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College Basketball’s Most Improved Players: Part II

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Before the season, we took a look at the players that we thought had a chance to be breakout stars this season.

We’re now halfway through the year, which means that it is time to take a look at the guys that actually did breakout.

Here is the second installment college basketball’s Ten Most Improved Players. The first can be found here:



JOEL AYAYI, Gonzaga

Last Year: 1.7 ppg, 5.6 mpg
This Year: 10.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.2 spg, 35% 3PT

I’ll be honest: I expected next to nothing out of Joel Ayayi this season.

Part of that is because he did next to nothing as a redshirt freshman for the Zags. Part of that is because Ayayi is somewhere between a lead guard and a combo-guard, and Gonzaga went out and recruited two grad transfers — Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge — as well as freshman Brock Ravet to play in their backcourt.

When redshirt freshmen that average 5.6 minutes are getting recruited over, that usually is not a sign that the coaching staff trusts that player.

But Ayayi has not only been playing for the Zags, he has been one of the keys to their season.

“He’s made a huge jump,” head coach Mark Few said. “His confidence increased and he has become a way better shooter.”

As Few said, one of the biggest areas of improvement for Ayayi has been his shooting. He’s knocking down 35 percent of his threes this season, and he certainly did not enter the program known as a shooter. For a team that is built around pounding the ball into the big fellas in the paint, having guards that can space the floor is a necessity.

But that’s not the only part of his game that has improved.

To hear Ayayi tell it, the biggest change in how he plays has been his ability to read the game. He spent the offseason focused on drilling down his ball-screen reads by playing 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 in very specific situations.

“It’s all about making the right read,” he told me. “The more you know how to read those situations, the better. All those 2-on-2 reps help you see those situations more often. If you’ve never seen the read you can’t make the read.”

Ayayi has also been helped by, you know, actually playing. It’s one thing to work on things during the offseason. It’s another to actually get on the court during 5-on-5 action and execute those things you’ve been working on. Ayayi was arguably France’s best player at the U19 World Cup — he scored 33 points against Lithuania in the third-place game and averaged 20.9 points and 3.4 assists at the event — and was able to crack Gonzaga’s rotation early in the season. He never left.

“It’s just about playing more and more games,” he said. “All those first games I felt like a freshman, playing meaningful minutes this year. I have the coaches’ confidence, and I have confidence in myself.”

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YVES PONS, Tennessee

Last Year: 2.2 ppg, 1.8 rpg
This Year: 11.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.6 bpg, 33.3% 3PT

“He’s as hard a worker as we’ve had.”

That’s a quote from Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes referring to Yves Pons, Tennessee’s starting power forward. That is tremendously high praise coming from a coach that just saw two guys from his team, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, get drafted after being after thoughts on the recruiting trail.

Put another way, Tennessee’s culture is built on hard work and player development, and everyone you talk to in Knoxville will say the same thing: Yves Pons is the hardest worker.

And what he’s done is turn himself from being college basketball’s apex athletic freak into a very legitimate NBA prospect. He’s one of the best defenders that you’ll find in the collegiate ranks. He’s built like D.K. Metcalf, he can move like a ballet dancer and he has the vertical of someone that can win an NBA dunk contest. Players like that don’t come around too often. He can guard 1-5 at the college level. He’s top 15 nationally in block percentage. He’s a 6-foot-6 wing.

Like I said, freak.

But where he’s grown this season is offensively. He’s now able to make threes, and a large part of that has to do with his confidence — as one person close to the program said, “confidence is huge with him” — but there is more to it than that. He’s playing the four this year instead of being thrust into a spot at the two or the three. That means instead of having to run off of pindowns in order to get shots, he’s able to catch-and-shoot while facing the basket.

Put another way, shooting step-in threes from the top of the key as a trail-man is far easier than being a back-to-the-basket shooter that runs off screens like Rip Hamilton or J.J. Redick.

Yves can do the former. He’s not so good at the latter.

And the former is what he would be asked to do in the NBA.

If Trevor Booker can play eight years in the NBA, Yves Pons has a shot.

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LUKA GARZA, Iowa

Last Year: 13.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 0.5 bpg
This Year: 22.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 35.6% 3PT

If there is one word that I would use to describe Luka Garza, it is unrelenting.

His motor is unrelenting. He effort is unrelenting. His wind is unrelenting.

He’s a 6-foot-11, 260 pound center with bushy eyebrows, a mop of brown hair that is permanently sweat through and a gait that screams old-man game. He will never be known for his athleticism, or his speed, or his leaping ability.

