With the new year, we have some new faces -- and a new leader -- in our Weekly Wooden Watch.
This summer Arizona coach Sean Miller tried to get 6-foot-3 junior guard Nick Johnson invited to one of those elite camps that gather the best college basketball players at their position. No one called him back. The problem, it seems, is that the camp directors had trouble defining what, exactly, Johnson, is. "Is he a 1 or a 2?" says Miller.
He is both -- he plays shooting guard primarily and takes over for TJ McConnell when the junior point guard takes a breather -- but his roles don't stop there. He can guard all three perimeter positions and usually gets assigned the opponent's best player and, as the self-proclaimed "old man" of the underclassmen-heavy team, he takes it upon himself to be the team's defensive conscience. Johnson reminds his teammates constantly of their identity as a top 10 defense. "I feel I need to show my teammates what that feels like," he says. "I need to show them the consistency you have guarding your man. One letdown can equal a three or two threes. I want to be that veteran guy that everybody can look to and say, 'He knows how to do it.'"
Johnson is also, his teammates say, an avid student of the game, one who will study an opponent two weeks out. "Nick Johnson is the one kid on the team who knows all five positions on our team," says assistant Book Richardson, "and he knows all five positions on the other team."
Did we mention that he's also the Wildcats' leading scorer, with 16 points a game?
Those are just the things Johnson does for the Wildcats off the floor. Aside from the coaching staff, Johnson is the most gung-ho recruiter in the program, the go-to host for visiting recruits. He is the team's social engineer -- last summer, after deciding the team needed a tighter bond, he arranged the lease of an off-campus duplex, which houses him, his brother, 6-6 junior reserve forward Chris Johnson, McConnell and four other Wildcats -- and its institutional memory. Johnson knows better than any of his teammates how fragile a winning streak like the 15-0 mark the Wildcats are carrying can be, and how treacherous the Pac-12 season will be. Their next game, on Thursday, is at UCLA, a team that beat Arizona three times last year. "I think we're all mentally in the right place, but we're about to go on what could be our toughest road trip," says Johnson. Will he remind his less experienced teammates about Arizona's recent record against the Bruins? "Trust me, I already have," he says. "We'll be ready."
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton
In Creighton's three games since Christmas, McDermott averaged 27.6 points, including the 30 he dropped at Seton Hall on Saturday in a 79-66 win, his fifth game of 30 or more points this season. It would have been 31 had he not missed his first free throw in more than a month; in the last seven games, McDermott has hit a whopping 42-of-43 baskets from the line. The last time he missed a foul shot was in that Dec. 1 loss to George Washington at the Wooden Legend, the game where he had just seven points and made just 2-of-12 field goals. Yes, that game does seem a very long time ago.
Through 14 games, McDermott is averaging 24.7 points, 7.5 rebounds on 49 percent shooting from the field and 90 percent shooting from the three.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke
It was inevitable that Parker would have a stinker of a game eventually, and Duke's ACC opener against Notre Dame was it. Hitting just 2-of-10 shots from the floor and finishing with a season-low 7 points -- his first single-digit performance of the season -- Parker finally looked like the 18-year-old freshman he is. He was so ineffective on both ends of the floor that coach Mike Krzyzewski benched him with 3:35 remaining in the game and left him there in crunch time as Duke lost 77-75. But one bad game does not a season make.
Through 14 games, Parker is averaging 20.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and shooting 51 percent.
3. Julius Randle, Kentucky
The bad news for Randle in his one game in the last two weeks: He got leg cramps so severe he had to call it a night after scoring 17 points and grabbing three rebounds in 21 minutes against Louisville. The good news? His team was able to pull out a 73-66 win without him.
Randle through 13 games: 18.1 points (on 56.4% shooting); 10.6 rebounds, and 9.1 trips to the stripe, where is connecting at a 72 percent clip.
4. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Smart still has number the four spot here, but it feels shaky. Yes, he had an impressive eight assists in 19 minutes in a blowout win over Robert Morris when his scoring wasn't needed (he had a season-low 7 points and no trips to the free throw line.) But with the losses of junior forward Michael Cobbins to an Achilles injury and backup point guard Stevie Clark to a suspension after getting arrested for alleged pot possession, Smart needs to rediscover some of his offensive mojo of mid-November. In a 74-71 loss at Kansas State on Saturday, his 15 points weren't enough. His running three-pointer that fell short as time expired was his fifth miss from the arc in six tries.
