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Brian Mull | | December 27, 2016

Naismith Watch: Purdue's Caleb Swanigan joins the race

  Purdue's sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan (50) is the leading scorer for the Boilermakers in 2016-17.

The 2016-17 college basketball schedule charges onward from this point forward. Exams and Christmas have come and gone. Conference battles begin this week. Each game carries more weight than the previous one. The race for the Naismith Trophy, given annually to the best player in the nation, will also intensify. This week, let’s examine the top contenders and what lies ahead for them.   

Josh Hart, Villanova (20.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.7 apg)

  It was business as usual for Josh Hart (3) and the Villanova Wildcats in a lopsided win over American.
The senior wing matched all his season averages in the Wildcats’ only game last week, a 90-48 thrashing of American, with 20 points, seven rebounds and three assists. Hart has generated an offensive rating of 137.8 on the season. In five games against teams in the KenPom Top 100, he’s been even better, shooting 69 percent on 2-pointers, 50 percent on 3-pointers and 88 percent on free throws to produce 1.52 points per possession for coach Jay Wright. Of course, his impact goes beyond scoring and Villanova will need all his tools Saturday when it travels to face Creighton.

“I’m not going to be the most glamorous guy,” Hart told CSN Philly. “If you look at the box scores, you’re not going to be like, ‘Josh Hart, that guy is a player.’ Some games, like Notre Dame, you might. I want to be the guy that scores 15 points but goes and grabs 10 rebounds, goes and gets 5-6 assists, gets some steals, gets some blocks, fill the stat sheet. I don’t value myself on whether I’m making or missing shots. If I do that I’m not doing everything else.”

Frank Mason III, Kansas (19.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.7 apg)

  Kansas will look to one of its lead guards Frank Mason III (0) for some leadership as conference play starts.
Kansas is sixth in both adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency. That’s the statistical DNA of a national championship contender, although the Jayhawks 59.7 percent free-throw shooting must trouble coach Bill Self.

Mason, solid at the stripe most of the year, caught the Jayhawks’ foul shot fever in a 71-53 defeat of UNLV last week, missing six of his 10 shots. Blame it on the pre-holiday blues. Mason still dished out eight assists and snagged three steals in the 13-point performance that was probably his worst all-around effort this season. Kansas will need a sharper outing from its senior point guard Friday in the Big 12 opener at TCU, which is a surprising 11-1 in coach Jamie Dixon’s first season.  

Lonzo Ball, UCLA (13.7 ppg, 8.3 apg, 5.8 rpg)

  UCLA's Lonzo Ball (2, left) has been right in the middle of things for a Bruins offense that is humming.
The Naismith Watch is thrilled about this week’s Pac-12 tipoff between UCLA and Oregon on Wednesday night. The Bruins are unbeaten (13-0). After a sluggish start, the Ducks are at full strength and have won nine in a row. Knight Arena will be rockin’ for certain with hopes that Oregon’s long, athletic, versatile bunch can corral Ball and company, who have played offense at a historic level through the first six weeks of the season. Fifth-year senior Dylan Ennis is Oregon’s best perimeter defender, so he might receive first crack at checking Ball. With the 6-foot-6 Ball threading passes to open teammates, the Bruins have converted 62.7 percent of 2-pointers (first in nation) and 42.8 percent of 3-pointers (fifth). Here’s another interesting contrast: UCLA has had only 3.9 percent of shots blocked, which leads the nation. Oregon has blocked 21.9 percent of opponent’s shots, which leads the nation. Ball and the Bruins plowed through the non-conference slate averaging 95.8 points per game. They’ll have to prove they can win at a much slower pace in Eugene.

Luke Kennard, Duke (20.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.8 apg)

  Duke guard Luke Kennard (5) is leading his team in scoring at just over 20 points a contest.
The Blue Devils open the ACC season on Saturday in Blacksburg, Virginia, against Virginia Tech (the Hokies are 10-1 and No. 35 in KenPom). Duke is top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency as coach Mike Krzyzewski continues juggling pieces and trying different combinations. Kennard has been one constant, scoring in double figures every game and eclipsing 20 points in five of the last six. He’s accomplished this efficiently, hitting 59 percent of 2s, 43 percent of 3s and 87 percent at the line.

Kennard’s scoring ability off the dribble in the mid-range proves he’s a polished offensive player and a nightmare on opposing scouting reports. He’s 34-of-60 on 2-point jumpers and only 23 percent of those shots have been assisted. Duke will need his backcourt production and leadership because preseason national player of the year Grayson Allen is suspended indefinitely.

