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Player of the Year Power Rankings: Ethan Happ is top two, who is Gonzaga’s best?

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1. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

Williamson is still the leader for the National Player of the Year race, and it should probably still be a consensus. He’s averaging 20-9-2-2-2, something that hasn’t been done in roughly three decades, and he’s doing it on the team that is the favorite to win the national title even if the silly rules of the polls won’t let us rank them there.

2. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

Happ is so integral to what the Badgers do on a nightly basis. I’m not sure there is a player in college basketball that carries a bigger load for his team than Happ does for the Badgers. He’s their anchor defensively, the best rebounder on the team, a guy that brings the ball up the floor as much as anyone, the player that offense runs through offensively and the most dangerous offensive weapon in the conference not named Carsen Edwards.

The thing that really makes a difference for Happ this year is what he’s developed into as a passer. In the past, he’s been susceptible to teams throwing double teams at him, but it’s not something that is as effective this year because of how well he is able to move the ball.

He sees the floor. He understands where the double is coming from, and his ability to dribble into the post makes it really difficult for teams to sends double-teams; the defense can’t move while the ball is in the air. Throw in the fact that he’s capable of grabbing a rebound and going coast-to-coast — or, as you’ll see in the last clip, beating a press on his own — he’s become such a weapon for Greg Gard:

3. RUI HACHIMURA or BRANDON CLARKE, Gonzaga

Who is the best player on Gonzaga this year?

That’s a debate that can go back and forth for hours. On the one hand, Hachimura is unquestionably their star. He’s the leading scorer, he’s the guy that is a sensation in Japan, he’s the guy that has made the game-winning shots against Duke and Washington this year. He’s deservedly an all-american.

But there’s a very strong argument to make that Clarke is actually the best player on the Gonzaga roster. He’s quite possibly the best defensive player in all of college basketball. He’s an elite rim protector. He’s agile enough to switch ball-screens. He jumps passing lanes. He landed what may go down as the best block in basketball by anyone this year, in college, the NBA, wherever:

Oh, and he also happens to average 16.9 points and 8.2 boards.

But there’s more to this conversation.

For starters, Zach Norvell Jr. is probably the most dangerous player on Gonzaga given his ability to get hot out of nowhere and reel off four or five threes in the time it takes to go from one TV timeout to the next. Josh Perkins is the most important player on the roster, because Gonzaga doesn’t really have another option at the point and because Perkins himself is so consistently inconsistent.

And I haven’t even mentioned Killian Tillie yet.

4. R.J. BARRETT, Duke

Barrett has been terrific since the last time we really needed to pay attention to the Blue Devils. He’s averaging 24.2 points, 7.2 boards and 4.2 assists, but the Blue Devils haven’t played something other than a buy game for two weeks. They’ll get Texas Tech in New York City next Thursday.

5. DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia

Hunter has been the best player for Virginia this season, but this is something to keep an eye on as the injury to Kihei Clark could force him to play out of his best position.

6. JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech

I am fully on board the Jarrett Culver bandwagon, and depending on how he plays against Duke next Thursday, I’m sure I will be joined there by quite a few other people.

7. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

Williams has unquestionably been the best player for the Vols this season, averaging 19.9 points, 9.3 boards and 4.6 assists. He’s been an all-american, without a doubt, and it almost seems like a disservice to have him this low. The issue is that, in both of Tennessee’s biggest game, Williams has fouled out late while Admiral Schofield has been the guy tasked with making the biggest plays in the biggest moments.

8. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

Lawson hasn’t really been all that flashy, and there’s an argument to be made that his teammate Lagerald Vick has been more important to the Jayhawks this season, but at this point, given Vick’s inconsistency and the fact that he has been benched, Lawson has to be the pick in the Player of the Year race for the Jayhawks.

9. CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue

Sunday’s loss at Texas more or less summed up this Purdue team: Edwards went for 40 points on 15-for-26 shooting. Purdue lost 72-68.

10. NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech

Alexander-Walker burst into the national conversation with a terrific performance in Virginia Tech’s run to the Charleston Classic title. Since then, he’s been fine while the Hokies have played games that mostly haven’t been interesting. Outside of Saturday’s date with Washington, they won’t play another game that we need to pay attention to until the new year.

