Wooden Watch: The list gets cut down
Another week of Wooden Watch; another official Wooden Award committee list to chew on. And where we had a few minor disagreements with the midseason list (Jordan Mickey?), the official late-season top 20 almost perfectly dovetails with our own. So it must be good, right? Right. Let's get to the Watch:
1. Frank Kaminsky, WisconsinPrevious ranking: 1
Wisconsin's six-game streak of impossibly good offense finally came to a minor standstill at Nebraska on Tuesday night, when the Cornhuskers -- a genuinely good defensive team this season -- held them to just 1.05 points per trip. Coach Tim Miles' team even had a little mini-comeback late when its shots finally started to fall. But the Badgers nonetheless left Lincoln (which, by the way, how good are Nebraska's basketball crowds these days?!) with a rather casual 65-55 win, and Kaminsky was, by his own standards, merely very good: 13 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks.
Those standards, as you might imagine, are crazy-high. During Wisconsin's previous six games (following the loss at Rutgers, when Kaminsky was sidelined with a concussion) the Badgers averaged -- averaged! -- 1.32 points per possession. That's not just great. That's world-historic, Kentucky's-defense-but-the-opposite levels of offensive efficiency. Those kinds of numbers almost never happen in conference play, and certainly not for any sustained period of time. Kaminsky didn't score all of those points himself, of course, and the Badgers do have a wealth of offensive talent. But the man in the middle -- with his mix of outside-in trail shooting, post work, rebounding, passing, and interior defense -- is the one who makes it all go.
2. Jahlil Okafor, DukePrevious ranking: 2
Nine weeks ago, we noted the interesting and counterintuitive dichotomy between the top two Wooden Award candidates. Given the state of the modern game -- from the past decade of big-man development at the grassroots level to the preeminence of stretch 4s and small-ball tactics in the NBA -- you'd expect Kaminsky and Okafor's games to be reversed. You'd think Okafor, the massively hyped freshman, would be the guy with the guard skills and the perimeter jumper. You'd think Kaminsky would be the old-school back-to-the-basket big. Instead, it's the young gun who has the old game.
That was true in December, and it remains so today. Call this a checkup: After two more months of games, Okafor still looks every bit the throwback. The Duke center has now recorded 374 plays as a collegian, according to Synergy scouting data. Of those, 207 (55 percent) have been on post-ups. Okafor's next most-common play type is offensive rebounds (putbacks), as Synergy terms them, which account for 15 percent of his plays. From there, it's a minor smattering: 34 cut plays, 32 transition touches, a handful of pick-and-rolls and isolations. The vast majority of Okafor's work has come in the most conventional, traditional way possible: post-ups and rebounds. Big man stuff.
Okafor's post game is polished well beyond his years, though his size and agility would make him a nightmare to deal with at the college level even if he didn't have touch or footwork. What's more, Okafor allows Duke to keep its offense simple. He gets easy looks without needing specialized sets run for him; he can just run to the block, put his man on his back and present a lethal first scoring option. When you can get any shot you want from 6 feet and in, and you're shooting 66.5 percent from the field, why complicate things?
3. Delon Wright, UtahPrevious ranking: 3
This week, Utah rebounded from an uncharacteristic road loss at UCLA with two very characteristic blowouts of USC and Colorado, and Wright's All-American status is still chugging right along. There are better defenders in the country (see No. 5). There are better scorers. There are better passers. But no player mixes all of those traits into one like Wright. He dominates the ball on offense, scores and runs the show with equal precision, has one of the nation's 20 best assist rates (36.5 percent), rarely turns it over, and disrupts opposing guards on the other end.
Other than its all-inclusive nature, the most fascinating thing about Wright's game is how he gets his points. Wright almost never shoots 3s, which would seem to be a liability for a point guard, even one who stands 6-foot-5. But Wright is one of the nation's most efficient offensive players. How? Because he gets to the rim. According to Hoop-Math.com, 50.7 percent of Wright's field goal attempts come at the rim, and he makes 67 percent of them. About 28 percent of Wright's field goals come on 2-point jumpers, but he's good there, too, making just under 50 percent. He is almost impossible to keep out of the heart of the defense, where he can finish or find teammates with almost equal success, and he doesn't need to shoot from range to keep defenses honest. It's a self-aware, and thoroughly consistent, approach to the game. And it works.
