Rob Dauster

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats looks on as Malik Monk #5 celebrates after hitting a go-ahead 3-pointer late in the team's 103-100 win over the North Carolina Tar Heels during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Player of the Year Power Rankings: Malik Monk climbs as top five is intact

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1. Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart is now averaging 20.1 points on the season after a 26-point outburst in Villanova’s win over Temple. The Wildcats likely won’t be challenged again until a New Year’s Eve trip to Omaha to take on Creighton, followed by a visit to Indianapolis for Butler four days later. That that means is that, barring a catastrophic injury, Hart is going to enter league play as the favorite to win National Player of the Year.

2. Frank Mason III, Kansas: Mason’s numbers this season are ridiculous: he’s averaging 20.3 points, 5.6 assists and 4.6 boards while shooting, as a point guard, 56 percent from the floor and 52.3 percent from three. His two best games came in the two biggest games of the year for the Jayhawks. But what I think is the most remarkable about Mason’s season has been his consistency. He’s scored 18 points or handed out at least eight assists in every game this season. He’s finished with fewer than 18 points just once and fewer than five assists just twice. Only twice has he turned the ball over more than three times. After starting the season 2-for-10 from three, he’s shot 60.5 percent from beyond the arc in the last eight games.

In a year with arguably the best crop of point guards we’ve ever seen in college hoops, Mason has been the best of the bunch. Considering some of the other names on this list, that should tell you something.

3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: Ball was just OK, by his standards, in two UCLA wins last week. He had 13 points, 10 boards and seven assists in a 40-point win over UCSB and eight points, nine boards and nine assists in a 13-point win over Ohio State. Imagine being so good that averaging 10.5 points, 9.5 boards and 8.0 assists in two games is considered “just OK”.

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins brings the ball up the court against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. UCLA won 86-73. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Lonzo Ball (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

4. Luke Kennard, Duke: He did it again on Monday night. With the Blue Devils caught totally out of rhythm against Tennessee State, a game in which they trailed 36-34 midway through the second half, Kennard was the savior. He finished with a team-high 24 points. At one point in the second half, Kennard had 22 points on 7-for-9 shooting while his teammates, combined, had 23 points on 6-for-29 shooting.

5. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
6. Malik Monk, Kentucky: What can be said about the 47 point outburst that Malik Monk had over the weekend that hasn’t been said yet? For me, the most important part of that performance was that head coach John Calipari showed a willingness to run set plays specifically designed to get Monk shots, and Monk showed the ability to score when those plays were run for him. This is big because, as we’ve said many times before, the way to attack Kentucky is to try and force them to play a half court game. Monk looks like he could be the antidote to that ailment.

But while Monk is getting all the accolades after the outburst that he had in Kentucky’s win over North Carolina, but I would make the argument that De’Aaron Fox has been the better player this season. He’s averaging 15.9 points, 7.2 assists and 1.7 steals as the guy that ignites that Kentucky transition game and the point man for their defense that, with the exception of games against UCLA and UNC, has been overwhelming. Put another way, I think Kentucky would be able to survive Monk getting in foul trouble or spraining an ankle better than they would if Fox was dealing with the same injury.

That said, I think it’s clear that those two work in tandem and have quite clearly become the most dangerous 1-2 punch in college hoops. Think about this: Kentucky scored 103 points in that win over North Carolina. Monk and Fox, who finished with 71 points and 12 assists combined, were responsible for (at least*) 87 of those points.

*(That does not include free throws where Monk and Fox ‘assisted’ in creating the foul.)

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7. Mo Watson, Creighton: Creighton flirted with disaster over the weekend, nearly losing to an Oral Roberts team that entered the game at 2-9 on the season and rated 274th on KenPom. I’m going to chalk that one up to the Bluejays overlooking an opponent during finals week. Moving on.

8. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: The Tar Heels lost a thriller to Kentucky on Saturday, a game that literally came down to the final possession. If it wasn’t for that eruption from Malik Monk – truthfully, if it wasn’t for a three he hit with 15 seconds left – we would have spent the last 72 hours talking about how we need to consider North Carolina as a potential ACC and national title contender.

Now think about that performance and what happened against Tennessee last Sunday. The difference in those two games? The presence of Joel Berry II on the floor for the Tar Heels. That should tell you all you need to know about how good he has been this season.

