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Player of the Year Power Rankings: Ja Morant moves into the top five

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1. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

Zion did it again on Monday night.

He finished with 35 points — a record for freshman at Duke — to go along with 10 boards and four blocks, but it wasn’t enough for Duke to take down Syracuse at home. (More on that in the R.J. Barrett section.) With all due respect to the other players on this list, I really don’t think the race is all that close at the moment.

2. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

Tennessee went into Florida, found themselves in a dogfight and left with a win. Grant Williams had 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting, nine boards, four assists, two blocks and two steals in the win.

Then he gator-chomped his way back to Knoxville. If you can’t appreciate how good this young man is, you don’t know basketball.

3. MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette

Howard had 26 points, six boards and six assists in a win over a good Seton Hall team on Saturday, and no one paid any attention to it. That’s a career game for like 99.8% of the players in college basketball. It was less than half the number of points he scored on Wednesday.

Just soak this in.

4. JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech

After a relatively slow night in a win over Kansas State, Culver bounced back with 23 points and 13 boards in a over Oklahoma and 14 points, nine boards and six assists as the Red Raiders won in Austin.

5. JA MORANT, Murray State

After going for 17 points and 14 assists in a win over Southeast Missouri State on Saturday, Morant is now averaging 23.1 points and 10.7 assists on the season. He is gong to end up being a top five pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and it’s hard to think that he is anything other than a star in waiting. Enough of the nonsense, it’s time to get him into the top five.

6. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

Lawson continues to be the anchor for the Jayhawks offensively, although the last two games has seen his offensive output somewhat limited. He did have five blocks and five steals against Baylor, but only attempted eight shots in 26 minutes in a win over Texas.

7. R.J. BARRETT, Duke

I dropped Barrett down because, after seeing Duke play without Zion Williamson, Tre Jones and Cam Reddish over the course of the last three days, I think that it is safe to say that Barrett is the third-most valuable player on this Duke team.

Zion is clearly at the top of that list, but at this point, I am of the mindset that Jones is more important to Duke’s success than Barrett is because Jones provides something that no one else on Duke — and very few players around the country — are capable of doing.

For starters, there is what he can do as a point guard with the ball in his hands. He’s a leader and a distributor that is not worried about his numbers or his stats beyond his team’s record. All of those cliches that coaches love to spout about point guards define who Jones is as a player, but more importantly, his presence on the floor means that Barrett is able to slide into a position that better suits his skill-set.

Barrett is a scorer first and foremost, and while he can play with the ball in his hands and is capable of finding assists, what he does best is attack to score. When Jones was out last night and Barrett was forced to play the point, not only did it take a true point guard off the court, but it forced Barrett to play his second-best position.

I think Barrett’s 8-for-30 shooting performance with a crisp 4-for-17 from three speaks for itself here, but it is also important to put those numbers into context. Not only was Duke playing without Jones, they were playing without Cam Reddish, who is the best shooter and the second-most talented offensive weapon on the roster behind Barrett. Combine all of that with the fact that Syracuse sold out in the second half, essentially enveloping their zone around Zion Williamson and daring Duke to beat them from the perimeter — they just stopped guarding Jack White, who was 0-for-10 from three — and what you got was a situation where Barrett’s only real option was to try and win that game himself.

Put another way, I’m far more concerned with the fact that Barrett missed 22 shots and 13 threes than I am with the fact that he took them. It’s a bad sign that he is not a good shooter. It’s not a bad sign he tried to take over a game he needed to take over for Duke to have a chance to win.

And I still haven’t gotten to the point that I need to make about how good Jones is on the defensive end of the floor.

Duke is never going to be a great perimeter shooting team, and frankly, they can be a bad halfcourt team against teams that can keep them in front and rebound the ball. That issue is somewhat mitigated when Jones is on the floor because of how disruptive he can be defensively. It starts with the simple pick-six buckets that he creates off of turnovers, but there is more to it than that. His ball pressure forces offenses to start further out, he makes it a nightmare for an opposing team’s point guard to initiate a set and that, in turn, creates more missed shots. Missed shots lead to fast breaks, and fast breaks mean that Duke does not have to try and score against a set defense.

Can Barrett truly be a first-team all-american if he is the third-most valuable player on his team?

Maybe, but with the number of worthy candidates this year, it’s a tough sell for me.

8. SHAMORIE PONDS, St. John’s

Ponds finished with 23 points and six assists in a loss at Villanova, but when the Johnnies needed him to make some big plays down the stretch, he wasn’t there. He then missed a home game against DePaul, which St. John’s lost 79-71 and reemphasized just how valuable he is.

