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College Basketball’s Most Improved Players

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On Wednesday, we released our Midseason Awards, which included the NBCSports.com All-American teams, the Player of the Year, the Coach of the Year and the Freshman of the Year.

We also named our Most Improved Player. That decision wasn’t quite as easy as it seemed, so here is a complete list of the nation’s most improved players:

THE BREAKOUT STARS

Ben Bentil, Providence: As we wrote yesterday, Bentil had some promising moments as a freshman and found his way onto a few Breakout Stars lists in the preseaosn, but I don’t anyone could have predicted that he would end up being a guy that averages 19 points and eight boards for a team ranked in the top ten. He’s got a legitimate case to be an all-american. Who saw that coming?

Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Hield was the Big 12 Player of the Year last season and, depending on where you looked, he found his way onto some all-american teams as well. But he did all that as a guy that was more-or-less a spot-up shooter that did much of his damage in transition. This season, he’s become Oklahoma’s late-clock option. He’s getting isolations. He’s the ball handler in pick-and-roll actions, and he’s far more effective doing it as well. Last season, he scored 21 points in 42 totals isolations, according to Synergy’s logs. This season, he’s already had 29 isolation possessions and scored 31 points. When you factor in possessions that end in a pass, he’s creating 1.083 PPP in ball screen actions as compared to 0.825 PPP last season.

Kelan Martin, Butler: This may be a situation where Martin simply needed to get the opportunity, but he’s become the most consistent offensive weapon for a Butler team that’s currently ranked in the top 20. Martin, who is averaging 14.1 points after scoring 7.7 per game last season, began the season as Butler’s sixth-man but played his way into the starting lineup with Kellen Dunham’s shooting slump.

Elijah Brown, New Mexico: Brown has usurped coach’s son Cullen Neal as the star of the Lobo back court. A redshirt sophomore, Butler transfer and the son of former NBA coach Mike Brown, Elijah is averaging 19.4 points, 5.6 boards and 3.1 assists.

Moses Kingsley, Arkansas: As a freshman, Kingsley played 10 minutes a game and averaged just 3.4 points and 2.5 boards. As a sophomore, he’s averaging 17.1 points, 9.9 boards and 2.5 blocks, turning into a guy that may actually be the best big man in the SEC. Chew on that for a second.

Michael Gbinije, Syracuse: The fifth-year senior has become one of the best guards in the ACC and is one of the only reason that Syracuse has a reason to believe they can play their way into an NCAA tournament bid. He’s averaging 18.0 points, 4.7 boards and 4.3 assists.

Yante Maten, Georgia: Maten, a sophomore, has become the anchor on the interior for a Georgia team that still has NCAA tournament hopes. The 6-foot-8 Michigan native is averaging 16.5 points and 7.2 boards.

Desi Rodriguez, Seton Hall: When he’s not getting benched for yelling at his coach, Rodriguez is a pretty important piece for the Pirates, averaging 12.0 points and shooting 38.1 percent from three after going 1-for-12 as a freshmen.

Kendrick Nunn, Illinois: Nunn, along with Malcolm Hill, is the reason this season isn’t a total loss for the Illini. He’s averaging 18.5 points as a junior.

Zach LeDay, Virginia Tech: LeDay averaged 3.5 points for South Florida in 2013-14. He’s averaging 14.7 points and 9.5 boards for the Hokies this season and went for 22 points and seven boards in the win over No. 4 Virginia on Monday night.

George King, Colorado: King is a redshirt sophomore that didn’t play much as a freshman and then sat out last season as Tad Boyle knew that he wouldn’t get much playing time. It paid off, as King is Colorado’s second-leading scorer, averaging 13.9 points and shooting 43.1 percent from three.

Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Berry has embraced the point guard role for the Tar Heels, averaging 12.9 points and 4.4 assists as he’s allowed Marcus Paige to spend more time playing off the ball.

Bradley Hayes, Georgetown: Hayes was a total non-factor in his first three seasons with the Hoyas but has emerged as the best low-post scorer for this Georgetown team, averaging 9.4 points and 6.6 boards.

THE ALL-AMERICANS: There is also a small subset of guys that belong on the most improved list that were already pretty damn good.

