Kansas senior point guard Frank Mason earned Wooden Award honors while Villanova’s Josh Hart and Kentucky’s Malik Monk also were among a group that won awards on Friday night.
Mason led the Jayhawks to an Elite Eight appearance this season as he averaged 20.9 points, 5.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds.
Other finalists for the Wooden Award included Hart, UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball, Purdue sophomore Caleb Swanigan and Gonzaga junior Nigel Williams-Goss.
Hart did earn the Julius Erving Award as the nation’s top small forward after the senior had another outstanding season.
Monk, a high-flying Kentucky freshman, won the Jerry West Award as the nation’s top shooting guard after some ridiculous scoring bursts against some of the nation’s best teams. Baylor junior forward Johnathan Motley took home the Karl Malone Award as the nation’s top power forward after being a double-double machine during the season.
Gonzaga senior center Przemek Karnowski won the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award for the top center after coming back from a back injury to help lead the Bulldogs to their first Final Four.
Player of the Year Power Rankings: Has this become a two-horse race?
1. Josh Hart, Villanova 2. Frank Mason III, Kansas: At this point, I think that the National Player of the Year award has turned into a two-man race between Hart and Mason. Hart is the leader at this point. Villanova is undefeated, the No. 1 team in the country and, as it stands, looking like a team with a very, very real chance to repeat as national champions. He’s improved on the floor as a player and is putting up numbers on par with anyone else on this list in addition to the fact that he seemingly makes every clutch play for the Wildcats in every big game.
That said, I’m going to keep beating this drum: Frank Mason is not far behind Hart when it comes to his Player of the Year standing. He’s the go-to guy, the leading scorer, one of the most efficient high-usage players in the country and the leader of a top five team. People seem to have forgotten about his performance against Indiana in the season-opener and his game-winner against Duke in Madison Square Garden because they happened so long ago, but they happened.
Mason is every bit a deserving Player of the Year choice, and I expect that he’ll only add to his résumé this season, but as of today, Hart is the more deserving pick.
Bottom-line: This is going to be a fun race to follow.
3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: Ball has seemingly hit a little bit of a slump here in the last couple of weeks. He was just OK against Ohio State and Western Michigan. Outside of a three-minute stretch in the second half where he banged home three threes he wasn’t all that good in the loss at Oregon. He was terrific in a win at Oregon State, but Oregon State is Oregon State. He’s still clearly a first-team all-american, but as of today, he’s not in the same conversation as Mason and Hart when it comes to Player of the Year.
4. Luke Kennard, Duke: In the one game that Duke played last week, Luke Kennard scored 34 points and shot 11-for-18 from the floor … in a 14-point loss at Virginia Tech that never felt like it was in doubt. It feels really weird to say this, but think about where Duke would be right now if they didn’t have Kennard. Grayson Allen and Coach K would be out – one via suspension, the other via back surgery – and the pressure would be rising on Harry Giles III, Marques Bolden and Frank Jackson to figure it out as Jayson Tatum struggled to find his footing as Duke’s star. They certainly wouldn’t be a top ten team at this point in the season, and I don’t think anyone could have predicted that to be the case.
5. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: Swanigan’s Boilermakers lost on Sunday afternoon, falling to Minnesota in overtime at home, but Biggie was as good as he’s been at any point this season. He had 28 points and 22 boards against the Gophers, his fourth 20-20 games of the season. He’s had a double-double in 13 of 15 games this season and hasn’t had less than eight boards in any game. He’s currently averaging 18.1 points and 13.0 boards, the latter of which is second-nationally.
6. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox is still my pick for the MVP of Kentucky this season. He’s the guy that gets that makes that transition game work and he’s the point man for Kentucky’s defense, which has been a nightmare for the majority of their opponents to deal with. Monk’s been terrific. Fox has been better.
7. Mo Watson, Creighton: Watson was unbelievable in Creighton’s win over Seton Hall in their Big East opener, finishing with 21 points, 10 assists and five boards, but he struggled mightily in their loss to No. 1 Villanova. Watson was 2-for-7 from the floor, finished with six points and five assists and, most importantly, fouled out while trying to slow down Jalen Brunson, who finished with 27 points, five assists and four boards.
