I have been honored to serve as a voter on the John Wooden Award for several years now. It is a great process, which begins before the season when we put together a list of the top 50 candidates. More recently, voters submitted our updated list of the top 20 candidates. It was not easy to trim down the possibilities given this crazy, unpredictable season.
With February beginning shortly, I have identified my "super seven" candidates, based on the first three months of the season. It was a challenge, but I believe these guys have moved ahead of the field. Each of these guys has a winner's mentality, makes their team better and has an attitude and desire that shines through.
Here are the players I would be considering if I had to fill out my ballot today:
Myles Powell, Seton Hall Pirates (Senior, G, 6-foot-2, 195 pounds)
Powell is a consummate winner who makes big plays. He loves the big stage, wants the ball at crunch time and has really delivered for the Pirates since returning from a concussion. He has scored 23 or more points in six of his last eight games, including 29 against St. John's in a "Maalox Masher" won by the Pirates late, and 29 against a ranked Butler squad.
Luka Garza, Iowa Hawkeyes (Junior, C, 6-11, 260)
One of the most improved players in America, Garza went from 13.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game last season to 23.1 PPG and 10.7 RPG this season. He's averaging 27.3 points in his last four games, shooting over 56 percent from the floor in those contests -- all wins. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery told me Garza's work ethic is off the charts. He's had so many of his magical moments in tough competition, because the Big Ten is the best conference from top to bottom.
Markus Howard, Marquette Golden Eagles (Senior, G, 5-11, 180)
Howard is a scoring machine, and Marquette typically goes as he goes. Defenses load up against him, and he still has the ability to get his shots off with a velvet touch. The leading scorer in Division I with 27.8 PPG, he had posted 10 straight games with at least 25 points before being knocked out early in Wednesday's win over Xavier after taking an elbow to the face. Howard scored 51 vs. USC earlier this year, and 42 against Georgetown -- half of his team's 84 points in a tight win. Marquette's potential to go far in postseason play will depend on Howard.
Cassius Winston, Michigan State Spartans (Senior, G, 6-1, 185)
Winston is the ultimate warrior, who always comes to play and has performed well this season while dealing with the adversity of his brother's death. Winston is a catalyst, a leader, possesses toughness defensively and makes everyone better. Among his most notable performances, Winston was the star of stars against rival Michigan, scoring 32 points while dishing out nine assists. He also had eight assists in last Sunday's win over Minnesota.
Obi Toppin, Dayton Flyers (Sophomore, F, 6-9, 220)
Dayton is having one of its greatest seasons, and Toppin is a key reason why. The multi-talented Toppin can score from anywhere, and has seen his scoring go up over five PPG to 19.8 per outing to go along with 8 rebounds per contest. He had 22 points and 10 rebounds in Wednesday's tough win over Duquesne, also scoring 18 points and grabbing nine rebounds in an overtime loss to Kansas on the big stage.
Payton Pritchard, Oregon Ducks (Senior, G, 6-2, 190)
Pritchard is a leader by example, demonstrating toughness and the ability to do things to win. He finds ways to get to the winner's circle, whether it is a big three, a steal, defending ... I have been impressed with Pritchard in all facets. He's averaging over 23 points and five assists per game over his last five outings.
Vernon Carey Jr., Duke Blue Devils (Freshman, C, 6-10, 270)
The post presence Carey supplies is why the Blue Devils are where they are. A double-double guy who is a defensive presence, opponents have to devote a lot of attention to defending Carey, which means passing lanes for his teammates. He had seen his minutes decrease in recent games due to foul trouble, but put up 26 points and 13 rebounds in a 35-minute effort in Tuesday's win over Pittsburgh.