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Player of the Year Power Rankings: Zion Williamson has this award locked up

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1. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

I’m running out of good things to say about Zion at this point.

Last week, we talked about how good he can play in games where he doesn’t even play well — when he had 18 points, five boards, five assists, three blocks and three steals in an OK performance at Virginia. Then this past week we saw Zion play through foul trouble to put up 27 points, 12 boards and three steals in a come-from-behind win at Louisville before lighting up N.C. State for 32 points, six boards and three steals in just 30 minutes.

He’s just not fair at this level, and at this point in the season, with less than three weeks before tournament play kicks off, I think we can just about stamp him as the National Player of the Year.

2. MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette

After struggling and finishing with just 17 points on 5-for-17 shooting in Marquette’s loss to St. John’s two weeks ago, Howard has been absolutely on fire. He’s averaging 37.0 points in the last two games while shooting 25-for-45 (55.6 percent) from the floor and 9-for-20 (45 percent) from three. Included in that run is a 38 point performance in a win over Villanova. He has been carrying the Golden Eagles for stretches on the offensive end of the floor this season, and that is why they are in the mix for a Big East regular season title.

3. JA MORANT, Murray State

Morant had 25 points, 14 assists, eight boards, three steals and a block the last time out. He’s averaging 24.3 points and 10.2 assists on the season. He is the reason a Murray State team that doesn’t have all that much talent on the roster is sitting at 21-4 on the year. I don’t think the Racers have a realistic shot at getting an at-large bid this season, but I want nothing more than a chance to see Morant try and put 50 points up against some No. 3 seed in the first round of the tournament.

4. R.J. BARRETT, Duke

I think that you can make the argument that R.J. Barrett played his best game of the season on Saturday, as he notched just the fourth triple-double in the history of the Duke program while posting 23 points, 11 boards and 10 assists without committing a single turnover.

5. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

The flaw in Williams’ game was exposed on Saturday night. When he goes up against someone that can match him pound for pound and muscle for muscle, he doesn’t quite have the athleticism or the skill to win that battle. He’s still a surefire all-american and, at this point, I have a hard time imagining him falling off of the first-team, but we did get a glimpse at some of his limitations.

6. DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia

Every time I watch Hunter play, I am more and more convinced that he is on his way to being a top five player out of this draft class. The most intriguing part of it all is the way that Tony Bennett has opted to deploy him on the defensive end of the floor, using Hunter to guard Coby White in the closing minutes of a win at North Carolina and putting him on Nickeil Alexander-Walker in the win at Virginia Tech. Those are point guards. Hunter plays as the four in many of Virginia’s lineups.

7. CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State

Nick Ward had surgery on his hand and is out for an undetermined amount of time. Josh Langford is already done for the season. If Michigan State is going to have any chance to make a run in March, they are going to need Winston to play out of his mind for the next six weeks.

8. JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech

Culver makes his return to this list as his three-point shooting has started to regress back to the mean. After a 3-for-33 stretch from deep, Culver is 5-for-11 from deep in the last two games as the Red Raiders have gone scorched earth from beyond the arc of late. The fact that Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney are starting to hit shots is opening up some more space for him to operate.

9. BRANDON CLARKE, Gonzaga

I don’t care what Jordan Sperber says, Clarke is the best player on Gonzaga this season.

10. P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky

In the last eight games, Washington is averaging 21.1 points, 8.1 boards, 1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals, which includes a 23 point performance as Kentucky manhandled No. 1 Tennessee in Rupp Arena on Saturday evening. More important, however, is the fact that during that stretch, Washington is shooting 12-for-24 (50 percent) from three. It’s hard to know exactly where to put Washington on a list like this — he has a couple big games earlier in the year, but he was no where near as consistent or as dominant — but I do think that if he finishes out the season the way that he has played over the course of the last month he will win SEC Player of the Year.

IN THE MIX: Phil Booth (Villanova), Jordan Caroline (Nevada), Carsen Edwards (Purdue), Rui Hachimura (Gonzaga), Ethan Happ (Wisconsin), Ty Jerome (Virginia), Dedric Lawson (Kansas), Charles Matthews (Michigan), Shamorie Ponds (St. John’s)

Jarrett Culver’s big game leads No. 3 Texas Tech past No. 14 Northern Kentucky

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All-American Jarrett Culver had a monster outing as No. 3 seed Texas Tech cruised to a 72-57 win over No. 14 seed Northern Kentucky during a Friday afternoon NCAA tournament first-round game in the West Region.

Finishing with 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, Culver was efficient and dominant for the Red Raiders as they opened up the game in the second half. Only a 30-26 lead for Texas Tech at the break, the Red Raiders clamped down and used the offense of Culver and it’s No. 1 overall defense to break the game open.

