In three weeks, the Los Angeles Athletic Club will bestow the Wooden Award on the 2013-14 season's most outstanding player. All roads lead to Dallas, indeed. In that spirit, let's do a quick, bonus check-in on where the Wooden Watch candidates currently stand tournament-wise a few hours before the madness takes hold.
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Technically, McDermott is still just a Wooden Award "candidate." He will have to wait until the Final Four before he can officially accept his award. But that's a matter of semantics. McDermott's winning the Wooden Award, the Naismith, the Eamonn Brennan Player of the Year (note: not a real thing) and other awards the Wooden folks want to hand out in Dallas. By the time the weekend is over, Jerry Jones might invent his own player of the year award and throw it at McDermott just because. I'm picturing a sequined, Dallas Cowboys-themed Cowboy hat. He might sign him to Tony Romo's spot. Anything is possible.
The real question is whether McDermott will be at the Final Four as something more than a banquet attendee. That's a far murkier projection: Creighton, the No. 3 seed in the West, has a relatively favorable draw (relative to the Midwest, anyway), but there are still some major matchup challenges for the Bluejays, and McDermott specifically. If seeds hold, they include a really tall, interior-oriented Baylor team that could make McDermott an exclusively perimeter player, a Wisconsin team that will dribble the life out of the ball and force Creighton to play an uncomfortable number of half-court possessions, and a No. 1 seed, Arizona, that (A) plays the best defense in the country, and (B) has the perfect player (Aaron Gordon) to check the patron saint of ACMcDAT all over the floor. The one thing McDermott's remarkable career is missing is a deep NCAA tournament run. In his finest season, there are still no guarantees.
2. Russ Smith, Louisville: Has a No. 4 seed ever been picked to win the national title more often than Louisville? Actually, yes! This year, believe it or not. As of 5:45 p.m. ET on Wednesday, East Region No. 4-seed Michigan State was the pick in 14.4 percent of ESPN Tournament Challenge brackets, second only to Florida (27.4 percent). But Louisville came in third, with 9.3 percent of brackets, and that might tell you everything you need to know about how well the Cardinals finished the season. Smith was brilliant all year, even when Louisville was ho-humming through the nonconference schedule that earned its No. 4 in the first place. He's been just as good lately. And if there is one great reason to pick the Cardinals, it's Smith's relentless ability to make get an outcome from every conceivable context.
3. Jabari Parker, Duke: Parker's body and offensive game rightfully remind a lot of people -- including NBA scouts -- of Carmelo Anthony. Can he make an Anthony-esque run? Much of the fawning over the brutal Midwest has focused on how hard a path Wichita State might have, but the bottom half of the region stacks up pretty nicely for the Blue Devils, who could get to the Elite Eight before facing a defense remotely capable of stopping Parker & Co.
4. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: In 2011, Kemba Walker posted a 116.7 offensive rating on 31.4 percent usage with a 28.0 percent assist rate and 47.1/33.0/81.9 (2-point/3-point/free throw) shooting percentages. In 2014, Shabazz Napier posted a 115.4 offensive rating on 27.5 percent usage with a 30.8 percent assist rate and 44.6/39.0/85.9 splits. In 2011, UConn finished the season ranked No. 11 in adjusted defensive efficiency. In 2014, UConn enters the tournament ranked No. 11. Kemba did more and did it a little better (amazingly, his turnover rate was lower than Napier's), and the 2011 UConn team had legitimate bigs to rebound on the offensive end. But the similarities, down to the step-back game winners, are such that it's impossible not to entertain fantasies of Kemba Redux.
5. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): Is it just me or is it kind of crazy to pick Harvard over Cincinnati? The Crimson are a really nice team, sure -- deep, experienced, under-the-radar, winners in last year's first round. I get it. But has anyone seen Sean Kilpatrick? Or Justin Jackson? What in Cincinnati's season -- in their insane, frightening, defensive freak show of a season -- makes you think Harvard is going to score against the Bearcats? Provided Cincinnati avoids becoming the 12-5 upset everyone saw coming, its task gets no easier against No. 4 seed Michigan State in the second round.
6. Nick Johnson, Arizona: If Arizona gets to the Final Four, it will definitely be because its elite, pack-line defense -- the best per-possession defense in the country by a significant margin -- got it there. But it will also probably be because Johnson makes at least a few big shots along the way. The shooting guard is a huge part of what the Wildcats do on the defensive end, but in tight tournament games, Johnson's ability to create a shot will be paramount.
7. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Well, here we go. After all that debate -- which was settled well before Selection Sunday, really -- about whether the Shockers deserved a No. 1 seed, they got it ... in the most top-heavy region in recent memory. Asking the Shockers to prove themselves by (ostensibly) beating Kentucky, Louisville and Duke in three straight games is like stacking the deck in favor of dumb "but were they really that good?!" narrative. Nicely done, selection committee. Anyway, the good news is Early -- and Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker and most of all coach Gregg Marshall -- seems totally nonplussed by their draw, and they look as likely as anyone to emerge from it en route to Dallas.
8. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: Kansas will be without Joel Embiid for the first two rounds at least. When I was discussing this with a friend on the phone Wednesday night -- this friend might or might not have considered wagering some hard-earned bitcoins on Kansas' 7-to-1 title odds -- I put it this way: It's never a bad idea to take a flier on a team when it has 1.5 of the top three NBA draft picks this summer. The point being if Embiid comes back, look out. But even if he doesn't, Wiggins might be good enough to take Kansas on a deep March run all by himself.
9. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: San Diego State's draw is actually pretty great ... until the Sweet 16. The Aztecs are set up well to halt Oklahoma's up-and-down offense (or North Dakota State's Taylor Braun, if it comes to that),but are likely to get Arizona in the Sweet 16. Even if Oklahoma State somehow upsets the Wildcats in the second round, Marcus Smart is a really tough matchup for Thames, whom the Aztecs need to complete the great-defense-plus-Xavier formula that has worked so well all year long. Should be a fascinating couple of weeks.
10. T.J. Warren, NC State: Hey, T.J. Warren in the tournament! I don't know about you, but I was openly rooting for NC State to get in the tournament in Bubble Watch even as I was assuming -- like pretty much every other bracket-watcher -- that there was no way it could do so. And then the committee went all crazy and kicked SMU out to make room for Warren's offensive brilliance and the Wolfpack handled Xavier Tuesday night in Dayton to get to the round of 64. Now we get the really interesting matchup: Can Saint Louis -- one of the best and most cohesive defensive teams in the country -- stop the unstoppable?
Honorable mentions: Casey Prather (Florida), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Julius Randle (Kentucky), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Joel Embiid (Kansas), Marcus Paige (North Carolina)