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Player of the Year Power Rankings: The Swanigan-Happ debate is heating up

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1. Frank Mason III, Kansas: Mason’s case is getting weird. He was the best guard on the floor as the Jayhawks went into Rupp Arena and picked off Kentucky, finishing with a team-high 21 points and four assists while outplaying De’Aaron Fox, but he probably wasn’t the best Kansas player in that game. Josh Jackson was, and that wasn’t a fluke, either. Jackson has been terrific of late and, it’s fair to wonder, may end up being the best player on the team down the stretch of the season.

That’s great news for Kansas. That’s terrible news for people looking for clarity when they’re doing Player of the Year Power Rankings.

2. Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart struggled in Sunday’s win over Virginia, but he also made some big plays down the stretch that allowed the Wildcats to make their comeback against the Wahoos. Oddly enough, for a guy that was arguably the most ruthless clutch performer early-on this season, his missed runner at the end of regulation is what set up Donte DiVincenzo’s tip-in at the buzzer. He also missed a tip-in at the end of the loss at Marquette that would have won the game at the buzzer.

3. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
4. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: We went through the struggles with picking between Swanigan and Happ last week. It hasn’t gotten any easier, not with the way these two are playing. Swanigan had averaged 19.5 points, 15.5 boards and 4.5 assists last week and is now shooting 50 percent from three and 78.8 percent from the line. Happ was good against Penn State and then carried Wisconsin with 32 of the team’s 61 points in a forgettable overtime win at Rutgers.

This week, I’m swapping Happ and Swanigan for one, simple reason: Happ has been reliable down the stretch to close out tough road games. Swanigan was not against Nebraska on Sunday night and he was not earlier this season in a loss at Iowa.

It’s anecdotal, I know, but that’s how thin the margins are here.

EUGENE, OR - DECEMBER 28: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins tries to get around Dillon Brooks #24 of the Oregon Ducks late in the game at Matthew Knight Arena on December 28, 2016 in Eugene, Oregon.  (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Lonzo Ball (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

5. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: Two weeks ago, I said that the Player of the Year race is down to, essentially, just three players: Frank Mason, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball. I said that before UCLA’s issues on the defense end of the floor became the talking point of their entire season, and as good as Ball has been offensively, it hasn’t been enough to make up for the struggles that he – and this team – have defensively.

UCLA has a higher ceiling than anyone else in the country. When they play their best game it can beat anyone else’s best game. The problem? They’re not going to be able to churn out their best game for six consecutive games in March, meaning that, unless they find a way to fix their defense, that inability to get stops is going to cost them a shot at the national title. Ball isn’t the only one at fault here, but he’s not exactly Gary Payton. Some blame does fall on his shoulders.

6. Luke Kennard, Duke: What Kennard did in the second half against Wake Forest was unbelievable. With all due respect to Malik Monk’s 47-point outburst against North Carolina, Marcus Keene’s 50-point game and the 38 points Jeremy Morgan scored in the second half earlier this year, Kennard putting up 30 second half points on 10-for-10 shooting to go along with four assists to save Duke in a road game they had absolutely no business winning is the best performance we’ve seen this season.

And it’s making it very difficult to figure out where to rank him on this list. When Duke embraces the fact that he’s the guy their offense needs to run through, Kennard plays like a first-team all-american. But that hasn’t exactly been the case since the start of ACC play.

7. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox was not his best last week, as he injured an ankle against South Carolina then played just OK in losses at Tennessee and to Kansas at home. That said, I think the fact that Kentucky lost the games that Fox was “just OK” in tells you about how valuable and important he is to that team.

8. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: Arizona is now a top five team and the favorite to win the Pac-12 regular season title, and while the recent play of the Wildcats guards and the return of Allonzo Trier has been a boost, at some point we have to give credit to Markkanen for how good he’s been. He’s averaging 16.8 points and 7.6 boards while shooting 52.6 percent from the floor, 50.5 percent from three (on five attempts a night) and 84.3 percent from the line.

9. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss leads Gonzaga in scoring at 14.8 points. He has 30 more assists this season than anyone else on the roster. He’s second on the team in rebounding while playing as a 6-foot-2 point guard. Gonzaga is undefeated with wins over Arizona, Florida, Iowa State and Saint Mary’s. None of those things are alternative facts.

