The NCAA title game is still nearly three weeks away, but the race for the Wooden Award is nearly over. The ballots to determine the nation's top player are due Monday, which means the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament could be crucial in determining the winner.
My list of five finalists has been the same for about a month now, and nothing happened during the conference tournaments to force alterations. So instead of doing a 15-player ballot (which has been the routine each week throughout the season) I'll list the five candidates in order and discuss what lies ahead for each during the opening weekend of the tournament.
Victor Oladipo, Indiana -- The junior guard is averaging 12 points and 10.3 rebounds in his past three games. As I've said all season, you have to look beyond the numbers with Oladipo, although it should be noted that he also averages 2.1 assists and 2.2 steals for the best team in the nation's top conference. Oladipo sets the tone for Indiana with his motor and energy. It sounds cliché, but he never takes a play off, never loses confidence and never seems overwhelmed by the moment. That type of demeanor is infectious. He's also equally effective on the defensive end, where he can guard any player except a center.
This weekend: Barring a second-round upset by either LIU-Brooklyn or James Madison, Indiana will face either Temple or North Carolina State in the third round. If the Hoosiers play the Wolfpack, Oladipo will likely spend a lot of time defending point guard Lorenzo Brown. At 6-foot-5, Brown is a tough matchup for any opposing guard. He averages 12.1 points and 7.2 assists for a talented NC State squad that has underachieved based on preseason expectations. A good game against Brown would enhance Oladipo's résumé.
Doug McDermott, Creighton -- The junior forward ranks third in the nation with a scoring average of 23.1 points per game. He's entering the NCAA tournament on a high note, averaging 27 points in his past five contests. It's not just about points with McDermott -- it's about efficiency. He shoots 56 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range. Those are phenomenal numbers for a player who takes a high number of shots away from the basket. He had 41 points in a victory over Wichita State -- the MVC's top-ranked defensive team -- on 15-of-18 shooting.
This weekend: One knock on McDermott is that he's achieved his numbers against weak competition in the MVC. I'll point out that he had 30 points against Wisconsin, 29 against Arizona State, 34 against Cal and 22 against Saint Mary's. McDermott needs to have similar performances this weekend if he has any hope of convincing voters to put him No. 1 on the ballot. Creighton opens the tournament against a Cincinnati squad that is inconsistent on offense but excellent on the defensive end. The real opportunity, though, would come in the next game against Duke, when McDermott would likely be defended by either Ryan Kelly or Mason Plumlee, who are two of the top players in the ACC. Drop 30 on either one of those guys, and the national respect level for McDermott will skyrocket.
Trey Burke, Michigan -- Burke has phenomenal numbers. He's averaging 19.2 points and 6.7 assists while shooting 47 percent from the field for a team that was ranked No. 1 in America earlier this season. The knocks on Burke are that he has trouble blowing by defenders on the perimeter and that he doesn't always put his team on his back during tough times. The latter comment may seem unfair, but remember, point guards are held to higher standards. They're supposed to be the leaders of a team, the guy players rally around. One month after being ranked No. 1, Michigan was playing in the Big Ten tournament as a No. 5 seed thanks, in part, to a loss to last-place Penn State. The Wolverines enter the NCAA tournament having lost six of their past 12 games. Those things are damaging to Burke's résumé.
This weekend: No player on this list has an opportunity to help themselves more than Burke. Michigan opens NCAA tournament play against a South Dakota State squad that features one of the nation's top point guards in Nate Wolters, who ranks third in the country in scoring with 22.7 points per game. Burke won't be the only player matched up against the 6-foot-4 Wolters, but he'll definitely get his chances. As good as he is offensively, Burke needs to play well on the defensive end, too, which is an area where he trails Oladipo. Burke will have another opportunity to shine if Michigan advances to the Round of 32, where the Wolverines would likely be pitted against VCU. The Rams tout one of the top defenses in America. Their full-court, attacking style generates a ton of easy points. Burke, who leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, will be tested like never before. Surviving the gauntlet unscathed could do wonders for his Wooden Award chances.
Otto Porter, Georgetown -- Porter averaged 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds for a Georgetown squad that won a share of the Big East regular-season title. The accomplishment was somewhat shocking, considering the Hoyas lost their top three scorers from last year's squad -- not to mention the loss of second-leading scorer Greg Whittington (academics) after the first semester. Porter, though, was the catalyst behind it all. At 6-foot-8, Porter is one of the most versatile players in America. He can bring the ball up the court, slash into the lane for a layup or dunk or pull up and swish a 3-pointer. Of all the players on this list, Porter is the one NBA scouts love the most. If this award were based on pure talent and skill, Porter would probably win.
This weekend: Unlike some of his counterparts, Porter won't have much of an opportunity to change his Wooden Award status this weekend. If anything, it could be damaged if Georgetown is upset by a pesky Florida Gulf Coast squad in the Round of 64 or by the Oklahoma/San Diego State winner in the Round of 32. San Diego State has an All-American-caliber player in Jamaal Franklin who could give Porter trouble. And Oklahoma's Romero Osby is an athletic forward who can step out and guard Porter away from the basket. That could actually be a decent matchup. At this point, though, Porter would probably need a few 25- or 30-point efforts to move up significantly on the ballot.
Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga -- The 7-foot-1 Canadian is the top player on what may be Mark Few's best-ever team at Gonzaga. The Bulldogs went 31-2 overall and 16-0 in the WCC thanks to Olynyk, who averages 17.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per contest. Olynyk achieved those numbers despite playing just 25.7 minutes per game. A junior, Olynyk has an excellent touch from midrange. He'll occasionally hit a 3-pointer and he shoots 79 percent from the foul stripe. His field goal percentage of 65.2 ranks fifth in the country. He also runs the court extremely well and maintains a good temperament despite getting pounded and hacked. Much like McDermott, the knock on Olynyk -- and the thing that will likely keep him from winning this award -- is that he faces inferior competition in the WCC. Gonzaga, though, played a tough nonconference schedule that included games against Kansas State, Baylor, Illinois, Butler, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. So he's definitely proven himself against strong competition.
This weekend: Gonzaga should get by No. 16 Southern with ease before facing either Pittsburgh or Wichita State. Neither of those teams feature an elite center, although Pittsburgh's Talib Zanna and Steven Adams are talented and athletic enough to give Olynyk trouble. Gonzaga is so balanced and so team oriented that Olynyk is rarely going to score 30 or 35 points. You simply have to watch him play to appreciate his skill set and overall contribution to the Bulldogs' success. Olynyk's chances of winning the Wooden Award are slim, but it will be a crime if he's not selected as a first-team All-American.