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College basketball year-end awards and superlatives

Another year of college hoops is in the books which means awards season is upon us

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-National Championship-Kansas vs North Carolina Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021-22 season brought some fantastic basketball along with a sense of normalcy. Despite COVID still ravaging the winter months, as we hit 2022, the pieces to it all began to fall back in place as we reached the NCAA Tournament.

First and foremost, congratulations are in order for the 2022 National Champions, the Kansas Jayhawks. It’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish, Bill Self’s Jayhawks proved that early season loss to Dayton and the blowout at home against Kentucky were merely speed bumps along their path to a title.


PLAYER OF THE YEAR

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament- Purdue vs Iowa Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

TERRY: Keegan Murray - Iowa

The player of the year conversation shouldn’t come down to just scoring, but it’s difficult to ignore what Murray was able to accomplish against a stacked Big Ten schedule. He was able to throw the Hawkeyes on his back and drag them to a Big Ten Tournament title, scoring 26, 26 and 32 points along the way. The 6-8 sophomore finished the season averaging over 23 points per game, while adding 8.7 rebounds. Simply put, no player mattered more to their team than Keegan Murray did to Iowa.

MATT: Keegan Murray - Iowa

Murray was the leading scorer among all power conference players this season with 23.5 points per game, setting the school record for points in a single season. Surpassing Luka Garza for a school record is no small feat, and Murray nearly averaged a double-double to boot. Despite shooting more than anyone in the country, Murray’s shooting numbers were still outstanding: 55.4 FG%, 39.8% from deep, and his effective field goal percentage ranked within the top 50 in the country. Defensively, he was pretty much the only player who wasn’t totally dead weight for the Hawkeyes, averaging close to two blocks per game. He was Iowa’s offensive juggernaut down the stretch that led them to a Big Ten Tournament Championship, and despite their first round exit against Richmond in the tournament, Murray played well, and just one of the Naismith finalists escaped the first weekend, Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji, who now has a National Title. It’s been a three man race for well over a month for me, but Murray gets my nod.


COACH OF THE YEAR

TERRY: Tommy Lloyd - Arizona

Tommy Lloyd left Gonzaga to replace Sean Miller and quite literally overnight had the Wildcats contending for a national title. Arizona wrapped up the Miller era with a 17-9 mark in 2020-21, and Lloyd instantly improved the Wildcats to a 33-4 record just one season later. His team captured a No. 1 seed after running through an admittedly weak Pac-12, but you can’t knock the overall turnaround. Arizona already has that Gonzaga feel to them, and they feel set to run things out west over the next several years.

MATT: Kelvin Sampson - Houston

It’s time to give Sampson his flowers. Houston has now reached at least the Sweet Sixteen each of the last three tournaments with an Elite Eight and Final Four berth over the past two. This season’s Elite Eight run, while not surprising, was impressive, and the credit is firmly due to Kelvin Sampson. The Cougars lost two key pieces in Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark in mid-December. Sasser was playing on an All-American level, and while losing both he and Mark was devastating, Houston bounced back and reached the Elite Eight, upsetting 1-seed Arizona on their run. Finishing with a 32-6 record, Sampson has now posted a pair of 30-win seasons with the Cougars, a feat not reached in Houston since Phi Slama Jama. Ed Cooley is a *very* close second, but credit is due once and for all to Sampson.


DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

TERRY: Walker Kessler - Auburn

It’s possible I’m showing some SEC bias here, but Kessler was a true game-changer down low for Auburn. He ended up leading the nation in blocked shots with 155, averaging a healthy 4.56 per contest. On two separate occasions, Kessler registered a triple-double with blocks, points and rebounds. His ability to protect the rim gave Bruce Pearl one of his best defensive teams, finishing the season ranked 9th in defensive efficiency, per KenPom.

MATT: Chet Holmgren - Gonzaga

Chet is a physical anomaly and he made use of the combination of his lanky frame and athleticism to be the premiere defender in college basketball. Holmgren blocked 3.7 shots per game, the fourth best mark in the country, and he turned away just under 12 percent of all opponent’s shots when he was on the floor. Coupled with that was Chet’s elite ability to extend his defense out to the perimeter. He could line up with one through five, and that level of versatility and rim protection out of a seven-footer was the biggest reason why this Zags defense was among the best in the Mark Few era.


FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Florida Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

TERRY: Jabari Smith - Auburn

Really from the jump, Jabari Smith was the most impactful freshman on the floor this season. He hopped into an Auburn offense that we all know well, instantly becoming the top option for Bruce Pearl. His 6-10 frame and ability to shoot make him an absolute matchup nightmare at this level, and the rest of the SEC won’t exactly be too shaken up to see him head to the NBA.

MATT: Jabari Smith - Auburn

Jabari Smith was great for Auburn this year, and he was especially phenomenal down the stretch. Since the start of February, Smith averaged 19.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game in that stretch, shooting an outstanding 44.3 percent from three on over six attempts per game from beyond the arc. Smith’s calling card has always been his defensive ability, but he was a matchup hell on offense, and given just how often he was forced to bail out Auburn’s bipolar guards, his offensive numbers were just as impressive.


MID-MAJOR PLAYER OF THE YEAR (Non-Gonzaga)

TERRY: Malachi Smith - Chattanooga

Keeping things close to home here, I’ll give the nod to Malachi Smith out of Chattanooga. The 6-4 guard ended his season averaging over 19 points per game, and came oh-so-close to knocking off Illinois in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Smith lifted the Mocs to a SoCon title, scoring 25+ points ten different times. His 40 percent shooting from three point range, along with 6.7 rebounds per game were the driving force for Chattanooga this season.