10. Johnathan Motley, Baylor: Motley continues to be the best player for a Baylor team that just doesn’t seem to be going away. He averaged 20.5 points and 9.0 boards for the Bears, who are now 20-1 on the season, last week.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

11. Joel Berry II, North Carolina
12. Melo Trimble, Maryland
13. Josh Jackson, Kansas
14. Malik Monk, Kentucky
15. Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
16. Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
17. Markelle Fultz, Washington
18. Justin Jackson, North Carolina
19. Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
20. Alec Peters, Valparaiso

TUCSON, AZ - JANUARY 12:  Lauri Markkanen #10 of the Arizona Wildcats reacts after scoring against the Arizona State Sun Devils during the second half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on January 12, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona. The Wildcats defeated the Sun Devils 91-75. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Lauri Markkanen (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Seven identified after threats made against referee John Higgins following Kentucky Elite Eight loss

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College basketball referee John Higgins received threats to his home and business in late March after some controversial calls in North Carolina’s win over Kentucky in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

Seven people have now been identified for making threats against Higgins, according to an Associated Press report. The FBI’s Omaha, Nebraska field office said that information on the seven people will be referred to authorities in their jurisdictions.

An investigation over the last few months helped find the culprits, as the Omaha-based Higgins received emails, phone calls and voicemails to his personal home and roofing company following Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament departure. Wildcat head coach John Calipari might have ignited some of the anger in Kentucky fans by criticizing the officiating following the North Carolina loss.

“Based on the investigation’s findings, our office has determined that no local charges will be filed and that pursuit of any criminal charges would be best served by deferring to authorities in the appropriate jurisdictions,” Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov said in a statement to The Associated Press. “The length of the investigation was drawn out due in part to the large volume of potential evidence requiring analysis, and the multi-jurisdictional issues arising from the multiple states in which the communications originated.”

Polikov also said that at least two media outlets were exposing and promoting Higgins’ contact information.

“This information has been referred to the Federal Communications Commission for further investigation of the potential violations related to applicable federal communications regulations,” Polikov said.

Higgins received about 3,000 phone calls at his office in the two days following the game. Sheriff’s investigator Matt Barrall told the AP that an estimated 75 percent of the calls were from Kentucky area codes.

The roofing business that Higgins owns was also flooded with bad online reviews and negative star ratings, causing his Google rating to fall while also forcing Higgins to take down the Facebook page for his business.

Beilein still upbeat after Michigan loses another to NBA

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — For a major program, Michigan is a somewhat unlikely candidate for this kind of NBA-induced attrition.

The Wolverines have fielded some very good teams under John Beilein, but they haven’t been relying on prospects expected to jump to the pros as soon as they can.

“We’re not depending all our success on one-and-dones,” Beilein said. “Given that, our numbers right now are extraordinary.”

Beilein was referring to the number of players Michigan has sent to the NBA, particularly as early entrees. The Wolverines lost D.J. Wilson to the draft this offseason with two years of eligibility remaining, and now they’ll go through the familiar process of trying to replace a key player who turned pro.

The most significant early exodus occurred in 2013 and 2014, when Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary all went pro before their eligibility was up. Michigan won a lot of games with those players, reaching the Final Four and Elite Eight those two years, but their development made them attractive to NBA teams and shortened their college careers.

Wilson’s rise followed a similar pattern. He averaged only 2.7 points per game in 2015-16, and then increased to 11.0 this past season and became Michigan’s leading rebounder. His efforts helped Michigan win the Big Ten Tournament and reach the Sweet 16, and now he’s off to the NBA draft. The entire sequence of events would have seemed highly improbable a year ago.

The Wolverines won’t receive much sympathy from their Big Ten opponents, especially since Michigan will still have big man Moe Wagner, who tested the NBA waters but ultimately decided to stay in school. The 6-foot-11 Wagner averaged 12.1 points last season and shot 39.5 percent from 3-point range, showing huge improvement in much the same way Wilson did.

After losing senior point guard Derrick Walton, it will be interesting to see how Michigan’s offense operates if Wagner becomes even more of a focal point. When Beilein was at West Virginia, the Mountaineers achieved success behind center Kevin Pittsnogle, whose skill set and 3-point shooting ability was at least somewhat similar to Wagner’s.

“We’re not going to put him in that category yet,” Beilein said. “Let’s just say, having a big man who can shoot the ball like that changes a lot of things.”

Michigan was also able to add a new point guard recently in Jaaron Simmons, a graduate transfer from Ohio. Simmons is eligible immediately in 2017-18 and will move up from the Mid-American Conference to the Big Ten.