  • Grayson Allen, Duke: I really struggled with whether or not to include Allen on this list at all, because I’m not convinced that he’s all that much better than he was last season. He’s having a sensational season — we have him as a second team all-american right now — but how much of that is simply a result of Allen finally seeing the floor? A lot of it, I think.
  • Jakob Poeltl, Utah: Poeltl could have been a lottery pick had he bolted for the NBA after last season, which means that some folks may not realize just how much better he is right now than he was at this time last season. He’s got post moves, he can pass out of double teams and he’s still one of the best defensive centers in college basketball.
  • Brice Johnson, North Carolina: Johnson has played himself into All-American consideration in the last seven games, as Kennedy Meeks has been out with a knee issue. It came to a head on Monday: 39 points, 23 boards, three steals, three blocks. Talent isn’t the issue. It’s assertiveness and aggressiveness. Let’s see if it lasts.
  • Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Valentine has always seemed like one of those dudes where we’re going to say, “He’s a great college players.” Now, after his start to the 2015-16 season, there’s a real shot he ends up getting picked in the first round.

 

TCU upends No. 18 Texas Tech

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) Desmond Bane scored 27 points, Kevin Samuel had 11 points and 11 rebounds and TCU returned home after a miserable week on the road to upset No. 18 Texas Tech 65-54 on Tuesday night.

The Horned Frogs (13-5, 4-2 Big 12) pushed ahead to stay with a 13-2 run to start the second half. Bane had a 3-pointer and layup in the first 74 seconds after halftime, and his one-handed floater off the glass capped that spurt to put them up 40-33 with just over 16 minutes left.

Samuel, the 6-foot-11 sophomore center later had three consecutive baskets for the Frogs, with his dunk starting that stretch for the first double-digit lead. Then came two layups, the latter when after a near turnover he was able to get the putback when the ball rolled on the rim when the shot clock went off before falling through for a 51-38 lead.

Jahmi’us Ramsey had 15 points for Texas Tech (12-6, 3-3), which lost for the first time in its seven meetings as a ranked team against TCU. Terrence Shannon and TJ Holyfield each had 10.

TCU, a 2 1/2-point underdog, has won 14 of its last 19 conference home games, but was coming off losses of 32 points at No. 14 West Virginia and 20 at Oklahoma last week.

The Frogs scored the game’s first five points, but Texas Tech pushed to a 23-15 lead on a 3-pointer by Davide Moretti. After a jumper by Bane, the teams then traded turnovers before a dunk by Kyler Edwards, and the Red Raiders still led 31-27 at the break.

BIG PICTURE

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders never really were able to recover after TCU’s opening spurt in the second half despite an always loud and large group of fans encouraging them with chants of “Raider Power” that at times were louder than the home fans. They were 0-for-7 on 3-pointers after halftime.

TCU: Bane was 10-of-15 shooting, including 6 of 8 on 3-pointers. When he wasn’t making deep shots, he was able to penetrate for layups and short floaters.

UP NEXT

Texas Tech hosts No. 15 Kentucky on Saturday in the only game of the Big 12/SEC Challenge matching two ranked teams. The Red Raiders are 0-4 against the Wildcats, but haven’t played them since 1994.

TCU is on the road to play Arkansas on Saturday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and http://twitter.com/AP-Top25

No. 21 Illinois runs away in 2nd half to sweep Purdue

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) After watching No. 21 Illinois play an uncharacteristic first half Tuesday night, coach Brad Underwood gave his team some simple instructions.

Then the Fighting Illini reverted to form.

Kofi Cockburn scored 22 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, Trent Frazier added 21 points and Illinois pulled away in the second half to beat Purdue 79-62.

“I don’t know if you can ever count on going 9 of 10 to start the second half, but I thought our guys executed,” Underwood said. “All you can ask is for an opposing coach or players to say `You guys played really, really hard and out toughed us.’ ”

It’s another milestone victory for the resurgent Illini (14-5, 6-2 Big Ten), winners of five straight.

They’re off to their best conference start since 2005-06, ended a seven-game losing streak at Mackey Arena and swept the season series with Purdue for the first time since 2008-09.

And after an atypical start to the game, Underwood got his team to follow a more common theme over the final 20 minutes. They outscored Purdue 50-32 in the second half, never giving the Boilermakers a chance.

Nojel Eastern had 14 points and Trevion Williams scored 12 to lead Purdue (10-9, 4-4), which has lost four of five and watched a 15-game winning streak in conference home games end.

“We were struggling to keep them out of the paint,” said Matt Haarms, who had 10 points, six rebounds and three blocks. “That was one of the points of emphasis before the game and we just weren’t to able to execute it.””

