The Wooden Award is the most prestigious individual honor that can be bestowed upon a college basketball player. Similar to the national championship field this year, the Wooden race is wide open. Zion Williamson won last year’s award essentially the second he walked on campus; this year’s race is so close that it will very likely come down to the last buzzer.
Payton Pritchard, Oregon
Earlier in the season I called for Payton Pritchard to start receiving credit for how important he is to this underrated Oregon team. The nation responded and now Pritchard is one of, if not the favorite to win the Wooden. This is a talented, but young Oregon team that many thought was not going to be able to compete this season, yet with the season winding down they are right in the mix. In nearly every big game, Pritchard has willed his team to victory, most notably his absurd game winning three on the road against Washington, in which he proclaimed to the hostile Seattle crowd: “This is my (expletive) city.” Dropping 22, including 6/12 from three in that game gave him a solid case to make such a claim. Pritchard is the most consistent player in the country, averaging 19.5, 4.3 and 6, while navigating his Ducks through an extremely difficult schedule that included Gonzaga, Seton Hall, Michigan, North Carolina and Memphis in the non-conference slate. His impact goes well beyond the box score and in every game he seems to be the one making the biggest play on either end of the floor when it really matters.
Markus Howard, Marquette
When the Hauser twins decided to transfer from the Golden Eagles in the off-season (free Joey Hauser), pundits across the country were already bidding adieu to Marquette’s chances of being competitive. The Hausers were very open about the reason for their transfer: Markus Howard. In response, Howard has led Marquette to a 17-6 record while averaging an almost unheard of 27.4 points a game. Being able to produce NBA numbers and winning when every team’s game plan is almost solely to shut you down is a monumental feat. Howard is doing this efficiently as well, shooting 40% from deep and 85% from the stripe. If he continues to put up these scoring numbers and Marquette successfully navigates through a tough final Big East stretch, it would be near criminal for Howard not to earn Wooden award honors come seasons end.
Luka Garza, Iowa
Garza is the most surprising candidate in the field. Last season he helped Iowa almost upset No. 2 seed Tennessee, before falling in overtime in heartbreaking fashion. He was a good, not great, big man that didn’t really stand out much, given the depth of posts in the Big Ten. We knew he would have to take on a much larger role this season, especially given the season ending injury to star guard, Jordan Bohannan. Garza burst into the national spotlight with a 44-point performance on 53% shooting early in the season against Michigan. He hasn’t looked back since en route to averaging 23 points and 9 rebounds, including shooting three’s at nearly 40% on the year. He has nearly single-handedly kept Iowa near the top of a very competitive Big Ten. Garza is the best Big in the country and one of the most influential two way players in the country. If Iowa is able to pull off a few upsets in the final conference stretch, Garza will be the reason and will garner many votes from the traditionalists among the Wooden voters.
Obi Toppin, Dayton
As Ja Morant was last year, Obi Toppin is this season’s mid major sweetheart. 21-2 Dayton may very well be on their way to a No. 1 seed this season, on the shoulders of sophomore Obi Toppin. Toppin is perhaps the most versatile player in the country, fully capable of guarding 1-5 and able to score from anywhere on the court. It’s one thing to put up high scoring numbers taking 18 shots a game (direct shot at you Myles Powell). Obi averages just under 20 points on only 12.6 shots per game. That equates to 62.6% from the field and a staggering 70% from two. Talk about efficiency. A Wooden award parlayed with being a top five draft pick in June is definitely a possibility for the Brooklyn native.
Cassius Winston, Michigan State
Just as Michigan State was the consensus No. 1 team in the country in the preseason, Cassius Winston looked a shoe in to be raising the Wooden award. This season has not gone entirely to plan for the Spartans or Winston. Losing his brother early in November impacted him in ways we cannot even imagine. Cassius admitted that his death adversely impacted him. A quote from Winston in the Detroit Free Press says that the basketball court is not where he belonged right now. If his heart is not enough to merit unwavering respect from everybody, he is carrying the Michigan State basketball team by himself. With 18.6 points and 6 assists a game, nobody means more to any team in the country than Winston does to this Michigan State team. It is as much a one-man show as anywhere else in the nation, let alone the Big Ten. Teams throw two, and often three guys at Winston on every possession knowing that he is the sole offensive creator on the Spartans. On the three game skid Michigan State finds themselves in, Winston has scored over 20 points in each of them, while dishing out nine assists in a disappointing home loss to Penn State. Tom Izzo believes Michigan State’s role players are very close to being ready to provide Winston the support he needs to make the Spartans the national title contenders they’re supposed to be. He has shown more heart this season on and off the court than any player I’ve ever seen. When the Spartan wins in the last couple of weeks back that statement up, he will be as deserving a Wooden award candidate as any.
Thumbnail Photo by Amanda Loman/ AP Photo
Tamir March is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.