The epic triple overtime thriller between Kansas and Oklahoma provided the platform for a remarkable individual performance in front of a national television audience, creating yet another seismic shift atop the Naismith Watch this week.
Perhaps the new freedom of movement rules emphasis is helping offensive players produce or maybe it’s simply an alignment of talent unlike recent seasons. While it's not unusual for individual statistics to decline as teams dive into the meat of the conference schedule, at this point, elite players are posting numbers seen rarely, if ever, in the last 20 years. We used the handy ‘player season finder’ at sports-reference.com to compare current players to predecessors from their school, conference or the nation and confirmed this is indeed a special season when viewed through the lens of statistics.
First, a reminder: The initial 50-man watch list was released in December.
The list will be pared to 30 players on Feb. 11, the 10 semifinalists will be announced March 2 and four finalists will be revealed on March 20. 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.
Buddy Hield, Oklahoma (26.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg)
Scoring 46 points against the nation’s top-ranked team in their arena automatically vaults a player to the top of the Naismith Watch. Especially when said player is shooting 52 percent on 2-pointers and 3-pointers, 90 percent on free throws and is second nationally in scoring. The last player to average at least 26 points per game and five rebounds per game for a season? 2014 Naismith Award winner Doug McDermott. Hield is also approaching an elite club in Norman, Oklahoma. The 6-foot-4 senior is 261 points shy of a 2,000-point career and maintaining his current torrid pace puts him there Feb. 13 at home, in the rematch against Kansas.
Kris Dunn, Providence (17.7 ppg, 7.3 apg, 6.3 rpg)
The nation’s best point guard is the only college player since 1995-96 to average 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds per game. Oh, and he picks up 3.2 steals per contest (second in the nation) as well. Dunn is shooting a career-high 39.5 percent on 3-pointers (35.3 percent career) and has cut his turnovers per game from 4.2 to 3.3. The Friars are 14-2, headed for their third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance and 20-win season. The program last accomplished both feats from 1971-74 when Dave Gavitt coached the team.
Denzel Valentine, Michigan State (17.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 6.8 apg)
With numbers similar to Dunn's, the Spartans leader, Valentine, is the nation’s only player since 1995-96 to average 17 points, seven rebounds and six assists per game. He missed four games recovering from pre-Christmas minor knee surgery, returned Sunday with 10 points four rebounds and four assists in 23 minutes as the Spartans handled Penn State 92-65 on the road. Coach Tom Izzo will need his versatile guard at full strength for Thursday’s home matchup against Iowa (7 p.m., ESPN).
Ben Simmons, LSU (20.6 ppg, 13.1 rpg, 5.1 apg)
Simmons is the lone player since 1995-96 to average 20 points, 13 rebounds and five assists per game in a season. He also has room to slip, since no player has put up 20 points, 12 rebounds and four assists per game, either. Last week, the dynamic 6-foot-10, 240-pound Australian experienced the highs and lows that come with being a freshman. He scored 14 points on five shots and pulled down 10 rebounds in a convincing win over Kentucky. Then, he struggled at Florida, committing a season-high eight turnovers in a 68-62 defeat.
Georges Niang, Iowa State (19.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.5 apg)
Niang is averaging double figures scoring for the fourth season in a row and with 1,801 career points is on pace to become the first member of the 2,000-point club in Ames since all-time leading scorer Jeff Grayer finished with 2,502 points in 1988. If Niang continues on his current scoring pace he’ll become the third Cyclone to reach the 2,000 mark, getting there on Feb. 16 at Baylor and passing his former coach Fred Hoiberg (1,993 points) along the way.
Grayson Allen, Duke (20.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.6 apg)
In the last 20 years 13 Blue Devils combined for 16 appearances on the consensus All-American first or second team (Shane Battier, J.J. Redick and Jason Williams achieved the honor in two seasons). None of those stars, however, averaged 20 points, five rebounds and three assists for the season, like Allen. It’s hard to find a returning player in college basketball who has taken better advantage of the emphasis on freedom of movement. The strong driving Allen shoots 6.9 free throws per game and knocks down 85.2 percent of his attempts.
Think about the phenomenal post players from UNC in the last 20 years: Tyler Hansbrough, Antawn Jamison, Sean May and John Henson. Each averaged a double-double as Johnson is this season. Going even further back there were All-Americans and future NBA stars such as Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, James Worthy, Rasheed Wallace and Al Wood. None had a game comparable to Johnson’s 39-point, 23-rebound outburst at Florida State last Monday. It was the first 30-point, 20-rebound effort for the Tar Heels since Mitch Kupchak in 1976. Johnson backed up that effort with 16 points and eight assists Saturday against Syracuse, boosting his offensive rating for the season to 134.5 -- best in the ACC among players who use at least 20 percent of their team's possessions.
Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa (18.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 3.3 bpg)
Tenacity, versatility and skill define Uthoff’s game. He’s the only Big Ten player in the last 20 years to average 18 points, six rebounds and three blocks. Perimeter shooting ability further distinguishes the Hawkeyes’ 6-foot-9 forward. The conference’s leading scorer has drilled 45.5 percent of his 3-point attempts this season, and is coming off a 25-point, eight-rebound effort in a 77-66 win over Nebraska.
Josh Hart, Villanova (15.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg)
In the Wildcats’ six-game winning streak, the 6-foot-5 forward has converted 35 of 46 2-pointers (76 percent). He was ruthless in the second half of Villanova’s key road win at Butler on Sunday night, slashing inside and claiming space around the rim en route to an efficient 22-point, nine-rebound effort. His usage has climbed from 19.6 percent of the Wildcats’ possessions to 25.8 percent, yet his offensive rating hasn’t suffered, surpassing 125.0 for the third consecutive season.
The next nine: Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia; John Brown, High Point; Kay Felder, Oakland; Yogi Ferrell, Indiana; Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame; Marcus Paige, North Carolina; Gary Payton, Oregon State; Jakob Poeltl, Utah; Melo Trimble, Maryland