Player of the Year Power Rankings: Jahlil Okafor’s free throws, Jerian Grant’s playmaking

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Jahlil Okafor (Getty Images)

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: The scary part about Jahlil Okafor this season is that, despite being the favorite to win National Player of the Year since the minute he set foot on campus, Okafor has seemingly hit his stride over the course of the last couple of weeks. In three games last week, the nation’s best low-post scorer averaged 26.3 points, 8.0 boards and 2.3 blocks while shooting 30-for-39 from the floor, and while posting numbers like that against Toledo, Wofford and Boston College is not all that much to write home about, it’s still a statement to make. How many players in the country can do that?

More interesting, however, is that Okafor has seemingly figured out how to get to the free throw line. Through the first eight games of his college career, Okafor was 13-for-25 from the charity stripe, taking more than four free throws in a game just once and hitting them at a 52.0 percent clip. The last five games? He’s 30-for-50 from the line, an average of 10 free throws a night. That 60.0 percent shooting percentage still isn’t ideal, but it’s worth noting that against Boston College on Saturday, Okafor was 14-for-17 from the charity stripe.

The knock on Okafor has been that he doesn’t know how to use his strength and his size to bully through defenders, that he’s more interested in finesse around the rim that straight power. If he’s finally figured out how to muscle through smaller defenders, that’s a bad sign for ACC big men.

2. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: There are going to be two things that stand in the way of Frank Kaminsky eventually earning this award. For starters, he plays on a Wisconsin team that is as balanced and as unselfish as any team in the country. Sam Dekker is another potential lottery pick. Nigel Hayes is a potential all-Big Ten first team player. That’s a lot of shots to go around, and with a team devoid of egos, like Wisconsin is, those shots will go around. The other issue? The Big Ten just isn’t that good. Okafor will get a chance to go against Virginia, Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame this season. Kaminsky will … over power the front lines of Ohio State, Iowa and Maryland? Huge performances in the biggest games are what get the attention of voters; Heisman moments, if you will. How many of those will Kaminsky have this year?

3. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: There’s been a discussion about whether or not Jerian Grant is a point guard or a shooting guard, and frankly, it’s a silly one. Grant is a lead guard that can score, create open shots for hit teammates and dunk on defenders by putting his chin in the rim. Monday night against North Carolina, Grant played one of his poorer games of the season — 1-for-8 shooting, eight points, fouled out — but the game gave us a perfect example of just what makes Grant so dangerous.

According to Synergy, 32.4 percent of Grant’s shots come as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll actions and, if you include his passes that lead to shots, he’s had 170 possessions in the pick and roll, nearly half of all the offense he creates. What Mike Brey does is simple: He runs a side ball-screen with Grant as the handler, putting three shooters — usually Patrick Connaughton (who plays the four), Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia — on the other side of the court:

source:
Screengrab via ESPN

The result? If you help on the ball-screen action, Notre Dame gets open threes:

If you don’t, they get dunks:

Grant is one of the best in the country in the pick-and-roll, and he’s the biggest reason why Notre Dame is running the nation’s No. 2 offensive.

4. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: There’s not much new to add here. Cauley-Stein hasn’t played in a week, and he’s still the sparkplug for Kentucky’s potentially historically good defense. If you want an idea of just how important he is, he made this list despite averaging just 10.5 points this season.

5. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: I understand how weird this may sound, but part of Harrell’s Player of the Year campaign depends on the play of Chris Jones. If Jones can play with the same mindset that he had on Sunday night — pass-first, distributor, team-oriented — Harrell is more likely to put up numbers like he did on Sunday: 25 points and 13 boards.

6. Justin Anderson, Virginia: Virginia is one of the last remaining unbeaten teams, and Anderson has been the best player on the roster to date. He’s shooting 58.8 percent from beyond the arc and averaging a team-high 15.1 points. According to head coach Tony Bennett, that has as much to do with his shot selection as it does with his shooting ability.

“As long as he keeps taking the good shots and being aggressive where he’s supposed to,” Bennett said earlier this season, “and being sound and being patient the way he is, I think he’s very important for us and has given us a good lift.”

7. Delon Wright, Utah: The Utes blew out both USC and UCLA in the Huntsman Center over the weekend. Wright finished with just 16 field goal attempts and 15 assists. He’s embracing the role of facilitator with the amount of talent around him, and Utah is looking more and more like a team that can compete for the Pac-12 title with Arizona.

8. Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble has been the savior for this Maryland team with his ability to run the point and get the team into offensive sets. He’s still turning the ball over too much — 2.7 per game — and his shooting must improve — he was 7-for-28 as the Terps swept their first two Big Ten games — but his presence has been the difference-maker.

