This season's Naismith candidates

In past years, it's been a clear-cut decision. Last season, the Naismith National Player of the Year Award was Duke's Jay Williams to take. A year before, Shane Battier won the honor.

But this season, with six weeks left and no runaway candidate, several players are making strong cases for the award.

Reece Gaines

Rick Pitino, a coach of unwavering philosophies, demands many things from his star players, including unselfishness, defense and making supporting players better.

During his time with Kentucky, Pitino demanded as much from Jamal Mashburn and Antoine Walker, who have carried their success to the NBA. Now, with Louisville, Pitino expects the same from Reece Gaines.

"(He) makes other people better," Pitino said, "which wasn't the case last year."

Gaines, who shifted from shooting to point guard, has seen his assists per game jump from 3.6 last year to 4.8 this season. Though Gaines' scoring average has dipped from 21 to 18.5, his focus has shifted to more important matters.

"I haven't won very much (in the past)," Gaines said. "My focus is winning, and that's going to be the team's mindset."

With the heart of the conference season beginning, Gaines headlines a score of NCAA players who are in the running for the Naismith Award.

"Last year … I said it's Reece Gaines and 11 (other guys)," Pitino said. "(This year), he distributes the ball so well, and defenses can't concentrate on him. That's why we're shooting 50 percent as a team."

It's also why No. 9 Louisville remains undefeated (4-0) in Conference USA with an overall mark of 12-1.

Jason Gardner

Though his statistics are less impressive than Gaines', Jason Gardner remains a big reason why No. 1 Arizona lingers in the elite despite Luke Walton's injury.

Gardner leads Arizona in scoring with 13.4 points per game and adds 5.1 assists. He also continues to be the Wildcats' go-to-guy. On Dec. 15, when then-No. 7 Texas strolled into Tucson, Gardner scored six of his 13 in the final two minutes of the Wildcats' 73-70 win.

What's more remarkable is Gardner's conditioning. The senior averages 32.2 minutes, almost 10 more than his closest teammate, Salim Stoudamire (23.8).

"Even when you pull him out of the game," Arizona coach Lute Olsen said, "you expect him to at least be breathing hard. He's not."

Brian Cook

Illinois' Brian Cook has logged similar minutes to Gardner and found much of the same success. Cook's 31.6 minutes rank second on his team. But more importantly, Cook has established himself as a nightly 20-point scorer and has the Illini (12-3) prepared for a deep postseason run.

"He's playing to succeed rather than not to fail," Illinois coach Bill Self said. "Bad plays don't affect him like in year's past."

And then there's ...

Kentucky's Keith Bogans, Texas' T.J. Ford, Pitt's Brandin Knight and Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony all can make cases to be college basketball's No. 1 player.

Pitino has already put in his vote for Gaines.

"Reece is just playing a different type of game," Pitino said. "He's just an outstanding point guard."

Bad show

Gary Williams couldn't keep silent anymore.

Following the Terrapins' 81-72 loss to Wake Forest, Williams sounded off on official Doug Shows. This came after Shows whistled Williams and guard Steve Blake for technicals in the second half.

"We had a referee tell us he'd see us next week in a threatening manner," Williams told the Associated Press. "I'm a little tired of the rule the ACC has about (not) commenting on officiating, and this is the first time I've commented."

Williams later apologized for his comments, and the ACC suspended Shows for one conference game.

Battered Bruins

He might not be resigning, but perhaps UCLA coach Steve Lavin took another step toward being fired.

Not even Arizona, a fierce rival, could stir the Bruins out of the doldrums, as the Wildcats dumped UCLA, 87-52, Saturday night. The loss marked UCLA's worst defeat at Pauley Pavilion, which opened in 1965.

"We lack spirit right now," forward Jason Kapono told the AP. "There's 14 games (left). We just got to take each one at a time and not worry about our standing, not worry about what others are saying about us."

Up and coming

Rhode Island. Somehow, the Rams are 11-4 with wins over Providence and USC. Coach Jim Baron deserves plenty of credit. The Rams have a strong case for the NIT, and if things continue to go well, the NCAA Tournament.

He said what?

"I don't know. Look in your archives. Whatever my best stuff is, pull it out."

Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson on Hollis Price. The guard netted five points in the final 22 seconds of regulation against Texas Tech, including a buzzer-beater to force overtime. He scored five more in the extra frame, as the Sooners topped Texas Tech, 69-64, Monday.

This and that

Arizona, winners of eight straight, took advantage of Duke's loss to the Terps on Saturday to reclaim the top spot in Monday's ESPN/USA Today poll. … Washington State guard Marcus Moore is out for the season after undergoing surgery to remove bone chips and bone spurs from his right ankle. … Texas A&M reserve Andy Slocum was arrested Sunday and charged for felony possession of steroids, which were found in his truck.

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