There are many awards in sports that are ambiguous and hard to figure out.
One that shouldn’t be is the Naismith Player of the Year Award, which this year should — but won’t — guy to a guy who isn’t even on voters’ radar screens.
The Naismith website makes it about as plain as possible: “the Naismith Trophy presented by AT&T is awarded annually to the women’s and men’s college basketball players of the year.”
The question is simple – who was the best college basketball player this year?
Unfortunately, the manner in which sports is covered today makes this question seem far too complex. You see, it’s no longer about simply watching the games, studying the criteria, and waiting to make a judgment until all of the data is available. That’s too boring.
Instead, there has to be a story.
Narrative Matters … But Shouldn’t
It’s not good enough that Manti Te’o was the best linebacker for the only undefeated team in college football. The media wanted you to know about him early, to get to know him personally, to sympathize with him emotionally, and become attached to him as much as possible. It didn’t matter what he was actually doing on the field; the story drew headlines and attention.
The story is fun to follow. It’s too often the story that matters – far more than the performance.
And this year, the stories have completely screwed up our thinking about who is really deserving of college basketball’s most prestigious award.
You see, in order for the story to grow and blossom as the media would like, it needs time. It’s not a coincidence that three of the four guys eligible for this year’s Naismith Award were all playing their best ball in mid-February – the exact moment the media began crafting the oh-so-important narrative for the Player of the Year.
On February 4, Victor Oladipo’s Hoosiers were ranked #1 and were coming off a recent victory over the #1-ranked Michigan Wolverines. A few days later, Oladipo would drop 26 and 8 on the road at Ohio State and his Player of the Year resume was officially submitted.
Meanwhile, a few hours North, Trey Burke’s Wolverines were ranked third in the nation and in the middle of one of the most brutal stretches any team would face in college all year. The Wolverines had only lost twice – two road contests against IU and Ohio State, and Burke hadn’t scored fewer than 15 points in a game since December.
On February 23, Otto Porter submitted the game of his life on the road against Syracuse – dropping 33 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 steals. It was a performance that, I kid you not, caused Jim Boeheim to wonder out loud whether or not Porter was the greatest player in Big East history.
And of course Doug McDermott is the fourth guy. Statistically, McDermott is far superior to anyone else in the field. Unfortunately for him, he plays in the MVC, a conference that is considered by many (although unfairly, just ask Gonzaga) to be far weaker than the B1G or Big East. McDermott has been consistently great all season. Considering his company for the award, it’s amazing that he got in.
The problem is that for each of the other three players, it really didn’t matter what happened the rest of the season. After the narratives of mid-February were set, each guy was a lock for the award (so long that he didn’t get Nerlens Noeled in the interim).
Nobody cares that Georgetown lost three of their last seven games (with two of the wins coming over cellar-dwellers Rutgers and Connecticut) when it really mattered, probably costing them a one-seed in the process. It doesn’t matter that Porter only averaged 14 points per game over his last five, including a season-ending performance against Florida Gulf Coast where he shot 29% from the field.
Porter got worse when it mattered … but because of that brilliant performance in mid-February when the media was crafting its narratives, he made the Final Four.
Oladipo’s story is similar, although IU fans (rightfully so) will argue that he brings far more to the table than just scoring. Still, he failed to break the 20-point mark after his 26-point outburst on February 10, and he only scored more than 15 twice in the final nine games of B1G play. Included in that span was a horrid 7-point, 6-rebound performance in a home loss to Ohio State and a 10-point, 33% shooting loss to Wisconsin in the B1G Tournament.
In all actuality, it’s almost laughable that a guy averaging only 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists would even be considered for an award honoring the nation’s absolute best player.
Burke has by far been the most consistent player of the three, but his team only won four of its final ten games to end the regular season. That’s right: over the last month and a half of B1G play, his team was under .500. Of course this is understandable, considering how loaded his conference is this year, but Michigan is arguably the most talented team in college basketball. Teams that talented shouldn’t lose six out of ten.
