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PLAYER OF THE YEAR POWER RANKINGS: Kris Dunn still tops a strong list

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1. Kris Dunn, Providence: I had Kris Dunn as the Preseason Player of the Year, and while he probably hasn’t been the best player in the country through four games — he hasn’t yet had a statement game on national television — he is averaging 18.8 points, 7.8 boards, 6.8 assists and 5.3 steals.

And while his shooting splits are down from a season ago, he only has eight turnovers through four games. I’m not going to drop my guy when he does that just because he hasn’t gotten into the meat of his schedule yet. No way.

I’ve charted the four games that Dunn has played to determine how much of Providence’s offensive runs through him, a stat I’m going to call, for lack of a better word, possessions “ended”.

When he’s on the floor, how many of Providence’s possessions ended with Dunn shooting, getting to the free throw line, turning the ball over, assisting on a bucket, assisting on free throws or assisting on a missed shot.

Through four games, 62.6 percent of Providence’s offense runs through Dunn, which is an insanely high number and a reason that his efficiency, and shooting percentages, are going to be lower than ideal.

Defenses know this.

Illinois had all five defenders in the paint trying to stop Dunn’s ball-screen actions:

(Screengrab via Synergy)
(Screengrab via Synergy)

His defender went over the screen while the man guarding the screener stayed with Dunn. The weak-side defender is in the lane helping on Ben Bentil’s role to the rim while the strong-side defender is helping on Dunn’s drive. Here’s video of the entire action:

2. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Valentine is almost averaging a triple-double this season. Seriously. He’s at 15.3 points, 9.8 assists and 9.0 boards through four games. That won’t last, but we can celebrate it while it does. He also is the own of the most impressive performance of the young season, going for 29 points, 12 boards and 12 assists in MSU’s come-from-behind win over Kansas in the Champions Classic.

And just to put Dunn’s numbers in perspective, Valentine “ended” 60.6 percent of Michigan State’s possessions against Kansas.

3. Ben Simmons, LSU: Since we keep talking about whether or not Ben Simmons is overrated, I think this is worth mentioning: He’s currently the leading rebounder in college basketball, averaging 14.5 boards to go along with his 19.3 points, 5.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.0 blocks. Oh, and he has just six turnovers in four games.

I’m not going to sit here trying to convince he’s not a great player. He is. Unquestionably. But there are a few things you need to understand when analysts and scouts try to temper the comparisons to LeBron James.

MORE: Transcendent? Overhyped? The shame is if Ben Simmons is irrevelant

Simmons spends a lot of time at the five for LSU, meaning that he is quite often guarded by guys like Luke Fischer, a 7-footer that doesn’t have a prayer of trying to slow down a player that big and that skilled in transition or in a half court setting:

He’s also a terrific passer, one that is so skilled at making defenses pay when the help defenders are too focused on him. Look at Traci Carter when Simmons throws this lob:

(Image via ESPN)
(Screengrab via ESPN)

That’s a direct result of the mismatches that he gets at the college level.

There are layers to this, too. The numbers you don’t hear with Simmons: he hasn’t even attempted a three-pointer this season. Through his first three games, he only shot five jump shots and missed all five. (Synergy’s logs haven’t been updated with last night’s games yet.) He’s shooting 81 percent from the line, so the stroke is there, but it has yet to manifest itself as part of his offensive repertoire.

Put it all together: NBA teams have guys that are big enough and quick enough to guard Simmons — especially if he doesn’t become a consistent shooter from the NBA three-point line — and while his passing ability rivals LeBron’s, he’s not as quick, explosive or athletic.

In simpler terms, Simmons won’t be exploiting mismatches in the NBA the way he can in college, and defenses won’t have to sellout to slow him down. That’s why I would rather see him compared to Lamar Odom, who, by the way, averaged 13.3 points, 8.4 boards and 3.7 assists in a 15-year career that produced two NBA titles and an appearance on a U.S. Olympic team.

He was damn good.

Comparing him to Odom is a compliment.

4. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky: The latest argument that seems to be clogging by mentions is whether or not Ulis or Dunn is the best point guard in the country. My take: Dunn is the best player in the country while Ulis is the best point guard in the country. While the two technically play the same position, the role they play is entirely different. Ulis is a facilitator, a pure point guard. Dunn is the prototype new-age lead guard, a guy built in the mold of Russell Westbrook, John Wall and MVP-era Derrick Rose.

Ulis has been OK in three of Kentucky’s four games, but his performance in the win over Duke — 18 points, six assists, four rebounds, two steals, no turnovers — is what got him this high on this list.

