Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Zion Williamson reigns again

Leave a comment

1. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

Nothing has changed with Zion since last week as Duke has yet to play since the last time we rolled out these rankings. We will, however, get a better sense of what he is able to do come Thursday, when the Blue Devils take on No. 11 Texas Tech, the only team in college basketball that has yet to allow more than 1.0 points-per-possession to a team this season.

2. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

The only game that the Badgers played last week was against Savannah State, and Happ finished with 18 points, 11 boards and six assists. The only reason this is relevant is because is bumped Happ up to averaging 5.0 assists on the season, so I can now say that he’s averaging 19 points, 10 boards and five assists. Not bad.

3. R.J. BARRETT, Duke

Ditto, Zion Williamson.

4. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

I asked around about Grant Williams this week, talking to a few coaches that have scouted or game-planned for him, to try and get a sense for what makes this undersized four-man so good this year. Some mentioned the fact that his long arms make him bigger than he is. Others mentioned his sneaky-athleticism, and that he’s able to step out on the perimeter and be a threat more this year than in the pass.

But one thing that I did hear was how good Williams is as a high-low passer and how well Rick Barnes is able to incorporate this into the offense that the Vols run. The advantage here is that Williams is able to pull a bigger player away from the rim, particularly since he is now effective shooting from beyond the arc. It also allows Rick Barnes to attack matchups, particularly when Admiral Schofield is on the floor. Schofield is 6-foot-5 but is built like a wrestler while also being able to elevate over most defenders. The third clip in the video below shows a perfect example of Williams pulling size out of the paint to allow Schofield to post-up a smaller Zach Norvell Jr.:

5. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga

One thing that I have touched on over and over again is that Rui Hachimura is not a great defender on the perimeter. According to Synergy, he’s allowed 25 points in 23 possessions where he was isolated defensively, and the 1.087 points-per-possession that he has allowed is good for the 14th percentile nationally.

It has gotten to the point that opposing offenses target the matchup with Hachimura. Mark Few has been mixing up his defenses this season, but one of the things that he does quite a bit is to switch everything on the perimeter, and when he does, opponents have had a tendency to create those switches until they get the matchup they want: Hachimura guarding a ball-handler on the perimeter. The last three clips in the video below show that happening:

6. DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia

Hunter had one of his worst games of the season the last time we saw the Wahoos play, but that was last Sunday. UVA is at South Carolina this week.

7. JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech

Texas Tech has looked really good this season. They’ve also played Nebraska, USC and Memphis … and that’s basically it. We’ll be able to better have this conversation on Friday morning, after the Red Raiders get Duke in Madison Square Garden.

8. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

Lawson was awesome again on Saturday, going for 28 points and 12 boards as Kansas knocked off Villanova in Phog Allen Fieldhouse. The only reason that I don’t have Lawson ranked higher than this is that he might not actually be the best player on his own team this season; Lagerald Vick, when he’s not benched or suspended, has been a monster.

9. NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech

Alexander-Walker was the best player on the floor for the the Hokies as they smoked Washington in Atlantic City on Saturday. He finished with 24 points and three assists, a return to dominance in the first game Virginia Tech has played against a relevant opponent in nearly three weeks.

10. CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan

This is the first appearance for Matthews — for any Michigan player — in the top ten of these rankings. I’m torn on who from that team should be considered their all-american candidate. I’ve discussed this before, but the way that this Michigan team is built does not lend itself to having a player in that mix. Zavier Simpson is their leader, but that doesn’t really show up in the box score. Ignas Brazdeikis is the team’s leading scorer, but this is a team that wins with defense. Jon Teske is the most-improved player on the roster. Jordan Poole is in that conversation as well.

But for my money, Matthews — who is an alpha defensively, plays a leadership role himself and is the team’s second-leading scorer — is the guy that should get the nod.

IN THE MIX: Jordan Caroline (Nevada), Luguentz Dort (Arizona State) Carsen Edwards (Purdue), Ja Morant (Murray State), Shamorie Ponds (St. John’s), Lagerald Vick (Kansas)

College Basketball AP Top Poll: Kansas, Duke, Tennessee stay 1-2-3

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Leave a comment

NEW YORK (AP) — Kansas, Duke and Tennessee were 1-2-3 Monday in the AP Top 25 men’s college basketball poll for the second straight week, while reigning national champion Villanova fell out for a second time.

