Leistikow: Examining Megan Gustafson's chances of being named national player of the year

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS — It seems like every tweet that goes out about Megan Gustafson’s continued dominance of college women’s basketball, the common response goes something like this:

If she’s not national player of the year, it’d be a crime.

Sure, the Iowa senior has had an amazing year. One that'll likely never be topped in Hawkeye history. Gustafson’s off-the-charts numbers combined with team success put her in the conversation.

But truth be told, being named national player of the year is going to be an uphill climb.

“It’s subjective every year,” said longtime Iowa assistant coach Jan Jensen, who has a great national perspective after three decades in the sport — and as someone who averaged nearly 30 points per game as a senior at Drake. “Is the point guard that has crazy numbers better than the center that has crazy numbers? Or is it … the wing player that is amazing at pull-up jumpers over double teams?

"There’s always controversy."

Let’s do our best to break it all down ... and see where Gustafson fits.

The landscape: What she's up against

There are three major player-of-the-year awards for women: The Citizen Naismith Trophy (voted on by a diverse panel of journalists, current/former coaches, former winners and conference commissioners); the Wade Trophy (awarded by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association); and The John Wooden Award (which has voters in all 50 U.S. states; on Saturday, Gustafson was named to the final top-15 ballot).

Each award is presented in April, meaning there’s still time for players to make an impression. For the purposes of this conversation, let’s focus on the Naismith Trophy — which has announced its 10 semifinalists. The list includes Gustafson, now a two-time Big Ten Conference player of the year.

Here's a fast look at all 10, alphabetically by school, with records and per-game statistics through Friday.

California senior forward Kristine Anigwe: 22.9 points (seventh in Division I), 16.3 rebounds (first), 51.9-percent shooter. Cal (19-12) is unranked.

Baylor senior center Kalani Brown: 15.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 62.1-percent shooter. Best player on the best team; Baylor (28-1) is ranked No. 1.

Connecticut senior forward Napheesa Collier: 20.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 60.7-percent shooter. UConn is 28-2 and No. 2.

Connecticut senior guard Katie Lou Samuelson: 18.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 75 3-pointers for a balanced UConn juggernaut.

Iowa senior center Megan Gustafson: 27.7 points (first in D-I), 13.4 rebounds (tied for third), 70.3-percent shooter (first), 1.8 blocks. No. 10 Iowa is 24-6.

Louisville senior guard Asia Durr: 21.5 points, 3.2 assists, 84 3-pointers. Louisville is 28-2 and No. 3.

Mississippi State senior center Teaira McCowan: 17.3 points, 13.4 rebounds, 2.4 blocks. The SEC champion Bulldogs are 28-2 and No. 5.

Notre Dame senior guard Arike Ogunbowale: 21.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.0 rebounds. The No. 4 Fighting Irish are 28-3.

Oregon junior guard Sabrina Ionescu: 19.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.2 assists (third in D-I), 43.6-percent shooter from 3. Pac-12 champion Oregon is 28-3 and No. 6.

Stanford senior forward Alanna Smith: 19.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.4 blocks. The Cardinal are 26-4 and No. 7.

You see all that, and you might be thinking: Hey, there's no clear-cut competitor. She’s got a real shot here.

But here’s a sobering caveat: In the 36-year history of the Naismith Trophy, no Big Ten player has ever won it.

Can Gustafson break through?

The case: Why Gustafson has (and deserves) a chance

Jensen conceded that “it’d be a long shot” for Gustafson to win national player of the year, “just because history kind of shows you where it has been. But I don’t think you’ve had a person that’s put up back-to-back years like this.”

There’s no obvious, absolute marquee player in the women’s game from a perennial national power — like a Chamique Holdsclaw, Diana Taurasi or Brittney Griner in decades past. And there’s encouragement for Gustafson that, in the last two years, the winner has come from outside-the-norm schools — Washington (with Kelsey Plum) in 2017 and South Carolina (with A’ja Wilson) in 2018.

Perhaps the vote will be spread somewhat evenly throughout the candidates, which would allow an unconventional program like Iowa's to have a fighting chance. Being the only Naismith semifinalist from the Big Ten should help her cause.

The Hawkeyes boasted a No. 9 RPI through Friday, best in the Big Ten, and will probably receive a No. 2 or 3 seed at the NCAA Tournament. Those things obviously carry clout, considering nine of the Naismith semifinalists are from top-10 programs.

Gustafson has earned a hard look. And here's what voters should see: A player who is constantly double- and triple-teamed and still putting up sensational numbers in one of the country’s premier conferences. Gustafson has been better as the games have gotten more important; she's scored at least 25 points in 13 straight games entering Saturday’s Big Ten Tournament semifinal against Rutgers.

Without Gustafson, Iowa might have a hard time getting into the NCAA Tournament. With her, it’s a legit Sweet 16 and Elite Eight contender.

And as Jensen mentioned: Even though it’s the player of the YEAR, there’s always deference given to a player that’s done great things over time. Last season, Gustafson averaged 25.7 points and 12.8 rebounds. With Friday night’s 30-point, 17-rebound performance against Indiana, Gustafson got to 832 points for the season — surpassing last year’s 823 when she was a second-team AP all-American.

That said, three first-team all-Americans — UConn’s Samuelson, Louisville’s Durr and Oregon’s Ionecsu — are back from last year, too.

The Naismith will announce four finalists on March 22. Jensen thinks if Gustafson can crack that Final Four, that’d alone be a terrific accomplishment.

A fan shows her allegiance to the Hawkeyes and Megan Gustafson, Indiana vs. Iowa, Women's Big Ten Tournament, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Friday, March 8, 2019. Iowa won 70-61.

The final push: March matters

This is the time of year when voters really tune in. Fair or not, it’s human nature to take recency and what we've seen with our eyes into account. What Gustafson does in the next few weeks, on the biggest stages, will determine how realistic her chances are.

Iowa getting to the Sweet 16, for example, would draw attention. Maybe the Hawkeyes would then face a team like Mississippi State or Oregon with a shot at the Elite Eight.

“If we could get another game against one of these other big names to kind of see how she’d do, that’d be a perfect world for the voters,” Jensen said. “Which, I think in some ways, is a little unfair. … But sometimes it probably does come down to that.”

Bottom line: Gustafson’s sheer numbers and consistency have her firmly in the conversation.

That is pretty impressive for a humble girl Iowa found in Port Wing, Wisconsin. This wasn’t an elite recruit out of high school that was fast-tracked for success under Geno Auriemma at UConn. She's done everything right for four years to get to this point.

It’ll be fun to see if Gustafson gets a big honor or two as the next month progresses. If she doesn’t, she’ll be the last one offended. Fans shouldn't be, either.

“It’s great publicity to be in the top 10. I’m happy for that. Because Megan deserves it. And our program has worked hard to have a great year,” Jensen said. “But Megan is so selfless and intelligent. She knows the world is subjective.

“The only thing you can control is to bust your butt every single day, so that at the end of it, you feel good. And I think Megan has felt good every single day of her career.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.