5. Grayson Allen, Duke: Allen has been unbelievable in four of the five games he’s played this season, including back-to-back 30-burgers as the Blue Devils beat VCU and Georgetown in the 2K Classic. Even with that putrid performance against Kentucky, his numbers look like this: 24.4 ppg, 4.4 rg, 3.2 apg and shooting splits of 52.2/53.6/89.7.

6. Tyrone Wallace, Cal: Only one player in college basketball averaged more than 20 points, five boards and five assists last season. This year, Wallace is averaging 20.3 points, 5.8 boards and 5.3 assists for a Cal team that could end up winning the Pac-12. He’ll climb this list if his numbers look as good when the competition gets tougher.

7. Sheldon McClellan, Miami: Picking a player on Miami for this spot was tough, but I decided to go with McClellan for a couple of reason. One: He’s Miami’s leading scorer at 17.4 points. Two: his shooting splits are outrageous (61.7/52.4/94.7) meaning his efficiency numbers are outrageous as well. Three: he’s the guy on that Miami roster that, if I was an opposing coach, I would build a game-plan around stopping.

8. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Hield was a first-team all-american entering the season and has scored 54 points in two games this year. He went for 30 in a win at Memphis. Not bad.

9. Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga: Kyle Wiltjer was the guy that was on all the preseason all-american lists, but through two (And a half? Does Pitt still count?) games this season, Sabonis has been Gonzaga’s best player. He’s averaging 20.5 points and 10.5 boards, scoring on post-ups and offensive boards and shooting a robust 82.6 percent from the floor.

10. Evan Bradds, Belmont: There are a number of guys deserving consideration for this spot — Demetrius Jackson, Melo Trimble, Shaq Harrison, Josh Hart — but I’m going to give Bradds a little love here. Through five games, he’s averaging 21.3 points, 8.6 boards and 2.4 assists while shooting 76.2 percent from the floor. He had 24 points and nine rebounds in Belmont’s win at Marquette and, in his last two games, is averaging 29 points and 10 boards while shooting 27-for-28 from the field. A run like that can’t last, but while he’s in the middle of it, we’re going acknowledge it.

Saturday’s Things To Know: Huge wins for UNC, Kansas, Indiana

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: Juwan Morgan, Indiana

Juwan Morgan really loves playing at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

A year after setting his career-high by scoring 34 points in a win over Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic, Morgan broke that record by dropping 35 points as No. 25 Indiana won their fourth-straight one-possession game, picking off Butler, 71-68.

Rob Phinisee is going to be the guy that makes all of the highlight reels after this game — we’ll get to that in a minute — but Morgan was the hero for Indiana. They’re no where near a position to be able to win this game at the buzzer if Morgan doesn’t keep this thing close. Butler controlled the game for 35 minutes. They led by as many as 11 points. They were up by two or three possessions for the majority of the second half, but Morgan did just enough to keep Indiana connected.

Butler was never able to pull away, and in the end, that is what cost them the game.

TEAM OF THE DAY: Belmont Bruins

The Bruins of Nashville paid a visit to the Bruins of Westwood and left with a 74-72 victory. They did this despite trailing by 12 points in the second half and while their star forward Dylan Windler spent much of the afternoon struggling with the length and athleticism of UCLA’s frontline. And given what we know about this UCLA program, it should surprise exactly no one that the Bruins lost this game because they got beat on a backdoor cut.

This was another in a long line of bad losses for the Pac-12 this season. While Washington was smoked by No. 13 Virginia Tech and Utah was embarrassed by No. 19 Kentucky, the good news here is that the weekend wasn’t a total loss. No. 20 Arizona State found a way to beat Georgia after trailing by 14 while Stanford overcame a big first half deficit against Eastern Washington in Palo Alto.

ONIONS OF THE DAY: Robert Phinisee, Indiana

Also known as the new Big Shot Bob:

SATURDAY’S BIGGEST WINNERS

NORTH CAROLINA: The Tar Heels picked up a massive win over No. 4 Gonzaga, a win that this program really needed after a disappointing run through the non-conference portion of their schedule. We spent quite a bit of time on that game already today, so read that here.

KENTUCKY: The Wildcats looked like they had a point to prove on Saturday. After seeing one of their teammates transfer out of the program and after dealing with a week where everyone was talking about why this group was so overrated, whether or not John Calipari can still win with the one-and-done model and if Kentucky has lost their edge, the Wildcats came out and whipped up on poor Utah, their first impressive performance of the season. They won 88-61, and it will be interesting to see where this team goes from here.

MISSISSIPPI STATE: The Bulldogs landed a really important home win over Cincinnati, 70-59, in one of their only relevant non-conference games this season. Mississippi State is now 9-1 on the season — tied for the best record in the SEC — but this may be their best win to date, depending on how you feel about victories over St. Mary’s, at Dayton and Clemson. If Ben Howland is going to get this group to the NCAA tournament, this was a game he needed.

