College Basketball Nation: Nick Johnson

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.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesCollege 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.

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Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsShabazz 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)

Nick Johnson arrives just in time

March, 28, 2014
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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Arizona's Rondae Hollis-Jefferson fouled out with 4:40 minutes left and the Wildcats nursing a one-point lead. As he made his way to the bench, Nick Johnson had the nerve to tell him the Wildcats would not lose.

"This is not going to be the last game of the season," Johnson said.

And Johnson, the guy who was at that point 0-for-10 from the field, was going to make sure of that?

Well, yeah.

Johnson scored 15 points in the game's final three minutes -- including 10-for-10 from the free throw line -- to lift the top-seeded Wildcats to a 70-64 win over San Diego State in the NCAA tournament. Arizona will face No. 2 seed Wisconsin in the West region final on Saturday.

"It was amazing for a kid to be able to do that after not making shots for about 25, 30 straight minutes," Arizona coach Sean Miller said.

It was 37 minutes and 16 seconds to be precise.

To continue reading this story, click here.



ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Arizona proved it’s above any one player with its 70-64 win over San Diego State. The Wildcats withstood Nick Johnson's shooting struggles and Kaleb Tarczewski's foul troubles to advance to the Elite Eight and a matchup with Wisconsin.

Here are five observations from their victory:

• The first thought from Arizona’s win is how in the world did the Wildcats pull it off? The simple answer was defense. The Wildcats held SDSU to just 38.9 percent shooting from the field. But it wasn’t entirely because Zona was just so suffocating. The The Aztecs have been offensively challenged all season and when they should have held a bigger lead, they allowed the Wildcats to stay within striking distance. Xavier Thames did his best to takeover the scoring load -- he had 25 points -- but he was 9 of 22 from the field.

• The Aztecs made it plain that they wouldn’t let Johnson beat them. He scored 23 in the regular season meeting. SDSU coach Steve Fisher put 6-foot-7 forward Dwayne Polee II on the 6-foot-3 guard. Polee’s length clearly bothered Johnson early and even when Polee was no longer defending him, he still couldn’t find the basket. He missed his first nine shots and his 10th -- a bank shot with him driving left -- rimmed out just as it seemed it would be his first make. He was scoreless until making a 3-pointer with 1:51 that gave the Wildcats their biggest lead at the time. Johnson finished with 15 points thanks to making 10 of 10 free throws.

• What a difference a Polee makes. The junior from Los Angeles didn’t play in the first meeting for disciplinary reasons. His defense on Johnson was only part of his impact. With Thames struggling to shoot in the first half, Polee provided an offensive burst for the Aztecs. Two of his baskets came off steals, including a thunderous dunk in front of Aaron Gordon. He knocked down two 3-pointers too and scored 10 points of his 13 points in the first half.

• Small ball worked well for Arizona. Tarczewski picked up his third foul of the first half with five minutes left and he got his fourth foul barely more than 60 seconds into the second half. With their 7-foot center absent for most of the game, the Wildcats played with forwards Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and three guards. They got beat on the boards, but Hollis-Jefferson pumped in 15 points and five rebounds before fouling out. Gordon had an identical line with 15 points and added seven rebounds.

T.J. McConnell didn’t exactly carry Arizona, but his leadership guided them in the right direction. In the first half with the Aztecs taking control of the game, McConnell provided an emotional boost -- first from his defense, then by his scoring. McConnell finished with 11 points and five rebounds.

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week17

March, 13, 2014
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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."

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
AP Photo/Nati HarnikDoug McDermott has made what was once a captivating race for the Wooden Award into one big victory lap.
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.

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AP Photo/Al BehrmanSean Kilpatrick has been the focal point of Cincinnati's run to an American Athletic Conference co-championship.
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).

Tournament preview: Pac-12

March, 11, 2014
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The Pac-12 has followed the script for the most part.

Entering this season, anyone could recognize Arizona’s perch atop the conference with McDonald’s All American Aaron Gordon joining one of the nation’s best frontcourts.

Steve Alford, meanwhile, had come to Los Angeles to save UCLA.

Oregon, Colorado, Stanford, Arizona State and Cal all looked like potential NCAA tourney teams.

But even though we knew that about this league, no conference is teetering on a bigger platform of uncertainty right now. Maybe this is a three-bid league. Maybe it’s a six- or seven-bid league.

The Pac-12 picked the perfect city, Las Vegas, for this toss-up conference tournament.

[+] EnlargeArizona/Oregon
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsRondae Hollis-Jefferson's versatility has helped Arizona move forward in the absence of Brandon Ashley.
What’s at stake?

On Feb. 1, Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury that changed Arizona’s season and program. Ashley, a sophomore, stretched the floor in ways that few big men can.

But Sean Miller’s recruiting spoils in recent years have been a godsend to the program. Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson gives the starting five a true small forward and creates a mismatch nightmare for every frontcourt that faces Hollis-Jefferson, Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski.

Everything is pointing to Nick Johnson, the Pac-12 player of the year, and the Wildcats earning a top seed and a place in Anaheim. But what could mess that up? A loss to Washington or Utah -- a pair of sub-50 teams in the RPI -- in Thursday’s quarterfinals wouldn’t help.

A quarterfinal loss to Oregon State (if the Beavers were to get past Oregon in the first round) could demote UCLA, too. And it’s not like the Bruins are hot right now (2-3 in their past five games).

But neither has much to worry about right now, it seems. They’re dancing.

As for the rest of the league? Well, that’s not necessarily the case.

Oregon, Stanford, Arizona State, Colorado and Cal are all fighting to lock up berths in the NCAA tournament. Oregon, which defeated Arizona over the weekend, is probably the safest member of the group. The Ducks likely feel secure after defeating the Wildcats, but that buzz will die fast if they lose to Oregon State on Wednesday.

Stanford is searching for its first NCAA tournament berth under Johnny Dawkins. An NIT bid for Arizona State, which enters the conference tourney after suffering back-to-back road losses to Oregon State and Oregon, would be disappointing. The Sun Devils and Cardinal could be matched up on Thursday in a quarterfinal game with high stakes.

Colorado continues to deal with the question, "Who are the Buffs without Spencer Dinwiddie?" Including its Jan. 12 loss to Washington when Dinwiddie suffered his season-ending knee injury, Tad Boyle’s program is 7-8 without the previously projected first-round pick in next summer’s NBA draft. Colorado has a chance to prove it would still be a respectable addition to the field and a solid seed with a run this week. Its overtime road loss to Cal over the weekend didn’t help.

Team with the most to gain

On Feb. 1, Justin Cobbs drove off a pick and connected on a 17-footer that beat the buzzer and then-No. 1 Arizona. Cal fans stormed the court and all seemed well for Mike Montgomery’s program.

That thrill, however, didn’t last. Cal has gone 4-5 since then but enters the conference tournament following a weekend overtime victory over Colorado.

Cal is still alive. The Bears are currently in Joe Lunardi’s "First Four Out" grouping. So a couple wins, beginning with a potential matchup against Colorado in Thursday’s quarterfinals, could be the difference for Cal.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Pac-12 tourney affects the league’s pool of at-large berths once they’re announced on Selection Sunday.