8. Malik Monk, Kentucky: Monk shook off a rough night against Louisville last week with a 34-point performance in his first career SEC game, a trip to Oxford to take on Ole Miss. His ability to score in transition combined with hot he can get shooting the three makes him the most dangerous and explosive scorer in the country.
9. Johnathan Motley, Baylor: The beauty of Baylor this year is that they don’t really have one guy that they totally rely on, which makes it hard to pick out one player as their MVP or Player of the Year candidate. Motley is their leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. And he’s probably the player that can least afford to play without, mainly because he’s really, really good. So he’s the easy choice to make this list.
10. Markelle Fultz, Washington: Fultz’s one season in college can be summed up by what happened in his one game last week. Fultz finished with 26 points, 11 assists, nine boards and two blocks in his first career Pac-12 game, but he shot 11-for-26 from the floor, turned the ball over six times and, most importantly, lost at home to Washington State.
JUST MISSED THE CUT
Joel Berry II, North Carolina
Yante Maten, Georgia
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
Kelan Martin, Butler
Amile Jefferson, Duke
Melo Trimble, Maryland
Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
T.J. Leaf, UCLA
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
Player of the Year Power Rankings: Malik Monk climbs as top five is intact
1. Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart is now averaging 20.1 points on the season after a 26-point outburst in Villanova’s win over Temple. The Wildcats likely won’t be challenged again until a New Year’s Eve trip to Omaha to take on Creighton, followed by a visit to Indianapolis for Butler four days later. That that means is that, barring a catastrophic injury, Hart is going to enter league play as the favorite to win National Player of the Year.
2. Frank Mason III, Kansas: Mason’s numbers this season are ridiculous: he’s averaging 20.3 points, 5.6 assists and 4.6 boards while shooting, as a point guard, 56 percent from the floor and 52.3 percent from three. His two best games came in the two biggest games of the year for the Jayhawks. But what I think is the most remarkable about Mason’s season has been his consistency. He’s scored 18 points or handed out at least eight assists in every game this season. He’s finished with fewer than 18 points just once and fewer than five assists just twice. Only twice has he turned the ball over more than three times. After starting the season 2-for-10 from three, he’s shot 60.5 percent from beyond the arc in the last eight games.
In a year with arguably the best crop of point guards we’ve ever seen in college hoops, Mason has been the best of the bunch. Considering some of the other names on this list, that should tell you something.
3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: Ball was just OK, by his standards, in two UCLA wins last week. He had 13 points, 10 boards and seven assists in a 40-point win over UCSB and eight points, nine boards and nine assists in a 13-point win over Ohio State. Imagine being so good that averaging 10.5 points, 9.5 boards and 8.0 assists in two games is considered “just OK”.
4. Luke Kennard, Duke: He did it again on Monday night. With the Blue Devils caught totally out of rhythm against Tennessee State, a game in which they trailed 36-34 midway through the second half, Kennard was the savior. He finished with a team-high 24 points. At one point in the second half, Kennard had 22 points on 7-for-9 shooting while his teammates, combined, had 23 points on 6-for-29 shooting.
5. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky 6. Malik Monk, Kentucky: What can be said about the 47 point outburst that Malik Monk had over the weekend that hasn’t been said yet? For me, the most important part of that performance was that head coach John Calipari showed a willingness to run set plays specifically designed to get Monk shots, and Monk showed the ability to score when those plays were run for him. This is big because, as we’ve said many times before, the way to attack Kentucky is to try and force them to play a half court game. Monk looks like he could be the antidote to that ailment.
But while Monk is getting all the accolades after the outburst that he had in Kentucky’s win over North Carolina, but I would make the argument that De’Aaron Fox has been the better player this season. He’s averaging 15.9 points, 7.2 assists and 1.7 steals as the guy that ignites that Kentucky transition game and the point man for their defense that, with the exception of games against UCLA and UNC, has been overwhelming. Put another way, I think Kentucky would be able to survive Monk getting in foul trouble or spraining an ankle better than they would if Fox was dealing with the same injury.
That said, I think it’s clear that those two work in tandem and have quite clearly become the most dangerous 1-2 punch in college hoops. Think about this: Kentucky scored 103 points in that win over North Carolina. Monk and Fox, who finished with 71 points and 12 assists combined, were responsible for (at least*) 87 of those points.
