De’Aaron Fox

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Has this become a two-horse race?

Leave a comment

1. Josh Hart, Villanova
2. Frank Mason III, Kansas: At this point, I think that the National Player of the Year award has turned into a two-man race between Hart and Mason. Hart is the leader at this point. Villanova is undefeated, the No. 1 team in the country and, as it stands, looking like a team with a very, very real chance to repeat as national champions. He’s improved on the floor as a player and is putting up numbers on par with anyone else on this list in addition to the fact that he seemingly makes every clutch play for the Wildcats in every big game.

That said, I’m going to keep beating this drum: Frank Mason is not far behind Hart when it comes to his Player of the Year standing. He’s the go-to guy, the leading scorer, one of the most efficient high-usage players in the country and the leader of a top five team. People seem to have forgotten about his performance against Indiana in the season-opener and his game-winner against Duke in Madison Square Garden because they happened so long ago, but they happened.

Mason is every bit a deserving Player of the Year choice, and I expect that he’ll only add to his résumé this season, but as of today, Hart is the more deserving pick.

Bottom-line: This is going to be a fun race to follow.

3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: Ball has seemingly hit a little bit of a slump here in the last couple of weeks. He was just OK against Ohio State and Western Michigan. Outside of a three-minute stretch in the second half where he banged home three threes he wasn’t all that good in the loss at Oregon. He was terrific in a win at Oregon State, but Oregon State is Oregon State. He’s still clearly a first-team all-american, but as of today, he’s not in the same conversation as Mason and Hart when it comes to Player of the Year.

4. Luke Kennard, Duke: In the one game that Duke played last week, Luke Kennard scored 34 points and shot 11-for-18 from the floor … in a 14-point loss at Virginia Tech that never felt like it was in doubt. It feels really weird to say this, but think about where Duke would be right now if they didn’t have Kennard. Grayson Allen and Coach K would be out – one via suspension, the other via back surgery – and the pressure would be rising on Harry Giles III, Marques Bolden and Frank Jackson to figure it out as Jayson Tatum struggled to find his footing as Duke’s star. They certainly wouldn’t be a top ten team at this point in the season, and I don’t think anyone could have predicted that to be the case.

5. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: Swanigan’s Boilermakers lost on Sunday afternoon, falling to Minnesota in overtime at home, but Biggie was as good as he’s been at any point this season. He had 28 points and 22 boards against the Gophers, his fourth 20-20 games of the season. He’s had a double-double in 13 of 15 games this season and hasn’t had less than eight boards in any game. He’s currently averaging 18.1 points and 13.0 boards, the latter of which is second-nationally.

6. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox is still my pick for the MVP of Kentucky this season. He’s the guy that gets that makes that transition game work and he’s the point man for Kentucky’s defense, which has been a nightmare for the majority of their opponents to deal with. Monk’s been terrific. Fox has been better.

7. Mo Watson, Creighton: Watson was unbelievable in Creighton’s win over Seton Hall in their Big East opener, finishing with 21 points, 10 assists and five boards, but he struggled mightily in their loss to No. 1 Villanova. Watson was 2-for-7 from the floor, finished with six points and five assists and, most importantly, fouled out while trying to slow down Jalen Brunson, who finished with 27 points, five assists and four boards.

8. Malik Monk, Kentucky: Monk shook off a rough night against Louisville last week with a 34-point performance in his first career SEC game, a trip to Oxford to take on Ole Miss. His ability to score in transition combined with hot he can get shooting the three makes him the most dangerous and explosive scorer in the country.

9. Johnathan Motley, Baylor: The beauty of Baylor this year is that they don’t really have one guy that they totally rely on, which makes it hard to pick out one player as their MVP or Player of the Year candidate. Motley is their leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. And he’s probably the player that can least afford to play without, mainly because he’s really, really good. So he’s the easy choice to make this list.

