- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: What should have been a mundane home win turned dramatic for Creighton on Sunday. The Bluejays' defense gave up 71 points in 60 possessions to Seton Hall, and the game was tight late mostly because Creighton did something it very rarely does: miss free throws. The Bluejays would end up winning anyway, 72-71, "in kind of an ugly way," as McDermott described it, but the missed free throws inadvertently gave us another remarkable statistic to add to the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker. From the Associated Press:
With 21 seconds left and Creighton leading 72-69, McDermott, an 89 percent foul shooter, missed two in a row during the same trip to the line for the first time since the 2012 Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
Sometimes, the best ACMcDAT stats come from the most unlikely places.
Anyway, McDermott finished Sunday's game with 29 points on 14 shots. In doing so, he edged his way past Alfredrick Hughes into the all-time college scoring top-10. The question now is not whether he will win the Wooden Award, or whether he will get to 3,000 points (he's on pace to do so during the Big East tournament), but whether McDermott can pump up his pace high enough to reach that magic milestone by Saturday, March 8 -- the final home game of his career. He needs to average 28 over the next three games; he's at 26 ppg currently. In the immortal words of Jurassic Park chief engineer Ray Arnold: Hold on to your butts.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke: The emergence of Marshall Plumlee as a capable offensive rebounder who follows those rebounds with quick kickouts to the perimeter -- like a miniature version of Brian Zoubek -- is huge for Duke generally and Parker specifically.
For most of the season, Parker was Duke's best defensive rebounder, with Amile Jefferson as a close second. But Parker's game didn't always lend itself to the offensive glass, and so Duke was, for most of the season, a mediocre offensive rebounding team. That could change with Plumlee around; let's get a larger sample than three games before we decide one way or the other. But Plumlee's presence should allow Duke to feel more comfortable with Parker playing inside and out, where he is devastatingly effective. And in general, Plumlee's ability to pick up minutes (and if, necessary, fouls) means less punishment and less foul trouble for the Blue Devils' overworked star player. Parker has used 31.8 percent of his team's offensive possessions this season, and been asked to guard up on the other end, too. The Blue Devils' new look should change that.
3. Russ Smith, Louisville: Smith's game-winning shot at Cincinnati Saturday provides a tidy excuse for us to move him up the list. But we don't really need one, for reasons that should be apparent if you've been following along all season. Little has changed in Smith's output from November to now. He's still playing the best, smartest, most efficient offense of his life (51.2 percent from 2, 37.4 percent from 3, 30.6 percent assist rate) on huge usage (31.3 percent) and shot rates (30.0 percent) while maintaining his trademark brand of infuriatingly pesky perimeter and press defense. Last year, Smith was arguably the most valuable two-way player in the country, and he's better -- not to mention more important to his team -- in almost every way this season.
4. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): Cincinnati's own two-way anchor rode a hot-shooting high into Saturday's huge American clash against Louisville ... when he promptly shot 3-of-14 from 3. Ouch, right? Yet Kilpatrick still finished with 28 of his team's 57 points, which is a handy counterintuitive reminder of just how important he is to the Bearcats' composition. Usually, he's much more efficient; usually, Cincinnati wins. But without him, Mick Cronin's team would be lost.
5. Nick Johnson, Arizona: For a minute there, it looked like Johnson would be the player most affected by Brandon Ashley's injury. Johnson started shooting the ball really poorly, in part because the Wildcats' floor-spacing took a hit without Ashley, and in part because ... well, because he couldn't make any shots. From Feb. 1 (the Cal loss) to Feb. 19 (a solid road win at Utah) Johnson shot 19-of-70 from the field and 2-of-20 (!) from 3. If you wrote Johnson's candidacy off, you had reason. But he and the Wildcats have since bounced back with two ultra-impressive blowout wins. Johnson had 20-6-5 on Saturday in an 88-61 win at Colorado. On Wednesday night, he had 22-7-5-1-1 with zero turnovers in an 87-59 home win over Cal. Both he and his team appear to be recovering quite nicely, thank you very much.
6. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Things started a little rocky for Napier and UConn at South Florida Wednesday night, and for a while it looked like the Huskies were going to take a damaging late-season loss to a team with just three American wins. But nope: Napier led an 18-0 second-half run and finished with 17 points, seven assists, four rebounds and two steals. That line is emblematic of his senior season: Efficient scoring, tidy passing, high-leverage shotmaking, and great defense.
7. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: The Shockers' win at Bradley Tuesday night made them the first team ever to make it to 30-0 in the regular season, a feat that is both impressive in a vacuum and the subject of a revealing, instructive debate. Early's individual merits are a little like that: If Wichita State wasn't unbeaten, Early might not be a surefire All-American candidate (He still might not be). But like the Shockers in general, (who are, just a reminder, ranked in the top-15 in adjusted efficiency on both offense and defense, the only other team besides Florida to be so) he is very, very good no matter the competition. His bedrock production is a big reason why we can have this whole debate in the first place.
8. Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle's offensive numbers -- 8 points, 3-of-8 shooting -- from Kentucky's big overtime win over LSU Saturday don't look like much. But Randle was easily UK's most important player. He brilliantly checked LSU center Johnny O'Bryant (who destroyed the Wildcats in Baton Rouge a month ago), and grabbed 15 rebounds, seven of them offensive, to go along with two big blocks. When UK's offense struggled, Randle was there to muscle home interior buckets. As UK has become more fluid, Randle's contributions on the glass on both ends of the floor make him John Calipari's most essential piece.
9. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse: Syracuse has not had its best stretch: After last Wednesday's home OT loss to Boston College -- a 62-points-in-63-possessions effort against (to that point) the worst major-conference defense in the country -- the Orange went to Duke Saturday. There was the C.J. Fair charge call and the Jim Boeheim blow-up, of course, but before the game-deciding play (and ejection) there was a lot more stagnant, struggling offensive play. On Monday, the Orange barely escaped with 57 points in 64 possessions at Maryland, the ACC's seventh-best defense. All of which says that Syracuse is having a tough time on the offensive end. What does that mean for its players' POY chances? For now, we're kicking Fair down to the honorable mentions and keeping Ennis, mostly because we think that's how voters would weigh the two if the award voting took place today. This could be temporary; let's see how Saturday at Virginia -- maybe the best defensive team in the country -- goes.
10. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: Thames has had a brutal few weeks. Since Feb. 11's loss at Wyoming, the San Diego State star is 12-56 from the field. In the Aztecs' loss at New Mexico Saturday, he shot 3-of-15 and didn't get to the free throw line once. He has 19 combined points in his last three games. We're not inclined to punish players who mix in a week or two of struggles with an otherwise peerless resume, but this is above and beyond. Whether this is just a slump or something deeper will determine whether Thames stays on this list in the weeks to come. It will also determine how and when the Aztecs end their surprisingly successful campaign, which is slightly more important.
Honorable mentions: C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Casey Prather (Florida), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Lamar Patterson (Pittsburgh), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), T.J. Warren (NC State), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Bryce Cotton (Providence).