“A lot of the mid-majors are having this happen to them, and I don’t like it at all, but the fact is if Jaaron doesn’t come here, he ends up probably somewhere else in the Big Ten,” Beilein said. “He’s just fundamentally so sound. He’ll be here this summer. Just as a person, I just wanted to coach the kid after spending an hour with him — just the leadership, the desire to win.”

Simmons could help the Wolverines withstand the loss of Walton, and Beilein indicated he could serve as a bit of a mentor to players like point guard Xavier Simpson, who is entering his sophomore season.

“We went all-in with (Simmons), knowing we had that scholarship,” Beilein said. “We felt that was a huge need for us, is to just have a little bit more experience in the backcourt next year.”

Follow Noah Trister on Twitter @noahtrister

LaVar Ball having ‘zero’ interaction with UCLA team bodes well for next season

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With the NBA Draft looming in less than a month, the biggest talking point has been just how much of an impact LaVar Ball is going to have on his son, Lonzo’s, NBA career.

It’s a question worth asking given the, ahem, outspoken nature of the eldest Ball.

But in the collegiate ranks, that’s a question that’s been asked about UCLA regarding next season. While Lonzo and LaMelo, who is finishing up his sophomore season in high school, are the stars that get the majority of the attention, there is another Ball brother that will be enrolling at UCLA next season: LiAngelo.

LaVar has already said that he expect Gelo to be a one-and-done player, which may not jibe with how good Gelo actually is. He’s not Lonzo and he’s not LaMelo. He’s not a dynamic athlete or a lead guard. He’s a 6-foot-5, 200 pound shooter with limitless range but limited upside. There’s a reason Rivals ranks him as a three-star prospect.

What’s going to happen when UCLA, a top 15 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25, doesn’t give Gelo Lonzo-esque minutes or shots next season? How will LaVar handle it if his second son is coming off the bench for the Bruins?

Steve Alford doesn’t seem concerned about it, telling a reporter from the LA Times that LaVar was “never at practice, never called me” and was around the team “zero.”

“I think all parents probably should know that moving on to the collegiate level anyway,” Alford said. “It’s not high school, it’s not AAU. Your son’s on scholarship; your son’s at UCLA getting an incredible opportunity academically and athletically.

“Playing time, shots, that kind of stuff — we don’t entertain some of those phone calls anyway. I never had any issues at all with LaVar.”

It will be interesting to see if that continues next season.

The Bruins have a chance to be pretty good. Maybe not quite as good as last season, maybe not a Pac-12 title favorite or even the best team in LA — USC is loaded — but I wouldn’t be shocked to see them end up as a top four seed in the NCAA tournament with Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh returning and Jaylen Hands headlining the recruiting class.

Will LaVar be able to handle UCLA’s success if it comes at the expense of his son’s?

NCAA: Former USF assistant provided extra benefits, lied to NCAA investigators

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The NCAA has alleged that former South Florida assistant coach Oliver Antigua provided roughly $500 in impermissible benefits and initially lied to NCAA investigators about it, according to the Tampa Bay Times, who obtained the NCAA’s summary disposition report.

Oliver Antigua is the younger brother of Orlando Antigua, who was the head coach at USF until he was fired in January. Now an assistant on Brad Underwood’s staff at Oklahoma State, Orlando was not alleged to have committed an NCAA violation in the report.

Oliver is alleged to have provided the extra benefits to two student-athletes while they were being tutored by the sister-in-law of Gerald Gillion, a special assistant to Orlando who resigned last fall, four months after Oliver did. USF has already self-imposed a $5,000 and reduced their scholarships from 13 to 12, according to the report.

“The University of South Florida and the NCAA continue to work together to resolve the inquiry into violations of NCAA bylaws and university standards by a USF intercollegiate athletic program,” according to a statement released by the school. “USF anticipates having a final resolution with the NCAA sometime this fall. Until the process concludes and the matter is fully resolved, USF cannot provide further comment.”

Villanova lands four-star 2018 guard

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Villanova added its first recruit in the Class of 2018 on Wednesday night.

Jay Wright and his staff landed a verbal commitment from Paul VI Catholic High School’s Brandon Slater, a four-star guard by Rivals as the No. 42 overall prospect in the rising senior class.

The 6-foot-5 Slater announced his decision via Twitter.

Slater, according to Jeff Borzello of ESPN, picked the Wildcats over Maryland, Miami, South Carolina, and Virginia.

He is currently playing the Nike EYBL with Team Takeover, the same grassroots program that produced current Villanova guard Phil Booth.