10. Markelle Fultz, Washington: Fultz’s one season in college can be summed up by what happened in his one game last week. Fultz finished with 26 points, 11 assists, nine boards and two blocks in his first career Pac-12 game, but he shot 11-for-26 from the floor, turned the ball over six times and, most importantly, lost at home to Washington State.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Joel Berry II, North Carolina
Yante Maten, Georgia
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
Kelan Martin, Butler
Amile Jefferson, Duke
Melo Trimble, Maryland
Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
T.J. Leaf, UCLA
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Malik Monk climbs as top five is intact

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.)

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

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

Player of the Year Power Rankings: There’s a new leader this week

Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Leave a comment

1. Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart vaulted past Frank Mason III into the National Player of the Year lead after his dominating, 37-point performance in Villanova’s come-from-behind win to beat Notre Dame. It was as good of a performance as we’ve seen this season, and it’s worth noting that, in Villanova’s other great win this season – a Purdue – Hart was again the best player on the floor.

2. Frank Mason III, Kansas: I had to drop Mason out of the top spot this week, although it’s through no fault of his own. He’s been sensational this season. Look at this stat line: 20.5 points, 5.5 assists, 4.5 boards and 1.3 steals while shooting 58.7 percent from the floor and 54.8 percent from three. He made the game-winning jumper in Madison Square Garden to give Kansas the non-conference win they needed over Duke to cement themselves in the No. 1 overall seed discussion. He had 30 points and nine assists and was the sole reason Kansas was able to get their season-opening loss to Indiana to overtime.

The reason Hart is ahead of him? It’s simple: Hart led his team to a win over Notre Dame while Mason couldn’t quite get Kansas over the hump against Indiana. That’s how close the margins are.

3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: There’s not really much to say about Ball that we didn’t say last week. I will make this note, however: UCLA is on pace to become the best three-point shooting team since 1997, which is as far back as I can find data. They’re currently making 47.1 percent of their threes. The best season I found? Northern Colorado in 2011-12, who shot 45.1 percent from three while attempting eight fewer threes per game.

Ball is the facilitator for a lot of those open looks, there’s no question about that. But he’s also shooting 45.3 percent from three on more than five attempts per game. The knock on him entering the season was his shooting ability. His form is funky and may need to be tweaked at the next level, but it goes in, there’s no denying that.

4. Luke Kennard, Duke: As of today, Kennard is averaging 20.0 points, 6.1 boards and 3.3 assists for a consensus top five team that is currently ranked No. 1 in the NBC Sports Top 25. He’s been Duke’s best player in their four biggest games of the season, culminating in a dominating 29-point performance to lead Duke to a win over Florida in the Jimmy V Classic. He’s not Duke’s best draft prospect and, I’d argue, he’s not even one of the two best players currently playing for Duke.

And yet, he absolutely deserves to be a first-team all-american as of today. Impressive, that.

5. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox dropped from fourth to fifth in our rankings this week for one simple reason: He hasn’t yet had a huge game in a big win for the Wildcats. In fact, I’d make the argument that Kentucky hasn’t yet had a big win, having lost the only real chance they’ve had so far this season. What the Wildcats do in the coming week – with games against North Carolina in Las Vegas and at Louisville – will tell us a lot about where this team is headed.

6. Mo Watson, Creighton: Watson is now leading the country in assists, averaging 9.1 per game, just sneaking in front of UCLA’s Lonzo Ball. The Bluejays have one of the nation’s most high-powered offenses – they’re second nationally in three-point shooting and effective field goal percentage (to UCLA) – and Watson is the engine. Here’s a nice little graphic on where those 91 assists have gone this season:

7. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Berry’s numbers alone are impressive. He’s averaging 14.8 points and 4.7 assists while shooting 41.9 percent from three, an important number for a team that doesn’t have a ton of perimeter scorers this season. He’s had his best games in UNC’s biggest wins, lighting up Wisconsin and Oklahoma State in Maui. But the thing about Berry is that we didn’t truly see his importance to Carolina until this week, when he was forced to miss two games due to an ankle injury. Davidson kept things closer with the Heels than they probably should have while Tennessee pulled off the near-upset. Things just run smoother for the Tar Heels when Berry is on the floor.

