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Candid Coaches: Who will be the best player in college basketball for the 2019-20 season?

CBS Sports college basketball writers Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander surveyed more than 100 coaches for our annual Candid Coaches series. They polled everyone from head coaches at elite programs to assistants at some of the smallest Division I schools. In exchange for complete anonymity, the coaches provided unfiltered honesty about a number of topics in the sport. This is the final survey question for 2019. All results from previous questions can be seen at the bottom of this story.

College basketball often suffers from losing most of its 15-or-so best/most notable players every year. It’s a function of the sport and the climate college hoops operates in. (And it’s getting worse.)

But for the season ahead, there are a few really good/household-name players — potentially historic stars — who are returning. And that can’t be undersold. There will be one-and-done freshman talents who grow into big stars, but a handful of seniors who are back for one more tour figure to help shape the storylines of the sport from November into March. This is great! On top of the coaches and reliable elite programs who will push interest, we also have fantastic four-year players who are not only really good, but also interesting and fun to watch in their own right and for different reasons.

With that in mind, we got a few expected answers to our final question, but what we didn’t realize is just how presumptive and overwhelming the winner of this question would be. You ready to see who should dominate college basketball in 2019-20? Here we go. 

Who will be college basketball’s best player this season? 

Quotes that stood out

On Cassius Winston

  • “We played against him twice and I think he’s tremendous. I think he’s the best point guard in the country and he’s just a winner. I would say he’s in total control of everything that’s going on offensively with them at all times. I think it’s the hardest thing, them and Carolina do it best, hardest thing to be a running team. He is flying. He does the best job at catching an outlet at the hash mark and sometimes taking no dribbles and throwing the ball ahead for layups, dunks, 3s. The best throw-ahead guy I’ve seen in a long time.”
  • “Does so many winning things. There will be guys that may have better numbers but no one will do more to help his team and raise the level of play for his teammates individually and collectively. If I had to build a program for the year, he’s the guy I am taking first.”
  • “I don’t know if there was another player in college basketball last year that showed the ability to dominate/takeover a game like he did. The fact that he’s a point guard that always has the ball in his hands makes it even harder on the opposition. He’s like an elite franchise QB in the NFL.”
  • “I don’t think any of the freshmen are that great. Nobody is Zion. Put me down for Cassius Winston. All-American for the No. 1 team. Has to be the pick.”
  • “Winston. No one controls the pace and tempo of a game like him. “

On Markus Howard

  • “When Markus Howard gets going, he’s tough. Can win games by himself.”
  • “Markus Howard. He’s one of the best scorers in college basketball in the last ten years. Teams game plan for him and he still gets 25-plus consistently.”
  • “Markus Howard. He’s the college version of Steph Curry.”

On Cole Anthony

  • “He’s a one-and-done type guard. I’ve seen him do a little bit of everything. He can score [easily] and if he passes the ball, he’ll be dangerous. He’s one of the best guards I’ve seen in a long time. He can get things done, so athletic, tough, plays on both ends and will find a way. From what I’ve seen of him, he’s a winner.”
  • “If best player is determined by eye-catching numbers, then I think Cole Anthony has the best shot. Fits the system and will have the chance to produce big numbers in Coach Williams’ system. Anthony Edwards can really score it though, and I’d think his usage numbers will be at the top, so you could argue for him.”
  • “I think Cole Anthony is different. When the lights shine brightest, he’s darned good. I’m talking high-level good. I think his composure and his family background make a difference.”

On Myles Powell

  • “You guys don’t give [Myles Powell] enough attention. This will be his coming out party.”

On James Wiseman

  • “Best player? I don’t know — maybe James Wiseman. He’s definitely the most talented.”

The takeaway

What an incredible year-over-year change. This is one of the few questions we ask coaches every summer, and in 2018 the results were varied, the voting more spread out. Whereas Winston dominated the poll this year, in 2018 it was a three-horse race between R.J. Barrett, Carsen Edwards and Zion Williamson. Credit to the coaches of last year’s crop, as they were way ahead on Zion, relatively speaking, vs. what scouts and most in the media expected out of the Duke freshman. 

Barrett won that poll with 16% of the vote. Winston this year got 50%! Incredible. 

For perspective, here’s who else has won in past years and by how much. In 2017, Michael Porter Jr. won with 20% of the haul. The year before that, Grayson Allen at just 13%, our lowest ever. The 2015 version had Kris Dunn win with a fairly strong representation of 26%. Frank Kaminsky’s 17% volume was enough to finish on top in 2014. But how about in 2013: Marcus Smart with a hefty 34% of the returned ballots. He was bested by 1 percentage point the year before, as Cody Zeller had 35% of the vote in 2012

The guys who finished behind Winston will be interesting to watch for different reasons. Marquette figures to flourish or fade depending on how Markus Howard plays in his final season — and will do so without the Hauser brothers, who transferred in April. Cole Anthony could be a volume player, only more athletic, along the lines of what Trae Young did for Oklahoma two seasons ago. He’s a fun player to watch and not a fun player to go against. Georgia’s Anthony Edwards will enter the season somewhat under the radar, but if he breaks through and becomes as good as his ceiling suggests, the Bulldogs might become the darling of the SEC. I’m fascinated to see what Edwards can do under Tom Crean. And I’m with the coaches who logged votes for Myles Powell, another four-year college stud who’s tough as hell and should be good enough to lift Seton Hall to its first Sweet 16 in 20 years. James Wiseman will be the most prominent freshman on a freshman-laden Memphis team. He’s be so heralded for so long, I’m eager to finally see him play against college competition and discover if he’s truly the best guy to go No. 1 in 2020. 

And still, for all the talents and appeal of the players I just mentioned, their combined voting tally didn’t match Cassius Winston’s alone. He smashed the Candid Coaches record for this question. This result correlates with our penultimate Candid Coaches question, which published last week, when Michigan State practically paralleled in voting as we asked the coaching fraternity who would win the 2020 NCAA Tournament. Sparty squished the competition with 54% of the votes. The biggest reason why was Winston, who has a chance to make NCAA men’s Division I history. He’s already one of the 10 best players in program history, but Winston will have a viable claim for top-five status in Spartans lore if/when he becomes the first player ever to score more than 2,000 points and distribute more than 1,000 assists. 

He sits at 1,411 points and 714 assists heading into the season. For reference, here are the players in men’s D-I history to score at least 2,000 points and collect 900 or more dimes:

  1. Gary Payton, Oregon State: 2,172 points, 938 assists
  2. D.J. Cooper, Ohio: 2,075 points, 934 assists
  3. Sherman Douglas, Syracuse: 2,060 points, 960 assists

That’s it. That’s the list. Barring injury, Winston’s got a great shot. Speaking of great shot, remember that he’s a terrific college 3-point shooter, hitting 43% of his treys in three seasons. (The line will move out next season, which could cause his percentage to dip.) Winston’s finished second, second and third in national assist rate. Expect 40-to-45 percent of MSU’s possessions to end with a Winston assist when he’s on the floor.

Winston’s grown into the best kind of college player: a reliable star who can shoot, handle the ball, pass, is smart, is a great teammate — but is not so dominating physically that the NBA pulled him away before his four years were up. This is why Michigan State will enter as the preseason No. 1 team for the first time in program history. Winston has a lot of talent around him, but he figures to be the most important player in the sport.

It can’t be overstated how impressive it is to get 50% of more than 100 coaches sampled at random to say you’re going to be the best player. This is not some future No. 1 pick or overpowering physical freak. Winston’s just a great college player, the latest in an impressive lineage to come out of East Lansing, Michigan, and someone set up to be one of the very best in school history. 

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