The Illini swung the momentum quickly, opening the second half with seven straight points to erase a 30-29 halftime lead. Then, after making five straight baskets to make it 49-39 with 13:30 to play, they extended the margin to 60-45 on Giorgi Bezhanishvili’s 3-pointer with 8:27 left.

Underwood’s defense didn’t allow Purdue to get closer than nine again.

“They didn’t do anything differently (in the second half), they executed better,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “Illinois’ fight is so much better than ours. They have a great competitive spirit.”

BIG PICTURE

Illinois: The Illini pulled off a rare feat by winning a Big Ten road game. And the reason is obvious – defense travels. Illinois came into the game allowing 57.3 points as teams shot just 36.6% from the field and 31.1% on 3s during their previous four wins. They weren’t quite as good Tuesday, allowing Purdue to shoot 41.1% from the field and 37.5% on 3s – but they were more than good enough.

Purdue: The Boilermakers keep struggling to score, and it caught up to them again on Tuesday. After scoring only 37 points in the first meeting with Illinois, the Boilermakers couldn’t reach the 60-point mark on their home court until the final minute. If coach Matt Painter can’t find a solution soon, with the midway point of conference play fast approaching, it could be an even tougher final two months.

STAT SHEET

Illinois: Ayo Dosunmu finished with 18 points and a career high 11 assists. Bezhanishvili had 10 points. … Cockburn nearly posted a double-double in the first half with nine points and nine rebounds. … Frazier’s streak of turnover-free basketball ended at 193 minutes Tuesday. The guard went nearly 6 1/4 games between turnovers. … The Illini also snapped a seven-game losing streak at Mackey Arena.

Purdue: Matt Haarms had 10 points and six rebounds. Sasha Stefanovic had nine points. … The Boilermakers were outrebounded 37-19, giving Illinois an 83-53 advantage in this season’s two games. … The Boilermakers had won six straight home games against ranked opponents at home before Tuesday.

EARLY EXIT

Illinois guard Alan Griffin was ejected with 12:21 left in the first half for a flagrant 2 foul.

A replay review showed Griffin intentionally stomped on Stefanovic’s midsection after the Purdue guard had driven to the basket for a layup, bringing a crescendo of boos from the crowd. Stefanovic made one of two free throws for an unusual three-point play.

Underwood wasn’t any happier about it than the Purdue fans.

“He apologized to the young man and we don’t condone any of that,” he said. “That’s not part of anything we’re trying to do in our program.”

UP NEXT

Illinois hits the road again Saturday when it heads to Michigan.

Purdue welcomes Wisconsin in a rare Friday night contest in West Lafayette.

More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25

Ugly brawl breaks out at end of Kansas State-Kansas game

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) Third-ranked Kansas and Kansas State ended their bitter showdown Tuesday night with a wild melee behind the basket that included punches, shoving and at least one player picking up a stool, moments after the Jayhawks tried to dribble out the time on their 81-59 victory.

Silvio De Sousa was stripped by the Wildcats’ DaJuan Gordon near midcourt and Gordon tried to go in for a layup. The Jayhawks’ big man recovered and blocked his shot, sending Gordon to the floor, then stood over him barking. That triggered benches to empty and punches to be thrown in what amounted to a rugby scrum. At one point, De Souza picked up a stool and held it above his head, looking like he was about to swing it at a Kansas State player before assistant coach Jerrance Howard grabbed it from him.

It took both coaching staffs and security to separate the teams. Then, adding to the bizarre finish, both teams were summoned back from the locker rooms by the officials and one-tenth of a second was put on the clock as Kansas State shot free throws to a chorus of boos from the few thousand fans who were still in the arena.

Christian Braun scored a career-high 20 points, Devon Dotson added 18 and Udoka Azubuike finished with 10 points and 14 rebounds for Kansas, which beat the Wildcats for the 14th straight time at Allen Fieldhouse.

The Jayhawks, who lost to Baylor 10 days ago, also avoided back-to-back home defeats for the first time since 1988-89.

Xavier Sneed had 16 points and David Sloan had 14 for the Wildcats (8-10, 1-5), who continue to struggle on the road. They have lost all three league contests away from Bramlage Coliseum after going 7-2 in those games a year ago, when they tied Texas Tech for the Big 12 title – ending the Jayhawks’ record-setting run of 14 consecutive championships.

