This is shaping up as a tremendous season to follow the race for the Naismith Trophy, given annually to the nation's best college basketball player and awarded in April during the Final Four in Phoenix. 

 
MARCH MADNESS ON SOCIAL MEDIA

JOIN THE TEAM.


 
The freshman class continues to thrill and perform with precociousness. The elder statesmen have been steady, as expected. Several sophomores have surged from supplementary to starring roles. There's not a clear cut No. 1 team in the nation or Naismith leader at this point, but we're giving it our best shot each week. 

The 50-man watch list was released earlier this month. It will be trimmed to 30 in February, 10 in March and four semifinalists will be invited to the award's ceremony, held the morning prior to the national championship game. 

Josh Hart, Villanova (18.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg)

Villanova's Josh Hart (3, right) talks with head coach Jay Wright during a Wednesday win over Charleston.
Bill Streicher | USA TODAY Sports Images
Villanova's Josh Hart (3, right) talks with head coach Jay Wright during a Wednesday win over Charleston.
The Wildcats are top 20 in effective field goal percentage (57.6) and turnover rate (14.4), wearing down opponents by limiting mistakes, taking good shots and converting. Villanova is second in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency (119.3) and its senior leader Hart is the weapon other opponents fear most - he’s hit 66 percent of 2-pointers and 44 percent of 3-pointers, equally dangerous in the halfcourt and in transition.

It was a quiet week for the Wildcats, who handled Charleston in their only outing. Hart had 13 points and 11 rebounds in the 16-point victory and remains atop the Naismith Watch. Villanova’s next stiff test is Dec. 10th vs. Notre Dame in Newark, NJ.

Lonzo Ball, UCLA (16.0 ppg, 9.1 apg, 5.3 rpg)

It was quite a week for the freshman Ball at the helm of the Bruins electric offense. He turned in two more double-doubles, set the Wooden Legacy Classic record for assists (28) and won the tournament's MVP award after giving UCLA the lead to keep on a stepback 3-pointer with 2:38 remaining in a 74-67 defeat of Texas A&M in the title game. Oh, and his dad, Levar, guaranteed a national championship for the Bruins, on national television.

UCLA's Lonzo Ball (2, left) has been right in the middle of things for a Bruins offense that is humming.
Kelvin Kuo | USA TODAY Sports Images
UCLA's Lonzo Ball (2, left) has been right in the middle of things for a Bruins offense that is humming.
There's enough offensive firepower in the starting lineup to make clipping the nets more than a parent's wild dream. Ball, who leads the nation with 9.1 assists per game, combines basketball intelligence and incredible court vision to choose the appropriate option. The 6-6 point guard can thread a gap with a bounce pass, launch a 50-foot outlet or simply take a defender off the dribble. What's made Ball - and the Bruins - so difficult to stop is his 3-point shooting. He's drained 18 of 37 (48.6 percent) from beyond-the-arc, adding heat to the nation's fourth most efficient offense (1.24 points per possession).

Markelle Fultz, Washington (23.0 ppg, 6.7 apg, 5.5 rpg)

If not for serious foul trouble against TCU - he picked up his fourth with 15 minutes remaining and fouled out eight minutes later - the 6-4 freshman Fultz appeared headed for a 40-point night in an eventual 13-point loss. Having him languish on the bench is the opposition's best chance of stopping Fultz, who is on pace to become the only freshman since 1993-94 to average 20 points, six assists and five rebounds per game, per sports-reference.com.

Fultz is ferocious in the open court and as the ballhandler in the pick & roll, knocking down 60 percent of 2-pointers and 44 percent of 3-pointers while assisting on 37 percent of the Huskies' field goals.

Joel Berry II, North Carolina (17.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 4.3 apg)

Besides being a terrific floor leader and dangerous scorer in spot-up situations or running the pick & roll, Berry II has also been the best defender among the point guards on this week's Naismith Watch.

Per Synergy Sports Tech, he's been the primary defender on an opponent's possession-ending play (shot or turnover) on 81 possessions this season. Opponents scored only 22 percent of the time. If the goal of basketball is to score (or help your team score) and prevent your opponent from scoring, Berry II is also excelling. He's producing 1.465 points on possessions he ends via shot, assist or turnover and has accomplished this against the 78th most difficult schedule, per KenPom.

