- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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A week ago, ESPN.com tabbed Saint Joseph's senior point guard Jameer Nelson and Connecticut junior center Emeka Okafor as the favorites for the player of the year award. That took care of two of five All-America selections.
The other three? Well, over the past seven days, those players have started to crystallize a little more.
We know, it's only late January. But it would be hard to argue against Providence junior Ryan Gomes, Texas Tech senior Andre Emmett and Louisville sophomore Francisco Garcia as leading candidates for first-team all-America honors.
Syracuse junior Hakim Warrick, Mississippi State junior Lawrence Roberts and Oregon senior Luke Jackson are each debatable alternatives. But Gomes, Emmett and Garcia are certainly playing their way onto the first team. Each are also legitimate options to be added to the Wooden Award guest list with Nelson and Okafor to attend the April ceremonies.
Until recently, Gomes certainly was the least known of the group. The Friars are getting about as little exposure as a 14-3 Big East team can, with only two nationally televised games. Providence beat Illinois in the Jimmy V Classic, and were on the losing end of the season's most controversial ending -- as Texas escaped Rhode Island by running a red light.
And, don't look for Gomes or the Friars anytime soon. They are off the national stage until the Big East tournament in March. But lack of SportsCenter highlights aside, Gomes is making a name for himself.
"If no one knew about Ryan Gomes before Saturday, they know about him now," Providence coach Tim Welsh said.
Yes, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun gave Gomes plenty of publicity after the Friars' 66-56 victory at UConn, a game that saw Gomes hang 26 points and 12 boards on the Huskies. When asked by a local sportswriter about the nearby Waterbury, Conn., native's development in college, Calhoun went into a profanity-laced tirade. Calhoun has since apologized for his postgame comments, but admitted he didn't recruit Gomes out of high school -- although Calhoun did have Caron Butler on campus, and had already signed Okafor at the time.
In Calhoun's defense, he wasn't the only coach who missed on the late-blooming Gomes, who was overweight and out of shape when a few coaches like Saint Joseph's Phil Martelli and Welsh went to see him play in high school. Welsh said he first saw Gomes when he was at the Eastern Invitational in New Jersey following the forward's junior season. Welsh, who must find hidden gems like Gomes to survive in the Big East, has stuck with Gomes over the past three seasons as he's developed into a potential NBA player.
"He's the best," said Welsh, who added that Gomes used to go home on Thursdays during the summer to care for his brother, as his mother worked two jobs. "When he comes out of games, he slaps five with everybody on the bench including the managers. He treats them equal to the starters. That's the type of kid he is. He makes everyone feel at ease."
Gomes' work ethic contributed to his development. He's stayed in Providence each of the past three summers. He's also in no rush to bolt for the NBA. He enjoys school and was never on a fast track to the league. So, he isn't getting caught up in the hype of being a potential first team All-America.
For those who've missed the Friars' two appearances on national television, Gomes isn't a typical 6-foot-7, 245-pound forward. In fact, the big guy sometimes looks as though he's floating, as he spins with ease to the basket without hesitation.
He worked UConn's 6-10 Josh Boone around the perimeter in the first half Saturday, scoring 17 points in 19 minutes. He then took Okafor inside at times in the second half, spinning on him for a pair of hoops. And, when he went to the bench with four fouls in the second half, Gomes was the first Friar up cheering for his teammates, although he was eager to return and help finish off the Huskies.
"There was one time last year when he made a move in our game against Boston College that was out of the context of our offense -- he drove and dunked it -- and he asked me if that was OK," Welsh said. "He's playing on a cloud right now."
On the season, Gomes is averaging 20.3 points and 9.8 rebounds. He's shooting 54 percent from the field and 39 percent on 3s (16 of 46). A year ago, he averaged 18.4 points and 9.7 boards, and yet was somehow left off the invite list to the USA Basketball trials. All his ommision did was gave him the necessary edge to enter this season on a mission.
Look at his numbers in high-profile games:
17 points, 7 rebounds in a win over Alabama.
24 and 12 in a win over Illinois.
16 and 13 in a win at Richmond.
27 and 11 in a win at Virginia.
27 and 8 in a win over Villanova
26 and 12 in the win at Connecticut.
Even in the Friars' three losses -- at Rhode Island, Texas and at Rutgers -- Gomes was special. He scored 25 against the Rams, 28 against the Longhorns and 27 against the Scarlet Knights.
"He watches more tape than (assistant Steve) DeMeo," Welsh said. "He's a very cerebral player. I've seen guys go back home to play in games there is so much pressure on them. But he went in there and it was as if he was on a playground. He had fun, was relaxed and was laughing. He loves school and is really have fun this year."
So, too, is Emmett
Emmett, like Nelson, declared for last year's NBA draft and withdrew. He had to get back into the good graces of Bob Knight to be accepted back onto the team. But he's hardly been an issue this season. Without him, the Red Raiders wouldn't be a Big 12 title contender.
Emmett has been as consistent as any player in the country. Monday night's game was the exception, as Texas held him to nine points -- the first time in 19 games this season he didn't reach double-figures. He's averaging 21.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and shooting 54.8 percent. He's scored over 20 points in 12 games, including 27 and 11 boards in a win at Ohio State; 32 in a win over Oklahoma State; and 21 in a win over Oklahoma.
The senior small forward is becoming one of the best leaders in the country, not to mention a go-to player late in games (see: game-winning shot to beat Texas A&M in College Station)
So, too, is Garcia, and he's only a sophomore. Yes, Oregon's Luke Jackson (22.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 4.9 apg) is having a better statistical season, but Garcia is on a top-five team -- and Garcia has been instrumental in Louisville's success.
Garcia is averaging 15.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists for the Cardinals. He has played some of his best basketball in Louisville's biggest games. He scored 24 points in a win over Seton Hall. His 21 in a win over Florida came a few days after learning his brother had been killed. And all 10 of his points came in the second half of a win at Kentucky, where every basket was critical during the Cardinals' second-half comeback. He had 19 as Louisville handed Cincinnati its first loss, and despite being hobled by a turned ankle, he poured in 24 Sunday night at Tennessee.
But, the most amazing thing about all five of these potential All-Americas is none were highly rated out of high school.
Nelson was a hidden gem, as was Gomes. It wasn't like Texas Tech had to beat everyone for Emmett, while Garcia wasn't exactly a household name in high school. Okafor had the biggest name in this group, but Connecticut just had to beat Arizona State for his services.
So, who'll join Jameer Nelson and Emeka Okafor as first-team All-Americans? We think we know.