Player of the Year Power Rankings: There is no favorite this year

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This is as difficult as it has been since I have been doing the Player of the Year power rankings to pick a frontrunner a month into the season.

Generally speaking, at this point in the year, we have some idea who is the frontrunner for the award, whether it’s Trae Young, or Frank Mason, or Buddy Hield, or Frank Kaminsky.

There is no frontrunner this year, and that’s because so many of the best teams in the country don’t have a favorite for Player of the Year on their own roster, let alone National Player of the Year.

For example, take Michigan. The Wolverines are a top five team that have put together the most impressive start to the season of anyone in the sport, but they probably don’t have anyone on their roster that will end up being an all-american. At Kansas, Dedric Lawson has put up the best numbers but Lagerald Vick has been the guy that’s hit big shots and saved Kansas from losing games. Are you rolling with Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett from Duke? De’Andre Hunter or Ty Jerome from UVA? There’s even an argument to be made that Brandon Clarke and Josh Perkins have been more important to Gonzaga this season. Hell, it was Zach Norvell that sparked the come-from-behind win at Creighton.

I am having trouble deciding if this is a good thing or a bad thing, and I think I’m leaning towards it being a good thing. 

There is plenty of star power in the sport — particularly on Duke — and the fact that there aren’t many teams with just one defined superstar means that there are other teams talented enough to take Duke down. 

Anyway, here are the updated Player of the Year Power Rankings:

1. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

For my money, Williamson still tops this list.

The simple reason is that Williamson is the best player on what I still believe is the best team in the country. That’s enough to earn him a spot at the top of a list like this.

But there’s more to it than that. Williamson currently averaging 20.8 points, 8.8 boards, 2.4 assists, 2.3 blocks and 2.0 steals this season. No one in college basketball has put up that stat line over the course of an entire season since 1992, which is as far back as the database on Basketball Reference goes. This is fun with small sample sizes eight games into a season and with three of those eight games coming against totally overmatched competition, but it is something to keep an eye on as we move forward.

(As an aside, the only other player in the database that that has averaged 20 points, eight boards, two blocks, two steals and two assists is Lamine Diane, a freshman at Cal St.-Northridge who is currently averaging — get this — 25.6 points, 10.8 boards, 2.1 blocks, 2.0 steals and 2.0 assists. Not bad.)

2. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga

The difficult part about ranking Rui this high is that you can make the argument that he wasn’t the best player for Gonzaga in either of their biggest wins. Zach Norvell Jr. was the best player on the Zags, scoring 22 second half points in a come-from-behind win on the road, while Josh Perkins and Brandon Clarke thriving in the roles they’re asked to play is what allowed Gonzaga to beat Duke.

That said, Rui probably has the best “Heisman Moment” this season. It was his bucket that gave Gonzaga an 89-87 lead over the Blue Devils in Maui, and it was his rim protection — along with Clarke — that ensured the win, even if he missed the two free throws that left the door open.

3. LAGERALD VICK, Kansas

No one has made more big shots this season than Vick. No one has saved their team from losing games they have no business losing than Vick. He had 32 points and made eight threes in a game against Vermont where Kansas was trailing in the second half. He had 33 points and hit seven threes in a game against Louisiana where the Jayhawks trailed by 12 points. He scored eight straight in a Kansas win over Tennessee in New York in a game where Udoka Azubuike couldn’t stay on the floor and Quentin Grimes forgot he was a basketball player.

And then this weekend, he scored 27 points to help Kansas avoid an upset home loss to Stanford. That included a three he hit at the end of regulation to force overtime and the first eight points of the overtime period.

Dedric Lawson is averaging 18.8 points, 11.2 boards and 3.5 assists. In four games against high-major competition, he’s averaging 23.5 points, 13.5 boards and 4.0 assists. And there is no question in my mind that Vick, not Lawson, is the Player of the Year candidate from the Jayhawks at this point in the year.

4. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

I’m sure there are going to be plenty of stories written about how Happ has made a leap this season and it is why the Badgers are going to be relevant nationally again this season. I don’t necessarily believe that to be true. Yes, Happ is having a terrific year, but he’s basically doing the same things he’s done in the past. Maybe at a higher level, but he is just as good as he has been for the last three seasons.

The difference?

He has a supporting cast this year. D’Mitrik Trice has been sensational; I’m not sure he’s missed a shot this season. Brad Davison is what we all expected him to be. That’s where the improvement has come for the Badgers, and the result is we’re all starting to see just what we were missing with Happ.

Oh, and it’s worth nothing this: He’s averaging 17.7 points, 10.8 boards and 5.0 assists. That hasn’t been done since 1992, which is as far back as the Basketball Reference database goes.

5. R.J. BARRETT, Duke

The concern with Barrett was how much he was shooting and how inefficient he had been after going 9-for-25 against Gonzaga. In the last two games, Barrett is 21-for-28 from the floor and 4-for-8 from three. One of those games was against Stetson, so it doesn’t count, but he also went 9-for-18 and 2-for-4 from three against Indiana. Is he figuring it out?

6. DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia

Hunter has been terrific this season, impressive enough that he’s climbed into the top five of some mock drafts. The 47.6 percent shooting from three matters, as does his ability to do things like this:

7. JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech

Another come-from-behind win for the Red Raiders, another monster performance from Culver in that win. He had 20 points, six boards, six assists, two steals and two blocks as Texas Tech rallied from a double-digit second half deficit to beat Memphis. They trailed against both Nebraska and USC, and Culver was terrific in leading those comebacks as well.

8. CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue

Purdue has lost three of their last four — all to teams ranked in the top 15 — and Edwards has seen his efficiency plummet as teams have started to figure out just how good he is, especially when compared to the rest Purdue’s roster. Edwards is going to continue to put up massive numbers this season, but it is going to be hard for him to get into a position where he has a real chance to win this award because Purdue seems destined to end up as something closer to a borderline top 25 team than a true contender.

9. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

Williams hasn’t had to do much since the loss to Kansas, a game that he took over in the second half before fouling out. The Vols face off with Gonzaga on Sunday. Buckle-up.

10. NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech

Alexander-Walker has seen his scoring come back to earth a bit in the last three games, but two of those contests were blowouts and the other came in a loss in Virginia Tech’s first true road game of the season. The difference between this year and last year for Alexander-Walker has been how much Buzz Williams has trusted him as a playmaker in ball-screens, something that he rarely had the opportunity to do last year:

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

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.