The Big 12 Player of the Year had one of the best individual games of any player in the first round as he was 10-for-17 from the floor and 3-for-5 from three-point range. Big man Tariq Owens also finished in double-figures for Texas Tech with 12 points while Davide Moretti added 10 points.

Northern Kentucky (26-9) stayed in the game for a half thanks to the hot shooting of junior guard Tyler Sharpe as he finished with 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting. The Norse couldn’t generate much consistent offense outside of Sharpe, however, as Northern Kentucky shot 5-for-21 from the three-point line. Horizon League Player of the Year Drew McDonald was held to only five points on 2-for-12 shooting as he struggled to get going. Dantez Wilson (11 points) was the only other double-figure scorer for the Norse.

The Red Raiders advance to face either No. 6 seed Buffalo or No. 11 seed Arizona State in Tulsa on Sunday.

Oklahoma advances past Ole Miss in rout

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Rashard Odomes and Christian James both popped off for 20 points and Kristian Doolittle added 19 points, 14 boards and five assists as No. 9-seed Oklahoma blew out No. 8-seed Ole Miss, 95-72, in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The Sooners, with the win, will advance to face No. 1-seed Virginia as long as Virginia can get past Gardner-Webb in the first round.

This was something of a cathartic win for an Oklahoma team that was among the handful of at-large invites that had thoroughly mediocre performances in league play. The Sooners opened the Big 12 season with eight losses in their first 11 games and finished with a 7-11 record in the conference.

One game samples really should not determine whether or not a body of work merited inclusion in an event like that, but it’s hard to see the performance that this team — and the Big 12 as a whole — put together thus far in the event and think the committee was wrong to add a sub-.500 team from the Big 12 to the field.

It’s also a sign for what this Oklahoma program is and can be under Lon Kruger.

It’s difficult to compare things like this year over year, but it is certainly interesting to note than not only did Oklahoma get a better seed this year than they did last year, with Trae Young on the roster, but they advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, which is something they did not do with Trae.

That’s not to say that the team is better without him — frankly, I think that’s a silly argument to make. Guys are a year older and a year better, which matters, and I think that the 7-11 mark in Big 12 play says more than the result of a one-game knockout tournament.

It is, however, important to note that Kruger has this thing to the point that they can lose a guy that is now averaging 18.5 points and 7.8 assists in the NBA and still be good enough to get a bid and win a game.

No. 10 Iowa rallies past No. 7 Cincinnati

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Iowa rallied from a slow start to get past No. 7 seed Cincinnati with a 79-72 win on Friday in a South Region NCAA tournament game in Columbus.

Cincinnati generated an early 18-5 lead in the first half as they fed off of the Bearcat-friendly Columbus crowd only to see the No. 10-seed Hawkeyes get hot in the second half.

Things turned in Iowa’s favor about midway through the first half when the Hawkeyes started working the ball more inside. Behind sophomore big man Luka Garza (20 points, 8-for-11 shooting), the Hawkeyes were able to establish an inside presence while opening up the team’s perimeter-shooting options.

In the second half, freshman Joe Wieskamp (19 points) and the Hawkeyes started to make an abundance of threes as they finished 11-for-22 (50 percent) from the perimeter — including a blistering 7-for-10 mark in the second half. Junior guard Jordan Bohannon also tallied 13 points while Nicholas Baer added 10 points as Iowa outscored Cincinnati 48-36 in the second half.

Using the hot shooting of senior point guard Justin Jenifer (19 points), Cincinnati appeared to be completely in the driver’s seat in the first half. But once Iowa started responding with a flurry of second-half threes, the Bearcats struggled to play from behind in the final minutes. Jarron Cumberland (18 points) didn’t get rolling as a scorer until the second half while big man Nysier Brooks (11 points) fouled out with a few minutes left. Tre Scott also finished with 10 points on the afternoon for the Bearcats. Cincinnati struggled to match Iowa’s hot perimeter shooting as they were 6-for-27 from three-point range (24 percent) on the day.

This is a great comeback win for Iowa, as they overcame the bad start by working to take better shots. Forcing a lot of early looks, once the Hawkeyes started getting Garza comfortable on the block, it opened up looks for their shooters. It’s also notable that junior forward Tyler Cook, one of Iowa’s best players, was limited to only five points on 1-for-9 shooting.

Iowa was playing sluggish basketball the final three weeks of the regular season. Friday’s second half was a reminder of how dangerous the Hawkeyes can be if they are hitting shots. And for Iowa to rally when Cook was playing this poorly is yet another positive sign that the Hawkeyes are not to be taken lightly going forward.

With Iowa’s win, the Big Ten now moves to 6-0 in the 2019 NCAA tournament after a 5-0 start on Thursday. Iowa advances to face the winner of No. 2 seed Tennessee and No. 15 seed Colgate on Sunday in Columbus.

