Throughout the season, SI.com will weigh in weekly on college basketball’s most prestigious honor, the John R. Wooden Award. Each week, we’ll detail the progress of 10 leading candidates and list a handful of players on the fringes.
1. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
This year’s group of super-talented freshmen was the main conversation in college basketball to start the season. Everyone -- from college fans to NBA front office executives -- is fascinated with what many consider one of the most talented recruiting classes in the past decade. Returning players like Smart had been dismissed, at least temporarily, out of the national spotlight. That all changed when the preseason AP All-American torched then-No. 11 Memphis last Tuesday for 39 points, five steals, four rebounds and four assists in a dominant 101-80 victory.
It was one of the most impressive performances any player has had against a ranked opponent this season. More importantly, it served as a reminder that Smart is still one of the best players in the country. He followed up that sterling effort by scoring 25 points in a blowout win Monday night at South Florida, which included this shot from beyond half court. If he’s getting 65-footers to go down, Smart’s current status as Wooden frontrunner is tough to deny.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke
The most impressive thing about Parker so far this season has been his consistency. In six games. the Duke freshman has registered at least 21 points, nine rebounds. Parker grabbed the nation’s attention by scoring 27 points, grabbing nine rebounds and throwing down this ridiculous, Grant Hill-esque, one-handed alley-oop dunk against Kansas in the second game of the Champions Classic doubleheader. The Blue Devils may have lost to the Jayhawks, but the consensus afterward was that Parker was the most impressive freshman in the game.
There’s reason to be concerned whether Parker -- who has taken 35.3 percent of available shots while posting a 32.9 usage rate -- can keep scoring this efficiently (125.4 offensive rating) throughout the season. Duke’s thin front line has forced the freshman forward to guard opposing teams’ best post players, a defensive charge that could wear on Parker and sap some of his offensive production. If he can avoid fatigue issues, though, Parker should never veer too far from the Wooden conversation.
3. Doug McDermott, Creighton
McDermott has a chance to become college basketball’s first three-time Associated Press All-American since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing accomplished the feat from 1983-85. It will be interesting to see how McDermott performs against more rigorous competition in the Big East. (Creighton left the Missouri Valley Conference to join the basketball-only league this offseason.) In the meantime, watching the Creighton senior light up nonconference opponents will suffice.
Through four games this season, McDermott is averaging 27.5 points and eight rebounds, shooting roughly 55 percent from the field and 50 percent from three. More impressive has been McDermott’s efficiency -- his offensive rating of 124.1 is comparable to Parker’s 125.4 mark -- while taking 37.9 percent of his teams shot (ninth in the country). McDermott might have the most versatile offensive game in the country. The difference this year is that he’ll have more opportunities to showcase it against better teams.
4. Julius Randle, Kentucky
Watching Randle take on Michigan State two weeks ago at the United Center, it was easy to feel like the Kentucky freshman should have just traded in his blue-and-white Wildcats uniform for a red-and-black Bulls kit. Randle struggled early against the Spartans, but when he found his groove in the second half, the Kentucky freshman was nearly impossible to contain. Not only has Randle been Kentucky’s most effective scorer (he leads the Wildcats at 19.8 points per game), no UK player has rebounded better -- Randle ranks among the top 60 players in the country in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. Randle is also drawing an average of 9.2 fouls per 40 minutes, good for 19th in the country, and making good on those opportunities by knocking down 73 percent of his free throws.
It’s been a long time since a first-year player has packaged so much refined skill with so much athleticism. Most freshmen, no matter how talented, require a little fine-tuning during their first years of college basketball. Randle looks like a finished product right now. The scariest part for Kentucky’s opponents this season? Wildcats coach John Calipari is pushing Randle to get better.
5. Jahii Carson, Arizona State
One of the most impressive single-game performances so far this season belongs to Carson, who scored 40 points on 16-of-25 shooting in a six-point road win over UNLV on Nov. 19. The impact that performance could have on Arizona State’s postseason hopes -- and coach Herb Sendek’s job status -- is significant. The Sun Devils, who missed out on the NCAA Tournament last season, are on track to qualify in 2013-14 if Carson continues to put up crazy scoring lines in nonconference games.
Carson scored 23 points and dished out five assists to help his team dispatch No. 25 Marquette at home Monday night, adding a good win to an already solid nonconference resume. When Arizona State enters Pac-12 play, Carson will be pitted against some of the best backcourts in the country: Colorado’s Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker; Arizona’s Nick Young and T.J. McConnell; and Oregon’s Joseph Young, Johnathan Loyd and Damyeon Dotson. His speed, quickness and ability to turn on a dime make the Sun Devils sophomore one of the most exciting players in the country.
6. Russ Smith, Louisville
Is it possible that Smith, a preseason First Team All-American who helped lead his team to consecutive Final Fours and a National Championship in April, is underappreciated? By efficiency maven Ken Pomeroy’s statistics, Smith was the best player in the country last season, posting a 108.9 offensive rating and a 21.1 assist rate while using 32 percent of available possessions. He’s managed to be even more efficient while shouldering a bigger portion of his team’s offensive load in six games this season: Smith is producing 1.19 points per possession on 32.4 percent usage.