It could be bigger than that, though. Few leagues have faced as much speculation about coaches who might be on the hot seat. This might be a pivotal tourney for Dawkins, Arizona State's Herb Sendek, Washington State's Ken Bone and Oregon State's Craig Robinson.

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Tuesday night wasn't exactly Creighton's best showing. The Bluejays were outplayed for pretty much all 40 minutes at Georgetown, as the Hoyas' seniors -- especially Markel Starks -- fought desperately to improve their bubble lot. It was bad on both sides of the floor for Creighton. There were uncharacteristic offensive struggles: Grant Gibbs turning the ball over, Ethan Wragge going 1-for-6 from 3, Jahenns Manigat made a nonfactor through foul trouble, and so on. Worse, the Bluejays reverted to the liability-level defense that held them back in past years: Georgetown shot 65 percent from 2 and scored 1.23 points per trip. A lot of those looks were open.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsHow good has Doug McDermott been? He scored 22 points and had 12 boards against Georgetown and it was considered a bad game.
Two McDermott possessions cemented the off night. The first, in the first half, was a relatively open 3 that missed the rim by a wider distance than maybe any McDermott miss ever. The second, in the second half, was a baseline drive in which McDermott -- who was guarded well by Jabril Trawick for most of the game -- got the matchup he wanted against Nate Lubick, and pivoted past him to the baseline, and then just plum missed a wide-open layin. McDermott finished with 12 rebounds, but just 22 points on 23 shots, and he needed a late batch of last-ditch 3s to get there. It was a rough night for the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker.

And you know what? It doesn't matter. McDermott has had this award sewn up for weeks. We're just going through the motions. When 22 points and 12 rebounds is considered a so-so game -- or, say, when those 22 points make you the first person since Lionel Simmons (1987-88, 1988-89, 1989-90) to score 750 in three straight seasons -- your Wooden Award isn't going to be threatened by a late-season loss to a desperate bubble team.

In any case, here's the mother of all ACMcDAT sirens: Creighton's final home game of the season, the last of McDermott's career, comes Saturday against Providence. McDermott needs 34 points to reach 3,000 for his career.

On Tuesday, a reporter asked his father and coach, Greg McDermott, if he would let his son go for the record if he was close with enough time on the clock.

"If his mother has anything to say about it, probably,” McDermott said.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Like McDermott, Parker saw his team lose a road game in the final week of conference play, an 82-72 loss Wednesday at Wake Forest. The Blue Devils allowed 46 points in the second half at Wake, which likewise hints at some of the defensive issues they (like Creighton) have had at various points with this configuration. And like McDermott, Parker still had a pretty solid outing relative to just about any player in the country -- 19 points, 11 rebounds, 7-of-11 shooting. McDermott has been our obvious No. 1 for a while, and remains so this week. Parker is a similarly codified consensus No. 2. Also, he makes a mean dessert bar.

3. Russ Smith, Louisville: The Cardinals unleashed perhaps their best performance of the season Wednesday night at SMU, and got arguably the best of Smith's season, too. Russdiculous' line -- 26 points on 15 shots, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals -- was a perfect microcosm of what he's done all season, and what makes him so valuable: efficient scoring, timely distributing, unyielding perimeter defense.

4. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Napier was an early front-runner for the Wooden Award this season before a couple of bad early conference losses knocked him off our radar. UConn has had its blips, but Napier has been steadily great, averaging 17.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.9 steals per game as the Huskies' anchor.

5. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): Kilpatrick is having his worst mini-stretch of the season these past two weeks, including a 3-for-14 3-point performance in a close loss to Louisville and Saturday's 2-for-8, seven-turnover struggle in 37 minutes at UConn. But Kilpatrick did still have 28 points in that loss to Louisville -- 28 of his team's 57, no less -- and even when he's not scoring, he's still one of the best guard-defenders in the country.

[+] EnlargeNick Johnson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesNick Johnson has been a force on both ends of the floor, and a big reason why Arizona's defense is among the nation's best.
6. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Our ability to track defensive metrics at a glance still lags way behind our ability to track offense, which is why it can be difficult to factor defense into national player of the year and All-American award discussions. But many of the players in this top 10 are here because they excel on both ends of the floor, and Johnson is a key example. Arizona's defense still allows the fewest points per trip of any team in the country, even without Brandon Ashley, and not all of that is due to Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon in the lane. Johnson is a fantastic gap defender in Sean Miller's pack-line hybrid defense, and a major factor in for the post-Ashley Wildcats.

7. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Missouri Valley Conference voters awarded Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet with the league's POY trophy this week, and it's hard to argue with the reasoning. VanVleet has been great. So has guard Ron Baker. And Darius Carter. And Tekele Cotton. When you go 31-0, you tend to get a lot of really great individual performances. We'll still take Early, Wichita State's most-used player by a fair margin and its most important all-around offensive and defensive contributor.

8. Casey Prather, Florida: It's hard to believe Florida's last loss came all the way back on Dec. 2, but it's true. That game, at UConn, took place when the Gators had, like, six available players, back when Prather was still surprising us with his sudden scoring turn as a senior. Prather's usage has dropped as the Gators have gotten healthy (Kasey Hill) and eligible (Chris Walker), but his efficiency has held firm, and more than any other Florida player he's the reason why Billy Donovan's team managed to overcome so much personnel drama in the first place. The breadth of his season deserves honorifics.

9. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: We thought about dropping Thames from the list after a brutal 10-for-50 slump bracketed the Aztecs' losses to Wyoming and New Mexico. But Thames got back on track against Fresno State Saturday and kept it going Wednesday when his 19-point effort keyed a comeback win at UNLV. Like Prather (and not unlike Kilpatrick), his whole-season contributions to an SDSU team without another consistent offensive option are too great, in aggregate, to overlook.

10. Kyle Anderson, UCLA: "Slo-mo" has numbers that are kind of crazy. He's averaging 14.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game on 49 percent shooting from the field and from 3. That is exactly the kind of game the 6-foot-8 Anderson's unique skill set promised when he entered college a year ago. It took him a little bit, but he got there this season. He does it all.

Honorable mentions: Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Julius Randle (Kentucky), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), T.J. Warren (NC State), Bryce Cotton (Providence), Billy Baron (Rhode Island Canisius)

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week 15

February, 27, 2014
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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.

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
Frank Victores/USA TODAY SportsRuss Smith's last-second shot to beat Cincinnati on Saturday was the latest in a superb senior season for the Louisville guard.
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.

[+] EnlargeWichita State Shockers
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesCleanthony Early is the focal point of a Wichita State team that made history on Tuesday night.
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).

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week 14

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
11:00
AM ET

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: At this point, it's getting hard to come up with material for the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker. Well, OK, that's not exactly true. McDermott is doing plenty of awesome things. But it's just like, come on guys, do I really need to recap the statistics and individual milestones this week? Do we have to go through this whole process every time? You're on board by now, right?

This week, McDermott scored 39 points on 13-of-17 shooting in Creighton's 101-80 rout of Villanova, and afterward, Wildcats coach Jay Wright, honorary member of ACDMcAT Nation, said this:

“I think he’s as complete a player -- and I do not use that term loosely -- with size, as I’ve ever seen. With 6-8, 6-9, there’s nothing he can’t do. He can take you off the dribble. He guards, he’s tough as hell guarding. He defends. He rebounds. He moves without the ball. He seals. He’s the best post player that we’ve played against and he’s the best perimeter player, and maybe one of the best passers, and he’s 6-8, 6-9. I think he’s as good a basketball player as I’ve seen.”

