Pass the Baton: Exploring the Depths of College Basketball’s Best

Villanova is the most balanced team in America, and it’s not even really close. They are so balanced, they balance the different ways they are balanced.

First, it’s between offense and defense. They’ve posted an offense quotient of 8.6 and a defensive quotient of 8.5. This means they are scoring, on average, 8.6 more points per game than their opponents typically allow and allowing their opponents to score 8.5 fewer points per game than they usually score. The only NCAA team ranking higher in both categories is Arizona.

When adjusted for pace, Nova ranks 9th in offensive rating and 13th in defensive rating nationally. No one ranks higher in both. Quite simply, other teams are better at one end, but no one balances both sides of the floor like Jay Wright’s Wildcats.

Not to be outdone, their balance continues to their individual players too. Wright’s talent is evenly spread throughout his six best players.

If pressed to choose Villanova’s best player or even their most valuable player, I’d struggle but feel somewhat confident saying it’s Darrun Hilliard. If asked to rank the next five players from second to sixth best, I would give up. Those five players all average between 9.2 and 10.0 points per game. That is balance.

This got me thinking. Hillard is underrated, though not among the absolute best players in the country (He wasn’t on the Wooden Award’s Midseason Top 25 or Top 20 lists).  Villanova’s strength comes further down the lineup. They might not have the best “best player” or the best “second best player”, but what of their third, or fourth, or fifth best players? Are they the best in the country at their level?

Essentially it’s a bit like a relay team in track and field. Everyone’s anchor runner will probably be their best runner, but the anchor isn’t always the reason you win the race. Your first or second runner may blow by his counterparts. Team balance can win you the race.

With that in mind, I sought out to find who is the best player, relative to his teammates, at each level in the country. This is confusing so I thought long and hard for a catchy name to describe this. To do so, I went back to the relay race analogy and ran with it (PUN INTENDED).

Here now, is the Best At That One Notch (BATON) for each “notch”. It’s not great, but it’s all we got. Let’s go!

First BATON (The Best “Best Player”)

Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin)

wisco iowa

Big Frank has made himself the front-runner for all the major Player of the Year awards. Averaging 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds helps, but for Frank the Tank, the eye test is real cause for separation. Silky smooth post moves, beating bigs off the dribble, and hitting open threes, Kaminsky has such a unique skill-set.

Others Considered: Jahlil Okafor (Duke), Jerian Grant (Notre Dame)

Second BATON (The Best “Second Best Player”)

Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky)


I made this pick thinking that Kentucky’s best player is Karl-Anthony Towns. If you think Cauley-Stein is better than Towns, that’s totally fair, but then I’d pick Towns for this spot.

Scoring on Kentucky is nearly impossible and Cauley-Stein is a huge reason for that. He’s as quick as any almost any player in college, and he’s 7 feet tall. He can cover just about anyone and shooting over him, or even near him, is ill advised.

He gets the call here narrowly over Malcolm Brogdon, who after Justin Anderson’s injury is now the best player on Virginia.

Others Considered: Brodon (Virginia), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Terry Rozier (Louisville), Tyus Jones (Duke), Sam Dekker (Wisconsin), Kyle Collinsworth (BYU)

Third BATON (The Best “Third Best Player”)

Justise Winslow (Duke)

Justise Winslow

This is where things get murky. There’s a lot of teams who are balanced and solid through the middle of their starting line-ups, so it becomes harder to actually determine who is each team’s third best player.

Winslow’s physical skills are off the charts and are exactly why he’ll be a lottery pick in June.

For me though, the thing that stands out is how well he’s played in big games. In all of Duke’s best wins (At Virginia, At Wisconsin, the Notre Dame blowout), Winslow seems to always make big plays and can get to the rim whenever he wants.

If Duke makes a deep run in March, I’d bet Winslow wins at least one game for them along the way.

Others Considered: Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin), JayVaughn Pinkston (Villanova)

Fourth BATON (The Best “Fourth Best Player”)

Tie? I don’t know. I’ll explain.

Gary Bell, Jr. (Gonzaga)

Ryan Arcidiacono (Villanova)

Quinn Cook (Duke)

bell arch cook

I found it nearly impossible to divide these three upperclassmen guards (Bell and Cook are seniors, Archie is a junior).

If forced into a three-way trade, I’m not totally sure which team would leave happiest. I think Duke’s best bet would be Bell. With Tyus Jones playing the point, Bell’s sharpshooting would create separation for Jahlil Okafor. Bell has always worked well with fellow Gonzaga senior guard Kevin Pangos, but early this season before freshman Josh Perkins broke his jaw, Pangos flourished in limited time as an off-guard. I’d be curious to see how many more open shots he’d find with Cook or Arch as his running mate. And on the Main Line, Arcidiacono is the straw that stirs Villanova’s offense. Would the safer and more solid Quinn Cook be a better option?

It’s an interesting hypothetical and ultimately points to how good these three players are AND how good each of their respective teams are.

Also Considered: Perry Ellis or Whomever The Fourth Best Kansas Player Is (Kansas)

Fifth Baton (The Best “Fifth Best Player)

Domantas Sabonis (Gonzaga)


The sons of Hall of Famers who can average 18-13 per 40 minutes at age 18 don’t grow on trees, but Mark Few has one. College fans should be hoping he doesn’t declare for the draft because with added minutes (he’s only playing 21 mins. per game this year), more opportunity, and an offseason to grow, this kid could be a bona fide beast.

Also considered: Trey Lyles (Kentucky), Bronson Koenig (Wisconsin), Brannen Green (Kansas)

Sixth BATON (The Best “Sixth Best Player”)

Dylan Ennis (Villanova)

nova throwbies

I can’t imagine a coach in America not gladly welcoming a grinder like Ennis onto their team. He gives a good team exactly what they need. Hustle, defense, and energy off the bench.

Also considered: Duje Dukan (Wisconsin), The Not-As-Good Harrison Twin (Kentucky), Cliff Alexander (Kansas)

Seventh BATON (The Best “Seventh Best Player”)

Tyler Ulis (Kentucky)


Ulis is one of my favorite players to watch in the entire country. He would have started as a freshman at most other schools. His steady hand was the primary reason the Wildcats survived a harsh day at Louisville.

There are games in the tournament that John Calipari will need a legitimate point guard to lead his offense against tough defenses and that will need to be Ulis.

Eighth and Ninth BATONs (The Best “Eight and Ninth Best Players”)

Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee (Kentucky)

uk bench

I don’t know if you guys have heard, but Kentucky is pretty good. Sure, you may question my personal rankings on the Wildcat players, though it doesn’t really matter. No one else goes nine deep with this kind of talent. And keep in mind, they had a starter tear his ACL and they are still this deep.

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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