Wooden Award Watch List 2013-14: Preseason Rankings of Top Candidates

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistNovember 8, 2013

Wooden Award Watch List 2013-14: Preseason Rankings of Top Candidates

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    College basketball season is truly heralded by the preseason watch lists of its major individual awards, particularly the various player of the year trophies. The most prestigious of those honors may be the one that bears the name of college basketball's most legendary coach, John R. Wooden.

    We've yet to see the Wooden Award watch list, but other awards are shipping out their early candidates as First Tip Friday looms.

    Let's handicap some of the primary Wooden candidates, and we'll double-check them against the actual list, which should be released any minute now.

10. C.J. Fair, Syracuse

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    Versatile forward C.J. Fair proved capable of scoring from anywhere last season. His 50-percent effective field goal shooting included nearly 47-percent shooting from three-point range.

    On a Syracuse team that will miss departed shooters James Southerland and Brandon Triche, Fair's shooting stroke may be even more vital this year. His main problem will be that opponents will be all too aware of his importance.

    Fair is the only returning Orange player who averaged more than 5.1 points per game last season. His primacy in the offense is a major reason that he was voted the ACC's preseason player of the year. While Fair may get all the shots he can handle, he'll need unproven producers like sophomores Jerami Grant and Trevor Cooney and freshman Tyler Ennis to step up and take some defensive heat off of him.

    Fair's role as a linchpin of Syracuse's trademark 2-3 zone may be just as important as anything he does offensively. With 6'6" Michael Carter-Williams being replaced by the smaller Ennis at point guard, the Orange frontcourt will have more work to do in making up for the reduced backcourt length.

    Syracuse's transition to the ACC is a major story that will be closely watched all season long. Fair's candidacy for national honors will not lack for attention, whether his performance is flawless or flagging.

9. Jahii Carson, Arizona State

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    Jahii Carson could be college basketball's modern embodiment of Cool Papa Bell. The Negro League baseball legend was said to be fast enough to turn off a light switch and be in bed before the room went dark.

    If Arizona State's point guard has ever tried to challenge himself in that manner, we've yet to hear about it. But, watch him in a game, and you'll swear he might just be able to do it.

    Carson's quickness helped him burst on the scene in a major way as a freshman. He finished second in the Pac-12 in scoring and third in assists, shooting 47 percent from the floor. According to Hoop-Math.com, 119 of his 231 made baskets were at the rim. Only 12 of those 119 were assisted, meaning Carson broke a lot of kids down on his way to the rack.

    The Sun Devils expect to have a more potent supporting cast for Carson this season. It's far from inconceivable that he could lead the Pac-12 in both scoring and assists, and a double like that would get a lot of voters' attention, East Coast bias notwithstanding.

8. Gary Harris, Michigan State

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    Last season, we saw a sub-prime Gary Harris average nearly 13 points per game, shoot 41 percent from three-point range and win Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. All of that with a lingering shoulder injury.

    This year, the shoulder is healed, and Harris is in line for even bigger awards. He was voted preseason player of the year at Big Ten media day, and Michigan State was named the unanimous league favorite.

    A fully healthy Harris will be better able to use his 6'4", 205-pound frame to attack the basket and put defenses on their heels. Nearly half of last season's shots were three-pointers.

    The Spartans rank among most analysts' Final Four favorites, but they could benefit from the emergence of a primary scoring option. No player on the roster is better equipped to be that guy than Harris. The sooner someone convinces Keith Appling of that fact, the better MSU's title chances will be, and the more likely Harris will pull some more postseason hardware.

7. Shabazz Napier, UConn

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    As a man who's spent his entire career under that proverbial radar, Shabazz Napier went from Kemba Walker's caddy on a national championship team to the leader of a UConn squad ineligible to compete in an NCAA tournament.

    As a senior, Napier is once again the leader of his team, and his team has postseason glory to play for. The Huskies project as a primary favorite in the new American Athletic Conference, battling Louisville and Memphis for the league crown.

    Napier and backcourt mate Ryan Boatright may be the quickest guard tandem in America. That quickness and the new rule changes to crack down on defensive grabbing could allow both players to live at the foul line this season.

    The biggest threat to Napier's chase for national honors may in fact be Boatright. Either man could lead UConn in both scoring and assists. If there's a debate over who's the most valuable Husky, it'll be hard for Napier to stake a claim to any top player trophies.

6. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas

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    If we printed out all of the articles written about Andrew Wiggins since his commitment to Kansas and laid them end to end, the path of paper would likely stretch from Lawrence, Kansas to Jupiter (and not the one in Florida, either).

    He'll be scrutinized all season long as he takes his required stopover in college before entering the NBA draft. While expectations vary wildly on how much he'll score as a Jayhawk, it's commonly accepted that he'll thrive in whatever role coach Bill Self asks him to play.

    Wiggins is an odd fit at Kansas, since Self has had limited success with one-and-done prospects. Xavier Henry was a 13-PPG scorer. Josh Selby missed his first nine games and left after averaging seven points on 37 percent shooting. Ben McLemore played well in his one season, but that was after sitting out a season with transcript issues.