MATT: David Roddy - Colorado State

In what was arguably the best mid-major conference in the country, David Roddy was the Mountain West’s best player. He won MWC Player of the Year, averaging 19.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game with outstanding efficiency. Roddy ranked within the top 30 in the country in effective field goal percentage (63.3%) and true shooting percentage (64.8%) per KenPom, and his 43.7% three point percentage ranked 25th among players with 100 three point attempts (at least three per game). Roddy anchored a 25-6 Colorado State team that earned a six seed in the NCAA Tournament, the highest seeding in school history.


MOST IMPROVED PLAYER

TERRY: Oscar Tshiebwe - Kentucky

From a transfer to a national player of the year candidate, Oscar Tshiebwe found a home with Kentucky and had a pretty ridiculous season statistically. It’s even more impressive considering that he was coming off of a torn achilles. Tshiebwe certainly flashed during his time at West Virginia, but in Lexington he blossomed into a force – rounding up 15 rebounds per game and adding 17 points per game. That’s a +6 per game in each category from his last full season.

MATT: Wendell Moore - Duke

It would be very easy to slot one of the Naismith finalists, especially Keegan Murray, into this spot, but they largely got heavy increases either in minutes or usage which, alongside their talent, played a heavy role in their leap. As for Moore, he was predominantly a starter for Duke a season ago, playing just shy of 27 minutes per game, and he wasn’t particularly good in what was a chaotic season for the Blue Devils. This season, however, he saw a slight uptick in minutes to around 33 a game, but his shot volume largely went unchanged (9.5 attempts, up from 8.6 in ‘20-21) and his usage actually slightly decreased. What did increase significantly was Moore’s efficiency. Just look at his year over year improvements from 2020-21 to 2021-22. Field Goal Percentage: 41.7% to 50.0% (+8.3%). Three Point Percentage: 30.1% to 41.3% (+11.2%). Assists per game: 2.7 to 4.4 (+1.7). Effective FG Percentage: 47.1% to 56.9% (+9.8%). His massive improvements on the offensive end are a big reason this team finished as the KenPom number one offense and why they reached the Final Four.


BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

TERRY: ALABAMA

Nate Oats really felt like he had something serious going — until he didn’t. The Crimson Tide knocked off Gonzaga and appeared to be set to be an SEC frontrunner, and then things fell apart. The inconsistent Tide completely fell apart down the stretch, despite returning key contributors and adding five-star guard JD Davison. The former No. 6 team in the nation was bounced out of the SEC tournament by Vanderbilt, and then was predictably upset by Notre Dame in the big dance. A 19-14 showing for Oats this season has thrown the brakes on the Alabama basketball hype train, and it will be interesting to see how he bounces back next season.

MATT: VIRGINIA

It very easily has to be Virginia. The Cavaliers were picked by many to easily finish top four in the ACC at the very worst. Fast forward to the end of the year, and they’ve finished sixth in a very poor ACC all-around and missed the tournament for the first time under Tony Bennett since 2013. UVA finished 72nd in KenPom, their lowest mark since 2011, Bennett’s second season with the program, and their season was largely defined on bad losses. They opened the season with an 8-point loss to Navy at home, a bad omen if there’s ever been one, and followed that up about a month later with a 52-49 loss to James Madison, a team that finished eighth of ten teams in the CAA. Their worst loss was undoubtedly a 77-63 defeat at the hands of NC State. The Wolfpack, who finished last in the ACC, won this game going away, capping off a major sour note of a season for Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers.


BIGGEST SURPRISE

TERRY: NORTH CAROLINA

Maybe we were all a little too hard on the ACC? The No. 8 seed Tar Heels ran all the way to the National Championship game after a pedestrian regular season. North Carolina was a bubble team at one point in time, but they got hot at the right time. Hubert Davis capped off his first season by winning five straight, including beating Duke in Coach K’s final home game. His team then ran through Baylor, UCLA and Duke again to advance to the finals, where they probably should have taken down Kansas. It took the largest championship game comeback of all time to beat them, but what a run it was.

MATT: SAINT PETER’S CINDERELLA RUN

Well there’s really only one answer for this, right? Never before has a team seeded lower than 12 reached the Elite Eight until Shaheen Holloway and the Saint Peter’s Peacocks sent shockwaves up and down the sports world with their unlikely Cinderella run this year. The run itself is remarkable, but it’s who they beat along the way that makes it that much more special. They stunned 2-seed Kentucky 85-79 in overtime, a team picked by many to reach the Final Four, then followed that up with a 70-60 victory over 7-seed Murray State, a 31-win team and the best mid-major school not named Gonzaga remaining. Then, they did the unthinkable. In the Sweet Sixteen, they toppled Zach Edey, Jaden Ivey, and the 3-seed Purdue Boilermakers 67-64, reaching the Elite Eight in the most improbable of runs we’ve ever seen. They ultimately fell to North Carolina in the Elite Eight, but there’s no shame in losing to the national runners-up. Doug Edert became the face of the team, inking an NIL deal with Buffalo Wild Wings in the process. Soft spoken head coach Shaheen Holloway’s confidence never wavered in his guys, and he used this run to catapult himself into taking the Seton Hall job, returning to his alma mater. The coolest part about that? The players themselves went to Holloway’s press conference at Seton Hall and received a standing ovation from the crowd. A truly remarkable story that we will never forget.