Wednesday, the Atlanta Tipoff Club released the 10 remaining finalists for the men’s basketball Naismith Trophy. To recognize these players as they head into conference tournaments and hopefully the March Madness tournament, we’re reflecting on what has made these players so unique and special this regular season. Here’s the first five; check back next week for a review of the other five remaining players.
Seth Tuttle, UNI, C
The phrase “The offense runs through Player X” gets tossed around frequently in college basketball discussion. It’s a simply means to amplify a player’s importance and worth, demonstrating just how valuable "Player X" is to his team. Most of the time, it’s more that "Player X" is responsible for a lot of his team’s points than anything else.
With Northern Iowa, the offense literally runs through Tuttle. Almost every possession down the court, the point guard dribbles toward outside the perimeter and waits for Tuttle to establish position on the elbow. Once situated, he receives a pass and as some sort of point-center for UNI and operates the offense. If his defender gives him enough space, he’ll drop his shoulder or hit a post move toward the basket. When a double-team approaches, he’ll kick it to cutting guard or a teammate left open on the perimeter. He’s the decision-maker for UNI’s offense.
Recently named MVC Player of the Year, Tuttle averages 15.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and an impressive 3.3 assists per game. As the team’s big man, he’s also their statistical leader in all three of those categories. He might have been limited against Wichita State Saturday, but think of it as the Shockers’ retribution for Tuttle’s decimating previous performance against them. Then, he scored 29 points, grabbed seven boards and recorded a stat in every meaningful category. Safe to say he runs it for UNI.
Russell, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily run Ohio State’s offense; he creates it. Russell is one of those few college guards who has a choice when he has the ball: He can either find an open space to fire a shot himself or he might collapse a defense with dribble penetration to release a teammate for a better shot. He has a choice because he’s one of the few guards who can pull off both almost whenever he wants.
Though one of the nation’s premiere freshmen, he’s also looked the part at times. Russell has had a severely up-and-down season. He began hitting his stride, playing with a determined reliability as Big Ten conference play opened up. He was unstoppable, so in a zone that he appeared to be heat-checking his own capabilities for fun. He’s averaged more than 20 points in Big Ten play, but was particularly on point in key wins against then-No. 23 Indiana and then-No. 16 Maryland. He also was good for a triple-double against Rutgers.
Eventually, though, Russell returned to some more reasonable plane of play. He looked anxious at Michigan State, in front of a house full of current NBA players returning during their All-Star break. He had not been scoring in bunches his past five games until a 28-point outburst against Purdue to end the season. He may not be the nation’s most consistent player, but he’s certainly the nation’s most exciting player, able to change the game within a moment’s notice. Unlike most college players, he can choose how the game goes. The decision is entirely up to him.
Gonzaga is the only team with two candidates on the Naismith’s final watch list. We’ll get to Kevin Pangos next week, but Wiltjer has been the frontman of Gonzaga’s wildly successful campaign this season.
And for good reason: Wiltjer returned this season as the most improved player in college basketball and has had a big responsibility in the Zags’ 29-2 record. Wiltjer buoys Gonzaga’s 52.4 field goal percentage, good for best of the nation while Wiltjer himself is shooting 53.0 from the field. His efficiency and high-level play is what sets him apart from the rest of this field of big men.
While Wiltjer has a freakish body like the others, think of him as the tactician and technician among them.
An obvious statement about Kentucky: A team does not go 30-0 without some pretty special players on board. The Wildcats are only the third team in the past 35 seasons to start 30-0 and it’s mainly because of Big Blue’s historic defense. The anchor of that defense is Cauley-Stein
One of the frustrating qualities of preparing to face Kentucky, I’d imagine, is deciding how to attack. A tactical advantage does not exist: Going big against Kentucky doesn’t work and neither does going small. The reason is Cauley-Stein.
He’s long and big, able to guard with the best down low, but he also has devastating agility, able to keep up and recover unlike any big man in college basketball.
Consider the talent Kentucky has had, particularly the talented big men. Now consider this: Cauley-Stein is the only player in school history with 200-plus blocks and 100-plus steals throughout his career. He’s not a wild threat offensively -- Karl-Anthony Towns is UK’s main option in the post -- but he’s no liability by any means. He’s equipped enough offensively that defenses need to account for him.
Without him, Kentucky surely would have lost a couple games by now (okay, maybe just one). With him, the Wildcats are undefeated and possibly historic.
Speaking of game-changing forwards who aren’t necessarily flashy: Kaminsky is as good as his Frank the everything-but Tank moniker he’s been given. (Okay I’m the only one who calls him that, but still. It works.)
To many analysts, Kaminsky is the leader for Player of the Year. Not only is he the finesse big man expected of a body with the height and wingspan Kaminsky has, but he’s also talented in all ways unexpected. He has top court vision for a big man. He averages 41.7 percent from three-point range as a seven-footer. And he can drop the ball and dribble if necessary.
Wisconsin’s Final Four run last year was predominantly predicated by Kaminsky’s skillset -- he was a matchup nightmare. This year, the Badgers leaned on him even more and in response, he’s produced at an even higher and more effective rate. He has averages of 18.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.6 blocks per game. Whatever’s asked of him, Kaminsky can do. That’s why he’s a game-changer.