Luke Hancock won the NCAA Tournament's Most Outstanding Player award, and it somehow made perfect sense.
Bench players don't often win the MOP. Well, actually, they never do. Louisville's sixth-man shooting specialist is the first non-starter to win it, ever, in the 75 years they've been giving it out. Guys on losing teams have won it. Guys on third-place teams have won it, back when they still had a third-place game. But no bench guys.
And guys without a lot of NBA prospects don't often win the Most Outstanding Player. Every player to win the award since Jeff Sheppard in 1998 has made the NBA, and all but two of those have been first-round draft picks. Only two of the players in that stretch haven't been first-round picks. You have to really delve deep -- Anderson Hunt in 1990, for example -- to find guys who never made the NBA that beat out NBA-bound teammates for the MOP. And as fun a story as Hancock is, he's definitely not an NBA player -- just a 6'6 guy who sometimes picks up the hot hand.
Yet somehow, Hancock was not just the choice to win the MOP, but he wasn't a particularly controversial one -- despite not even being on the list of potential choices at the beginning of the Final Four. The Most Outstanding Player typically goes to the best player on the best team. If Michigan had won, it would've been an easy pick: Trey Burke, all day every day. But with Louisville, more of an ensemble cast, it would've been tough to decide. Russ Smith and Peyton Siva were the stars -- Russ the better scorer, Siva the better passer, both pressing maniacally to cause the flurry of turnovers that Louisville thrived on. But some might argue that their best player was Gorgui Dieng, the NBA-caliber 7-footer who swats everything within his sight and has figured out a pretty strong semblance of an offensive game.
But after this NCAA Tournament, none would've been a feasible MOP candidate. Smith had an amazing start to the tournament, averaging 25 points per game, including 31 points against Oregon. But he was a mess in the championship game: he finished just 3-for-16 from the field, taking some shots that would've been ill-advised even if he was feeling it, which he clearly wasn't, and keeping Michigan in the game with some too-early shots and some unfortunate turnovers. While Siva's second-half layups kept the Wolverines at arms' length over and over again, he managed double figures only twice in the tourney, with a 1-for-9 outing against Wichita State. And while Dieng had some of his best offensive outings of the year in the tournament, we're still talking about averaging just a little bit less than 10 points a game, and he was nowhere to be found against the Shockers, finishing with no points and six rebounds.
On the other hand, Hancock played his best ball in back-to-back games as Louisville honed in on the title. He didn't do much to start -- five points each in the team's first two games, seven against Oregon, 10 points on just three shots against Duke in the Elite Eight.
Then he was the team's best player in the semifinals and championship game. Twenty points on just nine shots against Wichita State, drilling three threes, and after missing a pivotal free throw, forcing a turnover on an iffy jump ball call in the game's waning seconds. (We wrote about it kinda incredulously at the time.) And in the championship game, he willed a team that appeared beaten early back into the game. He hit four threes on four shots -- some catch-and-shoots, some pullups -- to match an equally eerie performance by Spike Albrecht. After trailing by double figures, they were down by one at the half. Hancock ended the game with a career-high 22 points, 5-for-5 from beyond the arc, only missing one shot. (We wrote about it kinda incredulously at the time.)
Hancock's performance wasn't isn't as crazily surprising as some will make it seem. Sure, there's a story there -- unrecruited out of high school! He had to go to prep school just to get a scholarship to George Mason! But in his first year since transferring, Hancock had shot the ball well enough to win games before. He'd gone 5-for-7 from deep in a blowout against Missouri, finishing with 19 points. He went 4-for-5 from deep in Louisville's big win against Syracuse. He hit all three of his threes in the Big East Tournament against Notre Dame.
What makes it amazing, and in turn surprising, is that he did it twice in a row on the sport's biggest stage -- and right when his team's actual stars couldn't come together consistently.
And that in turn makes this not surprising. As completely weird as it is, there's nobody that should have been picked for this award over Louisville's bearded gunner.