Best Bets: The Bettor’s Guide to Saturday’s NCAA tournament games

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12:10 p.m.: No. 3 LSU vs. No. 6 Maryland, CBS

  • LINE: LSU (-2)
  • TOTAL: 147
  • IMPLIED SCORE: LSU 74.5, Maryland 72.5
  • KENPOM: LSU 74, Maryland 73

If you love watching soon-to-be NBA big men do battle in the paint, this is the matchup for you. Naz Reid, Kavell Bigby-Williams and Emmitt Williams facing off with Bruno Fernando, Jalen Smith and Ricky Lindo. Buckle up!

I think I lean towards the Maryland side here. The Terps have the size and athleticism on the wings to be able to handle Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart, their big men should be able to keep LSU’s frontcourt in check and Tremont Waters is a pest, I do think Anthony Cowan will be able to avoid the live-ball turnovers that are killers.

PICK: This is a toss-up and a fascinating matchup between two teams with very similar roster constructions. That said, my money here will be on Mark Turgeon, who isn’t exactly the best coach in the world but who should be able to find a way to get it done against Tony Benford, LSU’s interim head coach. This is where it’s worth nothing that LSU blew a big lead in the second half against Florida in the SEC tournament quarterfinals before nearly blowing a bigger lead to Yale in the first round. Thats the difference-maker for me.

2:40 p.m.: No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 7 Wofford, CBS

  • LINE: Kentucky (-5.5)
  • TOTAL: 138.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Kentucky 72, Wofford 66.5
  • KENPOM: Kentucky 72, Wofford 68

P.J. Washington will not be playing in this one, which is a problem for the Wildcats if this is a longterm injury but not necessarily one that I think will cost them against Wofford. The key here is going to be Kentucky’s ability to chase Wofford’s shooters around screens and how well they deal with Cameron Jackson in the paint. I think that Tyler Herro, Ashton Hagans and Keldon Johnson will be able to keep Fletcher Magee, Storm Murphy and Nathan Hoover from going absolutely bonkers. Jackson is not all that dissimilar from Grant Williams in terms of the way he does his job, and Travis did a good job keeping Williams in check when they played.

PICK: I do like the Kentucky side here, although I don’t feel great about it. We’ll see if that line continues to climb, and maybe that would change things.

5:15 p.m.: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 10 Florida, CBS

  • LINE: Michigan (-7)
  • TOTAL: 120
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan 63.5, Florida 56.5
  • KENPOM: Michigan 63, Florida 56

I fully expect this to end up being one of the ugliest games of the tournament. Both teams have top 15 defenses, and Florida has guys that can guard the likes of Jordan Poole and Ignas Brazdeikis. I think this game plays out as a possession-by-possession battle played in the 50s that ends up being a one or two possession game in the final minute.

PICK: I don’t know if Florida will win this game, but seven points is a lot of points in a game that should be as slow and low-scoring as this game will be.

6:10 p.m.: No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 12 Murray State, TNT

  • LINE: Florida State (-5)
  • TOTAL: 143
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Florida State 74, Murray State 69
  • KENPOM: Florida State 74, Murray State 69

This is so tough. On the one hand, Florida State should have the bodies to be able to keep Ja Morant in check. They have a roster full of length and athleticism on the perimeter and they are a top 15 defense nationally. They are going to do a lot of switching, but that shouldn’t matter as Leonard Hamilton has built a team that is designed to defend like that. The matchup, to me, screams Florida State, especially at just (-5).

But my heart?

My heart says that Ja Morant is about to go on a Stephen Curry-esque run. He’s going to be an NBA superstar, and while we saw what he can do as a creator on Thursday, we have not yet seen just how dangerous he can be as a scorer. I want the Ja Morant ride to last.

PICK: My head says Florida State (-5). My heart says go along for the Racer ride. So I’ll probably just take the over.

7:10 p.m.: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 9 Baylor, TBS

  • LINE: Gonzaga (-12.5)
  • TOTAL: 148
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Gonzaga 80.25, Baylor 67.75
  • KENPOM: Gonzaga 81, Baylor 69

I think Killian Tillie is the important piece in this matchup. He’s such a good shooter, an underrated passer and the piece that should allow Gonzaga’s offense to get unclogged against this Baylor zone. In three games back since returning from his second foot injury of the season, he’s averaging 10.3 points in just 15 minutes per game, shooting 6-for-7 from three and 80 percent from the floor.

PICK: The Bears getting 12.5 points is a lot of points for a team that is going to be able to get only the offensive glass. The biggest issue for Baylor this year is that they turn the ball over like crazy, and Gonzaga has not been all that good at forcing turnovers this season. I think I lean Gonzaga, but I won’t bet it myself unless the line moves towards the Zags.

