- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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At 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU unveiled the 2012-13 Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 Presented by Wendy's (a sponsorship I have no problem citing, because I love me a good spicy chicken sandwich) and, by and large, the list was about what you'd expect.
This is intended as a compliment. The Wooden Award midseason list -- unlike some other awards watches in recent seasons -- doesn't have any obvious or glaring holes. You might take issue with a couple of inclusions here or there, but you'd be hard-pressed to find something totally egregious.
So, instead of critiquing the list item by item, I decided to list five players who could play -- or arguably already have played -- their way onto the Wooden Award radar in the next few weeks. Let's dig in:
Victor Oladipo, guard, Indiana: There are two players on this list who should be on the Wooden watch already. Oladipo is one of them. I know, I know: Cody Zeller is the obvious choice, because Zeller was the consensus preseason player of the year and the favorite to win all the individual awards. And rightfully so. Plus, Zeller has played really well, particularly lately, and he is still totally deserving of some prospective POY attention. It would be a mistake to argue that one should be on the list without the other. Indeed, if I had to take one player off, it would probably be Duke's Seth Curry -- a good but not outstanding guard who is still a defensive liability against quicker guards on the perimeter.
By contrast, Oladipo is his team's, and one of the nation's, best and most important players on both ends of the floor. He averages 5.0 steals per 100 possessions, and the impact of his athletic harassment and near constant deflections goes far beyond that stat. Oladipo almost always guards the opponent's star player, and almost always makes said star's life utterly miserable.
In the past, that was Oladipo's specialty. This season, he has taken his game to a new level on the offensive end, and that is probably the understatement of the day. Oladipo, who takes 20.4 percent of his team's shots, is averaging 72 percent from inside the arc. Oladipo's effective field goal percentage -- which is weighted to factor in the 23 3-pointers he has shot this season -- is 72 percent, the highest in the country.
In other words, Oladipo has been not just good but arguably brilliant on both ends of the floor. It's hard to earn POY honors with stifling defense and purely efficient offense, but it shouldn't be. Oladipo should already be on that list.
Mike Muscala, forward, Bucknell: So should Mike Muscala. It's not hard to understand why a forward from Bucknell failed to capture the Wooden folks' attention. I mean, I get it. He plays for Bucknell. But Nate Wolters plays for South Dakota State, and with all due respect to Wolters (who is also having an excellent season), Muscala is having a better season for an inarguably better team -- one that nearly beat Missouri on its own floor last weekend.
To date, Muscala is averaging 19.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 2.7 assists per game. He uses 31.0 percent of his team's possessions but does so very efficiently (his offensive rating is 120.4, which trails only Erick Green and Doug McDermott among players who take a similar number of their team's possessions), he's one of the best shot-blockers and rebounders in the country, and he does all of that without committing too many fouls -- his team needs him, after all.
It may be hard for Muscala to get POY traction in the Patriot League, especially now that fellow contender C.J. McCollum is injured (which could rob us of a really thrilling Lehigh-Bucknell battle). But he is deserving of much greater recognition.
Shabazz Muhammad, guard, UCLA: It's not a surprise to see UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad absent from the midseason list. After all, Muhammad missed the first three games of the season thanks to an eligibility scuffle with the NCAA, and when he did return, he was the first to admit he was still fighting his way back down to his playing weight after an offseason injury. It took him -- and his team -- a while to adjust. But entering Thursday, UCLA has won seven in a row, and Muhammad is a major reason why. His offensive performances since the Dec. 1 loss to San Diego State have been sublime: Muhammad is averaging 22.1 points per game in those contests, with an average offensive efficiency rating of 127.7. The dude is balling. And if he keeps it up, it won't be long before everyone who dismissed the early hype jumps back on the bandwagon.
Kelly Olynyk, center, Gonzaga: When we discussed Gonzaga in the preseason, we talked about point guard Kevin Pangos and forward Elias Harris (also on the list) and freshman center Przemek Karnowski. We did not talk much, if at all, about center Kelly Olynyk. But Olynyk, who redshirted last season, when he worked out and focused on getting his body into shape, has emerged as Gonzaga's best player, its leading scorer and the major reason why this team is a serious Final Four contender. Olynyk's latest outing -- a hard-fought Saturday victory at Santa Clara -- included 33 points on 12-of-15 shooting (including 8-of-9 shooting from the charity stripe).
Cleanthony Early, forward, Wichita State: How is Wichita State, a team that lost five senior starters this offseason, currently 15-1 and a real threat to upset Creighton's predicted waltz through the Missouri Valley Conference? You can start with Cleanthony Early. Early was a two-time NJCAA Division III Player of the Year for Sullivan (N.Y.) County Community College before he arrived in Wichita this fall, and he has taken almost zero time to adapt to the Division I game. Through 16 games, Early is averaging 15.4 points and 5.3 rebounds with a 116.8 offensive rating on 28.9 percent usage. That's impressive, but his latest game -- Wednesday's 39-points-on-19-shots outing that helped save Wichita State from an upset at Southern Illinois -- should help introduce him to a wider audience.