It's easy to forget now, nearly a month later, but the 2016 Wooden Award race was as close as any since Duke's J.J. Redick and Gonzaga's Adam Morrison dueled on different coasts nearly a decade ago.
After years of obvious winners decided weeks before each season's end, Oklahoma's Buddy Hield and Michigan State's Denzel Valentine entered the NCAA tournament with roughly even odds of taking home the trophy. Both, in some sense, were deserving: Hield for his otherworldly scoring efficiency, and Valentine for his all-world versatility.
Then Middle Tennessee happened, abruptly ending the season for Valentine and the Spartans. Then Hield averaged 29.3 points in his first four NCAA tournament games -- only Stephen Curry scored more over a four-game tourney stretch. Then, the race was over.
As close as it felt coming down the stretch, and as good as Valentine was -- he is the only player to average 19 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds per game since the NCAA started tracking assists in the mid-1980s -- the player of the year race always felt like Hield's to lose. For starters, he was the nation's best player for much of the year, period (and he didn't miss four games, as Valentine did), spending most of it hoisting up his own record-setting numbers. For much of the season, Hield was on pace to shoot 50 percent from 2, 50 percent from 3 and 90 percent from the free throw line; he would have been the first major-conference player since Arizona's Salim Stoudamire (2004-05) to pull that feat off. What made Hield's pace downright ridiculous was his number of field goal attempts: He was legendarily efficient despite shooting a ton. He was the college basketball version of Stephen Curry.
Eventually Hield cooled off. Which was almost a relief, because nobody can be that good. The final tally: 25.0 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, 55 percent from 2, 46 percent from 3, 88 percent from the free throw line. Even when Hield did settle down, his version of coming back to Earth wasn't the metaphorical difference between the stratosphere and sea level but, rather, the stratosphere and the top of Mount Everest. Even his "slump" was brilliant. All the while, he was the face of the sport, present at almost all of the 2015-16's biggest moments. Smiling, joyful, ebullient and, when he needed to be, cold-blooded.
His romp through the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament was the stuff of Curry legend, punctuated by a 37 point, 8-of-13-from-3 performance against No. 1 seed Oregon in the Elite Eight. Hield's first possession at the Final Four was a step-back 3 over Villanova's Ryan Arcidiacono, and the tourney tear seemed very much in progress. In the end, that was the last make of his collegiate career. He finished with nine points in Oklahoma's 44-point loss to the Wildcats -- the penultimate victim of Villanova's brilliant national title run.
No matter. Valentine's outlier performance in Michigan State's outlier loss to Middle Tennessee can't change how good Valentine was for the months that preceded it. Hield's final game doesn't change what he brought to college basketball nearly every night in the season (and the tournament). In a season with more than one deserving player of the year, Hield, finally, was the most deserving of all.