Player Of The Year Power Rankings: Barrett drops, Happ rises, Culver emerges

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Every year, within the first month of the season, a leader for National Player of the Year begins to emerge.

Last season, we knew by the PK 80 that Trae Young was going to be the leader in the clubhouse for the Player of the Year awards. He was eventually caught by Jalen Brunson the same way that Buddy Hield, in 2016, was caught by Denzel Valentine. In 2017, Frank Mason more or less held the lead in the Player of the Year race from day one, and in 2015, Frank Kaminsky was either first or second — behind Jahlil Okafor — for the entire season.

This year, no one has really emerged.

The guys on Duke have been terrific, but it’s hard to decipher between the two and the guy that gets all the shots (R.J. Barrett) misses all the shots, too. Rui Hachimura was terrific in the Maui Invitational, but not to the point that he’s set himself apart form the field. Ethan Happ might be the leader if this was an MVP race, although Carsen Edwards would have a strong case, while De’Andre Hunter looks every bit the part of a lottery pick as he battles with teammate Ty Jerome for “Best On UVA” honors.

1. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga (Last Week: 4)

  • 21.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 50.0% 3PT

I’m going with Rui as the leader for National Player of the Year as of today. His numbers justify it, as do his performances against the best teams in the country. In Maui, he averaged 22.3 points and 6.0 boards while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. His best game of the season came in Gonzaga’s win over Duke, in which he went for 20 points, seven boards, five assists and three blocks and not only scored the game-winning bucket but notched a pair of game-saving blocks in the final minutes.

He’s embraced the idea that he is the alpha on this Gonzaga team, and it is sure going to be fun to see how that plays out over the course of the next three weeks; Gonzaga will play at Creighton, host Washington, get Tennessee on a neutral and play at North Carolina before Dec. 15th.

2. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke (2)

  • 20.7 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 2.7 bpg, 2.2 apg, 1.5 spg

I’m slotting Williamson in as the highest-ranked Duke player due in part to his efficiency — his offensive rating is 134.6 on a usage rate of 28.6 — for those that aren’t analytically-inclined, that is an astonishingly high number — and in part to the presence that he provides Duke defensively. He is not only an elite shot-blocker that can jump passing lanes, but he’s a terrific rebounder on both ends of the floor and the sparkplug that makes their transition game operate.

We’ve all see the stat by now: R.J. Barrett has missed 74 shots this season while Williamson has attempted just 75. At some point, head coach Mike Krzyzewski will figure out that his biggest and most difficult player to guard is Williamson, and that the single-most efficient source of offensive for Duke in the halfcourt this season has been Zion Williamson in isolation. How do you stop a 280 pound man that can get to the rim in one dribble like this?:

3. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin (5)

  • 17.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 5.7 apg, 1.7 bpg

Happ still hasn’t developed into the shooter we all wanted him to be, but he has taken a fairly significant leap this season in his ability to read defenses and pass out of them. In previous seasons, one of the easiest ways to render Happ ineffective was to send a double-team at him in the post. He’s reading those double-teams better this season, and he’s more comfortable passing out of them. In six games, he has 34 assists this season. Against Virginia in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game, he finished with six assists and totally took the Wahoos out of what they wanted to do defensively — double the post.

Through six games, Happ has reached a double-double with more than five assists five times already, including a triple-double in the season opener. Minnesota’s jordan Murphy and Oregon State’s Tres Tinkle — three times each — are the only other players to have posted that stat line more than twice this season.

4. R.J. BARRETT, Duke (1)

  • 22.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.0 apg, 40.8% FG, 31.6% 3PT

What’s the old saying? The only person able to Michael Jordan was Dean Smith?

That’s the way it feels when talking about Zion Williamson, except the only person that can keep him from scoring on every possession is R.J. Barrett.

I talked about this on the podcast embedded above, but I don’t really have an issue with Barrett’s alpha mentality. I like that he demands the ball in big moments. I like that he wants to take game-winning shots. I like the confidence that he has in himself that even though he has missed three in a row, the next one is going to go in. Yes, he needs to be able to see and make this pass, but he’s also an 18 year old playing in the biggest game he’s ever played in. He’ll learn. I’m not worried about that.

