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Wooden Watch: Everyone is chasing Villanova's Josh Hart

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Year of the freshmen? Not so fast. (1:16)

College basketball is full of freshmen phenoms this season, but a senior has them all beat in the first Wooden Watch of 2017. (1:16)

There haven't been many races in the history of the John R. Wooden Award as fun to watch and tantalizingly close as last year's between two seniors, Michigan State's Denzel Valentine and eventual winner Buddy Hield of Oklahoma.

Maybe this season won't be able to match the seemingly back-and-forth nature of last year's race. But, like last year, the old guys are holding their own. The freshman class of 2016 is widely considered one of the best ever, but the rookies don't dominate the list of Wooden candidates.

There are the players you may not have seen who are worthy of consideration, like Central Michigan's Marcus Keene, who has taken a 30.1-point scoring average into Mid-American Conference play. The NCAA Division I ranks haven't seen a player average 30 or more for a season since Long Island's Charles Jones in 1996-97.

Then there's Valparaiso forward Alec Peters, who averages 25 points and 10.4 rebounds.

There are players who started slowly or missed time because of injuries, like Oregon's Dillon Brooks, but now they're reacquainting themselves with elite-level play. Brooks' buzzer-beating 3-pointer to knock off UCLA could be the launching point of his campaign.

Like most seasons, there are plenty of worthy players and arguments to be made. But only one will be recognized as college basketball's most outstanding player.

The list could change drastically as the season progresses into late February and tournament time in March. Or it could stay the exact same as we project it today. The fun is in the journey to get there.

Josh Hart, Villanova Wildcats

Hart considered turning pro last year, but college basketball fans are glad he returned for his senior season. He's the leading scorer (19.8 points per game) and leading rebounder (6.9 per game) for the defending national champs, but his status as the Wooden front-runner goes beyond the "best player on the best team" line of thought even with Wednesday's loss to Butler.

For now, let's forget about who you would want to take the final shot in a game. Think about the stretch in a game where teams essentially lose by falling too far behind during an avalanche of negative momentum. That's when Hart wants the ball.

Hart will not let Nova lose. Rewind to his career-high 37 points in the Wildcats' 74-66 win over Notre Dame. They trailed for most of the game, but Hart scored 14 points during his team's 18-6 run to bring Villanova from trailing by nine to leading by three.

The scary thing? He's getting better as the season progresses. Through Villanova's first seven games, he averaged 17.5 points. Over the past seven games, he has averaged 23.2 points.

Lonzo Ball, UCLA Bruins

Ball, who averages 14.3 points, 8.1 assists and 5.7 rebounds, is one of the most complete players in the nation and is largely responsible for getting UCLA back in the top 10. He's a big, freshman guard with an even bigger game. There's a reason why the 6-foot-6 Ball keeps hearing the comparisons to Jason Kidd.

The Bruins don't have a shortage of scorers -- TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Aaron Holiday -- but with Ball as the facilitator he's able to keep them all happy. He's second in the nation behind Creighton's Maurice Watson Jr. in assists per game. He also leads the Pac-12 and is 14th nationally in assist-turnover ratio at 3.46.

Ball welcomes the pressure in close games. Even in the 89-87 loss at Oregon, Ball accounted for the Bruins' final three baskets with two assists and a layup in the last 3:30 of the game. When he last touched the ball, the Bruins were up four.

Even though his shooting mechanics certainly won't be confused for Ray Allen's, Ball makes it work. He's shooting 43 percent from 3-point range and 52.5 percent from the field.

Frank Mason III, Kansas Jayhawks

It's finally all coming together in Mason's senior year. During his previous seasons at Kansas, he had to defer to other talented players like Andrew Wiggins, Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden Jr. Mason dealt with the criticism that he wasn't a pure point guard. And he still isn't. Now, however, the Jayhawks don't want him to pass up his shots. Mason has always been a scorer; he's just finally getting a chance to showcase it.

Only four times in Mason's previous three seasons did he score 20 or more points in a game. He has already done that seven times this season, including a career-high 30 points in the season-opening overtime loss to Indiana. He scored 30 again against UMKC.

Mason is averaging 19.5 points, 5.8 assists and 4.4 rebounds. He's so valuable to Kansas right now that even when he doesn't have the ball, he's creating shots for others.

Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk was only open to receive the ball and drive for the Jayhawks' winner over Kansas State on Tuesday because Wildcats coach Bruce Weber was so adamant on having two defenders deny Mason the ball on the in-bounds pass.

Luke Kennard, Duke Blue Devils

Among these top five players, Kennard is the one no one saw coming. The biggest question about the sophomore southpaw entering the season was what would become of his playing time, with the injection of freshmen talent that was about to turn the Blue Devils into a juggernaut.

Three injuries (Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Marques Bolden) and an indefinite suspension (Grayson Allen) changed the complexion of Kennard's role, and he emerged as the most consistent player on a roster that arguably has the most talent in the nation.

Kennard has started every game and leads the Blue Devils in minutes (35) and points per game (21). His shooting from 3-point range is up from 32 percent his freshman season to 45.3 as a sophomore. His shooting from 2-point territory has also improved from 52.8 to 60 percent.

Can Kennard keep up those numbers as Tatum and Giles become more comfortable and see their production improve? In the meantime, he just continues to be the player most responsible for keeping Duke afloat among its many setbacks this season. That includes Saturday at Virginia Tech, where Kennard's 34 points kept an 89-75 loss from getting truly ugly.

Malik Monk, Kentucky Wildcats

When it comes to scoring, watching Monk is like seeing college basketball's version of Russell Westbrook. Relentless. Explosive. Tenacious. Virtually unstoppable. Seriously, is there any other player who strikes more fear in defenders in the open floor?

Monk, who averages 22.6 points per game, has notched double-figure scoring in every game this season, highlighted by his 47 points against North Carolina. What makes this freshman so difficult to defend is his ability to score from anywhere. Of his 223 total shot attempts, he has taken 113 from 3-point range, where he is shooting 43.4 percent. He shoots 60 percent inside the arc. How's that for balance?

Even when he started off 0-for-7 from 3-point range against Louisville, he was still John Calipari's first option in the game's closing seconds. Monk made his eighth attempt to pull the Cats within one. He missed the shot with three seconds that could have tied it in their 73-70 loss. Seeing as how he made back-to-back 3s that tied and then took the lead against North Carolina, UK will be fine living with his makes and misses.


Honorable mentions

On the radar