Myron Medcalf, Eamonn Brennan and C.L. Brown gathered round to break down the race for the Wooden Award and weigh in on what's happening across college basketball.
Wooden Watch: Kaminsky back at No. 1
The jockeying for the coveted position of The Watch's top spot continues as a familiar face is atop the list.
1. Frank Kaminsky, WisconsinPrevious ranking: 2
For a while there, it looked like the Big Ten's disease went all the way to the top. Here the Badgers were, down by one at the half to Buffalo -- the same Buffalo that challenged Kentucky at Rupp Arena for 20 minutes in November -- looking lethargic and unsettled and shooting 31 percent from the field. It was three days after Christmas, fresh off the break, and just three days away from the start of conference play. Admiral Ackbar would have seen it coming from the start.
And then the two teams returned from halftime, and the rest of the Badgers joined Frank Kaminsky in playing normal Wisconsin basketball, and Wisconsin handily pulled away from its confusingly uniformed opponents. Kaminsky finished that game with 25 points, 11 rebounds and 6 blocks, carrying his team for one half and facilitating its incisive attack in the second.
On New Year's Eve, Wisconsin only added to the perceptual distance between itself and the rest of the woebegone league, drilling Penn State -- a then 12-1 team with a horrible schedule but a legitimate star guard in D.J. Newbill -- to the tune of 89 points in 72 possessions. Kaminsky finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds on 7-of-13 shooting.
If there was a game that really proved how far ahead of the rest of league Wisconsin really is, it was that 68-56 win against Buffalo. A huge swath of the rest of the conference would have succumbed to the circumstances. But Wisconsin has the best all-around player in the country on its team, and so it didn't. Sometimes it really is that simple.
2. Jahlil Okafor, DukePrevious ranking: 1
After handling Wofford Wednesday afternoon, the Blue Devils leave the nonconference season with a perfect 12-0 mark against a better-than-average schedule, one massively impressive true road win (Dec. 3 at Wisconsin), one of the best freshman point guard debuts (Tyus Jones) in years and, in Jahlil Okafor, the nation's most devastating low-post threat. The only team to look better in November and December, Kentucky, is also the only team with nine McDonald's All-Americans on its roster.
Over the next few months, the natural inclination will be to put the Blue Devils and Wildcats in a putative collision course for the national title. Comparisons will be made. Matchups will be dissected. Hypothetical game plans will abound.
That's all fair. If there was a more obvious prospective title setup in recent seasons, the Watch can't think of it. In the meantime, though, it may be far more interesting to focus on Duke's more immediate challenges. Namely, the ACC.
For starters, Virginia -- the reigning ACC regular season and tournament champ -- is also 12-0, ranks in the per-possession top five nationally on both ends of the floor, and may well be better overall than Duke. Louisville, UK loss aside, is playing some of the best defense of the past decade. Notre Dame is 13-1 with the second-most efficient offense in the country. North Carolina seems to have figured things out. Syracuse may have turned a corner in its near miss against Villanova. Miami and Pittsburgh present their own under-the-radar challenges. And the Blue Devils still have one more nonconference game left to play, Jan. 25's road trip to defensively dominant St. John's.
Meanwhile, Kentucky will be gliding through an SEC that's so brutal it would be a surprise if the Wildcats didn't finish the season unbeaten. The Wildcats won't pick up a scratch. By comparison, Duke will have been battered. There is the risk of losing the forest for the trees along the way, of thinking a couple of Blue Devils losses will "expose" their flaws or reveal Okafor to be overrated or any of the other inevitable overreactions to come. More likely, the Blue Devils are exactly as good as we think they are right now. They'll just be playing much better opponents.
In other words: Duke's quest to take back a stacked ACC will be a ton of fun. Just don't let it fool you.
3. Willie Cauley-Stein, KentuckyPrevious ranking: 5
If there was one lesson to learn from the Wildcats' win at Louisville Saturday, it was not that Tyler Ulis is a better option at point guard than Andrew Harrison -- even if it's true. The lesson is this: Kentucky is so good that its lineups don't matter. Repeat it to yourself. Make it your mantra. The Wildcats have so many good players, they don't need to care about the perfect lineup.
That overall blessing remains the most difficult part of assessing individual Wildcats' value, relative to the rest of the country. Again: If Willie Cauley-Stein was lost to injury, Karl-Anthony Towns and Dakari Johnson -- two of the best 10 big men in the country, and that may be underselling it -- would step in, and Kentucky would be just as good as it is right now.
And at the same time, well, so what? Just because Kentucky has so many good big men, it doesn't need to play its best player more than 60 percent of available minutes. That doesn't mean that player isn't still worthy of individual honors. Cauley-Stein is the best defensive weapon on what may be the best defensive team of all time. At 7 feet, he can switch on any screen and guard any player out to 30 feet while challenging almost every interior shot. Cauley-Stein is the rare defender who can both block a bunch of shots (on 7.7 percent of his possessions) and force a ton of steals (on 4.7 percent possessions). His activity on the offensive end makes the Wildcats' one true flaw -- perimeter shooting -- an afterthought.
Yeah, sure: Kentucky might be just as good without him. But we know how good UK is with him. When you're this good on a team this good, you're a serious national player of the year candidate. Full stop.
