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)

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK
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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK
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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

Joe Rondone/USA TODAY NETWORK
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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.