The Jayhawks earned 56 of 65 first-place votes to stay at No. 1, a perch they held in the preseason before being overtaken by Duke and later Gonzaga. Kansas returned to the top last week then beat Villanova at home.

The Blue Devils earned five first-place votes to stay at No. 2, while the Volunteers had two. Michigan and Virginia each claimed one first-place vote, helping them climb into the top five.

Gonzaga, which lost the No. 1 ranking after a loss to Tennessee, fell four spots to eighth after Saturday’s loss at North Carolina. The Tar Heels jumped three spots to ninth after the 103-90 win against the Zags.

No. 25 Nebraska was the only addition to this week’s poll, though the Cornhuskers were ranked No. 24 earlier this month.

As for Villanova, the Wildcats was ranked 17th last week before losing to Penn — snapping a city-record 25-game winning streak against its Philadelphia “Big 5” rivals — and then at Kansas to fall out of the poll again. The Wildcats were ranked eighth in November before losses to Michigan and Furman knocked them out of the poll, though that turned out to be merely a one-week absence.

Kansas State and Syracuse were the other teams to fall out of the poll. They were both tied with Indiana at No. 25 last week — the first three-way tie in the AP Top 25 since three teams shared the No. 13 ranking in 1991.

The Wildcats beat Georgia State in their only game last week and were among the leading vote-getters just outside the rankings. The Orange lost at home to Old Dominion.

Here is the entire poll:

1. Kansas (56 first-place votes)
2. Duke (5)
3. Tennessee (2)
4. Michigan (1)
5. Virginia (1)
6. Nevada
7. Auburn
8. Gonzaga
9. North Carolina
10. Michigan State
11. Florida State
12. Texas Tech
13. Virginia Tech
14. Buffalo
15. Ohio State
16. Wisconsin
17. Mississippi State
18. Arizona State
19. Kentucky
20. Marquette
21. Houston
22. Indiana
23. Iowa
24. Furman
25. Nebraska

Monday Overreactions: Gonzaga’s defensive woes, Kentucky’s back, show the mids some love

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Leave a comment

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Juwan Morgan, Indiana

Indiana’s best player this season put together the best performance of his career on Saturday afternoon.

One year after setting his career-high by scoring 34 points in a win over Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic, Juwan Morgan went out and put 35 points on Butler in this year’s iteration of the same event. He was 12-for-14 from the floor. He made four of Indiana’s nine threes and seven of their eight free throws. He scored 35 of their 71 points in a 71-68 win over Butler, and while Robert Phinisee’s buzzer-beating three is going to be what everyone remembers from this game, the truth is that Morgan is the reason the Hoosiers won this game. He kept them close in a game that Butler more or less controlled from the tip and gave them a shot to win in the final seconds.

And frankly, it’s a microcosm of Indiana’s season to date. The Hoosiers have yet to hit anything close to their stride. The 23 point win over Marquette last month looks better and better, but since that game Indiana has lost twice and struggled in their six wins. It took them longer than it should have to put away UT Arlington and UC Davis. They won one possession games in four straight, over Northwestern, at Penn State, against Louisville and, on Saturday, vs. Butler. They’ve battled injury. They’ve battled depth issues. They have a roster full of underclassmen that are being asked to figure things out on the fly.

Yet, they are currently 9-2 on the season with a number of good wins and nary a bad loss. Getting smacked by Duke in Cameron is going to happen to everyone. Their loss at Arkansas was by one point in a game that Indiana probably should have one.

If there has been one constant for them, it’s Morgan, their ever-underrated star.

If and when Indiana finally gets healthy and starts playing up to their potential, they are going to be in a position to get a pretty good seed in the NCAA tournament. That’s due, in very large part, to the work Morgan has done these first 11 games.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: North Carolina Tar Heels

North Carolina landed the marquee non-conference win that they’ve been searching for on Saturday.

A loss to Texas in the first round of the Las Vegas Invitational burned their shot at playing Michigan State. The Tar Heels were smoked on the road by Michigan. Kentucky, as of today, doesn’t look like it is going to end up being as good as we thought they would be.