4. Justin Anderson, VirginiaPrevious ranking: 3
In general, college basketball coaches aren't big on moral victories, and Davidson coach Bob McKillop has had enough success in his 26-year tenure that he has little need for post-loss celebration. His 2014-15 Wildcats arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia, Tuesday night wielding one of the nation's best offenses: a hot-shooting, low-turnover bunch playing some of the best up-tempo hoop in the country. So, no, McKillop probably wasn't super-encouraged by Tuesday night's 83-72 loss to Virginia. He surely wanted to win.
Even so, consider what Davidson did this week. The last time we saw Virginia in action, the Cavaliers were holding Harvard -- and legitimate All-American candidate Wesley Saunders -- to one of the worst offensive performances in the history of the sport. On Tuesday, Davidson made Harvard's one first-half field goal look laughable. The Wildcats built an early lead. They rallied three separate times to tie the game after UVa built a lead. They were 16-of-28 from 2, and scored 1.14 points per possession, against a defense allowing just .804 points per trip on average. For the first time all season, they made Virginia's defense look mortal.
So how did Davidson leave with a loss? Because Virginia's offense is just as good as its defense. There is almost nothing the Hoos don't do extremely well offensively. They don't turn the ball over. They rebound nearly 40 percent of their misses. They take exceedingly smart shots, and they make them at a prodigious rate. Their one ostensible "weakness" is an average free throw rate, but so what? In the noted words of the poet-philosopher Randy Moss: When you're rich, you don't write checks. When you shoot like this, you don't need free throws.
Justin Anderson, who has been on this list for weeks, is still the best example of Virginia's ruthless offensive efficiency. To date, Anderson has taken 26 percent of the Cavaliers' shots. While we've been waiting for his 3-point shooting to come back to earth, Anderson has kept on making everything in sight. In the month of December, Anderson is 12-of-19 from 3. He's now 28-of-46 on the season. His offensive rating is a sky-high 134.7; his effective field goal (69.4) and true shooting (71.0) percentages rank seventh and eighth in all of college basketball, respectively. None of the players ranked ahead of him shoots anywhere near as often. Most of them are forwards.
5. Anthony Gill, VirginiaPrevious ranking: NR
If Anderson represents the idealized pinnacle of the Cavaliers' offensive kingdom, Anthony Gill is the pragmatic chief minister: Without him, the whole thing falls apart. Gill averages 13.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game for a team that ranks third-to-last in tempo nationally. He is shooting 62.4 percent from the field. He grabs 15 percent of available offensive boards. His athleticism on the wing turns into relentless slashing and board-crashing, and when he catches the ball around the rim, he almost always finishes the play. Gill spent the 2013-14 season as a solid supporting piece off the bench. Suddenly, with far more playing time and usage, he has become a terror. And because of that, Virginia's offense is vastly more efficient than the one that helped the Cavaliers claim the ACC regular season and conference tournament titles a year ago.
Even early in the season, Virginia always looked like it would exceed the sum of its parts. Tony Bennett's team would defend like crazy as a group. It would make teams grind out guard-and-rebound stops on every single possession. It would rarely make mistakes. It would succeed as a collective. And that's been true. But it's taken a hugely impressive 12-0 start to show just how good those parts really are.
Also receiving mentions: Montrezl Harrell, Delon Wright, Ron Baker, Ryan Boatright, Tyus Jones, Juwan Staten, Wesley Saunders, Fred VanVleet, Dakari Johnson, Sam Dekker, D'Angelo Harrison, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Georges Niang, Melo Trimble, Tyler Haws, Kyle Wiltjer, Jerian Grant, Karl-Anthony Towns
UVa's Justin Anderson
John R. Wooden Award
The John R. Wooden Award is presented annually to the most outstanding men's college basketball player.
Top 50 List
Here are the 50 names to make the cut on our Wooden Watch list. Fear not: If your favorite player isn't on this list, it does not make him ineligible for the award. After all, it is a long season.
• Cliff Alexander, Kansas
• Brandon Ashley, Arizona
• Ron Baker, Wichita State
• Ryan Boatright, UConn
• Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia
• Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
• Branden Dawson, Michigan State
• Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
• Perry Ellis, Kansas
• Yogi Ferrell, Indiana
• Marcus Foster, Kansas State
• Michael Frazier II, Florida
• Treveon Graham, VCU
• Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
• Olivier Hanlan, Boston College
• Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
• Aaron Harrison, Kentucky
• Andrew Harrison, Kentucky
• Tyler Haws, BYU
• Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
• Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona
• R.J. Hunter, Georgia State
• Stanley Johnson, Arizona
• Tyus Jones, Duke
• Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
• Caris LeVert, Michigan
• Jordan Mickey, LSU
• Nic Moore, SMU
• Georges Niang, Iowa State
• Jahlil Okafor, Duke
• Kelly Oubre Jr., Kansas
• Marcus Paige, North Carolina
• Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
• Terran Petteway, Nebraska
• Bobby Portis, Arkansas
• Chasson Randle, Stanford
• Terry Rozier, Louisville
• Wesley Saunders, Harvard
• Josh Scott, Colorado
• Wayne Selden Jr., Kansas
• D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown
• Juwan Staten, West Virginia
• Keifer Sykes, Green Bay
• Isaiah Taylor, Texas
• Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky
• Myles Turner, Texas
• Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
• Dez Wells, Maryland
• Delon Wright, Utah
• Joseph Young, Oregon
Jahlil Okafor Leads Duke