Bleacher Report's Awards for the 2021-22 Men's College Basketball Regular SeasonMarch 7, 2022
Bleacher Report's Awards for the 2021-22 Men's College Basketball Regular Season
The 2021-22 men's college basketball regular season has come to a close, but before we can fully shift gears to filling out brackets, it's time to hand out some national awards.
Much like he has done with rebounds all season long, Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe has taken firm control of a National Player of the Year race that was up in the air just a few weeks ago. The Big Ten has a few stars—Johnny Davis, Kofi Cockburn and Keegan Murray—who could conceivably still track down and overtake Tshiebwe, but it is Big O's trophy to lose at this point.
Most of the other awards we're handing out were nowhere near as cut-and-dried, though, with multiple excellent candidates from which to choose. In particular, Head Coach of the Year seems to change on a daily basis.
Bleacher Report's national writers, Kerry Miller and David Kenyon, selected the winners of this season's awards.
Most Improved Player of the Year: Keegan Murray, Iowa
Just about every year, there is a No. 1 or No. 2 seed from the previous season that fails to even make the tournament, and four months ago, Iowa sure was the obvious choice to fill that seat this year. Luka Garza was the big departure, but the Hawkeyes also lost Joe Wieskamp, CJ Fredrick and Jack Nunge (aka four of their six leading scorers).
From their primary rotation, all they really had coming back was Jordan Bohannon for what feels like his 10th season, Fran McCaffery's two kids (Patrick and Connor) and a freshman reserve by the name of Keegan Murray.
Little did we know that Murray would step right into Garza's shoes as a force of nature for a team that is rounding into form as a serious threat for a multiple-weekend run in the NCAA tournament.
In the process of winning the Wooden Award, Garza averaged 24.1 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.6 blocks his senior year while shooting 44-of-100 from three-point range. And heading into the Big Ten tournament, Murray is sitting at 23.3 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 2.1 blocks with 52 makes in 137 three-point attempts.
Those are remarkably similar numbers, which is staggering when you remember that Murray's primary purpose on the floor last season was to give the defense a shot in the arm. He only averaged about 12 field-goal attempts per 40 minutes as a freshman, but he has increased that rate to 20 shots per 40 minutes and increased his field-goal percentage by almost 50 points.
To compare Murray to another Wooden Award winner, that is some Frank Mason III stuff right there. Kansas' lead guard of yesteryear increased his shot attempt rate by about 50 percent and his field-goal percentage by about 50 points from his junior to senior year. While I'm sure there are plenty of other examples out there of this phenomenon, it's pretty rare to increase both volume and efficiency like that in a single offseason.
If Iowa hadn't spent a good chunk of the year on the NCAA tournament bubble, it's fair to assume there would have been many more seats taken on the "Keegan Murray for NPOY" bandwagon. Who could have guessed that when he ended last season at 7.2 points per game?
Sixth Man of the Year: Tari Eason, LSU
Let's first note for the Purdue fans that this was a 1A/1B situation between Tari Eason and Trevion Williams. The big reserve for the Boilermakers is averaging roughly 24 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and two steals per 40 minutes, including a couple of games (NC State and the home game against Michigan) in which he completely put the team on his back. He's having a fantastic season while splitting playing time with Zach Edey.
But Eason has the edge because—despite coming off the bench and playing just 24 minutes per game—he has been Mr. Everything for LSU.
While Williams will occasionally go off for 15-plus for Purdue, it often feels like Eason has to score at least 15 points for LSU to have any hope of winning. And excluding the games against Kentucky and Florida that saw him foul out in a New York minute, Eason just about always does show up in a huge way.
It's not just the points, either. Heck, the team-leading 16.9 points per game might even be secondary to the impact he has on defense, where the Tigers rank among the best in the nation. Eason averages 3.3 steals and 1.8 blocks per 40 minutes, both of which rank first on the team among guys in the primary 10-man rotation.
And LSU has made a complete transformation from last year because of the addition of Eason. With Cam Thomas, Trendon Watford and Javonte Smart running the show in 2020-21, the Tigers had one of the most efficient offenses in the country and one of the least efficient defenses in the NCAA tournament. This time around, it feels like this team could defend its way to the Sweet 16.
It should be noted that Eason's aggressive nature on defense is a big reason why he comes off the bench and only plays 24 minutes a night. Not only does he frequently get into foul trouble (six DQs already this season), but he puts forth so much effort on both ends of the floor that he would be running on fumes at this point in the season if he were to play 30 or so minutes per game.
