Wooden Watch: Welcome to the top 5, Jerian Grant
Just when you're afraid the Wooden Watch is becoming calcified and lacking in suspense well, OK, Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor are still No. 1 and No. 2. Not much we can do about that. But this week does mark a rare top-five debut, and if you were watching college hoops Wednesday night, you should already know the inductee. If not, here's a hint: His name starts with "Jer" and ends with "-ian Grant." Let's begin:
1. Frank Kaminsky, WisconsinPrevious ranking: 1
Since last week's edition, the Tank's lone action came in Wisconsin's 69-64 overtime win at Michigan, a game that -- despite the Wolverines' struggles and the season-ending injury to star guard Caris LeVert a week earlier -- lived up to its "College Gameday" billing anyway. And, surprise, surprise, Kaminsky was great, finishing with 22 points and nine rebounds while shooting 8-of-13 from the field and 6-of-8 from the line. It all seems routine, mostly because it is. Another 22 and 9. Ho hum.
But keep in mind the pace here. Even with five extra minutes, Wisconsin and Michigan traded -- wait for it -- just 58 possessions Saturday. The Badgers average just 60.8 possessions per game, which makes them the 337th fastest team in college basketball. This bears constant reminder, because you can't really understand how good 22 points and nine rebounds -- or why a 69-64 overtime result was actually an impressive offensive outing -- unless you understand this vital piece of context.
In the meantime, Bo Ryan's team is averaging 1.26 points per possession in conference play. That's better than any offense has performed against any league in college basketball -- better even than the reliable Gonzaga-versus-the-WCC. If that keeps up, we won't even need to argue Kaminsky's reasonable defensive merits relative to Okafor. When you're scoring like this, defense is a secondary concern.
2. Jahlil Okafor, DukePrevious ranking: 2
Sunday's trip to Madison Square Garden was supposed to be a hallowed viewing experience, at least in my own: It was my first-ever visit to the Garden, for starters, and I was there to catch a small slice of basketball history in the process, as Mike Krzyzewski won his 1,000th game. That was pretty good. But I found myself subject to a more personal sort of milestone -- the first time I can remember being blown away just from seeing a dude grab a basketball.
It was a little moment, and not particularly crucial to the outcome, but Okafor was standing under the rim when a mini-loose ball scramble broke out. The ball was deflected by St. John's defenders, and it looked like a steal was in the making, when the ball bounced up past Okafor's shoulder and whap -- he snared it with one hand.
I'd never seen a college player do something like that before. Everything that makes Okafor so great for the Blue Devils, and so obviously the No. 1 NBA draft pick in June -- size, coordination, massive hands, soft touch, reflexes, instinct -- was there in that one-handed catch. Okafor showcased all of it in Duke's loss at Notre Dame Wednesday night, and he was so good that, despite 22 points and 17 rebounds, it felt like he left six or eight more points on the board. He is as reliable an offensive weapon as there exists in college basketball. And for a 7-foot center, he has more than a few sparks of genius to offer, too.
3. Delon Wright, UtahPrevious ranking: 4
Kaminsky's defense is solid but unspectacular. Okafor's defense needs to be hidden behind a zone and/or compensated for with immense scoring brilliance. No such caveats apply to Wright, who may well be the best two-way player in the game.
For example: Utah's offense, even with that 51-point performance in a Jan. 17 loss at Arizona, leads the Pac-12 in points per trip. The Utes seem to be getting better on the offensive end in every single game, and no player has been more important to that effort than Wright. He uses nearly a quarter of his team's available possessions, and he uses them well, combining one of the nation's best assist rates (39.5) with few turnovers and 60 percent shooting from 2. Defensively, meanwhile, Wright might be even better, hassling opposing guards into 4.3 turnovers every 100 possessions while committing just 1.6 fouls per 40 minutes.
For most of the season, and especially in late December and early January, Utah's top-10 defense looked like its most redeeming quality. Now Larry Krystkowiak's group is combining great defense with just-as-good-if-not-better work on the scoring side of things. If this keeps up, Wright is so much more than Kaminsky's and Okafor's third wheel. He might steal this thing yet.
