Oklahoma's Buddy Hield, Michigan State's Denzel Valentine lead senior-heavy player of the year race
In the fall of 1976, the Los Angeles Athletic Club approached former UCLA coach John Wooden, who had retired the year before, and proposed to establish an award in his name that would be given each spring to the best player in college basketball. Wooden agreed, but there was a caveat: He wanted it to be given to a graduating senior.
Wooden was overruled, and for good reason. If the idea was to recognize the nation's best player, then it made no sense to impose an age restriction. Still, it was a moot point, since back then the best players almost always were seniors anyway. During the first 19 years the Wooden award was handed out, a senior won it 16 times. Fittingly, the last of those was a UCLA player, Ed O'Bannon, the 6'8" forward who was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player while leading the Bruins to the 1995 NCAA championship.
That, however, was B.G.—Before Garnett. In June of '95, Garnett, the 6'11" wunderkind from Farragut Academy in Chicago, was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the fifth pick in the NBA draft. To that point, the exodus of collegiate underclassmen to the NBA draft had been a steady trickle, but Garnett opened the floodgates. In the years that followed, every draft was populated by a few of the very best high school players in America, not to mention dozens of college freshmen and sophomores who dashed for cash at the slightest hint of daylight. The idea of a player staying until his senior year of college became antiquated. Even more than that, it connoted failure. If a player stayed until his senior year, that must mean he wasn't good enough to leave.
Garnett's leap was one of two watershed events that helped drive the idea of the senior All-American into extinction. The second came in 2005, when the NBA established a 19-year-old draft minimum. That ensured that the most talented players in college were far more likely to be freshmen than seniors. In the 20 years since O'Bannon claimed the Wooden Award, a senior has won the trophy just eight times. Five sophomores and two freshmen have won it during that span. And in the years when a senior like Doug McDermott or Jimmer Fredette did win the Wooden, he was usually plucked from a pool filled with younger candidates.
The specter of the senior All-American senior became so outdated that the legendary sportscaster Dick Enberg, who appropriately enough was the voice of most of Wooden's championship teams, proposed in 2001 that a new award be established specifically for the nation's best senior. The result was the Senior CLASS Award, with the acronym standing for Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School. It sounded like the ultimate participation trophy.
All of which brings us to this remarkable, unpredictable time warp that is the 2015–16 season. Of the 20 players who were named to the Wooden Award's late season top 20 list last week, 13 are seniors. The consensus top three candidates are all seniors: Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield, Michigan State forward Denzel Valentine and Iowa forward Jarrod Uthoff. Just one of the top 20 is a freshman (LSU's Ben Simmons) and four are sophomores. The same holds true for candidate lists put out by the Naismith Award (16 out of 35 are seniors) and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (12 out of 20). It is an astonishing turnabout.
To be sure, this is more likely to be a one-year aberration as opposed to the start of a trend. The main driving force is the general weakness of this freshman class, which has made it more difficult for the likes of Duke, Kentucky and Arizona to re-stock with the usual one-and-done NBA draft lottery picks. Kansas has managed to keep winning after losing two freshmen to the NBA last year, but the Jayhawks' top two recruits have spent most of the season on the bench while senior forward Perry Ellis leads the team in scoring. (He is on the Wooden and Naismith lists.) Next year's freshman class is much more loaded, and all of these senior POY candidates will be moving on. So things are likely to revert to the mean.
That's is all the more reason to savor this senior moment. These guys were not feted as young teenagers, their heads weren't inflated by high recruiting rankings. They had to come of age the old-fashioned way. Hield, for example, is a native of the Bahamas who arrived in the U.S. as a high school freshman. When he was a senior in high school, Rivals.com ranked him No. 86 in the class. During his freshman season at Oklahoma, Hield averaged 7.8 points, made 23.8% of his three-point attempts and was listed on exactly zero mock draft boards. Now, he is averaging 25.6 points on 49.8% three-point shooting and is the frontrunner to sweep the player of the year awards.
