Player of the Year Power Rankings: New faces are popping up in our top ten

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Every Tuesday, we will be providing you with a breakdown of the top ten candidates for National Player of the Year. You can read through the older posts here.

1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke: Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski made a couple of interesting comments last night regarding Okafor and his Duke team. I’m paraphrasing here, but he essentially said that Duke can’t get comfortable relying on the big fella to bail them out when they play poorly. He had 25 points and 20 boards against Elon in an uninspiring 13-point win on Monday. Hey, if you need a security blanket, it might as well be the best one in the country.

2. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: I’m not ready to drop Kaminsky out of the No. 2 spot just yet, but I am ready to see him put together the kind of performances that we expect out of a Player of the Year favorite. They should start coming, too, as Wisconsin’s schedule suddenly looks quite friendly. They play at a 9-1 Cal team on Dec. 22nd, but they won’t play a ranked team until … Feb. 24th trip to Maryland? They get Nebraska and Iowa twice, Indiana and Illinois at home, and a trip to Michigan before then.

3. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: There’s only one player in the top 25 that is currently averaging a double-double, and it’s not Okafor or Kaminsky. It’s Harrell, who is currently averaging 17.0 points and 10.4 boards for the Cardinals this season after going for 21 and 11 against Indiana and posting a 19 and 17 line in an all-too-close win over UNC Wilmington.

But Harrell’s value to Louisville is about so much more than just the numbers. He’s a fountain of energy and excitement, something that the Cardinals need if their pressuring defense is going to be effective. He’s also such a versatile weapon on the defensive end. He can more or less guard any position on the floor, quick enough to switch on ball-screens and capable of being a wing or the center in Louisville’s 2-3 zone.

Rick Pitino also likes to play him at the point of their most aggressive press, a 1-2-1-1 trap that can create sequences like this:

4. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: Before the season, Mike Brey told me that, in addition to Grant being his team’s “closer”, losing his star hurt because Grant was so good at getting teammates open looks. His presence — whether it’s his passing, his ability of drawing help defense or the focus that opponents have to place on him — just made things that much easier for Notre Dame.

This season, the Irish are fifth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. They lead the nation in effective field goal percentage, are shooting 64.7 percent on their twos and 40.6 percent on their threes. Every starter has an offensive rating of at least 123.6. By comparison, Pat Connaughton had the team’s highest offensive rating last year at 123.8, and those Irish finished 43rd nationally in offensive efficiency.

Granted, Notre Dame has played the second-worst schedule in the country, according to Kenpom, and their defense isn’t all that improved from last year. So don’t pencil them into the Final Four just yet.

5. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: Cauley-Stein is not only the leading scorer and rebounder for this Kentucky team, but he’s also the best defensive player in all of college basketball. He more than anyone — and that includes Alex Poythress, who tore his ACL last week — is the reason that John Calipari is slowly but surely going away from a straight platoon system. He’s actually playing more minutes than he did last season, and in the last four games, he’s averaging 28.8 minutes compared to Marcus Lee’s 11 minutes. Against Texas, Cauley-Stein played 33 minutes. Lee played four.

6. Georges Niang, Iowa State: There’s a fair argument to make that Niang hasn’t even been Iowa State’s best player this season, I guess, but I’ll ride with Niang for now. He was terrific in the second half in the biggest win of the season for the Cyclones, as they blew out rival Iowa in Iowa’s gym. The best part? He sealed it with a kiss:

7. Ty Wallace, Cal: For my money, Wallace is the most underrated player in America right now. A rangy, 6-foot-4 lead guard, Wallace is averaging 19.4 points, 8.7 boards, 4.5 assists, 1.4 steals and shooting 45.8 percent from three in 34.2 minutes. Every one of those stats are team-highs for the Bears, who are now 9-1 on the season. Cal gets Eastern Washington, Wisconsin and Washington at home in the next two weeks. By Jan. 3rd, we’ll know if Wallace and his team are for real.

8. Justin Anderson, Virginia: Virginia hasn’t taken the court since their 74-57 win at VCU two Saturdays ago, so we don’t have much new to discuss in regards to Anderson. But I was curious anyway, because his emergence as Virginia’s leading scorer — and one of the nation’s deadliest three-point shooters through the first month — is as big of a surprise as anything this season.

source:  To the right, you can see a shot-chart for Anderson, and after watching every one of his field goal attempts this season, there really isn’t all that much different about his game. He’s not a great one-on-one player, he’s not going to beat anyone off the dribble that often and Virginia doesn’t run much for him because he’s fairly limited offensively. But he’s terrific moving without the ball, as aggressive as ever going to the rim and he’s much, much better at getting open on the perimeter, in transition and in half-court sets.

Anderson is somewhat limited on the offensive end of the floor, but he knows that. It’s not often that he forces drives or throws up heat-checks. And what he does well, he does really, really well. He’s a classic 3-and-D kind of player right now, and that fits perfectly with Tony Bennett’s system.

9. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga: As much as I love Kevin Pangos and what he’s been able to do for the Zags this year, Wiltjer has become the most potent weapon for Mark Few (some of that has to do with Josh Perkins being out, but that’s another post for another time). His ability in the pick-and-roll, his three-point shooting and his skill on the block have made him one of the most versatile offensive weapons in the country. It remains to be seen whether issues with defense and rebounding will end up hurting the Zags this year.

10. Delon Wright, Utah: Utah has played three games in December: they beat Wichita State in overtime, they won at BYU and they lost by two in a de-facto road game against Kansas in Kansas City. Wright’s numbers in those three games: 18.0 points, 7.3 boards, 4.7 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.3 blocks while playing all-but four of a possible 125 minutes. Oh, and he’s shooting 35.0 percent from three this season as the Utes look like the clear-cut No. 2 team in the Pac-12.

OTHERS THAT WERE CONSIDERED: Ron Baker (Wichita State), Craig Bradshaw (Belmont), Tyler Haws (BYU), LaDontae Henton (Providence), Buddy Hield (Oklahoma), Jonathan Holmes (Texas), Angel Rodriguez (Miami), D’Angelo Russell (Ohio State), Wesley Saunders (Harvard), Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Joseph Young (Oregon)

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.