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Player of the Year Power Rankings: Powell vs. Pritchard vs. Howard vs. Toppin

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At this point, I do feel like we have reached a point where there is finally a top tier in the College Basketball Player of the Year race.

Myles Powell. Payton Pritchard. Markus Howard. Obi Toppin. That’s the order that I have it in, but there is a strong and legitimate argument for all four to be No. 1 on this list. I wouldn’t call any of them wrong.

This doesn’t mean that the players from outside those ranks cannot win the award — it is so wide open this year, anyone with a couple of big weeks will be in the mix — but as of this moment in time, those are the likely favorites.

Anyway, here is the definitive Player of the Year power rankings:

1. MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall

Stats: 22.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.3 apg, 34.9 3PT%

Powell had his best week of the season last week, averaging 29.0 points — including 21.0 points in the second half — as he led the Pirates to a pair of come-from-behind wins at Butler and at Saint John’s. It took Powell a while to get to this point, as he dealt with an ankle injury and a concussion, but there is no questioning the fact that he is the leader and the go-to guy for a Seton Hall team that is currently sitting at No. 10 in the AP poll and in sole possession of first place in the Big East.

And here’s the ironic part in all of this: It took a Powell injury for Seton Hall to really find themselves as a team. They made their leap on Dec. 19th, when the Pirates beat Maryland at home without Powell in the lineup. That’s when the supporting cast found their confidence. That’s when Seton Hall became a team, not just a bunch of guys playing next to Myles Powell.

2. PAYTON PRITCHARD, Oregon

Stats: 19.5 ppg, 5.7 apg, 4.4 rpg, 41.2 3PT%

No one in college basketball has had more, or bigger, moments this season. He scored 19 of his 23 points in the second half and overtime, including 15 in the final five minutes, in a win at Michigan. He had 16 points and six assists in a come-from-behind win against Seton Hall in the Battle 4 Atlantis. He hit a number of big shots late as Oregon knocked off Memphis in November, the only game against a quality opponent that James Wiseman played. Then there was Saturday’s game at Washington, when Pritchard hit a 30-footer to tie the game and force overtime then made a pair of big shots in the extra frame, including this ridiculous game-winner:

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Payton Pritchard called game!!!!!!

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He has carried the Ducks this season. He’s the reason this team is a top ten team.

3. MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette

Stats: 28.2 ppg, 2.9 apg, 43.1% 3PT, 9.8 3PAs

The numbers themselves are ridiculous.

Howard is leading the nation in scoring at 28.2 points. He’s shooting better than 43 percent from three on nearly 10 threes attempted per game. He’s doing it while posting a significantly higher offensive rating than Myles Powell and a significantly higher usage rate than Payton Pritchard.

To put his season into context, there is one other high-major player since 1992 that has made better than 42 percent of his threes while shooting more than nine threes per game: J.J. Redick during his college basketball Player of the Year season in 2005-06. Stephen Curry did the same during the 2007-08 season, when he led Davidson to within one shot of the Final Four.

Markus Howard has been the most lethal offensive weapon in college basketball, and if Marquette was a title contender this season, he’s easily be No. 1 on this list.

4. OBI TOPPIN, Dayton

Stats: 19.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 35.3% 3PT

What Obi Toppin provides for Dayton cannot be overstated. He’s putting up massive numbers this season, and he’s doing it while being the piece that makes everything Anthony Grant wants to run work so well. The breakdown below explains it all:

The thing that’s tough about placing Toppin on this list is that he is not the go-to guy for Dayton. Jalen Crutcher is going to be the player that takes and makes all of the big shots. See: Kansas, when he forced overtime, and Saint Louis, when he won the game in overtime.

But the reason Dayton is in a position to do things like take Kansas to overtime, get ranked in the top ten and have a shot at winning a national title is because of what Toppin opens up for them every possession other than the final one.

He may not have the moments we all remember, but Dayton is as good as they because of him. That matters.

