As Oklahoma continues its free fall and trends toward disappointment, it's becoming harder to justify Trae Young's candidacy for the Wooden Award. To be considered the player of the year, impressive individual statistics are obviously an important component, but winning matters, too, and after six straight Oklahoma losses and nine in the past 11 games, Young is no longer the runaway favorite he once was.
What's less clear, however, is whom to turn to next?
There simply isn't a player on a national-title contender -- a top-15 team, let's say -- who becomes the immediate favorite if Young isn't in the picture. The best teams in the country haven't relied on individual brilliance as much as much as they have on balance.
Take top-ranked Virginia, for example. Kyle Guy has consistently played at a high level and is the Cavaliers' leading scorer, but he's a guard averaging 15.2 points and 1.5 assists. Those numbers aren't enough to generate player-of-the-year buzz.
For second-ranked Michigan State, which has won 11 straight, Miles Bridges is the player who deserves the longest look, but there are times when he isn't even the best player on his own team. It isn't necessarily fair to ding Bridges because he's surrounded by other talented players, but that does impact perception of his value.
The same can be said for Villanova's Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson, Purdue's Vincent Edwards and Carsen Edwards, Texas Tech's Keenan Evans, Kansas' Devonte' Graham, and the list goes on. There are a number of players having exceptional seasons on good teams, but ... national player of the year? History won't judge the 2017-18 award with most of those options.
Besides Young, there really are only two other players in the country with whom it feels like that definitively won't be the case: Duke's Marvin Bagley III and Arizona's Deandre Ayton. When they're on the floor, it's easy to envision them as perennial NBA all-stars.
For now, though, as Bagley sits due to injury, Ayton is the pick. There isn't a player in the country who can physically match up with the Arizona big man, who is averaging a double-double (19.7 points, 10.9 rebounds) and shooting remarkable numbers from the field (.606) and the free throw line (.739).
Arizona has hovered below the national radar because of three straight early-season losses, its connection to the FBI investigation and a down year for the Pac-12, but the Wildcats sit in first place in the conference and will likely earn a top-four tournament seed. Like some of the other players mentioned, Ayton has some talented teammates, but as good as Allonzo Trier is, there is a clear pecking order in terms of their individual worth.
It's a dangerous comparison to make, but Ayton is the closest thing college basketball has seen to Shaquille O'Neal since he was drafted No. 1 overall out of LSU in 1992. Although an individual player of the year award isn't supposed to be a draft projection, that Ayton also projects as the possible No. 1 overall pick backs up the idea that he's the nation's best player.
Mikael Bridges, Villanova
Villanova was trending the wrong way after a pair of losses in a three-game span, but it bounced back with an emphatic 95-79 win against Xavier to pull even with the Musketeers in the loss column in Big East play. In that win, Bridges was outstanding. He scored 25 points in 29 minutes on 10-of-15 shooting.
Trae Young, Oklahoma
In the past four games, Young has made just five of 32 3-point attempts and hasn't shot better than .333 from the field. He's still scoring in bulk, though, thanks to a perfect 31-for-31 mark at the free throw line in those games. Young's stranglehold on the award, as outlined above, is gone, but if he returns to form, that can change.
Big week ahead
Devonte' Graham, Kansas
The Jayhawks hold a one-game edge over Texas Tech in their quest for a 14th straight Big 12 title and travel to Lubbock on Saturday to play the Red Raiders. In the first game between the teams, Graham went off for 27 points, but it wasn't enough, as Kansas fell 85-73.