Most Underrated Player of the Year: Adam Flagler, Baylor
During Baylor's 15-0 start to the regular season, James Akinjo gradually emerged as the "Come on, someone from this team has to be an NPOY candidate" guy from the Bears whom we talked about the most. And perhaps Akinjo is still that guy as Baylor makes a push for the No. 1 overall seed.
But when Akinjo got hurt in mid-January and the Bears subsequently lost Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (for the year) and LJ Cryer (for the bulk of the past six weeks), Adam Flagler really became "that dude" with whom the Bears were either going to sink or swim.
Flagler has scored in double figures in all but one of his last 21 games played, and it is no coincidence that Baylor suffered its worst loss of the season (vs. Oklahoma State) in the exception to that rule when Flagler couldn't buy a bucket.
While Akinjo was out/limited for a few weeks, Flagler had to take on more of a lead-guard role than usual. And when Akinjo returned just in time for Cryer to go down with a foot injury, Flagler shifted gears to become Baylor's clear-cut primary perimeter option.
Regardless of what hat he has been asked to wear, the former transfer from Presbyterian has thrived and arguably been the MVP of arguably the best team in the country.
And yet, his name rarely comes up in national conversations, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he is completely left off the All-American ballots. Flagler has done enough this season to deserve better than that.
Defensive Player of the Year: Walker Kessler, Auburn
There are plenty of awards here for which Walker Kessler was a viable candidate. Most Improved Player, Transfer of the Year and even Player of the Year were all on the table.
But DPOY was the most obvious choice for this shot-blocking aficionado.
While I realize and appreciate the Tar Heels had Armando Bacot, Day'Ron Sharpe and Garrison Brooks in the frontcourt, too, it's hard to believe Kessler only managed to play 8.8 minutes per game last season at North Carolina. Because at Auburn, he is averaging seven blocks per 40 minutes as the anchor of one of the best two-point defenses in the country.
Kessler has had two points-rebounds-blocks triple-doubles this season, going for 16, 10 and 11 in a December win over LSU and 12, 11 and 12 in a February win over Texas A&M. Including those two contests, he has blocked at least five shots on 13 occasions.
And he's not just an eraser at the rim like, say, Emeka Okafor was back in the day. Kessler can step out to the perimeter and jump-start a fast break with a rejection of a three-pointer.
What's also impressive is his active hands before a shot is even attempted.
Per Sports Reference, Kessler joins Kentucky's Nerlens Noel (2012-13) and Anthony Davis (2011-12) as the only players in the past decade to average at least four blocks and one steal per game. And Kessler has gotten there while playing six fewer minutes per game than either of those Wildcats.
Of his many ridiculous box scores, my personal favorite was when he went for 14 points, 12 rebounds, eight blocks and four steals in a rout of Alabama.
The moral of the story is that he's a game-changer on defense, and I do not envy any of the NCAA tournament opponents who need to figure out how to both slow down Jabari Smith Jr. and score around Kessler.
Head Coach of the Year: Ed Cooley, Providence
Every once in a while, there will be near-unanimous agreement on who should be named the National Player of the Year or the National Freshman of the Year. But Head Coach of the Year is always a hotly debated topic with no clear answer.
The Naismith Coach of the Year voting panel put out a list of 15 candidates on Feb. 18, and it's hard to argue against pretty much any of them. Whittling that down to four finalists by March 23 is going to be a major challenge.
But it sure does feel like everyone is battling for first runner-up to Ed Cooley, doesn't it?
For starters, there's the well-documented success in close games. Providence is 16-2 in games decided by 10 points or fewer, with both of the losses coming against a very good Villanova team that hardly ever commits turnovers or misses free throws. Cooley has made some questionable decisions about when to foul up three or when to try to go two-for-one late in the game, but there's no question his guys are comfortable in nail-biters.
Then there's the factor that there might not be a single NBA player on this roster. Wording it like this is probably going to come off as a slight against guys like Nate Watson and Jared Bynum, but good luck finding anyone who has done more with less than Cooley has.
On top of that, the Friars have persevered through player absences. Bynum missed four games in early December. A.J. Reeves was out for five games in January. Al Durham has missed a pair of games recently. And yet, Providence won an outright Big East regular-season title for the first time in program history and could be headed for a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.
With all due respect to Mark Adams at Texas Tech, Tommy Lloyd at Arizona and John Calipari at Kentucky, what Cooley has accomplished is plenty good enough for us.