The Jayhawks built a comfortable 39-23 lead by the break, and all of it – and then some – came during that soul-crushing 19-2 run midway through the first half that torpedoed just about any chance of an upset.

It began when Braun hit the first of what would become three 3-pointers by the freshman during the charge. It continued when the Jayhawks forced the Wildcats into a series of blown layups and easy misses, a pair of missed free throws, a shot clock violation and five turnovers that left coach Bruce Weber stamping his feet in frustration.

The run ended – fittingly – with Braun hitting another 3, giving the Jayhawks a 26-9 lead with less than 10 minutes left.

Braun, who played a mere 4 minutes last weekend at Texas, hit another from beyond the arc as the shot clock wound down to star the second half, and Kansas more than doubled up its biggest rival at 47-23 before the Wildcats showed some life.

Sloan started their own run with an easy basket, then he followed one by Sneed with two more. Cartier Diarra answered the fans that’d been heckling him all night from an early air-ball by adding a layup, and Gordon’s 3-pointer capped a 13-2 run that got Kansas State withing 49-36 with about 14 minutes left in the game.

Braun answered with another 3 during another big run that allowed the Jayhawks to put the game away.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State was playing its third consecutive ranked opponent, and should have come in with some momentum after an easy win over then-No. 12 West Virginia. But after hanging with the Jayhawks the first few minutes, sloppy play and their inability to convert layups at the rim allowed Kansas to go on the run that defined the game.

Kansas didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, but the Jayhawks dominated the glass, kept turnovers to a minimum and played one of their better defensive games all season.

UP NEXT

Kansas State heads to Alabama on Saturday for the Big 12-SEC Challenge.

Kansas welcomes back ex-Texas coach Rick Barnes with Tennessee on Saturday.

More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25

Kansas and Kansas State end rivalry game in fight

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Kansas and Kansas State erupted into a fight on Tuesday night.

The Jayhawks were closing out an 81-60 Big 12 home win over their in-state rivals. Things got heated when the buzzer sounded.

Kansas forward Silvio De Sousa threw a punch and picked up a chair during the chaos. It’s difficult to pinpoint specific things from there. Police, security and team personnel stepped in to clear up the melee.

It’s one of the uglier incidents in recent memory for the heated Kansas state rivalry.

We’re definitely going to see suspensions out of this Kansas and Kansas State fight. It will depend on what the Big 12 is able to see during its investigation. The conference will try to track down as much evidence as possible to see how this started and who instigated things further.

After the game, both coaches talked about the brawl and how things played out in their eyes.

Kansas and Kansas State have some recent history during this rivalry. Bill Self and Kansas forward Jamari Traylor had a difficult time with a court storm after Kansas State won on its home floor five years ago. But that was more of a student-related incident instead of the two teams starting a fight.

No. 3 Kansas improves to 15-3 overall and 5-1 in the Big 12 with the win. Christian Braun paced the Jayhawks with 20 points. Devon Dotson added 18 points while Udoka Azubuike had a double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds.

A clearly-frustrated Kansas State dropped to 8-10 and 1-5 in the Big 12 as the rebuilding season continues.

These two teams will meet again in the Octagon of Doom on Feb. 29. The fight in the first matchup will be something to monitor as Kansas could still be fighting for a Big 12 title or No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

It’s been a wild night in college basketball. Illinois’ Alan Griffin stepped on Purdue’s Sasha Stefanovic and was ejected. This is yet another bad incident that doesn’t involve basketball.

Illinois’ Alan Griffin ejected for stepping on Purdue player

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Referees ejected Illinois’ Alan Griffin for stepping on Purdue’s Sasha Stefanovic on Tuesday night. The Boilermakers were hosting No. 24 Illinois in a heated Big Ten clash. The ejection happened midway through the first half when Griffin intentionally stepped on Stefanovic.

Griffin turned to run back on defense and clearly stepped on Stefanovic while he was on the ground. Attacking the basket and not getting a call, Stefanovic was on the ground when Griffin stepped on his chest.

Before the ejection, Griffin was scoreless.

A 6-foot-5 sophomore, Griffin is a key reserve during Illinois’ resurgent season. Playing 17.9 minutes per game, Griffin is an adequate three-pointer shooter and good rebounder from the wing.

Potentially facing a suspension for his actions, Griffin’s potential absence is something to monitor.

Following an important Big Ten road win for No. 24 Illinois, head coach Brad Underwood spoke out against Griffin’s actions.