That left Saturday’s home date with then-No. 4 Gonzaga, and North Carolina delivered. Spurred on by hot shooting from Cam Johnson and — finally — Luke Maye to go along with a career-best 14 points from Seventh Woods, the Tar Heels ran away from the Zags late in the first half and coasted to a 103-90 win in Chapel Hill.

The Tar Heels are dangerous. They actually matchup well with the likes of Duke, Gonzaga and Tennessee, and given that Nassir Little is still coming off of the bench — we’ll get to that in a bit — they have the kind of depth and lineup versatility that you need. When it comes down to it, getting smoked at Michigan when Zavier Simpson eats up a freshman point guard is not that bad of a loss, and the loss to Texas came on the one day this season where Kerwin Roach decided he wanted to be Russell Westbrook.

I’m still very much in on the Tar Heels.

(Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

MONDAY OVERREACTIONS

1. GONZAGA’S DEFENSE WILL COST THEM A FINAL FOUR

We have reached the point in the season where I can comfortably say that Gonzaga’s defense is a major, major problem. As of today, the Zags rank 63rd nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, but considering that KenPom’s algorithm still factors in last season’s data, it stands to reason that the Zags are, truthfully, worse than just 63rd in defensive efficiency. Against North Carolina on Saturday, they gave up 103 points. They allowed 76 in 68 possessions to Tennessee. Washington scored 79 in just 67 possessions. Creighton put up 92 points in 76 possessions. Duke lit up the Zags as well, scoring 48 of their 87 points in the second half.

I did a study on this last season when Duke’s defense was the biggest concern in college basketball. Only one team has won a national title in the KenPom era when they entered the NCAA tournament ranked outside of the top 35 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric — North Carolina in 2009. Only two other teams reached the title game when they entered the tournament ranked outside the top 40 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric and reached the national title game: Butler in 2011, the year they beat No. 11 seed VCU in the Final Four, and Trey Burke’s Michigan team in 2013.

The good news for the Zags?

Both Michigan in 2013 and North Carolina in 2009 were one of the top two teams offenses in the country, and that’s precisely where the Zags reside this year.

And it would stand to reason that the return of Killian Tillie will help on the defensive end of the floor.

But it is worth mentioning here that neither Josh Perkins nor Zach Norvell Jr. are considered good defenders, while Rui Hachimura’s biggest issue is being able to stay in front of people on the perimeter. Tillie’s return would likely bump him to the three.

It is too early to start freaking out about this. Remember, we had this same conversation about Duke last season, and they ended up as a top ten defense after switching to zone. We also had this conversation about Duke in 2015, the year they won the title.

But this is something we will need to track all season long.

(Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

2. KENTUCKY IS … BACK?

The Wildcats de-pantsed a bad Utah team, which in a vacuum is really nothing to write home about.

Kentucky should be beating teams ranked outside the top 100 on KenPom 88-61 in Rupp Arena.

But the reason this is notable today is because Kentucky hasn’t been doing that this season. They’ve struggled to put away teams that we all thought would be overmatched, and since they have lost the only two games they’ve played outside of Lexington, they are falling out of top 25s all over the place. They were not ranked in the NBC Sports Top 25 last week or this week.

That said, this was a promising performance from Kentucky simply because they finally beat the hell out of someone. We’ve been waiting all season for them to play like the team that whooped up on everyone that crossed their path in the Bahamas, and they did that on Saturday. Utah is going to finish somewhere in the bottom half of the Pac-12 this year, but that is still a high-major basketball team coached by one of the best coaches in the sport.

Maybe all they needed to kickstart their season was a week’s worth of doubters telling the world how losing Quade Green and dropping an overtime game to Seton Hall was the death-knell for the John Calipari era at Kentucky.

3. KANSAS CANNOT REACH THEIR CEILING WITHOUT GETTING QUENTIN GRIMES GOING

The Jayhawks are a two-headed monster at this point in the year. I wrote 1,000 words on Saturday explaining why. The tl;dr version is pretty simple: No Udoka Azubuike means that Dedric Lawson has to play the five. Dedric Lawson at the five means that Kansas doesn’t have anyone capable of scoring that can play the four, and since Bill Self’s freshman backcourt hasn’t looked all that much more effective offensively than Marcus Garrett, there are really only two players that opposing defenses have to worry about.

Lawson and Lagerald Vick.

Some of that gets solved with the return of the big fella.

