Tyler Kolek’s case as an All-American

If you asked me in January whether Tyler Kolek had a shot to be the Big East Player of the Year, I would have laughed and said yeah right. As great as he’s been all season, his low points-per-game average and the general greatness of a number of players on Marquette led me to believe he wouldn’t be able to put up the appropriate numbers.

It’s not a hypothetical either. I was literally asked this question in mid January and this was my response.

Low single digit odds? You know what Kolek would say to that.

At this point, if he’s not named BEPOY next week, we are rioting. It isn’t just that Marquette won the title and the best player on the best team usually gets bonus points, he’s taken his game to ridiculous heights since January and turned into a stone cold killer in clutch time.

So I don’t feel I have to make a case for that. It’s obvious to not just Marquette fans but national pundits like Matt Norlander and John Fanta and Big East coaches like Thad Matta. For only the 3rd time ever, the best player in the Big East will have worn Blue and Gold.

Instead, I’d like to use this space to make the case for something for which there were no odds on the board, let alone low probability ones. Tyler Kolek deserves to be on an All-America team.

Passing Wizard

Most Kolek pieces start with his incredible passing, and well, this one does too. Kolek is currently averaging 7.9 assists a game, the 2nd highest total in the country behind only Yuri Collins of Saint Louis. To put that 7.9 number in context, it’s the 3rd best per game output for any Big East player since 1993, per basketball reference.

A conference known for incredible guard play over the last 3 decades has only seen someone with Kolek’s consistent output twice before.

If you start projecting out Marquette’s possible game total through the end of the season, it isn’t out of the question that Kolek could post the most assists in a single season since 1993, for a Big East player. He’s currently 10th with 246, only 8th behind 4th place, which he could probably top next week at MSG.

Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams holds the crown with 291 in 40 games. For Kolek to reasonably reach that number, he’d probably need at least 5 more games total, so would require an extended run at either the Big East or NCAA Tournament. Not out of the question with a top-10 team, but not a given. Whether he tops the list or not, what is certain that at a minimum, Kolek’s average and total contributions are in the stratosphere of some of the best we’ve ever seen from a Big East player.

But as you’re probably aware, I’m not a big proponent of raw stats without the context of pace and minutes played, which is why I prefer using assist rate, which counts what percentage of a team’s baskets a player assists on while he’s on the floor. This added context shows us not just how many times a player’s passes helped a team score buckets, but how reliant teammates were on those contributions.

And Kolek is in some elite company here as well. Since 2008, per TRank, only 6 individual seasons have had higher assist rates than his 39.9%. That means when he’s on the floor, 4 out of every 10 baskets Marquette makes that aren’t his come from his passes. There’s a reason this is a top-5 offense in term of efficiency with the best 2pt% by a significant margin. He makes things easier for everyone on the floor.

But Not Just a Passer

And yet, the biggest argument for Kolek’s national recognition isn’t about his passing, it’s about his scoring. After putting up an ORtg of 92.3 last season, Kolek turned into the 2nd most efficient player in the Big East and posted an ORtg of 122.3 this year. I have yet to find any Big East player who had a similar jump while increasing both minutes and usage. It’s unheard of.

So we have to broaden the scope from a conference view to a national baseline.

You can see Kolek’s place among the top tier for high major players since 2008 with an ARate over 30% and a minimum of 25 games played. That kind of company speaks volumes.

But looking it just a little closer, and isolating for players with ARates over 35% you can see exactly what kind of level he played at this season.

Ty Lawson ’09: 2nd team AA, ACC POY, Cousy Award
Cassius Winston ’18, ’19: 2nd team AA, B10 POY, All Big Ten 1st and 3rd team, Cousy Award
Denzel Valentine ’16: 1st team AA, AP Player of The year
Jalen Pickett ’23: TBD
Trey Burke ’13: 1st team AA, Big Ten POY, Cousy Award

Only looking at 2 selective stats isn’t necessarily a done deal argument, but it sets the level for the type of offensive player Kolek was this season. This is the company he’s keeping.

And if you do want fancier fancy stats, Hoop-Explorer’s RAPM has Kolek as the best player in Big East play, overtaking Ryan Kalkbrenner.

Closer Status

This is the missing piece.

Kolek wasn’t just an elite passer and efficient scorer, he was the player Marquette turned to late in close games to seal the deal on a 17-win Big East championship campaign.

This clutchness came into full view in Omaha against Creighton, where his two buckets in the last minute nearly sealed the Big East race.

Against DePaul he scored 15 of Marquette’s last 16 points. He single handedly overcame an 8-point deficit against Providence in overtime to force double-OT. Again and again and again, he rose to the occasion when Marquette needed him most.

It’s not easy for those that don’t watch each and every game to understand this growth from Kolek, because it wasn’t always the case.

But it’s undoubtedly true now. You want him with the ball, on the line, with the shot when it matters most. I can’t quantify how this compares to his peers, but if you are taking intangibles into consideration, Kolek has it and then some.

Crown Him

I get that the people that vote on these things won’t ever take RAPM or BPR or ORtg into consideration. I get that raw numbers rule all, and a player averaging 12.7 points a game doesn’t normally get All-American status.

But he should.

Whether it’s first or second team, Kolek has been one of the most impactful passers on one of the best offenses in the nation. He’s turned into an elite combination of inside out threat. And he has put his top-10 team on his back when it needed him most.

If he does get snubbed, well, you know what Tyler will tell them.

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Categories: Analysis


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