IN THE MIX: Jordan Caroline (Nevada), Luguentz Dort (Arizona State), Charles Matthews (Michigan), Ja Morant (Murray State), Shamorie Ponds (St. John’s)

NBC Sports Top 25: Duke back to No. 1, Tennessee hops Gonzaga

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Here’s the conundrum that is going to face voters in the top 25 this week: What do you do with Kansas?

When it comes to resume, Kansas probably has the strongest one of any team in the top seven. They’ve beaten Michigan State on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Tennessee on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Marquette on a neutral court. Every win they have in Phog Allen Fieldhouse this year comes against teams ranked in the top 135 on KenPom.

And then there is this: Kansas has beaten Tennessee. Tennessee has beaten Gonzaga. Gonzaga has beaten Duke. Duke, according to some, can beat the Cavs, which officially means that Kansas is a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.

Or something like that.

The point is that it makes total sense to rank Kansas No. 1 based on what they’ve accomplished this season, but I think that even the most irrational Kansas fans will cop to the fact that these Jayhawks haven’t come close to hitting their stride yet this season, and that’s before you factor in the loss of Udoka Azuibuike to an ankle injury.

The difference between the top seven teams this season is marginal, particularly if you are not as high on Duke as I am, and while that means there really isn’t all that much difference between Nevada at No. 7 and whoever it is that you are going to rank No. 1, it does mean that a team like Kansas — who is in a bad run of form — drops to sixth in this ranking.

And to be frank, as long as your top seven is, in some order, the same as my top seven, your ranking is probably going to be just fine. I’d quibble with ranking Nevada in the top four, and I think it’s probably silly to have Duke, Tennessee or Gonzaga outside the top four, but there are arguments to justify it all. I’m sure Kansas fans will call me a Duke homer and say that Bill Self must ignore my calls, but the truth of it is that there are a lot of really good teams at the top this year. Parsing through a jumbled mess like that is never easy.

I dropped Kentucky all the way out of the top 25, as I did Kansas State, but I’ll go more in depth on that in the Monday Overreactions column.

Here is the full top 25:

1. Duke (9-1, Last week: 2)
2. Michigan (10-0, 3)
3. Tennessee (7-1, 6)
4. Gonzaga (9-1, 1)
5. Virginia (9-0, 4)
6. Kansas (8-0, 5)
7. Nevada (10-0, 7)
8. Auburn (8-1, 8)
9. North Carolina (7-2, 9)
10. Florida State (8-1, 10)
11. Texas Tech (8-0, 11)
12. Michigan State (8-2, 13)
13. Virginia Tech (8-1, 14)
14. Wisconsin (8-2, 15)
15. N.C. State (8-1, 17)
16. Ohio State (8-1, 19)
17. Arizona State (7-1, 20)
18. Purdue (6-4, 18)
19. Villanova (8-2, UR)
20. Syracuse (7-2, UR)
21. Marquette (8-2, UR)
22. Buffalo (9-0, UR)
23. Mississippi State (8-1, 25)
24. Iowa (7-2, 23)
25. Nebraska (8-2, 24)

New Additions: 19. Villanova, 20 Syracuse, 21. Marquette
Dropped Out: 12. Kentucky, 16. Kansas State, 21. Creighton

Thursday’s Things To Know: Purdue survives, Iowa wins, Arizona comes back

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It wasn’t a busy Thursday night on the college hoops calendar, but there was enough action to keep you occupied once Derrick Henry made it clear that football wasn’t going to be interesting.

1. CARSEN EDWARDS STRUGGLED AGAIN, BUT MADE WINNING PLAYS

Edwards entered this season as a favorite to win the National Player of the Year award, and while his raw numbers have been pretty impressive — he did enter Thursday night averaging 24.4 points, 4.0 assists and 3.0 boards — his efficiency has been down and he’s struggled to find a rhythm in games.

That’s not necessarily a surprise, mind you. Purdue is shuffling a number of pieces into new and bigger roles this season, and that takes some time. But we are approaching a point where we should start asking just how much of a concern this is. The Big Ten is loaded this year, and the Boilermakers are struggling to find out where, exactly, their supporting cast resides.

