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Player of the Year Power Rankings: Frank Mason III leads the way

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I know we’re not even two weeks into the college basketball season.

I know that conference play doesn’t start for another month and change.

I know that you may think it’s too early to start talking about National Player of the Year.

But I’m here to tell you that it’s not.

Last year, Denzel Valentine was the guy that deserved to win National Player of the Year. His hype train got rolling on the fifth day of the season, when he had 29 points, 12 boards and 12 assists to beat Kansas in the Champions Classic. Adam Morrison turned himself into a favorite to win the 2006 National Player of the Year award when he went for 43 points in a classic, three-overtime win over Michigan State in the Maui Invitational. In 2011, Kemba Walker announced his Player of the Year candidacy with a resounding performance in Maui; he won a title, but it was Jimmer-mania that cost him the individual hardware.

These things can carry over in college hoops.

Who are the guys that are top of the class today?

1. Frank Mason III, Kansas: In college football, we’re always waiting for a player to have their ‘Heisman Moment’, the play that they make that is so memorable, so ever-lasting that it gets so ingrained in the minds of voters that we cannot possibly pick anyone else to receive college football’s Player of the Year trophy. There really is no equivalent for that in college basketball, which is partially the result of the fact that there are a half-dozen college basketball player of the year awards that are given out.

Nonetheless, if we did decide to start referring to Wooden Moments or Heisman Moments, the leader in the clubhouse two weeks into the season is Mason’s game-winning jumper to beat Duke in Madison Square Garden during the Champions Classic.

That came on the heels of a 30 point performance where, like the Duke game, Kansas’ offense down the stretch was, as Bill Self put it, “Get out of [Mason’s] way and he’ll shoot it.”

On the season, he’s averaging 22.3 points, 5.5 assists, 4.0 boards and 0.25 game-winners a night.

The best part? In the video that Kansas released of the postgame locker room celebration, we get a #BIFM at the :12 mark.

2. Josh Hart, Villanova: Simply put, Hart has been the best player for the Wildcats this season. He’s averaging 19.2 points, shooting 57.4 percent from the floor and 41.7 percent from three. He’s one of their best weapons defensively and is one of the major reasons they are so versatile on that end of the floor. He’s attacking defenses in ball-screen actions and creating offense in the half court on his own. I’m not sure what else there is to say. He may not have the NBA upside of some of the other players on this list, but he is just a damn good basketball player.

3. James Blackmon Jr., Indiana: Blackmon has been one of the biggest surprises of the season for me. We knew about how good he was as a shooter. What I didn’t realize is what he can do off the bounce. In Indiana’s win over Kansas in Hawai’i, he was their best player on the floor, finishing with 26 points and creating offense when it looked like Indiana’s offense was stalled. That’s huge for a team that is looking to replace Yogi Ferrell.

4. Luke Kennard, Duke: If the season ended today, Luke Kennard would be a first-team all-american. Take a second and think about how crazy that is. Back in September when practice was starting, we weren’t even sure if Kennard was going to be first-team all-Duke; Grayson Allen and Jayson Tatum were projected to start on the wings while Frank Jackson was this season’s prized freshman point guard.

But with all of the injuries the Blue Devils are dealing with, Kennard has been the guy that has shined. He had 22 points, five boards and five assists in the game against Kansas at the Champions Classic. He went for 24 points in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic title game against Rhode Island. He’s currently Duke’s leading scorer at 18.6 points while also chipping in 3.6 assists. We’ve reached a point in time where Coach K has to find a way to get Kennard on the floor. I doubt he’ll find himself this high in these rankings come February, but the fact that he’s here right now tells you all you need to know about the Blue Devils.

5. Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky: I was torn on which Kentucky player belongs on this list. De’Aaron Fox has been excellent at the point guard spot. Malik Monk was sensational in Kentucky’s only big win, when they beat Michigan State. His ability to shoot is the most important skill anyone on Kentucky has.

But to me, this far into the season, Briscoe has been Kentucky’s best player. He’s impossible to stop when he gets going downhill at the rim, he’s excellent in transition and he’s one of the best defensive options on a team that is going to win because of the way that they can defend. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here, but to date, Briscoe has totally exceeded my expectations.

