College Basketball’s Most Improved Players

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It really shouldn’t be all that much of a shock that Luke Kennard tops the list as the nation’s most improved player.

The 6-foot-6 shooting guard has been the best player on the roster for Duke this season, a team that is ranked in the top five by everyone with a valid a opinion and ranked No. 1 by the savvy forward-thinkers. He’s averaging 20.0 points, 6.1 boards and 3.3 assists and has been Duke’s best player in their four toughest games this season; against Michigan State, Rhode Island, Kansas and Florida, Kennard is averaging 23.8 points.

What’s surprising about Kennard’s season isn’t that he became an effective college basketball player – he was a McDonald’s All-American, he averaged 11.8 points last season, and he scored more points in high school than a guy named LeBron James – but that he’s been able to dominate like this on a team that has a chance to win a national title. That’s how good he’s been for Duke this season. Playing without Jayson Tatum for seven games, with a banged-up Grayson Allen and without Harry Giles III, Kennard’s has made Duke look like they could win the ACC and make the Final Four even if they never get back to full health.

He went from being the third-best player on a two-man Duke team as a freshman to this. Who saw that coming?

2. Manu Lecomte, Baylor: Lecomte was a good player at Miami during the 2014-15 season. Not great, but a solid piece for a good team. After sitting out last season at Baylor, he’s managed to play his way into being one of the best point guards in the Big 12 and one of the biggest reasons that the Bears are currently sitting in the top five of both polls. Lecomte’s averaging 13.9 points this year, and although his scoring has been somewhat inconsistent, he’s played well in Baylor’s big games. But the truly notable improvement has been in his ability to create offense for his teammates. Lecomte is averaging 5.3 assists after averaging 1.8 assists as a sophomore with Miami, and that playmaking was the biggest question mark that Baylor had entering the season.

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3. Semi Ojeleye, SMU: Ojeleye is a former four-star recruit that played a season and a half at Duke, so it’s not like this is a guy that never had any ability. We just never saw it featured at the college level, and now that we have, he’s proven to be worth the hype he had in high school. Having taken advantage of a season-and-a-half as a redshirt, he’s averaging 17.8 points and 7.6 boards on the year while, as a 6-foot-7 forward with elite athleticism, is shooting 41.5 percent from three. The Mustangs are still trying to find their footing after the Larry Brown fiasco this summer, but Ojeleye has turned into a really good piece to build around and one of the best players in the AAC.

4. Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame: Colson is generously listed at 6-foot-6, he isn’t an elite athlete and he’s a power forward, a front court weapon who does most of his damage in the low- and mid-post. And yet, he’s turned into the best player on Notre Dame and, along with Matt Farrell (who is much-improved in his own right), is the biggest reason the Irish appear to me much better than we expected. He’s averaging team-highs of 16.5 points and 10.8 boards this season and, at the least, deserves a mention in all-american consideration. Is anyone more underrated than Mike Brey when it comes to developing talent in his program?

NEWARK, NJ - DECEMBER 10: Bonzie Colson #35 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish attempts a shot as Donte DiVincenzo #10 of the Villanova Wildcats defends during the first half of a college basketball game at Prudential Center on December 10, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. Villanova defeated Notre Dame 74-66. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Bonzie Colson (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

5. Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s: Saint Mary’s has found their next great Australian, and that’s Landale. He was super-efficient in limited minutes as a sophomore, but the 6-foot-11 Landale has been playing at like all-american this season for the Gaels. He’s averaging 18.4 points and 8.5 boards while shooting 67.4 percent from the floor as the anchor in Randy Bennett’s offensive attack.

6. Kyron Cartwright, Providence: Ed Cooley has always centered his offensive attack around his point guard. That’s just how he likes to play. Whether it’s Kris Dunn or Bryce Cotton or Vincent Council, Cooley’s has always demanded that his point guards carry a heavy load. The biggest question we had with the Friars this season was who would take on that role this year. Well, we have an answer now: It’s Kyron Cartwright, a player that few outside of the Big East diehards would have heard of entering the season. Cartwright is averaging just 8.8 points on the year, but he’s fifth in the country posting 7.7 assists per night, an incredibly important number for the better-than-we-thought Friars because of the lack of weapons this team has offensively. The fact that he’s doing so while averaging significantly fewer turnovers than Kris Dunn did as a starter is notable as well.

