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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:

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.

NCAA urges California governor not to sign ‘fair pay’ bill

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The NCAA Board of Governors wants California Gov. Gavin Newsom to reject a new attempt to pay college athletes.

And it is prepared to take the fight to court if necessary.

In a six-paragraph letter released Wednesday, the board urged Newsom not to sign the legislation known as the Fair Pay to Play Act, which would allow college athletes to be paid for the use of their names, likenesses and images. The move comes two days after approval of the measure by the California Assembly, with the state Senate expected to consider the measure later this week.

The board warned that California schools may be declared ineligible for NCAA competition if the bill becomes law because they would have an unfair recruiting advantage.

“We’ve explored how it might impact the association and what it might do. We believe it would inappropriately affect interstate commerce,” Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief operating officer and chief legal officer, told The Associated Press. “It is not intended to be a threat at all. It’s a reflection about the way California is going about this.

“I’m not saying there will never be a day we would consider that (legal action), but it is not meant to be a threat,” Remy said.

The NCAA said the measure would affect more than 24,000 athletes in the nation’s most populous state.

Should the bill pass, Newsom would have 30 days to sign or veto it. If he does nothing, the bill would become law. It would be the first measure of its kind and the outcome is being closely watched as one of the biggest challenges in years to the NCAA’s longstanding and far-reaching model of amateur sports. Over the past decade, that model has come under increasing pressure – and attacks in court – as critics push for big-time college athletics to clear the way for the athletes themselves to benefit financially.

NCAA rules prohibit athletes from profiting off their athletic skills. The organization, however, has recently begun considering rules changes to loosen those restrictions, though NCAA President Mark Emmert – and the board again on Wednesday – insist that players cannot be paid or become the equivalent of a university employee. Formal recommendations are expected to be made at the board’s October meeting.

It appears there is an appetite for significant changes.

Board members met with the working group studying these issues in August but neither Remy nor board member Denis McDonough would discuss specific proposals.

“The rules that we operate under, many of which date to 1975, may not be suitable for us in 2021 with the challenges and opportunities student-athletes face,” said McDonough, the White House chief of staff under President Barack Obama. “So we are and have been taking a very close look at how we can modernize those rules. We’re hoping the state of California would recognize that modernizing those rules for student-athletes across the country is the best way to do that.”

Supporters think those changes are already overdue and believe California’s elected officials should act now.

“The NCAA’s assertions are purposefully misleading,” said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association. “The 9th Circuit upheld a ruling concluding that the NCAA’s ban on player name, image, and likeness compensation does not bring forth a level playing field. The Big 12 commissioner stated competitive equity is `largely an illusion.’

“NCAA amateurism is a fraud. It’s a $14 billion a year industry with millionaire coaches. An NCAA ban on California colleges would amount to an illegal group boycott that would violate federal and California antitrust laws.”

The NCAA believes the California measure would violate the federal Commerce Clause and may not withstand a legal challenge; Remy cited a previous case in California in which the state tried to inhibit the NCAA from enforcing its rules. The NCAA won that case.

Should the measure pass, Remy said, the NCAA would penalize the schools, not individual athletes.

“There are two parts to this and part of this is the membership and that includes the California schools,” Remy said. “Schools and universities agree to comply with the rules of (NCAA) membership and there are a set of eligibility criteria that go along with being member institution. The California schools have consented to that criterion. So in that context it would be the schools that would directly impacted.”

Road To Redemption: How Virginia went from losing to 16 seed to winning title

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Over the course of the next month, we will be taking a look at some of the most memorable and important things that happened during the 2018-19 season and what kind of impact those moments are going to have on the 2019-20 season.

We’ll start with the obvious: Those Virginia Cavaliers.

Without question, the single best and most memorable moment from the 2018-19 college basketball season was The Redemption.

Less than 13 months removed from suffering what will go down as the most humiliating and demoralizing defeat in the history of college basketball – if not sports, period – Virginia went out and won the Whole. Damn. Thing.

And oh buddy, was it a roller coaster ride.

In the opening round, in their first game against a No. 16 seed since they became the first team to lose to a No. 16 seed, Virginia dug themselves a 14 point first half hole against Gardner-Webb before pulling their collective heads out of their, ahem, keisters and rolling to a win. The ‘Hoos handled Oklahoma with relative ease in the second round to advance to the second weekend, where that postseason roller coaster ride got an injection of Dominic Toretto’s NoS.

In the Sweet 16 against Oregon, Kihei Clark ended an 18-5 Duck run by burying a three and, two possessions later, finding Ty Jerome for another triple, giving UVA a lead that they would never surrender after they blew a lead they shouldn’t have lost. Virginia’s Elite Eight win will go down as one of the best NCAA tournament games of the decade. UVA survived Carsen Edwards going Super Saiyan while lighting up college basketball’s best defender in De’Andre Hunter for 42 points, and they did so thanks in very large part to one of the best and most instinctual plays you’ll ever see a college kid make:

Again, it was Clark coming to the rescue, as Virginia found a way to not only beat Purdue, but cover a 4.5 point spread in the overtime period.