That is, if Denzel Valentine doesn't catch him. Michigan State's do-everything senior guard is a Lansing, Mich., native whose father played for the Spartans in the 1980s. Rivals ranked him just five spots ahead of Hield, but in four years Valentine has likewise gone from being a horrible shooter (28.1% from three) to a great one (44.7% this year) while developing into the most complete player in the country (he also averages 7.7 rebounds and 7.1 assists).
Uthoff was ranked No. 149 in his class coming out of high school, and after riding the pine at Wisconsin as a freshman, he transferred to Iowa. Now a senior, he is ranked in the top 10 of the Big Ten in points (18.8), rebounds (6.7), blocks (3.0), three-point percentage (42.4) and free throw percentage (82.9). Plenty of other Wooden candidates who are seniors were also lightly regarded coming out of high school, from Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon (104) to Miami guard Sheldon McClellan (60) to Purdue center A.J. Hammons (77) to Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet (138). A few of the seniors were well thought-of as recruits (Indiana point guard Yogi Ferrell was ranked No. 19 in his class, Ellis was No. 24 and North Carolina forward Brice Johnson was No. 49), but none of them had a realistic opportunity to leave for the NBA as underclassmen. They didn't stay just because they loved college; it was a business decision. But stay they did.
That required tuning out the notion that playing in college for four years was cause for shame. As Valentine can attest, it isn't easy. After his junior season was over, Valentine did research to figure out where he might be drafted, only to be disappointed that he wasn't guaranteed to go in the first round. Instead of pouting, he spent his summer trimming his body fat and working on his ballhandling. Now, he is putting the finishing touches on a season for the ages. "I always thought of myself as someone who would leave college after two or three years to play in the NBA, because I know I can play there," he told me. "For certain people, it takes more time to develop, and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm a much more mature player now, on and off the court. I got more time to develop relationships on this campus, and I'm getting my degree in the springtime. So there are a lot of positives to staying for four years."
There are a lot of positive for fans, too. For three years, these guys have been hiding in plain sight, toiling away and developing their games while younger, flashier players grabbed all the headlines. Now they are the flashy ones, and the stage belongs to them. So let us savor this senior moment, because it won't last forever. These four-year players and their old-school games are making college basketball feel young again.
Other Hoop Thoughts
• I am hoping that at some point on Monday, the Big Ten and/or Maryland coach Mark Turgeon will have suspended Terps freshman forward Diamond Stone for one game. That is the only proper response after Stone was inexplicably left in Maryland's game against Wisconsin even after replays showed him shoving the head of Badgers forward Vitto Brown into the floor. If that does not rise to the level of "severe and extreme" then I don't know what does. I have talked to several coaches, broadcasters and officiating experts, and they all came to the same conclusion.
The other officiating snafu that occurred last week was the disallowing of an apparent game-winning basket made by Boise State at the end of regulation of the Broncos' game at Colorado State. (Boise State wound up losing the game in double overtime. So apparently sometimes the ball does lie.) Viewers were understandably confused because the ball clearly left the shooter's hand before the clock above the basket (the only clock that matters) reached 0.0. The officials overruled the play because they concluded that the clock did not start in time and the play took longer than 0.8 seconds.
Unfortunately, the refs reached that conclusion not by using a handheld digital stopwatch, as the rules require, but via a time-stamped replay provided by a company called DVSport. Problem was, the video was recorded at a different speed than the game telecast, which means the time stamp did not reflect the actual time the play took to complete. Moreover, the Mountain West Conference did not realize this discrepancy until after it had issued a statement declaring the officials were correct. Once that video was dissected online and the error was pointed out, the league had to reverse course and concede the shot should have counted.
Obviously, this was an unfortunate result for Boise State, but my larger concern is that we avoid this type of situation in the NCAA tournament. When I spoke with the NCAA's national officiating coordinator, J.D. Collins on Sunday night, he assured me that tournament officials will only use handheld digital timers when assessing errors associated with the clock.