7. John Collins, Wake Forest: Before the season, who would have predicted that Collins would develop into the best player on Demon Deacons? Playing just 24 minutes a game, Collins is posting 18.0 points and 10.7 boards and has already collected six double-doubles on the season, including five in his last five games.

8. Tacko Fall, UCF: The 7-foot-6 Fall is so much more than just a super-tall dude that found his way onto a basketball court. He’s averaging 13.8 points, a nation’s-best 13.1 boards and 2.6 blocks in just 28 minutes a night. He’s running the floor, he’s scoring on post touches and he’s doing it all while staying out of foul trouble, which can be an issue for someone his size. The next step? Improve on that 34.1 percent free throw shooting before Hack-a-Tacko becomes a thing.

9. Kyle Washington, Cincinnati: Washington is another guy who took advantage of a redshirt year and a new environment. After struggling to find minutes in his two seasons at N.C. State, Washington has turned into the best player for the Bearcats, averaging 16.1 points and 8.0 boards for Mick Cronin’s club, who appear to be the favorite in the AAC and are ranked in the top 25.

10. Obi Enechionya, Temple: Enechionya has developed into a real life NBA prospect. He’s turned into Temple’s go-to guy, averaging 18.6 points on the season, but what makes him such an intriguing player is a unique aspect of his skill-set: At 6-foot-10, he’s shooting 49.2 percent from three (while attempting more than six per game) and blocking 2.9 shots a night. No player has averaged three made threes per game and 2.9 blocks per game in a season since 1993, which is as far back as I can find data.

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 11: Isaiah Briscoe #13 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball up court against the Hofstra Pride in the first half of the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival at Barclays Center on December 11, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Isaiah Briscoe  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

TEN MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • 11. Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky: Briscoe has been terrific this season for Kentucky, but it’s hard to rank him in the top ten of this list when the single-biggest flaw in his game – his perimeter shooting – hasn’t gotten much better.
  • 12. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State: Evans has developed into one of the best point guards in the country, but it’s tough to figure out where to rank him because we saw this coming before he got injured at the end of last season.
  • 13. Ben Lammers, Georgia Tech: The bright spot in what will likely be a long Georgia Tech season, Lammers is averaging 15.8 points, 10.8 boards and 4.6 blocks, which leads the country. He averaged 3.6 points and 4.0 boards as a sophomore last year.
  • 14. Khyri Thomas, Creighton: We knew how good Mo Watson Jr. and Marcus Foster would be. I don’t think many expected Thomas to average 13.3 points, shoot 53.3 percent from three and develop into Creighton’s best perimeter defender.
  • 15. Esa Ahmad and Nathan Adrian, West Virginia: The biggest reason that West Virginia hasn’t taken a step back with what they lost last year? Ahmad and Adrian are playing at a borderline all-Big 12 level.
  • 16. Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Thornwell has turned into one of the best non-Kentucky players in the SEC this season. Check this line: 18.7 points, 6.7 boards, 4.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.3 blocks, 48.3 percent on threes. Now he just has to get back from suspension.
  • 17. JaCorey Williams, MTSU: It’s tough to know just how much of this is opportunity and the level he’s playing at, but Williams has gone from averaging 4.5 points at Arkansas to averaging 19.0 points for one of the nation’s most dangerous mid-majors.
  • 18. Kyle Kuzma, Utah: We expected Kuzma to take a step forward this season, and while his scoring numbers aren’t quite as high as I thought they would be, his averages of 15.8 points, 10.3 boards and 3.3 assists for a young Utah team are impressive.
  • 19. Reid Travis, Stanford: Travis came off of injury to be the best player for Stanford this season, averaging 17.7 points and 9.4 boards.
  • 20. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: Swanigan has played his way into all-american consideration, but he’d be higher on this list if his turnover issues hadn’t popped up of late. He has 13 giveaways in his last two games.

