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Rooney: McKinley Wright IV deserving of Pac-12 Player of Year honor

Getting overlooked part of the game for CU’s point guard

BOULDER, CO - March 4, 2021: ...
BOULDER, CO – March 4, 2021: Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV drives into ASU’s Jalen Graham during the Arizona State Colorado men’s basketball game in Boulder on March 4, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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Minutes after topping Arizona State, a victory that essentially locked up the No. 3 seed for the Colorado Buffaloes at the Pac-12 Conference tournament and set a new program standard for conference wins in a season, McKinley Wright reiterated something Buffs fans already knew about him.

“I’m just happy with the win, man,” Wright said after putting up 24 points against the Sun Devils.

Still, Wright is the consummate competitor, and he admitted being overlooked simply has been part the deal throughout his basketball career. It happened in middle school. It happened in high school. It happened during recruiting, assuming the ceiling for the 6-foot Wright was at the mid-major level at best.

It has happened throughout his senior season with the Buffs, as Wright for some reason continues to be college basketball’s best-kept secret to everyone outside Boulder and Denver. But what shouldn’t be overlooked? Wright’s candidacy for the Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year award.

Wright already is a lock to become just the third Buffs player to earn three first team all-conference honors, following the long-ago heroics of Wilky Gilmore (1959, 1960, 1962) and Cliff Meely (1969, 1970, 1971). He should become the second player in program history to win any conference of the year honor (Meely was the Big Eight Player of the Year in 1969 and 1971).

As usual, Wright probably isn’t the favorite. If the guy in this corner was a betting man, Oregon’s Chris Duarte is the likely winner. He’d be a deserving recipient. Wright would be too, only more so.

The other viable candidates are Arizona State’s Remy Martin, Stanford’s Oscar da Silva, and USC freshman Evan Mobley, but neither of them make the cut ahead of Wright and Duarte. Martin is the Pac-12’s leading scorer and brought a streak of eight consecutive 20-point games into Boulder, tying an ASU record. But he went 4-for-16 as the Sun Devils crumbled at CU and Utah, and player of the year honors don’t typically go to players from the most disappointing team in the league.

Da Silva’s strong season was derailed by injury and the Cardinals’ late struggles. Mobley is the Freshman of the Year, hands down. He leads the Pac-12 in blocked shots and rebounding. He also leads in double-doubles, posting his 10th of the season on Saturday while keeping USC in the game long enough for Tahj Eaddy to break UCLA’s hearts just before the buzzer in a stunning Trojans win. (Sidelight: If Oregon wins on Sunday night at Oregon State, the Ducks are Pac-12 champs. If they lose, the Trojans are the champs.) But too often Mobley disappeared in big moments for the Trojans, and he went 9-for-27 in USC’s two losses to the Buffs.

This year’s Pac-12 offered an interesting base line for comparisons, as the top four teams (Oregon, USC, CU, UCLA) clearly were several lengths ahead of the pack. Wright played six games against those other top three teams, shooting .494 while averaging 17.2 points, 5.7 assists, and 5.0 rebounds. The Buffs were 4-2 in those games. Duarte played just four games against those other top 4 foes — two against CU, one apiece against USC and UCLA — and shot .600 while averaging 20.5 points. The Ducks went 2-2 in those games.

The Ducks and Buffs both have ended the regular season with four-game winning streaks, though the Ducks still have the Sunday night game in Corvallis with the Pac-12 title on the line. Duarte has shot .571 (28-for-49) while averaging 21.8 points during Oregon’s win streak. During the Buffs’ four-game win streak, Wright shot .525 (31-for-59) and averaged 21.5 points. Both players are delivering at crunch time.

Wright, though, should be honored for his uniquely dominant career as the first Pac-12 men’s player to record at least 1,700 points, 600 rebounds, and 600 assists in his career. Among the Pac-12 Player of the Year candidates, Wright is the only one whose individual high game in points, rebounds, and assists all land in double figures. He posted three double-doubles in Pac-12 player. One was points-rebounds (21 points, 10 rebounds in a home win against Oregon), while the other two were points-assists (13 points, 12 assists at home against Cal; 15 points, 14 assists at home against USC).

Moreover, few players in college basketball mean as much to their team, emotionally or statistically, as Wright does for the 24th-ranked Buffs. Last week, Wright suffered another national snub, as he was left off the list of five finalists for the Bob Cousy Award as the top point guard in the nation.

Two of the point guards who did make the cut, Collin Gillespie of Villanova and Cade Cunningham from Oklahoma State, were sidelined for their teams on Saturday due to injury. Another, Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu, returned on Saturday from a three-game injury absence.

Certainly injuries shouldn’t mar the accomplishments of any of those standout point guards. But as the Buffs get set to embark on the postseason, it would be fitting for Wright’s career that while national recognition continues to elude him, in the end, he might very well be the last man standing.