Not that I’m still bitter or anything.

That brings us to the Final Four, the first of Tony Bennett’s illustrious career, where those Wahoos did their very best to make everyone believe they had not left their inner choke artist behind. Thanks to a couple of bone-headed fouls by Ty Jerome followed Auburn’s Bryce Brown making a pair of critical three-balls, Virginia blew a 57-47 lead in all of 3:16. In the blink of an eye, they found themselves down 61-57 with 17 seconds left after a pair of Anfernee McLemore free throws.

This time, it was Kyle Guy coming to the rescue. He buried a three with nine seconds left to cut the lead to one, and after Jared Harper missed one of two free throws, Guy was – controversially, but correctly – fouled while shooting a three with just 0.6 seconds on the clock. He would step to the line and swish not one, not two, but all three free throws, sending Virginia to the national title game, where they would face off with Texas Tech, a matchup that was billed as the worst national title game of all-time.

And that prediction turned out very, very wrong.

It took a while to get going, but by the time the final ten minutes rolled around, the battle between the two best defenses in all of college basketball was as intense and as physical as any game this year. We knew that was coming. What we didn’t know was that it would be the offenses for both those programs that would take over, as the shot-making and execution in the second half reached a level we rarely see in the college game. That said, Virginia again blew a double-digit second half lead, getting to overtime when Jerome found Hunter in the corner for a game-tying three with 12 seconds left:

Virginia would take the lead in the extra frame on another Hunter three with 2:10 remaining, pulling away to win 85-77 and cut down the nets for the first time in program history.

It was a wild ride, one that ended the opportunity for the dummies out there to criticize Tony Bennett’s coaching acumen because of a couple of fluky, unlucky tournament results.

But for my money, what made the turnaround so memorable – and what truly cemented Bennett’s standing as arguably the best in the game today – has everything to do with how Virginia changed the way they play after UMBC.


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Before we get into the changes that Virginia actually made, I think it is important to put into context what actually happened in that loss to UMBC.

As Hunter has been quick to remind his teammates – over and over again – he did not play in Virginia’s loss to UMBC. He fractured his wrist before the start of the tournament, and the hole that he left in the lineup was drastically bigger than his 6-foot-7 frame. You see, Hunter was the guy that made Virginia matchup proof. He was the best, most versatile defender in all of college basketball as a sophomore. When Virginia won at North Carolina earlier this year, Hunter was, at different points throughout the game, matched up on lottery pick point guard Coby White, lottery pick wing Cameron Johnson and All-American power forward Luke Maye.

That’s who Hunter was as a freshman, too.

He was and is a monster defensively. 

Back to UMBC, the America East champs had a team that, in 2018, played a lineup with four guards and often had five players on the perimeter. It would not have been an issue to throw Hunter on any of them, especially since he was good enough offensively to be able to take complete advantage of that matchup on the other end of the floor. He was, after all, the No. 4 pick in June’s draft. He would have been a mid-first round pick had he left a year earlier.

But without Hunter on the floor, Bennett ran into a problem: He needed to play two bigs because of the offense that he ran, but none of Jack Salt, Isaiah Wilkins or Mamadi Diakite were going to be able to duplicate what Hunter could do. They couldn’t stay with those little UMBC guards, and they weren’t good enough offensively to take advantage of the mismatch on the offensive end. When UVA went small, it just meant that Nigel Johnson had to play more and, well, that was not ideal.

Now, look. Hunter’s absence is not a valid excuse for this loss. Virginia was still a much, much better team even without their best player. They played their worst game on a night where UMBC absolutely caught lightning in a bottle. It got into their heads. Jairus Lyles played the game of his life. UMBC ran away with the win. Weird things happen when college kids play sports. What can I say.

But Hunter’s absence and the slight matchup advantage that gave UMBC over UVA certainly played a major role in how this game played out, and I think it is fair to say that this game would have been much closer, and, in all likelihood, had a different result, with Hunter on the floor.

Here’s the proof.

These two clips are the same play. In the first example, Jerome finds Hunter for a game-tying three in the national title game. In the second example, Jerome finds Wilkins, who is not a shooter and the play results in yet another missed three in Virginia’s loss to UMBC:

“That situation made me take a look at a lot of things,” Bennett told me during last year’s Final Four. “From a basketball standpoint, that was such a pivotal moment.”

As I reported then, what Bennett did was reach out to former Wisconsin Badger Kirk Penney, a man he calls “a little brother to me.” Penney had played in the NBA and all over Europe before finishing out his career in New Zealand, so Bennett asked him, “In all your experiences, did you run any stuff that opens up the court more?”