I also have a larger concern that for one reason or another, officials are not always watching the same replays that viewers at home are seeing. This is apparently what happened during last year's championship game between Duke and Wisconsin, when a late out-of-bounds play was reviewed by officials and the ball was awarded to Duke, even though replays showed that Blue Devils forward Justise Winslow clearly touched it last. We never did get a full explanation as to what happened there, but I sure hope it will never happen again.
Speaking of Duke, it is becoming increasingly possible that senior forward Amile Jefferson is going to take a medical redshirt this season. Mike Krzyzewski said on Saturday that Jefferson is not yet considering that option, but the reality is that we are now in mid-February, and while Jefferson is doing some workout stuff on the court, he still keeps his foot in a boot for much of the time, and he has not been cleared to practice. Even if Jefferson were cleared today, it would be several weeks before he got himself back into peak condition. Is it really worth burning an entire season for the chance to contribute at a suboptimal level during a few postseason games? It's a tough question, and one I'm sure Jefferson is struggling with.
• Villanova coach Jay Wright's reputation for developing guards has been so good for so long that he has had to battle impressions that he is deficient when it comes to doing the same for big men. That line of thinking should be dead and buried given the way Daniel Ochefu has improved during his four years at Villanova. The 6'11" center from Baltimore scored a career-high 25 points (to go along with nine rebounds) in the Wildcats' sluggish win over St. John's on Saturday. Moreover, Ochefu's backup, 6'8" junior Darryl Reynolds, played very well while Ochefu missed three games recently because of a concussion. Villanova's strength at this position is a main reason why I believe the 'Cats are well-equipped to avoid the early round disappointments they've suffered in recent years. Can't make any promises, though.
• Meanwhile, that Wisconsin win at Maryland was the most significant result of the weekend. The Badgers have now won seven in a row and are very much looking like an NCAA tournament team. Not only will that keep the program's 17-year tourney streak alive, but it should ensure that interim coach Greg Gard will be named as Bo Ryan's permanent successor. As usual, the Badgers are winning more because of their system than their talent, and no one is more familiar with that system than Gard.
• I have two concerns about Oklahoma. First, the Sooners do not score in the post. Their power forward, Ryan Spangler, is mostly a stretch four, and their center, Khadeem Lattin, is a defensive specialist who takes just 4.3 shots per game. Second, while the numbers tell me Oklahoma is a good defensive team (it's 33rd in the country in defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com), my eyes tell me that the Sooners are not capable of winning games with their defense. So if they're not making jump shots, and if Buddy Love isn't playing hero ball, then they are vulnerable. That does not strike me as a great formula to take into the NCAA tournament, when every team is bound to suffer an off shooting night at some point.
• Here's something that to my knowledge has never happened: Two conferences getting two No. 1 seeds each. We've had three from one, but never four from two. Maybe that will change this year if Kansas, Oklahoma, Villanova and Xavier all play their way to the one line.
• Time to start paying attention to Notre Dame again. This is a typical Mike Brey team, blending dynamic scorers (guards Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia), rugged glue guys (Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson), overall experience (a senior and three juniors in the starting lineup) and a short bench (freshman guard Rex Pflueger is the only reserve who regularly gets heavy minutes). It has taken a while for the Irish to develop a defensive identity, but now that they have, they are primed for another postseason push. Remember who told you first.
• This may sound weird, but I'm starting to realize that Shaka Smart is an even better coach than I thought. I called all three of Texas's games at the Battle4Atlantis in November, and I am very surprised that the Longhorns are this good. I'm also not sure how many people realize that Smart is not using his trademark "Havoc" defensive pressure system with this group. Not only does that show he is adaptable, but that he has the ability to excel with different styles. And finally, I am impressed with the way this team has gotten better since it lost 6'9" senior center Cameron Ridley to a foot injury last December. I know Ridley could be coming back soon, and I'm sorry if this sounds harsh, but this team is clearly better without him. It has made the Longhorns smaller and quicker, and it has enabled 6'10" senior Prince Ibeh to develop. Ibeh has been the most improved player in college basketball—he's even making free throws now!—during the second half of the season, and the Longhorns are the most improved team. This Shaka kid can really wake up the space.