8. Amile Jefferson, Duke: Jefferson is a newcomer to this list, and he unquestionably deserves to be there. Let’s go beyond the fact that he’s averaging 15.1 points, 10.5 boards, 2.2 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.0 steals: His presence is what’s keeping Marques Bolden, a potential lottery pick, glued to the bench even though he’s now healthy. Jefferson Isn’t the biggest player in the country, but he’s developed into a terrific low-post scorer – he’s got what you might describe as old-man game – and he’s the maestro of that defense. Always in the right position, always directing traffic, always clearing the defensive glass. He’s turned into a terrific basketball player.

9. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State: There’s not much to add on Evans here, as he’s dealing with a shoulder injury that kept him out of the lineup against Tulsa.

10. Markelle Fultz, Washington: The numbers that Fultz is putting up this season are ridiculous. He’s averaging 22.8 points, 6.9 assists and 6.1 boards this season in addition to 2.1 steals and 1.2 blocks. As I wrote in this space last week, what Fultz is doing has not happened since 1993, and it may never have happened before; the statistical database I have access to only has data dating back to ’93.

But Washington is terrible. They lost twice last week, falling to 4-5 on the season. It seems unlikely that the Huskies will get it together and get to the tournament, and it could cost Lorenzo Romar his job.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
Melo Trimble, Maryland
Malik Monk, Kentucky
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Yante Maten, Georgia
Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Frank Mason III, Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball stand out

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Leave a comment

1. Frank Mason III, Kansas: The latest impressive performance from Mason came against Stanford, as he finished with 20 points, five assists and four boards in a 15-point win over the Cardinal. He’s the engine that makes that team go, averaging 19.6 points, 5.4 assists and 4.5 boards while shooting 56.1 percent from the floor and 48.4 percent from three, and he’s still the proud owner of the biggest shot of the season. Is anyone else fired up for when the Jayhawks head to Rupp Arena to take on Kentucky in January?

2. Josh Hart, Villanova: Last Tuesday, we talked about how Hart has improved his three-point shooting and has added the ability to operate in ball-screens to his offensive repertoire this season. Then he went out posted a triple-double in a win over Saint Joseph’s while averaging 9.5 assists in two games. Prior to last week, Hart had never averaged more than 1.9 assists in any season in college.

3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: The value that Ball brings to this UCLA team goes well-beyond the numbers that he’s putting up, and his numbers are already quite impressive. He’s averaging 14.3 points, 5.0 boards, 1.3 blocks and 1.0 steals on the season, but it’s the nation’s-best 9.3 assists that he’s averaging that makes the difference. He, quite simply, makes everyone on the court around him better. It’s a cliché that’s used with point guards too often, but no one fits that mold better than Ball.

We saw it on Saturday against Kentucky. Ball struggled early in that game, committing five turnovers in the first 10 minutes as the Bruins dug themselves a 23-14 hole. When he finally turned it on, UCLA torched Kentucky’s defense, which is one of the best in all of college basketball. His unselfishness has permeated that roster. Watching the Bruins move the ball against a set defense is a thing of beauty. Draft Express posted a terrific breakdown of just what makes Ball’s passing so difficult to deal with last week.

4. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: The Wildcats ended up losing to UCLA on Saturday afternoon, but it was no fault of Fox, who finished with 20 points and nine assists while doing the heavy-lifting in keeping Lonzo Ball more-or-less in check. Fox is a terror in transition, nearly impossible to keep out of the paint, unselfish when he draws extra defenders and an elite on-ball defender. If he can find a way to become a consistently jump-shooter, he’s going to be very, very good.