Here’s the good news: Purdue beat No. 23 Maryland, 62-60, an important home win in a league race where 9-11 could be good enough to get into the tournament. The better news: They won while Edwards went 4-for-15 from the floor, as their star had a pair of assists and forced a critical turnover down the stretch. Performances matter, but at the end of the day, a win is a win is a win, and Edwards got them over the line.

2. NO. 18 IOWA LANDS ANOTHER IMPRESSIVE WIN

As if the Big Ten hadn’t already proven enough.

Iowa shook off a 22-point loss to Michigan State on Thursday night to lay the smack down on in-state rival Iowa State. The final score was 98-84, but the game never really felt in doubt in the second half. Tyler Cook led the way with 26 points and 11 boards, while Isaiah Moss chipped in with 20 of his own.

Worth noting for Iowa State: Lindell Wigginton did not play. He’s been out since the second game of the season with a strained foot.

3. ARIZONA AVOIDS EMBARRASSMENT

The Wildcats trailed by 12 points at halftime against Utah Valley State, but Brandon Randolph scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half — including hitting four threes in the opening four minutes of the half — to erase the deficit and help ensure that the Wildcat would extend their non-conference home-winning streak to 52 games.

Brandon Williams added 15 points, 10 boards and five assists for Sean Miller’s club, who improved to 7-2 on the season. Arizona replaced all five starters off of last year’s team and not much was expected out of the Wildcats this year, but we’re now more than a month into the season, and the only losses to their name are against top ten teams Auburn and Gonzaga.

Edwards’ late flurry leads Purdue past No. 23 Maryland 62-60

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Carsen Edwards scored 20 points and Aaron Wheeler had a season-high 15 on Thursday to help Purdue pull off a 62-60 upset over No. 23 Maryland.

The Boilermakers (6-3, 1-1 Big Ten) snapped a two-game losing streak and avoided going 0-2 in conference play for the first time since 2013-14.

Anthony Cowan Jr. finished with 18 points and six assists for the Terrapins (7-2, 1-1). Bruno Fernando had 10 points and 13 rebounds while Darryl Morsell scored 12 points.

The Terrapins had plenty of chances to seize control on the road and even had a shot to win it at the buzzer when Morsell attempted a 3-pointer right in front of the Maryland bench. But Nojel Eastern blocked the shot to seal the victory.

Purdue, playing its third straight ranked opponent on the schedule, finally took advantage of Edwards’ decisive closing flurry to pull ahead after trailing for most of the first 33 minutes.

The Boilermakers charged back quickly from a 34-30 halftime deficit and tied the score when center Mat Haarms and forward Grady Eifert made back-to-back 3s with 14:05 to play.

Neither team could build a lead of more than three until Edwards hit the last of his three 3s to give Purdue a 55-54 edge. He then dumped the ball off to Wheeler for a layup and fed the wide-open Haarms for a dunk that made it 59-54 with 5:18 left.

Maryland never recovered. It turned the ball over three times in the final five minutes and missed a free throw before Cowan made two free throws to get Maryland to 60-59 with 7.2 seconds left.

Edwards answered with two more free throws and Morsell’s potential winner never had a chance.

BIG PICTURE

Maryland: The Terrapins shot 28.6 percent from the field in the second half, finished the game going 1 of 9 from the field and scored only six points in the final 7 1/2 minutes.

Purdue: While the Boilermakers continue to struggle offensively, coach Matt Painter had to like the grit his team showed. And Edwards eventually found a way to lead his teammates to a crucial victory.

NBC Sports Top 25: Michigan rising, Kansas falling

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The hardest thing for me to do when ranking teams is to decide between who looks the best when you are watching a team play and who has the most impressive body of work to date.

Because they are, in essence, two different things.

Rankings based off of the body of work that a team has put together is fine, but in essence those rankings are essentially a replacement for NCAA tournament seedings. Think about it like this — Furman won at Villanova, which means that Furman will get credit for that win should they find their way into the NCAA tournament, but how many people truly believe that Furman is the better basketball team?

Put another way, if Furman and Villanova played tomorrow on a neutral court and you had to bet your rent money on one of those two teams winning, you’re betting on Villanova.

Because you think they’re the better basketball team.

This is why I think that ranking Duke No. 1 was and still is valid, but that’s not a fight I’m going to fight anymore. We live in a world where people demand a two-point win on a neutral floor to be definitive proof one team is better than another, and I just don’t have the time or the energy to argue about it anymore. Y’all won.

