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Player of the Year Power Rankings: Justin Jackson climbing, Ethan Happ and Lonzo Ball sliding?

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1. Frank Mason III, Kansas: Here’s the thing that makes it difficult to drop Mason out of his spot: Even when he plays poorly, he puts up huge numbers. Mason shot just 3-for-13 from the floor for the Jayhawks on Monday night, playing like his shoes were made of cement as West Virginia built a 64-50 lead on Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse with 2:45 left. Then he was the guy who helped spark the comeback, getting to the free throw line, banging a three and making a pair of critical defensive plays.

He finished with 24 points, five assists and four boards, which is awful similar to the line he had against Baylor, when he shot 3-for-12 from the floor by ended the game with 19 points, six assists and four boards in a win. The Jayhawks didn’t even suffer in his worst performance of the season, a 80-79 win over Texas Tech where he went assist-less for the first time this season, fouling out with three minutes left after shooting a paltry 4-for-13 from the floor.

2. Josh Hart, Villanova: Here’s the concern with Hart’s Player of the Year candidacy at this point: When is he going to be playing games that we have to watch? Kansas and Frank Mason played in one last night. They play in one against on Saturday, when they visit Baylor. Lonzo Ball played Oregon on Thursday and will pay a visit to Arizona later this month. Caleb Swanigan went up against Indiana in Assembly Hall last week, just ten days after they squared off with Maryland.

The problem with the Big East right now is that no one in the league is going to challenge the Wildcats. Xavier and Creighton lost their star point guards and Butler went off the deep end. Villanova, as good as they are, is not the kind of team that is going to command eye balls regardless of opponent. So are we going to see enough of Hart to be able to loft him over Mason in these standings?

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 03: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in front of Lamarr Kimble #0 of the Saint Joseph's Hawks in the first half at The Pavilion on December 3, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Saint Joseph's Hawks 88-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

3. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: 16 points, 14 boards, three assists, a win at Assembly Hall. That was Swanigan’s week last week, not bad numbers until you consider that he had averaged 25 points and 13 boards the previous week. He’s still third on this list for three reasons: He’s not on the same level defensively as the two guys above him, he’s fouled out of his last three games and, over the course of his last six games, he has 27 turnovers. That’s 4.5 per game. For comparison’s sake, only James Harden and Russell Westbrook average more turnovers than that in the NBA.

4. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: There is a bit of a gap for me between the top three and Lonzo Ball for one simple reason: defense. Ball, and UCLA, proved that they can lock up when they need to in last Thursday’s come-from-behind win over Oregon, but the fact of the matter is that the Bruins ranks 126th in defensive efficiency and it doesn’t matter how good Ball, or UCLA, is offensively. Teams that defend like that aren’t title challengers, and Ball holds as much blame for that as anyone on the roster just like he deserves as much credit for their offensive renaissance as anyone in the program, including Steve Alford.

That said, Ball leads the country in “moments”. No one has made more big plays in big spots that spread around the internet like wildfire, and that certainly was the case in Thursday night’s game. He had a ridiculous drive through the lane for a layup to give UCLA a three-point lead with under two minutes left, then buried the dagger on an absurd, 27-foot step-back three:

It may not be right, but those “moments” matter, and Ball leads the nation in them.

5. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: How about this: Gonzaga is undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country and they have a point guard that leads them in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. Williams-Goss may not have the NBA future that some of the other elite point guards across the country have, but his emergence has been the biggest reason why the Zags are as good as they are.

6. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: As good as Happ has been this season, it’s hard to overlook the fact that he gets taken out at the end of games because of his issues shooting free throws. Wisconsin survived overtime at Nebraska in spite of Happ. That did not happen at home against Northwestern, a game where Happ played just 26 minutes and had nine points and four turnovers.

7. Luke Kennard, Duke: For the second time in Duke’s recent five-game winning streak, the Blue Devils were bailed out by Kennard. Two weeks ago, it was a 30-point second half to lead Duke to a come-from-behind win at Wake Forest. On Saturday, he had a team-high 25 points as the Blue Devils narrowly squeaked by Clemson at home.

8. Justin Jackson, North Carolina: I had a revelation on Justin Jackson during North Carolina’s game against Duke last week, one that made me regret the error of my ways.