5. Luke Kennard, Duke: Kennard has been Duke’s best player this season, and that did not change in the last seven days, with the return of Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden. He had 20 points in a win over Michigan State and followed that up with a career-high 35 points as the Blue Devils knocked off Maine. If Tatum turns out to be as good as advertised and Grayson Allen eventually returns to health, think about how scary a Duke back court is when Kennard is the third-best weapon offensively?

6. Markelle Fultz, Washington: Let’s put the numbers that Fultz is averaging this season – 22.7 points, 6.7 boards, 6.6 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.4 blocks – into perspective. No college basketball player since 1993 has averaged 22 points, six boards and six assists in a season before. Only 14 times in that time-frame has a player averaged 20 points, five boards and five assists, and only one of those 14 played at the high-major level – Evan Turner in 2009-10, when he averaged 20.4 points, 9.2 boards and 6.0 assists and won National Player of the Year.

Making those numbers even more impressive is that none of the 14 players on that list have A) averaged more than one block per game or B) come close to shooting 48.4 percent from three. It’s early, yes, and Fultz still hasn’t played any elite competition, but what he’s done this season is remarkable.

Washington, who is just 4-3 on the season, will get their first real test of the year when they square off with Gonzaga in Spokane on Wednesday.

7. Mo Watson, Creighton: For all the love that UCLA’s Lonzo Ball is getting this season, it’s worth noting that Watson is doing something similar for the Bluejays. He’s averaging 12.0 points and 9.0 assists, second nationally to Ball, for a Creighton team that is in the top ten and running one of the nation’s most high-powered offenses. He’s been terrific.

8. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: We saw Berry’s value last week when he struggled against Indiana in Assembly Hall and the Tar Heels played their worst game of the season to date. He’s now dealing with an ankle injury that could keep him out for the next two games. With freshman point guard Seventh Woods stepping into the starting lineup against Davidson on Wednesday, we should really get a feel for just how imporant he is to this team.

9. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State: Evans was held in check for the most part in Oklahoma State’s loss at Maryland on Saturday and he still managed to finish with 16 points, five boards and five assists.

10. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: Swanigan had a rough outing against Louisville last week. His finished with 14 points and 13 boards, but he also committed six turnovers and was one of the reasons that the Boilermakers had so much trouble on the offensive end of the floor in the first half.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Melo Trimble, Maryland
Malik Monk, Kentucky
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
James Blackmon Jr., Indiana
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Yante Maten, Georgia
Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s

Previewing Kentucky vs. UCLA: The season’s most anticipated matchup to date

Getty Images
4 Comments

The most impressive team in college basketball through the first three weeks of the season has been the Kentucky Wildcats.

They’re ranked No. 1 in the country for good reason. They’ve won by at least 21 points in every game they’ve played, they’ve scored at least 87 points in every games except one, they’ve cracked triple-digits in each of their last three games and they just so happen to have one of the best defenses in the sport.

What else do you need?

Critics will say they need to do this against a team with comparable talent, and it’s not unfair. Kentucky’s beaten up on five mid-major teams, Arizona State and a Michigan State team that is currently 4-4.

On Saturday, we get that matchup. The Wildcats will host No. 11 UCLA, who has an electric freshman guard of their own leading an offense that is lighting up scoreboards out west.

It will be the most-anticipated matchup on a day filled with terrific games, not only because it’s between two blue-blood programs playing elite-level basketball, but because the way these two teams play should turn this into a fast-paced, highlight-laden shootout.

Let’s break the matchup down.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

If you looked solely at the box scores of Kentucky’s games, you’d probably assume that the Wildcats are the second-coming of the Golden State Warriors, an offensive juggernaut with a roster full of players that are unguardable.

That’s not necessarily the case.

What makes this Kentucky team so special happens on the defensive side of the ball. Simply put, they are a nightmare to play against. De’Aaron Fox is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country. Isaiah Briscoe isn’t all that far behind, and Malik Monk has assuaged fears about whether or not he was a guy that cared about that side of the ball.

