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Player of the Year Power Rankings: Frank Mason III goes #BIFM, takes control of race

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1. Frank Mason III, Kansas: For my money, Mason solidified his standing as the National Player of the Year front runner, the guy whose award it is to lose, this week. He was the spark of a comeback from 14 points down in the final three minutes against No. 12 West Virginia and led the Jayhawks back from 12 points down – six in the final three minutes – at No. 9 Baylor on Saturday, the win that solidified what will very shortly be the 13th straight Big 12 title for Bill Self.

Against West Virginia, he had 24 points, five assists and four boards. Against Baylor, Mason played arguably his best game of the season, finishing with 23 points and eight assists in a game where the Jayhawks struggled to find offense for long stretches.

But more to the point, what Mason provides this team is more than the numbers. There’s a competitiveness and a toughness that he brings. At the risk of being too cliché for my own good, he’s a winner and a leader that will drag his teammates along with him even when they aren’t playing well. He’s not the best player on Kansas — that would be Josh Jackson — and he’s probably not even the most valuable — hello, Landen Lucas — but there is no one that is more responsible for the fact that Kansas has won nine of their 12 Big 12 wins by seven or fewer points and seven of those nine by less than five points.

Mason’s numbers are sensational — 20.3 ppg, 5.0 apg, 4.2 rpg, 50.4 percent 3PT — but his numbers simply do not tell the whole story here.

#BIFM indeed.

2. Josh Hart, Villanova: Last week, I tried to make the point that Josh Hart’s Player of the Year bid was going to die on the vine because his season was devoid of moments. That happened before Frank Mason led Kansas to wins in two thrilling comebacks, both of which were games between top ten teams that were the most important matchups of that day. Hart? Played at the same time as Kansas-Baylor on Saturday. He’ll play at the same time as Louisville-North Carolina on Wednesday. Saturday’s matchup with No. 23 Creighton would’ve drawn every eyeball in the sport … if Mo Watson Jr. hadn’t gotten hurt.

He’s a terrific player having a career-year for an awesome team. I don’t think he’s going to be the Player of the Year.

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3. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: Swanigan had one of his best games of the season, going for 24 points, 15 boards and five assists as the Boilermakers beat Michigan State on Saturday. I’m not sure what else there is to say about Swanigan at this point in the season. He’s the best big man in the country, and I’m not quite sure it’s all that close.

4. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: Ball has changed the culture of the UCLA program, at least for this year, and he’s done it with his unselfishness and his ability to create offense out of nothing. But more important than that, since the comeback against Oregon, the one where UCLA game up 0.65 points-per-possession in the final 14 minutes of the game, the Bruins have allowed 0.915 PPP in wins over Oregon State and USC. They become a real title contender again when they are consistently buying in defensively like that.

5. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss averaged 24 points and seven assists in two wins last week, including a 30-burger against San Francisco. He’s the star and the go-to-scorer of the only undefeated team in the country.

6. Luke Kennard, Duke
7. Justin Jackson, North Carolina
8. Donovan Mitchell, Louisville: I wrote about the ACC Player of the Year race in my weekly takeaways column on Monday, but I wanted to elaborate on it.

With all due respect to Bonzie Colson, John Collins and everyone else in that league, I think there is a pretty clear-cut top three for the ACC Player of the Year race. And if I had to pick ACC Player of the Year, it would probably be Justin Jackson over Donovan Mitchell by a whisker — depending on what happens Wednesday night — with Luke Kennard in third.

But if we’re ranking for National Player of the Year, I think that Kennard is first, Jackson is behind him and Mitchell is third out of that group. Hell, having Mitchell ranked eighth overall is somewhat debatable; that’s how poor he played, at least compared to his ACC counterparts, before the start of ACC play.

DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 09:  Luke Kennard #5 of the Duke Blue Devils battles for a loose ball against Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 9, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Luke Kennard and Justin Jackson (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

9. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: Happ ranks fifth in KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings. My only issue with that: It doesn’t factor in that his foul shooting is a real problem, one that has, at times, forced him off the floor in crunch-time. That’s a pretty big concern for a guy that, in all other facets of the game, is criminally-underrated.

10. Josh Jackson, Kansas: What can’t Jackson do on a basketball court? He’s a pro shooting guard that is playing the four for Kansas. He blocks shots at the rim and gets steals on the perimeter. He’s lethal in transition. He’s a spot-up three-point shooter, he can make plays off the dribble and he’s a talented, albeit at times careless, passer. He’s tough, he’s competitive, he’s not afraid of a big moment or a big game.

