The Buddy Hield Reality Distortion Field, and Iowa's hoops moment, and whether the SEC is taking its toll on Ben Simmons and more: Our third look at the 2015-16 Wooden Award race is here. Please enjoy responsibly.
Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
Buddy Hield scored 27 points on Monday night. He scored those 27 points in front of a famously hostile Hilton Coliseum, where 15,000 rabid fans and a good, experienced Iowa State team -- one hungry for a status-restoring win after a 2-3 Big 12 start -- was attempting to stop him. He used 35 percent of OU's possessions. He shot 10-of-23 from the field, including 7-of-14 from 3. He contributed six rebounds and four assists and the vast majority of the Sooners' biggest shots. Between the 4:37 and 1:44 mark in the second half, in the matter of five possessions, Hield had 11 points -- three straight 3s and a contorted slash to the rim -- that turned a six-point Cyclones' lead into an up-for-grabs one-possession affair.
He was, at all times, sensational. And after the game was over and Iowa State had won, the Wooden Award front-runner was asked to describe what the Cyclones were doing to slow him down and whether he thought his primary defender, guard Matt Thomas, did a good job.
"He made it tough for me like everyone makes it tough for me," Hield said. "He made me work for the ball. It was a good battle."
Two things about this:
1. Hield was right: Thomas, ISU's best defender and go-to perimeter stopper, really did do a solid job defending the All-American, particularly on the ball. On a couple of trips, when Oklahoma's secondary break scrambled assignments, Hield was left far more open than he should ever be. But by and large, Thomas had a good night guarding him.
2. Hield still scored 27 points.
That's how good Hield has been this season. That's the kind of high he has been riding. If he misses a few shots -- he went 3-of-9 from 2 on Monday, but still made seven 3s -- or goes a few minutes without a bucket, he must be having an off night.
Say hello to the Buddy Hield Reality Distortion Field.
Leading biophysicists are still undecided on the physical forces that underpin the BHRDF. Consensus has emerged, however, on the effect: Inside the BHRDF, the best lines of most players' careers are refracted and warped until they take on the form of impressive defensive success.
Further research awaits approval. In the meantime, the scientific community has urged anyone who believes they've just witnessed an off-night from Hield to remain calm, contact their local authorities and look the box score.
Ben Simmons, LSU
LSU's loss at Texas A&M on Tuesday night wasn't the worst performance of Ben Simmons' collegiate career. That honor goes to the passive four-point, six-shot outing in a Nov. 24 loss to NC State. Simmons shot 4-of-15 in LSU's following game, a loss at Charleston, but he also grabbed 18 rebounds, so that doesn't really qualify. However, Tuesday's game was, in conjunction with LSU's win at Arkansas on Saturday, the first time since the NC State and Charleston games that Simmons has shot worse than 50 percent in back-to-back outings.
It would be tempting, then, to assume that the rigors of SEC play are getting to Simmons. LSU's nonconference schedule was unusually soft, and the SEC, despite its weakness, is still a league full of smart coaches and big, strong frontcourts. If you don't tire mentally, you will probably tire physically. Especially as a freshman. Especially when you're playing 34 minutes a night.
It's possible Simmons is heading toward that point. It's not possible to argue that he's already there. He's still rebounding at manic clips (10 percent offensively, 27 percent defensively). He's drawing more fouls and earning more free throws. His assist rate is slightly down, and his turnovers are slightly up, but neither to disastrous degrees.
He's still an incredible player. Nights like Tuesday won't change that. What they do reinforce, though, is the Tigers' ongoing need for supporting-cast consistency. Even at his best, Simmons can't carry them alone. And if his best fades from SEC wear, LSU will be in trouble.
(Also, how good does A&M look? My goodness.)
Nothing makes our job easier than when readers do our brainstorming for us, and this one was too good to pass up:
@eamonnbrennan Here's a fun story to write about: Who's the best college basketball player in the state of Iowa?— JG (@JJGillispie) January 19, 2016
Agreed. That is a fun story to write. The state of Iowa is undergoing a collegiate hoops renaissance in 2015-16, if only in its propensity for upsets: ISU's win over Oklahoma on Monday was the third time this season an Iowa-based program knocked off No. 1, and the Cyclones were the third different team to do so.
Of course, the Hawkeye State's hoops renaissance goes beyond one-off shockers. It is cemented by the performances of the state's two biggest and most popular state institutions, Iowa and Iowa State, which are simultaneous Final Four contenders for the first time in ... well, a long time, anyway. Both teams are balanced and experienced and lots of fun to watch. Both teams scored huge marquee wins in the past week. And both teams are led by a senior All-America candidate whose respective games are utterly unique to the sport.
There's a lot to unpack there. The question of which team has the best player, however, is pretty straightforward. It's the Hawkeyes' Jarrod Uthoff.
Which is no insult to Georges Niang. The Cyclones' star has been great all year, and while this is his first appearance in the Wooden Watch top five, he could have been here last week or the week before. Indeed, this is his best season yet. He's shooting nearly 60 percent from 2, 41 percent from 3 and 84 percent from the line. He went 4-of-7 from 3 against Oklahoma on Tuesday, and most of his 22 points came in crucial bursts, stretches where he essentially took over the contest. Niang's combination of skill and size and old-man game have always been one of a kind, and this year he is employing that repertoire more effectively than ever.
If this argument were about which player has had the better career, Niang wins, no question. He has been a major factor in ISU's success for all four of his seasons, and he is as connected with his team's fans, and as beloved by them, as any player of the past decade.
This discussion is limited to right now, however. And right now, Uthoff is basically an alien.
We dug into the hows and whys of his rise last week. Since then, Iowa has won at Michigan State with Denzel Valentine in the lineup -- its first season sweep of the Spartans since 1993 -- which was merely its second uber-impressive road win (at Purdue, Jan. 2) of the Big Ten season to date. Iowa is 5-0 in the Big Ten despite a brutal start to its schedule. Uthoff's huge role in the Hawks' offense, as well as his unprecedented mix of 3-point shooting and elite shot-blocking, is central to that success.
Both deserve Wooden recognition. Right now, Iowa is the better team and Uthoff the more deserving honoree.
Roy Williams said on Wednesday night that he has "never had a player I've had more confidence in than Marcus Paige." Which, considering Williams was an assistant at UNC when Michael Jordan was in school -- never mind Paul Pierce or Tyler Hansbrough or the rest of his sterling alumni -- is quite the compliment, indeed. "But," Williams added, "the ball's not going in the basket right now."
In recent years, this would spell doom for the Tar Heels, who have desperately relied on Paige's offense. That is no longer a concern. Why? Brice Johnson. On Wednesday, the Tar Heels' forward put up 27 points and 11 rebounds on 8-of-12 shooting from the field and 11-of-12 from the line, and you can't ask a big dude to play much better than that. That he did it in 24 minutes is icing on the cake. Paige isn't making shots, but UNC's offense is better than ever. Johnson is the answer.