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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

VIDEO: Wisconsin beats Western Kentucky on controversial blocking call 90 feet from the hoop

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Wisconsin freshman Brad Davison helped the Badgers sneak past Western Kentucky for an 81-80 win on Wednesday night by drawing a blocking call 90 feet from the basket on an inbounds play with two seconds left.

With the game tied at 80 and the Badgers in the double bonus, the blocking foul on Western Kentucky’s Marek Nelson sent Davison to the free throw line to clinch the game. Davison made the first free throw and purposely missed the second to give Wisconsin the one-point win.

Obviously, some smart coaching from Gard (if he called it) and a good play from Davison to elicit the call from the official. But for Western Kentucky to lose like this? On a call like this? That’s a really poor look from the officials, who could have just as easily called this a charge. Or even better, let the play go and settle for a likely overtime between two tied teams.

That referee’s call, on what’s very close to a non-basketball play, decided Wisconsin’s win over the Hilltoppers.

Western Kentucky head coach Rick Stansbury was furious over the call and was hoping the officials could check to see if Davison was out of bounds.

Brunson leads No. 1 Villanova in rout of Temple

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jalen Brunson had 22 of his career-high 31 points in No. 1 Villanova’s dominating first half and Omari Spellman scored 27 to help lead the Wildcats to an 87-67 rout of Temple on Wednesday night.

Donte DiVincenzo added 12 points for Villanova (11-0), which won its unprecedented 22nd straight Big 5 game. The Wildcats last lost a contest in the Philadelphia round-robin series to Temple on Dec. 5, 2012. The Big 5 also consists of La Salle, Saint Joseph’s and Penn.

The Wildcats, who moved into the top spot in the rankings for the third straight season this week, looked like the best team in the country in a dominating opening 20 minutes.

With his dad Rick – a former Temple standout and current assistant coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves who played nine seasons in the NBA – sitting two rows behind the Villanova bench, Brunson led the way.

The 6-foot-2 junior point guard made 8 of 10 shots, including 5 of 7 3-pointers, and added four assists while controlling the opening 20 minutes.

The performance surely impressed Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown and Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons, who were among the sellout crowd of 10,206 at Temple.

Quinton Rose scored 27 points for the Owls (6-3), who began the week No. 11 in the RPI rankings. It was the third straight season Temple played Villanova as a No. 1, and the Owls fell to 2-18 all-time against No. 1-ranked opponents.

The Temple student section was fired up in the pregame, hoping to help the Owls end Villanova’s Philadelphia dominance, but the Wildcats gave them little for which to cheer.

The Wildcats scored the first seven points as Temple came out cold, missing its first five shots and committing three turnovers.

And Villanova went from there.

The Wildcats took their biggest lead of the half on DiVincenzo’s 3-pointer that made it 25-5 with 11 minutes left before the break. And the lead reached 20 again on Brunson’s 3-pointer that made it 28-8 44 seconds later.

Temple rallied by scoring the next 13 points over 3 1/2 minutes to pull within 28-21 on Josh Brown’s jumper with 6:45 left before the break.

But Villanova continued making shots and Brunson, appropriately, finished the first-half scoring with a 3-pointer with 47 seconds left that gave the Wildcats a 46-29 lead.

Villanova shot 59 percent from the field and 50 percent from the arc in the opening 20 minutes.

The second half was a mere formality.

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: The Wildcats likely will hold the top spot in the rankings for at least another week, as they will take nine days off for exams before returning to the court. They will next play a nonconference game against Hofstra, the program Wildcats coach Jay Wright led before coming to Villanova, on Dec. 22 before beginning Big East play on Dec. 27 at DePaul.

Temple: The Owls host another Philadelphia school, Drexel, on Saturday and then play at Georgia on Dec. 22 before starting American Conference play on Dec. 28 against Tulane. The Owls will be looking for their 33rd NCAA Tournament appearance and will need a high finish in the conference to get there.

UP NEXT

Villanova: After a break for exams, the Wildcats play Hofstra on Dec. 22 in Uniondale, New York.

Temple: Hosts Drexel on Saturday night.

___

More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25

Louisville files lawsuit against former head coach Rick Pitino

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The University of Louisville has filed a lawsuit against former head coach Rick Pitino, seeking monetary damages, including money the school will lose from vacated NCAA tournament wins from 2012-2015.

According to a report from Jason Riley of WDRB, the school is claiming that since Pitino is the active wrongdoer and not the University. “To the extent the University is obligated to pay financial penalties to the NCAA, the University is entitled to indemnity from Mr. Pitino for the total amount of the penalties, if any, and any other resultant consequential damages, including the costs and attorneys’ fees associated with the compliance investigation and defense of this action,” the lawsuit read.

The university is also going after “any bonuses and other compensation wrongly paid” to Pitino, according to the suit.

This Louisville lawsuit runs counter to Pitino’s breach-of-contract suit that he filed in late November in which he claimed that he was owed more than $35 million left on his contract. Louisville dismissed Pitino “for cause” as the school has maintained that Pitino isn’t owed anything.