5. LUKA GARZA, Iowa

Stats: 22.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 1.6 bpg

Garza has been relentless this season, and he is absolutely one of the most improved players in the country. The reason that he’s just outside the top four, for me, is because of the defensive side of the ball. I talk through that more in this piece.

6. CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State

Stats: 18.1 ppg, 6.1 apg, 2.4 rpg

Winston has been really, really good this year. He has not been quite as good as expected — he was the consensus preseason college basketball player of the year — and neither has Michigan State, which hurts him a bit. I think he’ll be back in the mix by the time the season ends, particularly if the Spartans play their way back into being one of the nation’s elite teams.

7. JARED BUTLER, Baylor

Stats: 16.1 ppg, 3.1 apg, 1.5 spg, 38.1% 3PT

It’s getting harder and harder to ignore the fact that the sophomore point guard is the best player on the best team in college basketball. That’s worth something in the Player of the Year race.

8. JORDAN NWORA, Louisville

Stats: 19.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 42.7% 3PT

On the plus side, Louisville once again looks like a team that can win the ACC, get to a Final Four and win a national title now that David Johnson has taken the point guard reins, and Nwora is unquestionably the best player on the roster. On the down side, he really hasn’t shown up in Louisville’s biggest games. That’s a delicate balance.

9. VERNON CAREY, Duke

Stats: 17.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.8 bpg

Carey looked like a much bigger player in this race before Duke lost two games last week in large part due to the ability to Miami and Louisville to expose Carey on the defensive end of the floor. Coach K has fixed issues like this before. We’ll see what he has up his sleeve this year.

10. MALACHI FLYNN, San Diego State

Stats: 16.5 ppg, 5.0 apg, 3.6 rpg, 40.4% 3PT

Malachi Flynn is the best player, the leader, of the only team in college basketball that remains undefeated. And the reason they are still undefeated is because of him: It was his three that allowed the Aztecs to avoid defeat at the hands of San Jose State back in December.

Bracketology: Welcome to the top line, San Diego State

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Here is the latest NCAA tournament bracketology projection.

Welcome to the top line, San Diego State.  The Aztecs join Baylor, Gonzaga, and Kansas as No. 1 seeds in our latest bracket update.  SDSU remains the only unbeaten team in college hoops, buoyed by wins over tournament teams Iowa, Creighton and BYU.

The West-leaning geographical slate of top seeds means someone has to go East.  As SDSU is the fourth overall seed, that adventure belongs to them.  Several additional power conference teams are pushing for the top line, too – including Florida State, Michigan State and surging Seton Hall.  And let’s not forget about Louisville, a preseason top seed.  The Cardinals put together an impressive road win at Duke on Saturday.

The latest look at where our NCAA tournament bracketology projection stands …

UPDATED: January 20, 2020

FIRST FOUR – DAYTON
EAST REGION Virginia Tech vs. Georgetown
WEST REGION NC State vs. VCU
SOUTH REGION  PR VIEW-AM vs. NORFOLK ST
WEST REGION MONMOUTH vs. ST. FRANCIS (PA)

SOUTH Houston                           WEST – Los Angeles
Omaha Spokane
1) BAYLOR 1) GONZAGA
16) PV-AM / NORFOLK ST 16) MONMOUTH / ST. FRANCIS (PA)
8) Arkansas 8) Illinois
9) Memphis 9) HOUSTON
Tampa Sacramento
5) Colorado 5) Arizona
12) EAST TENNESSEE ST 12) NC State / VCU
4) Maryland 4) Iowa
13) S.F. AUSTIN 13) NEW MEXICO ST
St. Louis Greensboro
6) Marquette 6) Michigan
11) NORTHERN IOWA 11) Saint Mary’s
3) LOUISVILLE 3) Duke
14) NORTH TEXAS 14) LITTLE ROCK
Albany Spokane
7) Wisconsin 7) LSU
10) USC 10) Oklahoma
2) SETON HALL 2) Oregon
15) WILLIAM-MARY 15) UC-IRVINE
EAST – New York MIDWEST – Indianapolis
Sacramento Omaha
1) SAN DIEGO STATE 1) Kansas
16) RADFORD 16) MONTANA
8) Rutgers 8) Indiana
9) STANFORD 9) Florida
Albany Cleveland
5) Kentucky 5) Creighton
12) LIBERTY 12) YALE
4) Villanova 4) DAYTON
13) AKRON 13) VERMONT
Greensboro St. Louis
6) Penn State 6) Auburn
11) Virginia Tech / Georgetown 11) BYU
3) West Virginia 3) Butler
14) COLGATE 14) WRIGHT STATE
Tampa Cleveland
7) Ohio State 7) Wichita State
10) DePaul 10) Texas Tech
2) Florida State 2) MICHIGAN STATE
15) AUSTIN PEAY 15) NORTH DAKOTA ST

