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Ten Things You Need To Know: Catch up on all of Saturday’s college hoops action

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College basketball went insane on Saturday.

Well, it was insane all week.

But Saturday was really nuts.

Here’s everything you need to know.

1. NO. 3 DUKE LOST THEIR SECOND GAME THIS WEEK

David Johnson exploded on to the scene with 19 points, seven assists, four boards, three steals and two blocks.

Louisville exorcised some demons.

Duke looked like a team that is banged up, can’t guard the four and lacks a go-to scorer.

A full breakdown of this game can be found here.

2. NO. 4 AUBURN LOST THEIR SECOND GAME THIS WEEK, TOO

Auburn entered this seek as one of just two undefeated teams left in college basketball, but there were question marks.

The Tigers don’t have a single win over a team ranked in the top 40 on KenPom. They have only played three Quad 1 games this season. Their only Quad 1 win is barely a Quad 1 win: It came at Mississippi State, who currently ranks 70th in the NET; the cutoff for Quad 1 road wins is top 75.

The other two Quad 1 games that Auburn has played this season?

They were both this week.

And they were both ugly losses.

On Tuesday, it was Alabama that ran over Auburn in the basketball version of the Iron Bowl, 83-64. On Saturday, it was Florida doing the damage, as they held Auburn to 25.5 percent shooting from the field, 4-for-23 shooting from three (17.4%) and to just a single point during an eight-minute stretch late in the second half that saw the Gators push their lead from 47-43 to 69-44. They won 69-47.

Suddenly, those concerns look prescient.

The truth is this: Auburn is dangerous. They are a team that can make a lot of threes, that can force turnovers and play in transition and has the ability to play big (with Austin Wiley) or small (without Austin Wiley). They have a lottery pick in Isaac Okoro and they have a couple of guards on their roster capable of taking games over in J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty.

But they haven’t consistently played up to the level of a top five team, and their 15-0 record was inflated by feasting on teams that are just good enough to make us believe.

Auburn is still good.

They’re just not a top five team.

3. OH, AND NO. 5 BUTLER LOST THEIR SECOND GAME THIS WEEK AS WELL!

But this game said a whole lot more about DePaul than it did about Butler.

I explained why right here.

4. PAYTON PRITCHARD REALLY WANTS TO BE NATIONAL PLAYER OF THE YEAR

The reason Payton Pritchard is one of the frontrunners for National Player of the Year is the fact that he is putting up terrific numbers this season for a top ten team and doing so while putting together some incredibly impressive performances in crunchtime.

Saturday might have been his statement game.

Oregon erased a 13-point second half deficit thanks in large part to Pritchard, who hit a huge three with a minute left to tie the game. In overtime, he hit a floater to give the Ducks the lead before burying this insane three to win the game with 3.2 seconds left:

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Payton Pritchard called game!!!!!!

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No. 8 Oregon avoided going 0-2 on the Washington road trip with a 64-61 win. Pritchard finished with 22 points. The Ducks are now 3-0 in overtime games this season largely due to the fact that Pritchard is arguably the most clutch player in college basketball.

Is there anyone that you would want taking a big shot in a big game more than him?

5. BUT SO DOES MYLES POWELL

Seton Hall capped off an absolutely stellar week by going into Madison Square Garden and knocking off their biggest regional rival, St. John’s, on the road despite trailing by 13 points at the half.

That’s a big time win.

And Powell was, as you might expect, once again a big time player.

He scored 23 of his 29 points in the second half and made big shot after big shot down the stretch. This came just three days after he went for 29 points as Seton Hall erased a 10 point halftime deficit on the road against No. 5 Butler.

In fact, the Pirates are currently sitting at 6-0 in the Big East after a slow start to their season, and they already have won at DePaul, at Xavier, at Butler and at St. John’s.

And now they get three straight home games.

Kevin Willard’s club has put themselves in a great position to make a run at the 2020 Big East regular season title.

6. KENTUCKY RALLIES AFTER COACH CAL GETS TOSSED

This was awesome.

Coach Cal was ejected on Saturday in the most mild-mannered way I’ve ever seen.

He was arguing with the refs about the way they were implementing the flop rule against his team, and — I think — he was given two technicals for being out of the coach’s box and staying out of the coach’s box to curse at the refs. Look at this:

The best part?

Kentucky was up 11 early in the first half, but they blew that lead. After going 3-for-4 on technical free throws, Arkansas held a 47-44 lead on a coach-less Kentucky team.

And how did the Cats respond?

A cool 17-2 run to put the game to bed in a 73-66 win.

7. HOUSTON BLEW OUT WICHITA STATE TO TAKE CONTROL OF THE AMERICAN

The Houston we expected to see all season long showed up in Wichita on Saturday night.

The Cougars beat the No. 16 Shockers in their own building, 65-54, and it wasn’t really that close. Wichita State was down 49-27 at one point, allowing just one player to crack double-figures.

The Shockers lost two games this week and now sit a game off the pace in the American, behind Houston and Tulsa, who are tied for first.

