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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)

Duke lands Steward, third commitment in the Class of 2020

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Duke landed their third commitment in the Class of 2020 on Wednesday, as Chicago shooting guard D.J. Steward pledged to play his college ball for Coach K.

A high-volume scorer and potent shot-maker, the 6-foot-2 Steward visited Duke over the weekend before committing.

“Me and my family were amazed on our official visit, we loved the principals of Duke, and how united Duke is as a basketball program,” Steward told Rivals.com. “At Duke I will be able to get the best of both worlds; education wise and on the court playing on the biggest stage possible night in and night out.

“I will get to chase my goals and be one step closer to achieving my dream of playing in the NBA. Also I will be able to develop as a person off the court and as a ball player while playing under the most winningest coach in history, Coach K.”

Steward joins five-star forward Jalen Johnson and five-star point guard Jeremy Roach in Duke’s 2020 recruiting class. Johnson is the quintessential small-ball four that we have seen arrive in Durham in recent classes, while Roach appears to be the heir apparent to Tre Jones at the point guard spot. Steward should fit in nicely playing off the ball for the Blue Devils, who can always use some excess shot-making.

Duke is far from done here, as they are in the mix for the likes of Walker Kessler, Ziaire Williams and Henry Coleman.

New York senator the latest to propose bill to abolish amateurism

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A second state now has legislation in the works that would make it legal for college athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness.

Kevin Parker, a New York state senator from Brooklyn, has proposed a bill similar to California’s Fair Pay To Play act, not only giving college athletes the ability to sell their NIL rights but also requiring athletic departments to give a 15 percent share of their annual revenue to the student-athletes. California’s bill, which will go into effect in 2023 if it is signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, would make removing a student-athlete from their scholarship for accepting endorsement money illegal.

“It’s about equity,” Parker told ESPN. “These young people are adding their skill, talent and labor to these universities.

“You don’t need the shortcuts and the end-arounds because now we’re providing some real support for these student-athletes.”

New York joins the growing list of organizations that are pushing back against the NCAA’s rules on amateurism. South Carolina, Maryland, Colorado and Washington have had legislators discuss whether or not to make similar changes to the law, while Congressmen from North Carolina and Connecticut have made pushes at the federal level. Democratic Presidential candidate Anrew Yang has blasted the NCAA over their amateurism rules, while just last week, NBA agents made public the fact that they will be refusing to register for the NCAA’s proposed certification process.

Rick Pitino, Louisville settle lawsuit

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 19: Head coach Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals looks on in the first half against the Michigan Wolverines during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 19, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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The University of Louisville and former head coach Rick Pitino have reached a joint agreement to drop their lawsuits against each other.

The two sides “have mutually agreed to dismiss their legal claims against each other, designate his departure as a resignation and move forward,” according to a joint statement that was released by the University and Pitino. Pitino will not be paid any money as a result of this settlement, but he departure will now be classified as a resignation, effective Oct. 3rd, 2017.

Pitino had sued Louisville for somewhere around $40 million.

“For 17 years, Coach Pitino ran a program that combined excellence on the court with a commitment to the program’s student-athletes, their academic achievement, and their futures in and out of basketball,” the state said. “Nevertheless, there were NCAA infractions during his term which led to serious consequences for the university. Although these infractions may not have occurred at Pitino’s direction or with his knowledge, the problems leading to NCAA infractions happened under his leadership. We thank Coach Pitino for his years of service to the University of Louisville basketball program and wish him well.”

“Today I move on to a new chapter in my life,” a statement from Pitino reads. “Against my lawyer’s advice, I’m dropping my lawsuit with ULAA. I am very proud of the many accomplishments my teams achieved at Louisville. I’m so thankful and honored to coach such dedicated athletes. I’m also disappointed in how it ended. But as head coach I am held responsible for the actions of all team members. I still have so much passion for the game and so many goals I want to achieve. From this day forward I start my climb.”

Kentucky lands commitments from two more elite prospects

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John Calipari is getting his work done early in the 2020 recruiting class, as he added two more commitments over the weekend.

On Thursday, it was Lance Ware, a 6-foot-10 post player from Camden, New Jersey, that announced his commitment. Ware is a top 50 recruit that held offers from the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Miami. The bigger news, however, came on Saturday afternoon, when Terrance Clarke announced that he will be enrolling at Kentucky whenever he ends his high school tenure. Clarke is currently a member of the Class of 2021, but the plan is for him to reclassify and graduate high school this year.

Clarke is a consensus top three player in 2021 – and he may be the No. 1 player in that class, depending on who you ask – and should immediately vault into the top five of the 2020 recruiting class. An athletic, versatile wing that stands 6-foot-6, Clarke is a potential lottery pick given his physical tools and the way that he projects as multi-positional defender with the ability to create off of the dribble. Ware, like Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery before him, projects as the kind of player that will spend 2-3 years in Lexington.

Clarke and Ware join top ten prospect B.J. Boston and another top 50 recruit, Cam’Ron Fletcher, in Kentucky’s 2020 class. That’s three wings in the class with Johnny Juzang, Kahlil Whitney, Dontaie Allen and Keion Brooks currently on campus. Throw Montgomery into the mix, and that’s eight players that fit somewhere into a lineup as a wing or a face-up big man, and it seems rather unlikely that all five of the guys currently at Kentucky will leave the school this offseason. Put another way, this looks like the end of Kentucky’s pursuit of the likes of Jalen Green and Josh Christopher.

Calipari is still recruiting Cade Cunningham despite the fact that many expect Cunningham to end up at Oklahoma State, where Mike Boynton hired his brother Cannen, but Cade has skyrocketed up the recruiting rankings as he has transitioned to playing the point. Kentucky is still in the mix for a handful of other forwards, including Scottie Barnes, Isaiah Todd and Greg Brown.

Tony Bennett turns down raise, signs contract extension

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Virginia announced that they have signed head coach Tony Bennett to a contract extension, keeping him under contract through the 2025-26 season.

This is not unexpected. He just won the national title. I think he earned a new deal.

What is unique here, however, is that Bennett turned down a raise. He asked for more money for his assistants and for some cash to be put towards improvements in both his program and the other Virginia sports teams, but he passed on getting more money put into his own bank account.

“[My wife] Laurel and I are in a great spot, and in the past I’ve had increases in my contract,” Bennett said in the news release. “We just feel a great peace about where we’re at, all that’s taken place, and how we feel about this athletic department and this community and this school. I love being at UVA.

“… I have more than enough, and if there are ways that this can help out the athletic department, the other programs and coaches, by not tying up so much [in men’s basketball], that’s my desire.”

That’s the dream scenario right there, being rich enough to turn down more money.