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Wooden Watch: Zion Williamson will continue to lead a shrinking field

Zion Williamson will lead a list of 15 players who are the leading candidates for the Wooden Award. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Last week, Wooden Award voters received an email from the selection committee that signaled the imminent culmination of what has felt like a foregone conclusion for three months.

It said: "As we approach the beginning of tournament season, we ask you to make the hard choices and select the 15 players you feel are the leading candidates for the John R. Wooden Award. These 15 players will constitute who will be on the National Ballot for the 2019 John R. Wooden Award. Any players not on the final ballot will not be eligible to win the Award."

This list has endured few changes since December, when it became clear that Zion Williamson was the best player in America.

That's what we know. But the list of contenders seems to shift by the week.

Even though he's sidelined, Williamson continues to extend the gap within the race. Duke's 1-2 record without him over the past three games has only enhanced his odds of winning.

There will be 15 players on that final ballot for the Wooden Award.

But only one, it seems, has a real shot at securing this honor.

Who would win the award today

Zion Williamson

We're not sure if and when he will return to the court this season, but Duke is obviously a better team with the projected No. 1 pick in the lineup. The Blue Devils need him if they are to make a run at the national title.

Duke had won games at less than 100 percent in the past. It beat Florida State in Tallahassee with Williamson logging just 10 minutes. But this stretch has been different. The team had become accustomed to its roles when Williamson suffered his mild knee sprain in a loss to North Carolina last week.

Without Williamson, teams have dared RJ Barrett to beat them alone. Players not named Barrett made just 32 percent of their shots inside the arc and 27 percent of their 3-pointers in the past three games.

Williamson is still the leader in this race even though he has played only 36 seconds in the past three games.

Next three contenders

RJ Barrett: In a world without Williamson, Barrett might be the national player of the year. He has averaged 28 points per game during this 1-2 stretch for Duke. That's a remarkable effort for a guy who has faced two or three defenders on multiple possessions. Still, he has made 77 percent of his shots inside the arc. He has made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts in Duke's 12 ACC wins. We all recognize Williamson's impact based on the team's challenges without him. But imagine Duke without Barrett, the most constant presence on the roster.

Cassius Winston: He doesn't have Nick Ward and he lost running mate Joshua Langford weeks ago. Yet Winston has carried Michigan State to the top of America's deepest league. His 27-point effort in Sunday's win over rival Michigan was a prime-time performance for the veteran guard who has made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts. Again, in a world without Williamson, where would Winston be? He has led his team on a five-game win streak in a league that might send eight teams to the NCAA tournament. He's averaging 19.2 PPG and 7.4 APG.

Grant Williams: Tennessee is still a contender, although the most recent stretch for the Vols has cost the program its No. 1 ranking. But Williams entered Wednesday's matchup against Ole Miss with a stat line that perhaps only Williamson can match: 19.0 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG and 1.1 SPG. He'd also made 60 percent of his shots inside the arc and 83 percent of his free throw attempts. He has turned himself into a first-round pick in this summer's NBA draft. The Vols are still a dangerous team, and they're led by a top-five player.

The other contenders (stats entering Wednesday)