Wooden Watch — Which freshman should be the top Wooden Award candidate?

Despite the fact that the 2020-21 John R. Wooden could very well be won by a senior like Iowa’s Luca Garza, the group of new students on Wooden’s current roster is intriguing. Four freshmen, led by Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma’s NBA No. 1, are on the list of 20 candidates. ESPN.com panelists discussed whether Cunningham is truly the best freshman in college basketball and also identified several members of that freshman class who, like Garza, could be candidates for Wooden in its senior year.

Is Cade Cunningham your best freshman basketball player? Can you point out the next Luca Garza, a non-unique player from this freshman class or another class that could be a candidate for the Wooden Award as a senior just like Garza?

Jeff Borzello, College Basketball Insider: Maybe it’s because he’s on the West Coast and therefore doesn’t get enough attention, but Evan Mobley, of USC, was the best freshman in college basketball this season and deserves much more attention than he got. He was arguably the best player in the Pac-12, one of the best defensive players in the country, and he helped USC enter the top 25 and possibly win the Pac-12 title. He is the best rookie in recent years, and his game – a skilled offensive player and a defensive shooter blocker – has translated very well to the varsity game.

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Evan Mobley scored with a double-double of 14 points and 13 rebounds in USC’s 75-62 win over Oregon State.

Finding the next Garza is a difficult task given his uniqueness. Most of the tall, 6-foot-2 men who were among the top 100 recruits and averaged 12 and 6 in their first year have left long before their senior season. North Carolina’s Ron Sharpe would be an easy choice given his per-minute performance, but he could be a one-tool player. I think someone like Kansas’ Jalen Wilson should stay in Lawrence after this season, and that’s the kind of player who could become a star on a top 10 team.

Watch out for big names like Duke’s Mark Williams and North Carolina’s Walker Kessler, two players who haven’t played regular minutes yet this season but are five stars. I also don’t think Posh Alexander will ever win a Wooden Award, but the point guard from St. John’s is one of my favorite players in college basketball, and I hope he stays around for four more years.

Myron Medcalf, college basketball writer: I give Cunningham an edge, but I don’t think it’s a landslide. He joined the team with 18 wins and was under pressure to be picked as one of the best in the best-known simulations. He has made a few youthful mistakes, but he is averaging 18.7 PPG and 42% on his 3-pointers while opponents are doing their best to stop him. I think Jaylen Suggs and Mobley also have some compelling arguments. But I think Hunter Dickinson also deserves serious consideration. The Michigan team, which has only lost once, amasses 1.13 points per possession and holds teams with Dickinson to just 0.87 PPP this season, according to hooplens.com.

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And I’m going to change the second question. Pandemic rules allow any player to return for another season. That’s why Jay Huff is going to the chat room. The most outstanding player in Virginia could be a super senior for a Virginia team that could welcome its entire core for another boost in Tony Bennett’s second national title. Huff is averaging 13.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG and 2.3 BPG while averaging 48% of his 3-point attempts this season. And he could once again be the captain of a strong and experienced Virginia team next season and a serious nominee for the Wooden Award if he maintains or even improves upon the impressive numbers he has accumulated this year.

John Gasaway, basketball writer: I really want to throw myself at Jeff Mobley for the freshman POY, because Mobley’s arrival coincided with USC’s emergence as the best team in the Pac-12 by a pretty wide margin. But then I look at Mobley’s effort on offense, and then I look at poor Cade Cunningham, who happens to be on a team that doesn’t get the chance, how shall I put it, to get powerful scoring opportunities from non-Cunningham. Suddenly, being on the train seems a little unfair.

Error. Movie non specified.Evan Mobley, who could succeed Cunningham in the 2021 NBA draft, quietly dominated the West. Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

Cunningham hasn’t always had it easy this season, but his mistakes are a commission and, as Bill Self said, the man is good. Our colleague Fran Fraschilla summed it up at the Oklahoma State-Kansas game. Next year, at the next level, Cunningham will be surrounded by teammates who can shoot as well as drive, all kinds of spaces on the floor will open up for him that he doesn’t have now, and we’ll all take the opportunity to talk about how we saw all that efficiency and all those strengths. Cunningham is my pick.

As for finding the next Garza, I’ve decided to hang my hat on the “Senior Wooden Award Candidate,” since my choice is in some ways the stylistic opposite of the famous Hawkeye. On the other hand, I’m cautiously optimistic that my husband will still be around as a senior. (But who knows, one day, right?).

Anyway, I’m going to Arizona with Bennedict Maturin. No one is paying attention to the Wildcats this season, as UA has taken a break (for lack of a better term) from postseason eligibility. But for observers, Maturin has shown signs of being a player who could one day be a problem for Garza. The newcomer is making an appearance, and has even picked up 31 points on the road against Oregon State. Come to think of it, maybe he won’t stay for four years after all, but if he makes Maturin, my Garza will be waiting for him.

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Bennedict Mathurin put Arizona ahead, but the ball went just wide.

Joe Lunardi, ESPN Bracketologist: I pick Cunningham for the simple reason that Oklahoma State will not make the NCAA tournament without him – appeal or not. Mobley is great, but there was already a potential team for the tournament before he came to Oklahoma (same with Michigan and Hunter Dickinson). And as exciting as Jalen Suggs is, Gonzaga is in the Final Four, even with a point average. So Cunningham is the first choice here.

As for Luca Garza’s 2023-24 season, I hope Dr. Fauci will follow up his impressive debut year with three more and then get a lifetime award for beating the pandemic. That might be easier to predict than pointing out a freshman or sophomore who is good enough to be the best player in the country in three years, but not good enough to leave college before then.

Longtime candidates include Scotty Pippen Jr. (Vanderbilt), Julian Champagni (St. John’s) and Bones Hyland (VCU).

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