BUBBLE NOTES
Last 4 Byes Last 4 IN      First 4 OUT Next 4 OUT
USC Virginia Tech Purdue Washington
DePaul NC State Minnesota Saint Louis
Saint Mary’s Georgetown Arizona State St. John’s
BYU VCU Xavier Richmond

Top Seed Line
Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas, San Diego State
Seed List

Breakdown by Conference …
Big Ten (10)
Big East (7)
ACC (5)
SEC (5)

Big 12 (5)
Pac 12 (5)
American (3)

West Coast (3)
Atlantic 10 (2)
Mountain West (1)

College Basketball Top 25 Power Rankings: Baylor and Gonzaga lead the way

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A new college basketball top 25 is now live.

Baylor is not the No. 1 team in my poll, and I suspect that they are going to be the No. 1 team in the country when the AP poll is released on Monday morning. The only reason they weren’t No. 1 last week is because four people (like me) had Duke at No. 1, stealing votes from the Bears. That … did not go well, so here we are.

I also want to talk through something else: Last week, I wrote extensively about why I think that it’s foolish to allow the result of one possession games to have a significant impact on the way that you view a team. One shot in a 70 possession game that is just one of more than 30 games that will be played this season is insignificant when determining the quality of a team, and I truly believe that.

But I also think it is important to consider how and why teams are winning close games, not just games that are one-possession games.

So let’s use Duke and Baylor for this example once again.

One thing that the Bears have proven over and over this season — at Texas Tech, at Kansas, at Oklahoma State — is the ability to close out a tough game, particularly on the road. That’s because they have a number of players on the roster that are capable of taking and making clutch shots. Against Tech, it was Jared Butler. Against Oklahoma State, it was Devonte Bandoo. The Bears may not look as good in the metrics because they haven’t obliterated the mediocre teams they have played, but they are 15-1 because they come through in the clutch.

Now, some of that may eventually regress. I believe in the clutch gene because I think life — not just sports, but everything every human being does — is confidence. Baylor has confidence in clutch situations, as much as anyone in the country. They do not get rattled by the moment, and they have a number of different options they can go to down the stretch.

Duke, on the other hand, does not. Their three losses this season have all been close games where the Blue Devils have struggled to find an outlet for offense in the final minutes. Maybe that will come with more experience — Duke is loaded with freshmen, Baylor is as old as anyone in the country — but as it stands, that’s the difference between these two teams.

Baylor won their close games.

Duke did not.

And I don’t think that’s a fluke.


The other thing that I want to discuss in this space is where I have San Diego State and Dayton ranked in the college basketball top 25. They are currently sitting and eighth and ninth in my poll, exactly where they have been for a couple of weeks now. And that is where they are going to stay for the foreseeable future.

The reasoning for me is simple: I don’t want to fall into the trap where I’m bumping a team up in the rankings simply because they keep winning in a league that is not as tough as the leagues where the rest of the teams in consideration for the top ten are playing, and losing.

I’m sure there are going to be people in San Diego and Dayton that call me a hater for this, and that’s fine. Maybe I am being a hater.