6. Markelle Fultz, Washington: Three games into his college career, Fultz has already gone for 30 points twice and is averaging 27.0 points, 6.7 assists, 5.3 boards, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks while shooting 67.5 percent from the floor and 50.0 percent from three.

Read those numbers again.

The problem? U-Dub already lost to Yale at home, giving up 98 points to a team that graduated their best player from last season and was without their two best players this season. They’ve been better the last two games, which hopefully means that the Huskies will, at some point, get good enough that Fultz can realistically be in the Player of the Year conversation.

7. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State: 26.3 points, 6.3 assists, 4.0 boards and 3.5 steals.

Those are the numbers that Evans is currently averaging. Granted, the best team that Oklahoma State has faced this season is UConn, who is actually atrocious this year, so we’ll have to play the wait-and-see game with him. But it’s fair to say that this kid is probably the real deal. Brad Underwood could have done a lot worse in picking a high-major coaching gig than the one where he gets to coach that kid.

8. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: It’s hard to pick any particular player from UCLA to be on this list because there are so many Bruins that are having great seasons. Ball is averaging 16.3 points and is the fourth-leading scorer on this team. He’s also averaging 9.0 assists and 6.3 boards and is the engine of the high-powered Bruin offense. The Bruins still haven’t played anyone this season. They’ll get their first real test on December 3rd, when they pay a visit to Kentucky and Rupp Arena.

9. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Berry has had a couple of quiet games in a row in Hawai’i, but overall, his improvement at the point guard spot is the biggest reason that the Tar Heels look like they are the second-best team in the ACC right now. Roy Williams’ best teams have always had elite point guard play, and I think it’s fair to argue that this team is getting close to that level.

10. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: We know about Swanigan’s size and his physicality and how well he can play in the post and all of that. Did you know about his passing ability? He hasn’t had less than three assists in a game yet this season. His ability to work high-low action with 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas is what makes the Boilermakers so dangerous. On the season, he’s averaging 20.7 points, 13.0 boards and 4.3 assists, and he became the only player not named Ben Simmons or Blake Griffin to have 20 points, 20 boards and five assists in a game in the last decade.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Melo Trimble, Maryland
Mo Watson, Creighton
Deandre Burnett, Ole Miss
Monte’ Morris, Iowa State
Yante Maten, Georgia
Eric Mika, BYU
T.J. Leaf, UCLA
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s

N.C. State adds grad transfer Sam Hunt

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N.C. State added its fourth transfer this offseason. Like ex-Baylor guard Al Freeman, the latest one is eligible to play next season.

Sam Hunt, a double-digit scorer the past two seasons at North Carolina A&T, officially enrolled at North Carolina State on Monday morning.

“Sam is a great young man and will bring much needed depth to our backcourt,” N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts said in a statement. “I want guys who are excited about being a part of our program and Sam really wants to be here.

“Sam is a combo guard that can space the floor with his ability to shoot the basketball. He is a good fit for the system and will bring a wealth of experience to our roster.”

Hunt, the 6-foot-2 guard, averaged 12.7 points per game last season, a dip from the 15.4 points per game he posted for the Aggies as a redshirt sophomore.

Hunt joins a roster that lost its three leading scorers from a season ago, one that ended 15-17 (4-14 ACC). Dennis Smith Jr. is a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Maverick Rowan also pursued a professional career and Terry Henderson was denied an additional year from the NCAA.

The Wolf Pack bring back forwards Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven as well as Torin Dorn.

Keatts, who took over the program after leading UNC Wilmington to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, has already built for the future. UNC Wilmington transfer C.J. Bryce, 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game for the Seahawks, has followed him to Raleigh. Utah transfer Devon Daniels committed to the Wolf Pack the same day as Bryce. Both will have to sit out next season due to NCAA transfer rules. Bryce will have two years of eligibility while Daniels will have three.

LaVar Ball stars in an uncomfortably entertaining segment on WWE’s Raw

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LaVar Ball’s statements and antics over this past year always seemed better suited a professional wrestling ring.

