Wooden Watch: Deandre Ayton's award to win

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Voting for the Wooden Award officially opened earlier this week and voters can cast their vote through Monday. Over the past few months we've monitored the progress of the various candidates, looking at each of them from a variety of angles, but it's time to settle on a recommendation.

Ideally, voters will wait until the final day to make a decision -- there's no excuse for taking into account the tournament's opening weekend -- but, at the same time, it's already clear who the best player in the country is: Arizona big man Deandre Ayton.

After starting out hot, Oklahoma's Trae Young was the choice for much of the year, but he fizzled down the stretch. Kansas senior Devonte' Graham's candidacy picked up deeper in the season as the Jayhawks won yet another Big 12 title. Villanova's Jalen Brunson guided the Wildcats to a 30-4 record and Duke's Marvin Bagley III is likely to be a top-three pick.

None of them have been as impressive as Ayton.

Imagine if Shaquille O'Neal was a good free throw shooter and had a reliable outside jumper. That hypothetical is, more or less, Ayton's reality. He is without question the most dominant force in college basketball and not only should he be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft, he should be the recipient of this year's Wooden Award.

Ayton, a true freshman and native of the Bahamas, scored in double figures in all but one game this year, finished with the most regular-season double-doubles (24) in college basketball over the past decade and was a one-man wrecking crew as Arizona -- coming off a regular-season title -- won the Pac-12 tournament.

It was understood coming into the season he was a special talent, but he exceeded those expectations and improved significantly over the course of the season. His 32-point, 18-rebound performance against USC in the Pac-12 championship game was something those in attendance will brag about in 20 years.

"Yeah, I remember when I saw Deandre Ayton in Las Vegas when he was still in college. It was obvious then he was going to be a superstar."

Ayton averaged 20.3 points and 11.5 rebounds this season, and even those statistics are the best way contextualize a player's impact, it feels like a disservice with Ayton. He gets fouls called on him for being too strong. Missed shots from his teammates have become an effective offense because it seems like he's always there for the put back. He has a smooth jumper and, despite his size, he can play nearly the whole game and still dominate in the final minutes.

The Wooden Award should be his.

Stock up
Deandre Ayton, Arizona

He set his career high with 32 points in a win against UCLA in the Pac-12 semifinal and then tied it again the next day as the Wildcats dominated USC in the final. He's played at a high level all year and is peaking at the right time.

Stock down
Jock Landale, Saint Mary's

Of the 15 finalists for the Wooden Award, Landale is the only one on a team not in the NCAA tournament. They Gaels are, however, one of only two teams in the country with 29 wins in each of the past two seasons and came into this week ranked No. 25 in the AP poll.

Big week ahead
Trae Young, Oklahoma

He was a national sensation, but the country has soured on Young during the season's final weeks. That can change, though, because college basketball players are remembered for what they do in the tournament. Remember Stephen Curry's regular season as a sophomore at Davidson? Of course you don't.