4. Jerian Grant, Notre DamePrevious ranking: 5
Notre Dame was in trouble. Coming off a 30-point loss at Duke on Saturday, and facing a brutal shot-affecting defense on the road, on Tuesday the Irish found themselves trailing 56-52 at Clemson with 4:07 left to play. Rod Hall had just completed a 3-point play; the Littlejohn crowd was in a tizzy.
And then Jerian Grant did Jerian Grant things. On the very next possession, he got to the free throw line for two easy points. On the possession after that, his steal led to an easy Demetrius Jackson layup. With just over a minute to play, Grant drove right, got bumped, and nearly made a seemingly impossible pull-up . . . just before Pat Connaughton's offensive rebound gave him another crack. After letting the clock run down, Grant got to the same spot on the floor and, this time, buried the 15-footer, effectively giving the Irish the two-possession room it would need to escape Clemson with a win. His final line: 22 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 3 steals, 1 block.
Is any player in the country playing with more confidence? There isn't a play Grant isn't absolutely positive he can make. As he showed Tuesday, he's usually right. And as we wrote last week: If there is any reason to feel good about the tournament chances of a defense-averse Notre Dame, it's this guy.
5. Willie Cauley-Stein, KentuckyPrevious ranking: NR
This list always feels like it should be at least one spot longer. Someone always gets left out. This week, it's Arizona forward Stanley Johnson, who made his debut last week and is just as deserving of inclusion, even after a so-so night in the Wildcats' loss at Arizona State. (D'Angelo Russell is the king of this distinction, by the way. Every week, we think he has to be on the list; every week, we can't justify kicking another guy off. Ah, well, everyone has their cross to bear.) But leaving Cauley-Stein on the sidelines for too long is a bad idea for a variety of reasons.
First, it allows us another reason to link to Cauley-Stein's second-half dunk against Florida Saturday. We saw this dunk on the John Paul Jones Arena media room TVs and yelped like we were alone in our own apartment; that was embarrassing. Second, it allows us to link to the bushel of similar Cauley-Stein smashes in UK's close win at LSU Tuesday.
Third, it allows us to reiterate that this dude is the best defensive player in the country, and it's not even close.
Last week, the Kentucky defense, and its place in history, was the subject of a Sports Illustrated feature. Mixed among revelations that Cauley-Stein has a "Hakuna Matata" tattoo on his neck and pinches opposing players just to be annoying is the product of writer Luke Winn's remarkable deep dive on every single one of Kentucky's defensive possessions this season. Winn teased out various categories from his film work, and he found that Cauley-Stein's reputation -- as a player who can guard any position, anytime -- is every bit the reality:
But Cauley-Stein is the undisputed star, with the lowest DRating (an astonishing 69.5), best rim-protection percentage (25.8) and highest forced-turnovers percentage (7.1). When SI charted the '11-12 season of Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft, who was then considered the nation's most disruptive perimeter player, his FTO% was 7.6. The most mind-boggling fact about this Kentucky defense is that Cauley-Stein is acting as an elite rim protector and a Craftian-level turnover creator at the same time.
And there you have it. Cauley-Stein's counting stats are never going to match up to other player of the year candidates, but that's only because Kentucky has so many other great players. No matter. When you take a closer look, you see an almost unprecedented force driving the greatest defensive team of the shot-clock era. Not too shabby.
Also receiving mentions: Stanley Johnson, D'Angelo Russell, Kyle Wiltjer, Justin Anderson, Seth Tuttle, Montrezl Harrell, Ron Baker, Malcolm Brogdon, Karl-Anthony Towns, Georges Niang, Chasson Randle, Tyler Haws, Buddy Hield, Bobby Portis
Notre Dame's Jerian Grant
John R. Wooden Award
The John R. Wooden Award is presented annually to the most outstanding men's college basketball player.
Top 20 List
Here are the 20 players who made the late-season 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
• Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
• Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
• Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
• Tyler Haws, BYU
• Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
• Stanley Johnson, Arizona
• Tyus Jones, Duke
• Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
• 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
• Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
• Delon Wright, Utah