To the casual fan, college basketball can be all about the freshmen. But come March, the upperclassmen tend to matter more. It’s natural for the next big thing to grab your attention but don’t forget about the players who have taken more time to develop into stars. Our Wooden Watch leader is a prime example. Frank Kaminsky was a bit player as a freshman and sophomore and didn’t truly become a star until his junior year, when he led Wisconsin on an impressive Final Four run. Now, as a senior, he’s the frontrunner for college basketball’s highest honor. Two other seniors join Kaminsky in the top five of Wooden Watch, and below that we list the five other best seniors in the nation.
1. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
Stats: 17.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.5 apg, 54.0 FG%
Since Kaminsky took the top spot back from Jahlil Okafor on Jan. 14, I’ve written about Frank the Tank’s passing, his defensive advantage over Okafor and his underrated offense. On Tuesday, my SI colleague Luke Winn (who actually has a vote for the Naismith Award) backed me up, writing that not only is Kaminsky the favorite to win various national player of the year awards but also that "he'd have to go into a profound slump to lose them."
It’s unlikely we’ll see any sort of slump from Kaminsky. In fact, he’s improved during conference play. In his eight games (he missed a matchup with Rutgers because of concussion symptoms), he’s averaging an offensive rating of 137.4, which is more than 10 points better than his already-absurd season average of 126.7. He hasn’t posted a sub-100 offensive rating since Nov. 27. There are still eight games left in the regular season, so I’m not ready to declare Kaminsky the winner just yet, but I will say this: The player of the year race is now his to lose.
2. Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Stats: 18 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 1.4 apg, 66.5 FG%
Maybe I was still reeling from a weekend in which Montrezl Harrell reached out of the gym to snag an alley-oop and Willie Cauley-Stein dunked on the entire state of Florida (more on that later), but I wasn’t as taken with the poster dunk FSU’s Phil Cofer threw down on Okafor on Monday. (Hover over GIF to start.)
It was a nice dunk, but perhaps the more impressive feat was drawing a foul from Okafor. For all the flack that people give Duke’s big man about his defense, he is at least able to avoid foul trouble and thus stay on the court for critical minutes. As long as he's in the game and affecting the paint with his size—even if he occasionally gets posterized—that’s a net-positive for the Blue Devils. Against the Seminoles, Okafor did pick up four fouls for just the third time this season, but he still played 28 minutes and scored 13 points in Duke's 73-70 win. And he has handled the criticism of being dunked on well, too.
3. Delon Wright, Utah
Stats: 14.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.6 apg, 53.2 FG%
Wright didn’t make his Wooden Watch debut until January, and that was partly because I was turned off by two pedestrian performances against top-flight teams. He scored just seven points in a Nov. 18 loss to San Diego State and only 13 in a Dec. 3 overtime win against Wichita State. Now with more than 20 games played this season, we can investigate if Wright is padding his stats against inferior competition. Utah has played exactly 11 games against teams inside the top 100 and outside the top 100, so it’s a perfect time to compare his stats.
|Category||vs. top-100||vs. sub-100|
|Points per game||12.9||14.6|
|Assists per game||5.4||5.5|
|Turnovers per game||2.4||1.3|
As you can see, he scores slightly less against the top-100, but his assists stay very consistent. The only troubling part of this is that he turns the ball over almost twice as much against top competition.
4. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
Stats: 9.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 0.8 apg, 59.6 FG%
Cauley-Stein returns to the list for three reasons. First, a spot opened up because Virginia’s Justin Anderson is out for the remainder of the regular season. Second, Luke Winn studied nearly 800 minutes of Kentucky basketball and discovered that Cauley-Stein is the best defensive player on the best defensive team of the modern era. His ability to step out and defend guards and also protect the rim at an Anthony Davis-like level makes him the most dangerous defender in the country, and it’s certainly enough to move him from the fringe back into the fold.
And the final reason is, I’ve been waiting for him to show just the slightest spark of offense. After scoring in single digits eight times over a nine-game stretch, Cauley-Stein has now posted double figures three times in his last four outings. And last Saturday, we all witnessed just what he is capable of with the ball in his hands. (Hover over GIFs to start.)
Cauley-Stein finished with 13 points against the Gators and followed it up with 15 three days later against LSU, shooting 7-of-9 from the floor in the latter game. Six of his baskets against the Tigers were dunks, and the other one was a layup. The layup shows you more precisely why Cauley-Stein is on this list: He defends and steals from a guard beyond the three-point line, hustles in transition to save the possession, then gets back onto the floor, cuts to the basket and scores.
He had another poster dunk in this game as well, and again, it came because of his hustle. Kentucky guard Devin Booker rebounded Cauley-Stein’s missed free throw, then missed a layup himself. Cauley-Stein collected that rebound, turned back to the basket and jammed.
Stats: 17 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 6.2 apg, 50.0 FG%
Grant had his worst game of the season at Duke on Saturday, scoring seven points on 10 shots. I went back and reviewed each of Grant’s possessions against the Blue Devils to see if Quinn Cook, who defended Grant, had come up with a formula for slowing down the Notre Dame's star guard. Although Cook did well to defend Grant outside the three-point line and minimize his personal space, it seemed more like Grant was having an off day. Two of his three three-point attempts were wide open (the other was a desperation shot-clock-saving heave) and he got to the basket consistently. His performance from the free-throw line seems to confirm that it just wasn't his day, as he went 1-for-7 on the freebies.
