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Wooden Watch: Hield, Valentine shaping tight race

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Buddy Hield, Oklahoma Sooners
Denzel Valentine, Michigan State Spartans

The postseason is upon us. Champ Week is here. All anyone can think about is what the final NCAA tournament bracket will look like. Who will earn the top seeds? Who's in? Who's out?

Allow us to pose another, slightly less pressing yet no less interesting question.

Who's going to win the Wooden Award?

Because here's the thing: The player of the year race has never been closer than this.

Not this decade, anyway. Not since J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison did the Coke versus Pepsi routine for four months back in 2005-06. Yes, your math is correct: That was 10 years ago. No, seriously. Google it. It was 2005-06. Reggie Bush was still at USC! Remember Reggie Bush at USC?! That's how long it's been since a POY race came down to the wire like this. That's how long it's been since it made sense to double-check the Wooden Award voting process and see exactly when the first and last votes are cast:

  • The players who are selected for the final ballot are announced prior to the NCAA tournament and are listed on a ballot that is sent to nearly 1,000 voters. Voting is opened to the national voting panel prior to the first round of the NCAA tournament.

  • Voters may vote via an online system that allows them to evaluate players until just after the third round of the NCAA tournament. The official accounting firm of the John R.Wooden Award (Deloitte) tabulates all votes.

Why is this important? Because, like, say, the NCAA tournament selection process -- it is a crucial piece of information in deciding the race. And, just like the bubble, things are close enough right now that the conference tournaments, and the first three rounds of the Dance, could genuinely decide who wins the award.

Which, given the trajectory of the season, is fairly shocking. A few weeks back, we declared the race over: Buddy Hield was the winner, and that was that. We still think that's basically true. Hield was so good for so long that his recent "regression" is what most players would be thrilled to call a career year. No, he's not making 50 percent of his 3s anymore. Put that man in cuffs. Come on.

That said, there are absolutely persuasive arguments in Denzel Valentine's favor. Namely this: No one has averaged 19 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists -- ever. Not since the NCAA started tracking assists in 1983-84. Valentine isn't getting these numbers with sheer volume (if it was possible), but with sheer efficiency: a 126.9 offensive rating, a 44.6 percent assist rate, 45.4 percent from 3, 21 percent defensive rebounding rate, all on high percentages of usage and shots. He does it all, and he does it all well. (The only knock against him is his sub-50 percent 2-point field goal percentage. We'll allow it.) Valentine had 27 points (on 4-of-7 shooting from 2, 5-of-6 from 3 and 4-of-5 from the free throw line), 13 assists, 4 rebounds, a block and a steal in Michigan State's 91-76 win over Ohio State last week. That's crazy! For Valentine -- especially over the past month -- it hasn't been that uncommon.

Which is how we find ourselves on the eve of conference and NCAA tournament play still not 100 percent sure who will win the Wooden Award. It's been a good long while since a POY race made it this deep into the season -- in the midst of the postseason and the bubble and the bracket -- without an obvious winner. Here we are. Enjoy. The Sweet 16 will be here faster than you can say Adam Morrison.


Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia Cavaliers

Fun fact: Virginia is the only team in the country to enter the postseason ranked in the top 10 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. There are, obviously, numerous reasons for this: coach Tony Bennett's preternatural ability to institute his defensive scheme year over year; London Perrantes' recovery from a 2014-15 season in which he shot 30-of-95 from 3 with a 60-of-118 2015-16 -- a nation's best 50.8 percent; The continued all-around emergence of sophomore Isaiah Wilkins; And so on.

The real reason, though? Malcolm Brogdon. After spending his entire career lauded for his defense, Brogdon -- who was always a pretty darn good offensive dude, too -- has taken things to another level as a senior. Responsible for 30 percent of UVa's shots, he is averaging 51.4 from 2, 41.1 from 3 and 87.8 from the free throw line. He is the first and second offensive option, and probably the best defender, on what is arguably the best team in the country. He's a beast.


Brice Johnson, North Carolina Tar Heels

Marcus Paige shot 1-of-8 from 3 on Saturday. That was in keeping with Paige's dire overall shooting performance throughout the second half of the ACC season. Yet the Tar Heels still beat Duke, at Duke, and won the ACC regular-season title outright (even if the ACC doesn't formally recognize its regular-season title winners, which is weird), in large part because of Brice Johnson. Saturday fit the theme: 18 points, 21 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block. Johnson has been UNC's best player this season, and one of the nation's best, and no one expected either outcome in October.


Jakob Poeltl, Utah Utes

Utah heads into postseason play having won its last seven games, and Jakob Poeltl is the primary reason why. His 16 points Saturday (in a 57-55 rock-fight win over Colorado) were a relative downgrade from his face-melting four-game stretch from Feb. 10 through Feb. 21. But he also had 13 rebounds and five blocks. So, you know. Not bad.


Honorable mentions

Perry Ellis, Kansas Jayhawks
Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa Hawkeyes
Josh Hart, Villanova Wildcats
Yogi Ferrell, Indiana Hoosiers
Grayson Allen, Duke Blue Devils
Ben Simmons, LSU Tigers
Georges Niang, Iowa State Cyclones
Jamal Murray, Kentucky Wildcats
Kay Felder, Oakland Golden Grizzlies
Alec Peters, Valparaiso Crusaders