Wooden Watch: Can't drop Kaminsky from No. 1
Let's get right to the Watch:
1. Frank Kaminsky, WisconsinPrevious ranking: 1
For weeks now, we've had a fairly simple Wooden Watch routine. We sit down at the desk, dig into some numbers, check out some tape, think back on the week that was, and start figuring out who deserves the third, fourth and fifth spots on the list. When that part is over, we jump back to the top, and we try to conjure a new and hopefully semi-interesting way to describe just how good Frank Kaminsky has been this season.
That paragraph is as suited to the task as any. Kaminsky's spot atop the Watch -- and Duke's Jahlil Okafor's No. 2 status, for that matter -- is so entrenched we spend at least a portion of each week like an aging married couple, struggling, as Good Housekeeping might advise, to keep things fresh.
On Tuesday night, the Badgers fell 59-53 at Maryland. It was their first defeat with Kaminsky in the lineup since Duke shot the Kohl Center lights out all the way back on Dec. 3. So with this fresh development in hand, perhaps now is the time to downgrade Kaminsky. Perhaps this is the crack in his Wooden Award foundation.
Yeah, not so much. Kaminsky was as good as ever this week. On Saturday, he went 7-of-10 from 2 and 2-of-3 from 3, pitching in 16 points, five rebounds, three assists, three blocks and a steal. In College Park, Kaminsky had 18 points on 7-for-12 from 2 (and 0-for-2 from 3) with eight rebounds and one block. Even in a loss, he posted a typically efficient, well-rounded performance, and for a big stretch in the second half -- when Wisconsin erased Maryland's 11-point halftime lead -- Kaminsky completely manhandled the game.
If you're concern-trolling the Badgers, though, there are some less-than-positive signs. Tuesday's 6-for-22 3-point shooting effort was the primary contributor to the Badgers' posting a mere 0.96 points per possession. (Though Maryland's activity and discipline on the defensive end was impressive. The Terps yielded shots the Badgers typically make, but they challenged around the rim and rebounded misses well. Also, Dez Wells was awesome.) On Feb. 18, Wisconsin scored just 55 points in 57 possessions in a win against Penn State, followed by Saturday's 63 in 59 trips against Minnesota. For a team that spent its first 12 conference games blitzing defenses to the ridiculous, unfathomable tune of 1.27 points per possession, this three-game slide is at least slightly disconcerting. But Kaminsky? Nah. He's good.
2. Jahlil Okafor, DukePrevious ranking: 2
Jahlil Okafor was 7-of-8 from the field en route to 14 points in the first half of Wednesday night's trip to 10-17 Virginia Tech. You would assume, given the particulars of that sentence, that Duke held a comfortable halftime lead. You would be wrong. The Hokies led 39-37, for one reason: They shot 69.6 percent from the field. That's a hot shooting performance, yes, but the Hokies attempted just six 3s in the half (and made three). Most of those buckets came in the middle of the Duke defense, floaters and layups with token defensive pressure.
In the second half, despite efficient scoring from the rest of the Blue Devils' lineup, Virginia Tech -- yes, 2-13-in-the-ACC Virginia Tech -- kept right on rolling. They mixed more 3s into the diet, and opened a few reasonably sized leads, before Duke came back in the last few minutes, escaped Va. Tech's would-be winner on the final possession of regulation, and eventually, finally, got things under control in overtime. Mike Krzyzewski was open about the team's defensive issues, according to The Associated Press: "I've had to really tone down the practices, and as a result you get slippage, and the main slippage is in defense when you don't practice as much," Krzyzewski said, talking about Okafor's ankle injury and its reduction of the Blue Devils' roster to just seven healthy players.
Whatever knock-on effect Okafor's injury had in prep, it didn't affect him on the night. He finished with 30 points and nine boards on 13-of-18 shooting. Indeed, Duke's great Blacksburg escape was a perfect distillation of Okafor's immense strengths and still-niggling weaknesses. He is still prone to struggles on the defensive end, still often finds himself just a half-step late in off-ball help. And his 4-for-9 free throw effort -- including some late misses down the stretch -- aligned with his 54.2 percent mark on the season. He was also completely, laughably unstoppable on the offensive end. You take the good with the bad. With Okafor, the former vastly outweighs the latter.
