Wooden Award Watch 2014: Ranking All 15 Finalists Entering March Madness

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistMarch 14, 2014

Wooden Award Watch 2014: Ranking All 15 Finalists Entering March Madness

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    The November meeting between Duke and Kansasmore frequently marketed as Jabari Parker vs. Andrew Wiggins, as if every other player on the court were a wax statue from Madame Tussaud'swas a fitting tipoff to this Year of the Freshman.

    Expectations were high that the rookie duo would compete with Arizona forward Aaron Gordon and any number of Kentucky's high-octane recruiting class for all of the national player of the year honors, leaving aged, decrepit underclassmen gasping in their wake.

    Fast-forward four months, and the John R. Wooden Award field is down to 15 finalists. While Wiggins and Parker are there, along with Kentucky forward Julius Randle, they're competing with a veteran group of seven seniors. You know, those old farts who stick around college because they're not good enough to be one-and-dones?

    These finalists have all put together tremendous seasons, otherwise they wouldn't be here. The most surprising development, however, may be that experience, not youth, will be served.

15. Casey Prather, Florida

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    Sorry, Florida fans, but someone's got to sit at the back of the line.

    Casey Prather's candidacy for SEC Player of the Year dipped as teammate Scottie Wilbekin's stock ascended. On a Florida team with a style that is anything but run-and-gun, there are only so many shots to go around, and Prather's share shrunk as he became a major defensive focus.

    The senior forward took 10 or more shots in 12 of the Gators' first 16 games, averaging 17.1 points per game in that span. Over the next 13 outings, Prather has had only two nights of double-digit shots, watching his average dip to 11.5 PPG. He's scored in single digits six times in the last 11 games after dropping at least 10 in each of his first 18.

    Of course, Prather's shot 65.1 percent in his last 13 games, so he's still a highly effective weapon when he's used. He's spent much of the SEC season being more of a decoy, and in doing so, he has helped Wilbekin win the aforementioned POY honor and Michael Frazier set a school three-point shooting record.

    After an undefeated SEC record and a No. 1 national ranking, most Gator-watchers should be OK with the way the offense is working.

    Still, fans of Xavier Thames, DeAndre Kane, T.J. Warren or Cameron Bairstow have justifiable gripes about their men being snubbed for Prather.

14. C.J. Fair, Syracuse

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    Syracuse forward C.J. Fair finally got his turn to step up and be the undisputed man as a senior. His 16.9 points and 6.2 rebounds suggest that he did a solid job at filling the role. Look deeper, though, and there's a sense that he could have accomplished even more.

    With defenses focusing on him first and foremost, Fair struggled through a great many terrible shooting nights. There was the 2-of-13 performance against St. Francis. The 5-of-17 against Cal. His 20 points and 11 rebounds in Syracuse's first loss to Boston College are strong figures, but he missed 16 of 23 shots to get those 20 points.

    Overall, Fair put up the lowest shooting percentages of his career. His three-point shot, which looked like a budding weapon when he shot 47 percent as a junior, fell to 28.6 percent this year. His rebounding figures fell on both ends. He wasn't attacking the rim and drawing free throws nearly as often as he had in the prior two seasons.

    Fair became much more of a volume scorer in his senior season. While still a key cog in the always-fierce Syracuse zone defense, he could have stood to defer a few more shots on the opposite end. His season was good, but was it even as good as last year?

13. Julius Randle, Kentucky

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    Julius Randle ended his regular season with 18 double-doubles to bolster impressive averages of 15.4 points and 10.4 rebounds. The downside of his season is that the scoring figures could have been so much more impressive if he'd gone anywhere else.

    Entering the season, the biggest question about Kentucky's cadre of McDonald's All-Americans was whether one ball was enough to go around. As we near the end, the answer has been proven an unequivocal no.

    Randle averaged 9.6 shots per game, making 52 percent of those attempts. His efficiency was solid, especially compared to classmates Andrew and Aaron Harrison and James Young.

    Aa. Harrison10.241.5
    An. Harrison8.136.8

    Randle got eight or fewer shots in 10 of Kentucky's 18 SEC games. Aaron Harrison had eight such nights, while Young was that quiet in only three.

    The old saw about Michael Jordan was that only his college coach Dean Smith could hold him under 20 points. Many nights this season, it seemed that the only people who could do the same to Julius Randle resided in his own team's backcourt.

12. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State

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    Cleanthony Early is a candidate for national player of the year, and he didn't even beat out a teammate for the honor in his own conference. That award went to point guard Fred VanVleet.

    According to assistant coach Greg Heiar, Early was as happy for VanVleet as anyone. "In the past when some guys didn't get awards they wanted, I think it affected us when we got to St. Louis," Heiar told Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn at the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. "This team is just all about winning."

    Early became the face of the 2013 Final Four team, and he could have hijacked this year's team with constant demands for more shots. Instead, his usage actually dropped from his first season out of junior college, and nearly all of his efficiency numbers improved.

    Alternately the Shockers' best post presence and a prolific three-point threat, Early provided matchup nightmares for opponents all season. His 26 points helped the Shockers keep Alabama at arm's length in a December win in Tuscaloosa.

    When the shots weren't falling in WSU's first meeting with Missouri State, Early took to the glass. He pulled eight of his 14 rebounds in the final two minutes of regulation and the five minutes of overtime, ensuring that the Bears didn't get any free looks that could have decided the game.

    Early's raw averages15.8 points and 5.9 reboundsdon't leap off the page, but he's here because of where his team is. His selection is an acknowledgement that his team wouldn't be here without him.

11. Gary Harris, Michigan State

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    Gary Harris is one of the nation's most complete offensive players, but you'd never know it from looking at his shot totals. According to Hoop-Math.com, 51.6 percent of his shots came from beyond the arc. His 70 made triples were part of a Michigan State school record, as the team has drilled 257 long balls on the season.

    Harris weathered a stiff slump in February, struggling under extra defensive attention as point guard Keith Appling fought through injuries. In four games that Appling either missed or didn't start, Harris made only 19 of 64 shots and six of 27 from deep (29.7 and 22.2 percent, respectively).

    With Appling back to collapse defenses, Harris' stroke has likewise returned. In his last five games, Harris has shot 48.6 percent (18 of 37) from long range.

    Outside of his shot, most of Harris' other efficiency numbers have improved from his freshman season. According to Pomeroy, his assist percentage has nearly doubled, his turnover rate has dipped, and his steal percentage is among the nation's top 100.

    His abilities on both ends make him a unique shooting guard, one who'll stay on the NBA's radar. In the Wooden Award stakes, though, his inconsistent shot has cost him a lot of ground.

10. Nick Johnson, Arizona

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    Arizona was cruising until forward Brandon Ashley's season-ending injury against California. Immediately following that game, the team began struggling a bit until coach Sean Miller opened up the offense. Shooting guard Nick Johnson, however, still hasn't quite gotten his groove back.

    Including the Cal game, Johnson is ending the season in a 34.5 percent slump, including 26.2 percent from the arc. He has, to his credit, found plenty of other ways to impact the game.

    Johnson has averaged 4.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game over his last 10, up from season figures of 4.0 and 2.8. And of course, his defense has been on point.

    Colorado's Askia Booker saw more of Johnson than he wanted, scoring only 10 points in the Buffaloes' 88-61 home defeat. Same with Cal's Justin Cobbs, who put up 12 but watched his team get crushed by 28 in the teams' rematch.

    Johnson beat out UCLA's Kyle Anderson for Pac-12 Player of the Year honors, and the award is well-deserved. There's still plenty of time for Johnson to find his groove in the postseason, and the Wildcats will need him to do just that if they want to see the Final Four.

9. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas

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    "What's wrong with Andrew Wiggins?" The question was hard to escape at times, especially around Thanksgiving. That weekend, Kansas lost to Villanova in a Battle 4 Atlantis semifinal and barely survived UTEP in the third-place game. Wiggins contributed a combined 16 points and 10 rebounds while making only five of his 17 shots in the two games.

    Still, brilliance was always just a tipoff away. Wiggins dropped 22 on Duke in his second collegiate game and played killer defense on Jabari Parker to cement the victory. His first career double-double (26 points, 11 rebounds) came against current No. 1 Florida, in a game where his teammates struggled to offer much support.

    Finally, the coup de grace. As ESPN Stats & Info tweeted, Wiggins became the first player in 15 years to rip at least five steals and four blocks in a 40-point game when he scored 41 in Kansas' regular-season finale against West Virginia. Unfortunately for Jayhawk Nation, KU lost that game just as it did against Florida.

    Wiggins is a fierce defender, but he fouled out of three Big 12 games and could only watch his team crash to defeat in all three. NCAA tournament opponents with talented slashers may be emboldened to try him, especially with rim protector Joel Embiid out with a back injury.

