Three weeks ago, we trimmed the list of players with real potential to win the Wooden Award to five.
The idea at the time was that all of them -- Arizona's Deandre Ayton, Duke's Marvin Bagley III, Villanova's Jalen Brunson, Kansas' Devonte' Graham and Oklahoma's Trae Young -- had played well enough during the regular season to merit consideration, and any of them could separate from the others with a memorable performance in the NCAA tournament. The problem, though, is that voting for the Wooden Award concluded after the tourney's opening weekend, meaning the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games won't be factored in to the actual voting.
That structure both hurts and helps Ayton, depending on how you look at it. Arizona's first-round ouster was already going to make it hard for him to win, but when the ballots were due, voters didn't get to take into account that both Brunson and Graham would lead their teams to the Final Four. At least one of them will play in the championship game, too, where their team will be the favorite. With that additional information, Ayton's diminishing chances probably would have taken an insurmountable hit.
That essentially leaves us where things were a week ago, with Brunson and Graham as the favorites. It was the Villanova star, however, who had a stronger showing in the last two rounds to help the Wildcats advance.
In the Sweet 16, opposite West Virginia guard Jevon Carter, one of the best defenders in college basketball, Brunson scored 27 points (8-of-15 from the field) and finished with four assists. Considering the circumstances, it was one of his best all-around performances of the season. He wasn't as efficient against Texas Tech (4-of-14) but still led the team in scoring (15 points) as the Wildcats advanced to the Final Four.
Neither of Graham's performances was memorable from an individual standpoint -- 11 points, 6 assists in an overtime win against Duke; 16 points, 4 assists against Clemson -- but the Jayhawks are in the Final Four, and he's now being given the opportunity to leave an impression on the sport's biggest stage.
"I would say that Devonte' probably dominates the ball every bit as much as Jalen does," Kansas coach Bill Self said this week. "To me, when I watch them play, it is ball and body movement."
There are ways to look at both players and skew their statistics this season to make a compelling case for either. It's a preference thing, really.
That changes Saturday, when Kansas and Villanova, the tournament's last standing No. 1 seeds, square off in San Antonio. One game isn't necessarily the best way to determine a player of the year, but in this case, it will serve as a perfect tiebreaker.
Jalen Brunson, Villanova: Brunson scored 42 points combined in wins against West Virginia and Texas Tech to lead Villanova back to the Final Four.
Marvin Bagley III, Duke: Bagley scored 16 points -- five below his season average -- as Duke was eliminated from the tournament in the Elite Eight by Kansas. He has since declared for the NBA draft.