Wooden Watch: Welcoming Arizona's do-it-all freshman
1. Frank Kaminsky, WisconsinPrevious ranking: 1
It's a testament to Indiana's offensive ability that Tuesday night's game at Wisconsin wasn't a benchwarmer's delight with 10 minutes left to play. It was certainly heading there. After a mostly tight first half, Wisconsin began the second by just blitzing the Hoosiers' incompetent defense in every conceivable way. By the 10:41 mark, the score was 76-44, and little-used Badgers' reserve Zak Showalter was adding insult (and fast-break layups) to injury. Over the next five minutes, though, Indiana resumed its 3-point barrage. By the 5:06 mark, Indiana had cut the lead to 14, its bench was fired up, Bo Ryan was furious, and bemused ESPN broadcaster Dan Dakich was wondering whether Ryan refused to call a timeout because he wanted to let the Badgers embarrass themselves.
At which point Kaminsky decided he'd seen about enough.
Kaminsky drew an and-one on a brilliant little spin move with 4:27 to play, followed up with a trip to the line on the next possession, and then hit a jumper on the next possession, at the 2:47 mark, that basically made the Badgers' win official. The only flaw in his one-man run came on the ensuing possession, when Kaminsky tried to destroy a two-handed dunk and totally clanged it instead. His face went from intimidating grimace to confused shame in a half-second. It was pretty funny. It was also the closest to embarrassed the Badgers would get.
It's almost unfair to praise Kaminsky too highly for how masterfully he killed any hopes Indiana extending its run, because the Hoosiers' defense is comically undersized. But still: IU could well have cut the lead to under 10, if not closer, making it a real game with plenty of time on the clock. The Hoosiers were making everything.
More than that, though, Kaminsky's one-man run was a micro-level demonstration of how his hyper-efficient game drives the Badgers forward. The Tank is having something close to a flawless offensive season, and backing it up with elite rebounding and above-average defense to boot. The player of the year race is full of worthy candidates, but at this point, it's got to be Kaminsky. And it's not super close.
2. Jahlil Okafor, DukePrevious ranking: 2
On Saturday, on the road at Virginia, Okafor appeared to be well on his way to his worst outing of the season. In the first half, Duke's star freshman center had more travels than field goal attempts. Virginia was running a second big at Okafor every time he touched the ball, and then rotating in away from Justise Winslow, a strategy designed to keep Okafor and Duke's best perimeter shooters in check. It worked perfectly.
It wasn't until the second half -- and really the final 11 minutes of Duke's thrilling comeback win -- that Okafor came alive. He was better on the offensive end in his own right, battling for offensive rebounds and putbacks. But two major in-game adjustments are what really turned the tide.
The first came from Duke assistant Jeff Capel, who told Okafor to stop playing into the Cavaliers' hands. Okafor knew the big-to-big double was coming, and he was letting it do what it was designed to do; Capel told him he had to at least keep it honest. The other adjustment was a personnel change: Amile Jefferson was replaced by sophomore guard Matt Jones. Not only did this put more shooting on the floor, it made Winslow Duke's second big, and forced Virginia to rethink its doubles and rotations. Okafor started getting doubled from the near-side wing. Winslow was open, and so were Duke's guards. They started making everything in sight. The rest is history.
In the end, Okafor finished with 10 points (on 5-of-7 shooting), nine rebounds, and three assists. It was a pretty good performance in a fantastic win but, more than anything, showcased just how innately gifted, and how quick of a learner, this future No. 1 overall draft pick is.
3. Delon Wright, UtahPrevious ranking: 3
Utah suffered its second Pac-12 loss of the season on Jan. 29, falling to UCLA 69-59 on the road. Wright had four turnovers, but otherwise he was his typically sterling offensive self: 15 points, six rebounds, two assists, with a 6-of-7 mark from 2. The Bruins' victory was keyed less by Utah's struggles on the offensive end (Jordan Loveridge went 1-of-5 from 3, but otherwise the Utes were fine) as on defense, where UCLA scored 1.17 points per trip against one of the best defenses in the country.
