I’m not going to front. About a month ago it was a foregone conclusion that Iowa center Luka Garza would win his second straight Big Ten Player of the Year award. After all, he’d been the favorite since the preseason, and probably should have entered the 2020 season as the reigning National Player of the Year, too. He’s really f***ing good.
But something has been bubbling to the surface the past few weeks, especially the past four games. Quamdeen Ayo Dosunmu has been making believers out of people — and not just those who root for the Illini. Let’s revisit.
Ayo stole the show Feb. 6 versus Wisconsin, recording the first Illini triple-double since 2001 (21 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists) and the program’s first against a ranked opponent.
Then the Nebraska game turned into the Ayo Show in the late moments. With Illinois trailing by six in the final three minutes, Dosunmu took over. The junior guard scored 31 points on the night, including 15 in a row at the end of the second half and beginning of overtime, willing the Fighting Illini to a win over the upset-minded Huskers.
Last Tuesday against Northwestern the Illini thwarted another upset bid. Ayo — held to a mere five points in the first 38 minutes — scored eight in the final two minutes, including a pair of back-breaking, soul-crushing threes to seal the win.
He’s been the definition of clutch — in the final 90 seconds of regulation & overtime this season, Dosunmu is 12-for-18 from the field, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Illinois crushed Minnesota, 94-63, Saturday afternoon, and Ayo made headlines once again. Dos messed around and got (another) triple-double — 19 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds. There had been exactly two triple-doubles in program history, and Ayo doubled that number in the span of four games.
The Fighting Illini haven’t lost since mid-January. They ride a seven-game winning streak into Tuesday night’s clash at Michigan State. One of Illinois’ seven consecutive wins? An 80-75 victory in Champaign against Garza’s Iowa Hawkeyes. Both superstars played well, with Dosunmu (25 points, 11/18 shooting [3/3 three-point], 4 assists, 2 rebounds in 36 minutes) slightly outdueling Garza (19 points, 9/18 shooting [1/3 three-point], 4 rebounds, 1 assist in 28 minutes).
Garza has been sensational again for the Hawkeyes. The 6-foot-11 senior leads the nation in scoring (24.6 points per game), while also averaging 8.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. But Garzilla doesn’t just do it in the paint — he is a very efficient 58.7% from two-point range — he can stretch the floor and sink threes, averaging 44% this season. He’s a supremely skilled and talented player, especially for a big man. Garza’s seven 30+ point games is tops in the country. And his 23.2 points peer game versus ranked opponents leads D-I. Who’s right behind him? You guessed it, Ayo, at 21.0.
Garza made more history earlier this week, becoming Iowa’s all-time leading scorer with 2,126 points. It’s very likely he’ll be adding another 150-200 points to that total by season’s end. It’s undeniable. Luka is a bucket-getter.
This isn’t because of any enmity I have towards Iowa; I’ve addressed that more than enough. I admit that Garza — not Dayton’s Obi Toppin — should have been the pick for National Player of the Year. And I believe that Garza being slighted has fueled the discussion of him being a runaway choice for the honor this year.
But, if we’re talking about Player of the Year, Ayo is doing things this year that have literally never been done before. As of this writing, Dosunmu is averaging 20+ ppg, 6+ rpg, 5+ apg, while shooting 40% from beyond the arc — no player in Division I history has accomplished that feat.
Both Garza and Dosunmu have been consistently great for multiple seasons. Each player obviously makes their team better, and each player has surpassed last year’s numbers. If we’re being honest and not simply looking through orange-and-blue-colored glasses, Garza’s overall stats are better. HOWEVER...Ayo’s improved by leaps and bounds from last season. His scoring average has increased by 4.6 points per game. His three-point percentage has increased from 29.6% to 42.2%. Ayo is averaging two assists and two rebounds more than last season.
To me, Ayo’s impact is more significant because he’s a creator who handles the ball much more frequently. Garza is an elite scorer, but he is not taking the ball up the court throughout the game. Opposing teams have put an emphasis on stopping Luka at the risk of freeing up one of Iowa’s many shotmakers, including Joe Wieskamp and Jordan Bohannon.
What pisses off Hawkeye fans more: The fact that Garza was snubbed last year by a mid-major player, or the idea that he could lose this year to a kid in his own conference? I’d lean towards the latter. Check Twitter if you don’t believe me.
Speaking of which...
Can't spell "player of the year" without "ayo" #JustSayin— Drew Pastorek (@kerotsap) February 21, 2021
I posted that tweet somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but there’s no doubt that Illinois’ national emergence and Dos’ scintillating season are inextricably linked.
Ultimately, I’d still have Luka ahead by a hair, and the best-case scenario truly may be to split the Big Ten and National Player of the Year awards. It’s THAT close. With exactly a quarter of the conference season remaining, Ayo will have five more games to make his case.