Wooden Watch: Denzel Valentine challenging Hield

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Buddy Hield, Oklahoma Sooners

Kansas's utterly rude 86-56 thrashing of Texas -- at Texas! -- Monday night served as symbolic punctuation to a remarkable Jayhawks month. How remarkable? On Jan. 26, KU had lost its first three road games in conference play, and Bill Self's team had about a 10 percent chance to finish the season with even a share of the Big 12 title.

The favorite at that point, of course, was Oklahoma, which had finished the first half of its Big 12 slate with seven wins and two losses, the latter of which comprised a triple-OT defeat at KU and (essentially) a one-possession game at Iowa State. OU's record, remaining schedule and -- most of all -- its level of performance told the projection simulations that the Sooners had a 70 percent chance of finishing the season with a title.

You know what happened next. Kansas won its next nine league games, including the Feb. 13 trip to Norman, en route to a 12th straight conference title. OU won three of its next five, but was eliminated from title contention in last Saturday's 76-63 loss at Texas -- where, two nights later, KU won by 30. See? Symbolic.

The question is: Why? What, exactly, happened to Oklahoma? On Tuesday, ESPN Insider John Gasaway tackled this very topic. The answer, before Tuesday night's matchup with Baylor, was pretty straightforward: In OU's 3-4 stretch, the Sooners' supporting cast for Buddy Hield, which had collectively shot lights-out for months, shot 29 percent from 3. As the cold shooting continued, defenses sank inward, and OU's interior attack suffered in turn.

What about Hield? Hasn't he gone cold, too? Well, yes, sort of.

Yes, his 3-point shooting has come down to earth, but that portion of the earth tp which it descended is still equivalent to Everest or Kilimanjaro. Also recall that Hield began Big 12 play with one of the most formidable displays of individual offense you'll ever see. In OU's first nine conference games, the senior shot 51 percent on his 3s while averaging an incredible -- if not absurd --11.6 attempts per game. Since that time, those numbers have been 39 and 9.9, respectively. A little more earthly, perhaps, but still outstanding.

Maybe you weren't convinced by his 33-point, 12-of-24, 6-rebound, 2-block, 1-steal line at Texas on a night when the Sooners finished with 63 points as a team. Or maybe you felt suspicion creeping back in after Hield's early blitz against Baylor Tuesday -- when he scored 13 points in the first eight minutes only for OU to squander a 26-point lead en route to a disconcerting 73-71 win. Fair enough.

At least do Hield the favor of remembering the insane heights he reached, and then sustained, throughout the first half of Big 12 play. If his current numbers feel like decline, it's only because there was nowhere to go but down. This season, a Hield slump is anyone else's career year.

Denzel Valentine, Michigan State Spartans

As frequent readers can attest, it would take a remarkable season in its own right to put Hield's Wooden Award at risk. As frequent readers can also attest, Valentine is absolutely having that season. There are zero holes to poke, from his 45 percent 3-point shooting overall and nearly 50 percent accuracy in conference games (No. 2 in the Big Ten) to his 44 percent assist rate (No. 2 in the country), to the huge, Hield-like load of possessions (29 percent) and shots (30 percent) the Spartans ask Valentine to take, to the elite rebounding he provides on the defensive end.

That was a mouthful. Maybe this puts it more succinctly.

It's true: Valentine is on pace to become the first player since the NCAA decided to start recording assists to average more than 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists.

Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia Cavaliers

Around this time last year, Ken Pomeroy added an "MVP" tag to his box scores and player pages. These distinctions are awarded according to John Hollinger's Game Score formula, which is, at the risk of oversimplifying, a numerical equivalent for the feeling you get when you glance at a box score and quickly identify the best player on the floor. (Pomeroy also bakes in bonus points for players on the winning team.)

Since Jan. 19, after Virginia's 2-3 start to ACC play and losses at Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Florida State, the Cavaliers have played 12 games. In that same span, Brogdon has been tagged as the MVP -- which is to say, he's been the most efficient and productive player on the floor for either team -- eight times.