No. 22 Tennessee beats No. 3 Kansas 64-50 for Atlantis title

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Tennessee’s players proved to be determined defenders and relentless rebounders, along with having the kind of toughness to ensure the reigning national champions would have little chance to get comfortable.

It was all enough to give the 22nd-ranked Volunteers a title of their own, along with the blueprint that coach Rick Barnes hopes they follow the rest of the year.

Santiago Vescovi scored 20 points while Tennessee locked down on third-ranked Kansas in a 64-50 win Friday night in the championship game at the Battle 4 Atlantis, snapping the Jayhawks’ 17-game winning streak.

Vescovi hit five 3-pointers as the tournament’s most valuable player for the Volunteers (5-1), who dominated the glass, overcame their own turnover troubles and made the Jayhawks work for clean looks. And for the third time in as many days, Tennessee won without leading scorer Josiah-Jordan James (knee soreness).

Perhaps that’s why reserve guard Zakai Zeigler, who had 14 points and four steals, showed up wearing sunglasses to the postgame news conference after the Volunteers had danced and hollered through the on-court trophy ceremony.

“We know if you can’t stop the man in front of you, then you’ll have no shot at winning the game,” Zeigler said, adding: “We just like to play defense, and we just happen to be good at it.”

The Vols held the Jayhawks to 32.1% shooting, bothering them with size and length around the rim. They also took the ball right at the Jayhawks with 5-foot-9 Zeigler leading the way, down to him refusing to let go of a jump ball and trading words with 6-8 forward Jalen Wilson.

Zeigler’s night included a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock at the 7-minute mark to push Tennessee’s lead to 56-38. He followed with another big one from the right wing with 4:42 left after Kansas had closed within 11.

Wilson and Joseph Yesefu each scored 14 points to lead the Jayhawks (6-1), who shot 28.6% in the first half and never warmed up. They made 5 of 21 3-pointers in what was an all-around rough night, from losing starting guard Dajuan Harris to fouls with 9 minutes left to failing to keep the Vols off the glass (45-27).

“We played a team tonight that was older and more mature and obviously played stronger and tougher,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We didn’t handle the situation near as well as what I would hope a poised team would.”

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers opened the tournament with a win over Butler, then grinded through an overtime win against Southern California in Thursday’s semifinals. This time, Tennessee played in front the entire way en route to its first title in three tries at the Atlantis resort.

“I think the main thing from the whole week was stay together through tough times, that’s what you’ve got to do,” Vescovi said.

Kansas: The Jayhawks didn’t have an easy first two days in the Bahamas. First came a battle to the final minutes with North Carolina State. Then came Thursday’s overtime win against Wisconsin on Bobby Pettiford Jr.’s last-second putback. But they never looked in any type of offensive flow this time with their smaller lineup.

“I feel like if we were able to get them out of place and not just have them standing there, waiting to contest a layup, that could’ve gave us some better chances at finishing at the rim,” Wilson said.

STRONG RUN

Tennessee held its three Atlantis opponents to 36.9% shooting and 15 of 59 (25.4%) from 3-point range. The Volunteers also averaged a +9 rebounding margin, ending with having Jonas Aidoo (nine) leading five players snagging at least six rebounds against Kansas.

“You can be a good defensive team but if you can’t be a great one if you give them second and third shots,” Barnes said.

SIDELINED

Beyond Harris’ foul trouble, the Jayhawks played most of the way without Pettiford, who exited midway through the first half grabbing at his right leg.

Afterward, Self said he would be out “for a while” with a hamstring strain.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers return home to host McNeese State on Wednesday.

Kansas: The Jayhawks host Texas Southern on Monday.

BYU erases 23-point deficit, beats Dayton in overtime 79-75

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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NASSAU, Bahamas – Gideon George scored 21 points and combined with Jaxson Robinson and Rudi Williams for BYU’s 15 overtime points as the Cougars came back from a 23-point deficit to beat Dayton 79-75 in overtime Friday.

BYU’s victory came in the seventh-place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.

George’s 3-pointer with 2:19 left in regulation gave BYU (4-3) its first lead after Dayton scored the first 10 points of the game and led 32-9 with six minutes left in the first half.

