CuseNation Awards: Most Improved

CuseNation.com brings you an objective look at the 2011-12 Syracuse basketball season, but we dial it back some in our initial reviews. Certain players had standout campaigns – and they will be recognized in the 2011-12 CuseNation hoops awards. On day 2 of the series, we crown a Most Improved Player of the Year.

The Syracuse Orange improved to one of their best seasons in the storied history of the program in 2011-12, finishing 34-3 on the year after a regular-season Big East title and a trip to the Elite Eight.

In terms of the players who gradually got better along with the program, CuseNation.com can only select one to represent the Most Improved Player of the Year. For the criteria, we look at players who weren't expected to have the impact they ended up having during the deep run in the NCAA Tournament. And one who did it over multiple seasons.

Nominees: Fab Melo, C.J. Fair, Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters

Melo was out of shape in 2010-11 and could barely get down the floor for a first half, much less an entire game. What a difference a year made, as he re-dedicated himself to conditioning and improving on the offensive end in his native Brazil. In the process, he became the most feared shot-blocker in the Big East and ended up leading the conference with a staggering 3.7 blocks per game. Melo also more than tripled his scoring average from his freshman season to this year, along with considerable increases in rebounds and free-throw percentage.

Fair was deemed "Mr. Consistent" by most of the Syracuse media for his play in 2011-12, a year after showing flashes of his potential as a freshman. He elevated his game to that of a starter towards the end of the season, though he was playing starter's minutes all year long. Fair ended up increasing his scoring by more than two points per game, also upping his rebounding by a similar margin. The lefty saw a nearly 15 percent increase from the free throw line and even contributed a steal along with an assist per game.

Jardine was expected to run the offense heading into the year, but the conception of him being a liability with the ball in his hands came along with it. Not only did Scoop prove to protect the ball better, but he did it in big-time spots like the NCAA Tournament. Jardine played less minutes as a senior than he did as a junior, but still managed to average about nine points and five assists against just 2.3 turnover each time out. From the outside, he improved in his percentage as well as shot-volume, on the way to shooting six percent better overall in 2011-12.

Waiters had the potential to be the best player on the floor more times than not, but he struggled with the expectations during his freshman season because of fluctuating minutes and reported clashes with Jim Boeheim. After hitting the weight room and learning how to play in the 2-3 defense, Waiters' explosive game had the chance to blossom before our eyes. It went to the next level quickly, and he averaged over 12 points per game to go along with a pair of steals – even leading the country in the category early in the season.

Winner: Scoop Jardine

This one was close.

Melo made the biggest day-night transition in terms of what he could do on the floor, but he was unable to contribute when the team needed him most. Waiters became the best player on the team before our eyes, but Jardine was the rock in the locker room as well as an improved point guard in a season in which Syracuse may have been doomed without him.

Let the debate begin.

Jardine wins because of his most-improved numbers and mentality along with his most-important status on the team to hold things together when distraction after distraction could have broken things down. Plus, in the Big Dance, Jardine was at his best. His game elevated in every way, and he was the driving force to the win over Kansas State while contributing solidly against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 and Ohio State in the final game of his SU career. The fifth-year player committed just three turnovers over the last two games while scoring in double figures in each Tourney contest. He was unselfish in the proess, pouring in 25 total assists in the four-game run.

If one still wants to dispute, take into account what Boeheim said of Jardine in terms of his development while at the ‘Cuse. The Hall-of-Famer said not a single point guard improved more in his time at SU than Jardine, ever.

That's good enough for me.

On Wednesday, CuseNation.com will bring you our pick for Defensive Player of the Year.


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