    The waters were choppy, but Wiggins frequently showed himself as the high-performance vessel we all thought he could be. Still, inconsistency reared its head. One more off night will likely be his last in a Kansas uniform.

8. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse

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    Freshman point guard Tyler Ennis drew a lot of four-letter words from fans of Syracuse's opponents this season, but the only one we need to describe him is "cool."

    Ennis went 15 games before having one with more than two turnovers. In the final five minutes and overtime of one-possession games through the Orange's last-second February win over Pitt, Ennis missed only one shot and committed no turnovers, per ESPN Stats & Info).

    Even as the Orange go through a late-season slump, Ennis' efforts have remained consistent, save for an increased aggressiveness in getting his own shot. He's attempted nearly 14 shots per game over Syracuse's last seven, compared to his season average of 10 attempts per game. Ennis has put up 14.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.9 steals per game in that span.

    The Canadian rookie has a lacrosse background that helps him excel in the lane despite his slender 6'2", 180-pound build. According to Hoop-Math, he's taken 122 shots near the rim, most on a Syracuse team featuring two talented scoring forwards in C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant.

    As the only point guard on Syracuse's roster, Ennis was going to get heavy minutes whether he proved dominant or not. Fortunately for coach Jim Boeheim and Orange fans, he's excelled beyond anyone's expectations.

7. Kyle Anderson, UCLA

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    If there's a player in college basketball whose frame belies his position, it's UCLA's Kyle Anderson. Finally allowed to play point guard after former coach Ben Howland shackled him to a forward position, all the 6'9" sophomore has done is lead the Pac-12 in assists, rank fourth in rebounds and steals and average 14.9 PPG.

    Nick Johnson of Arizona beat Anderson out for the Pac-12 Player of the Year award, but it's hard to argue that Anderson isn't the most unique player in the league, if not the country.

    One major mark in Anderson's favor compared to Johnson: Even when the rest of the Bruins didn't show up, Anderson did his best to haul UCLA to victory. He produced 65 points, 27 rebounds and 13 assistsshooting 56 percentin befuddling losses to Utah, Oregon State and Washington State. More than a third of UCLA's points in those games came from Anderson's hand.

    Meanwhile, Johnson took 46 shots in Arizona's three losses, missing 36. That's 12 missed shots per game, in losses by a total of 12 points.

    You do the math.

6. Nik Stauskas, Michigan

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    If casual basketball fans knew Nik Stauskas' name last season, they knew him as a shooting specialist. The reputation was warranted, as more than 60 percent of his shots as a freshman were three-pointers.

    Stauskas isn't exactly a post-up guy this season, as he's still put up one more three than he has twos. Still, he's demonstrated enough offensive versatility to rank fourth in the Big Ten in scoring, lead the league in effective field-goal percentage and win Michigan's second consecutive Big Ten Player of the Year award.

    Detroit Free Press columnist Jeff Seidel shared the story of Stauskas entering the season obsessed with improving his game, and the results are evident. Stauskas at least has the humility to admit he's still a work in progress.

    “I remember thinking, ‘What else is there to know about basketball?’” Stauskas told Seidel. “I thought I pretty much knew it all. But after watching film with Coach (John) Beilein, I understand there is so much more to offensive basketball that I didn’t have a clue about.”

    Michigan's slump of three losses in five February games coincided with Stauskas losing his shooting groove. He averaged 10.2 points on 37 percent shooting in that span. Over the Wolverines' five most recent gamesall victoriesStauskas has poured in 21.2 PPG on 51 percent shooting, including 50 percent from deep.

5. Russ Smith, Louisville

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    Russ Smith's evolution into Louisville's consummate playmaker has been documented in many articles, including here on B/R. How much else is there to say?

    Nearly all of Smith's advanced efficiency numbers are at career-best levels, per Sports-Reference.com, especially his shooting figures. He's no longer waging all-out take-no-prisoners war on opposing ball-handlers, but his 4.1 steal percentage is still among the nation's top 30, according to Pomeroy.

    Louisville's weak nonconference schedule could have led to Smith once again getting short shrift in national honors, like last season when the Associated Press slapped him onto the All-American third team. Smith guarded against such letdowns, however, by picking his game up even further in American play, shooting 49 percent from the floor and 47 percent from three-point range.