But the truth is this: I love both of these teams. SDSU is so tough defensively and Malachi Flynn has proven himself to be a flat-out winner at the point, while Dayton runs a pro-style, aesthetically-pleasing offense heavy on three-balls and Obi Toppin.

I just don’t believe they are one of the top six or seven teams in the country, and beating the likes of Nevada and Saint Louis is not going to change my mind.

Anyway, here is the rest of the NBC Sports college basketball top 25.



1. BAYLOR (15-1, Last Week: 2)
2. GONZAGA (20-1, 3)
3. KANSAS (14-3, 6)
4. FLORIDA STATE (16-2, 12)
5. LOUISVILLE (15-3, 13)
6. SETON HALL (14-4, 15)
7. DUKE (15-3, 1)
8. SAN DIEGO STATE (19-0, 8)
9. DAYTON (16-2, 9)
10. MICHIGAN STATE (14-4, 7)
11. BUTLER (15-3, 4)
12. AUBURN (15-2, 5)
13. OREGON (15-4, 10)
14. KENTUCKY (13-4, 11)
15. WEST VIRGINIA (14-3, 14)
16. TEXAS TECH (12-5, 17)
17. VILLANOVA (14-3, 18)
18. IOWA (13-5, 22)
19. ARIZONA (13-5, NR)
20. HOUSTON (14-4, NR)
21. MEMPHIS (14-3, 25)
22. MICHIGAN (11-6, 20)
23. MARYLAND (14-4, 21)
24. ILLINOIS (13-5, 24)
25. CREIGHTON (14-5, 23)

NEW ADDITIONS: No. 19 Arizona, No. 20 Houston
DROPPED OUT: No. 16 Ohio State, No. 19 Wichita State

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.

College Basketball’s Most Improved Players: Part I

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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 are the first five in our list of college basketball’s Ten Most Improved Players. The second five can be found here:



OBI TOPPIN, Dayton

Last Year: 14.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.9 apg, 0.8 bpg, 0.6 spg
This Year: 19.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.3 bpg, 1.3 spg

Toppin is the most interesting name on this list because I think there is an argument to be made that, as a player, Toppin hasn’t really gotten all that much better since last season. His efficiency levels are more or less the same as they were during his redshirt freshman season, and while the counting stats are up, some of that can be attributed to Toppin playing more minutes in a larger offensive role for a team that’s playing at a faster pace than they did a season ago.

As one NBA front office member told me, “he was already good,” noting that he had gotten better — consistently dominant, a better rebounder, more confident — “but he’s largely the same guy.”

So how did Toppin go from being a guy that started the season as “well, maybe he can beat out Marcus Evans for Atlantic 10 Player of the Year” to a legitimate candidate to win National Player of the Year?

This is the narrative portion of the program.

I think this season has been a perfect storm for Toppin. He’s putting up big numbers on a really good-not-great Dayton team in a year where all of the best teams fall into that good-not-great category and, for the first time in a decade, there is no obvious frontrunner for NPOY. Combine that with the fact that he has had some viral highlights and that the Flyers went to the Maui Invitational and showed out in one of the most-watched early-season college basketball events, and this is what you get.

I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve all of the attention he’s getting — he does, unquestionably — I’m just trying to put that attention into context.

Breaking him down as a player is almost as nuanced.

He has certainly improved in some areas. I don’t think there is any doubt that he is a better, more confident shooter this season than he was last season. He’s nearly doubled the number of threes he shot as a freshman and we’re only 17 games into the year. He’s only making them at a 33.3 percent clip right now, but Dayton coach Anthony Grant would not allow him to shoot that many threes unless he believed in the work Toppin put in developing his shot. His handle is getting better. His body continued to develop; Grant told NBC Sports in October that Toppin enrolled with the Flyers at 6-foot-7 and 185 pounds. He’s now 6-foot-9, 220.

But that development also needs to be taken into context.