    Self is a coach unlikely to build his entire system around one player, so Wiggins will be hard-pressed to reach gaudy scoring figures. If he wins national honors, it's more apt to be through a stellar all-around season.

    He's a skilled and smart enough player to average six rebounds and six assists per game, numbers that can certainly draw All-American honors if he can add 16-18 points per game. Whether his stats are gaudy or shaky, though, Wiggins will never leave the national radar.

5. Julius Randle, Kentucky

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    Julius Randle may be the most versatile of the vaunted Kentucky recruits, and that statement is a mouthful. He's just as capable of banging with the bigs in the low post as stepping out for a long-range jumper.

    Where Randle may make the most noise, however, is on the break. The Wildcats will look to get out and run as much as possible to emphasize their athletic advantage. Randle is a solid ball-handler capable of taking a run from coast to coast, plus he's 6'9" and nearly 250 pounds. Defenders will have to fight every instinct of self-preservation to stay in and take a charge on a careening Randle.

    UK should be expected to maintain top-10 position all season at a minimum. Randle's capability to produce SportsCenter highlights every night should make him one of the faces of college basketball.

    Like several other candidates, though, Randle will have to share the ball. And there may be no team in the game with as many ravenous mouths to feed as Kentucky. Anthony Davis wasn't a volume scorer for UK when he won most of the POY honors in 2012, and that template should give Randle all the motivation he needs to excel on the glass and the defensive end.

4. Jabari Parker, Duke

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    Speaking of sharing the ball, Duke may have even more talent than Kentucky, at least on the perimeter. Blue Devil super frosh Jabari Parker was called "the best since LeBron" even before Andrew Wiggins was. Now, both get their chances to make a case for All-American honors.

    Parker's every game will be a national story as long as he wears the Duke blue and white. Defenses will need to play him honestly, lest they be torched by other scorers like Rodney Hood or Rasheed Sulaimon.

    Where Parker is likely to hold an advantage, at least statistically, over fellow freshmen stars Randle and Wiggins is that he'll be a primary inside option on his undersized Duke team.

    Parker's capable of drifting out to the three-point line and raining scores on opponents' heads, but he'll also be relied on to crash the glass. Unlike Randle, Parker doesn't have a pair of stud seven-footers to take boards away. The versatile Blue Devil is the most likely of the three to average a double-double at season's end.

3. Russ Smith, Louisville

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    For Louisville shooting guard Russ Smith, the loss of veteran backcourt mate Peyton Siva is a double-edged sword.

    If Smith pushes 20 PPG again, he may quiet critics who gave Siva too much credit for creating scoring opportunities. A big scoring average with a loss of efficiency, however, will paint Smith as the remorseless volume chucker those critics claim he's always been.

    New point guard Chris Jones is much more like Smith than Siva, a player who likes to get his shots off and set up for others later. The pair could spur each other to great productivity or struggle to get out of each other's way.

    Smith may rise and fall with his team's performance more than any other POY candidate in America. Siva's influence and leadership are often cited as primary catalysts for Louisville's back-to-back Final Fours. A Cardinal dropoff will be pinned on Smith, no matter how unfair the assessment. Keeping the Cards in the top five all season, however, will give Russdiculous a major credibility boost.

2. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State

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    Marcus Smart does nearly everything well on the court. A rebounder, passer and lockdown defender, Smart is also a poster boy for all the intangibles analysts swoon over, such as leadership and clutch play.

    What he's not a poster boy for is efficient shooting. Smart barely nudged past 40 percent from the floor last season, hitting only 29 percent from beyond the arc. As a 77 percent foul shooter, look for Smart to test the referees' vigilance in enforcing the new defensive rules, getting himself some easy points in the process.

    Few players in America will dominate the ball as much as Smart. He'll be tasked with helping teammates Le'Bryan Nash, Markel Brown and Phil Forte improve their scoring efficiency while similarly increasing his own.

    The comments Smart leveled at Andrew Wiggins in an interview with USA Today's Eric Prisbell have stoked the flame of an already pitched rivalry with the conference title hanging in the balance. Smart will stay front of mind all season, and if he comes out with strong performances in OSU's showdowns with Kansas, Smart will make himself a tough man to beat in any national POY debate.

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton

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    Only seven players in college basketball history have scored 3,000 career points. Doug McDermott needs 784 to crash that club.

    To score that many points, McDermott would need to average around 23 PPG, or repeat what he's done in each of the past two seasons. It's easier than it sounds when you've been one of the nation's 10 best true shooters in both of those seasons.

    McDermott was the only Bluejay to average double-figure points last season, and second-leading scorer Gregory Echenique graduated. It's not an exaggeration to claim that Creighton's entire game plan revolves around the coach's kid.

    While Russ Smith's Wooden candidacy could depend on how well his team performs, McDermott is almost the opposite. If he's not playing at an All-American level, Creighton doesn't contend in the Big East. The new conference will be must-see basketball, if only to handicap the built-in rivalry between it and the American.

    In that sense, McDermott is a standard bearer for his new league. A Big East player winning national POY is a victory for basketball schools over the ones who've mindlessly chased football dollars.

    For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron. Now playing: TBI's official Top 25 ballot.