It’s hard to argue against the fact that he’s been the best player for Kansas over the course of the last month or two. That’s the same Kansas team that Frank Mason III plays for.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
Melo Trimble, Maryland
Malik Monk, Kentucky
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
Joel Berry II, North Carolina
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
Alec Peters, Valparaiso

ACC coaches back idea of all D-I teams in 2021 NCAA tourney

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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RALEIGH, N.C. — Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball coaches are pushing the idea of having next year’s NCAA Tournament include all eligible teams in Division I.

Numerous league schools and coaches released statements Wednesday after the coaches held their weekly call to discuss the proposal, which was first reported by Stadium. There are 357 Division I programs in the country, with NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham saying 346 of those are eligible to play in next year’s tournament.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said the ACC coaches are “united in strongly pursuing this” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that led to the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament days before the field of 68 was set to be revealed. Multiple coaches said creating an everybody-gets-in format would be an incentive for schools as they create the safest conditions possible for returning to play.

“This is not a regular season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative. Most importantly, an all-inclusive postseason tournament will allow a unique and unprecedented opportunity for every team and every student-athlete to compete for a national championship.”

Durham declined comment specifically on the proposal in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday. Last month, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the Division I oversight committees for men’s and women’s basketball planned to announce by mid-September plans for whether the season and preseason practice would start on time or require a delay due to the pandemic.

Louisville coach Chris Mack said the proposal would provide flexibility during the season without mandating a number of nonconference or conference games to be played. And the league has already experienced that scheduling challenge with football and other fall sports.

The ACC announced in July that it would have each football team play 10 league games – including the addition of Notre Dame as a football member this year – and one nonconference game to be played in the home state of the member school. Those schedules were released in early August, slightly more than a month before Thursday’s UAB-Miami game kicks off the season.

“This is a time to think differently,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, adding: “After all these players have been through, what better way to reward them than the opportunity to compete in an unprecedented version of the most exciting event in sports.”

College basketball floats idea of bubbles for safe season

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The NBA bubble has held. So has the NHL’s double bubble. The WNBA and MLS, no leaks.

In this unprecedented landscape of sports in a pandemic world, one indisputable fact has emerged: bubbles work.

Thousands of tests, minimal to no positive COVID-19 test results.

So as the NCAA gets set announce its plans for the 2020-21 college basketball season, there are clear precedents and blueprints in place should it decide to go the bubble route.

“It’s certainly viable,” said Mark Starsiak, vice president of sports at Intersport, a Chicago-based sports marketing and media agency, “From a basketball standpoint, I think we can follow those models.”

The college football restart has been scattershot. The season has already started, yet 53 FBS schools have the pads and helmets hanging on hooks while waiting for better pandemic news.

A much more unified plan is in place for the college basketball season.

The NCAA is hoping to start the season in late November/early December, with a vote by the Division I council expected Sept. 16.

A partnership between the Pac-12 and Quidel Corp. to potentially do daily, rapid COVID-19 tests on athletes should help smooth a return to the court.

The question then becomes: What’s the best way to safely play basketball again?

Bubbles may be the answer.

While bubble football would be next to impossible logistically, basketball could fit nicely.

The travel parties are much smaller and college basketball already has plenty of multiple-team events, from holiday and conference tournaments to the NCAA Tournament. Add the effective safety measures of the pro leagues, find suitable sites and bubble basketball could work.

The NCAA is already looking at it, reportedly filing a trademark for the phrase “Battle in the Bubble.” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also said there have been preliminary talks for bubble basketball at the Mohegan Sun resort.

“The idea of a bubble would be a really good idea, just to isolate all the teams who want to play against each other in that bubble and keep things safe, keep away from the public and keep us in our own area where we’re able to play the game the right way and safely,” Duke sophomore forward Wendell Moore, Jr. said.

A big key will be finding the right places to bubble.

The NBA has the ideal setup at Disney World, but college basketball might be better suited to follow the NHL’s lead.

Hockey’s two bubbles – Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta – cordoned off areas enclosing the arena and several nearby hotels. All personnel entering are tested and strict protocols are in place for vendors delivering food and packages into the bubbles.

Similar bubbles for college basketball could be set up at smaller resorts, cities with arenas and hotels nearby, or Division II or III schools with arenas not being used during the pandemic.

The NCAA could set up pods of multiple nonconference teams, conference tournaments could be held in similar fashion and so could the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, basketball bubbles could pop up all over the country.