Dayton is a significantly better basketball team this season than they were a season ago. They are a lethal three-point shooting team that is as old as anyone in the country. They put four shooters on the floor at all times around Toppin, and more often than not, allow him to roam as a small-ball five. He’s a threat to pick-and-pop because of his shooting, he’s a lob target as a roll-man due to his length and athleticism, and his physical tools make near impossible for opposing bigs to keep out of the paint. Combine all of those things with the fact that defenses are so spread out because of the rest of the shooters on the floor, and what you get is the nation’s No. 3 offense, according to KenPom. Toppin is probably the most important piece in that offense.

Toppin is also a terrific defensive piece because he can protect the rim, guard bigs and switch onto smaller players.

I say all that to say this: The biggest reason why Toppin is thriving this season is that the pieces around him and Dayton’s style of play allow the things he does best to shine. Whether or not he is actually a better basketball player is largely irrelevant in this conversation, because he is, unquestionably, a more effective basketball player now than he was a year ago.

And the result is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime season for the Flyers and a spot in the lottery of the 2020 NBA Draft.

Click here for the rest of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

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NICK RICHARDS, Kentucky

Last Year: 4.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.3, bpg, 59.8% FG
This Year: 13.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.3 bpg, 66.9% FG

It took two and a half years for us to get here, but I think that we have finally reached a point where Nick Richards is the guy we thought he would be when he enrolled at Kentucky as a McDonald’s All-American.

Over the course of the last four games, Richards is averaging 16.0 points, 10.0 boards and 2.5 blocks. But it’s more than just the numbers. Richards is finally posting games like this against high-major competition, something that he hasn’t done before. It should come as no surprise to anyone that those four games have changed the course of Kentucky’s season. They finally look like the team that entered the season in the top five of every preseason poll.

“He’s getting better,” head coach John Calipari said last week. “He started playing basketball when he was 14, so it’s taken him more time. But who cares how long it takes? It’s, can I get to the point where I’m a significant player? And he is now.”

The genesis of the change is simple, according to a person close to the Kentucky program: Richards believes in himself now.

“You can’t coach a kid’s confidence,” he said. “He has to build it himself.”

With Richards, building his confidence came with actually seeing his work turn into success in the actual games. He needed to see the ball go through the basket. He needed to actually take a game over before it really clicked for him that he can take games over if he played a certain way.

“Some kids you say don’t read your press clippings,” the source said. “With this kid, it helps him. ‘You think I’m good? OK, I need to turn up.'”

And with Richards, the way that confidence has manifested is that he wants the rock. He’s no longer scared when a play is called for him. He posts harder. He runs the floor in transition harder. He’s calling for lobs. He’s ready when tough passes are thrown to him, and, in turn, is catching more of those passes than he had in the pass. All of this leads to guards that are now more willing to give him the ball. They’re not worried that a Nick Richards post touch will lead directly to a turnover anymore.

As a result, Kentucky once again looks like a title contender.

Click here for the rest of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

(Getty Images)

DANIEL OTURU, Minnesota

Last Year: 10.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg
This Year: 19.9 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 2.9 bpg, 34.6% 3PT

Minnesota knew that they had a player when they landed Daniel Oturu as an in-state, top 100 prospect two years ago, but they did not realize that they were bringing in a kid that had a chance to be a first round pick.

Oturu didn’t realize it, either.

He does now.

“I could tell Daniel to ignore the NBA Draft boards but Daniel knows that right now he is picked 10th on NBADraft.net,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “He knows teams reach out to me. I tell him.”

With some players, this could be a bad thing. You don’t want that going to their head. You don’t want them checking out of a season at the start of league play just because they happened to see their name on a mock draft on the internet. But with Oturu, the simple fact that he has a chance to play in the NBA has been the best thing for him.

“He was immature even for a freshman, but he’s shown maturity [this year],” one source close to the program told me. “He’s got a chance to be a pro now. It’s one thing to talk about it. It’s another thing to be on draft boards. He’s seeing that. His focus level has changed. He’s staying after practice, taking extra shots, working on his game.”

