After a holiday hiatus the Naismith Watch has returned, hoping the New Year brings a speedy recovery to a couple of contenders for the award given annually to the best player in college basketball.
The interim and injuries created movement at the top and throughout the list.
First a refresher on the award, which Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky claimed last season and was first handed out in 1969.
The initial 50-man watch list was released earlier this month.
The list will be pared to 30 players on Feb. 11th, the 10 semifinalists will be announced March 2nd and four finalists will be revealed on March 20th. The winner receives the award on the first weekend of April during the Final Four in Houston.
Each Monday for the remainder of the regular season we’ll publish a nine-man watch list, ranking the favorites to win the award if the season ended today.
1. Kris Dunn, Providence - The game’s premier point guard is leading the nation in assist rate for the second consecutive season (49.1 percent). He led the Friars to a key Big East victory over Butler and has hit 8 of 12 3-pointers and dished out 26 assists in the three games since he returned from illness. Providence is 14-1 and a 2-0 contender in the Big East, thanks to Dunn, who has converted 48 of 78 shots (61.5 percent) at the rim, per hoop-math.com and is second in the nation with 3.08 steals per game.
2. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State - Our frontrunner when we last convened underwent minor arthroscopic surgery on his left knee during the week before Christmas. The versatile 6-5 senior has missed three games and hopes to return for Sunday’s matchup against Penn State, which means he’ll sit out this week’s game against Illinois. Valentine has been missed. The Spartans are 2-1 in his absence and needed overtime to defeat Oakland. They will welcome back his 18.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game.
3. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma - Entering Monday, Hield had taken 32 percent of the team’s shots and produced a gaudy 126.4 offensive rating by hitting 49.4 percent of 3-pointers and 90.5 percent of free throws. Fourth in the nation in scoring, Hield also appears to enjoy playing basketball as much as anyone in the nation. Hield is 22 of 39 on 3-pointers from the left wing, per Synergy Sports, and 4 of 6 from the left corner.
4. Ben Simmons, LSU - The phenomenal freshman forward can’t be pigeonholed at any one position although he did operate like the world’s only 6-10 point guard in a thorough, dominant performance against Vanderbilt last week. He used 37 percent of the Tigers’ possessions and recorded 36 points, 14 rebounds and four assists. For those urging Simmons to take on a larger role, he took 29 percent of the Tigers’ shots when in the game (his season average is 23 percent). The spotlight will shine brightly on Simmons on Tuesday night when SEC favorite Kentucky visits Baton Rouge.
5. Georges Niang, Iowa State - Bursting into the Naismith Watch for the first time, the 6-8 senior is having an outstanding senior season. He’s shooting the ball well from every area - 61.3 percent on 2-pointers, 41.2 percent on 3-pointers and 87 percent at the line. He had 29 points on 13 of 18 shooting and eight rebounds in the Cyclones’ narrow loss to Oklahoma on Saturday. That effort continues a trend of Niang excelling against the best teams. In Iowa State’s four games against teams in the top 50 of the Pomeroy Ratings, Niang averaged 21.5 points on a 61.1 percent effective field goal percentage.
6. Grayson Allen, Duke - The 6-5 sophomore’s 131.2 offensive rating leads the nation among players who use at least 24 percent of the possessions (Allen’s usage is 25.1 pct.) He’s attempted 187 field goals (81 more than all of last season) and two-fifths have come at the rim, where his strong 205-pound frame allows him to convert (61.8 percent). What’s troublesome is Allen’s two worst games occurred against the best two teams Duke has faced (Kentucky, Utah), although he was extremely ill against the Utes. Those are also the Blue Devils’ only losses.
7. Caris LeVert, Michigan - First, the good news. Name the statistical category - assists, turnovers, rebounding, shooting percentage - and the 6-7 senior has improved in every area this season. Unfortunately, LeVert missed the Wolverines’ romp over Penn State due to a lower left leg injury suffered in the previous game against Illinois. Michigan coach John Beilein hasn’t revealed many details on the severity of LeVert’s injury, but LeVert has a history of left leg issues. Michigan desperately needs his 17.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg and 5.2 apg in the lineup.
8. Kahlil Felder, Oakland - Before writing off Felder due to his size (5-foot-9) or because he plays at a mid-major (Horizon League) program, consider this: In four games against Georgia, Washington, Michigan State and Virginia this season, Felder averaged 32 points on 45 percent field goal shooting. The Grizzlies defeated Washington and lost to then-No. 1 Michigan State in overtime. Felder also leads the nation with 8.9 assists per game as the driving force in the nation’s 21st best offense. Talk about a potential bracket buster.
9. Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia - A terrific, versatile defender, who at 6-5 can guard multiple positions, Brogdon has emerged this season as a key cog (122.1 offensive rating) in the nation’s most efficient offense (119.8 adjusted efficiency, per KenPom.com). Not having a weakness is his strength. He’s delivering 16.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg and 3.0 apg while shooting a career-high 41 percent on 3-pointers. His 24 points Saturday helped the Cavaliers dispatch Notre Dame in the ACC opener.
On the cusp: Yogi Ferrell, Indiana; Anthony Gill, Virginia; Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame; Marcus Paige, North Carolina; Jakob Poeltl, Utah; Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa;