Conference tournament season begins Thursday, when the Horizon League becomes the first 2021 postseason event to tip off in men’s basketball. More league tourneys will begin next week, and 31 conference champions will be crowned between March 6-14. Armed with the knowledge that a number of previous college basketball legends have made their presence felt in conference tournaments, ESPN.com’s expert panel expounded on the current Wooden Award nominees, and their chances of making a historic run during Champ Week.
Which 2021 Wooden Award finalist could you see making a Randolph Childress-, Kemba Walker-style run of dominance through a 2021 conference tourney?
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: Maybe this is an obvious one, but what about Cade Cunningham? He checks a lot of the boxes that fit Kemba’s 2011 run with UConn: not a favorite to win the conference tourney, has the ball in his hands a ton, has had to carry his team’s offenses for stretches. There aren’t too many guys on this list who fit that criteria (Ayo Dosunmu is the easy answer, and I’m not doing it!) — and that I can also see making a deep run in their conference tourney.
Oklahoma State has already notched wins over Texas Tech (twice), Kansas, Arkansas and Texas. In those five wins, Cunningham averaged 18.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s turning it over far too often, and that’s a real concern, but he’s shooting nearly 44% from 3 on the season and has made big shots at the end of games. Cunningham’s supporting cast is certainly capable of taking some heat off him, but he’ll be the one tasked with making a play on the final possession in March. And he’s more than capable of doing it.
Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: What about Charles Bassey of Western Kentucky? And why wait for the conference tourney? Bassey and the Hilltoppers are more than good enough to win in the NCAA tournament, but first they have to get there. They could go a long way toward that goal with a win Thursday night at Houston in a smartly scheduled game for both teams. Either that or WKU can run the table in Conference USA, a more than reasonable expectation given that Bassey is the best player in the league. Honorable mention: a healthy James Bouknight (and not just because he plays for the same team as Kemba Walker did!).
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: Why is everyone responding to this question in the form of a question? I’ll go with James Bouknight. If anyone can do justice to the example set by Kemba, it’s going to be a high-usage UConn star with roots in the Big Apple. Nor do the parallels stop there. Like the Huskies in 2011, this current team looks like it could wrap up Big East play at or near .500 in the conference.
Like that UConn team of destiny from a decade ago, Bouknight and his teammates might need to win a game or two in the Big East tournament to feel entirely safe on Selection Sunday. That’s the kind of motivation that can result in Kemba-level performances, and Bouknight has the talent to deliver them. He is set to go off at Madison Square Garden next month. No question about it.
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I’ll pick USC’s Evan Mobley. He has played some of America’s best basketball, but a portion of the college basketball fan base hasn’t really seen him because they’re in bed when his games tip off. The Pac-12 tournament feels like a great opportunity for Mobley to remind the country why he’s one of the top prospects going into this NBA draft.
He’s made 64% of his shots inside the arc and he’s the Pac-12 leader in block percentage. I could see Mobley averaging like 20 PPG, 10 RPG, 2 BPG on his way to conference tournament MVP honors and a title for Andy Enfield’s squad. He’s that potent. And even though a lot of basketball folks know him, he’d still surprise casual fans because he’s new to them. This is a great opportunity for him to dominate.