College Hoops Midseason Awards
By Mark Titus
FOX Sports college basketball analyst
THE OPENING TIP
We are only a few days away from the month of February, which means the cement is starting to dry on the college basketball regular season, and the urge to count down the days until March is starting to kick in. Sure, there is still a ton to play for — Baylor hasn’t won a conference title since 1950! We haven’t had an NCAA Tournament without both Duke and Kentucky since 1976! Alabama could run the SEC table in football and basketball in the same season! — But I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve found yourself saying, "Can we please just fast-forward to the part where …" with increasing frequency lately, especially as the end to an agonizing two-year wait for the NCAA Tournament draws near.
As much as I want to fight against these impulses and make the argument that we shouldn’t be taking the routine dominance of Gonzaga/Baylor/Luka Garza for granted, I’m just gonna say it ... I’ve never been more ready for March Madness in my life. With that, now seems like the perfect time to take stock on various college basketball awards so we can start putting a bow on the regular season and shift our attention to March.
Here’s how I’d vote if the season ended today.
Player of the Year: Luka Garza, Iowa
I’d have to really think about who else is on the list, but Garza is among the most inevitable stat-stuffers in college basketball history. He is one of the all-time "I’m going to get mine" guys, as every single night — no matter what defense you throw at him, whether he has his A-game, whether Iowa is winning or losing, or any other variable you can think of — he is guaranteed to put up a ton of points and rebounds. (Other modern-ish names from power conferences that come to mind: Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Glenn Robinson, Tim Duncan.) It’s incredible, really. The man is completely incapable of an off-night.
By the way, here’s a Big Ten Stat of the Day for you: According to Sports-Reference, Garza is on pace to become the only college basketball player since at least 1992-93 to average 25 points and five rebounds while shooting 60% from the field and 40% from 3-point range. That last part is especially horrifying for the rest of the Big Ten. Garza was arguably the best player in America last season (even though I was an Obi Toppin guy myself), thanks to his dominance on the low block and the historic numbers he put up. Yet this season, he has somehow found a way to get demonstrably better in just about every facet of the game, which is basically just another way of saying ... HE’S A 40% 3-POINT SHOOTER NOW? HOW IS THAT FAIR?
Freshman of the Year: Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
If you want to argue that Jalen Suggs is "better" than Cunningham, I’m certainly not going to stop you. Suggs has been the difference between Gonzaga being really good and Gonzaga being potentially one of the best teams in college basketball history. He could be the top pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, and that alone is enough to build a solid case in his favor. But I’m leaning toward Cunningham as of now, if for no other reason than he has had far more pressure on his shoulders from his first day on campus. He has delivered on the hype by not only putting up solid numbers — 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists per game — but also putting Oklahoma State in great position to make the NCAA Tournament (even though the prevailing thought coming into the season was that the Cowboys wouldn’t be eligible for this tournament).
Of course, the Suggs vs. Cunningham debate might end up being a fight for a silver medal if Sharife Cooper can keep torching the SEC like he has in his first six games.
Coach of the Year: Juwan Howard, Michigan
Plenty of coaches are deserving, from Mark Few and Scott Drew for remaining perfect while managing COVID-19 outbreaks within their programs to Shaka Smart and Nate Oats for taking their programs to heights few expected this year. But no coach in America has been more impressive than Howard, who lost Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, introduced a couple of transfers and a freshman to the rotation, and still found a way to turn Michigan into a Big Ten favorite and Final Four contender.
Transfer of the Year: Carlik Jones, Louisville
No such award exists in college basketball, but with how prevalent transfers have become in the sport today, maybe it’s time someone creates one. Anyway, unless you’re a Louisville fan, Jones was likely not high on your list of new transfers to keep an eye on this season. Mac McClung at Texas Tech (who has been great and is my second-place pick, by the way), Olivier Sarr at Kentucky, Matt Haarms at BYU, the Hauser brothers at Virginia and Michigan State, DJ Carton at Marquette, Johnny Juzang at UCLA … all of these guys made bigger waves on the transfer market than the tiny kid who spent the past three seasons at Radford.