9. Amile Jefferson, Duke: Jefferson dropped a spot this week because there was no justification for keeping Malik Monk out of the top six. But if Monday’s debut from Harry Giles III showed us anything, it’s that the freshman that hasn’t played basketball in 14 months is going to need some time to get up to speed. Jefferson’s job anchoring that Duke front line isn’t over yet.

10. Markelle Fultz, Washington: Fultz is still doing ridiculous things on basketball courts. He came within two assists of posting Washington’s first-ever triple-double over the weekend and is now averaging 23.2 points, 7.0 boards and 6.5 assists this season while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three. The raw numbers that Fultz is putting up are one thing – whoever the lead guard is in Lorenzo Romar’s system is always going to put up numbers – but what is more impressive is the efficiency with which Fultz is doing it.

Fultz is top 40 nationally in usage rate playing on a team that is top 15 in pace while playing 34 minutes a night for a program that is talent-deficient around him. And yet, he’s shooting 50 percent on twos and 50 percent on threes with a better-than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and an offensive rating of 121.2, an insanely good number given the circumstances.

It’s so disappointing that Fultz is doing this on a team where his relevancy didn’t even last until Christmas.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
Melo Trimble, Maryland
Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
T.J. Leaf, UCLA
Yante Maten, Georgia
Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s

CBT Podcast: All things Kentucky-North Carolina, plus Aaron Holiday and Indiana teams

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 13: Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball against Kiefer Douse #4 of the Canisius Golden Griffins at Rupp Arena Stadium on November 13, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky defeated Canisius 93-69. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Sam Vecenie of the Sporting News joined me on the pod this week to talk all things Kentucky-North Carolina as well as Aaron Holiday’s value to UCLA. We also power rank the four big schools in Indiana.

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Coaches Poll: Villanova remains No. 1 once again

NEWARK, NJ - DECEMBER 10: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats takes a shot against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the first half of a college basketball game at Prudential Center on December 10, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. Villanova defeated Notre Dame 74-66. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
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Villanova is once again No. 1 in the Coaches Poll, receiving 28 of a possible 32 first-place votes.

UCLA, Kansas, Duke and Kentucky round out the top five.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

1. Villanova (28 first-place votes)
2. UCLA (2)
3. Kansas (1)
4. Duke (1)
5. Kentucky
6. Baylor
7. Gonzaga
8. North Carolina
9. Creighton
10. Virginia
11. Louisville
12. West Virginia
13. Butler
14. Wisconsin
15. Purdue
16. Indiana
17. Xavier
18. Arizona
19. Saint Mary’s
20. South Carolina
21. Oregon
22. Florida State
23. Cincinnati
24. Notre Dame
25. USC

Harry Giles III expected to make his debut for Duke this week

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The last time we saw Duke play, at the Jimmy V Classic in New York City, head coach Mike Krzyzewski said that he was expecting his star center Harry Giles III to return to the court “before Christmas.”

Duke plays two games before Christmas. One of them is tonight, against 8-2 Tennessee State, and the expectation is that this will be the first time we see the player many believed to be the best prospect is a loaded 2017 draft class to take the floor.

Giles’ story has been told over and over again. A 6-foot-11 center blessed with the kind of athleticism scouts can only dream about, Giles has dealt with a myriad of knee injuries. He tore the ACL, the MCL and the meniscus in one knee the summer before his sophomore season in high school. After missing an entire season, he returned to dominance as a junior before tearing the ACL in his other knee on the opening night of his senior season in high school.

He looked to be on track to return for the start of this season before he underwent an arthroscopic procedure on the knee he injured as a sophomore right before practice started.

One of the biggest talking points of this young season has been whether or not it would be smart for Giles to return to play in college. There are only so many miles left on those knees, and it doesn’t make financial sense to risk another injury by playing for a team that isn’t going to be paying him to play. From a business perspective, it would seem silly to put himself at risk.

The other side of it, however, is that Giles is going to be at risk of injury whether he’s playing in games or working out on his own. Assuming that he is back to being fully healthy – I can’t imagine Giles being allowed to return to the floor if he wasn’t – is there really that much of a difference between playing for the Blue Devils and going through workouts and practices with the team?

At the end of the day, an NBA team is going to pick Giles based on what their doctors say about the future of his knees. If he returns and looks dominant, that is only going to help his cause.

