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Friday, March 28, 2014
Brennan's Wooden Watch: More tourney

By Eamonn Brennan

So, now that we're a week away from the Wooden Award luncheon in Dallas, how does the Los Angeles Athletic Club and its Wooden Award advisory board actually go about deciding this thing? Helpful explanation from the club itself is provided here:

Voting is opened to the national voting panel prior to the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. Voters may vote via an online system that allows them to evaluate players up until just after the Third Round of the NCAA Tournament. The official accounting firm of the John R. Wooden Award, Deloitte, tabulates all votes.

Doug McDermott
College basketball had to say goodbye to Doug McDermott after Creighton's early exit from the NCAA tournament.

In other words, the votes are already in, but that doesn't mean voters can't take the NCAA tournament into account. Do they? Hard to say. Should they? Your mileage might vary. Either way, let's take a quick look at how the Wooden candidates might -- or might not -- be affected by their tournament performances.

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Cue up Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday" for this one. Last week, McDermott finished his college career with 3,150 points, fifth all time on the scoring list, but his team played -- and shot -- its worst game of the season against Baylor's long, tricky zone and couldn't press effectively to try to get back in the game when it was over. The result was an 85-55 blowout, and a tearful McDermott exited to a standing ovation. The only thing more of a bummer than the way McDermott ended his career was that he had to end it at all. We'd happily sign up for another year. In any case, he's still your runaway Wooden Award favorite.

2. Russ Smith, Louisville: Smith hasn't played particularly well in the NCAA tournament thus far, which is just like him. As much as Smith has frustrated coach Rick Pitino in his mostly brilliant Louisville career, he is just as frustrating for pundits who go all-in on praise, because he usually follows that praise with a quirky off night under the bright lights. For most of this season, though, he's been brilliant. How he plays in the Cardinals' Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky could define his legacy.

3. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Speaking of legacies, how about the one Napier is putting together at Connecticut? In last week's upset of No. 2-seed Villanova, Napier was lights out before bruising his shin. He left the game in "excruciating" pain. He later reentered, finished a couple of insane drives that only he can make and led UConn to a victory after all. What a player.

4. Jabari Parker, Duke: Parker's freshman season, and almost certainly his college career, ended with a whimper. That was true of his team, which made 15 of 37 shots from 3 and still lost to 14-seed Mercer, and Parker himself, who scored 14 points on 14 shots. That finale might hurt him in the final awards voting, to say nothing of his defensive issues, but overall? As single seasons go, Parker's was pretty great.

5. Nick Johnson, Arizona: It has taken most of the country a few months to figure out why Aaron Gordon is so valuable to the Wildcats (because he is a complete athletic freak who can guard every position on the court for the best defense in the country, naturally). But Johnson has kept showing why he's so important, too: Not only is he Arizona's most reliable and versatile scorer, he's a crucial perimeter defender in his own right. Arizona is still in the title hunt as well.

6. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: When was the last time a player on a No. 1 seed saw his draft stock leap this much in a loss? Early was legendary in Wichita State's loss to Kentucky last weekend. His cool, comprehensive, 31-point performance wasn't enough to get the Shockers past soaring UK, but it was enough to simultaneously validate his team's season and his own individual primacy even though Fred Van Vleet 's shot missed right.

7. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: It's a safe bet that much of the country's casual college hoops fandom had no idea who Thames was before the tournament. They figured it out pretty quickly. Thames was great in the first weekend and arguably even better in SDSU's back-and-forth rumble with Arizona on Thursday night.

Shabazz Napier
Shabazz Napier won't win the Wooden Award, but he's putting quite the finish on his UConn career.

8. Casey Prather, Florida: Florida is so deep and talented that when Prather and forward Patric Young sat on the bench with four fouls apiece late in Thursday night's win over UCLA (and Scottie Wilbekin was struggling through one of his worst games of the season), no one in Memphis, Tenn., actually thought the Gators were going to lose. That depth has overshadowed Prather's contributions at times -- Wilbekin, after all, was the SEC player of the year. But from November until now, Prather has been the best and most important player on the best team in the country. Without him, Florida wouldn't be Florida.

9. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati: Kilpatrick and Cincinnati had a rough go in their only NCAA tournament game, falling victim to Harvard and the strange curse of the No. 5 seed. (Seriously, why do so many No. 5s lose to No. 12s? Doesn't that mean the teams are improperly seeded? Something doesn't compute here.) But, as with Creighton, the Bearcats' early end shouldn't overshadow the magnificent season their star player had in the three dozen games that preceded it.

10. Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle has been Kentucky's consistent force all season long. That hasn't changed. He's still beasting the glass on both ends of the court. What has changed are the conditions around him -- better, headier play from the Harrison twins, smart shot selection from James Young, increased energy from Alex Poythress and great defensive contributions from centers Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein. For much of the season, Randle's remarkable frontcourt work was Kentucky's best and only option. Now, it's just the tip of the sword.

Honorable mentions: Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Aaron Gordon (Arizona), Scottie Wilbekin (Florida) Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Marcus Paige (North Carolina), Bryce Cotton (Providence)