De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky (16.3 ppg, 6.8 apg, 5.0 rpg)

  Kentucky Wildcats guard De'Aaron Fox (0) has been part of a well-oiled offensive machine.
The Grinch came early for Big Blue Nation as archrival Louisville handed the Wildcats a three-point loss. Kentucky dropped to 10-2 entering Thursday’s SEC opener at Ole Miss. While losing in-state bragging rights hurts, the Wildcats remain the clear favorites to breeze to another regular-season title and contend for another Final Four berth.

Fox led Kentucky with 21 points against Louisville and the precocious point guard has piloted the offense to 1.19 points per possession (11th in the nation) by steering away from turnovers and assisting on one-third of the ‘Cats baskets. His court vision and explosive first step are a fun combination to watch.

Caleb Swanigan, Purdue (18.3 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 3.0 apg)

  Purdue's Caleb Swanigan (50) has teamed with fellow frontcourt mate Isaac Haas to create havoc.
Swanigan had 52 points and 41 rebounds in two games last week. So what if Purdue faced Norfolk State and Western Illinois? He scored nearly a point per minute. He matched Norfolk State’s defensive rebounding total by himself.

The Boilermakers are 11-2, ninth in the nation in effective field-goal percentage (57.9) and, along with Wisconsin and Indiana, appear to be the frontrunners entering Big Ten action. Purdue starts Wednesday with a visit from Iowa, which is not a good defensive team (105th in adjusted efficiency). That’s bad news when arriving in Swanigan’s town. He’s been not only one of the best defensive rebounders in the nation (32.4 percent of opponent’s missed shots) but also a deadly shooter, hitting 11 of 21 3-pointers and 60 percent of 2-pointers.

Malik Monk, Kentucky (21.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg)

  UK freshman Malik Monk had plenty to smile about during a 103-100 victory over UNC on Dec. 17.
Oh, the life of a shooter. Just four days after smoking North Carolina with a 47-point outburst and the last second game-winning shot — forever engraved on the hearts and souls of Kentucky fans — the 6-foot-4 freshman missed eight of nine 3-point shots in a loss to Louisville.

Monk, the only reliable perimeter threat in the Wildcats’ backcourt, can expect to be hounded and harassed around the arc throughout SEC play. Rival coaches don’t want to see a repeat of Monk’s performance against the Tar Heels. That’s where Monk’s versatility will prove handy. He’s more than a shooter — having made 57 2-point field goals this season.

Joel Berry II, North Carolina (15.2 ppg, 4.7 apg, 3.9 rpg)

  North Carolina guard Joel Berry II (2) has been a steadying presence for a UNC team heading into the ACC slate.
Berry and the Tar Heels plowed over Northern Iowa 85-42 in their only game last week. Berry had 11 points, four rebounds and three assists. But let’s face it, there have been and will be bigger games on the Tar Heels’ schedule, and Berry has raised his game a notch whenever the competition has stiffened throughout his career.

Also, KenPom revived the player comparison feature on his website recently and Berry’s 2016-17 is reminiscent of former UNC point guards Raymond Felton (2004-05) and Ty Lawson (2008-09). Tar Heel fans hope this season ends like those did — in a national championship celebration. (Lawson was also ACC Player of the Year and No. 1 in KenPom offensive rating in 2008-09).

T.J. Williams, Northeastern (21.5 ppg, 5.8 apg, 4.8 rpg)

  Northeastern Huskies guard T.J. Williams (10) has helped guide his team to several big victories early.
(We’re using this spot to highlight a slightly under-the-radar performer each week).

A 6-foot-3, 205-pound senior from Pflugerville, Texas, Williams has scored 17 points or more in all 12 games this season, while producing a 116.8 offensive rating. He led the Huskies to road victories over Connecticut, Michigan State and Oakland and has played 92.7 percent of the minutes (10th highest in the nation) for coach Bill Coen. He’s already made more 2-pointers, 3-pointers and free throws than all of last season, when he averaged 23.4 minutes per game.

Jump shots launched from just inside the arc are considered unwise for most guards but not Williams — he’s thrived there, hitting 10 of 14 in the 16-to-18-foot range, per Synergy Sports. He’s also an able finisher, converting 55 percent of his at-the-rim opportunities.

Northeastern (7-5) takes a three-game winning streak into the Colonial Athletic Association season opener Saturday vs. William & Mary.

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