In any case, the prospectus for Mr. Wright hasn't changed. He's the best point guard in the country, and by far the best combination of efficient offense, excellent defense at the point of attack, and consummate on-court leadership.
4. Stanley Johnson, ArizonaPrevious ranking: NR
Last season, an Arizona freshman graced the top of Wooden Watch in December, a few weeks before Creighton's Doug McDermott forcibly silenced any and all debate about 2013-14 POY race. Weirdly enough, even some Arizona fans were upset at the time, insisting that Nick Johnson was the more deserving individual candidate. (Eventually, they were proven right.) But Aaron Gordon was in the early POY mix for valid reasons. No player was more important to Arizona's defense. Proving as much required little more than a hows-and-whys description of the Wildcats' emergence as the nation's pre-eminent defensive force.
Fourteen months later, Sean Miller has another national title contender on his hands, powered by another monster freshman. The only difference? This guy is even better.
OK, OK, so that's not the only difference. Wildcats freshman Stanley Johnson isn't the Monstars-level defender Gordon was. Then again, Gordon was an afterthought on the offensive end, whereas Johnson is responsible for a lion's share of the Wildcats' success -- while being a pretty impressive defensive presence in his own right.
Johnson is averaging 14.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game while leading the Wildcats in usage rate (27.3 percent) by a considerable margin. The Wildcats are still among the nation's three or four best defensive teams, but they're also much better on the offensive end, thanks primarily to two things: more accurate shooting from inside the arc, and more free throws. Johnson -- a quick, athletic slasher with enough range (he shoots 39 percent from 3) to earn perimeter respect -- makes 51 percent from 2 and gets to the free throw line 6.2 times per 40 minutes. On defense, Arizona rebounds more of its opponents misses (77.5 percent) than any team in the country. You guessed it: Johnson is Arizona's best defensive rebounder (20.5 percent), too.
The real similarity you can draw between Johnson and Gordon? Impact. Last season, Gordon's range on the defensive end made him the most integral part of Miller's pack-line hybrid juggernaut. A season later, the Wildcats are different defensively, and almost just as good, only this time they can score the ball reliably, too. Johnson is why.
5. Jerian Grant, Notre DamePrevious ranking: NR
The Irish suffered an archetypal post-huge-win road loss Saturday, following up last week's Grant-led Duke demolition with a 76-72 loss at Pitt. If you're concerned about Notre Dame's late-March viability, performances like that are a pretty good place to start. As fun as the Irish are to watch, they are not a good defensive team by any stretch of the imagination, and teams with great offenses and bad defenses have a less than stellar history of NCAA tournament survival.
That said, Notre Dame's defense is good at one thing -- not fouling. If you want to beat the Irish, you have to make shots during the run of play, and ND happens to be so good on offense that it takes stellar performance's like Pitt's -- 76 points in 62 possessions, 27-of-45 from 2-point range -- just to keep the pace.
And if you're looking for a good historical antidote to the whole defense-in-the-tourney thing, there's always Jerian Grant. Grant is having a senior season for the ages (which he continued with a 17 points, seven assists and four steals in Wednesday's win over Boston College) as the lead attacker in Mike Brey's offense. His ability to break defenders down off the dribble pairs quite nicely with his other best qualities: finishing at the rim and finding open 3-point shooters. Notre Dame's shots won't always fall, but they will always have Grant with the ball in his hands, where he can do just about anything. If you're an opposing coach in the tournament, and your season is 40 minutes away from being over, Grant's the last player you want to see.
Also receiving mentions: Willie Cauley-Stein, D'Angelo Russell, Kyle Wiltjer, Justin Anderson, Seth Tuttle, Montrezl Harrell, Ron Baker, Malcolm Brogdon, Karl-Anthony Towns, Georges Niang, Melo Trimble, Tyler Haws, Buddy Hield, Bobby Portis
Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell
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
Bilas: State Of The Game