Big men Kaminsky, Okafor lead way in top player race
MADISON, Wis. (AP) It might be a two-man game when it comes to the race for player of the year.
Frank Kaminsky is the savvy senior big man for No. 6 Wisconsin. Jahlil Okafor is the freshman phenom center at No. 3 Duke.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has had to face both. His early favorite: Kaminsky.
''I love Jahlil, I really do, but you have to talk about the versatility of a player. I recruited Jahlil for four years, and I love everything about him,'' Izzo said this week. ''I wouldn't have even put them close when you look at Kaminsky a year ago.''
''Frank the Tank,'' as he is known to the Wisconsin student section, was pretty good last year in a breakout 2013-14 campaign that ended with a run to the Final Four.
''But Kaminsky is phenomenal right now. I just think he does it in so many different ways,'' Izzo said. ''He's become a better passer, he's become a guy that just has a knack for drawing the defense, and he's a hard cover.''
If head-to-head matchups matter, Kaminsky had 17 points on 5 of 12 shooting to go with nine rebounds when Wisconsin played Duke in Madison in December. The Blue Devils won 80-70 after the team shot a blistering 65 percent. Okafor had 13 points on 6 of 8 shooting and added six boards.
Lately, Okafor has been bothered by a sprained left ankle, though the freshman remains a force on the floor. Okafor had 30 points and nine rebounds in an overtime win over Virginia Tech last week, and followed it up 13 points and 14 boards in a victory over Syracuse.
On Wednesday, though, in a 94-51 rout over Wake Forest, he finished with six - his first single-digit scoring game - after some early foul trouble.
''Another thing for a young kid - can you learn to play tired?'' Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the Virginia Tech game. ''He played through that. He wanted to win. You don't teach that.''
He could work on free throws, though. Okafor is shooting 52 percent from the stripe, but 66 percent from the field. He was averaging 18.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game going into Wednesday's game.
Okafor has a fellow first-year running mate in guard Tyus Jones who was averaging 11.4 points and 5.7 assists per game. Another freshman, forward Justise Winslow, has scored at least 20 points in two of Duke's previous three games.
Kaminsky is averaging 18.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 blocks per game going into Thursday's game at Minnesota. He is also shooting 41 percent from 3-point range, tops among the Wisconsin regulars.
Some other players to watch for the John Wooden Award:
- Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: 8.9 points on 59 percent shooting, 6.4 rebounds, 1.6 blocks. The junior center anchors the defense on the undefeated team that is pretty much everyone's favorite to win the NCAA championship.
- Justin Anderson, Virginia: 13.4 points, 48 percent 3-point shooting, 4.3 rebounds. A top defender and second-leading scorer on the one-loss team atop the ACC, the guard has missed the Cavaliers' last seven games with a broken finger.
- Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: 16.9 points, 6.6 assists, 1.8 steals. Coach Mike Brey has lauded Grant for his leadership this season. All the attention heaped on the star point guard opens up room for others on offense to operate.
- Delon Wright, Utah: 14.3 points, 5.3 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 2.2 steals. The senior guard paces an offense that puts an emphasis on sharing the ball. In a loss to Arizona last week. Wright scored 17 points on 3 of 10 shooting, but went 10 of 12 from the foul line.
- D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State: 19.0 points, 5.3 assists, 1.6 steals. The guard was making headlines in his freshman year even before New York Knicks president Phil Jackson took notice. Jackson was fined for saying that Russell was a ''great-looking kid'' and ''great prospect.'' Russell could be a one-and-done departure from Columbus.