And it hasn’t hurt him that Jordan Murphy has graduated. Now, he’s getting the post touches. He’s getting the isolation at the elbows. He’s the guy that the offense is being built around, and there’s more space for him to operate.

“He makes it look so easy,” one Big Ten assistant coach said. “You know how guards look at bigs like, ‘why can’t you make layups?’ Not him. He just makes the game look so easy, so effortlessly.”

The key now is going to be ensuring that Oturu stays focused on the task at hand. His name is on draft boards right now because he’s turned into a worker. He has to avoid letting the thought get into his head that he’s made it because he was on a mock draft.

“They don’t draft in early January,” Pitino said.

Click here for the rest of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

AMES, IA – DECEMBER 12: Tyrese Haliburton #22 of the Iowa State Cyclones drives the ball in the first half of play against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Hilton Coliseum on December 12, 2019 in Ames, Iowa. The Iowa Hawkeyes won 84-68 over the Iowa State Cyclones. (Photo by David K Purdy/Getty Images)

TYRESE HALIBURTON, Iowa State

Last Year: 6.8 ppg, 3.6 apg, 3.4 rpg, 1.5 spg, 43.4% 3PT
This Year: 16.6 ppg, 7.7 apg, 5.9 rpg, 2.6 spg, 41.7% 3PT

There is not a single person on the planet that watched an Iowa State game last season that thought Tyrese Haliburton was going to be anything other than great.

Part of it is the size. Part of it is the shooting, even if his release makes Shawn Marion look like J.J. Redick. Part of it was the passing ability and basketball IQ. The reason we only saw it in flashes last season was because Iowa State had more talent on their roster than they knew what to do with. It’s why they looked so good when they played well, and it’s why so many people got frustrated when they didn’t.

And Haliburton?

He was fine playing the background.

“If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’re making a big change in your life, there are situations where you just try to fit in,” head coach Steven Prohm said earlier this season. “Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes it can take away a little bit of who you are. It didn’t take away who he was as a person or his spirit, but he tried to just fit in playing-wise. It helped that team.”

“I had a role last year, and I had to buy into that,” Haliburton said.

The Iowa State staff knew he was going to be special this year when he went to Greece and starred on the gold medal-winning U19 team. He had the ball in his hands on a roster with a bunch of other future first round picks. Nothing about this season has surprised anyone in Ames.

“I know what I’m capable of,” he said.

And that’s because he’s put in the work.

One of the things that impress people around the Iowa State program is the way Haliburton works. He practices the passes that he’ll make out of ball-screens. With his left hand, with his right hand, baseline drifts, pocket passes, finding shooters in the weakside corner. He does all of that on his own, and it’s paying off.

Click here for the rest of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

(Getty Images)

MARCUS ZEGAROWSKI, Creighton

Last Year: 10.4 ppg, 3.4 apg, 3.2 rpg
This Year: 17.1 ppg, 4.8 apg, 3.8 rpg

The most important part of Marcus Zegarowski’s development from a guy in Creighton’s backcourt to the guy in Creighton’s backcourt has been, quite simply, his health.

As a freshman, Zegarowski dealt with a hip injury that required offseason surgery. He also missed three games after breaking a bone in his hand. He was all kinds of banged up, and while he hardly had a bad freshman season, there was a level that he couldn’t get to. Part of that was because he was, physically, limited. Part of it was because the injury sapped some of the belief he had in himself, not only to be able to make certain plays, but to be the voice that he needed to be on the floor.

“There’s a confidence level that has developed,” head coach Greg McDermott said. “His leadership has gone to another level. As a freshman, he was a little hesitant to step on toes and let his voice be heard.”

Not anymore.

Not only is a healthy Zegarowski now playing the best basketball of his life, he’s doing so as the leader on a team that has cracked the top 25.

“It happened faster than I anticipated,” McDermott said. “I couldn’t imagine a better fit for how we want to play.”

“I think they are best when they have a guy who is a passer and a playmaker,” a Big East coach told me, “and he fits their system perfectly. He’s always been that type of player, and I think he’s just improved his game. He’s been very effective.”