The Cavaliers are 10-2 since. On Saturday, Brogdon had 26 points, 16 shots, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and a block in Virginia's win over North Carolina. On Tuesday, he had one of those four non-MVP outings (word to Jaron Blossomgame) and still hit 4-of-7 from 3 and scored 18 in 58 possessions. For as much as we've talked about the possibilities of a genuine two-man Wooden Award race, maybe it's time we scooched over on the couch and made room for a third.

He barely missed out on his ninth on Jan. 24, when Orange point guard Michael Gbinije got the nod. Brogdon nonetheless scored a team-high 21 points on 13 shots and added 5 rebounds and 3 assists in a 73-65 win.

Jakob Poeltl, Utah Utes

Poeltl made his Watch debut last week after a 29-point, 13-rebound, 4-assist, 4-block monster of a night in Utah's Feb. 21 win over USC. With that in the books, Poeltl moved to 40-of-54 from the field, with averages of 23 points and 10 rebounds per, in his previous four games. Utah also went 4-0.

Last week, Poeltl added 14 field goals to that tally. If that number feels low, it should: The Utes' center played just 23 minutes in last Thursday's 81-46 demolition of Arizona State. At one point, Utah led 30-2, so, yeah: The 7-foot Austrian's services were not required. Two days later, he had 14 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks and a steal in Utah's home win over Arizona. Poeltl is now 49-of-68 in his past six games, all wins, and Larry Krystkowiak's team is looking as fearsome as any in the sport heading into March.

Perry Ellis, Kansas Jayhawks

As individual award arguments go, Ellis has had a couple of things working against him all season. Wayne Selden's early breakout campaign. Kansas' balanced ensemble routine. The divided attention each facet of that ensemble has received. Familiarity, and the accompanying lack of surprise. Incremental -- as opposed to revolutionary -- improvement. Jokes about looking old.

But make no mistake: Ellis has had an excellent career at Kansas, even by the standards of Kansas, and his final season is his best one yet.

Monday's 30-point win over Texas, when the KU forward made nine of his 11 field goal attempts and finished with 20 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists, was Ellis' 136th game played in a Jayhawks uniform. Saturday's regular season closer against Iowa State will be his 137th. Since 1994-95, just 17 players have recorded more -- and this Kansas season is far from over just yet.

After a freshman season spent as a bench reserve, Ellis joined Bill Self's starting lineup as a sophomore and never looked back. As a senior, he has taken more shots than ever, been more accurate (52.3 percent, up from 45.7 a season ago), and added more to his game in doing so. His 47.2 percent 3-point shooting has come on just 53 attempts, but the spacing created by the need to respect Ellis' perimeter work is one minor reason KU's offense is among the best in the country.

He leads the Jayhawks in points, field goals, field goal attempts, and rebounds per game. As easy -- and as overused -- as the argument can be, one of the deepest notches in Ellis' individual belt is his team's success. He is the best player on the best team in the country.

Ellis has always looked older than he actually is. (At least on TV, anyway. Not as much in person.) That's the main reason Twitter abounds with jokes about rooming with Danny Manning and getting lost on the way to the 40-and-over league. Yet there is another reason for the cracks, and it is entirely complimentary: He's always just there.

He has never been the Jayhawks' most athletic player. He has always had teammates with higher NBA ceilings. The same could often be said of Self's KU teams. Yet there he is, always: rotating to the weak side at the perfect time; sealing springier defenders up the paint; catching in the short corner, pivoting, faking, getting to the rim.

And there Kansas is, always: 12 straight titles, a third of them with a quietly, reliably excellent Ellis at the fore. He might as well be the mascot.

Honorable mentions

Brice Johnson, North Carolina Tar Heels
Grayson Allen, Duke Blue Devils
Josh Hart, Villanova Wildcats
Yogi Ferrell, Indiana Hoosiers
Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa Hawkeyes
Ben Simmons, LSU Tigers
Georges Niang, Iowa State Cyclones

Jamal Murray, Kentucky Wildcats
Kay Felder, Oakland Golden Grizzlies
Alec Peters, Valparaiso Crusaders