And I want my National Player of the Year to be peaking at the right time, to be getting better when it matters.
Deshaun Thomas did just that this season. Unfortunately, he peaked too late.
The Case for DeShaun Thomas
In mid-February, Ohio State had lost three of four and was ranked 18th in the nation. IU, Michigan, and Michigan State were getting all the love from B1G viewers and media while the Buckeyes were on the outside looking in. Incredibly, Thomas led the Buckeyes on an eight-game winning streak down the stretch, averaging 17 points and 8 rebounds in the process.
When all was said and done, Ohio State had the same number of losses as “national powerhouse” IU and one less than the Wolverines.
It’s not possible to say that the Buckeyes had a less successful regular season than either IU or Michigan, even though it’s easy to point out the talent gap between Ohio State and the other two teams.
Michigan brought in one of the greatest recruiting classes in recent memory. Their first tournament game should have told you everything you need to know about them. While “intelligent” analysts who normally cover NBA games spouted cliches like “Michigan will go as far as Trey Burke takes them,” those of us who have watched them play all year laughed as Burke only scored six points in an easy 15-point victory. Tim Hardaway, Glenn Robinson, Mitch McGary, and Nik Stauskas are all great players who would probably win 22 games without Trey Burke.
IU is almost equally stacked, so much so that they were ranked preseason #1 – and nobody was factoring Victor Oladipo’s massive improvement into that equation. On the contrary, it was all about the “Big Handsome” Cody Zeller, shooter Jordan Hulls, senior leader Christian Watford, and new recruit Yogi Ferrell. Oladipo was just “that athletic energy guy who might be good if he ever learned how to shoot.”
Kudos to Oladipo for working on his game and becoming a big-time player, but the fact remains that even without him, IU would have been great this season.
Ohio State, on the other hand, didn’t have a single guy besides Deshaun Thomas who averaged more than 10 points per game this season. They have almost no depth down low, and their outside shooting is inconsistent at best. While they were ranked in the top 5 to start the season, it wasn’t long at all before they had fallen out of the top ten and alumni like Mark Titus were bemoaning their lack of a second scorer behind Thomas.
And yet, here we stand in March – the time of year that is supposed to matter the most – and whose team is playing the best? That’s right DeShaun Thomas’.
If you want to measure a guy’s worth based on team success, then do so. Ohio State is neck and neck with UM and IU. It’s the individual comparison that really tilts the matchup in favor of Thomas.
Comparing him to Oladipo is almost unfair. Thomas led his team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 20 points and 6 rebounds per game. Oladipo led his team in neither category.
Thomas also wound up leading the entire B1G in scoring, this while playing on a team that scored ten fewer points per game than IU. Of course much of Oladipo’s value comes away from the stat charts, but the issue is still this: IU beat a lot of teams this year when Victor Oladipo submitted mediocre efforts. In fact, he took more than 12 shots exactly twice all season. If Thomas didn’t come to play, Ohio State was toast.
(This is where I would love to throw out two or three anecdotal examples validating that point, but the thing is, Thomas came to play every single game. In B1G play, he scored less than 16 exactly once – a 14-point win over Penn State in which he played only 29 minutes. The dude just killed us all year with his consistency.)
Burke vs. Thomas is much closer, and to be honest I wouldn’t be hugely upset if you thought Burke was better. Burke averaged nearly the same number of points while also leading the B1G in assists by a wide margin. But to me, two things still tilt the matchup to Thomas: the aforementioned play down the stretch by each player’s team and the load that Thomas had to carry compared to Burke.
Again, there is a great possibility that Michigan will be a top-5 team next year, long after Burke has jetted to the NBA and become a smaller version of Kyrie Irving. Ohio State, without Thomas, is sunk.
Don’t let the narratives fool you. Step away from the stories, and look at the data objectively. If you do so, you will see that Deshaun Thomas’ star shines the brightest – even though his name is not as sexy to proclaim.