And I haven’t even mentioned the size and versatility along their front line yet.

Cal isn’t doing anything all that fancy with them on the defensive end, either. He isn’t reinventing the wheel. He’s not playing gimmick defenses or using any kind of full-court pressure. All he’s doing is asking his guys to play aggressive, pressuring man-to-man defense, often-times picking up the primary ball-handler for 94-feet, and his team has bought in.

Their best defensive lineup, the one that Cal has used to start three of the last four games, features Wenyen Gabriel at the four and Bam Adebayo at the five. Both Gabriel and Adebayo are athletic enough to cover point guards, so Cal will switch every exchange 1-through-5.

Kentucky plays with an unbelievable amount of effort and energy on defense. Everyone on the roster plays like they’re the walk-ons, like the only way they can get minutes is if they lead the team in floor-burns. But they’re not. They’re lottery picks, and in the case of Fox and Monk, more athletic than anyone they’re going to face this season. They make running offense a nightmare, and once they get the ball back – whether it’s off a missed shot, a turnover and, oftentimes, even a made shot – it’s off to the races.

And it’s that transition game that kills you.

Briscoe, Fox and Monk are all interchangeable. They can grab a defensive rebound and lead the break coast-to-coast. (Part of the reason that Fox is averaging such a high number of rebounds is that he doesn’t have to worry about point guards crashing the glass, so while the other four guys on the floor go find a body, Fox heads to the rim and grabs the board, the quickest way to ignite their break.) If that doesn’t work, all three of them can throw outlet passes 94 feet and drop them in the bucket like Aaron Rodgers throwing a fade route. They can be the guys running the lanes, catching those passes and finishing acrobatic layups with two guys draped all over them. They can throw the alleys and finish the oops.

But the key to their transition game?

They read each other so well. If Fox sees Briscoe is in a spot to get an outlet pass, he’s gone. If Monk is corralling a rebound, he knows Fox and Briscoe will be running the floor already. That’s why you see “possessions” for Kentucky that so often look like this:

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-1-31-48-pm

On the year, 28.7 percent of Kentucky’s offensive possessions come in transition, according to Synergy’s logs, which is second nationally only to a Savannah State team that has yet to record a win over a Division I opponent.

One of the criticisms of Coach Cal is that he’s only a recruiter. He doesn’t coach, he just rolls the ball out and lets the talent on his team takeover. Frankly, that’s what he’s doing this year, and it’s brilliant. He doesn’t need to micro-manage this group. All he had to do as devise a system that would play to their strengths and let their instincts takeover.

He did, and it’s working pretty well to date.


The key to beating Kentucky this season is to force them to play offense in the half-court. The closest anyone has come to doing that this season was Michigan State, and they held the Wildcats to a manageable 69 points. Kentucky has a perimeter shooting issue. Fox and Briscoe combined have made just five threes on the season and are shooting 20.8 percent from beyond the arc even after combining to go 3-for-3 against Arizona State on Monday night. Their best defensive lineup doesn’t really have a front court scoring threat while guys like Isaac Humphries and Derek Willis, upgrades offensively, limit how effective that Kentucky defense is.

The easiest way to slow down a team’s transition game is by scoring. Make them take the ball out of the net.

And the good news for Bruins fans is that UCLA not only has one of the nation’s most potent offenses themselves, but they just so happen to be able to do the things that you need to be able to do to operate against that Kentucky defense.

The biggest thing is that the Bruins, like the Wildcats, are terrific in transition. Believe it or not, UCLA actually plays at a faster tempo and has a shorter average length of possession than the Wildcats, according to KenPom.com. The best way to score on a great defense like Kentucky’s? Beat them down the floor and score before they’re set. Get uncontested layups. Get open threes before the defense can locate all of the shooters, of which UCLA has plenty.

