(all stats update through the games of February 17)
College basketball has a bit of an issue with individual awards. There’s no end-all-be-all trophy at season’s end, with the Wooden and Naismith Awards competing for top billing. With more than 350 teams and 4,000 players, the diversity of skills and accomplishments found across the college basketball landscape is hard to fathom, let alone choosing what has subjectively been the best performance this season.
I personally disagreed with two of the last four winners, generally finding disappointment in the voting body’s favoritism for players on top ranked teams. This is not a team award, and yet five of the last six winners have come from a team earning a No. 1 seed in March (Buddy Hield, the lone outlier in that stat, played for a No. 2 seed).
Yet we sit here in mid-to-late February with a presumptive winner, Iowa’s Luka Garza, who plays for a projected No. 3 seed, and I’m dissatisfied again. Garza would be a worthy winner, without question. He leads the nation in scoring, which in and of itself would be enough to make him a viable candidate, yet he’s also been a consistent rebounder.
He has not, however, been miles better than his competition for the nation’s top awards. Though the betting markets and national media would suggest otherwise. DraftKings currently lists Garza as the odds on favorite to win the award, with flabbergasting odds of -2000 (meaning a $2,000 bet would net the bettor just $100). A recent ESPN panel debated if it was even reasonable to consider any other player for the award. Most of those polled agreed that Garza was unmatched near the top.
Well, readers, I would venture that it is not only reasonable, but past time to re-evaluate this race. Digging deeper into the numbers and more appropriately applying the eye-test indicates that this race is (or should be) far closer than it seems.
The first, most obvious reason to be skeptical of Garza’s performance this season comes on the defensive end of the floor. While many national awards voters will skew towards counting stats and won’t even consider that end of the court, for those watching Iowa games on a regular basis, Garza’s defense has been alarmingly bad. The Hawkeyes as a whole have been dreadful defensively, ranking 108th in the nation in Adjusted defensive efficiency, good for worst in the Big Ten. Garza’s slow feet and lack of verticality make him a poor defender in space or at the rim. Watch here as Garza’s shoddy defensive instincts lead him to gingerly goes to double Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, leaving his man wide open for a backdoor layup:
It’s worth noting that when playing Gonzaga there, Garza was assigned to the offensively passive Anton Watson, leaving his 6-foot-6 teammate, Joe Wieskamp, to battle with Timme.
Smart teams have feasted by pulling Garza into pick and roll action and forcing him to make defensive reads. Gonzaga does so here, and while Garza hedges properly, his lack of foot speed lets the ball handler turn the corner and get to the rim, without a challenge from Garza.
Corey Kispert is a very good offensive player, but he is not renowned for his prowess as a penetrator off of a ball screen. That’s a clear gaffe by Garza.
At times, Iowa has responded by sitting Garza as the center of a 2-3 zone. That’s been no better, with teams using the high post and the short corner to put Garza in the hot seat. This last GIF may not be totally Garza’s fault, as Gonzaga has him on an island in a 2-on-1 situation, yet these are the kinds of plays Iowa is going to face when they need to use a zone to cover Garza’s flaws.
And yes, it’s fair to accuse me of cherry picking three bad plays against the best team in the country, but I implore you to watch Garza throughout Iowa’s next game, especially when they go zone, to see how porous his defense can be. I only chose to showcase his work against Gonzaga because I knew it wouldn’t take long to find three example plays, as the Hawkeyes were torched for 99 points.
Regardless of what type of defense Fran McCaffrey employs, Garza has not executed. With Garza on the floor, the Hawkeyes allow more than one point per possession, a major issue for a power conference team. His defensive box plus-minus is just 1.4, good for sixth best among Iowa’s rotation players. Per Synergy Sports, Garza ranks in the 5th percentile in points allowed per possession the nation when defending in isolation by himself. Ranking in the bottom five percentile of any stat in college basketball should be a blaring, waving, high-flying red flag for anyone in the running for National Player of the Year.
Even the one thing he should be seemingly good at defensive, cleaning the glass with rebounds, has always been a struggle for Garza. Of his 8.5 rebounds per game, only 5.5 come on the defensive end of the floor, leading Garza to a sub-par defensive rebounding rate of just 17.6 percent. Compared to the other elite big men in college basketball, Garza’s ability to clean the glass pales in comparison. His defensive rebound rate trails that of Drew Timme (18.5), Trayce Jackson-Davis (21.6), Hunter Dickinson (20.6), Cameron Krutwig (19.0), Evan Mobley (19.0), and Kofi Cockburn (26.3, my god).
Defense aside, Garza has been insanely productive. The list of players who have scored more than 24 points per game and grabbed more than 8 rebounds per game, while playing fewer than 31 minutes per game since 2010 is only one name. It’s Garza by himself.
His per minute and per possession offensive statistics are off the charts, but have they made him college basketball’s best player? There’s at least an argument to be had, which must begin with a fellow Big Ten player – Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu.
This season, Dosunmu is posting 21.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, while acting as one of the most clutch players in the nation. With games on the line, Illinois gives Dosunmu the ball and he’s delivered.
Dosunmu is incredibly crafty with the ball and has developed into a scorer at all three levels of the defense. Opposing coaches arguably face a more arduous task in preparing for Dosunmu than they do with Garza. Against Iowa, you either double the big man or you don’t, and I’m of the opinon that teams fare better when they let Garza score but cut off his passing lanes to teammates. In Iowa’s 16 wins, Garza attempts 15 shots per game. In their six losses, he’s taken 18.7 shots from the field on average. It’s also, of course, worth mentioning that Dosunmu plays for a team with a top 15 defense in college basketball and is a productive piece of that defense. And while team success is not a requirement here, the Illini are better than Iowa and beat them head to head.
Dosunmu and Garza are entirely different kinds of players. Baylor’s Jared Butler, currently recording 17.2 points, 5.5 assists, and 2.4 steals per game and leading the Big XII in assist rate and steal rate, is a third kind of player. All three are locks to be First Team All-Americans, along with the Gonzaga player of your choice. I’d be willing to listen to an argument about Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, Corey Kispert, or Jalen Suggs as a candidate for the top prize. I’m listening if you want to vote for USC’s Evan Mobley or Loyola’s Cameron Krutwig. Those cases are much harder to make, but it is February 19. I’m not here to tell you Luka Garza should not or will not win National Player of the Year, but I do want to make sure we aren’t handing the award over a month early without all the information at our disposal.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, The Action Network, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, RotoBaller, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.