“Maybe do it for maybe a week or two at a time, playing a certain amount of games and getting retested after you come back or something like that,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “It’s possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Pulling off a college basketball bubble, however, comes with a caveat.

NCAA players are considered students, so academics would have to be part of the equation.

Division I players are already accustomed to doing school work on the road and the majority take primarily online classes. To make the bubbles work, socially distant space would have to be carved out for the players to take their classes and study.

The programs may also have to rethink the size of their traveling parties.

“Discussions about the right amount of tutors or academic staff would need to take place,” said Starsiak, who has operated high-level sports and entertainment events for 15 years. ”

You have to look at, do we need three managers this time around? No, probably not. Do you take two and have a tutor or an academic come with us? Yeah, I think you could. I think there’s a way to kind of combine both things to have some live, in-person resources.”

The NCAA is going to do everything possible to have a basketball season.

The pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament last spring and the NCAA collected $270 million in cancellation insurance instead of the $1 billion TV payout it normally gets. A second straight year without March Madness could be devastating.

Bubbles may be the way to go.

‘Father of the Final Four’ Tom Jernestedt dies at 75

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INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Jernstedt, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame for his contributions to college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, has died. He was 75.

The NCAA said Sunday Jernstedt died this weekend.

Nicknamed “Father of the Final Four,” Jernstedt has widely been credited with transforming the NCAA Tournament into the billion-dollar March Madness it has become today.

“A decade after his departure from the NCAA, Tom Jernstedt’s fingertips remain visible during March Madness and the Final Four,” NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt said in a statement. “His innovation and superb ability to develop relationships turned a basketball tournament into a three-week phenomenon that became a global event.”

A former back-up quarterback, Jernstedt worked his first Final Four in 1973 and helped push the growth of the NCAA Tournament from 25 teams to the 68, anything-can-happen bonanza held every spring.

Jernstedt helped the NCAA increase its television contract from just over $1 million to more than $10 billion when he left in 2011. He served as president of USA Basketball, was a member of the College Football Selection committee and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2017.

“Tom Jernstedt was a humble and unsung steward of the game,” John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “Under his direction, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament grew into a phenomenon that brings college basketball fans together on a global scale. He will forever be remembered as the Father of the Final Four and one of the most respected leaders in basketball.”

Jernstedt established himself as a team leader despite being a backup quarterback at Oregon from 1964-66 and went on to serve as the Ducks’ events manager. He joined the NCAA in 1972 and spent 38 years with the organization.

“Tom served as a friend and mentor to countless people in and around collegiate athletics, and I’m proud to be among that vast group of people,” Gavitt said. “His legacy within the NCAA and its membership, and his impact on the sport of college basketball, is eternal. We extend our deepest condolences to Tom’s family.”

Aztecs extend Brian Dutcher’s contract 3 years through 2026

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN DIEGO — San Diego State basketball coach Brian Dutcher has signed a three-year contract extension through the 2025-26 season.

Dutcher signed the deal following one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Aztecs went 30-2, won the Mountain West regular-season title and were expected to be a No. 1 or 2 seed before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. They opened the season 26-0 and were the nation’s last undefeated team.

“Having spent more than 20 years at San Diego State University I understand what a special place this is,” Dutcher said in a statement Friday. “I am humbled and honored to continue to represent SDSU and Aztec Basketball as its head coach.”

Dutcher is 73-26 in three seasons, the most victories by an Aztecs coach in his first three seasons. He spent 18 seasons as Steve Fisher’s top assistant, including six as associate head coach/head coach in waiting. He took over as head coach after Fisher retired following the 2016-17 season. The Aztecs reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season.

Before that, he spent 10 seasons with Fisher at Michigan. In Dutcher’s first season with the Wolverines, Fisher was promoted to interim head coach on the eve of the NCAA Tournament and won the national championship.

Indiana halts all voluntary workouts

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Indiana has halted all voluntary workouts indefinitely for its men’s basketball, field hockey, men’s soccer and wrestling teams after 14 participants tested positive for the coronavirus this week.

The Hoosiers did not identify which teams recorded the positive tests. The football team, like other Big Ten programs, is not playing this fall. Indiana said 63 positives have been reported from more than 1,400 tests of athletes, coaches and staff since June 8.

“Our athletic program is following strict protocols during these unprecedented times and we strongly support our medical staff as we try and mitigate this issue,” men’s basketball coach Archie Miller said.