The 20-player watch list for the 2021 John R. Wooden Award was revealed on Monday in what turns out to be the matchup of Iowas Luka Garza – the nation’s leading top scorer and last season runner-up – against the field. ESPN.com panelists had about a month to play in the regular season. They evaluated Garza’s candidacy and tried to identify someone who might have a case to challenge him for the honor.
What do the three best of your wooden voices look like at the moment? Could you make a reasonable argument if you were forced to stand up for someone other than Iowas Luka Garza at the helm?
Myron Medcalf, Senior College Basketball Writer: The top of my vote is Luka Garza, Jared Butler and Corey Kispert. Ayo Dosunmu is right there. The other Gonzaga guys – Jalen Suggs, Drew Timme too – but I think Garza broke up with the pack a long time ago.
The biggest difference is that the rest of the guys on the list have a bigger supporting cast. Gonzaga is stacked. Baylor too. Butler beat Auburn 6:18 on Saturday and Baylor was still winning in double digits. He went 2-11 against Texas Tech last month and Baylor was still finding a way to win.
Illinois has four non-Dosunmu players who average eight or more points, including Kofi Cockburn who averages double-doubles. But Garza wears Iowa. He doesn’t have that much depth to help his team beat good opponents when he’s in trouble. His worst night of the season was a 6v18 (16 points) win in a win over UNC. Four days later, UNC was fighting North Carolina Central early when it started 5-4. He had lost 30 points against Gonzaga and Iowa by double digits. Imagine what would have happened if he’d gotten cold that day?
He shoots 46% off the 3-point line. At 6-foot-11. If the Wooden Award is the MVP of this sport, then Garza has a Teflon case. A more interesting discussion is, “Who will put Garza on the first-team All-American list?” But national player of the year? The strong talent pool behind him is in a close race for second place.
Jeff Borzello, College basketball insider: Garza is clearly in the lead, then I’ll go with Butler and Dosunmu. There should probably be a Gonzaga player in that mix, but Drew Timme, Corey Kispert, and to a lesser extent Jalen Suggs shared the vote.
I’m not sure there is a legitimate argument for picking anyone other than Garza – but I think I could stand up for Butler if really pushed. Look, he’s the best guard in college basketball and he does it on one of the two clearly best teams in the country. I also think he is playing his best basketball at the right time. He was great against Kansas and Oklahoma State a few weeks ago and had 21 against Texas on Monday night. Butler was an All-American caliber player last season, and his numbers have risen across the board this season: score goals, pass, shoot, add a few steals. It’s also very difficult to handle late in games.
Baylor hasn’t been in a close game this season – no games by eight points – but Butler’s efforts in the second half are a big reason for that. He turned it on late against Texas Tech, was on fire against half-time Oklahoma State, and seems to have a stretch in every game where he buries three or four shots in a row to give the bears room to breathe.
John Gasaway, College basketball writer: On the one hand, I could really be behind a campaign to replace Garza with Butler as consensus national player of the year. The following fun fact can change from day to day, but there have been tracks this season where Butler had both the highest support rate and the highest theft rate in the Big 12 game at the same time. And that comes from a guy who does the same (ridiculous) percentage of his 3s as Garza and does it at a higher volume. Let’s put it this way: I have little doubt that Butler was the best all-round player in the country this season. When you go to war, you want him on your side.
Matt Coleman III misses a jumper for Texas and Jared Butler gets it on the other end to sink a 3-pointer for Baylor.
But then I think about it a little more and what I’ll call the “Medcalf test” pushes my POY voice back to Garza. If Baylor Butler lost, the Bears could end the regular season undefeated. If Illinois lost Dosunmu, my number 3, coach Brad Underwood, would give Andre Curbelo more minutes (admittedly, losing a few perimeter points). If Gonzaga lost Timme, Kispert or Suggs, the Bulldogs would likely still be leading the table toward the NCAA tournament. But as Myron rightly points out, if Iowa lost Garza, the entire essence of the Hawkeyes would collapse in an instant.
Fran McCaffery has what is on paper the best crime in the country, and he can make that claim because Luka Garza is down on the ground. Jordan Bohannon and Joe Wieskamp have combined 75 3s this season because the defenders are drawn to Garza like a magnet. The Hawkeyes generate far more shots than any other Big Ten crime, given that Garza is a high-usage star and a ridiculously low turnover rate. Subtract him from the team and the entire highly efficient machine will come to a standstill. Garza is my choice for POY.
Joe Lunardi, ESPN Bracketologist: It’s Garza, if only because Iowa – without its offense – wouldn’t be anywhere near the top 10. The rest of the top 10 have an average defensive efficiency rating of 17.9; Iowa checks in at number 117. The subject has been beaten to death, but there will almost certainly come a night in March when even Garza can’t get enough points to save the Hawkeyes. In the meantime, it’s incredibly fun to see him and Iowa. My vote goes to Big Luka, with a Wendy franchise as a sponsorship bonus.
Even so, Butler is having an exceptional season. At the end of the offensive, it is efficient and lethal with a .536 FG / .446 3PT / .756 FT line of fire. Those are video game numbers for a security guard (and if you really want your eyes to roll check out Garzas). These are by far the two best players in the country. The added bonus for Butler is that his defense occupies a Baylor team that punishes opponents on both ends. Garza’s staggering numbers will bring him the trophy, but Butler’s stellar performance results in an unbeaten season.
I’ll take the easy way out for third place and declare a three-way tie between the Gonzaga trio of Kispert, Timme and Suggs. Someone from the Zags has to be on the list, and everyone is critical to Gonzaga’s continued dominance. Special Mention to Cameron Krutwig from Loyola Chicago. The country’s best mid-major player entered the Final Four as a freshman and returns to the NCAA tournament as a senior. Kofi Cockburn is rightly praised, but it’s not even the best center in its own state.