3. Delon Wright, UtahPrevious ranking: 3
Delon Wright's contributions to Utah's success remain somewhat obscured by its versatility. How so? Utah is a balanced offensive team. Wright handles the majority of the workload (24.3 percent usage, 22.3 percent shot rate), but that workload is hardly outsized relative to his teammates. Five other Utes use at least 21 percent of available possessions; five more exceed the 18 percent mark. Then there is that notoriously harder-to-quantify half of this whole basketball thing: stopping other teams from scoring. Few perimeter players are better, or more important, to their team's elite defense than Wright. Mix in Utah's ponderous pace, and Wright's counting stat lines don't always jump off the page. Rest assured: Few players offer as much value each and every time they take the floor.
Fortunately, Saturday offers the perfect chance to see for yourself. At 9 p.m. ET, Arizona arrives in the Huntsman Center for a de facto Pac-12 title faceoff. The Wildcats will enter said arena playing frighteningly good defense and rebounding the ball like mad, with the confidence of knowing how easily they handled Wright and Co. in Jan. 17's 69-51 win. The Utes will surely know how much better they've been on their home floor than on the road; no potential Final Four team has as big a performative gap between the two environments as Larry Krystkowiak's. And they'll have Wright, who has no doubt mulled on his 10-point, four-turnover muddle in Tucson. Don't miss it.
5. Seth Tuttle, Northern IowaPrevious ranking: 4
We introduced King Tuttle to the list last week. He's done nothing to deserve a removal since. Saying as much requires a reminder: Northern Iowa plays slow. Like, insanely slow. Like, getting stuck behind an elderly person in the self-checkout line at the grocery store slow. The Panthers average 57.6 possessions per game, second fewest in the country. (Take a bow, American.) They also happen to play in a Missouri Valley on pace to be the slowest league in college basketball since at least 2002, and probably longer.
In other words, when we tell you that in his last two games, Tuttle had 19 points, 16 rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals combined, you should keep those unimpressed shrugs to yourself. It's more informative to look at what Tuttle does with the ball once it reaches his hands: In six games, he is 35-of-52 from 2-point range (!), and has missed exactly two free throws (!!) in UNI's six wins in February. There is more than a mid-major exposure deficit working against Tuttle's All-American candidacy; there is also the problem of pace. But if you dig in just below the surface ... well, at this point, who's playing better? Oh, and his team is 24-2. So there's that.
Fortunately, just like Wright, the college hoops schedule gods have gifted you with a fantastic appreciation opportunity this weekend: Saturday's "College Gameday" destination trip to Wichita State, where the Panthers will seek to cement their unlikely toppling of a program that took its first loss of the 2013-14 season in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Don't miss that one, either.
5. Kyle Wiltjer, GonzagaPrevious ranking: NR
First things first: Kyle Wiltjer is not a great defender. It's cool to admit it. It's no big deal. Because when you're this good offensively, when you directly produce so much scoring, and indirectly elevate everyone around you, we can forgive a slow rotation every now and again.
That remains the most impressive part about Wiltjer's Gonzaga renaissance. It's not just that Wiltjer is good in his own right, though he is that: As of this writing, he has the country's fifth-highest offensive rating (132.1) despite taking 33 percent of his team's available shots. He shoots 57 percent from 2, 47 percent from 3 and 80 percent from the free throw line. His performance against Saint Mary's on Saturday night was forgettable for the first 35 minutes and utterly dominant down the stretch, which is precisely when Gonzaga sealed a 10-point come-from-behind win.
But the most startling thing about Wiltjer's season is how much better he has made the players around him. Kevin Pangos spent most of his career shouldering the scoring load. Wiltjer does that now, and so Pangos can hang out on the perimeter and deign to shoot as a second or third option. He's having the most efficient season of his career by far. Center Przemek Karnowski is massively improved in his own right, but it also helps to know he never has to worry about a big-to-big double when Wiltjer is around -- and Karnowski is so good a passer he can find Wiltjer floating in corners when Gonzaga spaces the floor.
The result has been both thrilling and effective. The Zags were a so-so offense a year ago. Now they're one of the nation's best. They were a No. 8 seed in 2013-14. Now they're five games away from being No. 1. Any ideas as to why?
Also receiving mentions: Jerian Grant, Willie Cauley-Stein, Stanley Johnson, D'Angelo Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Ron Baker, Malcolm Brogdon, Georges Niang, Tyler Haws, Buddy Hield, Bobby Portis, Kris Dunn.
Bilas' Best Mid-Major Players
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
Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein