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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)

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)

 

No. 25 Cincinnati sends Mississippi State to 1st loss 65-50

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HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. (AP) — No. 25 Cincinnati had plummeted to the fringe of the rankings and needed a confidence boost. The Bearcats got it against a previously unbeaten team.

Jacob Evans III had 24 points and eight rebounds as Cincinnati recovered from its back-to-back losses and handed Mississippi State its first defeat, 65-50 on Tuesday night.

The Bearcats (8-2) were coming off losses to crosstown rival Xavier and Florida that dropped them from No. 11. They ended the slump with a solid defensive showing against the Southeastern Conference’s last unbeaten team, blocking 11 shots.

“We needed to get this win for us to build our confidence and get this thing back on track,” Evans said.

Mississippi State (8-1) was off to its best start since 2003-04. The Bulldogs struggled to make shots in their first game against a ranked team. They missed 10 straight in the first half and 14 in a row in the second as Cincinnati blew open a close game.

“I think we took a multitude of things away from them,” said Kyle Washington, who added 16 points. “We knew what we wanted to do on defense. We were locked in on how they played well as a team. We just wanted to take all of that away.”

Aric Holman matched his career high with 18 points and had 10 rebounds for Mississippi State, which shot a season-low 30 percent from the field. The Bulldogs weren’t ready for Cincinnati’s defense.

“We lost the game tonight because of our inability to attack that zone,” coach Ben Howland said. “We were standing way too much, not enough ball movement, not enough cutting and getting the ball inside.”

Cincinnati has won 31 straight home games , the longest streak in the nation. The Bearcats are playing this season at BB&T Arena at Northern Kentucky University while their on-campus arena is renovated. They went 18-0 at Fifth Third Arena last season.

BIG PICTURE

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs can’t get that breakthrough win against a ranked team. They have dropped 18 in a row against teams in the Top 25. Their last such win was 67-57 over Arizona on Nov. 18, 2011.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats’ offense was stymied during the losses to Xavier and Florida. Cincinnati shot 41 percent from the field against Mississippi State but scored 22 points off 14 Bulldogs turnovers.

“This was a defensive victory, no question about it,” coach Mick Cronin said. “We’re still searching on offense a little bit at times.”

DRY SPELLS

Mississippi State went nearly 7 minutes without a field goal in the first half, managing only one free throw, as Cincinnati took control. The Bulldogs’ 14 straight misses in the second half helped Cincinnati pull ahead by 19 points. The Bulldogs shot 45 percent or better in their eight wins, including four games at 50 percent or better.

FIRST TRIP

It was the first road game for Mississippi State, which was picked to finish 12th in the SEC preseason poll. Howland figured it will help get the Bulldogs ready for conference play.

“Cincinnati is like an upper-echelon SEC team, so it’s very similar,” Howland said.

QUOTE OF THE GAME

Cronin on the back-to-back losses: “I was just concerned about the guys’ confidence level. It’s hard to shield them from the social media and the outside world. Young people live in that world, and I’m sure the sky was falling in that world because we lost a few games.”

UP NEXT

Mississippi State plays at UT Martin on Saturday.

Cincinnati plays UCLA at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, a rematch against the team that knocked the Bearcats out of the NCAA Tournament 79-67 in the second round last season.

POSTERIZED: Jericho Sims throws down dunk on Duncan Robinson

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Playing without leading scorer Andrew Jones, who’s out of the lineup after suffering a fractured wrist, Texas got off to a slow start in the first half of its game against Michigan Tuesday night.

Freshman forward Jericho Sims did his best to provide a spark, as the 6-foot-9 Minnesota native rose above Michigan’s Duncan Robinson to throw down a vicious alley-oop dunk.

Sims has a couple inches on Robinson in the height department, and the running start Sims managed to get rolling to the basket didn’t help Robinson’s chances of stopping the dunk either.