Panel: How would Obi Toppin and Dayton have fared in the Big Ten?

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Dayton’s appearance on College GameDay last Saturday — and the sensational performance from Obi Toppin that followed — might have helped Toppin’s visibility, and his candidacy, in the 2020 Wooden Award race. One night later, another strong outing from Iowa center Luka Garza might have helped the Hawkeye make up at least some of the ground he lost on Saturday. With the final ballot now having been formalized, ESPN.com’s panel of experts weighed in on the Toppin vs. Garza debate.

It felt like Dayton’s Obi Toppin gathered some momentum for his Wooden case last week (between-the-legs dunks will do that), then Iowa’s players and Illinois coach Brad Underwood made a persuasive case while stumping for Iowa’s Luka Garza. How much should Wooden voters value level of competition when they compare Toppin and Garza? What do you think Dayton’s record, and Toppin’s performances, would have looked like in the loaded 2019-20 Big Ten?

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I think level of competition has to be taken into account when assessing the Wooden Award in general, or else we would just take the nation’s leading scorer or rebounder, regardless of league, and give him the award. But I don’t think it should be the definitive factor when comparing Toppin and Garza. Here’s a dirty little secret: According to the NCAA’s SOS and nonconference SOS metric, Dayton played a tougher schedule in both categories. The Flyers are No. 29 in SOS and No. 45 in NC SOS, while Iowa sits at No. 96 in SOS and No. 243 in NC SOS. Iowa’s schedule has obviously been more difficult over the past two-plus months, but it’s not as if Toppin is doing it against bottom-barrel teams for 30-something games.

If we moved Dayton to the Big Ten, I would peg the Flyers to finish right about where the top teams in the conference finished: 14-6 or thereabouts. I think Dayton is probably in the same tier nationally as Michigan State and Maryland — although the Spartans are playing their best basketball of the season right now — so it’s hard for me to say the Flyers would go 16-4 or something like that. A league with 10 likely NCAA tournament teams is inherently going to hand losses to even the best teams, and the difference between Dayton in the A-10 and Dayton in the Big Ten is that an off night for the Flyers against George Mason or Duquesne still results in a close win, while an off night at Rutgers or against Indiana is going to end up in a loss. I think Toppin would put up similar numbers, with maybe a couple more off nights mixed in.

John Gasaway, college basketball writer: I stand shoulder to shoulder with my colleague Mr. Borzello on this one (even if I prefer the SOS numbers at KenPom to the NCAA’s). If the subsequent careers of “level of competition”-challenged college stars like Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Ja Morant and others have taught us anything, it is surely that Toppin is for real. We did of course see him record a pretty good game against Kansas in Maui (18 points, 9 boards, 3 blocks) and he didn’t seem overawed by the major conference opponents he was facing. Not to mention the top half of the Atlantic 10 is significantly stronger on paper than the bottom two teams in the Big Ten, and no one frets about “correcting” Garza’s stats when he plays those opponents.

In that same spirit, sign me up by all means for a promotion and relegation scheme for programs in the Big Ten’s (ample) geographic footprint. Having a great year, Dayton? Join the Big Ten this season. With the Flyers in the league we’d find that Toppin, Jalen Crutcher & Co. had contended with Wisconsin, Michigan State and Maryland for the regular-season title. Yes, UD is that good. Plus, we would get the head-to-head battles between Garza and Toppin that could help settle this question once and for all.

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I think the level of competition should matter in a national player of the year race. But I also think the internal push by Big Ten players and coaches puts players like Obi Toppin at a disadvantage. You can say the Big Ten is the stronger league based on the fact that the league might send 10 or more teams to the NCAA tournament and Dayton could be the Atlantic 10’s lone representative on Selection Sunday. As Borzello and Gasaway point out, however, the gap isn’t what it might appear to be on the surface. Whether you back those SOS numbers or not, anyone can see that the Atlantic 10 isn’t some Division II league. Toppin has faced good competition throughout the season. He also has faced teams that have done everything in their power to stop him.

Yet, he’s still getting to the rim with ridiculous efficiency. And that’s why I think he’d do similar damage in the Big Ten. Let’s all remember that Minnesota was in the at-large mix for a stretch. The Big Ten has depth, but it doesn’t have a team close to the Kansas squad that Toppin finished 6-for-11 against with eight rebounds and three blocks in the Maui Invitational. Put some respect on Toppin’s numbers, folks.