But there is no doubt that Kansas needs to find a way to get Quentin Grimes going. After looking like the best freshman in the country for the first half of the first game this season, Grimes has been non-existent for the Jayhawks. He’s not making threes. He’s not getting to the rim. He looks like he’s totally lost his confidence. And if he’s not a threat to score, there’s no point in having in on the court, as Garrett is better than Grimes at everything that doesn’t involve putting the ball in the basket.

4. THE NCAA TOURNAMENT SELECTION COMMITTEE MUST REWARD THE MID-MAJORS THIS YEAR

The Pac-12 had a dreadful weekend in what has been a pretty dreadful start to their season. Washington was smoked by No. 13 Virginia Tech. Utah was embarrassed by No. 19 Kentucky. Belmont won at UCLA in a game where UCLA led by 12 in the second half. USC got smoked by Oklahoma. Arizona lost at home to Baylor, who most think will be competing for second-to-last in the Big 12 this season. Oregon State lost at home to a rebuilding Texas A&M. Cal improved to 4-5 on the season, but they needed a jumper with 3.8 seconds left to get past 3-6 Cal Poly.

There’s a very real chance that the Pac-12 is a two-bid conference.

The American looks like it is going to end up being a two-bid league, depending on how things shake out. The Atlantic 10 is going to be a one-bid league. The Mountain West and WCC will likely both end up being one-bid leagues as long as Gonzaga and Nevada are the teams that win their respective automatic bids.

The problem with this, however, is that we are going to need to find a way to get to 36 at-large bids somehow.

I hope this means that the mid-majors that have won big games during non-conference play get rewarded. Belmont has beaten UCLA on the road, Illinois State and swept a Lipscomb team that has won at SMU, at TCU and very nearly pipped a win at Louisville. Buffalo is undefeated with a win at West Virginia and a sweep of Southern Illinois. Furman is undefeated with a win at Villanova and a trip to LSU coming up on Friday.

I know there are more teams that deserve mention here as well that I’m just not remembering off the top of my head.

And I hope that the work these programs have done in the non-conference will get them the attention they deserve and an at-large bid should they end up getting upset in their league tournament.

I also know that probably isn’t going to be how it goes.

We’ll just invite the entire ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 and call it a bracket.

5. CAM JOHNSON IS THE REASON NASSIR LITTLE DOESN’T PLAY 35 MINUTES A NIGHT

Much has been made this season about why Nassir Little, a top five prospect and a potential top three pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, isn’t starting and is only seeing 20 minutes when he’s been so productive in those minutes.

The reason why is very, very simple, and I explained it all right here on Saturday.

NBC Sports Top 25: Villanova, Syracuse, Purdue drop out

Getty Images
5 Comments

There’s not really all that much to discuss in the top 25 this week.

Kansas beat a Villanova team that has lost to Furman and Penn, so they get a bump up over Gonzaga, who lost at North Carolina on Saturday. The Tar Heels jump up over Auburn after Auburn struggled to put away UAB. Purdue, Syracuse and Villanova all drop out of the top 25 after more losses while Indiana, Oklahoma and Maryland all make their first appearance in the rankings.

All told, in a quiet week thanks to finals, there isn’t much else to go over.

So here is the top 25:

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

New Additions: 23. Indiana, 24. Oklahoma, 25. Maryland
Dropped Out: 18. Purdue, 19. Villanova, 20. Syracuse

No. 13 Virginia Tech holds off Washington 73-61

AP Photo/Corey Perrine
Leave a comment

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Nikell Alexander-Walker scored 24 points to lead No. 13 Virginia Tech to a 73-61 victory over Washington on Saturday night in the Air Force Reserve Boardwalk Classic.

Justin Thomas, Kerry Blackshear and Ahmed Hill each added 10 points for the Hokies (9-1), who won their fourth straight. They led by 18 points at halftime.

Matisse Thybulle scored 16 points to lead Washington (7-4), which pulled within seven points with nine minutes left but couldn’t get any closer. David Crisp scored 12 points, and Naz Carter had 11 points and a game-high nine rebounds.

The Huskies (7-4) pulled within seven points with nine minutes left in regulation but couldn’t sustain the comeback.

Virginia Tech shot 42.9 percent from the field and a swarming defense limited Washington to 35.6 percent while forcing 15 turnovers.

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

Darryl Oumi/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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)