Smart through 14 games: 17 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 3.2 steals a game.
5. Russ Smith, Louisville
Like Oklahoma State, Louisville ended the year with a significant personnel loss: On Dec. 30, two days after the Cards' frontcourt was exposed in a 73-66 defeat to Kentucky, second-leading rebounder Chane Behanan was dismissed from the team. That will put even more pressure on Smith to carry this team offensively as well as defensively. Though his three-point and free throw shooting has been erratic, he has found ways to score. In the last three games he averaged 21.7 points and traveled to the line 30 times.
Smith through 15 games: 17.7 points, 4.9 assists, 1.7 steals.
6. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
It's hard to believe Connecticut was ranked No. 10 in the country a few weeks ago. After three losses in five games, all to unranked teams, the Huskies are now out of the polls. Should their tenacious leader be dismissed from this list as well? Not yet. Through the holidays, Bazz was still producing at an impressive clip despite his team's woes. In a win at Eastern Washington he had a 15 points and nine assists; in a loss at Houston he had nine rebounds, five assists and scored 25 of his 27 points in the second half as he personally tried to pull the Huskies out of a 21-point first-half hole. But in a loss at SMU on Jan. 4 he was held to two points and one field goal attempt in the first half and finished with 12 points (on 2-of-9 shooting).
Through 14 games, Napier is still contributing everywhere: 16 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.9 steals.
7. Gary Harris, Michigan State
After making our inaugural list, Harris disappeared for several weeks to nurse a sore ankle while teammates Keith Appling and Adreian Payne kept this space warm. Harris comes back this week after serving up a season-high 26 points in a season-high 37 minutes in a 73-56 blowout at Indiana. Afterward coach Tom Izzo promised that we haven't seen the best of Harris yet. The same could go for this team, if all the Spartans' other lingering injuries, including Appling's hip pointer and Payne's plantar fasciitis, resolve as well as Harris' injury has.
Harris through 11 games (he missed three games because of his ankle injury): 18.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.6 steals a game.
8. Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico
Bairstow, a 6-9 senior from Brisbane, fell off our POY radar after New Mexico lost two straight, to Kansas and New Mexico State in mid-December, though neither loss could be pinned on him: He averaged 24.5 points on 55 percent shooting. But against Colorado State on Saturday, he caught our attention again by grabbing 14 rebounds and hitting 8-of-13 field goals and 13-of-20 free throws to match his season high of 29 points.
Through 13 games, the Aussie is shooting 55 percent and averaging 20.8 points (more than double last year's 9.7); 7.7 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 9.1 trips to the stripe, where he's shooting 78 percent.
9. Nick Johnson, Arizona
Not only does Johnson sometimes suffer from being a man of too many positions, he also takes a POY candidacy hit by being on a team that's exceptionally balanced and unselfish. His averages don't wow, but he left little doubt about his value to the No. 1 team in the country in Saturday's 71-62 win over Washington. The player coach Sean Miller calls "the heart and soul" of the team was everywhere on the floor, harassing the Husky guards into turnovers, grabbing rebounds, passing to open teammates and soaring to the rim for dunks. His career-high 24 points included one beautifully acrobatic 360 dunk off a steal that broke a tie midway through the first half. "If there's another guard in college basketball that's having a better season than Nick, I'd like to see him," says Miller.
Johnson through 15 games: 16 points; 3.6 rebounds; 2.5 assists; 48 percent shooting from the field, 82 percent from the stripe.
10. Jahii Carson, Arizona State
In his three games since Christmas, Carson was a solid scorer, averaging 15 points and hitting 16 of his 19 free throw attempts. But he also gave up 14 turnovers against just four assists, a dismaying trend. His three-point shooting is still much improved over last season (51% vs. 32%) but a lot of his numbers are inching back to last year's levels.
Through 15 games: 18.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 4.9 assists, 51 percent from the arc.
In the wings: Andrew Wiggins, Kansas; Marcus Paige, North Carolina; Keith Appling, Michigan State; Adreian Payne, Michigan State; C.J. Fair, Syracuse; Casey Prather, Florida; Chaz Williams, UMass
SI Now: Are the Arizona Wildcats the best team in the country?
On Thursday's SI Now, TNT NBA analyst Steve Kerr and Sports Illustrated staff writer Seth Davis discuss who they think is the best team in the country and which teams are over/underachieving.