SATURDAY’S BIGGEST LOSERS

BUTLER: In a game they really, really needed to win, Butler dominated Indiana for 35 minutes, held Romeo Langford in check and blew up Indiana’s last-second play … before watching Phinisee’s game-winner go in. The Bulldogs are now 7-3 on the season with losses to Indiana, Saint Louis and Dayton. In a Big East where there may not actually be a good win available, this is a bad spot to be in. A trip to Florida on Dec. 29th is suddenly a critical game.

GEORGIA: Tom Crean is not going to be happy about the way that this one ended. The Bulldogs led by as many as 18 points in the first half against No. 20 Arizona State and still somehow managed to find a way to lose, 76-74, at home despite Arizona State’s late-game execution being horrendous.

UAB: UAB had a chance to get a signature win on Saturday evening, and they couldn’t put it away. Jared Harper scored 23 of No. 8 Auburn’s last 30 points as the Tigers outlasted UAB in overtime, 75-71. This could have been a season-defining win for the Blazers. Now it is a warning for Bruce Pearl’s team that they cannot expect to sleepwalk through the season and win the games they want to win.

SYRACUSE: We thought the Orange had gotten things figured out after landing a come-from-behind win over Georgetown last Saturday, but it turns out we were wrong. The Orange let B.J. Stith score all 18 of his points in the second half as they lost to Old Dominion in the Carrier Dome, 68-62. The Orange are now 7-3 on the season with losses to ODU, UConn and Oregon. Not good.

FINAL THOUGHT

There are nine teams that are still undefeated this season.

Some of them are simply a product of scheduling (Houston, St. John’s) while some of them are good mid-majors that went out and won a buy game or two (Buffalo, Furman). There are a couple of true national title contenders that remain unblemished (Virginia, Michigan) and a third (Texas Tech) that is more dangerous this season than anyone realizes.

And then there is Kansas, and there is Nevada.

I cannot figure out either of these teams.

We’ve been over the issues that are plaguing Kansas this season. I wrote 1,000 words on them right here. No Udoka Azubuike is forcing Dedric Lawson to play in a position that is not his best when Kansas doesn’t actually have a player to fill the ideal role for Lawson, and all of that is happening as Quentin Grimes is struggling to find his footing and the rest of the Kansas perimeter attack is … well, it’s just Lagerald Vick.

The Jayhawks have not looked dominant for a full 40 minutes yet this season — they struggle to put together an entire half — and they could have three or four losses at this point in the year.

But they’re 9-0.

Is this a good thing (good teams win when they play bad, and Kansas will figure it out) or is this something that we should be very, very worried about (at some point, this is going to catch up with them).

And then there is Nevada, who has trailed at the half in three of their last four games after turning a 40-33 halftime deficit into a 72-68 win over South Dakota State. They haven’t really beaten anyone that matters — winning at Loyola and at USC isn’t impressive, although the win over Arizona State in LA will carry some weight on Selection Sunday — and we might not see them play an NCAA tournament team again until the NCAA tournament.

But there is also something to be said for a team full of veterans struggling to get up for the dregs of non-conference play when classes are done and they’re just thinking about holiday break.

So we’ll see what happens with both of these teams, but even their most avid supporters should admit that their team isn’t playing great right now.

No. 8 Auburn outlasts UAB 75-71 in overtime

AP Photo/Julie Bennett
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Jared Harper scored 23 of Auburn’s last 30 points and finished with 31 to help the No. 8 Tigers outlast UAB 75-71 in overtime Saturday night in the Mike Slive Invitational.

In front of a crowd of 15,856, the budding in-state rivals raced to the overtime finish via the 3-point arc. After Harper scored 12 of the Tigers’ last 15, UAB’s Jeremiah Bell hit a pair of triples in the final 40 seconds, including a contested shot with 10 seconds left to send the contest to overtime. Bell finished with 13 points. Guard Jalen Perry led the Blazers (6-4) with 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting.

Chuma Okeke added 11 points for Auburn (9-1).

Harper took over in the overtime period, scoring or assisting on 25 of Auburn’s final 32 points. That streak began midway through the second half when Harper converted on a coast-to-coast lay-in. The basket tied the game after UAB led by as many as seven in the half.

“We’ve got Jared Harper and they don’t,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “That happens a lot of the time against a lot of people. We have him and they don’t.”

BIG PICTURE

UAB

Saturday marked the 21st meeting in the series since UAB began playing basketball 40 years ago. Auburn leads 11-10. Pearl said postgame that the teams are in talks about possibly renewing a contract to play yearly.

AUBURN

Forward Danjel Purifoy played in his first game since March 8, 2017, after sitting out all last season due to eligibility concerns. After serving a nine-game suspension this year, he scored two points and had one rebound in seven minutes.