I'd say that just about sums it up.

[+] EnlargeJabari Parker
Mark Dolejs/USA TODAY SportsAll eyes will be on Jabari Parker's performance at North Carolina tonight.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Now that the weather has cleared and friend of the Watch Dickie V isn't looking quite so bummed out on Instagram, we can finally get back to the business of Parker’s first and likely only trip to the Dean E. Smith Center, which, as you might have heard, happens tonight. If there was some possible way McDermott could have lost the POY award, eight days ago I would’ve said this was the chance for Parker to put on a case-bolstering show with all eyes watching. But that window is now closed, so instead, you'll have to settle for watching one of the most gifted offensive players in years -- and still a crucial anchor for the Blue Devils on the defensive glass -- play on the road in the best rivalry in the sport. So there's that.

3. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): So Cincinnati beat the daylights out of Houston and UCF this week, and Kilpatrick jumps from No. 10 to No. 3? What gives, Brennan? What gives is that Kilpatrick's sensational play in both games (9-of-16 from 2, 8-of-18 from 3, 51 points, seven assists, six rebounds, one turnover, 146 offensive rating, need I go on?) was indicative of his immense individual season writ large. Among players who use more than 28 percent of their team's possessions, only two -- McDermott and Canisius' Billy Baron -- are more efficient offensively. Neither plays the kind of defense Kilpatrick plays. It's high time we put him near the top of this list. He's been great.

4. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: This wasn't Thames' greatest week, but whatever: He's still using 28.1 percent of his team's possessions and putting up a 120.1 offensive rating, which is positively McDermottian (or Kilpatrickian). He creates assists, he doesn't turn the ball over, he plays great defense, and all of the above is utterly priceless to a San Diego State team that still doesn't have another reliable offensive weapon. Where would the Aztecs be without him?

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsIs Louisville's Russ Smith under the radar? Not in this blog post.

5. Russ Smith, Louisville: Can y'all just let the Based King live?

"I have two Final Fours, I have Big East championships, a national championship. I have all the accolades. Now they're saying I'm under the radar. If you want me to get 30 and 40, I can do that. But I don't need to do that. Now I'm getting my teammates involved, I'm being solid, I'm being efficient. Now everybody thinks Russ is bad now.

"I'm efficient, I'm getting guys the ball, I'm averaging five assists, having the best assist-to-turnover ratio of my life. I'm good. I could care less about who they think is better than me. Guys have to do more on other teams, I have to do less. All I have to do [is] put guys in the position to do good, and that's what I'm doing."

You know what? In his own way, Smith is exactly right! He's having the best and most efficient statistical season of his life, and he was already way better last season than most people gave him credit for. Russ, you're not under the radar here, man. Also, stop reading Twitter. Your coach doesn't like that.

6a. C.J. Fair, Syracuse
6b. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse

We're going to stick to our corner-cutting guns, and include Fair and Ennis as a tandem, for at least one more week. Maybe we'll have to decide between one of the two eventually, but that process didn't get any easier even as Syracuse barely survived NC State and then fell at home to Boston College on Wednesday night. The Orange are still 25-1, and Fair is still Fair, and Ennis is still Ennis, and the workhorse-finisher combo should still hold the Orange in good stead in the weeks to come.

7. Shabazz Napier (Connecticut): How did Shabazz fare this week? Um, well: He made five 3s and went 10-for-21 from the field for 34 points in 37 minutes (with five assists, four rebounds and four steals) in a huge UConn home win over Memphis. Find a replay of that game if you can. It was a lot of fun.

8. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Would Early be on this list if Wichita State weren't undefeated? That's a good question. I'm not sure. He'd be really close either way, of course, but his individual numbers don't quite stack up with a handful of players here. You could argue that has more to do with the Shockers' balance than anything else -- you might also take Ron Baker or Fred VanVleet here -- and that's kind of my point: Wichita State is undefeated, and minimizing that fact or Early's contributions to it would be a mistake.

9. Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle is ho-humming his way through some typically dominant interior performances, but his best contribution this week was whatever explanation he offered John Calipari that led to one of the greatest college basketball gifs of all time. May we cherish it forever.

10. Nick Johnson, Arizona: It's probably time to downgrade Nick Johnson a bit, if not take him off the list, after Friday's 5-of-20, three-turnover performance in Arizona's loss at Arizona State. It's not like Johnson doesn't deserve to be here. Let's not get crazy. But he hasn't been a top-five player in the country lately.

Honorable mentions: Casey Prather (Florida), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Lamar Patterson (Pittsburgh), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Gary Harris (Michigan State), T.J. Warren (NC State), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Jabari Brown (Missouri)

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week13

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
11:00
AM ET

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: The Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker will be shorter than usual this week, and not just because we here at ACMcDAT Industries are wary of repeating the same mind-bending statistics week in and week out. But there are a few nuggets worth passing along:

  • Last Friday, McDermott scored 32 points at DePaul. Two days later, he dropped 25 on 10-of-18 shooting at St. John’s. The Bluejays lost that game -- you may light your standard-issue ACMcDat Vigil Candles now -- but that two-day stretch of work made McDermott the first player in more than two decades to score more than 1,000 field goals in a career. He’s at 1,011 and counting.
  • Here’s a good bit of context on McDermott’s insane combination of efficiency and usage from SI.com’s Luke Winn: “In the past 10 seasons, in the major conferences and Mountain West, only six players have attempted more than 36 percent of their team's shots. Creighton's Doug McDermott is one of those players. And he's the most efficient one of those players, by a good margin. Are you at all surprised?” McDermott averages 37.9 percent of his team’s shots, third-most in the country.
  • And finally, from Creighton SID Rob Anderson: “Doug McDermott’s been Big East Player of the Week six times already this year, tying a conference mark first set by John Wallace and Troy Murphy. He’s been named MVC Newcomer of the Week (7), MVC Player of the Week (13) or Big East Player of the Week (6) a combined 26 times in his 62-week in-season career.” That’s pretty good, we guess.

One last thing: Thursday night, Creighton plays at Butler. The Bulldogs aren’t very good this season, but I don’t care: If you live in the Indianapolis area and don’t plan to go see McDermott’s one and only trip to Hinkle Fieldhouse, you are not a very good basketball fan. That is all.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Does the weather know no bounds? Does it, at long last, have no decency? I’m pretty sure Dick Vitale has never been photographed not smiling in his life, and now look, weather! Look what you did! Look at how filtered and sad this Instagram photo is! On Wednesday night, decidedly gross road conditions throughout the Southeast postponed Duke’s trip to North Carolina. Not only did this weather delay Parker’s first and likely only trip to the Dean Dome, it turned Dickie V’s Instagram into a Bill Callahan album cover. Stupid weather, ruining everything.

3. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Arizona’s first two games in the post-Brandon Ashley era did nothing to hurt Johnson’s player of the year stock: He averaged 14 points in each and played 39 minutes (and made 8 of 11 from the free throw line) in Thursday’s tight win over Oregon. It’s going to be interesting to see what Arizona looks like without Ashley, how Sean Miller tweaks his previously dominant group. But whatever he does, Johnson will have to be a major part of it -- perhaps even more so than before -- for the Wildcats to maintain their national title aspirations.

[+] EnlargeTyler Ennis
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsThe latest example of Tyler Ennis' knack for clutch play makes it impossible to leave him out of the Watch.
4a. C.J. Fair, Syracuse

4b. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse

In the early weeks of Wooden Watch, Fair earned Syracuse’s POY place. Then, as Ennis emerged as one of the best players in the country, he took the spot. For the past few weeks, Fair has reclaimed the throne and held firm, and for good reason: He plays 93 percent of Syracuse’s available minutes, is integral to what the Orange do on both sides of the ball and was unstoppable in that 91-89 OT win over Duke. Plus, Jim Boeheim called him the best player on his team, and I am not in the business of arguing with Boeheim.

Now, barely 12 hours after the 35-foot 3-pointer Ennis hit to sink Pittsburgh at the Pete, the Watch has made an executive decision: Why not both?

Fair might be the wire-to-wire workhorse, but the numbers Ennis has put up (121.0 offensive rating, 32.3 percent assist rate, 13.3 turnover rate, 4.1 steals percentage, etc.) are (A) great in their own general right, and (B) utterly insane in crunch time. Per ESPN Stats and Info: "In one-possession games (when the score is within three points) in the final five minutes of the second half and overtime this season, Ennis is now 8-of-9 from the field, including the game-winning 3-point field goal as time expired against Pittsburgh, and 14-of-14 from the free throw line.” Not only did Ennis make the game-winning 3 Wednesday, he also coolly sank the go-ahead free throws with 14 seconds left. He is Syracuse’s closer, and the Orange are 24-0. I say we shouldn’t have to choose between Ennis and Fair. They both belong.

5. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: San Diego State suffered its first loss since Nov. 14 on Tuesday night, falling 68-62 at Wyoming. Laramie, Wyo., is a tough place to play, and the Aztecs were bound to lose eventually. No big deal.

6. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: How great is Gregg Marshall? The Wichita State coach was a special guest on ESPN’s studio coverage during Syracuse-Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, and not only did he reject the kind-of-silly notion that his unbeaten Shockers “need” to lose before they get to the NCAA tournament, he also openly rooted against Syracuse. The man wants to be undefeated. He invites the pressure of it all. He knows his players -- Early chief among them -- are more than capable of handling it.

7. Russ Smith, Louisville: Nothing has changed since November: Smith is still one of the best players in the country on both offense and defense. He’s still having the best season of his career by a wide margin. And thanks to some circumstances outside his control (such as Louisville not being best team in the country) and some inside of it (his unique ability to draw Rick Pitino’s vocal postgame frustration), he's still not getting the wide-ranging national player of the year love he deserves. Such is the curse of Russdiculous.

[+] EnlargeJulius Randle
Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT/Getty ImagesJulius Randle has been so consistent for Kentucky that it's easy to take him for granted. Don't make that mistake.
8. Julius Randle, Kentucky: What was that about nothing changing? Randle has, save a few blips here and there, been his same dominant, interior self from the get-go. Saturday’s visit from Florida should help us freshen our copy a bit. It’s getting really hard to overanalyze the Wildcats at this point. Quick, Coach Calipari, say something crazy!

9. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: The Watch left Napier in its honorable mentions field last week, drawing the ire of Connecticut fans and bearded hoops correspondents alike. The Watch would like to go on record saying that you guys did not influence the process, because sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hu... OK, fine, you were right. With rare exceptions -- such as last week’s loss to Cincinnati -- Napier’s individual season has been uncommonly good, even as the Huskies have occasionally dipped their toes into mediocre waters. But how blah would they be without him? He absolutely belongs here.

10. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati: Cincinnati took one on the chin at SMU on Saturday, which makes this a slightly awkward time for Kilpatrick to leapfrog Lamar Patterson, Joel Embiid, Nik Stauskas et al, but oh well. SMU is really good, and anyway, Kilpatrick is a lot like Thames: not only an elite defender, but a super-efficient offensive option on a team that desperately needs him to be both.

Honorable mentions: Lamar Patterson (Pittsburgh), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Joel Embiid (Kansas), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Casey Prather (Florida), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Alan Williams (UC-Santa Barbara at Pomeroy)

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week12

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
11:00
AM ET


1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: We are in the midst of the longest break of the Creighton Bluejays’ season: Their last fixture was all the way back on Jan. 28, when McDermott splashed that 39 and a game winner on the Red Storm's unsuspecting heads. You'd think, then, that this would be a light week for the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker (ACMcDAT) -- the statistical equivalent of a walk-through. You’d think wrong.

McDermott is still averaging 25.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the field, 43.9 percent from 3, and 89.3 percent from the free throw line. His offensive rating (121.5), true shooting (62.5), usage (33 percent) and shot rate (37 percent) is all still what it was last week. He’s still closing in on Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson on the all-time scoring list.

[+] EnlargeMcDermott
Eric Hartline/USA TODAY SportsDoug McDermott is on the verge of being the first player in 21 years to eclipse the 1,000-field goal mark.
But, thanks to a hot ESPN Stats & Info collabo, the ACMcDAT is pleased to add these fresh knowledge patties to your brain grill:

  • McDermott needs eight field goals to reach 1,000 in his career. The last time any player reached 1,000 career field goals in a season was 1992-93, when Calbert Cheaney and Alphonso Ford both surpassed that mark.
  • McDermott led the nation in field goals in each of the past two seasons. He is on pace to do so again in 2013-14. If he does, he will be the first player since Wayman Tisdale in 1983-85 to accomplish that feat.
  • Fittingly, Tisdale and his contemporary, some guy named Patrick Ewing, were the last players to earn three straight first-team All-American selections. McDermott will do the same this season.

A week off? The ACMcDAT doesn’t take weeks off, and neither do the crazy things you can find to say about Doug McDermott’s career.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Remember when Parker was in a slump? It isn’t much of a slump anymore. Since Parker got back on track against NC State on Jan. 18 he’s posted offensive ratings of 141, 104, 104, 105, 93, and 153 while averaging 18.5 points per game. That 93 came against Syracuse, by the way, when he finished with 15 points on 15 shots in just 26 foul-pocked minutes. The Syracuse interior was too much for Duke on a systemic level. But Parker’s scoring was noticeable when he was on the floor, and he followed that up with Tuesday’s near-perfect 21-point, 8-of-10, 8-rebound, 2-block, 2-steal night in a 20-point win over Wake Forest. When he’s scoring like that, he’s capital-G great. When he’s not, he’s still Duke’s second-best rebounder. In any case, the Blue Devils aren’t close to the nation’s most efficient offense without him.

3. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Saturday was a tough night for Arizona generally, and for Nick Johnson specifically. The Wildcats scored 58 points in 66 possessions -- and shot 2-of-11 from 3 and 18-of-51 from 2 (!) -- in their first loss of the season. Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending injury. And Johnson finished with the worst line of his career: 4 points, 1-of-14 from the field, 5 turnovers, 27 ORtg. Just … blech. Worse yet, his last miss of the game was a good look Johnson earned from 14 feet or so, one that just didn’t fall -- and opened the window for California’s Justin Cobbs to make the game winner on the other end.

