Wednesday January 14th, 2015

The battle for national player of the year rages on between big men Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor, and this week, there's a new No. 1. Meanwhile an interesting interesting competition to determine the best guard in the country is taking shape.

1. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

Position: Center
Year: Senior
Stats: 16.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 2.3 apg, 52.9 FG%

Kaminsky scored 21 points -- making 11-of-14 from the free-throw line -- in his only game last week, a 62-55 win over Purde on Jan. 7, but it was a game he didn't play in that best demonstrated his value to the Badgers. That, along with Jahlil Okafor's defensive struggles, moves the Badgers big man back to the top spot he occupied on this list at the start of the season.

Kaminsky sat out Sunday's game at Rutgers with a concussion, and without him, Wisconsin not only suffered a stunning upset, it also had its worst defensive game, in terms of efficiency, since losing to Duke on Dec. 3. That night, the Blue Devils posted an offensive rating of 129.5 and an a crazy 72.8 effective field goal percentage. The Scarlet Knights, meanwhile, managed a 119.9 offensive rating. Take a look at this shot chart, and you’ll see that Rutgers shot 7-for-10 from the paint, the best percentage of any Big Ten opponent yet against the Badgers. (Purdue shot 7-of-14 from the paint, Northwestern was 2-of-10, and Penn State was 3-of-6.)

Overall, Rutgers shot 54.3 percent from the field and controlled tempo, forcing Wisconsin into its second-slowest game of the season (56 possessions compared to its average of 62.2). Fortunately for the Badgers, that should be less likely to happen when Kaminsky returns, and he has been cleared to practice and should be in the lineup when Wisconsin hosts Nebraska on Thursday.  

2. Jahlil Okafor, Duke

Position: Center
Year: Freshman
Stats: 18.9 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 1.2 apg, 68.8 FG%

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It may seem strange to drop Okafor after he posted three double-doubles since our last edition, averaging 16.7 points and 12.7 rebounds, even if the Blue Devils did lose two of those games to unranked teams. But Duke’s offense isn’t the problem, its defense is, and Okafor is part of the reason why. The Blue Devils have undersized guards in Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones, and they need to know that Okafor is behind them to protect the paint if opponents drive by. In four ACC games so far, Okafor has three blocks -- all of which came in Sunday's loss at N.C. State.

In Tuesday's 16-point defeat to Miami at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Hurricanes blocked 10 Duke shots -- the most of any team in nearly five years -- but Duke had just one block of its own. Miami took advantage of the Devils' man-to-man defense, drawing Okafor out to the perimeter and moving the ball around him or in behind him. He also struggled to switch on pick-and-rolls. Duke’s past two games have been its worst defensive performances of the season, in terms of efficiency, and it will need to find a solution fast before it falls further behind in ACC play. Okafor isn’t known for his defense, but he’ll need to get better there if he is to return to the top of this list.

3. Justin Anderson, Virginia

Position: Guard
Year: Junior
Stats: 14.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.8 apg, 53.3 FG%

Here’s an absurd statistic for you: Virginia now has four players in Ken Pomeroy’s player of the year rankings. Four out of 10! Every starter other than London Perrantes, who is an excellent pass-first point guard, is a national player of the year contender, according to Pomeroy. Justin Anderson is a hair behind Anthony Gill for third place there, but is still the Cavs player listed here in part because of how impressive his rise has been this season. In addition to his career-high figures in points and rebounds listed above, Anderson is playing the most minutes of his three years in Charlottesville (29.2 per game) and shooting better across the board: .533 from the field, .557 from three-point range and .780 from the line, up from .407/.294/.780 last year. And his win shares total of 3.5 tops the Cavaliers. Because of how good his team is – seriously, someone show me a Virginia weakness -- and how good he is, it’s hard to envision Anderson falling out of the top five. Unless, of course, a teammate comes to take his place.

4. Delon Wright, Utah

Position: Guard
Year: Senior
Stats: 14.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 5.7 apg, 56.9 FG%

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Wright was welcomed into the Watch for the first time last week, and now he’s made quick work to get into the top five. His candidacy is almost the opposite of Anderson’s. Utah doesn’t have any other player who could fill the void if Wright were to go down. That isn’t to say that the Utes couldn’t or wouldn’t make the NCAA tournament without him, but he is what makes them a legitimate Final Four contender.

When Wright is on the floor, he assists 37.8 percent of Utah’s field goals, according to basketball-reference.com, and his assist-to-turnover rate is 5.7-to-1.7. He has improved in almost every way since a season ago (other than rebounding, and that’s more a result of Utah finally acquiring a good post player, Jakob Poeltl). Wright may not end up as the national player of the year, but he’s on the short list of best guards in the country.

5. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame

Position: Guard
Year: Senior
Stats: 16.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 6.3 apg, 50.3 FG%

The Jerian Grant secret -- if there ever was one -- is out. ACC opponents have rightfully made their defensive scouting reports revolve around the senior guard. And it has worked -- sort of. Grant’s three offensive ratings in conference play have been 100, 100 and 98, way down from his non-conference average of 130. But the Fighting Irish are 2-1 so far in the league, with their only loss coming last Saturday against now-No. 2 Virginia -- one of just two undefeated teams left in the country.

Grant seems to be taking the increased pressure in stride. He isn’t chucking shots just for the sake of it: He only attempted eight field goals against both North Carolina and Virginia. And he’s helping out teammates: He has 20 assists already in ACC play. By searching for teammates instead of forcing shots against focused defenses, Grant may still get the Irish back to the NCAA tournament. And he seems to realize that. After the Virginia game, he told reporters, “As long as we’re in the game with a chance to win or we’re winning, it’s really easy for me to keep doing what’s working and keep playing.”

6. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky

Position: Center
Year: Junior
Stats: 9.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 0.8 apg, 57.4 FG%

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After a four-game stretch in which he scored averaged 6.0 ppg and shot just 41.7 percent from the floor, Cauley-Stein returned to form against Missouri on Tuesday night, scoring 13 points on 4-of-7 shooting, helping him to an offensive rating of 138. “Willie was really, really good tonight,” John Calipari said after the game. “I still think offensively he can do more.” If you haven't been watching Kentucky this season, know that Cauley-Stein isn't on the list simply because he's a top player on the country's top team. His raw numbers don't stand out, but his tempo-free stats (in particular his top-100 block percentage and steal percentage) do.

One key to Cauley-Stein's night may have been a return to the platoon system. Kentucky was going to beat Missouri either way, but limited minutes seem to be beneficial for Cauley-Stein, who had his two worst games of the season the two times Kentucky went to overtime. It'll be interesting to see if Calipari returns to platooning, and how it will affect Cauley-Stein moving forward.

7. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville

Position: Forward
Year: Junior
Stats: 15.2 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.2 apg, 58.4 FG%

One thing Harrell said he worked on in the offseason was his jump shot, and particularly his three-pointer. After starting the season with a 3-of-4 performance from deep against Minnesota, he went 1-for-17 for the rest of 2014. Since the calendar flipped to 2015, he is now shooting 3-for-6. He may not be the next coming of Doug McDermott, but it is nice for Harrell to be able to draw defenders out to the perimeter with him. Or he can make them pay when they don’t:

On Tuesday, Harrell scored 11 points -- the 16th time in Louisville's 17 games he's cracked double-digits -- but left early with an apparent ankle injury. Head coach Rick Pitino told reporters afterward that he wasn’t concerned. Still, as you can see in the clip below, Harrell appeared to be in a lot of pain.

8. Ron Baker, Wichita State

Position: Guard
Year: Senior
Stats: 16.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.3 apg, 46.0 FG%

Once again, opponents underestimate Ron Baker’s athleticism at their peril.

Baker and VanVleet, who had the assist on that dunk, are the two biggest reasons that Wichita State is still the team to beat in the Missouri Valley Conference this season. Baker is using 83.4 percent of available minutes, and VanVleet is using 79.2. Their steady offense -- each has an offensive rating just north of 118 -- has helped give forwards Darius Carter, a senior, and Shaquille Morris, a freshman, time to grow into their offensive roles. Carter averaged 18 minutes a game a season ago, but is being tasked with replacing Cleanthony Early's impact in the paint. He had a rough start to the season, but has been coming along thanks to Baker and VanVleet stepping up their scoring. Baker, of course, knows that it can take some time to develop in college.

9. Ryan Boatright, UConn

Position: Guard
Year: Senior
Stats: 16.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 4.5 apg, 42.1 FG%

Maybe the most important aspect of Boatright’s game for UConn is that he’s consistently on the court. And he’s been playing lately despite a thigh contusion that he produced evidence of on Twitter.

Boatright isn’t the Huskies' most effective player -- center Amida Brimah’s offensive rating is 20 points higher. But he hardly leaves the court, using 84.8 percent of available minutes, compared to Brimah’s 67.6. For UConn to succeed, and for Boatright’s burden to be lightened, Brimah, wing Daniel Hamilton and forward Kentan Facey (the Huskies’ No. 2 offensive weapon in terms of offensive efficiency despite his limited scoring) need to avoid foul trouble and be on the court in crunch time.

10. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga

Position: Forward
Year: Senior
Stats: 16.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.5 apg, 53.4 FG%

It wasn’t log ago that Bulldogs point gaurd Kevin Pangos rose to No. 3 on this list. His offensive rating remains an outrageously impressive 141.5, but he’s ceded more possessions to his fellow stars -- as a good point guard should. The man who has taken most advantage of the available scoring has been Wiltjer. He has become the high-usage (26.7% possessions), high-efficiency (126.8 offensive rating) focal point of Gonzaga’s offense, and he is one of the big reasons why the Bulldogs may not lose again before the start of the NCAA tournament.

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