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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)

Creighton’s Khyri Thomas posterizes defender

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Creighton rising junior wing Khyri Thomas, like several of his teammates, are taking part in the Omaha Summer League this offseason.

On Thursday night, the 6-foot-3, 205-lb. Thomas eviscerated a defender with a one-handed posterization.

Thomas is coming off a breakout sophomore campaign for the Bluejays. He started all 35 games, averaging 12.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Aside from the increase in offensive production, Thomas served as one of the top defenders in the Big East. He shared the Big East Defensive Player of the Year Award with Villanova’s Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges.

Zion Williamson throws down 360 windmill dunk

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Zion Williamson added another jaw-dropping dunk in the layup lines on the first night of the second live evaluation period.

Williamson and his SC Supreme team took on Each 1 Teach 1 at the Hoopseen Best of the South at the LakePoint Sporting Community in greater Atlanta.

The 6-foot-7 power forward threw down a 360 windmill dunk during his pregame routines.

Each 1 Teach 1 would pick up a 70-67 victory over SC Supreme. Williamson would end with a monster stat line of 37 points and seven rebounds.

Appalachian State freshman shooter to transfer

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A 3-point threat became a late addition to the transfer market earlier this week.

Appalachian State rising sophomore Patrick Good informed head coach Jim Fox on his intentions to leave the program. He was granted his release on Wednesday, according to Bret Strelow of the Winston-Salem Journal.

“I was pretty shocked when he came in to tell me he was leaving,” Fox told the Winston Salem-Journal. “He was a guy who had a very good freshman season, and we’re surprised to see him go.”

“I enjoyed being around the team and the experience that I got from the first year,” Good added. “I don’t think I would change that for anything. I just felt like moving forward, there is just so much more that I was capable of.”

Good appeared in 29 of 30 games, all of the bench, for the Mountaineers. The 6-foot guard averaged 7.0 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game. His biggest asset to his newest team will  be in his ability to shoot from deep, connecting on 41 percent of his attempts during the 2016-17 season.

If Good plans to remain in at the Division I level, avoiding a year spent at a junior college, he will need to sit out the 2017-18 season due to NCAA transfer regulations. He will have three years of eligibility remaining.

Iowa State adds graduate transfer Zoran Talley

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Iowa State added a scoring option on Thursday night, one who is eligible immediately.

Zoran Talley, who spent his first three seasons at Old Dominion, will join the Cyclones as a graduate transfer this season.

“We are excited to add Zoran to our program,” Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm said in a statement issued by the athletic department. “He has had great success, both personally and as a team, at ODU and will be an asset for our team. Zoran brings versatility on both ends of the floor and his ability to play and guard several positions will benefit us. He can score and make plays and with him being immediately eligible, that is great for us.”

Talley, a 6-foot-7 wing, averaged 11.3 points for the Monarchs last season as a sophomore. However, he was dismissed from the team in April for a violation of team rules. This was preceded by two separate suspensions during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, according to Ed Miller of the Virginia Pilot.

He redshirted the 2014-15 season, leaving him two years of eligibility remaining at Iowa State. He is set to graduate in August.

Talley and fellow graduate transfer Hans Brase (Princeton) provides a boost in scoring, as well as in experience, in a frontline that returns Solomon Young, the rising sophomore big man.

Ex-NCAA scoring leader Daniel ready to return for new team

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee guard James Daniel III finally has the chance to deliver a follow-up performance to his 2015-16 NCAA scoring title, an opportunity that essentially eluded him last season.

After an ankle injury caused Daniel to play just two games last season at Howard, the 6-foot graduate transfer brings experience and offense to Tennessee’s backcourt.

“I wanted to go on the biggest stage for my last year and try to pursue my hopes and dreams since I’ve been a little kid, which was to get to the NBA,” Daniel said.

Daniel likely won’t be shooting or scoring as much as he did at Howard, where he averaged 27.1 points per game to lead all Division I players in 2015-16. He’s more interested in getting to the NCAA Tournament, something he hasn’t done and Tennessee hasn’t accomplished since 2014.

“At this point in my career I’m ready to win,” Daniel said. “That’s pretty much what I have to do. I feel like if we win, my personal goals will be met.”

Daniel believed that NCAA berth would come last season as Howard was favored to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Those plans quickly went awry.

Daniel was diagnosed with a high ankle sprain that caused him to miss the first 14 games of the season. After returning and playing just two games, Daniel learned he had a chipped bone in his ankle. With Daniel out for the rest of the season, Howard finished 10-24.

That injury allowed Daniel to redshirt the 2016-17 season, giving him one more year of eligibility. He decided to spend that season in a bigger conference and considered Michigan, Ohio State and DePaul before selecting Tennessee.

Daniel remembered watching Tennessee games when he was younger and appreciating prolific guard Chris Lofton, who starred for the Volunteers from 2004-08. When Daniel visited Tennessee, he bonded with the team and sensed a family atmosphere.

“They’re competitive,” Daniel said. “They all want to win. That was the most intriguing part.”

Although Daniel’s ankle leaves his status uncertain for Tennessee’s three exhibition games next month in France and Spain, he’s expected to be ready in plenty of time for the start of the season.

Tennessee is counting on the additions of Daniel and Vincennes University transfer Chris Darrington to solidify a backcourt that struggled with inexperience last year.

“With Chris Darrington and James Daniel, we felt like we could get guys who liked to score and were not afraid to go make plays,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I think that’s going to help these younger guys because they were put in situations they’d never been put in before.”

Barnes cited the maturity Daniel brings as Tennessee’s lone senior. Daniel will turn 24 on Jan. 29, about a month after Tennessee begins Southeastern Conference play. Nobody else on Tennessee’s roster is older than 20, though juniors Kyle Alexander and Brad Woodson will have their 21st birthdays before the season starts.

“He’s older than all of us, so I think I can learn some things from him,” Darrington said.

Daniel’s teammates will learn plenty about his knack for drawing fouls. Not only did Daniel lead all Division I players in scoring during that 2015-16 season, he also topped the nation in free-throw attempts with 331.

They’ll also learn about his work ethic. Daniel’s father, James Daniel Jr., remembers how his son used to take about 200 jump shots every morning before his classes started at Phoebus High School in Hampton, Virginia.

“He’s just been a workaholic,” James Daniel Jr. said. “Well, we’d call it a workaholic, but he’d probably say it was something that he loved doing.”

All that practice helped Daniel overcome his lack of height at Howard to become an NCAA scoring leader. Now he’s ready to compete at a higher level.

He got an idea of what to expect from Quinton Chievous, who made the move in reverse by leading MEAC program Hampton to the NCAA Tournament after starting out at Tennessee. Daniel said Chievous told him he “should do really well here.”

Daniel agrees.

“I don’t think they would have brought me here if they didn’t think I could compete at this level,” Daniel said.