Four ACC players made the 20-man watch list for the 2016 Wooden Award for college basketball’s player of the year. Cat Barber was not one of them.
I’m not going to get into Barber’s stats or his chances of winning the ACC Player of the Year award, but just know that Cat is hands down one of the best players in the league and is having a season that deserves national player of the year consideration. Having said that, NC State is having a terrible season, including 9 losses out of the last 11 games. That kind of clip will certainly take a team, including all of its players, even the great ones, out of the national spotlight.
But there’s something weird about college basketball and the way it’s covered that makes this national blind eye to Cat Barber feel a little off. College football loves The Establishment. Bama. Ohio State. The bigger the better. College basketball, however, is an indie game. It’s Mike Watt shouting 1991 Duke/UNLV score updates from backstage during a Superchunk show (true story). It’s a niche sport, and basketball media loves to talk about tonight’s big rematch between St. Mary’s and Pepperdine, even though only a handful of people will actually watch.
So why are we so eager to talk up those hidden gems of basketball teams, but an elite, high-performing player on a “less-than-successful” basketball team is automatically excluded from Wooden consideration? Would NC State be able to play Wooden finalist Kahlil Felder’s schedule at Oakland in the Horizon League and be able to come up with similar results? They’d just need to go 17-8 to do so.
I certainly don’t advocate inserting a strength of schedule component into national player of the year competitions, but I would encourage basketball writers to consider that the hipster pick they’re looking for may not be in the Southland Conference, but might actually be buried at the bottom of the standings in a power conference. The idea that Barber can’t be a player of the year candidate because his team isn’t good just seems like a very Heisman Trophy way of thinking for a sport that prides itself on being able to say “I saw that band before they went major label.”