Luka Garza, Ayo Dosunmu battling it out for nation's best player award
By Mark Titus
FOX Sports College Basketball Analyst
THE OPENING TIP
Luka Garza entered this college basketball season as a heavy favorite to win every major National Player of the Year award. In fact, I can’t recall a more no-brainer preseason pick since Doug McDermott heading into the 2013-14 season, and if not that, then Tyler Hansbrough returning for his senior season in 2008-09 after winning both the Naismith and Wooden Awards the previous year. Garza wasn’t just dominant a season ago, averaging 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game; he was dominant in the best conference in college basketball, which was rife with great big men, and not a single one could do a damn thing to stop him. If not for a charismatic human highlight reel from Dayton by the name of Obi Toppin, Garza would have run away with all of the national awards last season.
Fast-forward to this current season, and Garza is scoring even more (he leads the nation in scoring at 24.7 PPG), and he’s doing it while shooting at a 56% clip from the field. Iowa has been a top-10 team virtually the entire season, and according to Bracket Matrix, the Hawkeyes are currently positioned to get a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, in the past week, Garza scored 23 points and grabbed 11 boards in a win over Penn State on Sunday, three days after his 30 points and eight rebounds led the way in the Hawkeyes’ blowout victory over Wisconsin in Madison.
Taking all of what you’ve just read into consideration, it seems like it would be a futile task to come up with reasons Garza shouldn’t be handed all of the National Player of the Year trophies right now. Yet in the past few weeks, a very real debate has emerged as to whether Garza is worthy of being named Big Ten Player of the Year.
Wait. What? How did this happen?
Short answer: Ayo Dosunmu. Long answer: Before falling back to earth slightly on Tuesday against Michigan State, Dosunmu wasn’t so much a college basketball player as he was a superhero sent to Champaign to exorcise the demons of 2005 and embolden all of the middle-aged men across Illinois to call their sons and reiterate to them the importance of the Illini landing Chicago recruits.
The argument for Dosunmu over Garza is simple: He’s a better player. This was true when Illinois beat Iowa last month, it has been true to anyone who has watched Dosunmu make clutch shot after clutch shot, and it will be true in the coming years, as we watch Dosunmu's and Garza’s professional careers play out. Garza is better statistically, but how much should that matter? After all, we’re talking about player of the year awards, not stat-stuffer of the year.
What should be done about all of this? If Garza has been considered the best player in college basketball all season and has done nothing to make observers lose trust in him, why should he be punished? Then again, that seems like the wrong way to justify awards. What Garza did last season should have no bearing on his chances of winning awards this year, so why should we pretend that any player in the country takes over games like Dosunmu does? The truth is that Dosunmu has more of a direct impact on games than Garza because he’s a guard who has the ball in his hands all the time, while most of Garza’s work is done off the ball. There’s no way of measuring Garza’s full impact because we can’t quantify how many open looks he has created for his teammates because he demands a double-team simply by existing. But then again, Dosunmu is a better defender and … around and around and around we go.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to this: Garza is a Heisman moment away from sealing this thing for good. (Side note: College basketball needs a phrase to serve as the equivalent to "Heisman moment." Terms such as "Wooden moment" and "Naismith moment" don’t have the same ring.) Part of the reason this debate has become so heated recently is that Dosunmu has gone supernova the past couple of weeks. In four games leading into Tuesday’s loss at Michigan State, Dosunmu had two triple-doubles and two games in which he singlehandedly pulled off wins for the Illini. Maybe these things shouldn’t matter when it comes to player of the year awards, but they do. If you don’t believe me, just ask all the POY voters who couldn’t submit their ballots fast enough after they saw Obi Toppin make George Washington look like a bunch of children last March.
That has never been Garza’s game, though. While he is extremely efficient on the court, his style of play isn’t exactly what you would call sexy. He makes his mark by wearing defenses down with his size, relentless tenacity and overall skill and feel for the game. This makes him the type of guy every coach in America would kill to have, but it also elicits yawns from TV producers tasked with putting together highlight packages. To some degree, the "wow" factor matters, and Dosunmu has it coming out of his pores.
With games against Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin coming up before conference tournaments and the Big Dance, Garza will have his chances to give fans that seminal moment they’ve been waiting to see from him for the past two seasons. But even if he doesn’t hit a buzzer-beater, post a triple-double or do anything that will make your jaw drop if you saw a video of it on Twitter, I think the National POY awards are Garza’s to lose if for no other reason than that he has been more consistently dominant than Dosunmu from start to finish this season. And though he might not have that wow factor, I can promise you this: No player in America has added more time to film sessions for upcoming opponents than Garza has.
I suppose all of this will sort itself out in the next couple of weeks, but assuming it doesn’t, put me down as someone who wouldn’t mind seeing one of these guys win the Wooden and Naismith Awards and the other win the Big Ten Player of the Year Award. This reminds me when Jay Williams won both the Naismith and Wooden Award in 2002 but Juan Dixon was named the ACC POY or when TJ Ford won National POY the following year despite Nick Collison being named Big 12 POY.
BIG TEN STAT OF THE WEEK
As of this week, here are the three biggest threats facing the sanctity of college basketball as we know it.
First, there was Scott Drew telling us a month ago that Baylor players were breaking up with their long-term girlfriends in an effort to minimize their chances of contracting COVID-19. Now, with the Horizon League Tournament set to start this week, Oakland head coach Greg Kampe is apparently encouraging his players to follow a similar path.
It might seem ridiculous, but seeing as how the Grizzlies finished 10-10 in conference play this year, all of the other teams being disqualified because of COVID-19 might actually be Oakland’s best chance to win the Horizon League Tournament.
2. Josh Pastner
The ACC would be lucky to get seven teams in the tournament, it would take a minor miracle to get eight, and it would take nothing short of outright corruption and/or an act of God to get nine. But eleven? ELEVEN??
There aren’t even 11 teams in the ACC with winning records right now, much less NCAA Tournament resumes. The only way this Pastner comment makes even one iota of sense is if he was making a "Spinal Tap" reference that flew over everyone’s head, in which case he’s even more of a content machine than I realized.
3. COVID-19 (Say it ain't so, Rick!)
Year One of Rick Pitino’s triumphant return to college basketball appears to be ending with a whimper, as Iona’s regular season came to an end after just 13 games, thanks to what feels like the 49th COVID-19 pause to hit the program this year.
But not all hope is lost! The Gaels finished 6-3 in conference play, which puts them in … uhhh … second place? Third place? Ninth place? If we’re going by win percentage, they’re in second. If we’re going by win totals, they’re tied for sixth. The point is that even though it remains to be seen what seed the team will be, Iona might still have a puncher’s chance of winning the MAAC Tournament and sneaking into the NCAA Tournament.
Assuming they don’t have to go on another COVID pause, that is ...
This week we give some shine to Charleston Southern senior Phlandrous Fleming Jr. (great name) for his heroic buzzer-beater to knock off Presbyterian by one in OT on Monday.
Play of the Year and Name of the Year?
Yes ... the answer is yes.
THIS WEEK IN TITUS & TATE
This was a HUGE week for the brand, as we launched the official Titus & Tate YouTube channel. To kick things off, we discussed a number of topics, including Michigan’s win over Ohio State, Archie Miller’s struggles at Indiana, if we should be concerned about Virginia and Texas, and the return of college basketball’s blue bloods.
See you next week!