What he’s known for is the fact that, unlike just about every other human being on the planet, Garza does not actually get tired. He can play every second of an overtime game, and on that final possession, he will be running just as hard as on the first possession.

“He’s just such a relentless player,” Northwestern Coach Chris Collins said after Garza scored 27 points in 24 foul-plagued minutes against his team. “I admire how he plays. He’s just a relentless competitor. He just plays and plays and plays. When you get a little tired, that’s when he really kicks in. He’s arguably been the best player in the conference to this point.”

Guys like that, you hate to play against them and  love to have them on your team … until you have to guard him in practice.

The big question with Garza moving forward is on the defensive side of the floor.

Effort can only get you so far when you are asked to get out on the perimeter and guard in space, as bigs are forced to do in the modern era of basketball. It’s not for a lack of trying, but at some point 260 pound men are going to have a difficult time moving their feet quick enough to stay in front of Big Ten point guards, and that is very much true with Garza.

“Teams consistently pull him away from the basket in pick-and-roll when they’re in man, knowing that he can’t guard away from the basket,” said Sam Vecenie, the Athletic’s NBA Draft guru. “That leads Iowa to playing a pretty real amount of zone, which they aren’t all that good at.

“He’s gotten better as an interior defender, but the problems away from the hoop lead to more problems than his taking up space inside solves.”

Those issues existed last season as well, and one only needs to see that Iowa — who ranks fourth in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric — has improved from 111th to 73rd this year in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Garza may still be a liability defensively, but he’s at least trending in the right direction. That’s enough to earn him a spot on this list when he is the only player in college basketball putting up 20 and 10 every single night.

Iowa was always going to be a team that needed to be elite offensively to win, and Garza is the biggest reason there are that.

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CHARLIE MOORE, DePaul

Last Year: 2.9 ppg, 1.3 apg, 28.6 FG%
This Year: 16.5 ppg, 6.7 apg, 2.0 spg

Now, this one may be cheating.

Last year, Charlie Moore was in a different place. Literally. He was a redshirt sophomore playing at Kansas behind Devon Dotson, and he wasn’t playing all that well or all that often. So Moore — who’s from Chicago and who started his college career at Cal — transferred home. He wasn’t supposed to play this season, but he received a waiver from the NCAA to make him eligible, and while Paul Reed is the guy getting the attention and the NBA plaudits, Moore has been the engine that makes this DePaul team run.

Remember, he averaged 12.2 points and 3.5 assists as a freshman. He put in a redshirt season developing his game at Kansas. No one at DePaul is surprised to see him play as well as he has played this year. He was recruited over, and the guy Kansas got looks like a first-team All-American this season.

Good for Kansas.

And, frankly, good for DePaul.

We saw why on Tuesday night, as he posted 29 points and six assists as the Blue Demons forced Villanova to overtime before losing on the road.

And unfortunately, that has been the story of DePaul’s Big East season. They are off to an 0-4 start with those four losses coming by an average of 5.0 points. They’re one of those teams that are better than their record, the biggest victim of the Big East’s level of talent and balance this season.

It’s possible, but it will be rough-sledding to earn an NCAA tournament bid this season. That said, the Blue Demons are certainly good enough to do it.

And Moore’s play this season is the biggest reason why.

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AARON NESMITH, Vanderbilt

Last Year: 11.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.4 apg, 33.7% 3PT
This Year: 23.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 0.9 apg, 52.2% 3PT, 8.2 3PAs

There is not a player in the country that improved his shooting this offseason as much as Aaron Nesmith has.

As a freshman, he shot just 33.7 percent from beyond the arc. As a sophomore, that number has ballooned to an absurd 52.2 percent, and given that Nesmith is getting more than eight threes up per game, there is an argument to be made that the kid averaging 23 points is not only the best shooter in the SEC, but the best shooter in college basketball.

“Nesmith could be the Player of the Year in our league,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said before their teams faced off last week. “He is a definite pro and I don’t throw those terms out lightly. I’m just really impressed with him. Great shooter, quick release, makes tough shots, does a lot of other things as well. Great size, prototypical NBA scoring guard. He’s dangerous.”

The problem?

He’s also injured.

Nesmith suffered a foot injury that is expected to keep him out for the remainder of the season.

That’s a shame. It would have been fun to see him square off with the likes of Tyrese Maxey, Isaiah Joe, Anthony Edwards and Isaac Okoro (again).

Click here for No. 1-5 of our list of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

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

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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

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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.