Studs of the Big Dance: NCAA Tournament Player Awards
Yet another NCAA Tournament is in the books, and by all accounts this year’s competition was fairly run-of-the-mill. Sure, both Michigan State and Villanova toppled mighty Big East 1-seeds to reach the Final Four, but a 2- and 3-seed making it that far is hardly a surprise, especially considering 11-seeded George Mason’s run in 2006.
And when it comes down to picking the most disappointing team in this year’s field of 65, the obvious choice has to be the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest, who were toppled by lowly 13-seed Cleveland State in the first round. Certainly not an impressive showing for a team that had been ranked no. 1 in the nation at one point during the regular season.
So where was the intrigue surrounding this year’s Big Dance if the Wake Forest upset was the only major shocker of the first few rounds, if not the entire tournament? Look no further than the players themselves, many of whom turned in unforgettable personal performances in a tournament loaded with professional-level talent.
But with unbelievable skill being showcased in every match-up, who stood out above the rest, or in some cases, who disappeared? Ladies and gentlemen, your 2009 NCAA Tournament Player Awards:
Breakout Player - Cole Aldrich (Kansas)
As a freshman on last year’s national championship squad that featured a handful of pro prospects, Aldrich saw limited time in his first season. But this didn’t stop head coach Bill Self from singling out Aldrich after the season as a key component of the Jayhawks' hopes for a title defense. Apparently the 6-11 big man from Bloomington, Minn. was listening, because he stepped up his production markedly in his sophomore season, averaging 14.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. But Aldrich didn’t hit his true stride until the tournament was under way, first hanging 23 points and 13 rebounds on North Dakota State.
Aldrich then turned in the performance of the tournament in the second round against a hapless Dayton team, posting a triple-double (13 points, 20 rebounds and 10 blocks). The sophomore sensation then solidified his status as one of the nation’s most dominant players by putting up 17 points, 14 rebounds and 4 blocks in a losing effort against eventual national runner-up Michigan State. If Aldrich forgoes the NBA draft for another year at Kansas, other teams in the Big 12, not to mention the entire nation, could be in serious trouble.
Most Surprising Player - Durrell Summers (Michigan State)
When the NCAA Tournament started, Summers was flying under the radar of even the most avid followers of the Big 10. Serving as a reserve all season for Tom Izzo’s Spartans squad, the sophomore shooting guard averaged 8.6 points and 3.4 rebounds per game and didn’t appear to be a likely candidate to help carry the Spartans to a spot in the national title game. But when the tournament started, Summers elevated his game and played at a previously unthinkable level, providing a huge spark off the bench for the Spartans throughout.
Scoring in double-figures in four of Michigan State’s six games, Summers also provided one of the tournament’s best highlights when he threw down a one-handed dunk on Connecticut’s Stanley Robinson despite the highly-touted UConn big man’s best attempts to block the shot (see photo). With senior guard Travis Walton out of the picture next year, look for Summers to join the starting line-up and continue showcasing his tantalizing talents to the nation.
Most Disappointing Player - James Harden (Arizona State)
Having just picked up the Pac-10 Player of the Year award as a sophomore, Harden entered the NCAA Tournament with lofty expectations. Rumblings surrounding the NBA draft had him pegged as a potential top 5 pick leading up to the Big Dance and the tournament gave him a national stage to give fans a glimpse of his immense talent. But in the Sun Devils' opening-round win against Temple, Harden managed only 9 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists, not an impressive output for a player of his reputation.
Harden picked it up in the second round against a hot Syracuse team, but his 10 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists weren't enough to carry Arizona State into the Sweet 16. But according to the CBS announcers and various pundits nationwide, Harden's impact on a game goes beyond the box score. They say he provides intangibles that help lift his team to another level.
And while this may very well be true, Harden didn't provide enough of an offensive spark to carry his team deep into the tournament. One would think that a future high lottery pick would be standing head and shoulders over the competition even in a losing effort, but Harden did very little to separate himself and live up to his billing as a potential NBA stud.
Most Improved Draft Stock - Tyreke Evans (Memphis)
Viewed before the NCAA Tournament as a borderline first round draft pick, the freshman Evans solidified his spot as a likely lottery selection with three outstanding performances against quality competition. Evans posted 15 points and 5 assists in the Tigers' opening game against tougher-than-advertised Cal State-Northridge before scoring 19 points and dishing out 5 assists against Maryland in the second round. But Evans' true breakout game came against 3-seed Missouri in the Sweet 16 as the freshman put up 33 points in a game played at breakneck speed. Never becoming overwhelmed with the game's torrid pace, Evans repeatedly got to the rim and kept Memphis close until they fell late in the tournament's highest-scoring affair. And if there are any reservations that Evans may have about leaving Memphis, coach John Calipari's departure to Kentucky will likely expedite the freshman standout's decision to head to the pros.