• I would also apply that same line of thinking to North Carolina with respect to Kennedy Meeks. Yes, Meeks is a good player, but the Tar Heels, and especially Brice Johnson, were better when Meeks was sidelined by an injury. His absence gave Johnson much more space to work with, and as a result he played like an All-American. (Remember when he had 39 points and 23 rebounds at Florida State?) Meeks, however, tends to clog the middle. I spoke with a former North Carolina player of the weekend about this, and he told me that during pickup games in Chapel Hill last summer, whenever Meeks and Johnson played together, their team always lost.
• LSU did what it had to do on Saturday in beating Texas A&M, but keep in mind that the Aggies' senior point guard, Anthony Collins, had to leave the game in the early minutes because of a stomach virus and never returned. As a result, Texas A&M committed an uncharacteristic 19 turnovers.Michael Hickey/Getty
It was good to see Caris LeVert back on the court for Michigan on Saturday, even if he was largely ineffectual and played just 11 minutes. I'm not sure LeVert will get back to the same form he showed before he got hurt in late December, but if the Wolverines get to the NCAA tournament (which looks likely), they will certainly be harder to beat with him than without him.
• To that point, people really do not understand how hard it is for players to regain their strength, stamina and rhythm when they have been out with an injury. That's especially true if it's a lower-body injury, because it is harder for them to maintain their conditioning. When I spoke with Denzel Valentine on Sunday night, he told me he still doesn't feel like his conditioning is 100%—and that was a few hours after he had 30 points and a career-high 13 assists in a win over Indiana.
• Georgetown senior guard D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera has been one of the best players in the Big East this season, yet he scored just three points and shot 1 for 8 in the Hoyas' loss at Providence on Saturday. That's what happens when you go up against Kris Dunn. Dunn is the Darrelle Revis of college basketball. I've heard coaches in the league say that they literally run their offense on the opposite side of the floor from where Dunn is, just so he can't kill them with steals and breakaway dunks.
• Wichita State was ranked No. 25 in last week's AP poll. But the Shockers lost at home to Northern Iowa on Saturday, and now they are on the bubble. Welcome to college basketball 2016.
• Now that Cal has Tyrone Wallace back, no one is going to want to face this team in the NCAA tournament. I realize fans are impatient with his group, but it is not easy to win while depending so heavily on freshmen. If the Bears can ever transfer their defensive intensity to the road, then look out.
• For now, I'm convinced Arizona is the best team in the Pac-12. I've been a little down on the Wildcats for most of the season, but with freshman guard Allonzo Trier having returned from his hand injury, this team has that look again.
• And how about all that weight that Sean Miller has lost. It inspires me to see guys our age getting disciplined about their diet and their health. It's not easy, especially during the season.
• Syracuse is ranked dead last in the entire country in percentage of minutes played by the bench. Just making sure you knew.
• It's too bad NC State is having such a rough season, because people need to know how good Cat Barber is. The 6'2" junior point guard had a career-high 38 points (all but eight in the second half) while leading the Wolfpack to a win at home over Wake Forest on Saturday. Barber leads the ACC (and ranks sixth nationally) in scoring at 23.5 points per game, and he is fourth in the conference in assists (4.7). Catch him if you can.
• Three things I want you to know: Yale is 8–0 in the Ivy League standings. Yale has not made the NCAA tournament since 1962. And Stony Brook now owns the nation's longest win streak at 18 games and counting.
• Which brings me to another thought I've been wanting to get off my chest. The Ivy League really needs to get into the 21st century and allow its athletes to redshirt, especially if it is for medical reasons. For example, Harvard's best player, Siyani Chambers, tore his ACL in September and was lost for the season. But because there are no athletic scholarships in the Ivy, and therefore no redshirts, Chambers, who would have been a senior, had to withdraw from school for the entire year if he wanted to preserve his ability to play his final season. That just doesn't seem right.