9. Georges Niang, Iowa State: In losses to Maryland and South Carolina, Niang has combined for 20 points on 7-for-27 shooting. That said, he also played his two best games of the season in wins over Alabama and Arkansas, and was sensational after a horrid first half in the win at Iowa. He gets dropped until he shows more consistency in big games.

10. Ty Wallace, Cal: Wallace is still putting up ridiculous numbers, but it’s not helping Cal win games right now. They’ve lost three of their last four — including a home game against Cal St.-Bakersfield — and in his last three games, Wallace is shooting just 13-for-47 from the field and 1-for-10 from three. More than anything, the Bears need Jabari Bird to get healthy. Wallace is having trouble shouldering the entire offensive load.

OTHERS THAT WERE CONSIDERED: Ron Baker (Wichita State), Ryan Boatright (UConn), Kyle Collinsworth (BYU), Tyler Haws (BYU), D’angelo Harrison (St. John’s), LaDontae Henton (Providence), Buddy Hield (Oklahoma), Jonathan Holmes (Texas), Stanley Johnson (Arizona), Jordan Mickey (LSU), Bobby Portis (Arkansas), D’Angelo Russell (Ohio State), Wesley Saunders (Harvard), Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Joseph Young (Oregon)

Monday’s Overreactions: Myles Powell, Florida’s fix and Virginia’s shooting woes

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Myles Powell, Seton Hall

Coming off of an ankle injury – the severity of which can probably be debated – Powell went for 37 points in a three-point loss at home against Michigan State. It might have been a loss, but it was still one of the most impressive and entertaining performances that we are going to see this college basketball season.

Powell then followed that up on Sunday with a 26-point performance in a win at Saint Louis, a 3-0 Atlantic 10 team that knocked off the Pirates when they played in Newark last season. All told, Powell after spraining his ankle exactly nine days ago, Powell went out and averaged 31.5 points as the Pirates picked up a solid road win and played well enough to beat one of the three best teams in college basketball.

Not bad.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Tennessee Volunteers

The Vols picked up the best win of the weekend, as they flew up to Toronto and landed themselves a victory over a Washington team that had impressed everyone when they knocked off Baylor last week. Tennessee made a bunch of threes and Lamonte Turner played well despite struggling to shoot the ball, but the key was the Tennessee frontcourt. Going up against Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, Tennessee’s overmatched frontline won the day. John Fulkerson had 14 points, six boards, two assists, two steals and two blocks while Yves Pons finished with 15 points and a block of the year candidate on Naz Carter.

I was in on Tennessee in the preseason. I am very in on Tennessee today.

OVERREACTIONS

1. FLORIDA IS REALLY BAD, BUT THEY’RE ALSO FIXABLE

I’m ready for the influx of bad Florida takes today because that’s what happens when a preseason top ten team plays terribly for the first two weeks of the season. I’m going to do my best to avoid being frustrated by people saying that Florida was overhyped because Kerry Blackshear was the last guy to commit, or that Scottie Lewis is overrated as a top ten prospect, or that Mike White is just a bad basketball coach.

Well, the latter may actually have some merit if this thing doesn’t get turned around, but we’re not there yet.

Because the simple truth is that Florida is struggling because they cannot shoot. The Gators are shooting 24.1 percent from three this season. The only guy on the roster shooting better than 28.6 percent from beyond the arc is Keyontae Johnson, and he’s the starting four-man. Andrew Nembhard, a former five-star recruit and Florida’s sophomore starting point guard, is shooting 28.6 percent from the field. Noah Locke is 5-for-22 (22.7%) from three and shooting 9-for-36 (25%) overall. He is playing with the confidence level of eighth grader at a school dance.

This shooting cripples Florida for three reasons:

  1. The Gators are built to play small-ball. Small-ball is entirely ineffective when you are incapable of scoring from the perimeter.
  2. Florida’s inability to score means they can’t set their defense, get into a press or force turnovers. That means they are forced to play every possession in the halfcourt, which is a nightmare for a team designed to play small-ball that can’t make a shot.
  3. The entire reason we believed Florida was going to take a leap forward this season was that they replaced their high-usage, low-efficiency shot-jackers with freshman Tre Mann and sophomores Locke and Nembhard. As it turns out, those three have been high-usage, low-efficiency shot-jackers through four games.

The issue to date has not been Blackshear. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 11 boards as the sole interior presence on a team where defenses have not had to leave the paint yet.

He’s not the problem.

He’s been fine.

The issue is, quite literally, everything else.

2. TENNESSEE IS THE ONLY TEAM IN THE SEC OUTPERFORMING EXPECTATION

The SEC has been the most disappointing conference in major college basketball this season. Florida, obviously, has been a disaster to date. Kentucky owns the second-best win on the season (Michigan State in NYC) when the best win on the season was themselves (Evansville’s upset in Rupp).