But it does create something of a conundrum when dealing with Michigan, Kansas and Virginia. Michigan has made this decision a bit easier by sandblasting North Carolina and Purdue this week, so the argument can be made that their overall resume is now stronger than that of Kansas. That said, the Jayhawks have neutral court wins over a top six team in Tennessee, a top 15 team in Michigan State and over Marquette, who just beat a top 15 Kansas State team by double-figures on Saturday.

That resume is better than Virginia’s. It’s better than Duke’s. Hell, it’s probably better than Gonzaga’s.

But I am going to rank them fifth this week because — and I do believe Jayhawk fans will agree with me here — Kansas has not looked right yet this season. I’m not sure if Quentin Grimes has actually made a shot since the first half of the Champions Classic. Udoka Azubuike can’t seem to stay out of foul trouble, and when he’s not on the floor Kansas doesn’t look the same. Charlie Moore hasn’t been great. The bench is looking less and less like it’s all that deep. If it wasn’t for the heroics of Lagerald Vick, who has repeatedly had absolutely massive games and hit clutch shots to keep Kansas undefeated.

Winning ugly is still winning, and there is something to say for that. Those concerns haven’t cost them yet, but this is something that Bill Self is going to have to figure out.

And until he does, Kansas is going to drop in my top 25.

Anyway, here is the rest of the top 25:

1. Gonzaga (8-0, Last Week: 1)
2. Duke (7-1, 3)
3. Michigan (8-0, 6)
4. Virginia (7-0, 4)
5. Kansas (6-0, 2)
6. Tennessee (6-1, 5)
7. Nevada (8-0, 7)
8. Auburn (6-1, 9)
9. North Carolina (6-1, 8)
10. Florida State (6-1, 13)
11. Texas Tech (7-0, 19)
12. Kentucky (7-1, 14)
13. Michigan State (6-2, 12)
14. Virginia Tech (6-1, 11)
15. Wisconsin (7-1, 20)
16. Kansas State (6-1, 10)
17. N.C. State (7-1, 17)
18. Purdue (5-3, 18)
19. Ohio State (7-1, 16)
20. Arizona State (7-0, 24)
21. Creighton (6-2, UR)
22. Buffalo (7-0, 22)
23. Iowa (6-1, 21)
24. Nebraska (7-1, UR)
25. Mississippi State (6-1, 25)

New Additions: 21. Creighton, 24. Nebraska
Dropped Out: 15. Oregon, 23. Clemson

Poole scores 21, No. 7 Michigan beats No. 19 Purdue 76-57

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Jordan Poole scored 21 points as part of a balanced offense and No. 7 Michigan was stingy on defense in a 76-57 win over No. 19 Purdue on Saturday, routing a third ranked team this season.

The Wolverines (8-0) are off to their best start since winning the first 16 games of the 2012-13 season. They were coming off an 84-67 win over No. 11 North Carolina, and they beat then-No. 8 Villanova 73-46 on its home court last month.

The Boilermakers (5-3) have lost three of their last four games.

Michigan’s Jon Teske matched his career high with 17 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Ignas Brazdeikis scored 12 and Zavier Simpson had 10 points and seven assists. Charles Matthews added nine points, five rebounds and four assists.

Purdue’s Carsen Edwards scored 19 on 7-of-21 shooting and Ryan Cline added 15 points.

The Wolverines picked up where they left off Wednesday night against the Tar Heels, making shots and getting stops to take the lead. They kept it without much of a fight from the Boilermakers.

Michigan led 44-28 at halftime after connecting on 53 percent of its shots and holding Purdue to 36 percent from the field.

The Wolverines’ shooting accuracy slipped in the second half, falling to 47 percent, but they kept up the intensity on defense to keep Purdue at 36 percent.

BIG PICTURE

Purdue: Cline needs more shots. He was 6 of 8 from the field and 3 of 5 from beyond the arc, but Edwards looked for his shot much more than he tried to pass to his sharpshooting guard.

Michigan: The Wolverines are going to be tough to beat because all five players on the floor can score and they all play in-your-chest defense.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Michigan can’t move up much, but it may merit a higher ranking with its impressive start. The Boilermakers might fall out of the AP Top 25.