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For some reason, a long, long time ago, pretty much every professional sport decided that the best way to linguistically award the top player in their league was to use the words “Most Valuable”.
“Most Valuable Player” carries a lot of connotations that extend beyond being the best, most outstanding, or simply the “Player of the Year”. MVPs are expected to not only be good players, but to uplift their teammates and make the entire team better. MVPs are on, if not the best team, one that is in contention to win the championship. In some cases, voters even expect an MVP to exude leadership, sportsmanship, and strong character.
None of that should necessarily be required of a “Player of the Year”. In recent seasons, college sports have blurred the lines between POY and MVP. Only two of the last ten Heisman winners lost more than twice before being awarded the trophy (Tim Tebow and Robert Griffin III). In fact, only three Heisman trophy winners have ever lost four or more times, with each of those winners taking the award more than 50 years ago.
College basketball has fallen victim to the same issue. Every Wooden Award winner since 2002 was on a team that finished in the top 25 of KenPom’s rankings, with just three falling outside the top 15 (Doug McDermott, Kevin Durant, and Andrew Bogut).
The last two winners of the Wooden Award were the leaders and point guards of the top team in the nation, yet debatable choices for the honor. I personally argued for Caleb Swanigan in 2017 and Trae Young in 2018 because I felt they had better individual seasons, therefore more deserving of an individual award.
This happens for a variety of reasons. The top teams in the nation soak up most of the media attention, filling the minds of voters. There’s also perception that the best teams also play the toughest competition. That’s not always the case. This season, only five of the 20 hardest schedules in the nation (per KenPom’s metrics) are being played by the top 20 teams in the country. Any power conference player faces a schedule worth recognition if they perform at a top level.
If we can ignore top team bias and stop looking for a Most Valuable Player instead of a Player of the Year, then we have to look at Marquette’s Markus Howard as a candidate this season.
Campaigning for Howard isn’t exactly like pulling for a third-party candidate. The junior guard is 4th in the nation in scoring and has the Golden Eagles ranked in the AP Poll. Howard was listed on the recently released Watch List for the Wooden Award, yet hasn’t received as much attention as the cadre of freshman at Duke, Dedric Lawson, Grant Williams, Rui Hachimura, and others.
It’s time for that to change. In fact, Howard went a long way in making his own case this week, dropping 53 points in a road overtime win over Creighton. It was Howard’s third game scoring more than 45 points this season and his sixth career game dropping more than 37 points.
Getting hot in a hurry is nothing new for Howard. As a freshman, he led the nation in 3-point shooting percentage, sinking 54 percent of his 150 long range attempts. As a sophomore, he attracted notoriety for his ability to catch fire. In a game at Providence, he sank 11 threes and scored 52 points. Against Chicago State, Howard rained in 11 threes, while shooting only once inside the arc and failing to reach the free throw line, for an interesting 33 point night.
This season, Howard’s game has elevated beyond being able to simply sink outside shots. He is shooting more threes per game, but has added additional elements. Howard is attempting twice as many free throws per game as he did last season, a clear indicator that he is also attacking close-outs and getting to the paint. This season, Howard is taking 25 percent of his field goal attempts at the rim, up from only 20 percent last year. Rather than cutting into his 3-point attempts (which would be ill-advised for such a deadly outside shooter), Howard is shooting fewer 2-point jump shots. The result has been a collegiate James Harden.
Howard is drawing fouls at a higher rate than ever before, ranking inside the top 50 in that stat nationally, and has nearly doubled his free throw rate from last season. Meanwhile, outside the arc, he hasn’t missed a beat. The 5-foot-11 guard is shooting a better percentage on deep balls than last season, despite 64 percent of his attempts being via an assist last season compared to just 40 percent this season. He’s taking tougher threes and making even more of them.
Marquette’s offense as a whole has benefited from Howard’s developing game. Despite being a central focus of more and more defensive scouting reports, Howard is not just scoring more, but has improved as a passer. After averaging 5.0 assists per 100 possessions last year, Howard is dishing 7.2 dimes per 100 possessions this season. He’s committing more turnovers than before, including nine against Creighton alone, but on a per possession basis his ball-handling has been about the same as his prior career. In general, his work as the centerpiece of the Marquette offense has made Howard one of college basketball’s best players.
That puts him into the National Player of the Year discussion, but also should be a flashing light for NBA scouts. Howard is playing a modern NBA-style game, surrounded by the conservative and dated nature of college basketball. Draft prospects who make a leap as they age are often looked down upon. Succeeding against players who are getting relatively younger as you grow, learn, and develop gets less and less impressive as a player ages. For a player like Howard, who didn’t have the physical tools to dominate as a younger player, an elevation in skills and a re-tooling of playing style can be a suitable answer for that criticism.
Howard’s shooting is clearly not a blip or random outlier. He’s been one of college basketball’s best shooters for three straight years. Howard is currently the all-time Big East career 3-point shooting leader. From the free throw line, often seen as more predictive of future shooting success, he’s been flawless. With 282 career free throws attempted, Howard has made more than 91 percent from the stripe.
If Howard can continue to show himself to be an efficient scorer and creator, he may not have the appeal of a Trae Young, who exceeded what Howard has done as just an 18-year-old freshman, but should still call to those picking in the first round of the NBA Draft.
Regardless of your reason why, Howard has become one of college basketball’s most watch-worthy players. If you haven’t already caught a Marquette game, you need to, or at least keep an eye out for the next time he catches fire.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.