Auburn has been fine, but the win over Davidson does not look nearly as good today as it did when it happened. Arkansas has looked good while beating no one. LSU lost at VCU and struggled in wins over Bowling Green and Nicholls State. Alabama has been bad. Vandy and Texas A&M have been about as bad as we expected.

Other than the Vols – and maybe Missouri – no one in the league has been better than we thought they were before the season started.

3. VIRGINIA GAMES ARE GOING TO BE PARTICULARLY UGLY THIS YEAR

There is a certain faction of college basketball fans that believes that Virginia plays the ugliest brand of basketball in the history of the sport, and for the most part, those people just don’t appreciate a good, well-executed offensive possession or the beauty of a shot clock violation.

Usually, I’d push back against these takes. Because usually, Virginia’s offense is ruthlessly efficient, just really so. That’s not really the case this year. Through three games, UVA is shooting just 20 percent from three. There are only five teams in the entire country that are hitting triples at a lower rate, and given that there are no Ty Jeromes, or Kyle Guys, or De’Andre Hunters on this year’s roster, I don’t know how much that’s actually going to improve.

Should I mention that Virginia didn’t allow their 100th point until there was 5:16 left in the second half of their third game of the season?

4. VERMONT IS THE BEST MID-MAJOR TEAM IN THE COUNTRY

The Catamounts went into Carnesseca Arena and knocked off St. John’s on Saturday after. Anthony Lamb hit the game-winner with 1.9 seconds left. It’s the third true road win of the season for John Becker’s club, who also owns victories over St. Bonaventure and Bucknell.

UVM will get two more cracks at high-major opponents in the next two weeks. They’re at Virginia on Tuesday and at Cincinnati on Dec. 3rd. If they can land one of those wins, and if they roll through the America East undefeated, I think there is a real chance that this group can get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Monday Overreaction podcast: Florida stinks, Tennessee doesn’t, George Papas is a legend

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We are back for another rendition of the Monday Overreactions podcast. Rob Dauster was joined by Bobby Reagan to walk through everything that happened in college basketball in the last 72 hours, including an impressive win for UConn over Florida, a dominant performance for Washington over Tennessee and Vermont’s upset win at St. John’s. They also talk through the atrocious flopping rule and how it cost Xavier as well as Monmouth’s George Papas, who set the college basketball world on fire with the most ridiculous garbage dunk of all-time.

College Basketball Top 25 Power Rankings: Duke back to No. 1 as the top reshuffles

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This week’s Top 25 is tough to put together because so many of the top teams in the country keep on losing.

The No. 1 team in the country lost at home to Evansville. That’s really all you need to know at this point. But since they had beaten the previous No. 1 team in the country in Michigan State, it makes trying to decipher the top of the sport just that much more difficult.

To be frank, I think this is going to end up being one of those seasons where there is never truly a “No. 1 team.” It’s the kind of season where there 15 teams that feel like they are good enough to be a “top ten team,” so to speak, but none of those 15 feel like they are good enough to be a “top three team.”

Put another way, there are a whole bunch of teams that feel like they are somewhere between pretty good and very good and no one that feels like they are remotely close to unbeatable.

We’ll see if that ends up being the way that everything plays out.

But for now, I think that it’s fair to say that you can have the top 10-12 teams in any order this week and it would be tough to argue against it.

So with that in mind, here is the Week 2 version of the NBC Sports Top 25:

1. DUKE (4-0, Last Week: 3)
2. LOUISVILLE (4-0, 2)
3. MICHIGAN STATE (2-1, 4)
4. KANSAS (2-1, 5)
5. KENTUCKY (2-1, 1)
6. GONZAGA (4-0, 6)
7. OHIO STATE (3-0, 24)
8. MARYLAND (3-0, 8)
9. VIRGINIA (3-0, 9)
10. TEXAS TECH (3-0, 10)
11. OREGON (4-0, 11)
12. ARIZONA (4-0, 14)
13. NORTH CAROLINA (3-0, 13)
14. SETON HALL (3-1, 12)
15. UTAH STATE (4-0, 15)
16. VILLANOVA (2-1, 6)
17. XAVIER (4-0, 17)
18. TENNESSEE (3-0, 23)
19. AUBURN (4-0, 22)
20. MEMPHIS (3-1, 20)
21. TEXAS (4-0, 25)
22. WASHINGTON (2-1, 21)
23. VCU (4-0, NR)
24. LSU (2-1, 18)
25. BAYLOR (2-1, NR)

NEW ADDITIONS: No. 23 VCU, No. 25 BAYLOR
DROPPED OUT: No. 16 SAINT MARY’S, No. 19 FLORIDA

No. 15 Florida falls to UConn 62-59 on the road

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STORRS, Conn. — Christian Vital scored 15 points and made a key steal at the end of the game as UConn upset No. 15 Florida 62-59 on Sunday.

Tyler Polley also scored 15 points and Josh Carlton added 13 for the Huskies (2-1) who led by five points at halftime and never trailed after intermission.

