PLAYER OF THE YEAR POWER RANKINGS: Has Buddy Hield really locked this thing up?

Hield (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki) and Valentine (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
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Buddy Hield is the favorite to win the National Player of the Year award as of today, and anyone that would tell you otherwise is just making the argument for the sake of arguing.

Because there’s really no justification for anyone else being picked over him.

Why?

In bullet form:

  • A recent “slump” (he’s 14-for-37 from three in the last four games) has dropped his season-long three-point shooting to 49.8 percent; he’ll get back above 50 percent if he hits his next three. For comparison’s sake, only two players have shot better than 50 percent from two, 50 percent from three and 90 percent from the free throw line for a full season: Matt Kennedy of Charleston Southern (’13-’14) and Salim Stoudamire of Arizona (’04-’05). Kennedy averaged 3.2 3PAs and 8.5 FGAs that year. Stoudamire averaged 6.6 3PAs and 11.6 FGAs. Hield? He’s taking 16.1 FGAs and 8.5 3PAs.
  • Hield is averaging 4.21 threes made per game. Only three major conference players have bested that in the last 21 seasons: Michigan State’s Shawn Respert (’94-’95), Virginia’s Curtis Staples (’96-’97) and Ole Miss’ Marshall Henderson (’13-’14). Respert shot 47.4 percent from three. Staples shot 39.0 percent. Henderson? 34.2 percent.
  • He’s averaging 25.6 points this season, which is second nationally and the fifth-most of any major conference player since 1994-95, behind only J.J. Redick(’05-’06), Doug McDermott (’13-’14), Michael Beasley (’07-’08) and Kevin Durant (’06-’07).
  • Hield’s also been at his best in the biggest moments. There was the 46 points in the No. 1 vs. No. 1 game in Phog Allen Fieldhouse. There were the 21 second half points in the win at LSU. There was the comeback he led at Iowa State and against Kansas on Saturday (we’ll forget about that missed free throw for now). There was the late-game takeover and game-winning three against Texas last Monday. Big performances in big moments is the reason that the Sooners look to be headed for a No. 1 seed line on Selection Sunday.

So yes, Hield is the favorite for the award.

But I just can’t wrap my head around the idea that the race is over for two reasons:

1) Hield is the nation’s most ruthless spot-up shooter in the same way that Oklahoma has become the best three-point shooting team in the country. But jump shots can be fickle, and at the end of a long season, one where Hield is averaging 37.3 minutes in 13 games since the turn of the calendar, it’s not outlandish to think that could eventually catch up to him. It may not be a coincidence that he’s shooting “just” 37.8 percent from three the last four games, and that’s before you factor in that four of his last six games are on the road, including the long and tiring trip to Morgantown.

2) Denzel Valentine has been damn good this season as well, and if it wasn’t for an ill-timed surgical procedure on his knee, people may not have forgotten about that. Valentine missed four games with the injury, and those four games were bookended by the four or five worst — or least productive — games that Valentine has turned in this season. That’s nearly 30 percent of the regular season that was affected or wiped away by this knee procedure.

And if you want to use that as an excuse for why Valentine should be excluded from the Player of the Year race, then that’s your prerogative, even if it is somewhat silly. Because he’s still on pace to average 19.5 points, 7.7 boards and 7.1 assists, which is something that hasn’t been done since at least 1994-95. Hield’s not the only one that’s having a statistically historical season.

There’s more.

He’s played his best in Michigan State’s biggest games as well. Remember the 29 points, 12 boards and 12 assists he had against Kansas in the Champions Classic? I do. I also remember that he scored 21 of those 29 points in the second half and helped erase an 11 point deficit with less than 10 minutes left. Or what about when he led Michigan State back from down 13 points against Louisville, scoring 11 of his 25 points in the final 5:06 of a game the Spartans didn’t lead until their were less than seven minutes left.

That was in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, which is kind of a big deal, no?

Just this past week, Valentine had 27 points, 10 assists and eight boards in a one-point overtime loss at Purdue. He had 15 of those points and seven of those assists in the second half as Sparty rallied back from an 18-point deficit. On Sunday, he went for 30 points and 13 assists in a win over Indiana that was a nationally televised game on CBS.

The point is this: in any other year, Denzel Valentine would be the favorite to win National Player of the Year, injury or no injury. He’s still got some ground to make up, but acting like he’s out of the race already is premature.

Anyway, here is the rest of the top ten:

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

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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

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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.