With the postseason beginning this week, there is a clear picture of who is among the contenders for college basketball’s Player of the Year awards. The top five are Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn, Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis, Iowa’s Keegan Murray, and Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji.
Of course, there are two different Player of the Year awards. There is the NCAA’s Naismith College Player of the Year and the John R. Wooden Award for College Basketball Player of the Year.
Both awards have been given to the same player every season for a while. The last time the Naismith College Player of the Year and Wooden Award had differing winners was in the 1994-95 season when the Naismith had Joe Smith of Maryland and the Wooden had Ed O’Bannon of UCLA.
Interesting Path of Tshiebwe
If Tshiebwe takes home Player of the Year, he will have one of the most unique paths to the award in recent history. It is the embodiment of modern college basketball.
During Tshiebwe’s freshman season, he had a great year with West Virginia in the 2019-20 season averaging 11.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. However, his next season at WVU did not go as planned as his production dipped and so did his minutes.
After appearing in only 10 games in his second season at West Virginia, Tshiebwe made the decision to transfer and left the Mountaineers during mid-season.
Only the college basketball of today would have allowed something like this. Key players transferring in the middle of the season had been unheard of until the new age of collegiate sports where athletes can easily switch schools with no setbacks.
West Virginia was barely kicking off conference play last season, and Tshiebwe already announced he would be attending Kentucky for the 2021-22 season.
Check out this interview where he discusses his journey:
Tshiebwe’s decision to leave West Virginia after finding success in his freshman season seemed questionable at first. But now, he is the favorite for the Player of the Year awards with his 16.9-point average and unheard of 15.3 rebounds per game. His current rebound per game average would be one of the highest ever and the most in the last 37 years.
Could this be a sign of things to come in college basketball? Transfers are able to pick the best situation for them, and that can garner the most success for some players.
History of Transfers Winning Player of the Year
The Wooden Award has existed since the 1976-77 season and the Naismith since the 1968-69 season. Believe it or not, a traditional transfer has never won either of these Player of the Year awards.
This is hard to believe with some of the great transfers we have seen throughout the years. For example, Hank Gathers led the NCAA in points per game and rebounds per game averaging 32.7 points and 13.7 rebounds during the 1988-89 season playing for Loyola Marymount.
Gathers began his career at USC but transferred after his freshman season. He was one of the most dominant frontcourt players during the 1980s.
He outperformed Shaquille O’Neal during the 1989-90 season. When LSU and Loyola Marymount met, Gathers erupted for an astounding 48 points and 13 rebounds, while Shaq totaled 20 points, 24 rebounds, and 12 blocks.
Sadly, Gathers passed away during a game toward the end of his senior season with a heart condition. This was an issue for Gathers earlier in his senior season when he was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat early in the 1989-90 season.
Out of all transfers throughout the past 50+ years, Gathers had the best case of winning one of the Player of the Year awards during the 1988-89 season.
Junior College Transfers Have Taken Home Player of the Year
While a transfer between Division 1 schools has not won Player of the Year, two junior college transfers have,
Larry Johnson — the former No. 1 pick in the 1991 NBA Draft — attended Odessa Junior College in Texas for two seasons and quickly generated attention. Johnson initially committed to SMU but flipped to UNLV where he played from 1989-91.
During the 1990-91 season, Johnson averaged 22.7 points and 10.9 rebounds. He took home both the Wooden and Naismith awards in 1991 and remains the only transfer of any kind to win the Naismith.
Walter Berry was another Junior College transfer that took home the Wooden Award. Berry started his college career at San Jacinto Junior College and finished his career for hometown St. John’s in the 1984-85 and 1985-86 seasons.
Berry averaged 23 points and 11.1 rebounds during the 1985-96 season. His outstanding season was awarded the illustrious Wooden Award in 1986. However, Berry did not win the Naismith; Duke’s Johnny Dawkins won the Naismith in the 1985-86 season.
Unless a drastic change happens in the next 2-to-3 weeks, Tshiebwe is in line to win this year’s Wooden and Naismith awards. This would make history, he would be the first transfer between Division 1 schools to win any Player of the Year award.
With how popular the transfer portal is becoming, this will not be the last time. As mentioned, transferring is now designed for players to put themselves in the absolute best position. Transferring has never been so player-friendly, which explains why we have not seen transfers between Division 1 universities win Player of the Year awards.
Going forward, Tshiebwe’s success has a shot of influencing players to transfer. With prominent players hitting the portal, transfers winning the Player of the Year awards could become a regularity instead of a rarity.