He played his best game of the season to date against Louisville’s toughest opponent, North Carolina, scoring 36 points on 11-of-24 shooting in 37 minutes. His next chance to impress against a high-profile foe will come December 28, when Louisville plays Kentucky at Rupp Arena in one of the most highly anticipated renditions of the Bluegrass State rivalry. If Smith can lead the Cardinals to a victory in Lexington, his Wooden stock would soar.
7. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
Defense is never as big a consideration in player of the year awards as it should be. This is important to remember when weighing the merits Wiggins against the other Wooden candidates. The Kansas freshman regularly asks coach Bill Self to guard the opposing team’s best player. He slowed Parker in the second half of Kansas’ win over Duke in the Champions Classic and locked down CAA preseason player of the year Jerrelle Benimon for a brief period during Friday’s 30-point victory over Towson. Wiggins’ ability to defend multiple positions -- and avoid fouls in the process (Wiggins is committing an average of just two fouls per 40 minutes) -- may be his best asset, but he’s also scoring at an extremely efficient rate (134.2 offensive rating).
Wiggins entered the season with impossibly high expectations. He wasn’t supposed to be merely the best player in the country this season; he was supposed to be the best college player since Kevin Durant. His scoring numbers to date might not indicate Wiggins is the once-in-a-generation prospect high school scouting reports suggested he was, but he remains one of the best players in the country on one of the best teams in the country. Wiggins is just scratching the surface of how good he can be.
8. Gary Harris, Michigan State
After battling shoulder injuries for much of last season, Harris, now healthy, returned to help lead Michigan to a Big Ten (and possibly National) championship. The Spartans, ranked No. 1 in both polls, appear well on their way, and Harris is a big reason why. The sophomore outplayed Kentucky’s backcourt in Michigan State’s Champions Classic win and helped keep the Spartans afloat in subsequent closer-than-they-should-have-been home wins over Columbia and Portland before leading his team to victories over Virginia Tech and Oklahoma in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
Harris leads Michigan State in scoring (17.7 ppg) and free throw percentage (87.5), while ranking behind only backcourt mate Keith Appling in minutes. Harris is also one of the better backcourt defenders in the country, a reputation he established last season and has since validated in his sophomore campaign. One of the reasons Harris such a good wing defender? He rarely fouls opponents, averaging just 1.5 whistles per 40 minutes, one of the top 100 marks in the country. The preseason Big Ten Player of the Year is off to a great start, and should remain in the Wooden race so long as he keeps his team in the thick of the national championship discussion.
9. Marcus Paige, North Carolina
There was plenty of cause for concern after North Carolina lost by three to Belmont at home. Tar Heels fans never expect their team to lose home games before conference play. That fact that they were beaten by a team from the Ohio Valley -- no disrespect to Belmont -- must have been even more jarring. It would have been easy to panic, but the Tar Heels bounced back this week with consecutive wins over Richmond and then-No. 3 Louisville to win the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament. Paige keyed both victories, scoring 26 points against the Spiders, 32 against the Cardinals and hitting a combined 9-of-14 three-point shots.
With guards P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald stuck in NCAA limbo, Paige has emerged as North Carolina’s go-to scorer. It’s hard to say whether Paige will keep scoring at this pace (22.4 ppg), or whether he’ll even need to. If Hairston -- who led North Carolina in scoring at 14.6 ppg last season -- returns, Paige likely won’t be required to shoulder as much of the Tar Heels’ offensive workload. If he doesn’t, a scenario that seems increasingly likely, North Carolina could lean heavily on Paige for scoring the rest of the season.
10. Shabazz Napier, UConn
One of the most exciting games from the preliminary slate of nonconference tournaments happened Friday night in Madison Square Garden, where UConn topped Indiana, 59-58, in the championship game of the 2K Sports Classic thanks in large part to Napier’s 27 points on 10-of-14 shooting. Napier and Hoosiers point guard Yogi Ferrell traded big shots late in the second half, but the Huskies’ senior put his team ahead for good with 1:35 remaining by converting a lay-up over Indiana freshman Devin Davis.
If there is such a things as a “signature performance” in November, Napier’s effort against Indiana qualifies. The natural inclination -- given the team and setting -- is to compare Napier to recent Huskies great Kemba Walker. Napier may earn that reputation in time, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, Napier (16.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg) must try and lead UConn back to the NCAA tournament after the school was ruled ineligible for postseason play last year due to a low Academic Progress Rate score. Alongside Omar Calhoun and Ryan Boatright, Napier is the centerpiece of one of the best backcourts in the country. Unlike in Friday night’s win over the Hoosiers, though, Napier will need more production out of his fellow guards (Boatright and Calhoun combined to shoot just 3-for-16 from the field) when the Huskies take on national championship contender Louisville twice in American Athletic Conference play.
Missed the Cut: Joseph Young, Oregon; Aaron Gordon, Arizona; Roberto Nelson, Oregon State; Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga; Jordan Adams, UCLA; Melvin Ejim, Iowa State; Anthony Drmic, Boise State; Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico
Statistical help for this article was provided by Kenpom.com.