The proven method for winning the Wooden Award is to already be a big star before the start of that particular season.
Before he played one game at Kentucky, Anthony Davis was already renowned as the nation's top high school player and the jewel of the latest amazing John Calipari recruiting class. Before he sparked Jimmer Mania in 2010-11, Brigham Young's Jimmer Fredette had already been named first-team All-Mountain West -- twice. And before he won renown as a "point forward," Ohio State's Evan Turner had already been named first-team All-Big Ten as a plain old wing.
Which brings me to Victor Oladipo. He didn't win many individual accolades last season as a sophomore at Indiana. He wasn't All-Big Ten, or even honorable mention. He did make the league's 2012 All-Defensive Team, but Ohio State's Aaron Craft won Defensive POY honors in a move that, at the time, was regarded as a no-brainer. After the close of the season, Oladipo was named Indiana's best defender and his team's deflections leader. And that was pretty much it, in terms of individual recognition. There was plenty of room left in Oladipo's trophy case.
I've called upon all this ancient history to make a simple point. What we've all seen Victor Oladipo do this season has been remarkable. His trajectory has not followed the standard path marked out by previous Wooden Award winners, and there was no way we could have seen this coming. (Example: Oladipo entering this season was a career 24 percent shooter from beyond the arc.) Be that as it may, Oladipo's outstanding performance on both offense and defense as a junior marks him as the clear and best choice for the Wooden Award in 2013.
Oladipo has followed an unconventional path, so I'm going to honor that fact by making an unconventional case on his behalf. My homage to Oladipo begins with, of all things, a critical turnover he committed in the closing seconds of one of the Hoosiers' very rare losses this season.
I speak of course of the remarkable sequence that closed IU's 74-72 loss at Illinois on February 7. With the game tied at 72, the Hoosiers had the ball with about 13 seconds remaining and Oladipo dribbling at the top of the key. Cody Zeller came up and set a ball screen, and Oladipo drove right, but in attempting a behind-the-back dribble he lost control of the ball, and D.J. Richardson took it the other way for the Illini.
Richardson had only Jordan Hulls to beat for what looked like a game-winning layup, but Oladipo had other plans. While Hulls occupied Richardson's attention, Oladipo swooped in on the play and swatted the Illinois guard's shot out of bounds.
You know the rest. On the ensuing inbounds play the Hoosiers lost track of Tyler Griffey, who laid the ball in for the game-winner as time expired. But what's interesting to me about the sequence leading up to that last play is how thoroughly Oladipo dominated the proceedings -- for better or worse. In fact if you look at the play-by-play from that game, no other Hoosier left a recordable stat from the final minute of the game. Meanwhile in that 60 seconds alone Oladipo scored a basket, committed a foul, recorded a turnover, and blocked a shot.
There's been a good deal of discussion this season about whether Oladipo or Zeller is more "valuable" to the Hoosiers, which to me has seemed a little like arguing over which of the Golden Gate Bridge's two support towers is more important. Obviously you need both, and certainly Zeller is every bit as essential to IU's title hopes as is Oladipo. But episodes like that 40th minute at Illinois have convinced me that Oladipo has, rather surprisingly, become the most central player on Tom Crean's roster. By that I mean, in no particular order: Oladipo has posted the highest assist rate of any Indiana player not named "Yogi Ferrell" or "Jordan Hulls." He chips in occasionally on the defensive glass, and is actually quite good on the offensive boards. His shooting from the field is more accurate than that of any major-conference player in the country. And then, of course, there's his defense.
Oladipo's defensive stats are solid enough. He ranks in the top 20 nationally in steal rate, while also blocking a non-token number of shots at a listed height of 6-5. But in singing his praises on that side of the ball, I'm not alluding to numbers alone. I refer instead to the palpable sense of resigned misery emanating from whichever player is unfortunate enough to have Oladipo guarding him. IU's surprising respectability on defense has been a collective effort, to be sure, but having at least one of the opposing team's featured scorers blanketed so completely surely helps things along on that side of the ball.
The dominance that Oladipo displays on defense forms one plank of my case to give him the Wooden Award. Basically my challenge to every other D-I player goes like this. Victor Oladipo is better than you are on defense. Sorry, but it's true. And by that I most specifically mean he's better than you are, Zeller, and you, Trey Burke, and Mason Plumlee, Kelly Olynyk, Doug McDermott, all you guys.
Now, are any of these candidates so much better on offense that they can make up the lead Oladipo's defense gives him? I say no. Granted, stars like Zeller, and especially Olynyk and McDermott carry far heavier workloads for their respective offenses. But last season the Wooden Award was given to Davis, who carried even smaller numbers for possession usage and shot percentage than does Oladipo. And no one, quite rightly, batted an eye.
Oladipo's not Indiana's featured scorer -- Zeller is -- but he's no supporting player either. Instead he carries about the same load on offense that Terrence Jones did for Kentucky last season. In his 674 offensive possessions in Big Ten play, Oladipo has accounted for 22 percent of IU's shots, hitting 61 percent of his frequent twos and 57 percent of his rare threes. Yes, as seen at Illinois, he does commit the occasional turnover (about once every 22 possessions in conference play). Ask Crean if he's happy with the sum total of Oladipo's contributions anyway.
If I'd told you four months ago that Victor Oladipo would be in the mix for the Wooden Award, you would have laughed. But we've all seen what he's done this season, and "we" includes the NBA. I'm seeing mock drafts now where Oladipo's projected above the likes of Burke, Plumlee, Michael Carter-Williams, and Otto Porter. Alongside the spectacular emergence of Olynyk after a redshirt year, Oladipo has had one of the most amazing if not inspiring seasons that any player has shown us in recent years. The fitting exclamation point to such a season can only be the Wooden Award.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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