PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s
Last Saturday, Ponds was held in check as the Johnnies blew a big second half lead while suffering their first loss of the season against Seton Hall. It was his most disappointing performance of the season in the only loss that the team has suffered to date.
That performance also feels like it is so far in the past after the week that Ponds had. On New Years Day, in a battle of what appears to be the two best teams in the Big East this season, the junior point guard went for 20 of his 26 points in the first half, completely out-dueling Markus Howard and leading St. John’s to a dominant, 89-69 win. He followed that up by popping off for 37 points and five assists as the Johnnies went into Capitol One Arena and landed a come-from-behind win over Georgetown, 97-94.
Ponds is getting the kind of national attention that some of the other great guards around the country are. He’s been totally overshadowed by Howard in his own league. But Ponds has quietly been an absolute monster when St. John’s has needed him to be. The Red Storm have played six games that were decided by single digits. In four of those six, Ponds finished with at least 32 points, popping off for 37 against Georgetown and Georgia Tech.
If he is at his best in the biggest games, I can’t wait to see what the rest of Big East play has in store for us.
TEAM OF THE WEEK: New Mexico Lobos
Where in the hell did this come from: New Mexico 85, Nevada 58.
Entering Saturday night, the Lobos were ranked 190th on KenPom. They were 6-6 against Division I competition on the season. They had lost to New Mexico State by 35 points. They lost to Saint Mary’s by 25 points. They lost at home to the likes of Penn and North Texas. They opened the day as 14 point underdogs at home and, despite winning for the entire first half and taking a 38-26 lead into the break, they were still getting points from live-betting sites — the Nevada money line was -139 and the second half betting line was Nevada -13.5.
And while much of that blame falls on Nevada — I’ll get to them — the credit also has to be given to the Lobos. To be frank, there is no way that this team should be 190th in anything. There is talent on the roster, especially now that Carlton Bragg is eligible and playing. Regardless, this is a great win for Paul Weir’s program and, hopefully, a chance for them to reignite a program with a massive, passionate fanbase that has been dormant since Steve Alford left.
1. KANSAS IS STILL THE FAVORITE TO WIN THE BIG 12
I love this Texas Tech team. They are the redneck version of Virginia, a team with toughness oozing out of their pores that plays suffocating defense and has a first-team All-American running the show in Jarrett Culver.
I also love Iowa State — I’ll get to them in a second — and we shouldn’t gloss over just how good Oklahoma has been and TCU can be when Jaylen Fisher is healthy and running with the starters.
That said, for my money, Kansas is still the favorite to win the Big 12 and my pick to take home their 15th straight regular season title.
There are a couple of reasons for this, but the most obvious is the man running the show: Bill Self. Every year, we ask whether or not this is going to be the year where the Jayhawks slip up, and every year, Self somehow finds a way to get it done. There are not many coaches in the country that are as good at figuring out how to get the most out of a team as Self is, and while losing Udoka Azubuike to a torn ligament in his hand is going to force him to change up some things, I’m still betting on the Jayhawks figuring this thing out.
For starters, they still have an all-american to run their offense through in Dedric Lawson. He’s been as good as advertised, and while having him at the five takes away some of what made him so effective — his ability to pass in high-low actions — it does mean that he will be the anchor in the post. They also still have Lagerald Vick, and while he has come back to earth after a scorching start to the year, this is still a guy that is capable of putting up 30 on any given night. Vick is joined on the perimeter by a trio of highly-regarded youngsters — Marcus Garrett, Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson. All four of them have question marks (Garrett hasn’t really figured out how to be a threat to score, Grimes seems to finally have regained his confidence and Dotson can’t seem to stop turning the ball over) but there is talent there.
There things that need to be fixed. Grimes cannot continue to be a 31.5 percent three-point shooter. Garrett needs to find a way to contribute offensively and Lawson … well, he has to be at his best. That said, those are certainly things that can happen.
So I’ll bet on Kansas for now, because that bet has been a winner for nearly a decade and a half.
2. BUT IOWA STATE IS A TOP TEN TEAM
There were some fluky things that happened in Iowa State’s 77-60 win over Kansas on Saturday afternoon.
Azubuike was ruled out an hour before the game after suffering a hand injury the day before the game, forcing the Jayhawks to play a smaller lineup. That smaller lineup meant that the Cyclones could matchup perfectly with Kansas. Iowa State made 13 threes, hitting 9-of-13 in the second half, and did so while playing in front of one of the rowdiest environments in college basketball.
So I feel pretty comfortable saying that part of that result was situational and fluky.
But I also do think that Iowa State is a top ten team this season, mainly because Steve Prohm has an ideal roster for the way modern basketball is played.
He starts four wings, all of whom stand between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-6. The smallest of the four — Talen Horton-Tucker — checks in at 240 pounds and has a 7-foot-1 wingspan. It makes them switchable and versatile on the defensive end of the floor, where Marial Shayok, Nick Weiler-Babb and Tyrese Haliburton can all guard up and down somewhere between adequately and effectively. The Cyclones are historically a team that has a reputation for being soft on the defensive end, and that’s not this group.
