Wooden Watch: Why the top spot is sealed
Before we get down to business, a quick programming note: On Saturday, the Wooden Award committee will shrink its watch list. This list list -- comprising just 15 players -- will be announced live on ESPN's "College GameDay" this Saturday. Which you were going to watch anyway, because "College GameDay" is awesome. And now you know. On to the Watch!
1. Frank Kaminsky, WisconsinPrevious ranking: 1
Having just informed you of Saturday's top-15 watch list reveal, we realize this next bit might be anticlimactic. But it's also true, so here goes: The Wooden Award race is over. Frank Kaminsky is going to win.
For frequent readers, this should come as no surprise. After all, the Watch has ranked Kaminsky No. 1 for weeks. The days when he and Jahlil Okafor swapped spots, dueled indirectly (and, in December, even directly), and seemed poised to offer us the best two-man Wooden race since J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison are long since past. Still, before this week, it felt like there was still time for Kaminsky to come back to the pack and for someone -- Okafor, maybe Delon Wright, maybe even D'Angelo Russell -- to sprint to the finish. Not anymore.
Why? Because the consensus has officially been formed.
We try to lead the first edition of each year's Wooden Watch with our modus operandi. We're not just trying to figure out the best player in the country; we're also trying to capture some notion of who most people seem to think is the best player in the country. The Wooden Award is decided by a vote. That vote is usually very predictable, because by the time it's taken, a widespread consensus -- in print, on TV, as presented to casual fans and media members who only even pretend to cover college basketball in March -- has emerged. And so it has with Kaminsky.
At the risk of pulling a Peggy Noonan, the yard signs all read "Tank 2015." It's a feel thing. What once were spirited defenses of Okafor's case turned, a few weeks ago, into "Well, hey, if Kaminsky gets it, I won't mind." Now, most of what we hear, even when we're not actively listening for it, is some equivalent of "Yeah, Kaminsky's going to win." Kaminsky has all the intangible momentum behind him: He's the senior who came back for another season, exceeded lofty expectations and led his team to a brilliant campaign. Heck, he even threw in an absence in which Wisconsin suffered its only bad loss of the season (one of only three to date). It's a handy argumentative tool. During Wednesday's Spreecast, our own Joe Lunardi admitted, all things equal, he would go with a senior candidate over a freshman. Don't underestimate the number of voters who will agree.
All of which would be annoying ... if Kaminsky weren't actually the best player in the country. Fortunately, he is. His season averages -- 18.8 points, 8.3 rebounds per game -- only hint at his brilliance. With two games left in the regular season, Wisconsin's center has the highest offensive rating of any player in the country (126.6) to use more than 28 percent of his team's possessions on the offensive end. Kaminsky shoots 58.6 percent from 2 and 41.7 percent from 3. His passing and ballhandling skills remain incredibly rare for a player of his size, but he also plays big: He grabs nearly 22 percent of available rebounds on the defensive end, highest in the Big Ten. His work on the glass, his versatility and his vastly improved rim protection (without fouling) are what give him a clear edge over the other contenders -- Okafor included.
And, as if to provide a reminder, on Sunday Kaminsky scored 31 points (on 11-of-17 shooting, including 3-of-4 from 3) and tallied 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks and 2 steals in Wisconsin's 68-61 win over Michigan State. That line would be insane in a 70-possession game. Kaminsky did it in 57.
If the consensus hadn't been formed already, Sunday hardened it like concrete. Officially, the Wooden Award race will continue through the next couple of weeks. Really, it's already over. Kaminsky will win. Even better? He deserves to.
2. Jahlil Okafor, DukePrevious ranking: 2
Nobody ever really thinks it's an honor to be nominated. When that one guy from that one movie about Stephen Hawking shockingly won Best Actor at the 2015 Oscars, it wasn't a "Thanks for nominating me, it was such an honor!" speech that Michael Keaton shoved hastily back in his pocket.
In college basketball, though, it really is an honor to be nominated. When you have 34 leagues and 351 teams and more than 5,000 players, being one of the five best is a rarefied accomplishment. Almost as difficult: living up to the hype you earned as a high school player (when you were playing, you know, other high school players) from your first game of your first college basketball season, and continuing to do so every single night thereafter.
That's what Okafor has accomplished this season. The center entered the sport in November with massive hype attached, and even if the Kevin Durants and Anthony Davises and Jabari Parkers of the past have conditioned fans to demand greatness from freshmen, skepticism is always the default response. Okafor has never given that skepticism even an inch of breathing room. From the start of his career -- when he shot 25-of-30 from the field in his first three games -- through to the present day, Okafor and his old-school, low-block scoring have been almost relentlessly dominant. He may not be a great defender, but he isn't terrible, either, and his ability to stay out of foul trouble has kept him on the floor. Which is good, because when you shoot 66.2 percent from the field, and use 28.2 percent of your team's possessions, you should definitely be on the floor.