9. BRANDON CLARKE, Gonzaga

I think I am back on the bandwagon of Brandon Clarke being Gonzaga’s best, and more important, player. He was terrific in their win at San Francisco, leading the team with 24 points and nine boards and coming up with a crucial block in the final minutes. He’s the best defender in college basketball.

10. CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State

Quietly, Michigan State is starting to look like they might push Michigan for the title of the Big Ten’s best. The Spartans now rank ahead of the Wolverines on KenPom and are one of just three teams that are in the top ten in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. The reason why is Cassius Winston, who is having a phenomenal season and may be the best pure point guard in college basketball. It’s time to pay attention to him.

IN THE MIX: Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Virginia Tech), Jordan Caroline (Nevada), Carsen Edwards (Purdue), Rui Hachimura (Gonzaga), Ethan Happ (Wisconsin), De’Andre Hunter (Virginia), Charles Matthews (Michigan)

ACC coaches back idea of all D-I teams in 2021 NCAA tourney

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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RALEIGH, N.C. — Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball coaches are pushing the idea of having next year’s NCAA Tournament include all eligible teams in Division I.

Numerous league schools and coaches released statements Wednesday after the coaches held their weekly call to discuss the proposal, which was first reported by Stadium. There are 357 Division I programs in the country, with NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham saying 346 of those are eligible to play in next year’s tournament.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said the ACC coaches are “united in strongly pursuing this” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that led to the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament days before the field of 68 was set to be revealed. Multiple coaches said creating an everybody-gets-in format would be an incentive for schools as they create the safest conditions possible for returning to play.

“This is not a regular season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative. Most importantly, an all-inclusive postseason tournament will allow a unique and unprecedented opportunity for every team and every student-athlete to compete for a national championship.”

Durham declined comment specifically on the proposal in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday. Last month, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the Division I oversight committees for men’s and women’s basketball planned to announce by mid-September plans for whether the season and preseason practice would start on time or require a delay due to the pandemic.

Louisville coach Chris Mack said the proposal would provide flexibility during the season without mandating a number of nonconference or conference games to be played. And the league has already experienced that scheduling challenge with football and other fall sports.

The ACC announced in July that it would have each football team play 10 league games – including the addition of Notre Dame as a football member this year – and one nonconference game to be played in the home state of the member school. Those schedules were released in early August, slightly more than a month before Thursday’s UAB-Miami game kicks off the season.

“This is a time to think differently,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, adding: “After all these players have been through, what better way to reward them than the opportunity to compete in an unprecedented version of the most exciting event in sports.”

College basketball floats idea of bubbles for safe season

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The NBA bubble has held. So has the NHL’s double bubble. The WNBA and MLS, no leaks.

In this unprecedented landscape of sports in a pandemic world, one indisputable fact has emerged: bubbles work.

Thousands of tests, minimal to no positive COVID-19 test results.

So as the NCAA gets set announce its plans for the 2020-21 college basketball season, there are clear precedents and blueprints in place should it decide to go the bubble route.

“It’s certainly viable,” said Mark Starsiak, vice president of sports at Intersport, a Chicago-based sports marketing and media agency, “From a basketball standpoint, I think we can follow those models.”

The college football restart has been scattershot. The season has already started, yet 53 FBS schools have the pads and helmets hanging on hooks while waiting for better pandemic news.

A much more unified plan is in place for the college basketball season.

The NCAA is hoping to start the season in late November/early December, with a vote by the Division I council expected Sept. 16.

A partnership between the Pac-12 and Quidel Corp. to potentially do daily, rapid COVID-19 tests on athletes should help smooth a return to the court.

The question then becomes: What’s the best way to safely play basketball again?

Bubbles may be the answer.

While bubble football would be next to impossible logistically, basketball could fit nicely.

The travel parties are much smaller and college basketball already has plenty of multiple-team events, from holiday and conference tournaments to the NCAA Tournament. Add the effective safety measures of the pro leagues, find suitable sites and bubble basketball could work.

The NCAA is already looking at it, reportedly filing a trademark for the phrase “Battle in the Bubble.” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also said there have been preliminary talks for bubble basketball at the Mohegan Sun resort.

“The idea of a bubble would be a really good idea, just to isolate all the teams who want to play against each other in that bubble and keep things safe, keep away from the public and keep us in our own area where we’re able to play the game the right way and safely,” Duke sophomore forward Wendell Moore, Jr. said.

A big key will be finding the right places to bubble.

The NBA has the ideal setup at Disney World, but college basketball might be better suited to follow the NHL’s lead.

Hockey’s two bubbles – Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta – cordoned off areas enclosing the arena and several nearby hotels. All personnel entering are tested and strict protocols are in place for vendors delivering food and packages into the bubbles.