A layup by Florida’s Keyontae Johnson with just over a minute to go cut the lead to 60-59, but those would be the last points the Gators scored.

Vital hit two free throws with 17 seconds left and Florida had a chance to tie. But Alterique Gilbert tipped the ball out of Johnson’s hands and Vital grabbed it and dribbled away, securing the win.

Kerry Blackshear Jr. had 15 points and eight rebounds for Florida (2-2), falling two boards shy of a fourth straight double-double. But he fouled out with 4:37 left in the game and his team trailing 53-49.

Andrew Nembhard scored Florida’s next four points, including a 3-pointer that brought the Gators within a point at 54-53.

Blackshear scored the game’s first two baskets, but the Gators made just four of their first 13 attempts from the floor.

But UConn had a tougher start, going without a basket for the first six minutes.

Vital got the UConn crowd into the game with a 3-pointer, a dunk and a jumper on consecutive trips down the court that gave the Huskies an 11-6 lead.

The Huskies held Florida to two Blackshear free throws over the final 4:17 of the first half and led 25-20 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

The loss ends a rough seven days for the Gators. Florida was No. 6 coming into the season but lost to Florida State a week ago and beat Towson by just six points on Thursday. The Gators offense came into the game averaging just 63.7 points per game, while giving up 60.7.

UConn: Highly touted freshman guard James Bouknight has finished serving his three-game suspension following his arrest on charges including evading police in a September car accident. Bouknight, who is due in court on Monday, is expected to suit up for the Huskies in this week’s Charleston Classic, where it’s possible the Huskies could again face either Saint Joseph’s or Florida, depending on how the early rounds pan out.

UP NEXT

Florida: The Gators face Saint Joseph’s in the Charleston Classic on Thursday.

UConn: The Huskies also travel to Charleston and face Buffalo in the first round of the tournament on Thursday.

Seton Hall placed on probation for three years for transfer tampering

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SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. — The NCAA has placed the men’s basketball program at Seton Hall on probation for three years, taken away a scholarship for the 2020-21 academic year and limited recruiting in each of the next two seasons as part of a negotiated resolution of a transfer tampering case started in 2016.

Under terms of the agreement announced Friday, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard was given a two-game suspension he has already served, and his former assistant and current Saint Peter’s University head coach Shaheen Holloway received a four-game suspension that has two games remaining.

Seton Hall, which is currently ranked No. 12 and dropped a 76-73 decision to No. 3 Michigan State on Thursday night, remains eligible for the NCAA tournament.

The NCAA also announced Friday Seton Hall has been fined $5,000 plus 1% of the men’s basketball budget and had its scholarships reduced to a maximum of 12 in 2020-21. Willard will have to attend an NCAA rules seminar in 2020 and the program will have a two-week ban on recruiting communication this academic year and next.

Holloway, who was Willard’s assistant at Seton Hall in 2016, is prohibited from all recruiting communication for six weeks during the 2019-20 academic year. He also is required to attend a rules seminar in each of the next two years.

The case centers around current Seton Hall forward Taurean Thompson, who transferred from Syracuse to Seton Hall in August 2017.

During the investigation, the NCAA learned Holloway had approximately 243 impermissible contacts with the prospect’s mother from Nov. 16, 2016, through Aug. 28, 2017, while the prospect was enrolled at his initial institution.

The NCAA said Holloway and the prospect’s mother had 154 phone calls without written permission from the prospect’s athletic director. After Thompson informed his original university of his intent to transfer and requested permission to contact Seton Hall, the university denied the request. After the request was denied, Holloway still had 87 impermissible calls with the prospect’s mother.

Willard, who has taken Seton Hall to the past four NCAA tournaments, was penalized for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance within his program. He admitted to not taking adequate steps to report or stop the calls when he found out about them.

According to the agreement, Holloway did not report the calls with the prospect’s mother because they involved a personal relationship outside of the prospect and basketball, and he believed the communications were permissible.

“Seton Hall University, in conjunction with the NCAA, recently concluded a review of an infraction within our men’s basketball program,” Seton Hall said in a statement Friday afternoon. “Our department was proactive in our review and fully cooperated with the NCAA enforcement staff. While the violation was inadvertent, it was nonetheless against NCAA bylaws, and for that we take full responsibility.”

The case was processed through the new negotiated resolution process. The process was used instead of a formal hearing or summary disposition because the university, the head coach, the former associate head coach and the enforcement staff agreed on the violations and the penalties.

The Division I Committee on Infractions reviewed the case to determine whether the resolution was in the best interests of the NCAA and whether the agreed-upon penalties were reasonable.

Holloway is in his second season at Saint Peter’s. He will miss games against Providence on Saturday and Wagner on Wednesday. His first game will be against St. Francis, New York, on Nov. 30.