8. WEST VIRGINIA SOMEHOW GAVE UP 84 POINTS TO KANSAS FREAKIN’ STATE

Kansas State entered Saturday ranked 198th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric. James Madison, the 275th-best team in college basketball, and VMI, the 291st-best team in college basketball, ranked directly behind them. The only “high-major” players worse than Kansas State offensively this season?

Temple, South Florida, Virginia, East Carolina and Boston College.

West Virginia, on the other hand, entered Saturday ranked as the single-best defensive team in the entire sport. They were playing defense at a level that would rank among the very-best defensive teams that we have ever seen. Their four Big 12 opponents were averaging 51 points against them.

Kansas State had 42 points at halftime. They scored 84 points on the night. They won 84-68 to drop the Mountaineers two games out of first place in the Big 12 title race, because …

9. … BAYLOR ERASED A 12 POINT DEFICIT ON THE ROAD

The Bears looked like they were going to be the top five team to blow a win they should not be blowing on Saturday.

Oklahoma State threw a 2-3 zone on the Bears, doing the exact same thing that Washington did to Baylor late in the only game that they lost thus far this season, and Baylor was lost for the first half. They trailed 36-24 at one point late in the half before slotting MAtthew Mayer at the high post and thwarting all of Oklahoma State’s plans.

In the end, however, the Cowboys still had a shot to win late, but that was until Devonte Bandoo banged home three threes in the final eight minutes, including two in a one minute span after the final TV timeout, to secure a 75-68 win.

Bandoo scored 14 points off the bench. He is the fourth-best guard on this Baylor roster.

Put another way, this team is deep, they are loaded, and the guys all the way down their bench can make the shots that beat you.

That’s scary.

10. SAN DIEGO STATE IS STILL UNDEFEATED

The Aztecs trailed at the half but ran Nevada off the court after halftime, taking home a 68-55 win.

Payne’s career game helps Florida beat No. 4 Auburn 69-47

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Omar Payne had the best game of his college career, finishing with 19 points and 11 rebounds, and led Florida to a 69-47 victory over No. 4 Auburn on Saturday.

Payne, a freshman from Kissimmee, was widely considered an afterthought in Florida’s highly touted recruiting class. Against the Tigers, he looked like a future lottery pick.

The 6-foot-10 forward dominated in the paint, scoring on tip-ins, putbacks and layups, and creating a mismatch nightmare for Auburn (15-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference). His three-point play, which came after an offensive rebound, put Florida (12-5, 4-1) up by 14 with a little more than 4 minutes to play.

The Gators sent the home crowd into a late frenzy – and to the exits – with a 14-0 run that included 3-pointers by Noah Locke, Keyontae Johnson and Kerry Blackshear Jr. Fans chanted “over-rated” in the closing minutes.

Locke and Blackshear finished with 11 points apiece for the Gators, who haven’t lost at home to Auburn since 1996. Blackshear added a season-high-tying 16 rebounds.

The Tigers have lost two in a row since starting 15-0.

Danjel Purifoy was the only player in double figures for Auburn, which shot 25.5% from the field. He had 10 points.

The Tigers struggled out of the gate, missing 15 of their first 16 shots. But Florida failed to take advantage of Auburn’s sluggishness, turning the ball over far too often for coach Mike White’s liking.

Auburn kept it close thanks to being perfect (10 for 10) from the free throw line.

The Gators led by five at the break and quickly built a double-digit lead coming out of the locker room. Nembhard, Johnson and Blackshear made consecutive baskets and then Payne followed with a putback and a layup that pushed the lead to 38-27.

Florida looked like it might really pull away a few minutes later, but Samir Doughty answered with back-to-back 3-pointers. Auburn’s leading scorer missed all four shots in the opening 20 minutes and didn’t record a single positive statistic.

BIG PICTURE

Auburn: The Tigers won’t win many, if any, games shooting like this. Purifoy made 3 of 11 shots and Doughty was 3 of 12 from the field.

Florida: The Gators finally look like a top-10 team. They opened the season ranked No. 6 but lost two of their first four games. White tweaked the offense, and the results are starting to show.

UP NEXT:

Auburn: Hosts South Carolina on Wednesday. The Tigers have lost four of the last six in the series.

Florida: Plays at LSU on Tuesday. The Gators have won four of the last five meetings, including two in overtime.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Bracketology: Baylor leads, Big Ten reigns

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Here is the latest NCAA tournament bracketology projection.

One bracket decision was easy today: Baylor as the No. 1 overall seed.  The Bears are 5-1 against Quadrant 1 teams, have a win at Kansas, and haven’t lost since dropping a close game to Washington in early November.

Elsewhere, the Big Ten reigns, filling up the field with a dozen teams.  Much of that has to do with the strength and depth of the conference, with quality wins available almost every night and home teams rarely losing.  Another contributing factor is fewer contenders in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big 12, and even the Southeastern Conference (SEC).   Whether those trends continue remains to be seen.  Ultimately, the Big Ten is more likely to end up with nine or ten bids.

