There have been plenty of elite performers in college basketball this year, but two ultimately stand out above the rest: Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine.
The Oklahoma sharpshooter and the do-it-all Michigan State star have been remarkable all year long and seem to be the final two remaining in the race for the Naismith Player of the Year award.
So, who is ultimately going to take home the hardware? That’s up for debate.
Sam Richmond: All right, Joe, Hield vs. Valentine: Who are you taking?
Joe Boozell: I was sold on Buddy for a while, but I’m on Team Denzel these days. What can I say -- I’m a sucker for a ridiculous February/March surge.
Both players put up outstanding numbers on great teams, and you can’t go wrong with either. But to me, Valentine has been the better player on the hotter team.
Denzel is about to make history if he keeps up this statistical pace. If the season ended today, he’d be the first player since the assist became an official stat to average at least 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game. That’s unreal.
By all accounts, Hield is an outstanding teammate and an even better leader. But on the court, does he make his teammates significantly better like Valentine does? Not in my mind. Hield outscores Valentine by about six points per game, but when you factor in assists, Valentine is responsible for more points per game than his counterpart. That puts him over the edge in my book.
What do you think, Mr. Richmond?
Richmond: It’s hard to argue against Valentine. He’s the ultimate team player – he scores when he needs to do, distributes when he needs to and isn’t afraid to crash the glass and do the dirty work. Not to mention his leadership skills; Valentine is essentially an extension of Tom Izzo on the floor.
So, it really says something about how great Hield is that I’m going to make the argument that Valentine shouldn’t win Player of the Year honors.
You made the case that Hield doesn’t lift his teammates up like Valentine. I’d argue that Hield lifts up the Sooners as a whole like nobody else in the country could.
He’s irreplaceable. At times, he’s functioning as a one-man wrecking crew.
Valentine, on the other hand, has studs like Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello flanking him.
This isn’t to say Hield has no talent surrounding him, but he certainly doesn’t have a cast like Valentine has. Yet, here the Sooners are: The No. 6 ranked team in the country, right alongside the Spartans in battling for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
That’s because of Hield, one of college basketball’s best scorers in recent memory. And the best player this season.
Boozell: I’d agree that Michigan State’s supporting cast is superior to Oklahoma’s, but I wouldn’t overstate the difference. Jordan Woodard, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler are really good players, and while the former two have struggled lately, Hield’s not running with bums. Far from it.
You say Hield is irreplaceable. That’s probably true, but we know what Michigan State looks like without Valentine, as he missed four games earlier this season due to injury. And it wasn’t pretty for the Spartans.Michigan State went 3-1 in Valentine’s absence, but their three wins were over Minnesota, Illinois and Oakland. MSU squeaked by Oakland, ranked 99th in KenPom, in overtime; the Spartans narrowly escaped the 199th ranked Golden Gophers by single digits. And they didn’t put up much of a fight against Iowa without Valentine.
As I mentioned earlier, I was sold on Hield early. But, for better or worse, college basketball is a February/March game. And Valentine has clearly been better than Hield since February.
Hield in February/March: 23.0 ppg, 43.2 FG %, 4.7 rpg, 1.9 apg
Valentine in February/March: 22.4 ppg, 48.8 FG %, 6.8 rpg, 9.5 apg
I’ll concede that Hield was the slightly better player from November-January. But Valentine has been significantly better in the season’s most pivotal months, and I think that gives him the nod.
Richmond: I’ll agree that Valentine has been the better player in the later months of the season, and that holds value. But I think at times we can exaggerate the importance of the late-season push, rather than looking at the full picture.
And the full picture shows that Buddy Hield is averaging 25.1 points per game (3rd in the nation) on 49.5 percent shooting from the field and 47.3 percent shooting from beyond the arc (2nd in the nation). His effective field goal percentage is a truly absurd 62.1 percent.
There’s not a player in college basketball who’s more terrifying with the ball in his hands than Hield.
Although he’s not as versatile as Valentine, it’s not as if Hield is a one-dimensional player, either. This is still a guy that averages 5.5 rebounds, 1.2 steals per game and ranks sixth in the Big 12 with 1.7 Defensive Win Shares. Hield is on pace to become the third player in Big 12 history, alongside Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley, to average 25.0 points and 5.0 rebounds per game in the same season.
And while Hield and the Sooners aren’t peaking at the end of the season, let’s not act like this guy hasn’t had his fair share of signature moments.
How about his performance against Texas on Feb. 8. The Sooners trailed by six with 3:30 remaining, until Hield scored Oklahoma’s final 12 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer with two seconds left.
But the crown jewel of Hield’s season – and the college basketball season as a whole – was his performance on Jan. 4.
Hield put together one of the greatest individual performances in college basketball history against Kansas. The senior scored 46 points on 13-of-23 shooting from the field – Yes, he scored 46 points on 23 shots -- with eight rebounds and seven assists against the No. 1 Jayhawks. This was a game in Allen Fieldhouse, where Kansas owns the nation’s longest home-winning streak at 42 games. In the toughest place to play in the country, Hield delivered the season’s overall best performance. That’s unbelievable. And it’s Player of the Year material.
Boozell: I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one, Sam. Buddy is sensational, but to me it boils down to this: Hield has the edge as a scorer; Valentine has the edge as a playmaker. I just think Valentine’s advantage as a playmaker is slightly greater than Hield’s as a scorer, and Valentine’s well-timed stretch run is the icing on the cake.
Any final thoughts from you?
Richmond: Totally understand your side of the argument. And it’s such a close race. It really feels like we’re splitting hairs here.
Both of these players are special talents, and both of them deserve the honor.
I’d lean towards Hield by the slimmest of margins because we haven’t seen a scorer like him in quite some time, and he’s carrying a team to great success that I don’t believe would be anywhere near this good without him. But, ultimately, you'd have to be happy for whichever one of these guys takes the honor.
*Note: This article does not have any influence on the outcome of the Naismith Award. It merely consists of the contributors' opinions.