You also have to consider that Giles is from North Carolina. He committed to Duke in part because he wanted to play with Jayson Tatum for a year and because he’s a kid from the state that wanted the experience of playing in Cameron Indoor Stadium. He’s a competitor. He wants to win a national title. He doesn’t want to spend the final four months that he’ll be on a college campus like he has the last two or three games: warming up with the team, wearing his uniform on the bench and watching his guys go out and win.

There is no easy answer.

But it seems like the decision has been made, and Giles will be playing.

What kind of impact will he have on this Duke team?

For starters, it will give the Blue Devils a big, athletic presence in the lane. As good as Amile Jefferson has been, he doesn’t have the same kind of presence in the paint that Giles does. As talented as Marques Bolden is, he doesn’t have the same ability that Giles does. This gives a Duke team that has finally rounded into form another weapon. It also gives them more lineup versatility; right now, their best lineup is when Tatum plays at the four alongside Jefferson. With a healthy Giles, they can play two bigs on the floor together without losing much in the way of effectiveness.

At some point this week, we should get a chance to see the Duke team everyone had as the preseason No. 1 team in the country.

AP Poll: Villanova remains in the No. 1 spot

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 13: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts after making a basket against the Temple Owls in the second half at The Pavilion on December 13, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Temple Owls 78-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Villanova remains the No. 1 team in the AP Poll for the third straight week, receiving 56 of a possible 65 first place votes.

North Carolina fell from 7th to 8th after losing to Kentucky in Las Vegas, which really doesn’t make much sense to me. Seeing them come within a Malik Monk 47-point outburst and game-winning three in the final 20 seconds of a win over Kentucky made you think that team was worse than before the game? That’s a head-scratcher.

And once again, the team in this poll that most media members believe is the best in the country – Duke – comes in fifth without a first-place vote. That will never make sense to me.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

1. Villanova (56 first-place votes)
2. UCLA (3)
3. Kansas
4. Baylor (6)
5. Duke
6. Kentucky
7. Gonzaga
8. North Carolina
9. Creighton
10. Louisville
11. West Virginia
12. Virginia
13. butler
14. Wisconsin
15. Purdue
16. Indiana
17. Xavier
18. Arizona
19. Saint Mary’s
20. Oregon
21. Florida State
22. South Carolina
23. USC
24. Cincinnati
25. Notre Dame

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Five Takeaways

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Five Things We Learned This Week: Malik Monk, Justin Jackson and Aaron Holiday

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats looks on as Malik Monk #5 celebrates after hitting a go-ahead 3-pointer late in the team's 103-100 win over the North Carolina Tar Heels during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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1. Malik Monk is the most dangerous scorer in college basketball: We all saw the 47 points that he scored, right?

And if you didn’t see it you’ve at least heard about it by now, correct?

On Saturday, squaring off against No. 7 North Carolina, Monk went 18-for-28 from the floor and 8-for-12 from three en route to a 47-point eruption, which included a pair of threes in the final two minutes to give the Wildcats a 103-100 win. I honestly cannot remember an individual performance as impressive – I’m sure there’s been one – and it’s critical for the Wildcats for two reasons:

  1. That vaunted Kentucky defense doesn’t look so scary all of a sudden. In the two games they’ve played against elite competition, the Wildcats have now given up 197 points in 162 possessions, or 1.216 PPP, which is a pretty bad number. If this group is going to make a deep tournament run, they’re going to be playing in games where they will need to score in the 90s to win, and I think Monk has proven that he’s capable and unafraid of being the guy to carry this team.
  2. Monk is far and away the most effective player this Kentucky team has in half court settings. Coach Cal knows this, which is why he put in set plays to run specifically to ensure that Monk would get the ball in a spot where he can do some damage. They worked. The key to beating this Kentucky team is keeping them out of transition, where they are just too fast to defend. Forcing them to execute in the half court is the better option given some of the issues they have with perimeter shooting and floor-spacing, but if Monk is going to consistently be able to score when plays are run for him, it makes UK that much more effective offensively.
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17: Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels drives to the basket against De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Kentucky won 103-100. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Justin Jackson. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

2. UNC’s stars gave us reason to believe in them: We learned just how valuable Joel Berry II was last week, when North Carolina struggled at home with Davidson and Tennessee as Berry nursed an injured ankle back to health. If that didn’t prove it to you, then his 23 points and seven assists on Saturday against Kentucky should have.

Berry was terrific.