Okafor hasn't been quite as good as Kaminsky. He's been better than everyone else. That's an honor of the highest hooping order.
3. Delon Wright, UtahPrevious ranking: 3
The Watch struggled with this one. We really did. We would have bet our March rent check on Utah winning Saturday's massive Pac-12 battle with Arizona. Not only did the Utes have decades of symbolic mojo on their side, but their return-to-prominence coronation was to take place in a building (the Huntsman Center) where they'd spent months pulverizing every Pac-12 opponent unfortunate enough to get off its charter plane. When Arizona won instead -- thanks to that grinding pack-line defense, which held the Utes to just 10 2-point field goals in a 61-possession game -- we were tempted to downgrade Wright on sheer principle alone.
We didn't. Two reasons why:
1. It's just one game. One loss, however disappointing it may be, does not invalidate an entire season's worth of excellence, especially when that loss comes against a team playing the kind of nowhere-but-Kentucky-and-Virginia defense the Wildcats are suddenly throwing at Pac-12 foes.
2. Wright was really good in that one game.
Whatever issues the Utes had Saturday, few of them could be pinned on Wright. He didn't shoot the ball particularly well (he was 3-of-10 from the field, including 2-of-7 from inside the arc) but made up for it by getting to the free throw line 12 times, making 10. His final line: 17 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks, 1 steal, no turnovers. Wright may not have led his teammates to a cathartic win Saturday, but just imagine where the Utes would have been without him.
Now that we've rubber-stamped Kaminsky's ascension, given Jahlil Okafor a pep talk he probably didn't need and proved how hard it is to steal Wright's No. 3 spot, it's worth noting that these last two spots have always been a jumble. And why not? There are a ton of good players out there, and the distinctions between them are fine. Is Kyle Wiltjer having a better season than Seth Tuttle? Is Tuttle playing better than Jerian Grant or Willie Cauley-Stein? Dude, Virginia hasn't lost since Justin Anderson got hurt. Malcolm Brogdon? Hello?
The point is, a bunch of players in the mentions list are just as deserving of the No. 4 and No. 5 spots. We've got a few more weeks, and a few more editions of the column, to suss out which two are the most deserving. In the meantime, why not spread the love? Why not give a couple of upstarts their moments in the sun? After all, when the 2014-15 season is over, who knows when you'll hear from them again?
Oh, right. The NBA draft. Well, there is that.
It's actually kind of amazing that we've gone this long without mentioning D'Angelo Russell. It's not that we haven't appreciated him. We have -- to the tune of a full-blown, slightly embarrassing, girlfriend-giving-us-weird-looks-because-we-yelped-at-a-Russell-bounce-pass man-crush. For whatever reason, it just never worked out. There were always other candidates, guys playing for national title contenders, two-way players doing slightly more on both ends of the floor. But even playing for a just-OK Ohio State team, Russell deserves whatever hype you'll hear between now and the July draft. He is a one-man offensive show with usage and shot rates just shy of 30 percent, who draws nearly five fouls per 40 minutes, who shoots 49 percent from 2 and 42 percent from 3.
Were Russell just a good ball handler and scorer, well, that would be enough. He might also be the nation's best passer. There is the 31.1 assist rate (to a 17.2 turnover percentage). There is also this. Just ... well, just look at it. It's easy to understand why NBA executives love Russell: He's a scoring and passing savant who already looks like he's playing in the wrong league. We're excited for the NCAA tournament to get here, and Russell is among our top five reasons why. Ohio State might go out in the first round ... or Russell might Steph Curry the Buckeyes to the Final Four. You've been warned.
Meanwhile, though the never-before-seen defensive freak show that is Cauley-Stein has been Kentucky's most important player for most of the season, the Wildcats are 30-0 because each of John Calipari's glittering cogs fits neatly into the unstoppable machine. Towns is a fierce rim protector and rebounder, sure, but so is Cauley-Stein. Towns can step away from the rim and moves well without the ball, but ditto. What makes Towns so important is his offense. When the Wildcats go cold, or find themselves needing a safe bucket late -- and they did Tuesday night, when Georgia looked poised to spring the upset in Athens -- they pound the ball to Towns. Towns muscles into the lane, pivots over his left shoulder and scores. It's a polished, automatic motion. If Towns were playing on any other team in the country, that'd be the cornerstone of a 20-points-per-night average. On this Kentucky team, it's a situational backstop. But those situations are always big ones, and -- perhaps more than any other scoring option on his roster -- Towns has earned Calipari's trust.
John R. Wooden Award
The John R. Wooden Award is presented annually to the most outstanding men's college basketball player.
Watching Kyle Wiltjer
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