Myron Medcalf, Dana O'Neil, Eamonn Brennan and C.L. Brown gathered around to break down the race for the Wooden Award and weigh in on what's happening across college basketball.
Wooden Watch: Kaminsky makes most of opportunities
It's still a two-horse race at the top of the Wooden Watch.
1. Frank Kaminsky, WisconsinPrevious ranking: 1
If Kentucky's close call against Ole Miss reminded us of anything Tuesday night, it's that nothing can be taken for granted when conference play begins. Wisconsin offered another reminder Wednesday night. After torching their first two league opponents (Penn State and Northwestern) by a combined 40 points, the Badgers looked slightly sluggish against Purdue. The game was tied at 45-all until the 6:25 mark of the second half, at which point Wisconsin opened up enough of a lead to maintain a two-possession spread the rest of the way. But the 62-55 result, on just 55 possessions, was the kind of slog Wisconsin is famous for.
For one season, at least, it wasn't this way. In 2013-14, Wisconsin got fast -- by its own standards, anyway. In 2010-11 and 2011-12, no one in college hoops averaged fewer possessions per game. The 63 trips the Badgers averaged a year ago, en route to the Final Four, was downright Wesphalian by comparison. This season, the Badgers have slowed down again. Their current tempo, which includes just three Big Ten games, is already below last season's mark, and tempo numbers almost always decrease during conference play (when blowouts are fewer and further between). If the Purdue game is any indication, UW's pace will keep dropping.
Why bring this up? Two reasons:
1) This Badgers team is kind of scary. It's not just that they're good, though they are that. It's that they're comprehensive. Last season's uptick in pace was accompanied by a dropoff defensively: Wisconsin went from the top-ranked adjusted efficiency defense in 2012-13 to 49th a year ago. The end result, with all these veterans and returning players in the mix, is a team that can win in different ways. If an opposing team wants to speed things up, well, this group did that by choice a year ago. Few teams run a better secondary break. If an opposing team thinks its best chance is to keep things as slow as possible (cough, Purdue, cough), hey, more power to you, but Wisconsin is more than happy to run its stuff for 30 seconds at a time. The Badgers are better on both sides of the ball this season; they score and defend almost equally well. They can play a variety of styles. There is no innovative game plan to beat a team like that. It just doesn't exist.
2) Frank Kaminsky's counting stats -- points, rebounds, assists, that kind of thing -- only go so far in reflecting his value to his team. When Kaminsky scores 21 points on 5-of-9 shooting and 14 trips to the free throw line, as he did Wednesday, remind yourself that he is achieving that line not thanks to volume but to his ability to maximize each and every touch he receives. When he puts up gawk-worthy lines like Sunday night's -- 16 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block in Wisconsin's 81-58 win at Northwestern -- make note of the fact that Kaminsky and the Badgers put that performance together in just 64 trips down the floor.
And, better yet, pay closer attention to Kaminsky's per-possession marks: his tidy assist and turnover rates, his vacuuming of 28 percent of available defensive rebounds, how frequently he blocks shots (6.7 times every 100 possessions). Focus on how, when Kaminsky is on the basketball court, he pretty much always does the right thing.
2. Jahlil Okafor, DukePrevious ranking: 2
As we've written in previous editions, where Kaminsky is the well-rounded shooting forward with guard skills, Okafor is the classic back-to-the-basket big man. Stylistically, your mileage may vary. But don't downgrade Okafor one bit: He may be good at fewer things, but what he does, he does better than any player in the country.
Wednesday night's escape from Winston-Salem wasn't a highlight-reel showcase for Okafor's talent (Justise Winslow was the star instead), but he did grab 11 rebounds to go with his 12 points. Yes, his free throw shooting could be better, given how often teams will resort to fouling him. But the fact that Okafor can shoot under 60 percent from the free throw line and still post a 124 offensive rating while using nearly 30 percent of his team's possessions should indicate just how valuable he is to the nation's most efficient scoring team.
3. Delon Wright, UtahPrevious ranking: NR
The last time Delon Wright graced this list, he was inspiring in the Watch a sense of wonder and awe that its cold, cynical heart hadn't felt since he was a child. (The short version? Wright went behind his own back on a fast break, a move we first saw watching a high school star from our hometown, and we suddenly felt like the restaurant critic from "Ratatouille".) Since then, Wright has been near the top of the mentions list, but no wild fast-break moves were required to move him back into the top five. Why? Because no player in the country has had a better three weeks than Delon Wright.