  SOS PPP (Pts + assists) Defensive PPP PPP Differential
Lonzo Ball, UCLA 232 1.712 0.667 1.045
Joel Berry II, UNC 78 1.465 0.519 0.946
Frank Mason III, Kansas 27 1.408 0.800 0.608
Markelle Fultz, Washington 302 1.496 0.939 0.557
Juwan Evans, Oklahoma State 233 1.371 0.961 0.410

Frank Mason III (21.5 ppg, 5.3 apg, 4.5 rpg)

What has enabled Mason III to make the leap from solid starting piece on a Big 12 champion to dynamic backcourt leader of a national championship contender? Improved shooting, specifically at the rim.

In his first three seasons with the Jayhawks, Mason III shot 43.4 percent (368 of 848) from the floor. Through seven games against a difficult schedule (27th in nation per KenPom), he's hit 54.9 percent (45 of 82).

Improved shooting from outside and inside the 3-point arc has propelled Frank Mason III to new heights.
Brian Spurlock | USA TODAY Sports Images
Improved shooting from outside and inside the 3-point arc has propelled Frank Mason III to new heights.
It's never easy for a shorter man to convert among the trees who defend the rim, however the 5-10 senior has found the touch so far. Last season in 157 attempts at the rim (per hoop-math.com) Mason III made 47 percent. This season, he's made 66 percent on 38 attempts. And, causing a bigger problem for defenders, he's found the 3-point touch of late, hitting 10 of 15 last week in wins over UAB, Georgia and UNC Asheville.   

Peter Jok, Iowa (25.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg)

The Hawkeyes' senior set the early 2016-17 mark for most points in a game Saturday, pouring in 42 in a 100-93 loss to Memphis. Jok, a 6-6 forward, hit eight 3-pointers and sank all 12 free throw attempts to remain perfect at the line in 24 attempts this season. His offensive rating of 130.1 through six games is second in the nation among players who use at least 28 percent of possessions, per KenPom. 

Part of what makes Jok so difficult to defend is his ability to score from various locations. He's comfortable beyond-the-arc, thrives around the free-throw line and on the baseline, and finishes around the basket, shown here in his season shot chart, provided by Synergy Sports Tech.

Synergy Sports Tech
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue (18.8 ppg, 12.0 rpg)

Not only is the Boilermakers 6-9, 250-pound forward a space eater in the lane and double-double machine, he's also made the expected 'sophomore leap.' He's relishing his role as a primary option in Purdue's halfcourt offense this season. Coach Matt Painter believes in feeding his big men - 39 percent of Swanigan's touches have come in post-up situations, per Synergy - and he's produced one point per possession in those situations. 

The table below shows his improvement in the last year. Swanigan has also increased his assist rate and decreased his turnover rate. Swanigan and the Boilermakers face a stiff test against Louisville's long, athletic frontcourt on Wednesday (7 p.m., ESPN).

  PPG RPG Offensive rating Effective FG Percentage Fouls drawn per 40 mins
2016-17 18.8 12.0 127.0 65.8 8.2
2015-16 11.5 8.8 96.1 49.8 4.4

Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State (24.7 ppg, 5.3 apg)

The Cowboys' were overmatched in the Maui Invitational semifinals against North Carolina, however, their leader provided an offensive highlight reel. He scored on 3-pointers, pull-up jumpers and finished with both hands, arching shots high off the glass over the Tar Heels' cache of long, tall forwards. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas called his play 'ridiculous' adding "is there anything this kid can't do?"

A volume shooter out of necessity (takes 37.9 pct of OSU's shots), Evans is also a trustworthy ballhandler and playmaker. He's accumulated a 2.9 to 1 assist-turnover ratio through six games.

Josh Jackson, Kansas (14.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.2 apg)

We'll be honest: Jackson's production and efficiency probably fall shy of being Naismith Watch worthy at this point in the season. But we're confident he's one of the best nine players in the nation and he gave glimpses last week of what to expect over the next four months. Jackson scored 22 points against UAB. He snagged 11 rebounds against Georgia. He handed out seven assists against UNC Asheville.

After a rough opening night to the season, Kansas freshman Josh Jackson (11) has settled in nicely.
Denny Medley | USA TODAY Sports Images
After a rough opening night to the season, Kansas freshman Josh Jackson (11) has settled in nicely.
If you eliminate a poor shooting effort in his career debut against Indiana (3 of 11), he's nailing 60 percent from the field. If you took Jackson off the Jayhawks roster they would not be a legitimate national title contender, either. With the 6-8 freshman at his disposal, coach Bill Self has to feel good about staying in the hunt until the end.