And so what? Rough nights happen. Shots don’t go in. You lose conference games on the road. Do not reappraise Johnson’s player of the year candidacy based on the biggest outlier that ever out … lied? Laid? Lay?

4. C.J. Fair, Syracuse: So C.J. Fair kind of had a rough night of his own Monday night. Did you notice? Trevor Cooney scored 33 and Syracuse won, so it was all good. But Fair did play probably his worst game of the season. File this under the Nick Johnson "So what?" file: On Saturday night Fair unleashed one of the most beautiful, brilliant individual scoring performances I’ve seen a long time. His Saturday against Duke was the fully realized C.J. Fair, the Fair that Jim Boeheim has seen in his mind’s eye for years, the one who had Duke fans pleading for mercy -- the Fair who went so far above and beyond his "reliable workhorse" baseline that he was bound to suffer a slight hangover come Monday night. Well-earned.

5. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: Thames is so good. I understand this is not an especially interesting thing to write about a basketball player. But really: What can you say?

By now, you should know how San Diego State’s formula works: The Aztecs play insanely good defense on one end of the floor and then rely on Thames for a huge share of their offense on the other end. Thames is so good, he makes this formula work. Wednesday night’s come-from-behind 67-65 win at Boise State -- a ruthless, ice-cold dagger delivered through the Broncos' collective sternum -- was maybe the best example yet.

[+] EnlargeXavier Thames
Kent C. Horner/Getty ImagesXavier Thames makes San Diego State go, as he showed once again Wednesday night.
After an uncharacteristically lenient first half, Steve Fisher's team clamped down on the defensive end in the second, which is when Thames went to work: At the 5:50 mark, his 3 cut Boise’s lead to 2. On the next possession, he tied it. Then he made the go-ahead bucket at 4:05 to give San Diego State its first lead since Thames' first 3 in the first 26 seconds of the game. With 58 seconds left, he swiped a steal from Boise star Derrick Marks, got to the free throw line, and made both. Then, on the decisive possession, he drew every defender in the incorporated western territories before deciding to pass to Dwayne Polee II, who made a wide-open 3.

Thames finished with 23 points in 27 minutes on 5-of-7 from the field (3-of-4 from 3) and 10-of-11 from the free throw line, and the Aztecs still haven’t lost since Arizona on Nov. 14. Seriously, dude is good.

6. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Early was a charter member of the honorable mentions (this would have been a great band name in 1993) pretty much since the start of the season. It’s about time we involved him more fully in this discussion, because there isn’t much he isn’t good at. He rebounds the ball, especially on the defensive end. He shoots efficient percentages from everywhere (55.0/35.7/83.8). He blocks shots. He gets to the free throw line. And, oh by the way, he does all of it for a team that after Wednesday night’s win at Indiana State (their toughest regular-season game to date, and remaining) now has, per KenPom.com, a 55.6 percent chance of ending the season unbeaten. (The BPI roughly concurs.) The mutual excellence of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet had something to do with why Early wasn’t on this list … previously. But it's time to choose sides now, and he's the Shockers' easy choice.

7. Russ Smith, Louisville: If we’ve said it once, we’ve said a hundred times: Smith is having the best season of his career -- scoring, passing, defending, the works. That he occasionally drives his coach crazy, and that his team isn’t quite as good as last year's national title contender, need not be held against him.

8. Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh: Patterson still wasn’t his typically hyper-efficient self at Miami Wednesday, but he finished with 25 points, and the Panthers escaped Coral Gables, Fla., with a win. After two squandered chances to beat good teams at home (Duke, Virginia) with a six-day rest between them, Pitt’s season -- and Patterson's All-American candidacy -- couldn’t have afforded a loss to the 11-11 Hurricanes.

9. Julius Randle, Kentucky: The bona fide star of the Most Analyzed Team in Sports History" has recovered from that ugly 3-for-11 at LSU quite nicely: He was solid in Tuesday’s win over Ole Miss and imperious in the second half against Missouri, making one big shot after another as Kentucky held off a super-hot Tigers team for a huge road win. UK’s offense has gone back and forth between gorgeous and grinding, but its baseline operates as a function of what Randle does, and the attention defenses must pay him.

10. Joel Embiid (Kansas): It wasn't that Kansas' loss to Texas Saturday was all that surprising: The Longhorns have been playing better-than-you-think ball for most of the season. But the details were stunning. The Jayhawks' steamroller of an offense was held to just 69 points in 69 trips thanks largely to the fact that Texas was bigger, stronger, and tougher on the inside. To wit, Rick Barnes' team blocked 12 KU attempts, or 23.5 percent of their shots. Kansas blocked only four. It is fair to bump Andrew Wiggins off this list (he was No. 10 last week, and he submitted a 7-point, 1-for-10 stinker), but Embiid deserves to stay, for now.

Honorable mentions: Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Shabazz Napier (Connecticut), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati), Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State), Keith Appling (Michigan State), Casey Prather (Florida), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico)

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week11

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30
11:00
AM ET

The original version of this file just said "Doug McDermott, Doug McDermott, Doug McDermott, Doug McDermott" over and over again for 1,000 words, but my editors told me that wouldn't work,* so I guess we'll stick with the usual format.

*Not actually a true story.

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: This week’s Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker (ACMcDAT) could probably just be reduced to an embed of this video, highlights of McDermott’s Tuesday night against St. John’s, when he shot 15-of-26 and scored 39 of his team's 63 points -- including the game-winning 3. But just like my first (not real!) submission, that would be a disservice to the loyal members of ACMcDAT Nation. So here it is, your list of ACMcDAT facts:

  • McDermott is now averaging 25.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the field, 43.9 percent from 3, and 89.3 percent from the free throw line.
  • He takes 37.9 percent of his team’s shots and ends 33 percent of their possessions. Despite these facts, his offensive rating is 121.5 and his true shooting percentage 62.5.
  • This week, McDermott scored the 2,741st point of his career, which moved him to 18th on the all-time scoring list. He passed both Reggie Lewis and Hank Gathers in doing so. Next in line: J.J. Redick, Allan Houston, Kevin Bradshaw, Otis Birdsong and Larry Bird.
  • If McDermott averages 25 points in his last nine regular-season games, he will enter the Big East tournament with 2,966 career points, seven shy of Oscar Robertson.
  • No one is ever going to catch Pete Maravich's all-time scoring record because he scored 44.2 points per game. Don’t ask, next question.
  • Thanks to Creighton sports information director Rob Anderson, the ACMcDAT now includes the following information: On Tuesday night, McDermott made five shots off the backboard and two with his left hand. Of his 992 career field goals, 436 banked in, and 126 were shot lefty.
  • Creighton’s offense is scoring 1.25 points per possession this season, best in the country, and 1.20 against Big East opponents, best in the league.
  • He's probably top-five on this list. I might put him at No. 3.
  • He's going to win the Wooden Award.

McDermott has really done the Wooden Watch a solid these past few weeks. Figuring out the rest of this list will still be tough, but the No. 1 spot will be very, very easy. Thanks, Doug.

2. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Forget ACMcDAT negligence: The best argument for keeping the rest of these rankings fresh resides in Tucson, Ariz. Johnson is an efficient scorer and all-around offensive player who also just so happens to be an elite perimeter defender. On Wednesday, the former gave Arizona the decisive go-ahead margin it needed in a 3-point survival at Stanford. But it was the latter -- that defense, and how coach Sean Miller implements Johnson alongside the Wildcats' brutish interior core -- that held the Cardinal to just two field goals in the final 10 minutes. Before Johnson iced his 3, he made one of the best help-defense blocks we've seen all season. It was his national-player-of-the-year case wrapped in one tidy highlight package. In any other season, he'd be No. 1.

[+] EnlargeJabari Parker
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesJabari Parker has improved his defense and rediscovered his scoring touch for Duke.
3. Jabari Parker, Duke: There was a time not so long ago when McDermott was not the No. 1 player on this list, when Parker was the prime candidate for player of the year -- the efficient and high-usage engine of a Duke offense that desperately needed to outscore its opponents to win. Then Parker slumped, and Duke lost games at Notre Dame and Clemson, and also Doug McDermott. But these days, the Blue Devils are looking downright sturdy defensively. The Chicago native's improvement on that end has been noticeable, and his defensive rebounding remains crucial. In the meantime, as in his 21-point, 11-rebound outing in an 80-65 win at Pittsburgh Monday, he has rediscovered his scoring touch. What better time to rediscover Parker?

4. C.J. Fair, Syracuse: Last week, Jim Boeheim’s insistence that Fair was his team’s best player helped convince the Watch to include him over point guard Tyler Ennis. The temptation to swap the two again beset the Watch this week. Ennis did have 16 points in the second half at Wake, after all, and his combination of effective outside shooting and ballhandling (Ennis finds a teammate for a score on 31.1 percent of his possessions and turns it over on just 12.6 percent) remains as lethal as ever. But the one real flaw plaguing Fair's game early in the season -- turnovers -- is slowly starting to recede, and in the meantime he's playing 91.9 percent of his team’s available minutes (!) and using 26.5 percent of Syracuse's possessions while doing so. That's … kind of crazy.

5. Nik Stauskas, Michigan: Let's go to John Gasaway for a remote report on Nik Stauskas. John? "Since [Jan. 2], John Beilein's team has not failed to record at least 1.13 points per in any game. Over this six-game, non-pedestrian span UM has made 60 percent of its twos and 40 percent of its threes. (I think there’s a t-shirt design waiting to happen there.) For Nik Stauskas personally, those six-game numbers are 60 and 46 percent respectively, and in that stretch he's taken 25 percent of the shots that occur in this offense during his minutes. Well, I can certainly see why the Wooden committee wants nothing to do with this guy." Thanks, John. And let me just say, for all of us here in the Wooden Watch studios, we certainly want everything to do with Stauskas. Because Stauskas, as the kids say, is Ball. Ing. And now, the weather …

6. Joel Embiid (Kansas): On Wednesday night, I looked up from my laptop early in Kansas’s 92-81 home win over Iowa State just in time to see Embiid take the ball on the left block, engage with the post defender, pivot toward the baseline into his right shoulder and sink a tidy little 6-foot turnaround jumper. It’s possible Embiid has made that exact shot before, but I haven’t seen it. It may have been the first time he attempted it. Here’s the point: This happens all the time. You put your head down for a minute, and then you look up, and Embiid is putting into practice something that even most good college big men can't do with decades of camps at their back. Oh, and he blocks 12.2 percent of opponents' shots, too. So there's that.

7. Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh: For a relatively deep dig into exactly what Duke did to arguably the nation’s second-best offensive player in his 4-of-14 performance Monday night, see here. You should also know that before Monday’s off night, Patterson had 28 points in 14 shots with 7 rebounds, 7 assists and 4 steals at Maryland. He deserves to stay.

8. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: As of Thursday, two players in the country use more than 28 percent of their team's possessions and have a higher offensive rating than Thames. One is Billy Baron, who is putting up some wild numbers at Canisius this season. The other is Cameron Bairstow, who would be in the top 10 if New Mexico wasn't quite so permissive on defense. (McDermott, for what it's worth, ranks fourth on this list, despite that 33 percent usage rate. Also wild.) San Diego State guards like crazy but has no other offensive options, save one. Fortunately, the one it does have is really, really good.

9. Russ Smith, Louisville: Smith's player-of-the-year candidacy looks destined to go overlooked this season for a variety of team-related reasons, but now that Louisville has won four straight (including that road win at UConn), it's a good time to bring him back into the discussion. Because Smith is still playing the most efficient offense of his career, shooting the ball and dishing easy buckets to teammates more effectively than ever before and still playing his disruptive brand of perimeter defense.

10. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: Here’s the thing about Wiggins: He has been pretty good for most of the season. He hasn't been LeBron James 2.0. He hasn't been perfectly consistent from game to game. But a baseline, his all-around, all-court performance has been immensely solid. Now -- with 56 points in his past two games, 29 of which came Wednesday against Iowa State -- we're starting to see some of the brilliance that had NBA scouts so excited. If he keeps it up, and Kansas keeps looking like the Non-Arizona, Non-Syracuse Team Most Likely To Win The National Title, we'll be discussing him more in the future.

Besides, Julius Randle had his worst game of the season at LSU (3-of-11, six points, five rebounds) Tuesday, and Marcus Smart hasn't played all that well of late. Also, he's being punished for excessive flops. It's Wooden Watch, not Wooden Flops, am I right? OK, we’ll stop now.

Honorable mentions: Smart (Oklahoma State), Randle (Kentucky), Keith Appling (Michigan State), Casey Prather (Florida), Shabazz Napier (Connecticut), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State)

Conference play means adjustments

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
12:06
AM ET

It seems like every team had to make some sort of adjustment in conference play.

No. 17 Ohio State and Illinois were in need of major overhauls after both entered Thursday’s meeting on four-game losing streaks.

No. 1 Arizona and No. 6 Florida had the luxury of needing only a few tweaks.

And then there were teams such as No. 15 Cincinnati and Colorado, which have had to adjust to the loss of injured players.

None breathed a sigh of relief quite like the Buckeyes did, though. Ohio State topped the Fighting Illini 62-55 and can, at least temporarily, change its season’s narrative. Its 15-0 start flipped to "What’s wrong in Columbus?" very quickly as losses piled up and offensive weaknesses were exposed.

There was nothing more symbolic of the Buckeyes' struggle through four games as one sequence early in the second half Thursday.

Amir Williams had a clear path to the rim and a sure dunk that he bounced off the back of the rim. Ohio State controlled the ball and Williams again found himself making his way to the basket when he got his shot altered and the Illini headed the other way.

The Buckeyes didn’t let their losing streak, nor their 29 percent shooting in the first half, create unnecessary pressure. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta figured out ways to get his two leading scorers open shots. Some of them came off Illinois’ 15 turnovers, but many others came in half-court sets.