In a close call, Butler remains the final No. 1 seed, but loses its Midwest route to Kansas.  The Bulldogs depth of wins against teams in the Field was the difference.  But one could make an equally compelling and accurate case for San Diego State.

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

UPDATED: January 17, 2020

FIRST FOUR – DAYTON
EAST REGION Minnesota vs. Virginia Tech
WEST REGION NC State vs. Washington
MIDWEST REGION  ROBERT MORRIS vs. NC A&T
SOUTH REGION PR VIEW AM vs. NO COLORADO

SOUTH Houston WEST – Los Angeles                   
Omaha Spokane
1) BAYLOR 1) GONZAGA
16) PV-AM / NC A&T 16) QUINNIPIAC
8) Illinois 8) Wisconsin
9) Florida 9) Oklahoma
Tampa St. Louis
5) Michigan 5) WICHITA STATE
12) LIBERTY 12) NC State / Washington
4) Auburn 4) Louisville
13) S.F. AUSTIN 13) NEW MEXICO ST
Albany Spokane
6) STANFORD 6) Iowa
11) Saint Mary’s 11) Houston
3) SETON HALL 3) Oregon
14) COLGATE 14) SOUTH DAKOTA ST
Greensboro Sacramento
7) Arkansas 7) Penn State
10) Purdue 10) Texas Tech
2) DUKE 2) SAN DIEGO STATE
15) NORTHERN COLORADO 15) UC-IRVINE
EAST – New York MIDWEST – Indianapolis
St. Louis Omaha
1) Butler 1) Kansas
16) ALBANY / ROB MORRIS 16) RADFORD
8) LSU 8) Marquette
9) Rutgers 9) Indiana
Sacramento Albany
5) Maryland 5) Ohio State
12) EAST TENNESSEE ST 12) AKRON
4) Colorado 4) Villanova
13) YALE 13) GEORGIA STATE
Cleveland Cleveland
6) Kentucky 6) Creighton
11) Minnesota / Virginia Tech 11) NORTHERN IOWA
3) DAYTON 3) MICHIGAN STATE
14) WILLIAM & MARY 14) WRIGHT STATE
Greensboro Tampa
7) Arizona 7) Memphis
10) Georgetown 10) BYU
2) West Virginia 2) Florida State
15) AUSTIN PEAY 15) CHARLOTTE

BUBBLE NOTES
Last 4 Byes Last 4 IN      First 4 OUT Next 4 OUT
Purdue Minnesota USC St. John’s
Texas Tech Virginia Tech Oregon State Arizona State
Houston NC State VCU Utah
Saint Mary’s Washington Xavier Georgia

Top Seed Line
Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas, Butler
Seed List

Breakdown by Conference …
Big Ten (12)
Big East (6)
ACC (5)
SEC (5)

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

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

Alabama knocks off unbeaten No. 4 Auburn

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Alabama dropped previously-unbeaten rival Auburn with an 83-64 home win on Wednesday night.

College basketball is down to only one undefeated team with the loss for the No. 4 Tigers.

The Crimson Tide took advantage of an off-night from the Tigers to jump out to an early lead and hold on from there. It helped that Kira Lewis Jr. came through with 25 points and a strong effort on the defensive end. Lewis played in attack mode while still making strong decisions, driving the Alabama offense to a strong night.

Lewis was also a menace on the defensive end. The sophomore was tasked with guarding Samir Doughty or J’Von McCormick. Lewis came through by helping to shut both of them down. Herb Jones complimented Lewis with a strong two-way effort of his own, finishing with 12 points and 13 rebounds.

The win jumps Alabama to 9-7 and 2-2 in the SEC. They’re still a long way from thinking about an NCAA tournament bid. But a rivalry win like this over a top-five team could jumpstart bigger things. Particularly if Lewis plays like this every night. At the very least, this is an early signature win for new head coach Nate Oats.

The real story in this one is the collapse of Auburn during a rivalry game. The Tigers (15-1, 3-1) started the game 3-for-18 from the field. Things didn’t get much better from there. Turning the ball over a season-high 21 times and shooting 56 percent from the free-throw line, Auburn had a terrible night completing even the fundamentals. Auburn shot a season-low 32 percent from the field.

Outside of Isaac Okoro (13 points) and Austin Wiley (10 points, 13 rebounds), nobody on Auburn really stepped up on the road Wednesday night.

Although losing a rivalry game hurts, the pressure of being an undefeated team halfway through January is also tough to deal with. The Tigers were always going to be the hunted coming off of last season’s Final Four appearance. But there’s a little extra bullseye on a team’s back if they’re still undefeated at this point in the season. This loss takes a small amount of pressure off of Auburn as they regroup for the rest of conference season.

One thing is for sure, Auburn has to come with more intensity on the road next time. A lackluster effort from the start in a rivalry game is not assuring for a team trying to make another deep run in March.

San Diego State is now the final undefeated college hoops team for the 2019-20 season.

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.

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(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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.

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(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.

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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.

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(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.