ATLANTA -- In a college basketball season defined by parity, fluctuating polls and conference title races that weren’t decided until the final game, it only seemed fitting that the favorite for the Wooden Award changed almost every week.
Indiana’s Cody Zeller was the preseason pick, but Mason Plumlee catapulted to the top after Duke opened the season with 15 straight wins. Creighton scoring machine Doug McDermott occupied the No. 1 spot, too, and players such as Kelly Olynyk (Gonzaga), Otto Porter Jr. (Georgetown), Jeff Withey (Kansas) and Deshaun Thomas (Ohio State) remained on my top-10 ballot virtually all season.
By mid-February, though, the race for the Wooden Award had come down to a two-person affair. Burke or Oladipo? Oladipo or Burke? Week after week, I wrestled with which Big Ten guard should be at the top of the list.
With 13.6 points per game, Oladipo’s scoring stats weren’t as gaudy. But he led Big Ten champion Indiana in steals (2.2), finished second in rebounding (6.3) and chipped in 2.1 assists. His effort on the defensive end of the floor is something Michigan’s Burke couldn’t match, and anyone who watched Indiana this year could sense that Oladipo’s hustle and energy was infectious to a team that was ranked No. 1 for most of the season.
Burke, meanwhile, has been as steady as any player in America. Even more impressive than his 18.8-point scoring average is that it’s been achieved by Burke shooting nearly 50 percent for most of the season. The sophomore scored 15 or more points in 34 of Michigan’s 37 games. Burke also ranks third in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio.
When the time came on March 25 to turn in my official ballot, I still wasn’t sure what to do. I ended up voting for Oladipo for two reasons: his well-roundedness (including his superior play on the defensive end of the floor) and the fact Indiana finished first in what was by far the country’s best conference.
If I’d have been given five more days, however, I would’ve changed my vote to Burke. I shouldn’t have needed a reminder, but Burke showed once again just how special he truly is during Michigan’s 87-85 overtime win against Kansas in the Sweet 16. All 23 of Burke’s points came after intermission, when the Wolverines rallied from a 14-point, second-half deficit. Burke’s 28-foot 3-pointer with 4 seconds remaining forced overtime. It has been the biggest shot of the NCAA tournament thus far.
Perhaps Burke will have more heroics in store this weekend, as Michigan will be playing in its first Final Four in 20 years. For that, the Wolverines can thank Burke, who is more than deserving of the Wooden Award.