And I’m not sure they’ve hit their ceiling yet. The best player in the program is Lindell Wigginton, a 6-foot-2 combo-guard that returned to action in the Big 12 opener after missing about a month with a foot injury. He played just 17 minutes on Saturday and shot 2-for-11 from the floor. He’s one of three players on this roster that are skilled enough to play the point — Weiler-Babb is technically the starting point guard while Haliburton, a sneaky NBA prospect, is averaging 8.3 points, 4.5 boards, 4.2 assists and 2.1 steals while shooting 45 percent from three. Throw in Horton-Tucker, and there are now four perimeter players on this team that are averaging 3.0 assists this season.
That doesn’t include Shayok, who is the leading scorer in the Big 12 at 20.1 points, and Horton-Tucker is the only member of that perimeter rotation that is not a dangerous three-point threat.
Then throw in the fact that Michael Jacobson, who is averaging 14.5 points and 6.2 boards, is currently outplaying the most talented big man on the roster, Cameron Lard, and there is still room for Iowa State to grow.
They are for real.
3. VIRGINIA TECH IS THE BEST ACC TEAM NOT NAMED DUKE OR VIRGINIA
We haven’t spoken all that much about Virginia Tech this season, which is what tends to happen when you are a football school in a basketball conference that is overshadowed by a bigger, better program in your own state.
But the Hokies are currently sitting at 13-1 on the season after starting out ACC play with wins over Notre Dame and Boston College. They’ll play at Georgia Tech on Wednesday before next Tuesday’s showdown with Virginia in Charlottesville.
The reason I like this team so much is because they are essentially playing with two point guards — Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker — on a team that loves running ball-screens, shoots 44.2 percent from three and, like Iowa State, has switchable defenders all over their perimeter.
Two of their next four games are at Virginia and at North Carolina, so we’ll have a better feel for what this team is come January 22nd, but I’m getting ahead of the curve. Virginia Tech is the third-best team in the ACC.
4. MICHIGAN AND MICHIGAN STATE ARE THE ONLY BIG TEN TEAMS THAT AREN’T THOROUGHLY AVERAGE
On the other hand, I’m not sure who the third-best team in the Big Ten is, but I don’t think there is anyone that is on par with the two Michigan schools.
We have spent plenty of time talking about how good the Wolverines are this year, and I am starting to believe that Michigan State — who is now ranked ahead of Michigan on KenPom — is not all that far behind. They went into Columbus and knocked off Ohio State without Josh Langford. That’s not easy to do, not when you trail by seven points at the half.
That is going to be a fun race, one that will feature two battles between the teams in the final four games of the regular season. I am here for that.
The question I have is whether or not anyone else in the Big Ten is actually good, or if the rest of the league is a mashup of teams that are good enough to talk about but aren’t quite good enough to be a threat to do anything of note. Wisconsin, for example, is now 11-4 on the season after following up their loss at Western Kentucky by losing to Minnesota at home. Nebraska opened up 2019 with losses at Maryland and Iowa, neither of whom have been super-impressive this year. Purdue has looked good in stretches but has a bunch of “good” losses on their resume. Ohio State seems to be punching above their weight again this season. Indiana might have a shot to get into that conversation if they can ever find a way to get, and stay, healthy.
I still think this league is going to end up putting as many as ten teams into the NCAA tournament. I just don’t know if anyone outside of the top two are actually worth getting all that excited about.
5. NEVADA CAN GET TO THE FINAL FOUR AND CAN ALSO REALISTICALLY MISS THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
Nevada can beat anyone in college basketball. That includes Duke, and Virginia, and whoever else you consider among the elite in college basketball. That’s how high their ceiling is. This roster is built around three all-american caliber players that thrive in isolation. Caleb Martin, Jordan Caroline, Cody Martin — those are tough shot-makers that have proven the ability to take over games. It’s what they do, and on the nights when they get it rolling, they can do things like they did in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year: light up Cincinnati, one of the nation’s toughest defensive teams.
But Saturday proved that they are not talented enough to avoid getting caught on the nights they decide not to show up, and that matters because of how weak their schedule is.
To put this into context, Saint Mary’s entered Selection Sunday with a 28-5 record last season, a win at Gonzaga and four of their five losses away from home — their one home less was to the Zags. They missed the NCAA tournament. Now, Nevada’s non-conference schedule was tougher than that Saint Mary’s team, and the Mountain West is better than last year’s WCC, but there’s nothing that Nevada can do that will be remotely as impressive as winning at Gonzaga.
And … well, their non-conference wins keep looking less and less impressive. That win at USC? Whatever. Beating Arizona State on a neutral looked more impressive before the Sun Devils lost to Vanderbilt, Princeton and Utah, the latter two at home. Winning at Loyola-Chicago and Utah are solid Quadrant II-ish wins. Hell, the only team that Nevada has played that is currently in the top 50 at KenPom is Utah State, and they are 47th.
We’re still three losses away from really needing to have this conversation, but if Nevada can lose by 27 points at New Mexico, why should we assume that they’ll go 17-1 in the Mountain West?
And if they lose three more league games — at Utah State, at Fresno State, San Diego State — we might actually head into the MWC tournament wondering if this team has a resume that is truly deserving of getting an at-large bid.