To this point, there is no question as to who has been the most impressive player during the college basketball season: Oklahoma freshman guard Trae Young.
The nation’s leader in both scoring (29.1 points per game) and assists (9.3), Young is the clear favorite for the Wooden Award. Two weeks ago, it seemed like he was a virtual lock and the final two months of the season would serve as somewhat of a send-off party before his inevitable leap to the NBA.
But even then, after Young scored 44 points in a 98-96 win against Baylor on Jan. 30, there were signs that Oklahoma might not be much of a factor come March. The Sooners lost three of four going into that win after peaking at No. 9 in the AP poll and have since lost four straight to fall into a fifth-place tie with Baylor in the Big 12 at 6-7.
The Sooners’ poor run isn’t in spite of brilliance from Young, either. He’s still scoring at a high clip, but in the four-game skid he has made just 7 of 41 3-point attempts and committed 23 turnovers.
In the past 20 years, only one Wooden Award winner has come from a team with double-digit losses — Texas was 25-10 when Kevin Durant won it in 2007. In that same span, every winner’s team won at least one game in the NCAA tournament and all but two advanced past the tournament’s opening weekend.
In ESPN’s latest Bracketology, which came out before Oklahoma lost to Texas Tech on Tuesday, the Sooners were listed as a No. 5 seed, but it’s not inconceivable for the Sooners not to make the tournament. Say they lose three of their remaining regular-season games and bow out in the first round of the Big 12 tournament. At 18-13, they would be firmly on the bubble and if they get left out, Young’s shot at winning the Wooden would be a break from history.
So, if the Sooners lose him out of contention, who would have a real chance at winning?
Right now, that’s anybody’s guess, but here are a few possibilities — and it will likely be decided more by what happens over the rest of the season.
The draft darlings
Deandre Ayton, Arizona: The Wildcats haven’t quite met expectations, but they’re still 20-6, in first place in the Pac-12 and Ayton has been a dominant force. At 7-foot-1, he’s a strong candidate to be drafted No. 1 overall in the upcoming NBA draft and if he has a memorable March, he could play his way into contention. He’s averaging 19.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.
Marvin Bagley III, Duke: A knee injury has kept him out of the Blue Devils’ past two games, but when he’s on the court it’s easy to see why Bagley believed he didn’t need another season of high school basketball. In fact, there’s a case to be made that he was ready to play in the NBA this season. Like Ayton, and the rest of these candidates, there’s still plenty of time for him to leave his mark on the season.
The best players on good teams
Miles Bridges, Michigan State: A favorite for the award when the season began, Bridges leads the second-ranked Spartans in scoring (17.3) and knocked down a key shot late to beat then-No. 3 Purdue last week. With another run to the Final Four, Bridges could be deserving.
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier: The Musketeers have won nine in a row, including a win against Seton Hall on Wednesday in which Bluiett went for a season-high 37 points. He has a chance Saturday against Villanova to make a statement in a game that could give Xavier a 2½-game lead in the Big East standings.
Keenan Evans, Texas Tech
Evans’ rise was highlighted in last week’s Wooden Watch and took another significant step forward after outplaying Young in Tech’s 88-78 win on Tuesday. Evans scored 26 points, aided by shooting 4-of-7 on 3s, and has the Red Raiders all alone in first place in the Big 12.
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
Largely because of Landale, the Gaels climbed to their highest ranking in program history — No. 11 in the AP poll — but against Gonzaga at home, with a chance to move into the top 10, he was ineffective. Landale scored just four points — his lowest total in the past two seasons — as Saint Mary’s lost 78-65 on Saturday. He’ll have a chance to bounce back Thursday against San Francisco, which he scored 26 points against the first time they played.
Others to watch: Mohamed Bamba, Texas; Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State; Mikal Bridges, Villanova; Jalen Brunson, Villanova; Carsen Edwards, Purdue; Vincent Edwards, Purdue; Marcus Foster, Creighton; Kansas; Luke Maye, North Carolina; Collin Sexton, Alabama; Allonzo Trier, Arizona.