*(That does not include free throws where Monk and Fox ‘assisted’ in creating the foul.)
7. Mo Watson, Creighton: Creighton flirted with disaster over the weekend, nearly losing to an Oral Roberts team that entered the game at 2-9 on the season and rated 274th on KenPom. I’m going to chalk that one up to the Bluejays overlooking an opponent during finals week. Moving on.
8. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: The Tar Heels lost a thriller to Kentucky on Saturday, a game that literally came down to the final possession. If it wasn’t for that eruption from Malik Monk – truthfully, if it wasn’t for a three he hit with 15 seconds left – we would have spent the last 72 hours talking about how we need to consider North Carolina as a potential ACC and national title contender.
Now think about that performance and what happened against Tennessee last Sunday. The difference in those two games? The presence of Joel Berry II on the floor for the Tar Heels. That should tell you all you need to know about how good he has been this season.
9. Amile Jefferson, Duke: Jefferson dropped a spot this week because there was no justification for keeping Malik Monk out of the top six. But if Monday’s debut from Harry Giles III showed us anything, it’s that the freshman that hasn’t played basketball in 14 months is going to need some time to get up to speed. Jefferson’s job anchoring that Duke front line isn’t over yet.
10. Markelle Fultz, Washington: Fultz is still doing ridiculous things on basketball courts. He came within two assists of posting Washington’s first-ever triple-double over the weekend and is now averaging 23.2 points, 7.0 boards and 6.5 assists this season while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three. The raw numbers that Fultz is putting up are one thing – whoever the lead guard is in Lorenzo Romar’s system is always going to put up numbers – but what is more impressive is the efficiency with which Fultz is doing it.
Fultz is top 40 nationally in usage rate playing on a team that is top 15 in pace while playing 34 minutes a night for a program that is talent-deficient around him. And yet, he’s shooting 50 percent on twos and 50 percent on threes with a better-than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and an offensive rating of 121.2, an insanely good number given the circumstances.
It’s so disappointing that Fultz is doing this on a team where his relevancy didn’t even last until Christmas.
JUST MISSED THE CUT
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
Melo Trimble, Maryland
Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
T.J. Leaf, UCLA
Yante Maten, Georgia
Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins become first Big 5 players to go undefeated in career
But that wasn’t the most impressive part of the night.
The city of Philadelphia has one of the coolest series in all of college sports. The Big 5 – Villanova, Temple, La Salle, Penn and Saint Joseph’s – play a round robin every year. The series started way back in 1955 and has seen some of college basketball’s best players and best teams, but it wasn’t until Tuesday night that any play had finished his four-year college career undefeated in Big 5 games.
Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds went 16-0 in Big 5 games, which is as much a testament to their ability to win games as a four-peat atop the Big East would be.
“It’s an honor, definitely humbling,” Hart said. “It’s something 20, 30 maybe 40 years down the road we can look back and say that’s pretty cool.”
These things are cyclical. I get it. Temple, Saint Joseph’s and La Salle all play in “lesser” leagues. None of the three have managed anything close to the kind of sustained success that Villanova has had in recent seasons. Penn, for as much tradition and history as that program has, is an Ivy League program that bottomed out of late. Villanova, on the other hand, is in the midst of one of the most impressive four-year runs any program has had in recent memory.
But that shouldn’t dull what this senior class was able to accomplish in Big 5 play.
Because Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, two longtime NBA players that led St. Joe’s to one of the best seasons a Philly team has ever had in 2004, lost a Big 5 game. Because Lionel Simmons, who is third all-time in NCAA history in points scored, lost a Big 5 game with La Salle. There have been better players that have come through Philly programs.
I don’t know that there’s ever been a better team, but I do know that there’s never been a more successful one.
1. Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart vaulted past Frank Mason III into the National Player of the Year lead after his dominating, 37-point performance in Villanova’s come-from-behind win to beat Notre Dame. It was as good of a performance as we’ve seen this season, and it’s worth noting that, in Villanova’s other great win this season – a Purdue – Hart was again the best player on the floor.