One thing that I have noticed about Zegarowski from watching Creighton play this year is that he always looks angry, like someone used his airpods and gave them back without charging them. I asked McDermott about this, and he said, chuckling: “He doesn’t change that expression much. He’s really hard on himself and doesn’t celebrate as much as he should. He’s a perfectionist from a basketball family, but I think a really important part of a point guard’s job is to be the same person. You know what you’re going to get day in and day out. He’s really dependable.”

Click here for No. 6-10 of our list of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

Best Bets: Previewing Baylor-Kansas, Myles Powell-Markus Howard

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The Vegas lines for Saturday’s games were not released at the time of this publishing. Score projections from KenPomTorvik and Haslametrics were used in their stead. 

No. 4 BAYLOR at No. 3 KANSAS, Sat. 1:00 p.m. (CBS)

  • KENPOM: Kansas 69, Baylor 61
  • TORVIK: Kansas 72, Baylor 62
  • HASLAM: Kansas 74, Baylor 57
  • VEGAS IMPLIED SCORE: Kansas 69, Baylor 61.5

My thoughts on this game really are no different than what I thought about Kansas facing off with West Virginia last week with the notable exception that Baylor just so happens to be a better team that West Virginia.

These are two of the nation’s top ten defenses. Baylor has been playing primarily man defense this season, but as they showed against Texas Tech, they can flip between man and zone easily. They have the size inside to be able to deal with Udoka Azubuike and David McCormack, especially if Tristan Clark is able to give them 15 minutes on Saturday, but with the versatile Mark Vital on the floor, they can keep playing big while matching up with Kansas when they go to their four-guard lineup.

The Jayhawks, on the other hand, currently sit as the second-best defense in college hoops, according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, and their best perimeter defenders should be able to matchup with Baylor’s talented guards.

Put another way, I have a hard time seeing how this game gets away from Baylor. I know that they have never won in Phog Allen Fieldhouse, but they do tend to play the Jayhawks tough on the road. They’ve lost by eight, three and five points in their last three trips to Lawrence, and none of those teams were as good as this team.

BEST BET: In a battle between legitimate top five teams, eight (or ten, or 17) points are just too many points, and that’s before you factor in how well these teams matchup with each other defensively. I’ll take Baylor and the points as long as it is (+7.5) and above.

*SATURDAY UPDATE: So the line opened up at Baylor (+7.5), which is the floor of where I feel comfortable betting the Bears. That’s where I’m leaning, and that’s probably what I am going to bet, but I’m not going to feel great about it.

No. 22 TEXAS TECH at No. 17 WEST VIRGINIA, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • KENPOM: West Virginia 67, Texas Tech 60
  • TORVIK: West Virginia 67, Texas Tech 58
  • HASLAM: West Virginia 67, Texas Tech 58

On Friday’s podcast, we talked about some of the issues that Texas Tech has in the Big 12 this season, namely they they just do not have the size inside to be able to handle the best teams in the Big 12.

West Virginia is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, and I don’t think that is going to change against a team that is going to roll out T.J. Holyfield and Chris Clarke to try and deal with Big Sheeb and Derek Culver.

That said, the Mountaineers turn the ball over on nearly 21 percent of their possessions on the season — and over 27 percent during Big 12 play — while Texas Tech just forced 20 turnovers on 62 possessions (32.3%) against Baylor.

BEST BET: I think that if this total opens at 128 or above, the under is most definitely in play. I also think that the Red Raiders are going to be able to keep this thing fairly close. The more turnovers they force, the fewer possessions West Virginia is going to be able to get to the offensive glass, which is where I think their best offense is going to come from.

I don’t know where Tech’s offense is going to come from (which is why the under is the more intriguing bet here), but if you need to take a side, the Red Raiders at (+7.5) or higher has value.

*SATURDAY UPDATE: This line opened up at West Virginia (-5) and immediately dropped to (-4.5). The value is on West Virginia at that number, especially when playing at home; keep in mind that we have not seen Texas Tech have to play a road game in league play yet.