That said, his inefficiency and, frankly, selfishness does mean that I need to drop him in these rankings. There’s nothing wrong with being a ball- and shot-dominant player, but there it when you do it as inefficiently as Barrett does on a team with as much talent as Duke has. To put it into context, there are just three high-major players with a usage rate higher than Barrett’s: Carsen Edwards, Ethan Happ and Butler’s Kamar Baldwin. Here is how their efficiency stacks up:

5. CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue (3)

  • 25.3 ppg, 4.2 apg, 41.0% 3PT

The graphic above basically says it all. For comparison’s sake, Jalen Brunson had one of the most efficient seasons in memory last year, and he finished with an offensive rating of 128.5 with a usage rate of 26.0. Trae Young checked in at 112.1 with a usage rate of 38.5.

6. DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia (UR)

  • 16.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.3 apg, 46.7% 3PT

Picking between Hunter and Ty Jerome is difficult, but I think I lean Hunter this week. He was awesome as the Cavaliers won the Battle 4 Atlantis title while Jerome struggled a bit with his shot. This is going to be a constant point of contention for me. Hunter is Virginia’s best player, but Jerome may be their most valuable.

7. JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech (UR)

  • 18.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.3 apg, 50.0% 3PT

I’m not sure there is a more improved player in college basketball this season than Jarrett Culver. The Texas Tech sophomore has gone from being a good piece on Texas Tech to being a star, a playmaker that the Red Raiders can run their offense through. As a freshman, less than 10 percent of Culver’s offensive possessions came as a ball-handler in pick-and-rolls. When you include passes, the 0.746 points-per-possession that he produced in ball-screens was in the 28th percentile nationally.

This year, 24.8 percent of his possessions come in ball-screens, and he’s produced 1.351 PPP in those actions when you include assists, good for the 97th percentile nationally. Culver hasn’t replaced Zhaire Smith. He’s replaced Keenan Evans.

8. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas (UR)

  • 17.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 3.8 apg

Picking who the Player of the Year on Kansas is this season is tough. On the one hand, the Jayhawks might have lost at home to Vermont and/or Louisiana if Lagerald Vick hadn’t gone full Steph Curry, scoring 65 points and shooting 15-for-20 from three in those two games combined.

But Lawson has been the best player for the Jayhawks is their three games against high-major competition, and it’s really not all that close. Against Michigan State, Marquette and Tennessee, Lawson is averaging 23.3 points, 13.0 boards and 4.7 assists, and while his efficiency is not quite at a level you would like ideally, he’s the piece that Self can run his offense around and through. That earns him a spot on this list.

9. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee (6)

  • 21.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.2 bpg, 1.2 spg

Let’s ignore, for a second, the first game of the season, where Tennessee played a non-Division I opponent. In the four games since — against Louisiana, Georgia Tech, Louisville and Kansas — Grant Williams has averaged 23.8 points, 8.8 boards, 4.0 assists, 1.0 blocks and 1.0 steals. He was the best player on the floor for Tennessee in their win over Louisville. As Bill Self put it after his Jayhawks managed to dispatch Tennessee in the finals of the Preseason NIT, “we may not play a better player all year than Grant Williams. He’s a load.”

Tennessee plays Gonzaga on December 9th. Buckle up.

10. NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech (7)

  • 19.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.4 apg, 2.4 spg, 53.5/40.0/92.3

Alexander-Walker has been terrific this season. Virginia Tech has looked like a team capable of finishing top four in the ACC this season, and his improvement is one of the biggest reasons why. He’s scoring at a more efficient clip, he’s become a playmaker defensively and he’s averaging 4.4 assists through five games. We’ll see if he can continue at this pace throughout the season, but there’s no doubt that he’s earned his spot on this list today.

Dropped Out: 8. Cameron Johnson (North Carolina), 9. Ty Jerome (Virginia), 10. Lagerald Vick (Kansas)

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.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.