Weeks ago when we were naive and carefree, I warned you that Dayton’s Obi Toppin was the favorite to win the most-prestigious men’s basketball National Player of the Year awards.
I thought I was being proven wrong in the last week or so by all the Player of the Year awards Iowa’s Luka Garza was scooping up. The Sporting News, Basketball Times, The Athletic, ESPN — it was Garza, Garza, Garza, Garza.
Then another basketball shoe dropped Tuesday when the first of what could be considered the three premier Player of the Year awards was announced and Toppin got the one given by Associated Press. He received 34 of the 65 first-place votes to Garza’s 24, so it wasn’t like a recount was needed.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association also went with Toppin as its winner of the Oscar Robertson Trophy for Player of the Year.
Predictably, this isn’t going over well in Hawkeyeland. “What, 24 points and 10 rebounds a game in the Big Ten aren’t as good as 20 and 7 in the Atlantic 10?”
I’ve never been sure which is more enjoyable for college sports fans, their teams getting huge heapings of compliments and awards or the flattery getting directed elsewhere so they could angrily scream “Foul!”
Toppin was terrific. But Garza had one of those rare-air seasons for a collegian, pouring in big points game after game against premier competition. No conference had a collection of good big men like the Big Ten’s.
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The statistics favor Garza. But POY awards often are about more than stats. Or rather, they lean heavily on this one: Won-lost record.
Dayton’s Flyers soared into national prominence by going 29-2. Iowa was 20-11 and tied for fifth in the Big Ten. Player of the Year awards usually go to players on the biggest winners.
“We have so many different options on our team,” Toppin told NCAA.com’s Andy Katz this month. “Because of the attention that I’m getting, it’s going to open up a lot for other shooters. If I’m in the pick-and-roll with Jalen [Crutcher], they have to decide whether they have to stop the ball or collapse on me on the roll.
“We have really good shooters, really good defenders and really great playmakers on our team that help us win every single day.”
You could say Toppin didn’t need to score 24 points a game like Garza did. Or, you could say Garza doing what he did without as much supporting firepower as Toppin is another checkmark in a Luka box.
Don’t diminish Dayton. It had a wonderful season. Would it have done better in the Big Ten than Iowa’s 11-9? Yes. Would it have won the Big Ten? In a year in which 14-6 got three teams a title-share and one of the three was Wisconsin, why not?
Would the Hawkeyes have gone 18-0 in the A-10? No. Maybe 15-3, even 16-2. But if you lost at Nebraska you could just as easily have fallen at George Mason or George Washington.
The individual numbers, though, favor the big man from the Big Ten.
Points per game: Garza 23.9 (fifth in the nation), Toppin 20.0
Points per game in conference play: Garza 26.2, Toppin 20.2
Rebounds per game: Garza 9.7, Toppin 7.5
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Assists: Toppin 67, Garza 36. Blocked shots: Garza 55, Toppin 38. Free throw shooting: Garza 127 of 195, Toppin 99 of 141. Three-point shooting: Garza 39 of 109, Toppin 32 of 82.
The stats say Garza. The strength-of-schedule says Garza. If you think leading a team that was in the NIT a year ago to the nation’s No. 3 ranking is irresistible, you take Toppin.
I predict Garza will win at least one of the other two remaining major National Player of the Year awards, the Naismith Trophy and the Wooden Award. Both will be announced in April.
History, however, suggests otherwise. The only time in the last 10 years in which those two and the AP honor didn’t go to the same player was 2016 when Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield won the Naismith and Wooden while Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine took the AP award.
Should Toppin win out, at least you’ll have something to enjoy getting mad about.
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