    No longer considered the outrageous Barney Stinson to Peyton Siva's safer Ted Mosby, it's easier to appreciate Smith's skills on their own merits. A host of organizations, publications and websitesincluding B/Rare rectifying last season's slight by naming Smith to their All-American first teams.

4. Jabari Parker, Duke

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    Jabari Parker has been the one member of his hyped class who has truly been the dominant performer on one of the nation's top teams night in and night out. So why is he down in fourth?

    Check out the three men in front of him and ponder each of those teams without the services of their stars. All three would need some luck to win 12 games.

    Now, consider Duke without Parker. The Blue Devils would still have Rodney Hood, Amile Jefferson, Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook and Andre Dawkins to score points. Defensively, the team would go from so-so to downright wretched, but the games would still be plenty entertaining.

    Parker's immediate assumption of the alpha-dog role in Durham has been impressive, and he's the closest thing Duke has to a dominant inside scorer. Most importantly, he's finishing strong. From Jan. 18 on, he's averaged 19.5 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, shooting 48.7 percent. Parker capped that run with a career-high 30 points against bitter rival North Carolina.

    Freshman wall? What freshman wall?

3. Shabazz Napier, UConn

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    Shabazz Napier led his team in scoring, assists, steals and free-throw percentage, all of which we'd expect from a 6'1" point guard. Likewise, no other UConn players made any game-winning daggers like the one Napier knocked down against Florida.

    Add in the fact that he also led the Huskies in rebounding at six per game, and that's where it just starts getting ridiculous.

    Without Napier, UConn would have been led by the erratic Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels, which would have left them much closer to the murky depths of the American than the NCAA tournament.

    Could Boatright have taken over the Huskies' February matchup against Memphis and dropped 34 points, including the points that sent the game to overtime and the ones that sealed the victory? Sure. But when Napier did it, it almost seemed like another day at the office.

    "To be the player I want to be, you have to step up in these moments," Napier said following the game, as reported here by the Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy. He's the reason UConn gets to have these moments, and Husky fans have to wonder where those buckets will come from next season.

2. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati

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    A player's value to his team is readily apparent when he averages more points per game than any two teammates combined. At 20.9 PPG, Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick readily qualifies.

    It's an incredible evolution for a player who couldn't use his left hand at all when he got to college. No, seriously.

    "You’re talking about a guy who had to redshirt because every time he dribbled the ball with his left hand he lost it for two years,” Bearcat coach Mick Cronin told Bill Koch of the Cincinnati Enquirer. “And now at the end of the game he’s running pick and rolls like a point guard creating wide open shotsgoing left.”

    From those humble beginnings, Kilpatrick has bloomed into only the second manafter Oscar Robertson, of all peopleto score 2,000 points at Cincinnati and a player who ranks fourth in the nation in overall win shares, according to Sports-Reference.com.

    The senior has played 36 or more minutes in 12 of UC's 18 American games, but Cronin has been able to find him plenty of rest against the league's bottom-feeders. Those days are nearing an end, as Kilpatrick may not have enough support to pull away from many tournament opponents.

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton

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    Not exactly a Sixth Sense-caliber plot twist, eh? Doug McDermott's entire senior season has carried the air of a victory lap, as he and classmates Grant Gibbs, Jahenns Manigat and Ethan Wragge enjoy the fruits of their labor. The quartet were instrumental in putting the program so high on the national radar that it was invited to join the new Big East.

    Of course, a step up in competition carries a burden of proof. McDermott and the Bluejays have proven they belong with something of a vengeance. He's led the nation in scoring at 26.5 PPG, helping the Jays to a second-place finish in their new conference. And that's not even mentioning the pair of bushwhackings Creighton has delivered to regular-season champion Villanova.

    The burden of proof has shifted to Creighton's Big East opponents, a group of teams that had never seen McDermott in person unless they streamed a Missouri Valley game on WatchESPN.

    Villanova coach Jay Wright praised McDermott's adaptability and recognition skills in an interview with USA Today's Nicole Auerbach. "He just makes the perfect decision every time," Wright said. "No one does that in college basketball. Guys make great plays, but no one makes the right decision every time."

    And that includes the choice to stay for his senior year. McDermott joined the exclusive 3,000-point club in the regular season's final weekend and still has an outside shot at second place on the all-time Division I scoring list. He's elevated a great career into one worthy of the Hall of Fame.


    Stats and rankings accurate through games of March 12. All KenPom.com links should be assumed to require subscription.

    For more from Scott on college basketball, including links to his podcast, check out The Back Iron.