Mike Sharavjamts’ basket gave the lead back to Dayton but George’s free throw with a minute left sent the game into overtime.

Dayton got the first points in overtime but Robinson’s 3-pointer gave BYU the lead for good halfway through the extra period.

Robinson had 14 points, Dallin Hall 12 and Williams 11 to join George in double figures for BYU.

DaRon Holmes II scored 21 points and Sharavjamts 15 for Dayton (3-4). The Flyers lost starting guards Kobe Elvis and Malachi Smith to lower-body injuries in the second half, Smith with with just seconds left in regulation.

Portland beats Villanova 83-71 in Phil Knight Invitational

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Moses Wood scored 16 points and Portland beat Villanova 83-71 on Friday in the Phil Knight Invitational.

Villanova (2-4) has lost three straight games, including an overtime loss to Iowa State on Thursday to drop below .500 for the first time since March 7, 2012.

Vasilije Vucinic’s layup with 4:16 remaining in the first half gave Portland the lead for good. The Pilots had an eight-point lead at halftime and scored the first 10 points of the second half.

Wood added six rebounds and three blocks for the Pilots (5-3). Tyler Robertson scored 15 points while shooting 6 for 12 (1 for 5 from 3-point range) and added seven rebounds and eight assists. Kristian Sjolund recorded 14 points and shot 5 for 7 (2 for 3 from 3-point range).

Caleb Daniels finished with 18 points and seven rebounds for the Wildcats. Villanova also got 14 points from Jordan Longino. Brandon Slater had 11 points.

Caleb Grill, Iowa State topples No. 1 North Carolina 70-65

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Caleb Grill has followed T.J. Otzelberger from South Dakota State to UNLV and now back to Iowa State hoping the pair could share a moment like they did Friday.

Taking down the No. 1 team in the country was another bookmark moment in a long journey for the pair.

“I’m actually really enjoying sitting next to him from this moment right now just thinking about how long we’ve known each other and how cool this really was,” Otzelberger said.

Grill hit seven 3-pointers and scored a career-high 31 points and Iowa State rallied in the final five minutes to stun No. 1 North Carolina 70-65 in the semifinals of the Phil Knight Invitational.

Iowa State (5-0) picked up just its third win over a team ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25. The Cyclones are 3-22 against No. 1 teams, with the other wins coming against Kansas in 1957 and Oklahoma in 2016.

The Cyclones can now add North Carolina (5-1) to the list.

“I was just staying the course of the game. I never really thought about it and the game just kind of came to me,” Grill said.

Grill was averaging 7.3 points and had made just 4 of 24 3-point attempts for the season entering Friday. But he couldn’t be stopped from beyond the arc, hitting a pair of big 3s to spark Iowa State’s late rally. His deep fadeaway jumper just inside the 3-point line with 1:40 left gave Iowa State a 63-61 lead and the Cyclones did just enough at the free throw line in the final minute to close out the upset victory.

Grill’s previous career high was 27 points while playing for UNLV in the 2020-21 season against Alabama. He also hit seven 3-pointers in that game.

Grill originally signed with South Dakota State when Otzelberger was the coach there. He was released from his commitment when Otzelberger took the head job at UNLV and started his career at Iowa State before deciding to join his coach in Las Vegas.

When Otzelberger returned to Ames, Grill followed again.

“Just having him be the first person that really had belief in me, it’s just really special what he’s done for me and my family and everything we’ve done,” Grill said.

Jaren Holmes added 22 points and the Cyclones withstood off shooting games from Aljaz Kunc and Gabe Kalscheur, who combined for three points and missed all eight of their shot attempts. Both were averaging double figures scoring for Iowa State.

RJ Davis led North Carolina with 15 points, Armando Bacot added 14 and Caleb Love scored 12. But the Tar Heels will lament a series of mistakes in the closing minutes that allowed Iowa State to rally.

“We had wide open threes. We were able to get to the basket. We were able to get whatever we wanted, we just didn’t make those shots,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said.

North Carolina led 57-49 after Leaky Black’s layup with 5:43 left, but missed four of its final six shots and had four turnovers during that span.