2. Frank Mason III, Kansas: I had to drop Mason out of the top spot this week, although it’s through no fault of his own. He’s been sensational this season. Look at this stat line: 20.5 points, 5.5 assists, 4.5 boards and 1.3 steals while shooting 58.7 percent from the floor and 54.8 percent from three. He made the game-winning jumper in Madison Square Garden to give Kansas the non-conference win they needed over Duke to cement themselves in the No. 1 overall seed discussion. He had 30 points and nine assists and was the sole reason Kansas was able to get their season-opening loss to Indiana to overtime.
The reason Hart is ahead of him? It’s simple: Hart led his team to a win over Notre Dame while Mason couldn’t quite get Kansas over the hump against Indiana. That’s how close the margins are.
3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: There’s not really much to say about Ball that we didn’t say last week. I will make this note, however: UCLA is on pace to become the best three-point shooting team since 1997, which is as far back as I can find data. They’re currently making 47.1 percent of their threes. The best season I found? Northern Colorado in 2011-12, who shot 45.1 percent from three while attempting eight fewer threes per game.
Ball is the facilitator for a lot of those open looks, there’s no question about that. But he’s also shooting 45.3 percent from three on more than five attempts per game. The knock on him entering the season was his shooting ability. His form is funky and may need to be tweaked at the next level, but it goes in, there’s no denying that.
4. Luke Kennard, Duke: As of today, Kennard is averaging 20.0 points, 6.1 boards and 3.3 assists for a consensus top five team that is currently ranked No. 1 in the NBC Sports Top 25. He’s been Duke’s best player in their four biggest games of the season, culminating in a dominating 29-point performance to lead Duke to a win over Florida in the Jimmy V Classic. He’s not Duke’s best draft prospect and, I’d argue, he’s not even one of the two best players currently playing for Duke.
And yet, he absolutely deserves to be a first-team all-american as of today. Impressive, that.
5. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox dropped from fourth to fifth in our rankings this week for one simple reason: He hasn’t yet had a huge game in a big win for the Wildcats. In fact, I’d make the argument that Kentucky hasn’t yet had a big win, having lost the only real chance they’ve had so far this season. What the Wildcats do in the coming week – with games against North Carolina in Las Vegas and at Louisville – will tell us a lot about where this team is headed.
6. Mo Watson, Creighton: Watson is now leading the country in assists, averaging 9.1 per game, just sneaking in front of UCLA’s Lonzo Ball. The Bluejays have one of the nation’s most high-powered offenses – they’re second nationally in three-point shooting and effective field goal percentage (to UCLA) – and Watson is the engine. Here’s a nice little graphic on where those 91 assists have gone this season:
Maurice Watson's now the Division I assists leader. 91 total (9.1 per game). Where those passes have gone… pic.twitter.com/pj0Q3dOR9y
7. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Berry’s numbers alone are impressive. He’s averaging 14.8 points and 4.7 assists while shooting 41.9 percent from three, an important number for a team that doesn’t have a ton of perimeter scorers this season. He’s had his best games in UNC’s biggest wins, lighting up Wisconsin and Oklahoma State in Maui. But the thing about Berry is that we didn’t truly see his importance to Carolina until this week, when he was forced to miss two games due to an ankle injury. Davidson kept things closer with the Heels than they probably should have while Tennessee pulled off the near-upset. Things just run smoother for the Tar Heels when Berry is on the floor.
8. Amile Jefferson, Duke: Jefferson is a newcomer to this list, and he unquestionably deserves to be there. Let’s go beyond the fact that he’s averaging 15.1 points, 10.5 boards, 2.2 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.0 steals: His presence is what’s keeping Marques Bolden, a potential lottery pick, glued to the bench even though he’s now healthy. Jefferson Isn’t the biggest player in the country, but he’s developed into a terrific low-post scorer – he’s got what you might describe as old-man game – and he’s the maestro of that defense. Always in the right position, always directing traffic, always clearing the defensive glass. He’s turned into a terrific basketball player.
9. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State: There’s not much to add on Evans here, as he’s dealing with a shoulder injury that kept him out of the lineup against Tulsa.
10. Markelle Fultz, Washington: The numbers that Fultz is putting up this season are ridiculous. He’s averaging 22.8 points, 6.9 assists and 6.1 boards this season in addition to 2.1 steals and 1.2 blocks. As I wrote in this space last week, what Fultz is doing has not happened since 1993, and it may never have happened before; the statistical database I have access to only has data dating back to ’93.