Best Unknown Commodity - Ben Woodside (North Dakota State)
When Woodside arrived at North Dakota State in 2004, the Bison were entering into their first year as a Division I participant. Fast forward five years and you have Woodside leading a fledgling team into its first NCAA Tournament, drawing defending national champion Kansas in the first round. Making the tournament alone would have been an acceptable success story for Woodside, but the senior point guard from Minnesota decided to make a name for himself. Matched up against future NBA talent Sherron Collins, Woodside put on a clinic, pouring in 37 points and showing the poise of an elite player.
Due to Woodside's impressive free throw (84%) and three-point (43%) percentages on the year, TV announcers began calling him "the next Mark Price." This comparison may not be too far-fetched. Although he will likely go undrafted, if Woodside is able to work out well for several pro teams, you could see him on an NBA roster by the end of next season.
The "Watch Out for Him" Award - Ed Davis (North Carolina)
Heading into the NCAA Tournament, when assessing North Carolina's chances at a title run, it's unlikely that freshman sixth-man Davis' name factored very much into the equation. But after six games in which Davis showcased eye-popping athleticism, unstoppable post moves and impressive rebounding and shot-blocking ability, the freshman sensation has NBA scouts drooling.
But despite being viewed as a top-5 talent, Davis has ensured Tar Heel Nation that he will be returning for his sophomore year. Having posted season averages of 6.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, Davis should feature much more prominently next season with the departures of senior big men Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson. And these increased minutes certainly have the rest of the nation worried. According to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo after his team's loss in the national championship, "[Davis] has a chance to be probably [North Carolina's] next great, great one."
The "It's About Time" Award - Chase Budinger (Arizona)
Budinger entered the college ranks riding a wave of hype. When he came in as a freshman under ex-Arizona coach Lute Olson, everyone raved about his incredible athletic ability and expected him to turn pro after one year. Having been a superstar volleyball player at the high school level, Budinger could jump out of the gym and supposedly possessed an unstoppable shooting touch. And Budinger lived partially up to his billing, averaging 15.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in his first year. But NBA scouts were no longer sold on Budinger as he seemed to play soft and disappear against top-notch competition. This trend continued as Budinger averaged slightly better numbers in his sophomore year yet struggled to shed his label as an underachiever.
That all changed in this year's NCAA Tournament as Budinger, now a junior, finally morphed into the game-changing talent that everyone knew he could be. He posted 20 points, 8 rebounds and 6 rebounds in an opening round win over 5-seed Utah before helping the Wildcats demolish Cleveland State en route to a Sweet 16 appearance. But it was Budinger's 22 points against top overall seed Louisville that proved that the former hype machine was now ready to play in the big time.
Riding yet another wave of positive feedback, Budinger has declared for the NBA draft, hired an agent and appears bound for the lottery.
The "Oh Just Go Pro Already" Award - Wayne Ellington and Danny Green (North Carolina)
Certainly key to North Carolina's national title hopes, Ellington and Green could not possibly have been expected to contribute to the extent that they did in the NCAA Tournament. While the Tar Heels essentially steamrolled their way into the Final Four, it was Ellington and Green that ended up making a mockery of the competition.
In the national semifinal against Villanova, the dynamic shooting duo combined for nine three-pointers, helping put the game well out of reach early on. And as the game progressed, it seemed like every time Villanova started gathering a head of steam for a potential comeback attempt, either Ellington or Green would extinguish the run with a quick-release three-pointer.
It was the same story in the championship game against Michigan State as Ellington and Green's sharpshooting put the Spartans down by nearly 20 in only 10 minutes of play. It became pretty apparent by the end of the Big Dance that nobody in the country could realistically defend either of these studs, meaning that the next logical step for both would be to make the jump to the NBA.
The "Oh Just Go Pro Already" Award (Honorable Mention) - Hasheem Thabeet (Connecticut), Sam Young (Pittsburgh)
Well before the Big Dance tipped off, Thabeet and Young were safely positioned in the first round of anyone's draft board, and their performances during the NCAA Tournament did nothing to suggest the contrary. But it was the sheer physical advantages possessed by both of these Big East titans that made it undeniably apparent that there's no reason for them to be playing in college anymore.
Thabeet, the 7-3 shot-blocking menace, scared opponents away from the rim all tournament, and if they didn't heed his prior warnings he made sure to send their shots into the stands. While he may lack polish on the offensive end, he has such an intimidating physical presence that he could fit right into most NBA teams' rotations at this very moment.
And while Young may not be quite as big as Thabeet, he can certainly enter the stratosphere at moment's notice and finish with the best of them. A pure ball of muscle, Young also has long arms that make him an extremely effective defender. Also armed with a dead-eye shooting touch, Young should be a very productive swingman at the NBA level.