“We turned the ball over a couple of times and you just can’t do that in late-game situations,” Davis said. “You have to be sound and discipline and you have to do that on both ends of the floor and we just didn’t do it.”

NO. 1 LOSSES

North Carolina lost as the No. 1 team in the country for the first time since Nov. 21, 2015 when it lost 71-67 at Northern Iowa. The Tar Heels also lost as No. 1 to UNLV in 2011 at a Thanksgiving tournament.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina: Pete Nance wasn’t able to contribute in the same way he did in Thursday’s opening round. Nance, who tied his career high with 28 points against Portland, didn’t score for the first 27 minutes and finished with seven points.

Iowa State: The Cyclones were playing a No. 1 team from outside their conference for the first time since 1999 when they faced Cincinnati in the championship game of the Big Island Invitational.

UP NEXT

Iowa State will face either No. 18 Alabama or No. 20 UConn in the championship game while the Tar Heels will face the loser for third place.

No. 8 Duke locks down late, holds off Xavier 71-64

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
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PORTLAND, Ore. – After a shaky offensive performance in the opening round of the Phil Knight Legacy tournament, Duke coach Jon Scheyer wanted to see Jeremy Roach get back to playing more instinctively, especially at the offensive end of the floor.

Roach responded with a season-high 21 points, Mark Mitchell added 16 and No. 8 Duke withstood Xavier’s second-half comeback for a 71-64 win on Friday.

The Blue Devils (6-1) advanced to the championship game thanks to the play of their standout guard and another strong defensive effort. Roach came one point shy of matching his career high, and the Blue Devils rebounded after an unexpectedly tight victory over Oregon State in the opening round of the event.

Roach was 3 of 14 shooting against Oregon State as the Blue Devils scored a season-low 54 points. He made 9 of 15 shots and had five assists against Xavier.

“There’s a lot that falls on your shoulders so you can end up overthinking it a little bit,” Scheyer said. “The thing that I love for him today is he just was him. And when he’s that way, he is to me the best guard in the country.”

The Musketeers (4-2) were held to two points over the final five minutes and missed their last four shot attempts. Souley Boum scored 23 points and Adam Kunkel had 13. Kunkel didn’t play the last 11 minutes after taking a hard fall committing a foul.

Xavier leading scorer Jack Nudge was 1 of 13 shooting and finished with five points.

“Jack played a great effort. He really did. He was ready for the game. He just had one of those nights where the ball didn’t go in the basket,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said.

At the same time, Miller was disappointed in what he called the “fracturing” he saw from his team.

“There were spurts and segments of the game where I thought we reflected our style, how we’re trying to play, whether it be defense and offense. But there were way too many segments of the game, if not most of the game, where we were at times in our own way,” Miller said.

Mitchell scored seven points in the opening minutes of the second half, including a pair of layups, and he hit a 3-pointer from the wing that gave Duke a 49-36 lead, its largest of the game.

That’s when Xavier’s comeback started. The Musketeers pulled within three points on several occasions, but Duke answered each time. Desmond Claude’s driving layup pulled Xavier within 63-60 with 5:51 left, but Ryan Young scored for Duke and Xavier didn’t make another basket.

Roach’s jumper with 2:40 left pushed Duke’s lead to 69-62.

“We like to play inside out but I mean, when guys are hitting shots it just opens up for everybody else,” Roach said. “Just try to continue to be consistent hitting shots and I think we’ll be fine.”

Kyle Filipowski had 12 points and was not Duke’s leading scorer for the first time in five games.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: The Blue Devils’ dominance on the backboards finally came to an end. Duke had outrebounded each of its first six opponents by double figures, the longest such stretch in school history. But Xavier’s interior size limited Duke to a 33-32 advantage on the glass. The Blue Devils had 12 second-chance points.

Xavier: The Musketeers played an Atlantic Coast Conference team for the first time since beating Virginia Tech in last year’s NIT Season Tip-Off. Xavier dropped to 0-2 against ranked opponents this season, having lost to Indiana last week. The Musketeers will play another ranked foe in Sunday’s third-place game.

UP NEXT

Duke will face the Gonzaga-Purdue winner in the championship game on Sunday, while Xavier will play the loser.