1. Duke is the best team in the country: And I’m not sure that I can see any argument against this, and I say that knowing full-well just how good the likes of Kansas, UCLA, Villanova and Kentucky are this season.
Because the bottom-line is this: If the season ended today, Duke would have two players – Luke Kennard and Amile Jefferson – on all-american teams; Kennard would very likely be a first-team all-american and, if it wasn’t for Josh Hart’s 37-point explosion on Saturday, would have a strong argument to be the National Player of the Year through the first month of the season.
Think about that for a second, then think about this: Grayson Allen was the NBCSports.com Preseason National Player of the Year. He played quite poorly through November as he battled a nagging toe injury, but on Saturday, he exploded for a career-high 34 points in a game where he threw down what could end up being the dunk of the season. I think he’s healthy, as is Jayson Tatum, who is a matchup nightmare that can play the three or work as Duke’s small-ball four. He’s still not totally in shape but felt good enough to put 22 points on Florida in the Jimmy V Classic.
Come March, would anyone be surprised if it was Allen and Tatum that were considered to be the players deserving of all-america consideration?
Duke still hasn’t reached their ceiling. Marques Bolden is still trying to figure out how he fits into the Duke rotation, and we’re still waiting to see just what Harry Giles III will provide if (when?) he returns to the court.
2. We’re about to learn how good Kentucky is: Because we know Kentucky is good.
They have a half-dozen future NBA players on the roster. Three could end up in the 2017 lottery. They’re averaging 94.2 points on the season, are ranked third in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric and are 9-1 on the season.
So yeah, they’re really good, we just don’t know how good. Only four of Kentucky’s ten opponents are ranked in the top 170 on KenPom.com. Only two – UCLA, who beat the Wildcats in Rupp Arena, and Michigan State, who isn’t very good – are ranked in the top 80, and the way that Kentucky plays simply overwhelms teams that can’t match them from an athleticism or talent perspective.
The good news, Kentucky fans?
People like me will stop making these references in the next ten days. Because on Saturday, the Wildcats square off with No. 7 North Carolina in Las Vegas. Four days after that, next Wednesday, Kentucky squares off with No. 11 Louisville in the Yum! Center.
For what it’s worth, KenPom is predicting that Kentucky beats the Tar Heels by a point and loses to Louisville by a point.
Speaking of the Tar Heels …
3. … we now know just how valuable Joel Berry II is to North Carolina: Playing without their star point guard, North Carolina struggled to put away Davidson and barely avoided an upset at the hands of Tennessee, both games that were played in the Dean Smith Center. There’s a reason for this, and I went through it in a post last night.
4. Villanova was tested by Notre Dame because the Irish are for real: On Saturday, No. 1 and still-undefeated Villanova was given their toughest test of the season by No. 23 and then-undefeated Notre Dame, as the Irish held an 11-point first half lead before losing, 74-66.
But it also needs to be pointed out that the reason that Villanova needed to dig out of that hole, the reason they needed Josh Hart to put together that kind of performance, was because Notre Dame is good. I don’t think they can win the ACC – a top three finish would probably be a stretch – but I don’t see any reason why this group can’t play their way into the top four of the league. Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell are two of the most improved players in college basketball while Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem are doing exactly what you would expect seniors to do under Mike Brey.
5. It might be time to be worried about the AAC: I think there’s a chance that this could end up being a one-bid league this season. While it seems more likely that two or three teams would be able to sneak in, the bottom-line is that the non-conference did not go well for the conference.
UCF is the only team left in the league with less than two losses, and their best win is over Mississippi State. UConn has been terrible, the win over Syracuse not withstanding. Temple has beaten West Virginia and Florida State while losing to New Hampshire and UMass. SMU’s best win is either Pitt or TCU, both of whom are borderline tournament teams. Houston beat Rhode Island but lost to Arkansas and LSU. Memphis beat Iowa, but Iowa’s not all that good. Tulsa is rebuilding.
The best non-conference win the AAC produced thus far is Cincinnati’s win over Iowa State, and the Cyclones are about to drop out of the top 25.