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Padding the Stats: What Ifs From a College Basketball Season Cut Short

April 08, 2020

Dayton high-flyer Obi Toppin officially won the Wooden Award on Tuesday, recognizing him as the country’s most outstanding player.

Toppin has taken home most of the national player of the year hardware this offseason, but the Wooden Award is the only one of them I vote for. Thanks to Mike Babcock, I’ve been a voter the last five years, and each time I had the eventual winner No. 1 on my ballot. 

In the past, I’ve felt pretty strongly about my choice at the top. Zion Williamson was a no-brainer after having the best freshman season in college basketball history — a least analytically — on a really good team. Jalen Brunson was another easy pick — the engine behind a team that ended up winning it all.

Productivity, efficiency, two-way impact and contributions to winning are the criteria I use to make my decision. Toppin certainly grades out very highly in all those areas — 20 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.2 stocks per game, 63.3% shooting, 39% 3-point shooting, 70.2% free-throw shooting on a 29-2 team — but he’s not a perfect candidate. 

Toppin only played four games against high-major teams, and the Flyers went 2-2 in those games with Kansas being the only great team on their schedule. In the two losses, Toppin averaged 17.5 points on 50% shooting (22.2% from 3) — good, but not player-of-the-year worthy.

Luka Garza — second on my ballot — had a monster season of his own (23.9 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game on 54.2% shooting (35.8% from 3) and 65.1% from the line), and he did it while playing in the Big Ten, a league filled with talented centers. Iowa went 20-11 though and was terrible on defense, and Garza’s limitations on that end had a lot to do with it.

I went with Toppin because I’m not going to penalize him too much for something outside of his control (Dayton’s schedule), and the Flyers were one of the main storylines of this college basketball season.

Speaking of the season, in a normal world Monday would have marked the end of it as the national championship was originally scheduled for that day. That realization coupled with the Wooden Award results made me think about all the missed opportunities created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Toppin capped off a remarkable season with plenty of individual awards, but the Flyers didn’t get a chance to finish off the best season in program history. Toppin is a national player of the year and future NBA lottery pick, something Dayton is unlikely to ever have again. And it wasn’t like the Flyers were a one-man show — Toppin had a terrific supporting cast around him led by point guard Jalen Crutcher, who had an awesome season.

Dayton had a lot to prove still because of its schedule, but it did take Kansas to overtime on a  neutral court before coming up just a bit short in the nonconference; Dayton had the firepower to make a run. Now it will always be a ‘What if?” season.

Speaking of the Jayhawks, by the end of the season nearly everybody in the sport was acknowledging Kansas — led by senior center and the No. 3 player on my Wooden ballot Udoka Azuibuike — as the best team in the country. The Jayhawks likely would have been the favorite to cut down the nets. Kansas has had plenty of success so I’m certainly not shedding any tears about what might have been for the Jayhawks, but I’m sure their fans feel differently.

We might as well just work our way down my ballot because at No. 4 was San Diego State point guard Malachi Flynn. The Aztecs had the best two-loss undefeated season ever going (that’s an inside joke for listeners of the CBS Eye on College Basketball) and Flynn was the driving force behind it. He was an outstanding playmaker, both for himself and others. After winning their first 26 games of the season, the Aztecs dropped two of their last six but still finished 30-2 and would have been a No. 2 seed in the tournament. 

With a fierce defense, offensive balance throughout the lineup and a killer like Flynn, San Diego State had a big opportunity to make a deeper run than even the 34-3 Kawhi Leonard-led squad in 2011 that fell in the Sweet 16. Now San Diego State will lose at least two senior starters and Flynn has a tough decision to make about going pro or returning for his senior season.

Michigan State, led by Cassius Winston, looked like it was rounding into form heading into the postseason and eyeing a deep run. Gonzaga was doing what Gonzaga has done under Mark Few the last handful of years. Baylor and Florida State were top five teams. I could go on and on about all the teams that earned an opportunity to make a deep tournament run only for it to be ripped away from them by the outbreak.

In any case, this is April now. I’m curious about what content creators are going to do now that it isn’t really bracket season any more, and I wonder how long networks will continue to show vintage games from past tournaments, something that has helped fill the void somewhat, even if watching those games has felt a bit hollow.

The college basketball season really is over, and thinking about that made me a little sad on Tuesday, especially considering no one knows when the next season — of any kind of sport — will begin.

But while we wait, it’s worth looking back and recognizing outstanding players and teams for what they’ve accomplished this year and in the past. That’s why I’m proud to be a Wooden Award voter and was happy to see it go to a very deserving player in Obi Toppin.

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