Joel Berry II is the guy that makes UNC’s offense run and the guy that makes the Tar Heels elite. Point guards, in general, are more valuable than scoring wings. That said, Berry has had a nasty habit of not showing up. He was 3-for-13 in UNC’s loss at Indiana. He was 3-for-13 in the loss at Georgia Tech. He was 0-for-8 with a technical foul when the Tar Heels got smoked by Miami earlier this month.

Jackson, on the other hand, has been a model of consistency all season long, particularly in ACC play. He’s scored at least 16 points in every league game and is second in the ACC in scoring during conference play at 20.1 points. He’s shooting the ball better than he ever has in his life, and he’s still utilizing a murderous floater-game that’s better than anyone in the country. He’s become North Carolina’s go-to guy and the big-time scorer that they’ve lacked for the last couple of seasons.

The Tar Heels may not have the hoss on the block that we are used to seeing from Roy Williams’ best teams, but the biggest reason that hasn’t hurt them yet is because of how good Jackson has been.

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9. Josh Jackson, Kansas: Mason is (deservedly) the Player of the Year for the Jayhawks, but it’s becoming more and more clear that Jackson is the most talented player and, arguably, the team’s best player. He had 31 points, 11 boards and four assists at Texas Tech to help the Jayhawks stave off an upset in a game where Mason fouled out with three minutes left, and last night, he had 14 points, 11 boards, five steals and three assists in that raucous, come-from-behind win over West Virginia.

In his last eight games, Jackson hasn’t scored fewer than 14 points and has hit for at least 20 four times. He has five double-doubles in that span, five games where he’s had at least three assists, five games with multiple steals and is shooting 50 percent from three in that stretch.

10. Johnathan Motley, Baylor: Monday night’s loss aside, Motley has been consistently terrific all season long. Last week, he had 24 points and 11 boards against Oklahoma State and followed that up with 25 points and seven boards in a win over TCU.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
Melo Trimble, Maryland
Malik Monk, Kentucky
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
Joel Berry II, North Carolina
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
Alec Peters, Valparaiso

Report: Texas’ Jones to test NBA possibility

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Both of Texas’ McDonald’s All-Americans from its 2016 class will test the NBA waters.

Andrew Jones will declare for the draft, but will not hire an agent, according to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-4 guard joins Jarrett Allen, the Longhorns’ star center, in utilizing the rule change that became available to players last year in which they can declare, workout for teams, attend the NBA combine and still return to school.

Jones averaged 11.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game as a freshman. He shot 42.5 percent from the field overall and 32.8 percent from 3-point range.

Allen seems the likelier candidate to remain in the draft as a potential lottery pick, but Jones came to Austin with similar one-and-done possibilities given his status as one of the class’ top recruits.

Texas, of course, is hoping both return, not just because they’re both big talents, but because incoming and highly-touted recruit Matt Coleman fills the major hole in last year’s lineup – point guard. If the three of them can share the floor together, Year 3 of the Shaka Smart era will be much more interesting.

Morrow announces transfer from Nebraska

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Nebraska was once again hit with a surprising and damaging transfer.

Ed Morrow, Jr., who led the Huskers in rebounding last year, announced his intention to transfer, the school announced Wednesday.

“I support Ed in his decision to transfer schools and wish him well,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said in a statement. “We appreciate his hard work over the last two years. Although I am disappointed, we will continue to recruit young men who are committed to our mission of building Nebraska Basketball with a culture of success in all areas…life, school and winning basketball at its highest level.”

The 6-foot-7 sophomore’s departure is a major hit to the Huskers, who are coming off a 12-19 year in which Miles’ job security was called into question. It almost assuredly will be again this year as Nebraska hasn’t been able to build on its 2014 NCAA tournament appearance, instead putting together three-straight losing seasons.

Morrow’s decision is surprising not only given he’d been a productive member of the team – averaging 9.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game – but because he was born in Nebraska before attending high school in Chicago and both his parents were Nebraska student-athletes his father winning a national title on the football team in 1994 and his mother an all-Big Eight performer on the basketball team.

