By Jim O’Connell
AP Basketball Writer
Whenever talk of the best college basketball player this season came up so did two names: Denzel Valentine of Michigan State and Buddy Hield of Oklahoma.
They were unanimous selections Tuesday to The Associated Press’ 2015-16 All-America team.
Both led their teams to successful seasons and their numbers lifted them above all the other players.
Valentine, the Big Ten player of the year, averaged 19.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists, while Hield, the player of the year in the Big 12, averaged 25 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists.
“I don’t know many guys that have improved in every aspect of the game like he has,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said of the 6-foot-5 Valentine, the school’s first All-American since Draymond Green in 2012. His importance to Michigan State showed when he missed four games during the season with a knee injury.
Hield, Oklahoma’s first All-American since Blake Griffin in 2009, became a highlight reel staple with his ability to shoot the ball from long range and with defenders right on him. The 6-foot-4 Hield shot 46.4 percent from 3-point range.
“He has had a fantastic year and has been very consistent,” Sooners coach Lon Kruger said of the Bahamas native who was a third team selection last season. “He worked hard and has that passion and focus that makes him what he is.”
In the age when one-and-dones usually dominate the college basketball landscape, Valentine and Hield were joined on the All-America team by fellow seniors Brice Johnson of North Carolina and Malcolm Brogdon of Virginia. Sophomore Tyler Ulis of Kentucky rounded out the team. The 2013-14 team had four seniors and a freshman.
Valentine and Hield both received 65 first-team votes from the national media panel that selects the weekly poll.
The 5-foot-9 Ulis, the shortest All-American since 5-foot-9 Johnny O’Brien of Seattle in 1953, was the Southeastern Conference’s player and defensive player of the year. This is the second straight season Kentucky had an All-American, with Willie Cauley-Stein making the team last season.
“It was a great year for us,” said Ulis, who received 43 first-team votes. “I felt like we went through a lot of ups and downs, had a lot of young players and guys learning how to play the right way. Everybody got better individually.”
The 6-foot-10 Johnson was a walking double-double for North Carolina, averaging 16.6 points and 10.6 rebounds, and he received 39 first-team votes.
“He’s always been a good rebounder. At times he’s been a great rebounder,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “One of the top two or three rebounders I’ve ever coached in 28 years. … And not just how quick he jumps but how high he jumps, too.”
The last North Carolina first-teamer was Tyler Hansbrough, who was an All-American in 2008 and 2009.
Johnson and Brogdon gave the Atlantic Coast Conference two first-teamers for the first time since 2006 when J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams from Duke did it.
The 6-foot-5 Brogdon, who was on the second team last season, was the ACC’s player and defensive player of the year. He averaged 18.7 points and 4.1 rebounds while shooting 40.9 percent from 3-point range.
“He’s a complete offensive player: dribble, pass, shoot. But you have to add his ability to play down the stretch. Clutch play, at the line, making big plays,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said. “Then defensively, you’ve got to talk about his ability to guard, to rebound, to guard different players.”
The last Virginia player to be a first-team selection was Ralph Sampson, who was chosen three straight years, 1981-83.
Seven-foot sophomore Jakob Poeltl of Utah led the second team with 41 first-team votes. He was joined by LSU freshman Ben Simmons, Kansas senior Perry Ellis, Providence junior Kris Dunn and Iowa State senior Georges Niang.
The third team consists of Grayson Allen of Duke, Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell of Indiana, Jarrod Uthoff of Iowa, Kay Felder of Oakland and Jamal Murray of Kentucky.
The voting was done before the NCAA Tournament.