It’s hard to believe we’re eight weeks in. This season feels like it’s just getting good.
If you feel the same, a lot of you might trace that feeling to the cessation of college football. For someone who doesn’t watch much college football (especially in December, when every game is a fancy exhibition, plus prize bags) and who spends a decent amount of time (over)thinking about the national player of the year race in college hoops, that feeling might have to do with the fact that we haven’t stopped being polite or started being real.
The Wooden Watch isn’t here to make friends, OK? It’s time to shake up the list -- and it’s definitely time to snip the burgeoning honorable mentions section. A group that big gives every fan base in the country a reason to email claiming its specific player is being unduly overlooked. “OK, I know my favorite player isn’t going to be the POY, but there’s no way there are 30 players better than him!” Maybe you’re right! But why are we arguing about this? A shorter list is a more accurate list, and it will lead to fewer arguments. Problem solved.
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Before we explain the No. 1 spot, let’s get to this week’s Hacky Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker (trademark pending): McDermott is averaging 24.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game; shooting 51.2 percent from 2, 42.9 percent from 3 and 90.6 percent from the free throw line; and posting a 120.5 offensive rating while using 32.5 percent of his team’s possessions and taking 35.9(!) percent of its shots. He is also defensive rebounding, drawing fouls and not committing fouls and doing all the things McDermott always does, which is why the Hacky Arbitrarily Capitalized Tracker exists in the first place. It’s sort of a weekly thing we do.
So why the top spot? Because this race is currently a dead heat between Jabari Parker and McDermott, and I can’t in good conscience keep a guy at No. 1 who was benched in the second half of a road loss just five days ago. Which is not to take anything away from McDermott. As we’ve discussed ad nauseam, the POY award is often about (A) being really good at basketball and (B) building so much perceptual momentum that your honor starts feeling inevitable. Both players have done just that so far. Parker is the insanely gifted freshman; McDermott might finish his career with 3,000 points. If this is a two-man race for the next three months, don’t say you weren’t warned.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke: There’s not a lot more to add, save for reminding you that despite the second-half benching at Notre Dame, Parker occupies a massive role for Duke. Not only is he the team’s best offensive player, but without him the Blue Devils would be a much, much worse defensive-rebounding team. Parker’s credentials aren’t just about offensive skill.
3. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: How’s this for a line: 24 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists and 6 steals on 4-for-11 from the field and 16-for-20 from the free throw line. On Wednesday’s Spreecast, colleague C.L. Brown argued that Smart was the most complete player in college basketball. I made a mental note to dig into that later because I was sure there was someone else, and I could use that anecdote in Wooden Watch -- and then Smart put that line on the board Wednesday night. Yikes. In fact, the only competition might be ...
4. DeAndre Kane, Iowa State: Even before this week, Kane was already sorrowfully underappreciated in this space. His numbers were as good as or better than most candidates at his “position” for a team that was 13-0. (“Position” is in scare quotes because Iowa State often -- quite thrillingly -- eschews traditional positions. Kane plays point guard ... sort of.) After Tuesday’s 87-72 blowout of Baylor, it is time to right this wrong. Kane scored 30 points (on 11-of-18 shooting), handed off nine assists, grabbed eight rebounds and created five steals in both his and Iowa State’s most impressive performance to date. Iowa State is 14-0, and Kane could be the player of the year. Greetings from Iowa.
5. Casey Prather, Florida: It is a testament to the players above Prather that he is listed even this low, because he’s still doing crazy Casey Prather things. He has the third-highest offensive rating of any player who uses more than 28 percent of his team’s possessions, and he has shot just three 3-pointers all season. That’s not supposed to work. Then again, an oft-injured three-year glue guy isn’t supposed to turn into an unconventional star overnight. But here we are.
6. Keith Appling, Michigan State: Remember Appling as a junior? Not only was he vastly worse in the box score, he was just as bad intangibly: hesitant, half-measured, too often the bane of Tom Izzo’s existence. This season he shoots less, assists more and plays as well defensively as he ever has (which is saying something), and the only hesitation is intentional, just before he sticks a game winner in your eye. It’s been quite a transformation.
7. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse: C.J. Fair has been the Syracuse player of choice in recent weeks, and for fair reasons: He is the Orange’s centerpiece, the workhorse on both ends of the floor, and whatever statistical flaws you might find tend to have their roots in his workload. Fair is an awfully good player. And yet, it’s been hard to shake the feeling that Fair isn’t his team’s most important player, and by a rather large margin. That player is freshman point guard Ennis.
Here’s the sneaky truth about Syracuse: For as good as Fair is -- and he’s devastating on the wings of Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone -- the Orange could sooner replace him with sixth-man standout Jerami Grant and a combination of minutes from Rakeem Christmas, Michael Gbinije et al. It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be a cinch compared to what would happen if Ennis became suddenly unavailable. Trevor Cooney would have to handle the ball. Grant would have to play point-forward, maybe? It would be a mess.
Naturally, “most irreplaceable” does not always sum to “most worthy of a spot on a player of the year watch list.” So it helps that Ennis has been crazy good. He’s averaging 11.7 points, 5.6 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game. His assist rate (31.9 percent) is high, and his turnover rate (11.4 percent) is low, and no member of the Orange creates more steals (5.0) every 100 possessions. Boeheim’s team is unbeaten in early January, and Ennis’ immediate viability as a point guard is the biggest reason.
8. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Another intrasquad substitution. For the past few weeks, the Wooden Watch has (somewhat defiantly, I admit) argued the POY merits of Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve dodged rotten vegetables thrown from the commenting gallery. Good times! Gordon’s case was harder to quantify than most. It had a lot to do with the way his presence allows Arizona to dictate the terms of every defensive possession.
But as Arizona’s season has stretched on, an interesting pattern has emerged: Gordon’s rebounding and block rates have become nearly identical to those of teammates Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. It’s hard to give Gordon too much credit for the Wildcats' defense when the team’s other bigs are producing in such balanced quantity.
Besides, it was time to get Johnson back on this list. Johnson is an awfully good defender, too -- he’s the best tool Arizona coach Sean Miller has to deflect and reroute opposing guards on the perimeter -- and he’s the Wildcats’ best and most efficient offensive weapon. That he’s averaging just 11.2 points per game says all you need to know about Miller’s team. It’s scary balanced.
9. Julius Randle, Kentucky: That Randle missed the second half in Kentucky’s recent huge win over Louisville is one of those odd, trivial facts a caller on a sports-talk radio show would probably use to derail a discussion and get shouted off the line. Let’s not get sidetracked. Randle has been the only consistent weapon in Kentucky’s arsenal for most of the season. The least his teammates could do, as he battled cramps on the sideline, was repay the favor. If Kentucky really did figure it out against Louisville and “decide to be a team” and so on (James Young’s words, not mine), then you have to factor Randle into the player of the year picture. He’s been a beast.
10. Russ Smith, Louisville: With Chane Behanan gone and Louisville lacking anything resembling a quality nonconference win, the case for Smith is getting slightly more difficult to make. But it’s not that difficult: Smith is still an elite perimeter pest playing the most efficient, discriminating offensive basketball of his life. He deserves this company. Can the rest of his team keep up?
Honorable mentions: Shabazz Napier (Connecticut), Xavier Thames (San Diego State), Joseph Young (Oregon), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Sam Dekker (Wisconsin), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Jordan McRae (Tennessee)