Kentucky’s transition game is designed around getting those layups, using their speed to beat teams to the rim. UCLA’s is slightly different, geared towards getting the myriad of shooters on the roster open, rhythm threes. No one in the country is better at making that happen than Lonzo Ball, and I say that for three reasons: (1.) UCLA leads the nation in effective field goal percentage because (2.) they’re second in the nation in three-point percentage and (3.) they’re in the 88th percentile in transition points-per-possession just a year after finishing in the 21st percentile, according to Synergy, while (4.) Ball averages 9.6 assists, leading the nation.

In this case, the effect is two-fold: Not only will UCLA avoid having to run offense in the half court, it will keep Kentucky from getting out in transition at the same time.

It’s not crazy to think that UCLA’s best defense on Saturday will be fast break buckets.

But even if the Bruins are unable to get out and run, this is still a team with weapons that can break down Kentucky’s switching man-to-man defense.

Think back to the NBA Finals. The way the Cavaliers attacked Golden State’s switches was to create the mismatches that they wanted; in other words, they’d have whoever Stephen Curry was guarding set a ball-screen for LeBron James or Kyrie Irving, then sit back and let talent takeover.

You beat a switching defense by identifying the mismatch you want to take advantage of and force that switch.

Part of the reason that Kentucky’s switching has been so effective is that they haven’t run into a team who has guards that are capable of fully taking advantage of those mismatches. Is anyone really that worried about Tum Tum Nairn or Tra Holder? UCLA, however, does. Everyone should know how good Ball is at this point, but the other three pieces the Bruins have on the perimeter – Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday – are talented as well. Combined, those three are averaging 46.4 points, 10.6 assists and shooting 44.8 percent from three on nearly 17 threes attempted per game.

They spread the floor with shooters, their perimeter is littered with playmakers and their bigs are skilled enough to be able to slip screens and take advantage of having a smaller guard on them.

The one thing UCLA does not do well is crash the glass, but that has a hidden benefit: keeping two or three guys behind the ball is a really good way to limit how many run-outs Kentucky can get.


Neither Kentucky nor UCLA has truly played a team that appears to be on their level this season, which is what makes this game so intriguing.

Lonzo Ball has played like the potential No. 1 pick in the draft and UCLA has looked like the hands-down favorite to win the Pac-12.

And Kentucky?

Playing them has been about as much fun as getting your hand caught in a meat grinder.

On Saturday, for really the first time this year, we’ll get a sense for whether or not their early-season hype has been justified. But more than that, we’ll see a game between two of the most entertaining teams in the country, two teams loaded with offensive firepower and future NBA players in a game where the winner will be the team that can run the floor better.

What more can you ask more?

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Frank Mason III still tops the list

Michael Reaves/Getty Images
2 Comments

1. Frank Mason III, Kansas: Mason had a relatively quiet week, as the Jayhawks were able to cruise past Georgia in the CBE Classic title game and pick up a win over UNC Asheville over the weekend. On the season, the Kansas point guard is averaging 21.5 points, 5.0 assists and 4.3 boards while shooting 54.9 percent from the floor and 48.0 percent from three.

2. Josh Hart, Villanova: Like Mason, Hart has had a quiet week, with his only game since the last time we checked in coming against Charleston. He’s still the leading scorer for the Wildcats and he’s still the most important player in Jay Wright’s ‘positionless’ attack. There was some talk during the offseason that Hart would be this year’s Buddy Hield or Denzel Valentine, the senior that made massive strides heading into his final season, and while Hart’s numbers aren’t all that much improved from where they were a year ago, he’s turned into a more well-rounded player.

He’s hitting 44.4 percent of his threes while shooting a career-high 4.5 threes per game while, according to Synergy, 29.5 percent of his offensive possessions come through ball-screen actions, where he’s scoring at a 1.185 PPP clip. Last season, just 12.5 percent of his offensive possessions were in ball-screens, and he scored just 0.875 PPP. His raw numbers haven’t made the same leap that Hield’s or Valentine’s did, but rest assured, Hart is a much-improved basketball player.

