Only one Texas Tech basketball player has managed to claim the Big 12 Player of the Year honor, Jarrett Culver in 2019. However, the way Pop Isaacs is playing, he could be the next.
So far, Isaacs and his fellow Red Raiders are off to a great start in Big 12 play and that is garnering some positive publicity for the sophomore guard. That has to be a welcome change after having to deal with the off-court issues that came to light earlier this month on the day before the start of conference play.
Pop Isaacs is off to a strong start for Texas Tech in Big 12 play
Overall, Isaacs is the fourth-leading scorer in the Big 12 this season at 16.9 points per game. That puts him behind Kansas' Kevin McCullar Jr. (a former Red Raider), Kansas' Hunter Dickinson, and Texas' Max Abmas.
However, in Big 12 games, that list is reversed. Averaging 19.8 points per game, Isaacs leads the league with Abmas second and Dickinson and McCullar Jr. third and fourth.
While scoring isn't the only factor that should play into evaluating a player's worth, it is the easiest factor for voters to consider and it usually tells most of the story when it comes to selecting the Player of the Year. For instance, when Culver won the award, he was third in the conference in scoring at 18.4 points per game. While that didn't lead the league, it was less than a point behind the leader, Dedric Lawson of Kansas.
Of course, the other factor that plays a role is team success. After all, the Player of the Year is often the best player on the best team.
In 2019, Tech and Kansas State actually shared the regular season crown but Culver was the obvious choice for Player of the Year given that KSU's leading scorer, Barry Brown, was only seventh in the Big 12 in scoring. Of course, Culver helped seal the honor by the way he closed out the regular season.
In a game Tech had to win to clinch at least a share of the title, Culver led Tech to an 80-73 win at Iowa State. That day in Ames, he was unstoppable with 31 points four rebounds, and three assists. That's the definition of leaving a positive last impression in the minds of voters.
For Isaacs to follow in Culver's footsteps, Tech is going to have to remain in the Big 12 title race all season. While Tech is off to a great start in that regard by leading the conference with a 4-1 record, the bulk of the league schedule is yet to be played and Tech still has to navigate games against Oklahoma, TCU, Kansas, Baylor, Texas, and Iowa State.
Of course, given how deep and brutal the Big 12 is this year, the Red Raiders are going to be in for a bare knuckle battle every time they step onto the court. However, the same could be said for every other team in the conference.
With conference favorites Kansas and Houston both already having suffered two losses in league play, it isn't hard to conceive of situation in which the eventual regular season champion has as many as four or even five losses in the conference. That would be unheard of in this conference but that's the reality of this year's Big 12.
Could Tech fight through the rest of the schedule and remain in contention for the title? With each passing win that Grant McCasland's team picks up, that possibility seems all the more realistic.
Should that happen and if Isaacs continues to be among the league leaders in scoring, he will get consideration for Player of the Year. Of course, Kansas players seem to always get the benefit of the voters given that program's pedigree. The same might be said of Texas players.
However, Kansas has two stars in McCullar and Dickinson to carry the load while Isaacs is unquestionably Tech's best player. He has no potential All-American or even first-team All-Big 12 teammate to rely on for help. Could that help sway some voters?
As for Texas, they don't appear destined to be in the mix for the league title. They are just 9th in the standings right now at 3-3 overall and they still have to play Houston twice, at Kansas, at BYU, at Texas Tech, and at Baylor. Thus, Abmas' team might not be relevant enough for him to win the award.
Of course, Tech is no guarantee to be at or near the top of the Big 12 standings come March. This team is winning on grit and determination as much as any team in the league and there's reason to question whether that will be enough to overcome the flaws of this roster.
What's more, for Isaacs to win Player of the Year, Tech might have to actually win a share of the conference crown, not just contend for it. That's the reality of playing for a non-blue blood program. After all, despite leading the Big 12 in scoring, former Red Raider Andre Emmett never got serious consideration for the award given that his Tech teams never won the Big 12.
However, just the fact that we can seriously consider Isaacs a contender for Player of the Year nearly a month into Big 12 play is a great sign. It shows that the feisty guard has taken a step forward as a sophomore following an impressive freshman campaign and it is a sign that Tech has put itself in a position to be a factor in the league race, something that few people expected when the season began.
While it will be a long time until the Player of the Year will be determined, Isaacs is stating his case early on. If he continues to make waves through February and into March, then the Red Raiders just might be the surprise team of the league as well.