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The Coaches Got it Wrong: Why Jared Butler Should Have Won Big 12 Player of the Year

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A ridiculous result

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma State at Baylor Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

The Big 12 announced today that Cade Cunningham is the Big 12 Player of the Year. Apparently the league’s coaches—they select the winner—decided to be wrong.

Butler has an overwhelming case as the league’s player of the year. First, he dominated in advanced statistical categories. Butler led the Big 12 in PER, win shares and box/plus minus. Cunningham didn’t rank in the top 10 in PER or win shares. He ranked seventh in box plus/mins.

The three leading advanced stats sites liked Butler too. Butler ranked first on KenPom (Cunningham ranked third); he was first on Evanmiya. And on Bart-Torvik, Butler ranked first, while Cunningham finished seventh. That matters because those metrics try to quanitify the game. They shouldn’t exclusively determine the winner, but when someone dominates those categories like Butler does, it creates a strong presumption for them to win.

Second, if you hate those kind of stats, there are plenty of other stats that favor Butler. He led the league in steal percentage, assist percentage and 3-point percentage. KenPom awards a game MVP for each contest. That stat normally lines up well with who you think played the best in a game; it’s not some advanced nerd trick. Butler had five. Cunningham had three.

Third, Butler didn’t have as many clunkers as Cunningham. While Cunningham at his best showed out, he had plenty of bad games. An offensive rating below 100 is a poor mark. Cunningham had 12 games below 100. While it’s nice to remember him dropping 40 against Oklahoma, he went 5-of-22 against Texas, 5-of-13 against Kansas State and 5-of-13 with four turnovers in a loss to the hapless Horned Frogs. In contrast, Butler had six games—or half as many—below 100 in th offensive rating category.

Those clunks were partially attributable to Cunningham turning it over too much compared to Butler. Butler had a lower turnover rate (20 compared to Cunningham’s 23.7). Cunningham had at least five turnovers in his last eight games, so this idea that he finished on some unbelievable kick is a bit exaggerated. Butler hit that catastrophic mark one time. Cunningham coughed it up six times in a three point loss to Texas, five times in a three point loss to West Virginia and seven times in a loss to Kansas. If he’d been less turnover prone, the Cowboys might have won those contests.

Fourth, Butler was a much better defender than Cunningham. Nobody seemed to score in isolation against Butler. He was named one of the country’s top 15 defenders by the Naismith Award committee. Butler also earned All-Big 12 defensive honors. Cunningham didn’t earn either accolade. Butler rated about three times better in adjusted defensive rating on Evan Miya’s site, which provides more verification for Butler on that end.

Fifth, Butler had plenty of big games. The best argument for Cunningham is that he showed out in some crucial contests. Yes, he had an incredible game against Oklahoma. But again, he was the KenPom game MVP just three times this season. Butler dropped 30 points on Kansas with just 14 shots. He had a 13 assist performance against Kansas State. He added another 28 points in a victory over TCU—a terrible team that swept Cunningham’s squad. Perhaps most impressively, he hit the game tying layup with 2.2 seconds left in Morgantown that helped clinch Baylor’s first conference title since 1950.

Finally, Butler was the best player on the best team. That argument doesn’t normally sway me as much, but there’s precedent for the award going to that player when the result is close. In 2018, Trae Young lost to Devonte Graham. Despite Young being a bigger NBA prospect and leading in advanced statistical categories, the coaches chose Graham because KU won the league with some nice performances late. Well, Butler was the best player on what was easily the best team in the league. The Bears won more Big 12 games than any team, despite playing four fewer games than No. 2 Kansas. Baylor just beat Oklahoma State this week.

The final argument for Cunningham is that, “Well, how bad would Oklahoma State be without him?” Not that bad! The Cowboys just played without Cunningham and Isaac Likekele (their second best player) in Morgantown. They knocked off West Virginia. In the two other games Cunningham missed, Oklahoma State led Baylor at halftime, and the Cowboys beat Iowa State by 21 points. Cunningham absolutely made Oklahoma State better, but the Cowboys weren’t helpless without him. And if the award is about, “Which player improves him team the most” then Mike McGuirl from Kansas State should win the award because Kansas State would have gone winless without him. But we don’t vote for the award with that ludicrous framework.

Look, Cunningham is a very good player. It’s annoying to have to do a cross-comparison between two great players, which inevitably involves disparaging one player to advance the other’s case. But that’s necessary when the voting is so catastrophic. Unless a group of friends voted to go to Long John Silver’s, I can’t think of a greater non-political indictment of democracy than this vote.

Butler’s case is just overwhelming . He dominated every advanced statistical category, and it’s apparent watching Baylor, how phenomenal he is. I don’t know what motivated the Big 12’s coaches to select Cunningham; I do know that they got it horrifically wrong. Hopefully that won’t happen again.