January gathers, and now our watch -- the 2016 Wooden Watch -- begins. It shall not end until April. So let's get right to it.
Monday made things easy for our purposes here. You remember Monday, right? Of course you do. But let's just pretend you don't, so we can savor the titillating thrill of reading Hield's line for the 104th time: 13-of-23 from the field, 8-of-15 from 3, 12-of-14 from the line, 46 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists in -- wait for it -- 54 minutes, out of 55. Shudder.
God, that's good.
Ahem. Where were we? Ah, Monday. Right.
So here's the thing about Monday: When you have a line like that -- in triple overtime in Allen Fieldhouse, against a No. 1-ranked Kansas program that is, for all intents and purposes, basically unbeatable in that gym, and even that line doesn't accurately express how close to perfect your performance was -- you're going straight to the top of Wooden Watch. If you just lost a game and SportsCenter's Scott Van Pelt invites you live on the air anyway, and then, after your interview is over, opposing fans give you yet another round of applause to thank you for the gift of your play, you get the No. 1 position by default. These are the rules. There was never any other way this thing could have gone. Not after Monday.
The more interesting question, actually, is whether Hield would top 2016's first Wooden Watch if Monday had never happened. We think so. After all, the performance in Lawrence, Kansas, was the ideal actualization of all of the things that had already elevated Hield from very good to POY-level great in Oklahoma's 12-0 start. Already a volume scorer, Hield is now involved in even more of OU's possessions, and taking more shots, than ever before. Yet he's also shooting it better: 50 percent from 3 (up from 36 percent a year ago), 50.4 percent from 2 (up from 47 percent) and 89.8 percent from the free throw line. Meanwhile, Hield is drawing two more fouls per 40 minutes and thus making his life easier at the stripe. And he's doing all of this while playing above-average perimeter defense on a team for which defense is still a primary point of pride.
That would have been the argument. That's where Hield was when the week started. Then Monday happened. Nevermind.
Let's get this over with. Let's put it right out there from the start. Let's just keep it really real here, OK? Cool.
Ben Simmons is the best player in the country.
It's OK to say that. It's fine. Simmons is on pace to be the first player in the past 20 seasons to average 20 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists. (After Tuesday night, he fell just off that pace and is now averaging 20.1/12.9/5.2. Slacker!) He's a lightning-fast guard with a tight handle who whips left-handed channel passes and can't be stopped off the dribble. He also happens to be a 6-foot-10 forward gobbling up 28 percent of his team's available defensive rebounds. He can't -- and doesn't -- shoot from outside, like, five feet. And it doesn't matter! He's Giant D'Angelo Russell! He's that good!
One problem: His team is still 9-5. For as good as this week was for the Tigers -- who earned back-to-back wins over Vanderbilt and Kentucky, and momentarily resurrected their previously dusted NCAA at-large prospects -- it's not inconceivable that Wooden voters would hold it against Simmons if his team winds up being average.
But in a vacuum? Based on sheer talent? Ben Simmons is that dude.
Nor is this the apparently exclusive two-man race of the past two seasons (a la Doug McDermott vs. Jabari Parker in 2014; Frank Kaminsky vs. Jahlil Okafor in 2015). If you told us Tuesday that Kris Dunn will put up a 34-15-8 on the road at Creighton next week, we would ask you whether the 8 referred to steals or rebounds. Dunn had eight steals in the first game of the season. That Nov. 14 opener against Harvard is still our favorite non-Hield line of the year.
On the season, Dunn is averaging 17.7 points, 7.3 assists, 6.3 rebounds and 3.2 steals per game. He has the nation's highest assist rate (49.3) and the second-highest steals rate (5.9). His turnovers are down from a season ago. He handles the ball constantly, conducts the Friars' entire show, guards extremely well, and through it all -- even after Tuesday's loss to Marquette -- lifted Ben Bentil and a decimated Friars roster to a 14-2 start no one saw coming. Dunn is a legit candidate.
Valentine was the runaway early favorite. Then he got hurt. It's really that simple. He has missed three games so far and isn't likely to return Thursday night against Illinois. When you have competition like this, even an absence this brief makes a difference. That absence has also, ironically, helped hammer home just how important Valentine is to the Spartans. The gulf between the team that beat Kansas in November -- when Valentine had 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists -- and the one that has limped through its last three games (a near-loss to Oakland, a lopsided defeat at Iowa, and a win Minnesota) -- is vast. The difference is Denzel. And it's a big difference.
What a bad time to be the opening act, right? On Monday night, Kansas and Oklahoma washed everything else in the sport away. The devastation was total. For some, this timing proved handy. (Like, say, Virginia, who lost at Virginia Tech. True story! A tree probably fell in an empty forest somewhere too. Oh well!) For Johnson, the timing was cruel. Just before tip in Lawrence, Johnson submitted a legendary performance, scoring 39 points on 14-of-16 shooting to go with his 23 rebounds -- 23 rebounds! -- in UNC's 106-90 win at Florida State. The last Tar Heel to post a 30-20 game was Mitch Kupchak. Mitch Kupchak! And almost no one cared.
Too bad, because that bit of history was a perfect way to highlight what has quietly turned into a monster of a senior season. Johnson is shooting 64.5 percent from the field, grabbing nearly a third of UNC's available defensive rebounds, playing the best defense of his life and serving as the catalyst for a UNC team that defies all the rules about the most efficient way to score the basketball. Also: 39 and 23. Mitch Kupchak, dude. Mitch. Kupchak.