Since Utah's 63-60 loss to Kansas on Dec. 13, Wright is 30-of-57 from the field, despite the fact that he's just 1-of-8 from 3 (and almost never attempts 3s anyway). He's averaging 13 points, seven assists, 3.5 rebounds and three steals per game. Meanwhile, the Utes are just battering people. They've won their past six games by an average margin of 24 points. Utah's first three Pac-12 wins, over USC, UCLA and, on Wednesday, Colorado, were accompanied by final scores of 79-55, 71-39 (!), and 74-49, respectively.
Some of this uptick has to do with the schedule, some credit goes to the return of guard Jordan Loveridge, who has shot the ball very well since his return from injury in late December, and some is Utah's burgeoning beast of a defense, led on the back line by surprise-of-the-year candidate Jakob Poeltl. But Wright is Utah's undisputed catalyst. He gets to the rim more than almost any guard in the country: 53 percent of Wright's shots come at the rim. He's shooting 63 percent from 2 on the year, and is making 56 percent of his 2-point jump shots, which is the kind of midrange game you have to have when defenses know you don't want to shoot 3s. Oh, and he's created a ton of open looks for teammates, handled the ball constantly without turning it over, and generated a boatload of steals without committing fouls.
In short, Wright has made collegiate basketball look like a rather casual, approachable affair. Things will get harder next week, when Utah travels to Arizona State and Arizona, but the Utes may deserve to be favored in Tucson. If they are, it would be a fitting coda to the month this team, and its star, are having.
4. Justin Anderson, VirginiaPrevious ranking: 4
Virginia extended its unbeaten start to 14 games this week, and the manner in which it did so is instructive. On Saturday at Miami, facing the relentless penetration of Hurricanes guard Angel Rodriguez, the Cavaliers had their second straight uncharacteristically lenient defensive performance (the first being last week's shootout with Davidson). But the Hoos held on in two overtimes, ending with 89 points in 75 possessions. On Wednesday night, in an ugly little home scrap against NC State, it was the offense's turn to struggle; UVa shot just 41 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3, and scored 61 points in 60 trips. But its defense held the Wolfpack to just .85 points per possession, and a 10-point win was the result.
Is Anderson UVa's best player? That's a tough one. Anthony Gill was on this list a week ago. Malcolm Brogdon might deserve a spot in the top 10. Anderson's offensive contributions remain crucial, though, as his four 3s Wednesday night demonstrate. When UVa needs to score to win, Anderson is at the vanguard. When nothing else is on, Anderson's lethal perimeter shooting becomes even more valuable. He's a crucial part of a variously impressive whole.
5. Willie Cauley-Stein, KentuckyPrevious ranking: 3
After a solid week of full-throated declarations of the Wildcats' legendary greatness -- not totally unearned, by the way -- Kentucky's quest for an unbeaten regular season was very nearly undone by lowly Ole Miss, and at Rupp Arena, no less. The Wildcats eventually survived the Rebels' unconscious perimeter shooting. How? The much-maligned Andrew Harrison played key minutes in crunch time; his brother, Aaron Harrison, played 40 minutes and had one of the best games of his career; the Wildcats shot 11-of-20 from 3 in their own right; and, well, Willie Cauley-Stein.
The big man didn't have the prettiest performance: He shot just 3-of-8 from the field and just 1-of-4 from the free throw line, including a couple of late misses. Plus, he fouled a 3-point shooter in overtime, which is basically the one thing you should never do if you're as tall and athletic as Cauley-Stein. Still, Cauley-Stein's energy in overtime was as big as any shot the Wildcats made, and his final line -- 12 rebounds, four blocks, three steals -- highlights just how disruptive a defensive force he can be.
Games like Tuesday's won't happen often in the next two months. This was a real chance for someone in the SEC to sneak up on the Wildcats. It almost happened. That UK survived, in no small part thanks to Cauley-Stein, is in some ways as impressive as a blowout.
Also receiving mentions: Anthony Gill, Montrezl Harrell, 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.
West Virginia's Juwan Staten
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
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