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.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
College basketball's biggest Sunday is just a few days away. And this weekend, the NCAA will reveal the teams in this year's tournament. As soon as Selection Sunday ends, the speculation begins: Who will be this year's Cinderella story? Though it could be we've already had this year's Cinderella story: a West Coast player quietly dominating and stacking the numbers.
NPR's Becky Sullivan reports.
BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: If you're looking for the best player in college basketball, you'll probably start here.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: And if you give space to Doug McDermott, he's going to knock it down. Jabari Parker for three.
(CHEERS FROM CROWD)
SULLIVAN: But unlike Doug McDermott, of Creighton; or Jabari Parker, of Duke, you won't find this guy on prime-time CBS or ESPN.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME BROADAST)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: He is absolutely a superstar.
SULLIVAN: ...or playing in front of a stadium-size crowd.
Here, on a sunny afternoon in Southern California, practicing his free throws, is the best player in the country.
ALAN WILLIAMS: Hello, I'm Alan Williams. I'm a junior center for the UCSB Gauchos.
SULLIVAN: Now, I should say there are a lot of ways to crown a player the best. It could be the guy who goes first in the NBA draft. It could be the best player on the best team. Alan Williams is neither. He won't even outright say he's had a great season.
WILLIAMS: 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 improve on in the offseason.
SULLIVAN: But Alan's numbers are untouchable. There are more than 4,000 players in Division 1 men's basketball. Big Al, as his teammates call him, well, he's number two in the nation in rebounding, number 12 in scoring, and a mere number 36 in blocks.
KEN POMEROY: Just about every basketball skill you can think of, he's really good at.
SULLIVAN: That's Ken Pomeroy, a statistician who enumerates all of college basketball at KenPom.com.
POMEROY: And all these numbers he puts up are the numbers you would expect to come from somebody who is 6-10 or 6-11. Obviously he's 6-7, so being a huge shot-blocker and a great rebounder, and a guy who can draw a bunch of fouls in the paint, is definitely unique for somebody who's as short as he is.
SULLIVAN: So why's the media spotlight pointed elsewhere? Pomeroy says one problem is that the University of California Santa Barbara isn't exactly a basketball powerhouse.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE AT BASKETBALL GAME)
SULLIVAN: The blue banners on the arena walls, they celebrate NCAA tournament appearances, not championships. UCSB plays in the Big West Conference with schools like Long Beach State and Hawaii. Because of that, some people say Alan's stats are inflated. If the Gauchos were playing against tougher competition, they say, he wouldn't do as well.
Alan's coach Bob Williams - no relation - doesn't buy it.
BOB WILLIAMS: What was eye-opening was our very first game at UNLV against the returning the Mountain West defensive player of year, and Al abused him. I mean, flat-out, he just dominated the kid, and it wasn't even close.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: And Alan Williams leaves, and what a night for him, 9-of-19 from the floor. Twenty-one...
WILLIAMS: The coaches at that time, we were just looking at each other, shaking our heads, going wow.
SULLIVAN: Alan had 21 points that night against Nevada Las Vegas. A month later, he dropped 23 and 24 points on UCLA and Cal Berkeley. Big league schools with big arenas and big money - no problem.
A Player of the Year award might be a stretch, concedes Ken Pomeroy, the statistician who says he's obsessed with Alan.
POMEROY: But he definitely deserves more consideration than he's going to get, which is zero. I mean, numbers-wise, nobody really compares to him across the country.
SULLIVAN: If that makes Alan Williams the Cinderella story of the regular season, can he make UCSB the Cinderella team of the Big Dance? Well, he won't guarantee anything. To even make the NCAAs, the Gauchos have to win their conference tournament, which starts today with a game against Cal Poly. It tips off at noon, Pacific Time, and here's what I will guarantee: You won't find it on national TV.
Becky Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.