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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)

Calipari signs two-year extension with Kentucky

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Kentucky continues to take care of John Calipari.

The Wildcats coach has received a two-year extension, keeping him under contract in Lexington through the 2024 season, the school announced Wednesday.

The contract will pay Calipari $7.75 million next season and increase to $8 million per season thereafter.

“John has achieved consistent championship-level performance at Kentucky,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “No one in America is better suited for everything that comes with being the coach here. Not only has he attained incredible success on the court, he is also a leader in our community and in college basketball.

“We have been blessed to have him and Ellen here for the last eight years and we are blessed they will continue to call Kentucky home.”

Not only does the deal extend Calipari, but it continues to keep Kentucky competitive with the NBA, which would seem to be the only outlet that would even potentially tempt Calipari away from Kentucky. An NBA franchise would have to make him among the highest-paid coaches in the league to even match Kentucky financially.

Of course, given that Calipari has spurned interest from the league since returning to college in 2000, it seems unlikely that financial considerations would be the lone or heaviest variable in making a decision to move on.

Certainly, Calipari has an excellent thing going at Kentucky as the premier recruiting program in the country that has enjoyed serious success on the court, culminating in a 2012 national title and a 38-0 start to the 2015 season before a loss in the Final Four.

“The last eight years at the University of Kentucky have been a terrific ride,” Calipari said in a statement. “This extension shows our full commitment to each other. I believe this school is the gold standard and I’m so thankful and blessed that this university has given me this opportunity at this point in my career.”

The Wildcats face UCLA in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

Louisville’s Mitchell declaring for draft, won’t hire an agent

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Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell is the latest to decide to see what the NBA might offer.

“I have decided to test the waters and not hire an agent!” Mitchell wrote in an Instagram post Wednesday. “I am excited to work out this summer for teams and hopefully participate in the NBA combine! I want it to be clear I have not decided to leave Louisville!”

Mitchell, who is expected to be joined by dozens of players, is taking advantage of new NCAA rules that allow him to work out for teams and attend the NBA draft combine before making a decision on whether to remain in the draft and return to school.

Players have until May 24 to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

Mitchell averaged 15.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a sophomore, shooting 40.8 percent overall and 35.4 percent on 3-point attempts.

The 6-foot-3 guard is projected as a potential first-round pick, but should he return, the Cardinals would project as one of the top teams in the country with nearly the entire core returning from this year’s 25-9 squad.

Moe-mentum: Wagner stands tall for Sweet 16-bound Michigan

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) Ask Moe Wagner who he looked up to when he was younger, and suddenly the Michigan big man’s fiery demeanor makes a little more sense.

“Kevin Garnett was always my biggest idol, even though our play isn’t really similar. Just the way he brings intensity and energy to his team,” Wagner said. “That always was something that really impressed me.”

Now Wagner is providing his own emotional leadership to a Michigan team that has become one of college basketball’s most remarkable stories this March.

The Wolverines have won six in a row since they were involved in a plane accident on the eve of their Big Ten Tournament opener.

After winning that conference tourney, they opened the NCAAs with victories against Oklahoma State and Louisville – with Wagner scoring 26 points in the win over Louisville that sent Michigan to the Sweet 16.

The 19-year-old Wagner is in his second season with the Wolverines. He showed some promise in 2015-16, but averaged only 8.6 minutes a game as a freshman. He’s been a starter the whole way this season, teaming up with D.J. Wilson to give Michigan some unexpected production in the frontcourt.

The Wolverines entered the season with high hopes thanks to the presence of seniors Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin.

The 6-foot-11 Wagner has made them even tougher to defend. The sophomore from Berlin is averaging 12.2 points a game, and unlike Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan – two of Michigan’s top big men of the recent past – Wagner is a threat from beyond the arc. He’s made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts in 2016-17, putting even more pressure on opposing teams.

An expressive player on the court, Wagner admits he’s still learning how to keep his emotions under control.

Coach John Beilein says Wagner can be hard on himself, but he has an upbeat attitude the Wolverines can appreciate.

“I don’t want to rob him of his energy and his passion,” Beilein said. “If you heard him in timeouts – I mean, he is really into it. And it’s encouraging things he’s saying.”

The key for Wagner is to stay on the court. He’s been whistled for 100 fouls this season – no other Michigan player has more than 80 – and he picked up two in the first 3:11 when the Wolverines faced Oklahoma State in their NCAA Tournament opener Friday. Wagner played only 14 minutes in that frenetic game, which Michigan won 92-91 .

Against Louisville in the round of 32 , Wagner went 11 of 14 from the field and kept his poise after being called for his second foul late in the first half.

“He’s always just been an excited guy – play hard and play with a lot of passion,” Walton said. “I don’t think anything has changed. I think he’s just channeling it a little better.”

The seventh-seeded Wolverines face third-seeded Oregon on Thursday night in a regional semifinal. Michigan has won seven in a row, a streak that began with the team’s last game of the regular season.

What happened next is well documented. The day before its opening game in the conference tournament, Michigan’s plane slid off the runway .

There were no serious injuries, and the Wolverines arrived in time to play. Then they won four games in four days to take the title.

Now, Michigan is two victories away from an improbable Final Four appearance. If the Wolverines actually make it that far, Wagner will be a big reason why – and he’ll probably be as excited as anyone.

“One of my youth coaches actually used to say that I was somebody who, like, sees the basketball court as a stage and really enjoys it,” Wagner said. “Last year, I started to understand what that actually means, and kind of embraced that this year. That’s just me. I really love it. I really enjoy it.”

 

California’s Ivan Rabb declares for the NBA Draft

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Ivan Rabb announced on Wednesday that he will be declaring for the NBA Draft and foregoing his final two seasons with California.

“I want to thank everybody for their support,” Rabb said in a statement. “Since the day I committed to Cal, the love from Bay Area fans was overwhelming. I could genuinely tell that people really appreciated seeing me come to Cal and succeed and do well. Haas Pavilion will always hold a special place in my heart, and I won’t forget how incredible it felt to be “Oakland’s Own” as I ran onto the court in front of my friends, family and team.”

As a sophomore, Rabb averaged 14.0 points and 10.5 boards. He’s projected as a mid-to-late first round pick in the draft a year after making the decision to return to school as a projected lottery pick last season.

Duke’s Jayson Tatum declares for the NBA Draft

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Duke’s Jayson Tatum will declare for the NBA Draft and hire an agent, the program announced on Wednesday.

Tatum is a projected top five pick in the NBA Draft. He averaged 16.8 points playing the role of small-ball four for the Blue Devils this season after missing the first month of the season with a foot injury.

“I have absolutely loved coaching Jayson Tatum,” Coach K said in a statement. “His skill set and work ethic will make him a star in the NBA. Whichever team selects him will be getting a humble, thoughtful and talented young man whom we are proud to call a member of the Duke basketball brotherhood.”

Tatum was the most talented player on the Blue Devils this season, but it was an up and down year for Duke as a whole. They were predicted by just about everyone to win the national title back in the preseason, but they eventually bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the second round.