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