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Wednesday / June 28.
  • UCLA’s Ball, Villanova’s Hart Among Top Players So Far This Season

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    By AARON BEARD

    RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — It didn’t take long to spot college basketball’s top performers this season, not with star UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball flirting with a triple-double and Kansas’ Frank Mason III scoring 30 on opening night.

    That duo is part of a standout group as the season crosses its midway point. Here’s a look at the year’s top performers so far with Selection Sunday less than two months away:

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    LONZO BALL, UCLA

    The 6-foot-6 point guard had 19 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds in his debut against Pacific and has powered the third-ranked Bruins’ high-scoring offense ever since.

    Ball is averaging 14.4 points and 5.6 rebounds while ranking second nationally at 8.2 assists. He’s the only player nationally averaging at least 10 points, four rebounds and seven assists.

    “He can beat you by taking a lot of shots or no shots,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said after the Bruins snapped Kentucky’s 42-game home winning streak in December. “You can almost tell him to go get 15 rebounds and if that what it takes to win, he’ll do it.”

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    JOSH HART, VILLANOVA

    The reigning NCAA champions haven’t missed a step, and the 6-5 senior is a big reason why.

    Hart is the top scorer in the Big East (18.8 points) while also ranking in the top 10 in rebounding (6.5), assists (3.6) and shooting percentage (52.7) for top-ranked Villanova.

    He had 37 points and 11 rebounds against Notre Dame in December as well as a triple-double against St. Joseph’s. He could strengthen his case for national player of the year against No. 16 Virginia (Jan. 29), No. 22 Xavier (Feb. 11), No. 13 Butler (Feb. 22) and No. 7 Creighton (Feb. 25).

    Here’s are some of his highlights in a 20-point outing against Xavier this month:

    “If Josh Hart’s not the player of the year,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said this week, “then there’s something wrong with people.”

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    FRANK MASON III, KANSAS

    The 5-11 senior had 30 points, seven rebounds and nine assists in the opening-night loss to the Hoosiers, then followed with 21 points and the winning jumper with 1.8 seconds left against then-No. 1 Duke.

    The Big 12’s top scorer (20.3 points) still faces a schedule that includes a trip to No. 5 Kentucky (Jan. 28) and two games each with both No. 6 Baylor and No. 7 West Virginia.

    “I told Frank after the game that if it ended today, he would be the national player of the year,” Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood said after Mason scored 22 against his team last week. “He refuses to let them lose.”

    ___

    MALIK MONK, KENTUCKY

    The 6-foot-3 freshman has proven he can carry the Wildcats with his scoring ability.

    Monk scored 47 points and hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 16.7 seconds left in last month’s 103-100 win against North Carolina. The 47 points are the most by any Division I player this season through Wednesday’s games.

     

    While freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox — who had a triple-double in November — has been terrific, too, Monk’s scoring punch — he averages 21.4 points on 50-percent shooting — is a big reason why the Wildcats are ranked No. 2 in KenPom’s offensive efficiency rankings.

    ___

    MARCUS KEENE, CENTRAL MICHGAN

    The nation’s top scorer isn’t a household name, but the 5-9 guard is averaging 28.7 points — nearly five points more than No. 2 scorer Alec Peters of Valparaiso.

    Keene is on pace for the highest Division I scoring average since BYU’s Jimmer Fredette (28.9) in 2010-11, according to Sports Reference’s college basketball website. Keene also averages 4.4 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting 46 percent.

    So could he follow the similarly undersized guards like Isaiah Thomas and Kay Felder to the NBA? ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas thinks he’ll at least get a look.

    “You can’t just score your way into the NBA,” said Bilas, who played at Duke. “You’ve got to be able to handle on both ends of the floor. I think he can do it, but it’s harder for smaller guys.”

    ___

    OTHER NAMES OF NOTE

    CALEB SWANIGAN, PURDUE — The 6-9 sophomore has four games with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds. He’s averaging 18.4 points, ranks second nationally in rebounding (12.5) and was tied for the national lead with 15 double-doubles through Wednesday’s games.

    Here are some highlights from his 28-point, 22-rebound outing against Minnesota:

    NIGEL WILLIAMS-GOSS, GONZAGA — Described as “unbelievably steady” by coach Mark Few, the 6-3 Washington transfer is averaging 15.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists for fourth-ranked Gonzaga — the nation’s last unbeaten team.

    Here’s a look at his big night against San Francisco earlier this month:

    JOEL BERRY II, NORTH CAROLINA — The junior point guard (15.8 points) is a tough competitor making a case for Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year.

    Here are some highlights from his 31-point night against Clemson:

    JOHNATHAN MOTLEY, BAYLOR — The 6-10 junior (15.8 points, 9.7 rebounds) is coming off a 32-point, 20-rebound game for a team that reached No. 1 for the first time this month.

    FRESHMEN ON STRUGGLING TEAMS — Washington guard Markelle Fultz is the nation’s top-scoring freshman (23.1 points) after scoring 37 in Wednesday’s overtime win against Colorado for the Huskies (9-9).

    Meanwhile, North Carolina State point guard Dennis Smith Jr. (19.1 points) had a triple-double against then-No. 21 Virginia Tech and had 16 assists — the most in Division I through Wednesday’s games — against Rider for a team that started 1-4 in the ACC.

     

     

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    Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.