Similar bubbles for college basketball could be set up at smaller resorts, cities with arenas and hotels nearby, or Division II or III schools with arenas not being used during the pandemic.

The NCAA could set up pods of multiple nonconference teams, conference tournaments could be held in similar fashion and so could the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, basketball bubbles could pop up all over the country.

“Maybe do it for maybe a week or two at a time, playing a certain amount of games and getting retested after you come back or something like that,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “It’s possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Pulling off a college basketball bubble, however, comes with a caveat.

NCAA players are considered students, so academics would have to be part of the equation.

Division I players are already accustomed to doing school work on the road and the majority take primarily online classes. To make the bubbles work, socially distant space would have to be carved out for the players to take their classes and study.

The programs may also have to rethink the size of their traveling parties.

“Discussions about the right amount of tutors or academic staff would need to take place,” said Starsiak, who has operated high-level sports and entertainment events for 15 years. ”

You have to look at, do we need three managers this time around? No, probably not. Do you take two and have a tutor or an academic come with us? Yeah, I think you could. I think there’s a way to kind of combine both things to have some live, in-person resources.”

The NCAA is going to do everything possible to have a basketball season.

The pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament last spring and the NCAA collected $270 million in cancellation insurance instead of the $1 billion TV payout it normally gets. A second straight year without March Madness could be devastating.

Bubbles may be the way to go.

‘Father of the Final Four’ Tom Jernestedt dies at 75

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INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Jernstedt, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame for his contributions to college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, has died. He was 75.

The NCAA said Sunday Jernstedt died this weekend.

Nicknamed “Father of the Final Four,” Jernstedt has widely been credited with transforming the NCAA Tournament into the billion-dollar March Madness it has become today.

“A decade after his departure from the NCAA, Tom Jernstedt’s fingertips remain visible during March Madness and the Final Four,” NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt said in a statement. “His innovation and superb ability to develop relationships turned a basketball tournament into a three-week phenomenon that became a global event.”

A former back-up quarterback, Jernstedt worked his first Final Four in 1973 and helped push the growth of the NCAA Tournament from 25 teams to the 68, anything-can-happen bonanza held every spring.

Jernstedt helped the NCAA increase its television contract from just over $1 million to more than $10 billion when he left in 2011. He served as president of USA Basketball, was a member of the College Football Selection committee and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2017.

“Tom Jernstedt was a humble and unsung steward of the game,” John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “Under his direction, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament grew into a phenomenon that brings college basketball fans together on a global scale. He will forever be remembered as the Father of the Final Four and one of the most respected leaders in basketball.”

Jernstedt established himself as a team leader despite being a backup quarterback at Oregon from 1964-66 and went on to serve as the Ducks’ events manager. He joined the NCAA in 1972 and spent 38 years with the organization.

“Tom served as a friend and mentor to countless people in and around collegiate athletics, and I’m proud to be among that vast group of people,” Gavitt said. “His legacy within the NCAA and its membership, and his impact on the sport of college basketball, is eternal. We extend our deepest condolences to Tom’s family.”

Aztecs extend Brian Dutcher’s contract 3 years through 2026

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN DIEGO — San Diego State basketball coach Brian Dutcher has signed a three-year contract extension through the 2025-26 season.

Dutcher signed the deal following one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Aztecs went 30-2, won the Mountain West regular-season title and were expected to be a No. 1 or 2 seed before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. They opened the season 26-0 and were the nation’s last undefeated team.

“Having spent more than 20 years at San Diego State University I understand what a special place this is,” Dutcher said in a statement Friday. “I am humbled and honored to continue to represent SDSU and Aztec Basketball as its head coach.”

Dutcher is 73-26 in three seasons, the most victories by an Aztecs coach in his first three seasons. He spent 18 seasons as Steve Fisher’s top assistant, including six as associate head coach/head coach in waiting. He took over as head coach after Fisher retired following the 2016-17 season. The Aztecs reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season.

Before that, he spent 10 seasons with Fisher at Michigan. In Dutcher’s first season with the Wolverines, Fisher was promoted to interim head coach on the eve of the NCAA Tournament and won the national championship.

Indiana halts all voluntary workouts

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Indiana has halted all voluntary workouts indefinitely for its men’s basketball, field hockey, men’s soccer and wrestling teams after 14 participants tested positive for the coronavirus this week.

The Hoosiers did not identify which teams recorded the positive tests. The football team, like other Big Ten programs, is not playing this fall. Indiana said 63 positives have been reported from more than 1,400 tests of athletes, coaches and staff since June 8.

“Our athletic program is following strict protocols during these unprecedented times and we strongly support our medical staff as we try and mitigate this issue,” men’s basketball coach Archie Miller said.