MARQUETTE at SETON HALL, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (CBSSN)

  • KENPOM: Seton Hall 76, Marquette 69
  • TORVIK: Seton Hall 77, Marquette 70
  • HASLAM: Seton Hall 78, Marquette 69

As this season has gone on, the Golden Eagles have gotten more and more reliant on Markus Howard’s game-changing ability to win them games. In three games against Seton Hall last season, Howard averaged 17.7 points while shooting 10-for-46 (21.7%) from the floor and 6-for-28 (21.4%) from three. In the game at the Prudential Center, he shot 2-for-11 from the floor and finished with just six points in 28 foul-plagued minutes in a 73-64 loss.

(As an aside, Howard actually scored 21 points in a game where he shot 1-for-15 against Seton Hall in the Big East tournament; he took 24 free throws in that game.)

Anyway, I fully expect Quincy McKnight to spend Saturday afternoon covering Howard like a wet blanket.

BEST BETS: I like Seton Hall up to (-7.5).

*SATURDAY UPDATE: The line here opened up at Seton Hall (-6) and it has yet to move away from Seton Hall (-6). This is my favorite bet of the day.

No. 12 MARYLAND at IOWA, Fri. 7:00 p.m. (FS1)

  • KENPOM: Maryland 74, Iowa 73
  • TORVIK: Iowa 74, Maryland 72
  • HASLAM: Iowa 72, Maryland 71
  • VEGAS IMPLIED SCORE: Maryland 74, Iowa 72

On the one hand, Iowa is 10-5 this season, they’ve been better but still something of a mess on the defensive side of the ball and losing Jordan Bohannon certainly didn’t help matters. At the same time, Maryland has looked like a team that is starting to put things together. They are coming off of back-to-back impressive wins over Indiana and Ohio State at home, and we know that they have enough talent to be a serious problem if they do find a way to put it all together.

Having said that, Iowa — who is not ranked but who is a top 25 team according to all of the metrics I use — has played their last two games on the road, where Big Ten teams are 4-26 this season. This game is, of course, going to be played in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in a spot where it feels like we’d be buying on Iowa low in a must-win game (they’re currently 1-3 in the Big Ten) while fading a Maryland team that is 0-2 on the road this season at a high point.

BEST BET: Iowa is getting points at home right now, but instead of betting the Hawkeyes at (+1.5) or (+2), I will be taking the money line at +110.

*SATURDAY UPDATE: Cha-ching.

No. 11 OHIO STATE at INDIANA, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (FOX)

  • KENPOM: Ohio State 69, Indiana 66
  • TORVIK: Ohio State 69, Indiana 66
  • HASLAM: Ohio State 71, Indiana 64

Unlike Iowa-Maryland, I do not feel comfortable betting on Indiana in this situation.

After getting blown out by the Terps in College Park last week, Indiana returned home and needed to erase a late 10-point deficit to avoid a loss to Northwestern in Assembly Hall.

At the same, I don’t feel comfortable betting on an Ohio State team that has been good defensively while struggling to find a way to score outside of Kaleb Wesson, and I definitely don’t want to make that bet when the Buckeyes are facing a team that plays the Pack-Line.

BEST BET: I think the under is the play here. I fully expect Ohio State to make life difficult for the Hoosiers, and I have not felt good about what the Buckeyes are doing offensively for a while. If the total is 135 or above, let’s get on that under.

*SATURDAY UPDATE: This is a gross spot. The line opened at Ohio State (-2) and has since dropped to (-1.5). I don’t think there is enough juice on Indiana’s ML (+110) to make it intriguing, but taking a Big Ten team on the road is just as uncomfortable.

Then there is the total, which opened at 133 and has since moved 135, which is the floor for where I would feel comfortable betting the under. If you’re asking me where I’m leaning, it’s Ohio State (-1.5) and the under, but I certainly do not feel good about it.