strong resumes with plenty of highs and lows (particularly in the case of Hamilton and Pullen). I say it should go to the guy who has spent four great years in the conference, demonstrating remarkable resilience for one of the top teams in the Big 12.