It was only natural that the patriarch of the Ball family — and the head of the Big Baller Brand — made an appearance on WWE’s Monday Night Raw at the Staples Center for an awkwardly entertaining segment with WWE Intercontinental Champion The Miz.

With sons, Lonzo — in his first appearance in the Staples Center as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers — and LaMelo looking on, LaVar was the center of attention. When The Miz mentioned something about a partnership between the two, the scripted interview went south. It resulted in LaVar saying nonsensical things like, “There’s only two dudes better than me, and I’m both of ’em!” before later taking off his shirt. When Dean Ambrose, a WWE superstar feuding with The Miz came out on to the ramp, LaVar didn’t quite grasp the concept that that was his cue to stop talking.

This segment was somehow entertaining and cringeworthy at the same time.

Now that Lonzo is beginning his NBA career, maybe it’s time LaVar try something different. A manager in the WWE may just be his true calling. He’s certainly had plenty of practice.

Maryland lands commitment from five-star 2018 forward

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Maryland added to its 2018 recruiting class with its second commit, the newest addition being a five-star in-state product.

Jalen Smith, a 6-foot-9 forward from Baltimore powerhouse Mount St. Joseph, committed to the Terrapins, making the announcement on Twitter.

“I believe that I can academically and athletically achieve my goals at home through my commitment to the University of Maryland … Go Terps,” he tweeted as part of a long passage.

Smith is listed as the No. 13 overall recruit in the Class of 2013 by Rivals. He joins four-star swingman Aaron Wiggins in Mark Turgeon’s current recruiting class.

Playing for Team Takeover on the Nike EYBL circuit, Smith is averaging 10.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks per game.

Recent grad’s joyride reportedly did $100,000 of damages to Mizzou Arena

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A recent graduate and temporary employee of the University of Missouri took an early morning joy ride that reportedly could rack up around $100,000 to Mizzou Arena.

According to Dave Mater of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nathaniel J. Contant, 23, who graduated from the school in December 2016, drove his Volkswagen Passat through a gate and eventually on to the floor of the 15,000-seat on-campus arena.

At 7:15 a.m. Sunday, MU police were dispatched to Mizzou Arena for a report of property damage. Officers determined that around 4 a.m., the suspect drove his vehicle through a closed gate on the south side of the arena. He ran through a garage door and drove into a dock area where he damaged several golf carts that were stored in the area. He also drove his car onto the basketball court. The man couldn’t leave through the area he used to enter the building, so he drove through the arena’s press gate.

Contant, unsurprisingly, is no longer an employee of the university. He’s being charged with second-degree burglary and first-degree property damage, both of which are felonies. He was released on a $4,500 bond.

The motive for this early-morning joyride remains unclear.

Despite the hype surrounding the upcoming Mizzou season — one that includes the debut of new head coach Cuonzo Martin and the projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft Michael Porter, Jr. — Twitter users couldn’t help but poke fun at the dismal recent history the Tigers have had.

(h/t Kansas City Star)

Vance Jackson transfers to New Mexico

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With more than a handful of departures this offseason, New Mexico is set to have a new-look roster for the 2017-18 season. On Monday, Paul Weir, now at the helm of the program, landed a player who should make an impact in the three remaining seasons of eligibility he has left.

Vance Jackson, who spent this past season at UConn, decided to make the move from Storrs to Albuquerque, picking the Lobos over Rutgers, San Diego State, TCU, and Washington.

The 6-foot-8 rising sophomore will have to sit out next year due to NCAA transfer rules before resuming his collegiate career in the fall of 2018.

“The coaches — they trust in me,” Jackson told Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal last month during his official campus visit. “We’re on the same page. They see a vision.”

Weir, who led New Mexico State this past season to a NCAA Tournament appearance in his one and only season as head coach, succeeded Craig Neal in April.

This offseason has been headlined by transfers, though, those mostly were about players leaving the program. Jackson is the second transfer to land at UNM with Akron’s Antino Jackson electing to use his final season of eligibility with the Lobos. Antino Jackson is a graduate transfer, allowing him to play immediately next season.

Vance Jackson, who was rated as the No. 80 overall player in the Class of 2016 by Rivals, averaged 8.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game while shooting just under 40 percent from three for the Huskies as a freshman.