4. Jerian Grant, Notre DamePrevious ranking: NR
It's not easy to crack the this top five. Kaminsky and Okafor have been Nos. 1 and 2 in varying order since the first edition of the 2014-15 season. Wright is hot on their proverbial tails. Virginia has not one but three players (Justin Anderson, Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon) that are arguably all worthy of inclusion. Kentucky presents the same problem on steroids. Why, just look at the players on the bubble: Stanley Johnson has quietly morphed into the most dominant freshman on a national title contender not named Jahlil Okafor; Kyle Wiltjer is leading Gonzaga's offense to Olynykian heights; Ron Baker is Ron Baker; and D'Angelo Russell is mini-Manu-ing his way to the top five of most NBA draft boards. It's an unforgiving field, this. You've got to elbow your way in.
On Wednesday night, Grant delivered a haymaker. Merely relating his line doesn't quite do it justice, but what the heck: 23 points, 12 assists, six rebounds, three steals, two blocks. Kind of insane, right? It was even better to watch. Three of Grant's points came on a first-half 3 from Jimmer Range. Two came in the last 75 seconds, as he overaggressively leaned in to cross over Duke defender Tyus Jones, had the handle stripped, and then got it back and flung up a 15-foot leaner just before the shot clock -- a turn of events that spared Grant some embarrassment and helped solidify the Irish comeback. In the final minute, his turning, hanging dish to a wide-open Steve Vasturia] carved the Blue Devils open. His late springboard block on Quinn Cook officially sealed the game.
Grant has been this good for a while now: His combination of relentless penetration, eyes-up passing, and ruthless finishing have made him both an individual terror and the perfect centerpiece for one of the country's two or three best offensive teams. In other words, saying Wednesday night was Grant's best game of the season is genuinely high praise. It was one of the best games anyone has played anywhere -- and more than enough to move Grant on to the Wooden short list post-haste.
5. Willie Cauley-Stein, KentuckyPrevious ranking: 5
You remember the last time someone crept above the point-per-possession barrier against Kentucky, right? Sure you do. It happened on Jan. 6, against Ole Miss, when a white-hot Rebels team made nine 3s and 19 free throws in a rousing 89-86 overtime loss at Rupp Arena. Since then, the Wildcats have allowed exactly 249 points in 301 trips, a pace not dissimilar from the one Kentucky set in nonconference games against the likes of Buffalo and Boston University and Eastern Kentucky. Except, you know, they're doing this to the SEC.
Say what you like about the SEC; it's hardly the most powerful of the five power conferences, especially this season. But the point remains. Go ahead, slow the game down. Or speed it up. Whichever you prefer. Barring the best shooting night of your life, it's basically impossible to score against Kentucky. That's a team effort, true. With his remarkable ability to create blocks, steals and all manner of matchup-switching havoc for opposing scorers, no player is less dispensable to that effort than Cauley-Stein.
Also receiving mentions: Stanley Johnson, D'Angelo Russell, Kyle Wiltjer, Justin Anderson, Montrezl Harrell, Ron Baker, Malcolm Brogdon, Ryan Boatright, Karl-Anthony Towns, Georges Niang, Melo Trimble, Tyler Haws, Larry Nance, Bobby Portis
Arkansas' Bobby Portis
John R. Wooden Award
The John R. Wooden Award is presented annually to the most outstanding men's college basketball player.
Top 25 List
Here are the 25 players who made the midseason cut in the race for the Wooden Award. Is this the final list? No. Can a player not on the list still win the award? Yes. So, there is still plenty of time to make a move.
• Justin Anderson, Virginia
• Ron Baker, Wichita State
• Ryan Boatright, UConn
• Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
• Yogi Ferrell, Indiana
• Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
• Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
• D'Angelo Harrison, St. John's
• Tyler Haws, BYU
• Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
• Stanley Johnson, Arizona
• Tyus Jones, Duke
• Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
• Jordan Mickey, LSU
• Georges Niang, Iowa State
• Jahlil Okafor, Duke
• Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
• Bobby Portis, Arkansas
• Chasson Randle, Stanford
• Terry Rozier, Louisville
• D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State
• Juwan Staten, West Virginia
• Melo Trimble, Maryland
• Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
• Delon Wright, Utah
Notre Dame Tops Duke