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Wooden Watch: Ben Simmons vs. Buddy Hield takes center stage

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So, this is happening:

Buddy Hield, Oklahoma vs. Ben Simmons, LSU

In less than two days, we'll experience one of life's rarest and most precious joys: a mano-a-mano matchup between the Wooden Watch top two.

That's right: On Saturday (5 p.m. ET on ESPN), as part of the midseason nonconference madness that is the Big 12-SEC Challenge, Hield and No. 1-ranked Oklahoma will travel to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to take on Simmons and LSU. Overall, the game means much more to the Tigers, because despite having one of the best talents in recent memory in purple and gold, they remain very much on the NCAA tournament bubble. Save No. 5 Texas A&M's visit on Feb. 13, this fortuitously scheduled home nonconference matchup is their last best chance to drastically improve that situation. A win, unlikely as it might seem, would be massive.

The Wooden Watch doesn't care about that. Teams? Pshh. As far as the Watch is concerned, Saturday afternoon is about taking the two most talented dudes in college basketball, placing them, like childhood action figures, onto the same floor, and then sitting back for two hours and seeing what happens. It is about two stars maybe going bucket for bucket in an uptempo crash-test of a game, about the possibility of an end-to-end duel waged by two dudes putting their respective teams on their backs. And it's about marking the contrasts between the two most frequently dominant players of the 2015-16 season -- who have been No. 1 and No. 2, in that order, in every Wooden Watch to date.

And there are contrasts. Hield, the current front-runner, is playing for the top team in the country, and his status in this individual race has changed from obvious (after the Kansas classic) to unassailable in large part thanks to his crucial role in his team's impressive success.

As a junior, Hield was a conventional shooting guard with volume-scoring numbers (47 percent from 2; 36 percent from 3) good enough to make him the Big 12 Player of the Year. As a senior, he has mercilessly ripped out any lingering inefficiencies in his game (namely midrange shots) and emerged anew as a James Harden-esque machine whose sole purpose is to generate one of three things: a 3-pointer, a layup or a foul. In doing so, Hield has somehow maintained his alpha-dog portion of possessions (28.3 percent) and shots (30.5) while shooting 54 percent from 2 and 52 percent from 3. He's also better at the foul line (from 82.3 percent to 90.3), which is handy, since he's drawing 5.4 fouls per 40 minutes. He also plays great defense. He's the total package, Wooden Award-worthy even if he didn't play for a national title contender. That Hield does -- and that he's the biggest reason for the Sooners' success -- has made his eventual fourth-year coronation something like a sure bet.

Simmons, on the other hand, is a freshman. He did not tirelessly hone his game for four collegiate campaigns. Instead, the Australian native arrived fully formed in the fall, accompanied by Pacific Ocean-sized hype.

In the months since, Simmons has spent most of his time outpacing even the most drenched expectations about his talent. He is a gifted ball handler and an even better passer -- maybe the best passer in a college game that also includes Providence star Kris Dunn --- who is utterly unstoppable in the open floor. Simmons is also a 6-foot-10 forward who can score on the low block as well as most veteran big men. He is one of the best, most productive rebounders in the sport. He never shoots the ball outside 15 feet, which is his core offensive weakness, and he still draws seven fouls per 40 minutes. He is averaging 19.8 points, 12.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.8 steals and a block per game. His two months in the sport have unleashed a torrent of lathered NBA comparisons, some as lofty as LeBron James and Magic Johnson. Whatever his eventual NBA future (LeBron and Magic; no pressure, kid!), comparisons feel futile. Simmons is one of a kind.

Simmons' greatest non-stylistic difference with Hield remains his most restricting: He doesn't play for a national title contender. You have to get into the NCAA tournament first, and it remains unclear whether LSU will. Meanwhile, Simmons is now entering the most taxing portion of any freshman's season -- the second half of conference play -- and he could fade, even marginally, in the weeks to come. Yet it almost doesn't matter: No matter how good Simmons is, if his team doesn't drastically improve, his practical chances of winning the Wooden Award are nil. (Teams do matter after all!)

These are two very different players. They do, however, share at least one attribute: Both are so good that if you miss the games, you can still have fun just looking up their box scores.

Not that you'll need them Saturday. Because beginning at 5 p.m. ET, Hield and Simmons will share one more thing: a basketball court. And there's no missing that.


Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa

Chalk this up as yet another super-impressive tidbit about Iowa's start to Big Ten play. The latest? Sunday's 83-71 home win over Purdue. Complimentary as that was -- Purdue is good -- it was made even more eye-popping by the context. In the Hawkeyes' 7-0 start to conference play (also impressive!), four of their seven wins have come against Michigan State and Purdue. Yes, Iowa has subjected both the Spartans and the Boilermakers to regular-season sweeps. In doing so, Fran McCaffery's team has ascended to truly lofty heights: No. 3 in the AP poll, No. 2 in adjusted efficiency and No. 5 in the Basketball Power Index.

No one saw this coming. Then again, no one saw Jarrod Uthoff coming. And even if you thought Uthoff was a wildly underrated player on the verge of a breakout season, you probably wouldn't have guessed that he'd be the only college player ever to average more than two made 3s and three blocks per game. Or that he would rank in the Big Ten's top 20 in 34 different statistical categories. Or that he would lead the league in points per game, rebounds per game, blocks per game, block rate and PER. You could have had a poster of Uthoff on your wall with "Tiger Beat"-style print, and you wouldn't have seen this coming. Yet here we are.


Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

Were you eagerly awaiting Denzel Valentine's return to the Wooden Watch conversation? Were you tired of hearing caveats about his candidacy, the bummed-out broadcast asides about how dazzling Valentine had been before his minor injury? Were you ready to see 'Zel not only playing well but leading Michigan State to a win over a marquee opponent once more?

If you replied "yes" to any of the above, Saturday's 74-65 win over Maryland was for you.

Because here's the thing: Valentine was never bad. Even as the Spartans dropped three games in a span of seven days this month -- home to Iowa, at Wisconsin, and then, worst of all, home to Nebraska -- Valentine was still mostly productive. You'd assume he was a mess against the Cornhuskers; how else could MSU lose that game? Instead, he shot 6-of-8 from 3 en route to 24 points, six rebounds and six assists. He was still really good.

Yet Saturday was refreshing in its own way. It wasn't just that Valentine played especially well against the Terps, or that he once again initiated the action in his ongoing flirtation with the triple-double (19 points, 14 rebounds, 8 assists). It's that he was once again in command of a Spartans team that played extremely hard, cleared the glass, got intelligent and efficient contributions from role players, pulled shooting guard Bryn Forbes out of his mini-slump and, more than anything, executed Tom Izzo's defensive game plan to a tee. There were flaws, but even so, Saturday was the first reminder in a while of why the Spartans were No. 1 earlier in the season. And it was a reminder why Valentine is so good and so well-rounded and so crucial to wherever the Spartans go from here.


Brice Johnson, North Carolina

There's not a whole lot to add where Brice Johnson is concerned, which is to say that (A) he and the Tar Heels have played just once since last week's Wooden Watch, a 75-70 road win at Virginia Tech and (B) Johnson was as good as ever in said win. After his 27-point, 11-rebound performance on Jan. 20 (on 8-of-12 shooting from the field and 11-of-12 from the line) against a typically sturdy Wake Forest interior, Johnson recorded 19 points, 17 rebounds, 3 blocks and 3 steals against the Hokies. Whatever Johnson lost in the efficient-scoring department against the Hokies on Sunday (when he was a mere 8-of-15 from the field, the slacker), he more than made up for with, you know, 17 rebounds and all those defensive plays. Another dominant night. Ho-hum.

It is remarkable how much better Johnson has become. Generally speaking, we were bullish on Johnson two years ago, when the departure of James Michael McAdoo seemed just the thing the then-rising junior needed to expand his already solid but still developing game. Save a few more minutes, Johnson was almost the same exact player in the year that followed. That appeared to be his ceiling. It wasn't, not even close, and now North Carolina -- winners of their past 11, with a backloaded ACC gauntlet standing between them and a return to conference glory -- are reaping the considerable benefits.

Honorable mentions

Kris Dunn, Providence Friars
Georges Niang, Iowa State
Josh Hart, Villanova
Melo Trimble, Maryland
Perry Ellis, Kansas

On the radar

Gary Payton II, Oregon State
Yogi Ferrell, Indiana
Michael Young, Pittsburgh

Kahlil Felder, Oakland Golden Grizzlies
Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia