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Who's The Best In College Basketball? Let's Look At The Numbers

Alan Williams of the University of California, Santa Barbara, has some outstanding stats, but it probably won't be enough to make him Player of the Year.
Danny Moloshok
Alan Williams of the University of California, Santa Barbara, has some outstanding stats, but it probably won't be enough to make him Player of the Year.

In just a few days, college basketball fans will celebrate the sport's biggest day: Selection Sunday. As soon as the bracket unveiling ends, the speculation will begin over who will be this year's Cinderella.

Naming a "best player" in college basketball has always been a tricky proposition. If you go by the buzz, the Player of the Year will be Doug McDermott, the sharpshooting coach's son at Creighton. But arguably, you could go with the guy who's projected to be picked first in the NBA draft (that would be Joel Embiid of Kansas). Or do you take the best player on the best team? (Good luck agreeing on which team that is.)

Look at the numbers, and you'll come up with a different answer altogether: Alan Williams, the starting center for the University of California, Santa Barbara.

But Big Al — as his teammates call him — won't even admit outright that he's had a great season.

"I feel like I've done pretty well — some stretches where I feel like I could have played a little bit better, and just stuff I need to work improve on in the offseason," he says.

But according to statistician Ken Pomeroy, "Numbers-wise, nobody really compares to him across the country."

"Just about every basketball skill you can think of, he's really good at," says Pomeroy, who runs the college basketball website kenpom.com.

As of Tuesday morning, Williams was the nation's No. 12 scorer, No. 2 rebounder and No. 36 blocker. Even more impressive, he's just 6 feet 7 inches tall — undersized for a center.

"All these numbers he puts up are the numbers you would expect to come from somebody who's 6 feet 10 inches or 6 feet 11 inches," Pomeroy says. "Being a huge shot-blocker and a great rebounder and a guy who can draw a bunch of fouls in the paint — it's definitely unique for someone as short as he is."

So why's the media spotlight pointed elsewhere? Pomeroy says one problem is that UCSB isn't exactly a basketball powerhouse . There are lots of blue banners hanging up in the UCSB arena, but they celebrate NCAA tournament appearances, not championships.

UCSB plays in the Big West Conference with schools like Long Beach State and Hawaii. The competition is just not at the same level as, say, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), or the Big 10. Because of that, you might hear the argument that Williams' stats are inflated. If UCSB was playing against tougher competition, the argument goes, his numbers wouldn't be quite this good.

But his coach Bob Williams — no relation — doesn't buy it.

"What was eye-opening was our very first game at [University of Nevada, Las Vegas], against the returning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year," Williams recalls. "And Al abused him. I mean, flat out, he just dominated the kid. It wasn't even close."

Alan Williams had 21 points that night against Las Vegas. It wasn't a fluke; less than a month later, he dropped 23 and 24 points on University of California, Los Angles, and Cal Berkeley. The big-league schools with the big arenas and the big money were no more a problem for Williams than his Big West competition.

Statistician Pomeroy concedes that a Player of the Year Award might be a stretch. That will probably go to McDermott, he says.

"But [Williams] definitely deserves more consideration than he's going to get, which is zero," he says.

The Big West Conference announced their annual awards on Monday, and Big Al took home the Player of the Year award there. He and Coach Williams are happy with that for this year — maybe next year he'll finally land a spot on an All-America team.

Both Alan Williams and his coach are confident he'll be playing basketball professionally after he graduates, whether with the NBA or overseas. Scouts have come to most of UCSB's games, noticing the improvements in his game.

As for UCSB, it's difficult to see too far into the future. To make this year's NCAA Tournament, the Gauchos will need to win the Big West Tournament this weekend. They open against Cal Poly at noon PT on Thursday.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.