Freshman of the Year: Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga
Freshman of the Year is a three-horse race with no wrong answer. Duke's Paolo Banchero and Auburn's Jabari Smith have been sensational. Each might be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft, and each might be the most valuable player of a team in the mix for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
But the same goes for Chet Holmgren, who is finally a player worthy of the "unicorn" label.
Over the past 30 seasons, there have been just three players who amassed at least 40 made threes and 100 blocks in a single season: Clemson's K.J. McDaniels in 2013-14 (42 and 100), Seton Hall's Eddie Griffin in 2000-01 (41 and 133) and Connecticut's Donyell Marshall in 1993-94 (41 and 111).
Heading into the WCC semifinals, the 7'0" Holmgren is sitting at 39 made threes and 96 blocks. Pretty safe assumption he'll join that rare 40-100 club before the end of the NCAA tournament, if not by the end of the WCC tournament.
And that's just part of the allure with Gonzaga's one-and-done superstar. Holmgren is also shooting 72.7 percent on two-point attempts and is just a few rebounds shy of averaging a double-double (14.4 PPG, 9.7 RPG). It may not always look super graceful or fluid, but he's on the short list of players in recent history who are capable of blocking a shot to themselves before leading the fast break for a layup in transition.
If you only watched Holmgren early in the year against the likes of Texas, UCLA, Duke, Alabama and Texas Tech and you weren't all that impressed, first of all, you've got your bar set way too high, but all those games happened before the college game really started to click for him. He shot 62.0 percent from the field, 50.0 percent from downtown and 80.5 percent from the free-throw line in conference play, all while averaging 10.9 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game.
Say what you will about the WCC, but if you're naysaying Holmgren because he doesn't play in a major conference, you're missing something special.
Runner-Up for Player of the Year: Johnny Davis, Wisconsin
We toyed with the idea of naming Oscar Tshiebwe the Transfer of the Year and then letting Johnny Davis have Player of the Year, even though the Wildcat is a considerable betting favorite over the Badger. But we decided to give Big O both awards and just add an NPOY runner-up to make sure we didn't inexplicably leave Davis off this list.
Because there is no question that Davis has been phenomenal.
He has been much more hit-or-miss over the past two months than he was until early January. Those inconsistencies—while Tshiebwe goes for 15 and 15 night after night after night—are the main reason he has lost his status as the presumptive Wooden Award winner.
But, man, when he gets into a groove, it is some kind of special.
Davis had that 30-point game early in the year against full-strength Houston. He also put up 30 in a recent road game against Indiana, in which he scored Wisconsin's final 13 points in a come-from-behind victory. He surrounded that road gem against Indiana with 25-point performances at Michigan State and at home against Michigan. And his 37-point, 14-rebound spectacle in the Jan. 3 road win over Purdue still stands as the best game of the season by any individual.
Wisconsin's 6'5" lead guard has also been outstanding on the glass, leading the team and ranking top-10 in the Big Ten at 8.1 rebounds per game.
Factor in the amount of contact he draws on a nightly basis to average 6.2 free-throw attempts per game, as well as the fact that he's shouldering a drastically heavier load than last season, and it's little wonder why it sometimes looks like he's running out of gas as we approach the finish line.
But if you're the type to constantly search for the next Kemba Walker who could carry his team to six straight wins in March and April, Davis is your guy.
Transfer of the Year and National Player of the Year: Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky
When Oscar Tshiebwe opened the regular season with 17 points and 20 rebounds against Duke, it felt like one of those mighty-impressive debuts that couldn't possibly be sustainable.
But the former West Virginia Mountaineer has now racked up 25 double-doubles and is on pace for the best rebounding season in at least 37 years.
Not only is he second in the nation in double-doubles, but he ended the regular season on a streak of 13 in a row, during which Tshiebwe averaged 18.9 points and 16.0 rebounds. The most impressive of the bunch came in the losing effort at Arkansas when he went for 30 points and 18 rebounds and was a one-man show for the entire first half, somehow keeping pace with the red-hot Razorbacks almost by his lonesome.
And as we've noted throughout the season while considering Tshiebwe's extremely strong case for National Player of the Year, he's making a significant impact on defense, too.
Yes, he's averaging 10 defensive rebounds per game, but he also has 58 steals and 46 blocks on the year for a combined total of 3.4 per game. The only other player in the country with at least 50 steals and 40 blocks this season is Furman's Jalen Slawson.
Any way you slice it, Tshiebwe has been an unstoppable force of nature.