A Final Four first: four teams, four conference players of the year

GLENDALE — Fans of Arizona State know Oregon’s Dillon Brooks well. Maybe too well.

The teams met twice this season and Brooks hit a game-winning shot as the Ducks won 71-70 at home, and he scored 22 points in a Oregon blowout victory in the Pac-12 Tournament.

Performances like that helped Brooks win Pac-12 Player of the Year honors.

He plays on a bigger stage when Oregon faces off against North Carolina in the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four today, but he won’t be the only Player of the Year on that stage.

For the first time since the NCAA tournament field expanded in 1985, there are four conference player of the year winners playing in the same Final Four.

Brooks won the award in the Pac-12, North Carolina’s Justin Jackson won for the Atlantic Coast Conference, Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss was the winner in the West Coast Conference and South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell was the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year.

“It means a lot to me,” Brooks said of the award. “I feel like last year I should have gotten it as well. It is just something to show that you are one of the best players in the conference. I feel like the Pac-12 is an elite conference. It is a great honor to have.”

Brooks remains humble despite his success and credits the rest of the Ducks. During the NCAA Tournament, Brooks is averaging 16.5 points, five rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.

“I would not be the Pac-12 Player of the Year without my teammates sharing the basketball and making plays,” Brooks said. “I was able to showcase my talents and (Oregon) coach (Dana) Altman put me in great spots. I am grateful for them. It just shows that I am one of the best players in the conference and the Pac-12 is one of the best conferences out there.”

Oregon’s Charlie Noebel said Brooks is the “engine that makes this team go.” Noebel said he likes to see his teammates succeed “as much as he likes to succeed.”

“Definitely he’s the leader,” Noebel said. “When we need a little boost of energy on the floor when he comes in, if he’s been subbed out, he brings that back … If we’ve needed a clutch bucket, as you’ve seen throughout the year, he’s hit game winners and brought us back into games.”

Oregon’s Roman Sorkin said Brooks always gives credit to his teammates and often is the first guy working with players after practice to help them with their game.

“He is always saying he scored the basket, but the team helped him score,” Sorkin said. “I think that’s the biggest thing about him. He’s humble.”

Humble is a common theme with the four conference award winners. For UNC’s Jackson, who is averaging 19.8 points and 6.3 rebounds during the tournament, the award doesn’t mean a lot in the long run.

“In my opinion individual accolades don’t mean much at all,” Jackson said. “Obviously like I said before, it’s definitely a blessing, definitely an honor, but for me I would much rather have a national championship as opposed to having player of the year, All-American team, whatever it is and lose. So for me, I want my team to win.”

UNC’s Aaron Rohlman said Jackson is always putting others before him and when he first won the award, he deflected all praise.

“When he won the ACC Player of the Year, we just kept on saying it in the group text or talking to him about it and he just put his head down and just laughed,” Rohlman said. “He doesn’t really care about the individual awards. All that really matters is how we play as a team.”

South Carolina’s Thornwell, who is averaging 19.8 points and 6.3 rebounds during the tournament, has used his success and conference award to push his teammates to play even harder.

“He’s our leader,” South Carolina’s Evan Hinson said. “We are going to follow him. Him winning SEC Player of the Year, we feel like we have to play to his effort and follow his leadership and go to his level.”

Hinson said he often mentors other players and has been a vocal leader in the locker room and on the court, acting as an extension of South Carolina head coach Frank Martin.

“It isn’t hard for me to do that,” Thornwell said. “This helps keep coach focused on the most important thing, which is the game.”

South Carolina’s TeMarcus Blanton said the team was happy to see Thornwell win the award, but Thornwell didn’t pay much attention to it.

But for Gonzaga’s Williams-Goss, winning the award meant achieving a goal he had set for himself last year.

“It was huge,” Williams-Goss said. “It was one of the goals I had written out for myself a year ago when I was sitting out. It was one of those goals. Any time you can be player of the year in a conference, especially with so many great players in this conference, it was a huge honor and blessing. Credit to my hard work and dedication.”

During the tournament, Williams-Goss is averaging 15.5 points per game, 7.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists.

“(Nigel) coming here, you find out how good a teammate he is,” said Donny Daniels, one of Gonzaga’s assistant coaches. “Also you find out how much the team means to him. He wants to be coached. He wants to learn. He’s like a film junkie. If you go to the locker room at 10 o’clock at night, he’ll probably still be there watching the games.”

And at the end of the day, one goal remained the same.

“He’s on a mission and we are on a mission,” Gonzaga’s Silas Melson said. “So he got that award, but his head just stayed focused on getting to the Final Four. He is as much of a leader off the court as he is on the court. He leads by example. He can do a lot.”