- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: On Nov. 21, 2013, the first 2013-14 Wooden Watch column went live. The No. 1 player? Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart. Heady days, right? Smart held on to the top spot for two more weeks before yielding it to UConn's Shabazz Napier. Napier kept it for one week before we pivoted to Aaron Gordon, back when we couldn't decide which Arizona player was most valuable. In Week 6, Jabari Parker assumed the top spot. In Week 8, McDermott rose to No. 1. This is what I wrote at the time:
"As we’ve discussed ad nauseam, the POY award is often about (A) being really good at basketball and (B) building so much perceptual momentum that your honor starts feeling inevitable. Both players have done just that so far. Parker is the insanely gifted freshman; McDermott might finish his career with 3,000 points. If this is a two-man race for the next three months, don’t say you weren’t warned."
Actually, you weren't warned. I was wrong. This hasn't been a two-man race. It's been a joyous, weekly, one-man exhibition.
Were you to scroll through four months of Wooden Watches, you'd notice McDermott's name atop the list in every week since Week 8. But even if you don't read a word, you'll feel his case building. Every week, McDermott's blurb got a little bit longer. Every week, the rest of the list got smaller. Every week, the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker (ACMcDAT) crammed more and more data into bulleted points. In Week 16, after McDermott became the first player since Lionel Simmons to post three straight seasons with 750 or more points, I was almost numb to the numbers. Exhausted, even. He was so good we ran out of ways to say it.
On Saturday, McDermott ended his regular-season career with 45 points on 25 shots in a Senior Night blowout of Providence -- and, in the process, passed the career 3,000-point mark (3,011) with plenty of postseason to spare. The crowd in Omaha, Neb., gave him a stirring ovation. His dad, Creighton coach Greg McDermott, gave him a hug and a slap on the head. In a few weeks, the Associated Press will give him his third straight first-team All-American honor, and make him the first player since Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale to do so. At the Final Four, the Los Angeles Athletic Club will give him the John R. Wooden National Player of the Year Award.
For four years -- and especially the last four months -- McDermott gave us more beautiful basketball than any player in decades. The awards will be the least we can do to say thanks.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Parker might not have come close to making this a two-man race, but that shouldn't obscure the excellent season he's had. While using 31.4 percent of his team's possessions and taking 31.8 percent of its shots, Parker has posted a 113.3 offensive rating. He's also rebounded 24.0 percent of opponents' available misses -- he might not be a great defender, but he's been Duke's anchor on the defensive glass all season. (He's also blocked 4.3 percent of available shots, which tends to get overlooked.) Without him, the Blue Devils would be a good offense and an irredeemable defense. With him, they're great on offense and so-so defensively. His value has been immense.
3. Russ Smith, Louisville: All season, we've been worried that Smith would end up overlooked again. Louisville had a bad nonconference schedule and some stumbles here and there; the Chane Behanan dismissal could have derailed its entire season. And so, despite having the most efficient season of his career -- a year after being the best two-way play in the country, no less -- Smith could have gone overlooked.
We seem to have avoided that fate. Both the USBWA and Sporting News gave Smith first-team All-American honors this week; the Associated Press is likely to follow suit. Meanwhile, Louisville has won nine of its last 10 and is arguably playing the best all-around basketball in the country right now. If Smith's efficient scoring and passing and general Russ Smith-ness haven't impressed you yet, you have ample opportunity to catch up in the weeks to come.
4. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: The only time I've ever felt the urge to give a college basketball player a hug came was Jan. 9, 2012. The post-Kemba Walker UConn Huskies were sloughing their way through Jim Calhoun's final season as coach, and Calhoun was desperately searching for some self-leadership. Napier, then a sophomore, cast himself in the role. His teammates had other ideas:
"I try to tell the guys, I feel as if I’m their best leader. Sometimes they give me a chance, sometimes they don’t," Napier said then. "That’s just how it is. It’s just basketball, I guess. ... I try my best to be a leader, even though guys don’t give me a chance to be that person. It shows in the game, I can’t lie. When we have a tipped ball and big guys get the ball and I’m yelling for the ball back out, we’ve got a new shot clock and they go back up ... that shows I’m not that much of a leader. When a play starts breaking down and I’m yelling, ‘Bring it out, bring it out,’ and Boat or Jeremy takes a shot, that just shows that I’m not a leader. It sucks, because we lose games like that. But I try my best. I’m just a human being, I try to do my best in helping my teammates out."