Turns out, Penney had.

He knew exactly what Bennett needed.

You see, Bennett had spent the majority of his time in Charlottesville running the Blocker-Mover offense that his father created. That offense is fairly simple – there are three perimeter players on the floor, the “movers”, that continuously run off of screens that are set by the two bigs, the “blockers”:

But as effective as Virginia has been running Blocker-Mover in the past, running that offense with his 2018-19 roster makeup didn’t make sense. And again, this was because of De’Andre Hunter.

Hunter was the prototype college four. At 6-foot-7 and a strong 225 pounds, he’s big enough to guards fours while simultaneously taking advantage of them with his ability to shoot and beat slower defenders with straight-line drives. But he was also far and away the most talented player on the Virginia roster, and running Blocker-Mover would put Bennett in a position where he was forced to either play Hunter in a role where he was predominantly a screener or put him in a position where he was going to be defended by college threes doing something – specifically, running off of pindowns and flare screens – that is not his forte.

Enter Penney, who helped Virginia install a Ball-Screen Continuity offense, what Virginia called their “Flow Continuity.”

Again, the concept of this offense is fairly simple. The goal is to get open-side ball-screens, which just means having a big screening for a guard on one side of the floor with three players – preferably shooters – spacing on the opposite side. If nothing comes of the first ball-screen, the offense is designed for the ball to end up in a second ball-screen with the sides of the floor reversed. It’s run until a they get a shot, hence “continuity.”

It’s easier to show it than to explain it:

This is not something that Virginia has ever really run before this season.

Which brings me back to that game-tying three in the national title game.

While it’s not exactly the continuity ball-screen, it is a high-ball screen for Jerome. He did what he does so well: He got into the paint, he drew defenders and he found the guy everyone forgot about.

Now, one of the reasons that this worked so well for Virginia is that they had the players to execute it. Hunter was the best basketball player not named Zion Williamson in college basketball last season. Jerome was as good as anyone as the handler in a ball-screen, and he also happens to be an elite shooter that can run off of screens just as effectively. Guy was one of the very best shooters in the country. Clark is a defensive menace that allowed Jerome to move off the ball when necessary.

That changes next year.

Hunter, Jerome and Guy are all on NBA rosters. They will be replaced by Braxton Key, Tomas Woldetensae, Kody Stattman and Clark. Clark proved himself to be much better than I ever gave him credit for last season, but being effective in last year’s role and taking over full-time point guard duties for an All-American like Jerome are two very different things. Woldetensae and Stattman can both shoot, but they are not the shooters that Guy was. And most important, Key is a good player and can play the same position that Hunter played, but he’s not the player that Hunter was. If Hunter is Kraft Mac and Cheese, Key is whatever brand they carry at Aldi.

That puts Bennett in a tough position this season.

Because he doesn’t really have the guards to run his flow continuity offense as effectively as he did last year, but the guys that project as his starting bigs – Jay Huff and Diakite – fit a ball-screen heavy offense better than they do the Blocker-Mover. Huff is 7-foot-1 with ridiculous length, and he shot 14-for-31 from three this past season. He’s more or less the perfect five for ball-screen actions because he can catch a lob as a roll-man as effectively as he can bury a three when he picks-and-pops. Diakite can make threes as well, and he’s even more effective as a roll-man.

So I really don’t know what Virginia is going to look like next season.

Like Villanova last year, they are not exactly built to withstand that many critical pieces leaving with eligibility remaining.

My best guess? We see a lot of lineups with Key, Diakite and Huff on the floor at the same time as Bennett figures out exactly how he is going to be able to work in a guy like Woldetensae, who has never been asked to defend near the level he will have to defend with Virginia, and how he can effectively use Clark.

But I certainly expect Bennett to figure something out.

That’s just what he does.

The ‘Hoos will have some growing pains, and asking them to compete with Duke, Louisville and even North Carolina in what appears to be a three-horse race for the ACC title is tough, but I’d be shocked if they enter the NCAA tournament as anything other than a top four seed.

Boston College guard Wynston Tabbs to miss season due to knee surgery

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Boston College sophomore guard Wynston Tabbs will miss the entirety of the 2019-20 as he will undergo surgery on his left knee, the school announced on Wednesday.

This is an injury that has been plaguing Tabbs since last season, when he averaged 13.9 points but played in just 15 games.

“While I won’t be able to play this season,  I know that it is a temporary setback and I will be back stronger than ever before,” Tabbs said in a press release from the school.  “I want to thank my family, the Boston College Basketball program, and all our fans for their continued support. I’ve overcome obstacles before in my life and will work tirelessly to overcome this one. I am built for this.”

Tabbs has all-ACC potential and was going to be counted on to help fill the void left by Ky Bowman.