By Ryan Goodman
We’ve arrived at the midpoint of the college basketball season… well for some teams it’s the midpoint, for others it’s the quarter-point and for some, well, they’ve played only three games — we’re looking at you DePaul! Regardless, we knew this college basketball season was going to be a rollercoaster, and now is as good a time as any to sit back and analyze how the top players in the country have played so far.
For UConn, this means seeing how their golden child — James Bouknight — has stacked up against other elite college players. At the beginning of the season, “Bouk” was added to the Wooden Award watch list, an honor bestowed upon the top players in college basketball. That list was recently chopped down to 25 players, and he still finds his name squarely in the mix.
To gauge Bouk’s chances at taking home the coveted hardware, we’ve compiled this comparison of top candidates still in the running for the Wooden:
James Bouknight - UConn
Through six games, Bouknight is averaging 20.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and shooting 45.1% from the field. UConn fans have already deemed him the second coming of Shabazz Napier or Kemba Walker, and for legitimate reasons. He is one of the best scorers and overall athletes that has ever donned a UConn uniform and is only about one-third of the way through his sophomore season.
Bouknight has already had one of the best performances by anyone in the country this year, scoring 40 points (13-24 FG, 5-12 3PT) in a loss to #9 Creighton at Gampel Pavilion. This game would have likely broken the noise record in UConn’s storied campus arena if the world was not currently grappling with a pandemic. If his performance against Xavier last season was his coming out party, you can say this was his staple performance. Bouknight’s full arsenal of talent was on display as he virtually scored at will, pulling up from three off the dribble and making acrobatic and-1 finishes through multiple defenders. Creighton didn’t know what hit them. Of course, all UConn fans across the country knew that Bouknight had this kind of game in him, but it’s a different experience to see everything he’s capable of come together so quickly.
Besides this game, Bouknight has been a model of consistency this year, as he had not scored under 18 points in any contest, scoring at least 20 or more four different times. This is of course if we don’t count Tuesday night’s game against Marquette, which is now known to UConn fans as the Tyler Polley game. Bouknight only scored six points but was injured late in the first half with a hyperextended elbow, which was visibly bothering him the rest of the way.
Bouk has landed squarely in the national spotlight, currently ranking #10 in KenPom’s newly introduced National Player of the Year (kPOY) rankings. To win this award, he’s going to have to increase his already-torrid scoring pace, all while keeping the Huskies afloat and helping the team break into the top 25 soon to garner more national recognition. Up to this point, Bouknight has definitely lived up to what Husky fans thought he could be and they’re encouraged to enjoy him while they can for the NBA is calling.
Jared Butler - Baylor
Jared Butler is the definition of a lead guard. He commands Baylor’s offense, sets the tone on defense, and the ball will always be in his hands in a late-game situation. In other words, Baylor runs on Butler. The Bears have one of the outright toughest teams in the country, ranking sixth in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (adjD) per KenPom and Butler is the maestro. The word that comes to mind when watching Butler is solid. He basically does nothing wrong and is the main reason why Baylor currently sports an undefeated record and a #2 ranking in the country.
While his stats don’t jump out at you per se, (15.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists), the junior is currently ranked #6 in KenPom’s 2021 Player of the year race. Because he is not a “superstar” player, however, it’s hard to envision Butler taking home the Wooden Award unless he can slightly increase his scoring and Baylor somehow runs the table. But with the way things are going for Baylor, I think he would be just fine with not winning the award if it meant bringing a national championship to Waco. This is the best chance they have ever had.
Corey Kispert - Gonzaga
You could put two Gonzaga players on this list, the other one being forward Drew Timme (18.4 points, 7.3 rebounds), but Kispert gets the nod because of the overall impact, leadership, and production that the senior has brought to Mark Few’s squad this season. Maybe the top marksman in all of college basketball, Kispert has made college hoops fans around the country drool over his picture-perfect release. Dropping 21.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.2 assists on an unheard of 50.8% from three-point range will do that.
Gonzaga’s starting five is the best in the country, but Kispert is one of the main reasons why some think the Bulldogs can run the table this year. If Kispert can sustain this production the rest of the way, it would be hard to leave him out of the top five finalists for the Wooden Award. Because Gonzaga has so many stars on their roster, however, it can be tough to truly stand out and for that reason, it would be hard to see him actually taking the award home. Bouknight has the edge over Kispert at this stage if he can forget the Marquette game and get back on track this weekend against Butler.
Trayce Jackson-Davis - Indiana
“TJD” as they call him, has been an absolute force in the paint for the Indiana Hoosiers. After a very promising freshman year (13.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks), IU fans had major hopes for a breakout sophomore season from Jackson-Davis, and he hasn’t disappointed. Elevating his per-game averages to 20.3 points and 8.9 rebounds, TJD straight-up bullies his opponents on the low block, overpowering other teams’ forwards with his 6’9”, 245-pound frame. He is also currently #2 in KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings, which bodes well for him, but he’s not winning the Wooden.
Unfortunately, this appears to be a classic case of a highly productive player who will stay in contention for the Wooden Award all year but finish about third to fifth in the rankings. Think Brandon Clark in 2019, who had a very strong year for Gonzaga, but had no chance of taking the award from Zion Williamson, the unquestioned best player in the country. In this scenario, Jackson-Davis is Clark and Luka Garza is Williamson. Also, the Hoosiers just aren’t good enough to merit a Wooden Award winner. The thing about the Wooden is that it is seldom given to a player that isn’t on an elite team. If Bouknight keeps cooking like he has been — minus the Marquette game — he will almost assuredly finish above Jackson-Davis in the player of the year race.
Ayo Dosunmu - Illinois
The most comparable player on this list to Bouknight is Dosunmu. He is an elite athlete that makes his money in the mid-range and attacking the rim, dazzling with acrobatic finishes and well-timed floaters. What’s noteworthy of Dosunmu as well is how he exudes confidence on the court. He believes he’s the best player each time he steps foot on the floor and is not afraid to let it fly whenever. Sound like someone we know? The Illini lead guard has been stuffing the stat sheet, averaging 23.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game. His three-point shooting could be more consistent, but has improved this year, albeit on fairly low volume (16-38 3PT, 42.1%) through eleven games.
In KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings, Dosunmu currently sits at #3 overall behind Trayce Jackson-Davis and Luka Garza. While Bouknight is putting up similar numbers to Dosunmu, he doesn’t have the notoriety coming in or the national attention that #12 Illinois (ranked as high as #5 earlier in the year) has. If Luka Garza somehow gets hurt, or his production magically drops off a cliff, it will likely be Dosunmu who picks up the scraps and wins it.
Luka Garza - Iowa
Three wooden award candidates from the Big Ten and two out of Iowa and Illinois? 2020 was a strange year and this college basketball season is no different. Garza, the preseason winner of nearly every major award he is eligible for, has somehow outperformed his expectations this season.
Through 10 games, Garza is putting up nightly averages of 27.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks on an insane 62.4% from the field. He is the #1 ranked player on KenPom for overall offensive efficiency in the country and second-leading scorer, helping Iowa to a 9-2 record and a current #5 national ranking that was as high as #3. Oh, and he is #1 in KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings thus far.
Let’s be honest. This award is Garza’s to lose. Unless Bouknight can somehow steal Ray Allen’s shooting talent through some elaborate Monstars scheme a la Space Jam, it doesn’t appear that he will overtake Garza for the top player in the nation. This goes for the rest of the field as well.