Grant rebounded by playing all 40 minutes against Clemson on Tuesday, scoring 22 points on 14 shots—and making all seven of his free throw attempts. Maybe he heard Stanley Johnson’s footsteps; the Arizona freshman is an increasingly close No. 6 on this list.
Best remaining seniors
We checked in on the freshmen, sophomores and juniors the past three weeks, but the senior class was the toughest to rank because it is the deepest. Among players who use more than 28 percent of their team's possessions—kenpom.com's definition of high-usage—six of the top 10 with the highest overall offensive efficiency are seniors. The names mentioned here don't even include all the best players in the class.
1. Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa
Stats: 15.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.1 apg, 61.0 FG%
In a video on Tuesday with my colleague Martin Rickman (at the top of this story), I listed Tuttle as my NCAA tournament X-factor player. The 6'8" star leads the Panthers in points, rebounds and assists. He’s using 31.1 percent of the team’s possession, and his effective field goal rate (which takes into account the added value of three-point attempts) of 64.1 is 18th in the country. He draws nearly seven fouls per 40 minutes played (28th in the country) and is hitting 76.7 percent from the free throw line.
Most importantly, he has Northern Iowa tied for first in the Missouri Valley with Wichita State and poised to make an NCAA tournament run. You may not know Tuttle yet, but you’ll be properly introduced come March.
2. Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
Stats: 12.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 4.8 apg, 48.9 FG%
If you don’t take into account possession percentage, Pangos’ offensive rating (137.8) is the highest on this list—and the third highest in the country. It’s important to remember that possession percentage, or usage rate, as it’s sometimes called, simply calculates how often a player’s actions end a possession—either by a made shot, a missed shot (that isn’t rebounded by the offense) or a turnover.
Pangos isn’t a shooter and he doesn’t turn the ball over, but that doesn’t mean he’s insignificant for the Bulldogs. He’s playing 80.9 percent of available minutes, the most on his team. His assist-to-turnover ratio, which is often the most important measure of a point guard, is 3.61—fourth-highest in the country. And although he doesn’t shoot often, he shoots well: His true shooting percentage (which is like effective field goal percentage but also factors in trips to the free throw line) is 67.5, good for 11th in the country. Gonzaga’s talented frontcourt makes it a threat to beat any team, but the Bulldogs’ most important player is Pangos.
Stats: 18.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 1.4 apg, 58.8 FG%
Christmas is another great example of a player who needed four years in school to become a star. Last year, he played 23.6 minutes per game but only scored 5.6 points per night. This year, he’s playing just about 10 more minutes per game (33.7), but scoring average has skyrocketed to 18.5. "He's having the best year by far of any center or post player I've ever had,'' Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "His numbers alone are better than anyone's. He's an unbelievable success story.''
Unfortunately, his success story for Syracuse will end on March 7 because of his school’s conveniently timed decision to ban itself from the postseason this year. "We are tremendously disappointed that we are going to miss out on playing in the postseason based on issues that do not involve us,'' Christmas said in a joint statement with his fellow team captains, Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije. "However we support our school and this won't change how hard we will continue to work in practice and in games.''
Stats: 20.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.7 apg, 42.3 FG%
Stanford has had an up-and-down season. The Cardinal have beaten two kenpom.com top-50 teams (Texas and Arizona State), but they’ve also lost to two sub-100 teams (DePaul and Washington State). They haven’t been able to string together more than four wins in a row all year. But that’s not due to a lack of effort from Randle—he’s posted double-digit scoring efforts in every game but one this season (nine points in a 49-43 win vs. Denver on Dec. 13). And since Pac-12 play started, he’s had only one game (vs. UCLA) with a sub-100 offensive rating. In contrast, he’s had eight 120-plus nights. Randle’s ability to go off at any time will make Stanford a threat in the NCAA tournament.
Marks position: Guard
Marks stats: 19.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3 apg, 51.5 FG%
Waldow position: Forward
Waldow stats: 20 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 2.4 apg, 57.5 FG%
Marks and Waldow have very similar advanced metrics despite their disparate playing styles. It was hard to justify having one on this list and the other absent, so I decided to tie them for fifth. Marks used 32.4 percent of Boise State’s possessions with a 117.9 offensive rating; Waldow uses 29.3 of St. Mary’s’ possessions at a rate of 117.2. Marks has been dominating since the calendar turned to 2015—he hasn’t scored fewer than 16 points in a game. The amount that the Broncos use him isn’t surprising—he’s been a 30-plus poss% player for three years—but his improved efficiency is. His offensive rating is more than 10 points higher than at any point in his career.
Waldow, meanwhile, has been a highly efficient player for four years, and has become a high-usage player in the past two years. Aside from his scoring, the stat that really helped land Waldow on this list is his rebounding. He’s a top-100 defensive rebounder, and he ranks 166th in offensive rebounding. Unfortunately, neither the Broncos nor Gaels are likely to play in the NCAA tournament, so catch these guys while you still can.
Others considered: Josh Gasser (Wisconsin), Corey Hawkins (UC Davis), Tyler Haws (BYU), Larry Nance Jr. (Wyoming), Jacob Parker (Stephen F. Austin), Wesley Saunders (Harvard), Josh Smith (Georgetown), Juwan Staten (West Virginia), Keifer Sykes (Green Bay)