3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: The Bruins passed their first real test of the season, as they took home the title in the Wooden Legacy with wins over Nebraska and Texas A&M. Lonzo Ball was the star of the show for the Bruins, as he’s been all season long. He’s averaging 16.0 points, 9.1 assists, 5.3 boards and 1.3 steals while shooting 57.4 percent from the floor and 48.6 percent from three. He’s been nothing short of phenomenal this season, and it’s going to be a thrill to see him square off with Kentucky and their star guards on Saturday afternoon in Rupp Arena.

4. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Last week, Isaiah Briscoe was the Kentucky guard that we had on this list. This week, it’s Fox, and while it’s hard to differentiate who in that group is the most important and the most valuable, I’m leaning Fox here because I think he’s the engine to Kentucky’s attack.

According to Synergy’s logs, 27.1 percent of Kentucky’s offensive possession come in transition. Better than 37 percent of the possessions that Fox uses are in transition. This is a team that’s built around perimeter pressure defensively creating those opportunities in transition, and Fox could be the best perimeter defender in all of college basketball. More than anyone, he is the player that makes this team go.

And for good measure, he’s averaging 15.3 points, 7.6 assists, 5.7 boards and 2.0 steals.

5. Luke Kennard, Duke: Kennard was just OK in Duke’s wins over William & Mary and Appalachian State this week, but that doesn’t change the fact that he has been Duke’s best player this season and the star of the two biggest games the Blue Devils have played this season. Their head is still above water this year with Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles III and Marques Bolden still out – and Grayson Allen dealing with a toe injury – because of how good Kennard has been.

6. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Roy Williams’ best teams are when he has a star point guard on the roster, and Berry looks like he is very much filling that role this season. He’s averaging 17.1 points, 4.3 boards and 4.3 assists with shooting splits of 55.1/47/1/93.3, and if the Tar Heels can win at Indiana on Wednesday night, I think it’s fair to say that Berry will be the best player on the team with the most impressive résumé in the country this season.

North Carolina's Joel Berry II (2) drives to the basket against Long Beach State's Gabe Levin (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
North Carolina’s Joel Berry II (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

7. Markelle Fultz, Washington: Fultz has been magnificent through the first three weeks of the season – 23.0 points, 6.7 assists, 5.5 boards, 2.2 steals, 1.5 blocks, 55.3% FG, 43.5% 3PT. But there’s valid concern to the idea that Fultz will be the second straight No. 1 pick to miss out on the NCAA tournament. The Huskies have already lost to Yale at home and to TCU in Las Vegas.

8. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State: The same thing can be said about Evans, who entered the season with no where near the same amount of hype as Fultz. He’s averaging 24.3 points, 5.3 assists and 2.8 steals right now, but the Cowboys one game against elite competition resulted in a 35-point loss at the hands of Oklahoma State.

9. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: We knew that Swanigan was going to be a monster on the block and on the glass, but what’s made him such a dangerous weapon this season – and what’s made Purdue so ruthless offensively – is his ability to space the floor. He’s making threes (5-of-8 on the year, but the threat of his jumper keeps defenses honest) and he’s become a terrific passer in high-low actions, which is part of the reason Isaac Haas has looked like Shaquille O’Neal at times this year.

10. Mo Watson, Creighton: Like Kentucky, there are a couple of players from Creighton that deserve consideration for this list, but we’ll got with Watson for now, who is the floor general for one of the nation’s most potent offensive attacks. He’s averaging 11.2 points and 8.5 assists, although his turnovers have been a bit higher than Greg McDermott would like.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Melo Trimble, Maryland
Malik Monk, Kentucky
Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky
James Blackmon Jr., Indiana
Deandre Burnett, Ole Miss
Monte’ Morris, Iowa State
Yante Maten, Georgia
Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s