NCAA Tournament bids, and high seeds are reaching a fever pitch. There is another battle that is somewhat connected to team success but is mostly rooted in individual recognition: the Naismith Award as the national player of the year in college basketball. These are the four likely leaders if you have to arrive at a top-four and not include a longer list along with their online betting odds:
Luka Garza, Iowa
Wooden Award Odds: -3500
The frontrunner is still Garza, who averages 25.5 points and 8.4 rebounds. Just because he has had the lead for the past three months doesn’t mean he is guaranteed to win. If anything, his position is becoming more precarious due to an Iowa slump, though if the season ended today, yes, he would still be the leader.
Corey Kispert, Gonzaga
Wooden Award Odds: +2500
The Gonzaga Bulldogs have two prominent Player of the Year candidates. One is Jalen Suggs. The best freshman in the country is averaging 14 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.4 assists on a loaded and versatile Gonzaga roster. One could make the case that Suggs is the engine of the Gonzaga offense and the main driver of this team’s lethal transition game. That analysis might be true, as far as it goes, but Suggs’ numbers might not be large enough to give him the pull in a national player of the year conversation. That might not seem fair, but numbers are a part of a player’s profile and they do strongly influence voters’ decisions.
Gonzaga’s long-range shooter
Corey Kispert, is probably a better player of the year candidate than Suggs at this point. Kispert might average a modest 4.7 rebounds per game and only two assists, but he scores an average of 19.5 points per game and has stepped up in the biggest games the Zags have played all season long. Suggs might be the more important player on the Gonzaga roster, given his role in leading the Bulldogs’ offense and being the floor general for a very potent team which is ranked No. 1 in the country. However, Kispert is the better scorer, and on a top team in the country, that fact alone could carry a lot more weight, whether fair or not. The Suggs-Kispert comparison will continue to be studied by writers for the next several weeks, and we’ll see if the vote involves any plot twists at some point.
Jared Butler, Baylor
Wooden Award Odds: +850
There is a primary challenger to Gonzaga this season in college basketball, one team which has been ranked in the top two along with the Zags and is viewed as a likely opponent for the Bulldogs in the NCAA Tournament national championship game on Monday, April 5 in Indianapolis. That team is the Baylor Bears. If Suggs is the floor leader for Gonzaga and Kispert is the Zags’ main shooting threat, Butler is someone who offers a little bit of both (floor leadership and shooting) for Baylor, with 17 points, three rebounds, and five assists per game. If Baylor – which still hasn’t lost a Big 12 game this season – goes unbeaten in the conference, which is still one of the toughest conferences in college basketball, Butler’s POY stock will continue to rise, and he might be able to catch Luka Garza. Baylor going unbeaten in a power conference would contain more value and be seen as a more impressive feat than Gonzaga going unbeaten in a much weaker West Coast Conference. The comparison and contrast with Gonzaga might not make Baylor a better team than Gonzaga, but it could certainly elevate Butler past Corey Kispert or Jalen Suggs of the Zags in a specific player of the year evaluation.
Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois
Wooden Award Odds: +1200
There are a number of compelling candidates. Justin Champagnie of Pittsburgh is still averaging 19 points and 12 rebounds per game. Evan Mobley of USC has led the Trojans to the top of the Pac-12 Conference and has been one of the national leaders in double-doubles (points and rebounds) in 2021. Jose Alvarado has been a special player for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. He won’t win the award, but he might be as valuable a player to his team as any player in the country.
These and a few other players deserve mention for the award, but if selecting a fourth candidate at this point, to join Garza, Kispert, and Butler, go with Ayo Dosunmu, the guard for Illinois. Dosunmu is delivering the goods for the Illini with per-game averages of 21.2 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists. Against Wisconsin this past Saturday, Dosunmu was terrific, producing 21 points, 12 rebounds, and 12 assists. It is true that Dosunmu committed seven turnovers in that game, but his triple-double was still eye-popping, and the away Dosunmu worked in tandem with Kofi Cockburn to destroy Wisconsin’s defense was amazingly impressive. Illinois has won four straight games and 8 of its last 10. The Illini are rising on bracketology boards predicting seeds for the upcoming NCAA Tournament. If Illinois keeps winning and keeps rising on boards, especially while Iowa keeps falling and losing ground, it is very realistic to imagine a world in which Dosunmu overtakes Garza. It’s not likely, to be sure, but it is certainly within the realm of possibility and has to be considered as one of a few scenarios which could change the trajectory of the award. If Baylor and Gonzaga lose a game each in the next few weeks and Illinois continues to separate itself from Iowa, Dosunmu will have a chance when it’s all said and done.
John Wooden AwardMon, Mar 01, 2021 EST
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