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Wooden Watch: MSU's Valentine making race interesting

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Buddy Hield, Oklahoma Sooners

Yes, he's still the choice. No, we don't think that will change. A little perspective: Hield's first truly bad game of the season -- Wednesday's 16-point, 6-of-16, 3-of-10-from-3 performance in OU's loss at Texas Tech -- knocked him back to a 48.8 percent mark from long range this season.

On 213 attempts.

In other words: Relax. A rough week or two doesn't undo Hield's remarkable months of work.

Now, with that out of the way ...


Denzel Valentine, Michigan State Spartans

First, let's catch up. Valentine had been very, very good since his return from a late-December injury that cost him four games -- good enough to warrant a regular spot on this page, good enough to star in countless counterfactual laments about said injury -- but just before, and just after, the surgical procedure on his knee, he had not been spectacular. Hield had been, of course, and then some. The early lead Valentine had after his November triple-double against Kansas, exposed to Hield's historically white-hot shooting, quickly evaporated, and the Valentine-as-POY argument dimmed to a low, distant rumble.

Last week, that rumble went full Jumanji.

Two of the best games of Valentine's 2015-16 campaign -- and his career -- landed in the span of just five days. On Feb. 9, the Spartans senior had 27 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds in 42 minutes in a road overtime loss at Purdue. Then, last Sunday, he finished his 38 minutes against Indiana -- whom Michigan State torched in East Lansing -- with 30 points, 13 assists and 5 rebounds. He had three turnovers all week.

After the IU win, Tom Izzo urged a wider reconsideration of his star player's case:

Izzo acknowledged he's "prejudiced" and professed his "love" for Hield -- a Bahamas native and longtime friend of MSU's Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr. But ...

"If you can find a better all-around player on both ends of the court [than Valentine], that guy deserves it," Izzo said.

The man has a point. After Sunday, Valentine is averaging 19.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game -- something no one else has done since 1994-95 (and maybe longer). He takes 30 percent of his team's shots. He connects on 50.3 percent from 2, 44.7 percent from 3 (including 50 percent in Big Ten play) and shoots 84.6 percent from the line ... while also posting the nation's second-highest assist rate (43.6 percent) ... and grabbing 21 percent of available misses on the defensive end ... and playing above-average defense on the perimeter all the while.

That's bonkers. Bonk. Ers. Is there a better all-around player in college basketball? You know what? No. There isn't. That's not the same as saying Valentine is the best player in college basketball. Or the most valuable, or most outstanding, or whatever. It's a crucial distinction.

Yet even having to make that distinction proves the larger point: There is a discussion to be had. Are we ... we're having it right now, aren't we?

Things change quickly. And the NCAA tournament doesn't start for another month.


Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa Hawkeyes

Just as Hield remains atop the Wooden Watch thanks to his entire (wait for it) body of work (there it is), Uthoff remains firmly affixed at No. 3 despite Iowa's loss at Penn State on Wednesday night. The 6-foot-9 stretch forward didn't match his usual efficiency from the field in a 5-of-14 performance against the Nittany Lions. And it was just his second game all year without a single blocked shot. What's crazier? He leads the Big Ten in blocks while ranking second in scoring. Even crazier? Uthoff has blocked 13 3-pointers -- more than any other player, yes, but also more than 340 Division I teams -- this season. Craziest? This dude might not even be the best player in his own conference.


Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia Cavaliers

Senior? Check. A well-known, respected player with at least two excellent seasons already in the books? Check. Taking his game to an entirely new level in his fourth year? Check, check, check. The top four players on this list all share the above in common; seniors have run the show in 2015-16, Wooden Award and otherwise. In Virginia's case, this phenomenon has yielded the most efficient offensive campaign of Brogdon's career despite the highest usage and shot rates in that span. After a slow start in ACC play, Brogdon has led the Cavaliers' late-January/February conference surge. He's always been good. He's never been better. Sound familiar?


Brice Johnson, North Carolina Tar Heels
Grayson Allen, Duke Blue Devils

Well, this is awkward.

North Carolina's 74-73 home loss to Duke on Wednesday night was one of the more baffling, bizarre games we've ever seen, and we were in the building for Austin Rivers. Roy Williams blamed himself for failing to call a timeout on the final possession of the game, when Joel Berry II was rejected by Blue Devils point guard Derryck Thornton. The Tar Heels' coach told his players as much in the locker room after the game; his tone in relating that story to reporters felt almost apologetic.

Williams' players should apologize in return. The guy in the suit can't get make shots fall; it was Berry and Marcus Paige who shot a combined 4-of-22 on the night. Worse, Williams can't step onto the court and physically force his players to feed the post, where Brice Johnson hardly touched the ball in the closing minutes -- and Duke center Marshall Plumlee carried four personal fouls for his final 11 minutes on the court. Johnson's 29-point, 19-rebound, 13-of-17 night was largely wasted. Forget the last possession. How does that even happen?

Anyway, Johnson had to be here, even after a loss. He was simply too good.

Meanwhile, what better time to throw Allen into the mix? On Saturday, he made the game-winning shot to knock off Virginia in Cameron Indoor (yes, he traveled, it was a close call, let it go), and followed it up on Wednesday with 23 points in 40 minutes at UNC. Duke's struggles and Brandon Ingram's ongoing emergence have tended to overshadow the fact that the surprise hero of last April's national title game is having a massive breakout season as a sophomore -- a breakout that started in Allen's two-game, 62-point clinic in Madison Square Garden in late November, and it has rarely paused since.

Plus: After Matt Jones' injury on Wednesday, Mike Krzyzewski has, like, five players in his rotation. Allen's marginal value just went through the roof! How did Duke win that game, exactly? We're still not totally sure.

Honorable mentions

Ben Simmons, LSU Tigers
Josh Hart, Villanova Wildcats
Tyler Ulis, Kentucky Wildcats
Georges Niang, Iowa State Cyclones
Perry Ellis, Kansas Jayhawks

On the radar

Jakob Poeltl, Utah Utes
Kris Dunn, Providence Friars
Yogi Ferrell, Indiana Hoosiers
Jameel Warney, Stony Brook Seawolves
Kay Felder, Oakland Golden Grizzlies