He was also the second-best player on North Carolina that day, as junior wing Justin Jackson went for a career-high 34 points and kept the Tar Heels within striking distance while their front court seemingly spent the entire game battling foul trouble. That matters, because it is really the first time against competition like this that Jackson has shown that he’s capable of throwing the Tar Heels on his back and carrying them. He damn near led them to a win, too; his three with two minutes left to give UNC their first lead since the opening seconds will go down as one of the biggest shots he’ll ever make even if it doesn’t matter at this point.

The bottom line is this: I’m not sold on UNC’s front court. I think that the Tar Heels were a bit overrated after the way they started the season. But Jackson and Berry very nearly dragged this team to a come-from-behind win over a really good Kentucky team that had a star player going all NBA Jam. That’s notable even in a loss.

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Five Takeaways

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3. Aaron Holiday is the best sixth-man in the country: There are 351 Division I programs in college basketball. There are, at most, five or six programs where Holiday wouldn’t step in and immediately start in their back court. There probably aren’t 20 teams in America where he wouldn’t be the best player on the roster. And yet, Holiday – the younger brother of NBA guards Jrue and Justin – is content working as UCLA’s sixth-man as a sophomore after starting his freshman season.

In fact, he’s more than content. He’s thriving, averaging 14.4 points, 4.1 assists and 1.4 steals. He’s shooting 53.3 percent from three, which leads the team. He’s playing more than 26 minutes a night. He had a team-high 20 points in UCLA’s win over Ohio State. He had 13 points and four assists in the first half of the win at Kentucky, his play changing the course of the game.

It works because of his versatility. He can replace any of Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton and do what they do. He is a point guard by trade, but he’s also capable of playing off the ball as a shooter and can score when he puts the ball on the floor. He’s also a very good on-ball defender, which isn’t necessarily the case for the rest of UCLA’s perimeter. He’s clearly not this team’s MVP, but the Bruins would not be where they are right now without him.

Not just because of his skill set.

But because he embraced the “demotion” of coming off the bench.

4. Can Notre Dame close out games?: Two Saturdays in a row now we’ve seen the Fighting Irish jump out to big first half leads against two of the best teams in the country, and two Saturdays in a row we’ve seen them give those leads right back. The Irish blew an 11-point first half lead against Villanova two weeks ago, following that up by losing to Purdue after holding a 14 point lead at the break.

Point guard Matt Farrell, who has starred in both of those games, was blunt when he asked what happened.

“I think it’s just toughness,” he said. “This is two times now we’ve had double-digit leads and it’s come down to defensive rebounding and we haven’t done that. That’s just toughness.”

“I feel like we got comfortable at halftime just like we did in the Villanova game. We can’t get comfortable, especially if we’re up by 15, we gotta make that jump, extend the lead. It’s all about toughness and winning close games.”

The Irish watched Josh Hart put together the best performance we saw this season pre-Malik Monk. They then let Caleb Swanigan get loose against them on Saturday. On a team without much proven size and with a star big man that tops out at about 6-foot-6 on a good day, it’s worth wondering whether Notre Dame has the physicality inside to be able to handle games against teams like that.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 17: Matt Farrell #5 of Notre Dame shoots the ball during the game against the Purdue Boiermakers in the Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on December 17, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Matt Farrell Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

5. The Big East is as good as it has been since the split: I think that this is the best that we’ve seen the Big East since it split off from the AAC. Villanova, the reigning national champs, are a threat to repeat. Creighton is still undefeated and find themselves ranked in the top 15. The Bluejays have usurped Xavier’s title as Villanova’s biggest threat in the league, although that may change when Myles Davis is allowed to play again. Then there’s Butler, who is the proud owner of the best résumé in the conference, with wins against Indiana, Arizona, Cincinnati, Northwestern and at Utah.

There is a valid argument to make that that top four may actually be better than the top four teams in the ACC.

There also appears to be more depth in the conference than in recent years. Seton Hall is a tough, veteran group that landed a brand-name win last week, handing South Carolina their first loss of the season. Providence is 9-2 on the year with a win over Rhode Island. Georgetown had some struggles early on in the year but just won at Syracuse over the weekend. Marquette probably isn’t looking at a tournament trip this season, but they certainly aren’t going to be pushovers this year. DePaul is DePaul and St. John’s is a tire fire, but overall, there is a lot to like about the league this season.