“I want to say thank you to my teammates, coaches, the fans and the University of Nebraska athletics department for giving me the opportunity to play Division I basketball,” Morrow said in a statement. “It is hard to leave home, and Nebraska is my home. I was born and raised here, it is my parents’ alma mater, and I have a lot of friends here. But sometimes you have to venture out to pursue dreams and aspirations in a career. This is a sacrifice I have to make to better myself.”

Morrow’s transfer comes a year after Andrew White surprised Nebraska with his decision to graduate and transfer to Syracuse, which no doubt impacted the Huskers’ poor 2016-17 record.

Miles was on the hot seat at the end of last season and will assuredly begin this season there as well. A roster hit like Morrow won’t do much to help him improve the situation. Nebraska does, however, have three starters returning while Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland is eligible, as is Miami (Fla.) transfer James Palmer, Jr.

Lonzo Ball says “I’m better than” Markelle Fultz

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Usually, it’s LaVar Ball that makes news for what he says.

His eldest son is now getting in on the business of generating headlines with something other than his play.

The UCLA star, who said he’ll enter the draft after just one season with the Bruins, claimed he’s the better prospect than Washington freshman Markelle Fultz, who many have pegged as the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.

“Markelle’s a great player,” Ball said, according to ESPN, “but I feel I’m better than him,” “I think I can lead a team better than him. Obviously he’s a great scorer — he’s a great player, so I’m not taking that away from him.”

Not exactly inflammatory stuff – like saying you could have beaten Michael Jordan, that you want a $1 billion apparel deal or a number of things his father has said – bu Ball is certainly projecting confidence. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s quite a bit of money – and pride – at stake with the draft, and Ball put up a season worthy of comparison to Fultz, who had great numbers but played for an abysmal Washington team. Ball, on the other had, had strong numbers while leading UCLA to the Sweet 16.

Both are going to go at the top of a draft that’s stocked full of promising point guards. Which player goes before the other remains to be seen, but it’s likely public pronouncements aren’t going to affect the draft order.

 

UMass hires McCall away from Chattanooga

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UMass has found, once more, the man to take over its basketball program.

The Minutemen have reached an agreement with Chattanooga coach Matt McCall, the school announce Wednesday

“The tradition and resources that are in place not only make this one of the best basketball jobs in the Atlantic 10 Conference,” McCall said in a statement released by the school, “but one of the best jobs in the country. We couldn’t be more excited about becoming part of the UMass family and look forward to building upon the rich tradition that has been established here in the past.”

In McCall’s two years at Chattanooga, the Mocs to the NCAA tournament in 2016 and a 19-12 record this year that featured five-straight losses to end the season.

The move will take McCall out of the southeast for the first time in his career as he previously served as at Florida and Florida Atlantic before getting his first head coaching job at Chattanooga.

McCall wasn’t the Minutemen’s first choice to replace Derek Kellogg after three-straight lackluster seasons. Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey had agreed to take the job before a last-minute about-face that saw him return to the Eagles program just before his introductory press conference was scheduled to begin.

“Matt is a rising star in college basketball coaching who has been a key piece of three successful programs in his career,” UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said in a statement. “He has earned a reputation as a relentless worker, a great teammate and colleague and a confident leader of young men.

“Matt has worked with some of the most respected coaches and administrators in the country, who loudly sing his praises. Coach McCall’s appointment begins an exciting new chapter for our tradition-rich men’s basketball program at UMass.”

Despite being the second choice, McCall’s reputation in the coaching industry makes him a strong hire, having worked under Mike Jarvis and Billy Donovan. He took over at Chattanooga for Will Wade, and brought the Mocs to a 29-6 record and a  12-seed in the NCAA tournament in 2016.

UMass went to just one NCAA tournament under Kellogg (in 2014) during his nine seasons leading the Minutemen.

VIDEO: Frank Martin’s sideline demeanor as a high school coach

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South Carolina coach Frank Martin has the reputation of being rather, shall we say, intense on the sidelines during games.

The coach has a stare that seemingly could bore a hole through his players when they do something that doesn’t reach his level of expectation. Martin’s demeanor, though, didn’t just come into form once he hit the college ranks.

He was plenty intense on high school sidelines as well.

Martin won three titles while at Miami Senior in the mid-1990s, coaching the likes of future pros Steve Blake and Udonis Haslem. Now having reached his first career Final Four, that sideline persona has put him on the precipice of winning yet another championship, this time at the collegiate level.