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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)

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.