• You could watch college basketball for many, many years and still not find a more boneheaded play than the one Memphis forward Shaq Goodwin made on Saturday. With his team trailing Tulane by three points late in the first half, Goodwin had a breakaway layup, but instead of laying it in or dunking, Goodwin put his arm through the rim, Vince Carter-style, and was called for a technical foul. Let me repeat: His team was losing at the time, on the road and against a bad team, no less. And Goodwin is a senior! And his coach, Josh Pastner, is on the hottest of hot seats. Justice was served when Memphis went on to lose the game in overtime. That's a bad, bad look.
• I think it's safe to say Washington has officially come down to Earth. At one point, the Huskies were 5–1 and atop the Pac-12 standings, but they have now lost three in a row and five of their last seven. This team has some talent, but it is way too young to win tough games on the road in late February.
I realize UConn needs Amida Brimah for the final push, but I'm not convinced his broken hand is fully healed. Brimah, a 7-foot junior, never had great hands to begin with, but he is clearly having a tough time catching the ball. The Huskies' offense completely melted down during the final minutes of last week's loss at Temple. UConn led by 11 points with five minutes to play in that one. If this team ends up just missing out on the NCAA tournament, that is the one game that will haunt it.
• Anyone else noticing that Alabama is playing its way onto the bubble? So is Texas Tech, by the way.
• I drop this nugget at least once a season. When I was covering high school sports for the New Haven Register a million years ago, a local coach named Gary Palladino from Notre Dame High in West Haven described basketball to me as 70% talent, 20% coaching and 10% luck. I still have yet to hear anyone else say it better.
• Oh, and Len Bias is still the best college player I ever saw live, in case you were wondering.
• It's pretty amazing how little we've heard about Malik Newman this season. The 6'3" freshman guard was hailed as a savior when he signed with Mississippi State, and while his numbers are respectable (12.6 points and 2.1 assists per game, 39.7% three-point shooting), they are hardly eye-popping. I sure hope he's not thinking about leaving for the NBA, because he's not remotely ready.
• I really dig the whole T-shirt jersey trend. Hope you young folks know that the Patrick Ewing-era Georgetown teams starting that whole thing by sporting T-shirts under their jerseys. I don't even think cordless phones had been invented by then. I'm also hearing that short shorts might be coming back, but I haven't seen much evidence of that.
• Why don't teams run any offense on game-deciding final possessions? They practice and play a certain way 99% of the time, but when they really need a bucket to win a game it's pound pound pound pound pound ... and chuck up a bad shot. I don't get it.
• I remember watching an Indiana practice in early November and thinking that O.G. Anunoby reminded me of Victor Oladipo. Anunoby is a rangy, bouncy, 6'8" freshman whose minutes went up drastically after sophomore guard James Blackmon was lost for the season to a knee injury in December. The Hoosiers lost some offensive firepower when Blackmon went out, but they have improved defensively, partly out of necessity. If Anunoby is able to develop his offensive game the way Oladipo did during his three years in Bloomington—and I've never seen a player who worked harder—then Indiana is really going to have something special.
• It was interesting to hear ESPN's Mike Tirico extol the virtues of going to four quarters based on his recent experience calling a women's game. Like I said, I am not sure of the upside, but I've heard enough good things that I am open to the possibility. How about we use it on an experimental basis during the NIT this year and see how everyone likes it?
• Reason No. 143 why college hoops is better than the NBA: coaches who wear their school colors on their ties.David Purdy/Getty
Five Games I'm Psyched to See This Week
Iowa State at Baylor, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2
It was pretty stunning to see Baylor get embarrassed at home by Texas Tech. This team is too good not to bounce back.
Baylor 82, Iowa State 77
Dayton at Saint Joseph's, Wednesday, 6 p.m., CBS Sports Network
This game is going to go a long way towards deciding who wins the Atlantic 10. Saint Joesph's has one of the nation's most improved players in 6'7" senior forward Isaiah Miles, one of the nation's most versatile players in 6'6" junior forward DeAndre Bembry, and the homecourt advantage. That should be enough.
Saint Joseph's 77, Dayton 74
Villanova at Temple, Wednesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Talk about a February treat. It's a Big Five game featuring the nation's No. 1 team playing on the "road" against a surging Temple squad. A good old-fashioned neighborhood sibling rivalry. Pass the cheesesteak.