[+] EnlargeLaQuinton Ross, Rayvonte Rice
AP Photo/Paul VernonLaQuinton Ross and Ohio State were able to find some offensive cohesion in the second half against Illinois, breaking a four-game losing streak.
Leading scorer LaQuinton Ross, who had only four points in the first half, pumped out 14 for the Buckeyes in the second. Lenzelle Smith Jr., who entered the game shooting 16 percent from 3-point range in Big Ten play, went 4-of-8 from behind the arc and scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half.

Smith hit a huge 3-pointer with 1:25 left that gave Ohio State a 58-50 lead, and the Illini never got within one basket the rest of the way.

Just as the Buckeyes got a temporary reprieve from their struggles, it seems like trouble for Illinois is about to hit unfair levels. The Illini still have three games remaining in a five-game stretch that features four ranked opponents.

They left Columbus with many questions on how they can adjust, especially after leading scorer Rayvonte Rice, who averaged 17.4 points per game, was held scoreless on 0-for-8 shooting against Ohio State.

Arizona isn’t searching for much of anything after winning its 19th straight game. Wildcats coach Sean Miller is keeping his rotation tight, using only eight players against the Buffaloes. But eight was obviously enough for Arizona, which never trailed, as Nick Johnson led the Wildcats with 18 points.

The way Arizona is playing, it’s hard to imagine a healthy Spencer Dinwiddie would have made much of a difference.

Dinwiddie was Colorado’s leading scorer before suffering a season-ending knee injury on Jan. 12 in a loss at Washington. Wing Tre'Shaun Fletcher was hurt in the same game, but he's expected to return. Since then, the Buffaloes have been trying to find a viable third scoring threat to help replace Dinwiddie's 14.7 points per game.

It’s unfair to expect too much from freshman Jaron Hopkins, who replaced Dinwiddie in the lineup. He finished with two points on 1-of-5 shooting.

Both Josh Scott and Askia Booker have been consistent double-figure scorers, and they contributed 13 and 11 points, respectively, against the Wildcats. But it was sophomore forward Xavier Johnson who had the kind of breakout performance that could signal readiness for a bigger role.

Johnson scored a game-high 21 points -- just one shy of his career high -- included 4-of-5 shooting from 3-point range. It was the only game this season in which he logged more than 10 field goal attempts.

No. 15 Cincinnati has had its share of attrition this season with freshman center Jamaree Strickland being declared ineligible, guard Jeremiah Davis III transferring to Ball State and forward Jermaine Lawrence suffering from turf toe that has kept him sidelined the past three games.

But the Bearcats continue to move forward and lead the American Athletic Conference after their 69-51 win over UCF. Sean Kilpatrick led the way with 19 points, but it is their defense -- one that held UCF to just 26 percent from 3-point range -- that keys their victories.

Arguably no ranked team has had to make as many adjustments as Florida this season, with injuries and suspensions forcing coach Billy Donovan to juggle his lineups. The Gators have proven to be a resilient group, as Alabama can attest.

On a night when the Gators shot only 37 percent, they still made 10 3-pointers. Michael Frazier II made five of his attempts beyond the arc for a game-high 18 points as Florida beat the Crimson Tide 68-62 for their third SEC road win.

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week9

January, 16, 2014
Jan 16
11:30
AM ET

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.

[+] EnlargeNick Johnson, Tony Parker
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillArizona's Nick Johnson is the most important player on the nation's No. 1 team.
Nick Johnson, Arizona: Last week, we subbed Johnson in for Aaron Gordon. Why? Gordon, for all of the things he brings to the table -- some of which, like the way his athleticism helps translate into so few good interior shots for Arizona’s opponents, can be invisible on paper -- really isn’t as important to his team. The most important and productive player on the nation’s best team is their guard Johnson, who boasts a 121.7 percent offensive rating, shoots 25.8 percent of his team’s available shots, and is the perimeter linchpin in what could otherwise be a one-dimensional Arizona attack.

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)

Team concept pays off for Arizona

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
2:17
AM ET

LOS ANGELES -- When you're putting together a puzzle, it's hard to remove one piece, hold it up on its own, and claim that it's the most valuable piece.

After all, what is that piece really worth without the surrounding pieces attached to it to make it whole?

Most coaches dream of having a team that plays as one -- connected like the pieces of a puzzle -- with each piece as valuable as the next. But that's not the way it usually works in basketball where there's often a star system and a hierarchy in place.

No one knows that balancing act better than Phil Jackson, who won 11 NBA titles with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant during his coaching career. Jackson was one of the many celebrities and athletes on hand to watch No. 1 Arizona beat UCLA, 79-75, Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion, and he smiled as he watched the action on the court.

Arizona's unselfish style would have made Jackson's mentor, Tex Winter, smile as well.
Winter was credited as the innovator of the Triangle offense and believed that every pass and cut has a purpose and everything is dictated by the defense. He also believed that egos needed to be checked at the door and was instrumental in getting Jordan and Bryant to understand the importance of trusting their teammates.

There are players talented enough to be stars on Arizona but there are no defined stars. They are a collection of players who have sacrificed individual numbers for a 16-0 record and a No. 1 ranking in the nation.

[+] EnlargeArizona/UCLA
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsAaron Gordon works to get off a shot against UCLA.
A big reason for this unselfish style comes from a couple of Pittsburgh-bred point guards who learned early from their coaching fathers the importance of spreading the ball around to your teammates.

Arizona coach Sean Miller, who played point guard at Pittsburgh from 1988 to '92, and Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell, who grew up in Pittsburgh and was the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Athlete of the Year in 2010, are mirrors of each other on the court. It's always about making the extra pass to find the open player and making sure everyone on the court is involved.

"Our point guard is unselfish and when you have an unselfish point guard it sometimes can become contagious," Miller said. "The other thing is our newcomers that are young and talented are great people. Great teammates are about winning. We don't deal with the egos or sometimes the selfishness that teams or great individual players can bring to the table."

McConnell, who had eight points and seven assists against UCLA, is a perfect tournament point guard. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound junior never gets rattled, always makes the right pass and is an extension of the coaching staff on the court.

"People don't care how much they score," McConnell said. "They get the satisfaction of getting the assist and that's rare in college basketball today. I think we all do a great job of finding open players and playing together as a team. I just set up the offense and find open players and they hit the open shots."

McConnell has embraced his leadership role on the team along with Nick Johnson, who had a game-high 22 points on Thursday. Both players gathered their teammates late in the second half after they blew a 13-point lead and were forced to come back to win the game.

"It was big for our team to keep our composure," McConnell said. "Nick's a great leader and we just gathered each other and said we're going to win this game, we just have to execute down the stretch."

Miller has several players on his roster who can play and guard multiple positions but none is as effective and able to adapt as quickly as Johnson. It's hard to make a push for being the best player in the country when you're playing on an unselfish team that spreads the ball around, but Miller wasn't shy about making a strong push for Johnson to be considered for player of the year honors.

"Yes, he should," Miller said when asked if Johnson should be in the conversation. "If you just look at statistics and how he defends and keep in mind he plays three positions. He plays the backup 1, starts at the 2 and many times when Gabe [York] and T.J. are in there with him he plays at the 3. The value that he brings to our team is really amazing."

His value was once again on display Thursday as he hit the go-ahead jumper over Bryce Alford to give Arizona the lead for good and added another free throw down the stretch. Afterward he was greeted by former Wildcats Gilbert Arenas, Luke Walton, Chris Mills and Miles Simon in the locker room. Even off the court, Johnson was unselfish when it came to crediting his performance.