And yet, Jones has been playing out-of-this-world for Louisville, putting up the kind of numbers that make for a compelling ACC Player of the Year case — 18.4 points, 4.8 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game. He’s been so good, in fact, that Louisville superfan Mike Rutherford came on Titus & Tate this week and said Jones was one of the most fun Cards he has seen in his life, which is pretty high praise when you consider that Mike is pretty old and has seen a ton of Louisville basketball in his day.
These are the three biggest threats facing the sanctity of college basketball as we know it.
1. Nosebleed Camera Angles
Look, I respect the work it took to place television cameras on the moon, and I can only imagine how advanced the science behind those cameras must be to record stuff happening in Stillwater and Louisville and beam that high-def footage into houses all across America. But, holy vertigo, were these camera angles brutal on Saturday. Seriously, be careful looking at this for too long, or you might fall into your screen.
2. Mark Turgeon
Longtime readers of this newsletter know that one of my favorite stories of this season was the emergence of The Barn in Minnesota as the best home-court advantage in college basketball. At this time last week, the Gophers were 11-4 on the season, with a perfect 11-0 record at home (with wins over Iowa, Michigan and Ohio State) and a perfectly bad 0-4 record on the road (all of which were blowout losses). It was hilariously baffling, and the only thing that made sense to me was that The Barn was magic.
Well, folks, it’s with a heavy heart that I report that Mark Turgeon has officially killed the magic of The Barn, as Maryland ruined everything and won at Minnesota 63-49 on Saturday. Turgeon has won four straight in Minneapolis (and is 4-1 overall since Maryland joined the Big Ten), which is something I find extremely unsettling, especially when you consider Matt Painter has been the head coach at Purdue for 16 years and is considered one of the best coaches in the conference, yet is only 4-6 all time at The Barn.
Speaking of ongoing sagas from this newsletter, I regret to inform you that we have a Frankenstein situation on our hands with Alabama because the Tide are no longer a fun, little story and have instead grown into something far stronger than I could ever have imagined. As you know, Nate Oats has made his mark on this college basketball season already by calling out both Coach K and LSU fans. Well, the Crimson Tide have won nine straight, they have a three-game cushion in the SEC standings, and they put the final dagger in Kentucky on Tuesday by sweeping the Cats for the first time since 1989.
Scariest of all, they know how good they are. Look at what John Petty Jr. had to say after Bama beat up on Mississippi State on Saturday.
I’m telling you: There is a very real chance Alabama goes unbeaten in SEC play in football and basketball in the same season. If you thought Alabama fans were obnoxious before, just wait until they realize their basketball team might somehow have more swagger than their football team.
No. 3 Villanova at UConn (9 p.m. ET, FS1)
No. 7 Iowa at No. 19 Illinois (9 p.m. ET, FS1)
No. 9 Alabama at No. 24 Oklahoma (12 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
No. 3 Villanova at Seton Hall (3 p.m. ET, FOX )
Auburn at No. 2 Baylor (4 p.m. ET, ESPN)
No. 15 Kansas at No. 18 Tennessee (6 p.m. ET, ESPN)
No. 5 Texas at Kentucky (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
No. 24 Oklahoma at No. 10 Texas Tech (9 p.m. ET, ESPN)
No. 2 Baylor at No. 5 Texas (9 p.m. ET, ESPN)
There’s a lot of little guy love to go around this week!
First, we start in Asheville, where Tajion Jones hit a buzzer-beater to send UNC Asheville’s game vs. Radford into overtime. The Bulldogs went on to win 76-68.
Then, from Wednesday, there’s this absurd game-winner from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne sophomore Cooper Fowler, who stands 6-foot-11, weighs 275 pounds and is someone who I definitely do NOT want to play in H-O-R-S-E anytime soon.
Finally, shout-out to the Saint Peter’s Peacocks (great name), who snapped Siena’s 16-game win streak that dated to last season, when Siena lost to — you guessed it — Saint Peter’s!
THIS WEEK IN TITUS & TATE
Tuesday’s podcast touched on a number of important topics across the college basketball landscape, none of course more important than Coach K's blowing up at a Duke student reporter. Tate and I also spent a good chunk of time talking about the lack of respect for Virginia, Maryland's putting an end to The Barn’s magic and Florida State's flexing its muscle in the ACC, and last but not least, Mike Rutherford, a friend of the program, joined the pod to talk about the Louisville Cardinals.
As always, you can listen to every show and subscribe here.
See you next week!