No. 18 Mississippi State beats Cincinnati 70-59

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STARKVILLE, Miss. — Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters scored 14 points each, Reggie Perry and Tyson Carter both added 12, and No. 18 Mississippi State beat Cincinnati 70-59 on Saturday night.

Mississippi State (9-1) used a 7-0 run midway through the second half — holding the Bearcats scoreless for more than four minutes — to break a tie game and take a 52-45 lead.

The Bulldogs were able to keep a fairly comfortable advantage the rest of the way. Mississippi State shot 12 of 23 (52 percent) from 3-point range. Peters added nine assists.

Perry came off the bench to score 10 points in the first half, giving Mississippi State some much-needed offense after starting forward Abdul Ado picked up two quick fouls. The 6-foot-10 freshman was a McDonald’s All-American and has quickly earned an increased role with his ability to score both inside and outside.

Mississippi State hit 7 of 12 3-pointers in the first half to take a 37-32 halftime lead.

Cincinnati (9-2) had its nine-game winning streak snapped. The Bearcats never looked comfortable offensively and shot just 37 percent from the field.

Jarron Cumberland led Cincinnati with 21 points. Keith Williams added 15.

BIG PICTURE

Cincinnati: The Bearcats had some good moments but couldn’t generate much offense when they needed it during the final 10 minutes. They scored 27 points in the second half.

Mississippi State: It’s another quality win for the Bulldogs, who have won six straight. Perry’s continued development is a big plus for Mississippi State. Peters continues to play very well with his combination of scoring and floor vision.

No. 13 Virginia Tech holds off Washington 73-61

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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Nikell Alexander-Walker scored 24 points to lead No. 13 Virginia Tech to a 73-61 victory over Washington on Saturday night in the Air Force Reserve Boardwalk Classic.

Justin Thomas, Kerry Blackshear and Ahmed Hill each added 10 points for the Hokies (9-1), who won their fourth straight. They led by 18 points at halftime.

Matisse Thybulle scored 16 points to lead Washington (7-4), which pulled within seven points with nine minutes left but couldn’t get any closer. David Crisp scored 12 points, and Naz Carter had 11 points and a game-high nine rebounds.

The Huskies (7-4) pulled within seven points with nine minutes left in regulation but couldn’t sustain the comeback.

Virginia Tech shot 42.9 percent from the field and a swarming defense limited Washington to 35.6 percent while forcing 15 turnovers.

No. 20 Sun Devils rally from 18 down to beat Georgia 76-74

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ATHENS, Ga. — Remy Martin scored 21 points, Romello White added 16 and No. 20 Arizona State rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat Georgia 76-74 on Saturday night.

Martin gave the Sun Devils (8-1) their first lead of the game with a baseline jumper to make it 71-70 with 2:43 remaining.

Rayshaun Hammonds and Tyree Crump each scored 19 points for Georgia (5-4). Nicolas Claxton had nine points and 13 rebounds, but the Bulldogs, looking for their first signature win under coach Tom Crean, were undone by 10 turnovers that led to 12 Arizona State points in the second half.

Tye Fagan’s reverse layup put Georgia back ahead with 25 seconds remaining, but Luguentz Dort beat Claxton off the dribble to make it 75-74 with 11 seconds to go.

The victory was a strong comeback for Arizona State, which lost last week to No. 6 Nevada in Los Angeles.

Dort intercepted a long inbound pass from Jordan Harris before the Bulldogs’ last chance to win fell short on Claxton’s air-ball 16-footer.

Crump had 16 points in the first half, his best move coming on a feed from Claxton. Cutting through the lane, Crump took the pass, paused quickly to wait for a defender to clear and laid the ball off the glass for a nine-point lead.

He followed with consecutive 3s before hitting four of five free throws on a single possession. Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley was called for a technical foul after Dort bumped him on a 3-point attempt, and Crump closed a 20-3 run to give the Bulldogs their biggest lead at 18.

White, a sophomore from Wheeler High School in suburban Atlanta, was the only player in the double figures in the first half for Arizona State.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona State: The Sun Devils gave a strong indication of their depth as Dort, their leading scorer, was just 2 for 10 from the field and finished with 10 points. Seven of his points came on free throws. … Martin was 0 for 3 beyond the arc. … Cheatam had 10 rebounds.

Georgia: Hammonds, who fouled out with 4:41 remaining, scored 14 points in the opening 20 minutes. He gave Georgia a 42-29 lead with a crossover dribble down the lane and a spin move that brought a roar from the crowd. … Crump hit a 3 to give the Bulldogs a 70-64 lead, but he wasn’t a factor late, going 1 for 4 in the second half.