Based on the back-and-forth lawsuits, this sounds like it’s just getting started as we’ll likely hear a lot more from both sides in the coming months. Never shy to publicly respond to anything, it’ll be interesting if Pitino speaks or if he’s told to stay quiet until anything is required in court.

NCAA committee hears final Louisville appeal as they try to keep title banner

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Louisville had their final day in court on Wednesday as they made a last-ditch appeal to the NCAA Infractions Committee to try and save their 2012 Final Four and 2013 National Title.

Neither Rick Pitino nor Tom Jurich, who were both fired by Louisville in the wake of this fall’s FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball, were in attendance.

An interim president and interim athletic director were present for the University as they tried to push back against the ruling the NCAA came down with this summer. If you’ve forgotten: The Cardinals were hit with a slew of recruiting restrictions, sit on probation and must pay back a bunch of money they won in forfeited NCAA tournament games due to a former staffer’s efforts to provide strippers and sex workers to players and recruits over the course of four years. The vacated wins are the result of players that were retroactively ruled ineligible for receiving what the NCAA is deeming impermissible benefits participating in those games.

Louisville also initially self-imposed violations, including a 2016 postseason ban that was implemented in February of that year.

Jeff Greer of the Louisville Courier-Journal has all the details here, but we know what the story is at this point.

Louisville’s argument is centered around the money. Essentially, they are saying that value of the transactions in question – the amount of money that was spent by former assistant Andre McGee – was small enough that the players involved would have been able to pay back what was owed had the violations been discovered in real time. The NCAA’s argument is even simpler: We’ve never seen something like this, so precedence does not matter in this case.

A final ruling is not expected until at least January.

College Basketball Futures Watch Part I: Alabama through Louisville

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Over the course of the next three days, we at College Basketball Talk will be cruising through the best, the most surprising and the most disappointing teams in college basketball.

As of today, how should we view the 45 most interesting teams in the country based on preseason expectation? 

Are we more confident in them? Less confident? Still unsure?

We used five different labels here to help define how we feel about each of the 45 teams mentioned:

  • Bet The Mortgage
  • Raise
  • Check
  • Fold
  • Get Your Stuff And Go Home

Today, we go through everyone from Alabama to Louisville.

Let’s get into it.

ALABAMA: Fold

Collin Sexton is awesome. He’s fun to watch, he’s efficient and he puts massive pressure on defenses. Still, the Tide may just not have enough to be a true contender in the SEC. Losses to Minnesota, UCF and Arizona suggest that Avery Johnson’s group isn’t strong enough past Sexton. (Travis Hines)

ARIZONA: Raise

It hasn’t been pretty early for Arizona, especially with that 0-3 run in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Yet despite the issues this team needs to address, most notably its defense – especially when DeAndre Ayton and Dusan Ristic are on the court at the same time – Arizona has one of the best 1-2 tandems in Ayton and Allonzo Trier. Ayton’s damn near unstoppable offensively, as he can score inside and out which makes him an absolute handful for just about any team Arizona faces. And for all the talk of Trier’s shot selection last season, he’s been one of the most efficient players in the country. After taking six of his seven shots from three and attempting just two free throws in the win over Texas A&M, Trier managed to earn 16 free throw attempts with just six official shots from the field against Alabama. The return of Rawle Alkins gives Arizona a consistent peripheral offensive option moving forward, and I think Sean Miller will be able to turn this group into an adequate defensive unit. (Raphielle Johnson)

ARIZONA STATE: Raise

I still have questions about the Sun Devils when it comes to their defensive chops, especially with just two front court players who are 6-foot-9 or taller (Vitaliy Shibel and DeQuon Lake) and opponents rebounding just over 30 percent of their misses on the season. But if you have good guard play, and experienced at that, this can cover up a lot of issues in the college game. As their hashtag says the perimeter unit of Tra Holder, Shannon Evans II, Remy Martin and Kodi Justice is #Hard2Guard, and they all play with a chip on their shoulders that Bobby Hurley had during his own playing career. And there aren’t many teams around that have two wins as good as Arizona State’s over Xavier and Kansas on their resume. I believe in this group, and I’ll believe even more if they can improve the defense (and rebounding). (RJ)

Tra Holder (David Becker/Getty Images)

ARKANSAS: Check

The Razorbacks have my attention. They blew out UConn, they beat Minnesota soundly, they handled Oklahoma, they have a talented crop of veteran guards. But they also got smoked at Houston and beaten by North Carolina again. Mike Anderson’s teams have a tendency to be great at home and miserable on the road. Before I make any sweeping proclamations about this Arkansas team, let’s see what they can do on the road during league play. (Rob Dauster)

BAYLOR: Fold

A lot of the Bears’ early-season success has been predicated on a defense that has really kept opponents in check. Is it sustainable though? Baylor is keeping opponents to 29.7 percent from 3-point range and an effective field goal percentage of 44.9. Those would all be the best numbers of a Scott Drew team in recent years – dramatically better than many of his teams. I’m skeptical that Baylor can keep up this pace. (TH)