"It starts with our point guard, that's very clear," Johnson said. "He had seven assists tonight. It starts with him and that's contagious. When we have an open man we try to hit him or get one more for our shooter. We're also forcing the ball down low and using our size, but it definitely starts with our point guard."

The Wildcats might be taking some by surprise this season, but the seeds for their unselfishness on the court were planted during offseason workouts and spearheaded by Johnson and McConnell, who knew how close they were to being the team they are now.

"I knew coming into this year we had a great team," Johnson said. "I really used our teams last year and the year before to see what to do and what not to do. We eliminated the stuff that we did bad last year and that's one of the reasons we are where we are right now."

They were reminded of another reason driving them this season as they looked up at the rafters of Pauley Pavilion before the game and then shook the hands of former Wildcats wearing championship rings after the game.

"The way our team is and how close we are off the court, it shows on the court," York said. "We're unselfish and we like to get things done. We all have a common goal and our common goal is to win the national championship. We all know what our goal is."

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week 3

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
1:00
PM ET

The third week of Wooden Watch (or as I like to call it, "Wooden Watch 3: The Watchening") brings with it more tumult than its preceding editions.

From sheer math alone, this makes sense. The Thanksgiving schedule pushed last week's Watch up to Tuesday, which has given us a nine-day stretch of uninterrupted basketball on which to base our way-too-early national player of the year prospectus. But pound-for-pound, those nine days were, I'd argue, every bit as good and every bit as tumultuous as any stretch that came before. Word to North Carolina.

The losses suffered by top teams -- and players on the POY contention short list -- do shake things up a bit, but it's important not to go too far. One loss does not a Wooden campaign ruin. (You're thinking of the Heisman.) We've been couching these early rankings with all sorts of disclaimers about just how early in the season it is, and that remains true -- even as we barrel headfirst into December. Let's see where we are, shall we?

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: After a brilliant start, Smart's first regression of the season came in Kissimmee, Fla., at the Old Spice Classic last weekend. Smart had 17 points and eight rebounds in a shaky 69-67 semifinal win over Butler, but the five turnovers he committed on Friday foreshadowed the five he would commit Sunday. That game, against Memphis, saw Smart stifled by a suddenly coherent Tigers perimeter scheme, and while Smart finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, he missed all five of his 3-point attempts. And yet, he retains his spot atop this list. Why? For one, Smart was clearly sick. I'm not offering excuses (nor taking credit away from Memphis, because the Tigers were great), but I am acknowledging realities. Second, well, it's one game. It's fine. Dude's really good. Moving on.

Russ Smith, Louisville: The North Carolina loss might have thrown people off Louisville's scent, but now that Michigan State is the latest to get a front-row seat to the Tar Heels' ongoing Jekyll and Hyde performance piece, let's go ahead and remind everyone that Louisville is playing top-10 offense and top-three defense, and that Smith, while maintaining his high usage and shot rates, has thus far pumped his assist rate to 37.5 percent (from 21.1 a year ago), shot 58.2 percent from 2-point range and kept his steals rate (4.1 percent) totally steady.

Doug McDermott, Creighton: I'm not willing to get too worked up about McDermott's one loss, either. Yes, I know Creighton fell to San Diego State and George Washington this week, but only one of those losses should be an indictment. Against San Diego State, Creighton was, well, Creighton: McDermott scored 30 points and shot 6-of-10 from 2 and 5-of-8 from 3, and the Bluejays' porous defense cost them the game anyway. Three years on, that's what you sign up for with the Bluejays -- same as it ever was. George Washington was a different story: McDermott was stifled by the Colonials in wholly unexpected fashion (seven points, 2-of-12 from the field, a tidy 54.0 offensive rating -- yikes). But, well, it's one game. It's fine. Dude's really good. Moving on.

Jabari Parker, Duke: I downgraded Parker's status last week because of Duke's putrid defense, but now that the Blue Devils have submitted two slightly better defensive performances -- one in a 72-66 loss to Arizona on Friday, the other in a 79-69 win (in 67 possessions) against Michigan on Tuesday -- it's time to elevate Parker once more. The ironic part? These last two games have been his worst offensively, the first two in which he failed to score at least 20 points (and less efficiently, too). But Parker is gobbling up defensive rebounds for a team that desperately needs him to be a stud on both ends of the floor, and he'll get his points, rest assured.

Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle hasn't been quite as efficient as he was at the start of the season, but he is still plugging along, dominating unsuspecting helpless interior defenses and gobbling double-doubles like some sort of mystical Norse basketball god. UK's 79-65 win over Providence on Sunday was Randle's first game of the season -- eight games in -- without a double-double. He had 12 points and eight boards. Even Thor must rest sometimes.

Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: The nice thing about Napier's player of the year candidacy is that it need not rest on a fuzzy term like "clutch" alone. Napier has been ruthless late in games, to be sure: His late winner against Florida on Monday required plenty of luck, but you knew he was going to ice that second chance as soon as the ball bounced to him. But you can also build Napier's case on the breadth of his point guard play, which has been as comprehensive as any guard's to date.

Casey Prather, Florida: In March, Billy Donovan may look back at the Gators' injury-riddled November and thank his lucky stars, for that was the month that Prather turned into a star. Prather makes his first appearance here this week, but it probably should have come sooner. In eight games to date, he's registered a 121.5 offensive rating while using 30.1 percent of his team's possessions; he's shot nearly 64 percent from the field; and he's rebounded 10.6 percent of Florida's available misses. Watching Prather, a three-year glue guy, slice defenses with Euro-steps and quick-twitch offensive rebounds has been an alternately confusing and thrilling process. Either way, he doesn't look like he's slowing down.

Nick Johnson, Arizona: Aaron Gordon gets all the attention, and he'll surely be on this list more than any Wildcat this season. But Arizona feels as much like an ensemble cast as any elite team in the country, and Nick Johnson is perhaps their most indispensable player -- the lone true shoot, drive or pull-up, all-court-style threat who makes Arizona more than a collection of impressive bigs.

Keith Appling, Michigan State: Appling can stay, despite Wednesday night's home loss to UNC, because, well, again: It's one game. Before Wednesday, Appling had been peerless, and he wasn't that bad Wednesday night, either. The current line is 57.1 percent from 2, 48.3 percent from 3, a 28.4 assist rate to just 13.0 turnover percentage, and more generally, an engaged, comfortable and balanced player on both ends of the floor.

Jahii Carson, Arizona State: Carson had his first comedown of the season at Miami on Sunday, when he somehow went 0-for-10 from inside the arc. That, plus Arizona State's sub-Duke defense, is reason for slight downgrade this week. (If this were a list of the most entertaining players, Carson would probably be No. 1 every week. He's fun to watch miss.)

Honorable mentions: Marcus Paige (UNC), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Gary Harris (Michigan State), Joseph Young (Oregon), Anthony Drmic (Boise State), Chaz Williams (UMass), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Tim Frazier (Penn State), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Roberto Nelson (Oregon State), Kendall Williams (New Mexico), Caris LeVert (Michigan), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State), T.J. Warren (NC State)

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