The next important date on the Naismith Trophy schedule is Feb. 9th when the list will be pared to 30 finalists. With conference play heating up, we’re here every Monday to give a rundown of leading contenders for the award, which the Atlanta Tipoff Club has presented to the nation’s premier college basketball player since 1969.
Josh Hart, Villanova (20.3, 6.8 rpg, 3.5 apg)The Wildcats closed strong Saturday to overcome a slow start and secure a key Big East road win at Creighton. Hart said the key was simple: The Wildcats played Villanova Basketball down the stretch. It’s a recipe worth following. The defending national champions have won 41 of their last 44 games. Hart had 18 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and three steals against the Bluejays.
His season shot chart looks like the Mona Lisa to a hoops analytics lover. He’s launched 176 shots and 150 were at the rim or beyond-the-arc. He’s produced 1.36 points per shot on those attempts, helping the Wildcats’ attack hum along, second in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency (120.9).Villanova travels to Butler at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday (FS1).
Frank Mason III, Kansas (19.8 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.6 rpg)
It’s difficult to determine the nation’s leader in ability to ‘go-get-a-bucket’ but it’s also hard to argue against Mason III as one of the premier possessors of this quality as he showed here, late in the Jayhawks’ win over TCU on Saturday.
His quickness, strength, toughness and career-best 3-point shooting (48 percent) render him difficult to stop. Mason III had 22 points, seven assists, four rebounds and two steals against the Horned Frogs.
The offense runs smoothly when Mason III is involved in the playmaking. He’s shot or assisted on 264 Kansas possessions this season, per Synergy Sports data. The Jayhawks have averaged 1.511 points on those possessions, which places Mason in the top 10 among high-volume players. Kansas welcomes Kansas State to Allen Fieldhouse at 9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN2).
Lonzo Ball, UCLA (14.3 ppg, 8.1 apg, 5.7 rpg)
The Bruins’ freshman point guard sputtered through the first half Wednesday night at Oregon in his Pac-12 debut. In the first nine minutes of the second half, Ball missed two 3-pointers, a layup and committed a turnover. Then, in 108 seconds he proved why he’s special, drilling three 3-pointers to flip momentum in UCLA’s favor. The Bruins, who led by eight with less than four minutes remaining, squandered the lead down the stretch.But Ball put them in position to become the first visitor in nearly two years to escape Knight Arena with a victory. Two nights later he was brilliant again, recording 23 points, seven assists and six rebounds to lead the Bruins past Oregon State. The Bruins continue to lead the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency (121.7) and next up is a visit from Cal on Thursday.
Luke Kennard, Duke (21.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.7 apg)
The Blue Devils suffered a humbling 89-75 defeat at Virginia Tech on Saturday afternoon, getting outplayed from the tip to the horn. Kennard did his part, however. He scored 34 points and snagged seven rebounds. It was his second-highest point total of the season and the fourth time he’s eclipsed 24 points in the last six games.Kennard, who leads the ACC in minutes per game (36.0), is shooting better than 50 percent from the field and 40 percent on 3-pointers while averaging 20 points and six rebounds. He and six other players are trying to become the first to generate such widespread production and consistency for an entire season since Creighton’s Doug McDermott did it in three consecutive seasons — 2011 to 2014. McDermott, of course, won the Naismith Trophy as a senior in 2014.
With teammate Grayson Allen suspended and coach Mike Krzyzewski out for the next month due to back surgery, the Blue Devils can’t afford for Kennard to have a lull. Duke receives a visit from Georgia Tech on Wednesday (7 p.m., ESPN2).
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue (18.5 ppg, 13.0 rpg)
What’s next for the man called “Biggie?” At this rate, a 30-30 game isn’t out of the question. Swanigan dropped 28 points and 22 rebounds on Minnesota over the weekend, although the Boilermakers inability to stop Gophers guard Nate Mason contributed to a 91-82 defeat. Swanigan’s defense, on the other hand, has been excellent. Opponents have scored only 20 points on 50 jump shots where he’s been the primary defender.The 6-9, 250-pound forward has made 56 percent of 2s, 41 percent of 3s and is second in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage (33.8). The 11-2 Boilermakers travel to Ohio State on Thursday.
Malik Monk, Kentucky (22.4 ppg, 2.7 rpg)
The Wildcats’ backcourt is an embarrassment of riches. How so? Monk scalded Ole Miss for 34 points on 11-of-16 shooting Thursday and nabbed six rebounds, yet his performance slipped into the back seat because teammate Isaiah Briscoe became the second Wildcats guard to record a triple-double this season.Monk probably won’t join Briscoe and Fox on that list. He’ll have to settle for chasing down the UK freshman record for 3-pointers (113) set by Jamal Murray last season. At his current pace of long-range bombing (3.38 per game), Monk would break the mark in the SEC Championship game, assuming the Wildcats advance that far in the tournament. That seems like a reasonable assumption, at this juncture.
Kentucky plays host to Texas A&M on Tuesday (9 p.m., ESPN).
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky (15.6 ppg, 6.8 apg, 5.0 rpg)
Fox (and Washington freshman Markelle Fultz) could finish this season joining players from power 5 conference schools to average 15 points, six assists and five rebounds since 2009.
Dillon Brooks, Oregon (14.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
Based on overall season numbers alone, Brooks doesn’t belong on this list. The Naismith Watch prefers production to projection and just because the 6-7 forward was considered an All-American in the preseason, has he produced enough to be included? Probably not. Still, the images from last week are seared into our brain.They remind us why the Ducks are a Final Four contender when Brooks plays his best. His buzzer-beating 3-pointer to sink unbeaten UCLA is an iconic shot in the 2016-17 season, providing a thrilling cap to a majestic college basketball game. For an encore, Brooks had 28 points - on 10 shots - as Oregon pasted unbeaten USC. Brooks defies position, dishing assists on 30 percent of the Ducks’ baskets. He’s rounding into form after offseason foot surgery, scoring 20 points in five of the last eight games, which could be troublesome for Pac-12 foes.
Oregon travels to Washington on Wednesday (9 p.m., ESPN2)
Rob Gray, Houston (20.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.1 apg)
(We’re using this spot to highlight a slightly under-the-radar performer each week).
The Houston Cougars are a mild surprise, with an 11-3 overall record and a pair of road wins to open the American Athletic Conference schedule. Gray, a 6-2 junior from Forest City, North Carolina, has an outstanding player efficiency rating of 29.2 to lead the Cougars. He’s hit 51 percent overall and 45.6 percent on 3-pointers, scored 30 points against Rhode Island and 22 against Arkansas.
#RoadWin pic.twitter.com/cNptuw07J8— Rob Gray (@iRob_G) December 28, 2016
It’s been a long journey for Gray, who finished his high school career at West Oaks (FL) Academy. He spent two years at Howard, a junior college in Texas, but only played one season, arriving at Houston prior to the 2015-16 campaign with three years eligibility remaining. He finished second in the American in scoring (16.0 ppg) last season. The Cougars are 23rd in adjusted offensive efficiency and play host to Tulsa on Wednesday night.