7:45 p.m.: No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 10 Minnesota, CBS

  • LINE: Michigan State (-10)
  • TOTAL: 141.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan State 75.75, Minnesota 65.75
  • KENPOM: Michigan State 77, Minnesota 67

Minnesota was not great this season. They are playing a wing at the point guard spot because Isaiah Washington has been a mess. They only go five deep at this point, and they were able to run over Louisville because the one guy that can make threes on their roster made a bunch of threes.

Michigan State beat Minnesota by 24 points the one time that they played this season, but they are a team that relies almost entirely on Cassius Winston running ball-screens, and Minnesota has been pretty good defending ball-screens this season.

PICK: With the spread at (-10), I think I would lean towards taking Minnesota. That’s a lot of points. But I think my favorite bet in this game is actually the under. Michigan State looked gassed in the first round after playing three games in three days during their run to the Big Ten tournament title. Minnesota is basically running out a five-man rotation these days. Legs will catch up with them eventually.

8:40 p.m.: No. 3 Purdue vs. No. 6 Villanova, TNT

  • LINE: Purdue (-3.5)
  • TOTAL: 137
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Purdue 70.25, Villanova 66.75
  • KENPOM: Purdue 72, Villanova 67

This is my favorite bet of the Saturday slate. The defense that Villanova runs is pretty simple: They switch everything, 1-through-5, because it forces you out of the offense that you want to run. They dare teams to beat them 1-on-1, betting that their players are good enough to defend a cross-match regardless of opponent.

The problem for Purdue here is that, like Saint Mary’s, so much of what they get offensively comes out of the sets and actions they run. Put another way, Matt Painter doesn’t have all that many guys on his roster that can efficiently create for themselves in isolation. That includes Carsen Edwards, who is a tough-shot taker but, in the last month, has not exactly been a tough-shot maker.

The other part of this that makes me lean towards Villanova is that Villanova shoots more than 53 percent of their field goal attempts from three, and Purdue has not made running teams off the three-point line a priority this year.

PICK: If you are going to give me the defending national champs plus the points, I’ll take it. Villanova, if you’re tracking at home, has won 24 straight neutral court games. They win in knockout settings.

9:40 p.m.: No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 5 Auburn, TBS

  • LINE: PK
  • TOTAL: 147.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Kansas 73.75, Auburn 73.75
  • KENPOM: Auburn 75, Kansas 74

This is tough because Auburn is just so up-and-down while Kansas has looked downright bad for the last month until they faced Northeastern and suddenly turned into Kansas again.

What Auburn wants to do is to is to turn defense into offense. They are going to gamble — for steals, for blocks, for leak-outs — and look to get quick threes in transition once they get possession. For 33 minutes, it worked against New Mexico State. Twice in the last two weeks it worked for 40 minutes against Tennessee. Kansas has been turnover prone this season, particularly their ball-handlers, but they have cleaned that up in recent weeks. Devon Dotson, for example, had a turnover rate higher than 20 percent entering the Big 12 tournament and has committed just three turnovers in the last four games.

PICK: The matchup is going to get won based on how well Kansas protects the ball and how well they defend in transition — they finished the year in the 51st percentile nationally. It’s worth nothing that the Jayhawks struggled with West Virginia once this season but handled them easily on two different occasions in the last three weeks.

I think I will probably stay away, personally, but when it comes down to it, I think Auburn is the better team with the better players.

Bryce Drew out after three seasons at Vanderbilt

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Vanderbilt has terminated the contract of head coach Bryce Drew after only three seasons, the school announced on Friday.

A shocking move given that Drew was only head coach for a limited time, Vanderbilt has a new athletic director, Malcolm Turner, who recently took over the program in February.

Struggling to a 9-23 record and 0-18 mark in the SEC this season, Vanderbilt was one of the youngest teams in the country. The Commodores also lost McDonald’s All-American and starting freshman point guard Darius Garland to a season-ending knee injury in late November as a promising young core never had a chance to play much together.

Although Drew had a bad season in 2018-19, he took the program to the NCAA tournament in his first season. Drew also recruited two McDonald’s All-Americans (forward Simi Shittu being the guy besides Garland) for the 2018 class — uncommon at a program like Vanderbilt.

According to a report from Stadium’s Jeff Goodman, Turner only had one meeting with Drew and only attended one practice during the season before making his decision. The former president of the NBA G-League, Turner has no experience working in college athletics before taking the AD job at Vanderbilt.

Drew previously spent time coaching his alma mater of Valparaiso as he’s perhaps most famous for his NCAA tournament buzzer-beater against Ole Miss in 1998. The son of legendary Valparaiso head coach Homer Drew, Bryce’s brother, Scott Drew, is head coach at Baylor.

It’s hard to say what direction Vanderbilt it looking to go since this was an unexpected move. But it appears that Turner wants to make his mark as the new AD by bringing in his own guy right away.