Two years later, Napier is as respected a player as there is in the college game, both by his teammates and by opponents. It helps that he's as good a guard as there is in the college game, too -- a scorer/distributor/defender capable of bending entire halves to his will. Watching him go from disrespected sophomore to beloved senior has been a treat four years in the making.
5. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): Cincinnati's 97-84 win over Memphis on March 6 could fool the casual observer into thinking Kilpatrick is merely the chief among a score of Bearcats offensive options. Not true: For most of the season, he's been the Bearcats' only offensive option. But the March 6 win was a pretty good primer: Kilpatrick finished with 34 points on 11-of-18 from the field and 10-of-11 from the free throw line with zero turnovers. The Bearcats are usually not that fluid on offense; most of the time, they wear teams out on the defensive end and let Kilpatrick do most of the creation on offense. The formula has worked, because Kilpatrick is just that good.
6. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Johnson's season was not without its bumps, the most notable of which came immediately after forward Brandon Ashley was lost for the season to an foot injury. But Johnson has rebounded -- literally and metaphorically -- in the weeks since. He hasn't put up huge offensive numbers, but like Smith, Napier and Kilpatrick, he's one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, and maybe the most versatile. Arizona's offense might have taken a post-Ashley hit, but its defense is still the best in the country. Johnson has played a major role in that.
7. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: It's hard not to give this spot to point guard Fred VanVleet. VanVleet was, after all, the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year, and fairly so: he posted a 131.5 offensive rating with a 33.2 percent assist rate and a tiny 13.8 percent turnover percentage, what my Insider colleague John Gasaway called "a near-perfect season for a pass-first point guard."
So why stick with Early? Because he's the sun around which Wichita State revolves. The Shockers are an ensemble production, sure, but Early is the only player to use more than 22 percent of the team's offensive possessions, using 26.5 percent -- and takes 28 percent of their shots to boot. Tekele Cotton might be the team's best defender, Ron Baker its best shooter, VanVleet its best passer. But Early does all of those things very well almost all of the time.
8. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: Thames struggled a bit down the stretch, including one 10-for-50 span that looked like it might knock him out of any and all postseason award consideration. And it did, kind of: Thames wasn't on the Wooden Committee's final ballot. That's a mistake. Thames got back on track in his final three games, including a 23-point, five-steal effort in the Aztecs' grinding regular-season title clincher against New Mexico Saturday, and finished with a 119.1 offensive rating on nearly 28 percent usage (in addition to a 3.4 percent steal rate, a 22.1 assist rate, 38 percent from 3, etc.). The Aztecs finished the regular season 27-3 because they were a) a great defensive team and b) a great defensive team with a reliable star scorer. Thames belongs on one of the All-American teams at the very least.
9. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: On Saturday, Wiggins scored 41 points on 18 shots with eight rebounds, five steals and four blocks. And Kansas lost. Those two sentences don't compute, but if anything, Wiggins' blowout regular-season finale gave us a chance to point out how solid he's been for pretty much all of his freshman season. He's scored reliably, he's rebounded, he's played lockdown inside-out defense -- he's been really good. He hasn't been the second coming. Sometimes, he's been too passive. But many coaches would kill for his baseline production, let alone the possibility he might go off for 41 on 18 at any given time. If he is 75 percent as good in the postseason, look out.
10. T.J. Warren, NC State: For better or worse, the player of the year award is about the value a player contributes to his team's success. You'll notice there aren't too many players on this list whose teams aren't going to make the NCAA tournament. That should let you know just how good Warren was individually for the probably-NIT-bound Wolfpack in 2013-14: He posted a 115.2 percent offensive rating on a McDermott-ian 37 percent of his team's shots; he averaged 24.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and shot 53.2 percent from the field. He finished the season with back-to-back 41- and 42-point efforts (on 17 and 21 field goal attempts to boot) against Pitt and Boston College, respectively.
Warren did all of this despite facing constant double and triple teams for a team that finished eighth in the ACC in points allowed per possession. If the Wolfpack had guarded better, we'd get to see this dude try to singlehandedly take over the NCAA tournament, and the tournament would be better for it. But they didn't, and so, barring an ACC tourney miracle, we won't. Shame.
Honorable mentions: Casey Prather (Florida), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Julius Randle (Kentucky), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Joel Embiid (Kansas), Marcus Paige (North Carolina).