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We are well past the two-month mark of the season, and we’re really moving now -- barreling down the Gregorian highway toward March like characters in a Tom Petty song. It feels so good, like anything is possible. Hit cruise control, and rub your eyes. Yeah, we’re running down a Wooden Watch. Going wherever it --
I think you get the point. Let’s begin.
Doug McDermott, Creighton: This week’s Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker (trademark pending) is Awesomer than ever: McDermott is averaging 25.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game; shooting 52.6 percent from 2, 43.4 percent from 3, and 89.6 percent from the free throw line; posting a 121.6 offensive rating on 33 percent usage; and taking 37.3 percent of the shots on (easily) the nation’s best and most efficient offensive team. McDermott is guaranteed to finish his career as the first three-time first-team All-American since Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale. He likely will finish with more career points than Oscar Robertson, and could well get to 3,000. The chase, as we wrote Monday, is on.
Projecting the Wooden Award winner involves recognizing which players are playing the best basketball, sure, but it also -- perhaps more than anything -- requires a constant scoring of public perception, having a feel for if and when the consensus has shifted. After this week’s dominance against Xavier and Butler, the consensus around McDermott is officially unanimous -- he is both narratively fascinating and statistically unimpeachable. He, like Ferris Bueller, is very popular, Ed: Stats geeks, don’t-glance-until-March-then-pretend-to-be-an-expert aging sportswriter dudes, nostalgic defenders of the value of a four-year education and/or misguided deriders of the NBA, plain old fans of beautiful offensive basketball, Creighton fans, Big East fans, Iowa natives -- they all think he’s a righteous dude.
There’s plenty of season left, but the POY award is McDermott’s to lose.
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: Now that Duke is reeling from losses to Notre Dame (meh) and Clemson (ack!) within the past two weeks, the Jabari Parker heat has officially begun to cool. But for a minute there in December (after he shot it so well in the first Memphis game, specifically) Smart’s case has been burning at a consistent, productive temperature all season long. On Saturday, Smart has a chance to put a dent in the McDermott unanimity when the Cowboys land in Lawrence, Kan. Last season, Smart helped lead Oklahoma State to its first win in Allen Fieldhouse since 1989. If he can double-down this season, well, look out.
|Arizona's Nick Johnson is the most important player on the nation's No. 1 team.|
DeAndre Kane, Iowa State: Some of the Kane-related excitement may have cooled this past week, when the Cyclones lost their first two games of the season -- at Oklahoma, and at home to Kansas -- in consecutive outings. Kane’s seven turnovers at Oklahoma held back his otherwise stellar performance (he scored 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting from 2-point range, plus nine rebounds and four assists). The injury Kane suffered late in that game looked likely to keep him out against Kansas, but he played and played well (21 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 assists), save his 50 percent mark from the free throw line. We’ll see how Kane progresses from his ankle injury in the weeks to come, and how Iowa State holds up its end of the Big 12 contender bargain, too.
Casey Prather, Florida: This is me putting a hold on my Prather stock for the week. Prather suffered a bruised knee against South Carolina on Jan. 8 and hasn’t suited up for the Gators since. If he can’t get back on the court soon, he’ll have to come off the list, but let’s keep him around for now. I’m nice like that. Also, before his injury, Prather was really, really good.
Jabari Parker, Duke: Don’t let Duke’s 69-65 win over Virginia Monday trick you into thinking the Blue Devils are suddenly figuring out their defensive woes (again). As is typical of the Cavaliers, the two teams traded just 61 possessions, and Duke won because it was just a bit more efficient on offense, not the other way around. The Blue Devils’ ongoing defensive woes are hurting Parker’s player of the year status in a big way, not only because they’re making Duke vulnerable to teams like Notre Dame and Clemson on the road, but also because they accentuate Parker’s already noticeable deficiencies on the defensive end.
Tyler Ennis, Syracuse: Ennis was a first-time addition to the list last week, and the argument between him and teammate C.J. Fair is really an argument about usage. Fair plays 90.4 percent (!) of Syracuse’s available minutes and uses 26.9 percent of available possessions. Ennis touches the ball less frequently, but when he does have it, he’s an immensely efficient dual offensive threat who creates 5.3 steals per 100 possessions on the other end. And his minutes count is rising, too. Let’s stick with the kid for now, but you can make a compelling case for either.
Julius Randle, Kentucky: The Wildcats are 12-4 and coming off an overtime loss to Arkansas suffered at the hands of a last-second rebound tip-dunk, which is not something you see every day. Whatever the Wildcats end up being, they’d be nowhere without Randle. The Wildcats don’t shoot the ball well, and they turn it over a lot, but they rebound more of their misses than any team in the country, and their ratio of free throws to field goal attempts is through the roof. That’s thanks to Randle. The second half of the Dec. 28 Louisville game aside, it’s a bit difficult to picture this team without the occasionally ugly but typically effective work he does bulling his way around on the low block.
Russ Smith, Louisville: Smith’s turnover rate is beginning to track upward, which will hurt his efficiency and could make it more difficult to advocate for him. That said, Smith is still assisting on 34.5 percent of his possessions, still shooting the ball better and still playing smarter than he ever has in his career, and he’s still taking on 32.1 percent of his team’s usage load. He’s still been great.
Joel Embiid, Kansas: Don’t let the Wiggins Disappointment Narrative cloud your thoughts: Andrew Wiggins has been very good this season, and never better than against top competition. But Embiid is moving at a jaw-dropping learning curve. It’s like watching a piano prodigy with perfect pitch: If he figures something out, it is put to immediate use. The biggest question is whether Embiid can learn to play his devouring brand of interior defense without fouling 6.8 times per 40 minutes, a habit that has kept him on the bench far more than anyone would prefer. If that doesn’t change, he won’t hold this spot. But the dude’s already throwing in dream shakes and post-foul dance moves, so it’s probably unwise to count him out.
Honorable mentions: Keith Appling (Michigan State), Shabazz Napier (Connecticut), Xavier Thames (San Diego State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Sam Dekker (Wisconsin), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), JayVaughn Pinkston (Villanova)