Wooden Watch: Final Four filled with finalists
Fellow Wooden Watchers, we've come to the end. This is the last edition of the 2015 Wooden Watch. Sad, we know. But chin up: Not only is there more basketball left to play -- and by "more basketball," we mean as epic a Final Four as this 29-year-old mind can recall -- but there is also a fun twist on the Wooden Award announcements. This week, the five Wooden finalists were announced (we adjusted our list accordingly below). Next week, on April 10, the winner of the Wooden Award, as well as the winners of the five new Basketball Hall of Fame position awards, will be announced at the "College Basketball Awards Presented by Wendy's" show.
In the meantime, three of the Wooden finalists are in action this weekend in Indianapolis. Only one will win the award -- and, let's be real, it's Frank the Tank -- but that ratio is just one more reason why this Final Four is going to be one for the ages. Buckle up.
(Oh: And thanks for reading. See you in November.)
1. Frank Kaminsky, WisconsinPrevious ranking: 1
A year ago, Doug McDermott ended a legendary season-long tear with one of the worst games of his career in Baylor's Sweet 16 thrashing of Creighton. That didn't invalidate McDermott's Wooden case at all, but it probably caused at least a few of those folks who only tune in for the tournament -- you know who you are -- to wonder just what the fuss was about. Kaminsky has suffered no such letdowns. He cemented his player of the year status long before the bracket was revealed, but since then he's only added to it. In four tourney games, Kaminsky has scored 91 points on 30-of-58 shooting from the field and 26-of-30 from the free throw line, with 33 rebounds and nine assists. Thanks to that work -- which includes a 29-point, 42 percent usage rate performance in Wisconsin's Elite Eight offensive explosion against Arizona -- Kaminsky now owns the nation's highest offensive rating among players who use at least 28 percent of their team's possessions. He's been amazing, and so have his teammates, and it's why few would be surprised if the Badgers knock off a 38-0 team in their next NCAA tournament game.
Can they? It's going to be fascinating. Kaminsky struggled in last year's outing, and Wisconsin nearly won anyway. Notre Dame showed how a good offensive team can get the Wildcats moving and expose their interior for easy scores. And all season, Kaminsky has been touted as the perfect player to do just that -- the 7-footer whose comfort away from the rim makes him lethal against just about any matchup.
Then again, this is a vastly different Kentucky team -- and, unlike last year, it will have Willie Cauley-Stein, who guards big perimeter players (see: Grant, Jerian) with roughly astronomical success. We have no idea what's going to happen! But whatever happens, we bet it's going to be insane.
2. Jahlil Okafor, DukePrevious ranking: 2
The storylines coming out of Duke's Sunday win over Gonzaga, and its first Final Four appearance since the last time the thing was in Indy (2010, when the Blue Devils won it), have focused a lot on the peripheral players: Tyus Jones' pre-eminence, Quinn Cook's unselfishness and leadership, next-level stuff from Justise Winslow, emerging contributions from Matt Jones and Grayson Allen, etc. It's funny: Focusing on Okafor, at this point, feels like old news. Know why? Because he's been this good all season long. While everyone else was curving toward March, Okafor's production was a straight line across the x-axis.
If there is one area where the big man has gotten noticeably better, though, it's on the defensive end. He's playing pick-and-rolls better; his weakside help is more timely and comes at better angles; and he's still not fouling, which is a massive bonus for a guy who's that good on the defensive end. All the while, Duke's entire defense has shot through the roof -- going from a team that allowed 86 points in 66 trips at Virginia Tech (!) to one that allowed 109 in 123 against Utah and Gonzaga combined. Okafor wasn't his typically brilliant scoring self in either game, but he didn't have to be. The Blue Devils guarded like crazy.
One thing to watch this weekend? Free throws. Okafor remains as shaky as ever from the line, and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo won't wait until the game is decided to play Hack-a-Jah in the final moments of the half. But ... whatever. The last time Okafor played this Michigan State team, he finished 8-of-10, and the Spartans had zero answer. They're better, but so is Duke. Free throws may well be an afterthought.
3a. Karl-Anthony Towns, KentuckyPrevious ranking: 5
3b. Willie Cauley-Stein, KentuckyPrevious ranking: NR
Cauley-Stein is a Wooden Award finalist and the lone representative from Kentucky. We have no problem with that. Seriously: Did you see him guard Grant down the stretch Saturday? Grant himself was shocked that Cauley-Stein had not only the length but the speed to react to perhaps the most lethal step-back move in college basketball, which became a turnover in the final minute of the game; a few seconds later, Cauley-Stein chased Grant down the sideline and closed the door on Notre Dame's historic hopes.
In the meantime, though, we can't boot Towns. His offensive dominance was on full display against Notre Dame, which was determined not to give up backbreaking 3s, and thus determined not to double the potential No. 1 overall draft pick. So Towns promptly went 8-of-8 in the second half, which is impressive in its own right; we can't decide if the fact that all eight of those shots came within about a foot of the rim makes it less or more so. Anyway, if you want to know why Kentucky hasn't lost a game, here you go. On one end, the Wildcats have an unstoppable, brutish interior scorer. On the other end, they have the best perimeter defender in college basketball -- who's also 7-foot, and blocks a ton of shots. That Cauley-Stein-Kaminsky matchup could burn Indianapolis to the ground Saturday. Again: We can't wait.
4. Jerian Grant, Notre DamePrevious ranking: NR
A fond farewell to Grant, who along with Pat Connaughton, Zach Auguste, Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia, put up one of the most impressive upset bids we can remember. Not only should we thank Grant for a great season, and a classic Elite Eight, but also for proving that Kentucky does indeed bleed like a man -- a sudden realization that somehow made this weekend's Final Four even more intriguing. Thanks, guys.
5. D'Angelo Russell, Ohio StatePrevious ranking: 5
Now two weeks since his team's round of 32 departure to Arizona, there's not a whole lot else we can say about Russell's season, except that he really does deserve to be among the five finalists -- even if we would argue for Delon Wright or Kyle Wiltjer to be in his place. You know what can make us feel better? Looping Vines of Russell bounce passes. (Works every time.)
John R. Wooden Award
The John R. Wooden Award is presented annually to the most outstanding men's college basketball player.
Meet The Wooden Finalists
Top Five List
Here are the five finalists for the 2015 Wooden Award. The winner will be announced April 10 (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET) at the inaugural "College Basketball Awards Presented by Wendy's."