Temple 71, Villanova 70
Providence at Xavier, Wednesday, 7 p.m., FS1
The Friars have two outstanding players in Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, and a third player who is capable of being outstanding in Rodney Bullock. However, they don't have enough support, and their legs and minds are clearly tired. That's not a formula for beating a top-10 team on the road.
Xavier 75, Providence 64
Duke at North Carolina, Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN
The history of this great rivalry tells us to expect the unexpected, but the Blue Devils are so thin inside, it's hard to imagine them keeping the Tar Heels off the glass.
North Carolina 79, Duke 70
This Week's AP Ballot
* (Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Villanova (1)
2. Kansas (8)
3. Michigan State (5)
4. Oklahoma (2)
5. Iowa (4)
6. Xavier (6)
7. West Virginia (7)
8. North Carolina (10)
9. Virginia (9)
10. Maryland (3)
11. Miami (15)
12. Arizona (14)
13. Oregon (11)
14. Iowa State (12)
15. Notre Dame (NR)
16. Indiana (NR)
17. Kentucky (22)
18. SMU (18)
19. Texas (19)
20. Duke (NR)
21. Louisville (16)
22. Dayton (23)
23. Wisconsin (NR)
24. Purdue (24)
25. Saint Joseph's (NR)
Dropped out: Wichita State (13), Texas A&M (17), Baylor (20), Providence (21), Valparaiso (25)
Last week, I ranked Michigan State three spots ahead of where it ended up in the AP poll. I am guessing that I will still have the Spartans a spot or two higher than my fellow voters. It may be a small difference, but it underscores the way I tend to vote—that is, with my eyes, and with a heavy emphasis on recent play. Michigan State has been a tough team to rank because of the in-and-out shuffling of Denzel Valentine (and to a lesser extent, Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn). But I know what I see. This team is as good as any in the country. Don't be surprised if the Spartans enter the NCAA tournament ranked No. 1 in both polls.
You'll also notice I did not move Virginia down even though the Cavaliers lost. That has nothing to do with the non-travel call on Grayson Allen's game-winner. It has to do with the fact that they lost to a good conference opponent by one point on the road. That's as good as a win in my book.
I might have been justified dropping Maryland more than seven spots for losing at home, but I kept running into teams who I still don't think are as good as the Terps. Still, for a team that has only lost four games all season, it still feels like Maryland is underachieving. This week, the Terps play on the road at Minnesota and then host Michigan. If they don't win both, they will take a tumble next week.
I'm probably a week late in ranking Notre Dame, so I suppose I was trying to make up for it. The Fighting Irish have won three straight games (North Carolina and Louisville at home, Clemson on the road) and are passing my eye test with flying colors. They've got the easier part of their ACC schedule to finish out the season, so I suspect they will stay in the rankings the rest of the way.
Ranking Duke was a no-brainer after the Blue Devils beat Louisville and Virginia at home. Ditto for Wisconsin, which has now won seven in a row, including the road win at Maryland.
I went with Saint Joseph's at No. 25 because the Hawks have lost just four games all season and are now tied for second in a very good Atlantic 10. I realize they did not play a great schedule and lost to St. Bonaventure at home, but that's still a lot of wins. I thought about leaving Wichita State there because I do think the Shockers are a good team, but they have now lost two of their last three (including to Northern Iowa at home on Saturday) and have just one top-50 win all season (at home over Utah).
As usual, there were a lot of good teams to choose from at the bottom of my ballot. Among those I considered were California, which plays at Washington and Washington State this week; San Diego State, which is now 12–1 in the Mountain West; Michigan, which had a nice home win over Purdue and could be set to improve with Caris LeVert back in the lineup; Temple, which has now won eight of its last nine; Texas Tech, which throttled Baylor in Waco on Saturday; and Stony Brook, which now owns the nation's longest win streak at 18 games and counting. You know the rule, boys: You have to win to get in.
See ya next week, Hoopheads.