CINCINNATI: Check

It’s easy to be optimistic about a team with a top-five defense but Cincinnati hasn’t defeated anybody of relevance this season. Losing to Xavier and Florida, the Bearcats’ best win came over Mississippi State this week. Cincinnati can get balanced scoring on certain nights but on others they have to win in rock fights. Let’s see them beat somebody good before we commit more to them. (Scott Phillips)

CREIGHTON: Check

There are things to like about the Bluejays. They have a great offense and own solid wins over Northwestern, Nebraska and UCLA. But Creighton has also fallen to better teams like Baylor and Gonzaga and they’re still the Big East’s fourth best team at this point. Are they truly any kind of contender or just a tournament team? (SP)

Grayson Allen (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

DUKE: Check

So I think I’m the only person covering college basketball that is worried about Duke right now. That might mean I’m an idiot. It might also mean I’m a genius. But here are my concerns, which I laid out in this column in more depth a couple of weeks ago:

  • They don’t play defense all that well. Boston College’s guards looked like all-americans running something as simple as pick-and-rolls every possession.
  • They don’t seem to want to play all that hard until they’re down by 10 points in the second half of a game they shouldn’t be losing.
  • Trevon Duval is talented but he’s not the best decision-maker we’ve seen at the point guard spot. When he goes to the bench, it forces Grayson Allen to play on the ball, which is not his best position.
  • Allen, as a result, has become a streaky shooter that seems to be a little too reliant on the jumper.
  • As a team, Duke is a little too reliant on their jumpers for a team that is not loaded with great shooters.

Maybe I’m reading too much into a young team going through some growing pains, but considering that Duke is, quite literally, the favorite to win the title in Vegas, let’s wait before we put any more money in the middle. (RD)

FLORIDA: Raise

The Gators had their issues last week. They lost at home to in-state rival Florida State. They lost at home to Loyola-Chicago. That came after they blew a 17-point lead to Duke. None of those things are a good look for a top five team, and they took a hit in public perception as a result. I think that reaction may have swung the pendulum too far. They showed an impressive amount of toughness in their win over Cincinnati, and I have faith that Mike White will be able to figure this thing out. Plus, John Egbunu’s return is looming. This isn’t a top five team, but they’re better than being a borderline top 25 team. (RD)

FLORIDA STATE: Raise

A surprising 9-0 start has Florida State in the top 25 after they smoked Florida on the road. Food for thought: Everyone freaked out about Arizona State’s 10-point win on the road against a top five team, so why didn’t they freak out about the Seminole’s 17-point win on the road against a top five team? Junior Terance Mann has breakout potential in the ACC and Braian Angola can put up numbers across the board. This team is intriguing. (SP)

GONZAGA: Bet The Mortgage

Despite having a lot of holes to fill from last year’s national runner-up team the Bulldogs are off to an 8-2 start with the only losses coming against Florida (in double overtime) and Villanova. Josh Perkins has done a good job of running the show, the perimeter rotation has both athleticism and talent, and the front court doesn’t lack for bodies with Johnathan Williams III leading the way. Player such as Perkins, Williams, Killian Tillie and Silas Melson were part of last season’s rotation so this isn’t an inexperienced team by any stretch; they’ve simply got a decent number of players who are getting used to more significant roles than what they had in the past. Add in the presence of Mark Few, and Gonzaga has what it takes to once again play deep into the NCAA tournament. (RJ)

IOWA STATE: Check

Steve Prohm’s team had a brutal start to the season, losing at Missouri and at home to Milwaukee, but a move to put Nick Weiler-Babb at point guard has energized the Cyclones and has them on a seven-game winning streak. Still, none of those seven wins are against impressive opponents. They topped Boise State without Chandler Hutchison on a neutral and a spiraling Iowa team at home. We just don’t know enough yet about the Cyclones to see which way their season will go. (TH)

KANSAS: Raise

The Jayhawks have lost back-to-back games, but they’re still immensely talented and coached by Bill Self. Kansas’ roster was always flawed, but it’s not something that can’t be overcome with some tweaks – and the potential arrival of Silvio De Sousa next semester. Kansas remains the team to beat in the Big 12, and the reinforcements are (hopefully, in the case of Billy Preston) on the way. (TH)

Devonte’ Graham, Kevin Knox (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

KENTUCKY: Raise

Frankly, I still have no idea what to make of this Kentucky team. They haven’t really been tested beyond playing Kansas, and that Kansas team, as it would turn out, is not as good as we thought they were. They are still flawed – having one point guard that can score but can’t guard and another that can guard but can’t score is going to be endlessly frustrating – but they are also flying totally under the radar right now. If we’ve learned anything through the first month of the season, it’s that no one outside of Michigan State and Villanova appear to actually be great. There is no third-best team in the country right now, best that I can tell. So why can’t it be Kentucky? (RD)

LOUISVILLE: Fold

Prior to the season, reasonable minds could disagree about the status of the Louisville program in the post-Pitino era. There still was talent on the roster, and that talent was old enough that, in theory, they could coach themselves. But that hasn’t exactly worked out. Shockingly, replacing one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all-time with a 32-year old interim in his first season as a head coach is not easy. Louisville will probably make the NCAA tournament still, but I can’t see them being a contender for much of anything this season. Cut your losses now. (RD)