Player of the Year Power Rankings: Ponds vs. Howard, Jarrett Culver’s dominance

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1. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

Zion is averaging 20.2 points, 9.5 boards, 2.2 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.9 blocks. Since the 1992-93 season, no one has put up a stat-line that looks like that. Take blocks out of the equation, and the only player that has averaged 20 points, nine boards, two assists and two steals was Reggie Williams back in 2007-08.

Zion is doing this for Duke, the No. 1 team in the country and the favorite to win the national title this year. Williams put up his numbers while playing for VMI, who finished 255th in KenPom that season and ran a system that was entirely built around getting up shots as quickly as possible while gambling for steals and getting the ball back as quickly as possible.

I’m sure Zion’s stats will regress as we get into the throes of conference play, but until they do, look at this picture:

Mind-boggling.

2. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

Since the last time we talked about Player of the Year rankings, Williams went out and put 18 points, eight boards and five assists on Georgia in a 46 point win. He’s now averaging 19.9 points, 8.3 boards, 4.6 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.2 blocks with shooting splits of 59.7/44.4/79.8 for a top three team in the country.

He is a monster.

3. JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech

Culver’s performance in Texas Tech’s win at West Virginia last week blew me away.

For the entire game, the Mountaineers face-guarded Culver. Sometimes it was in a straight man-to-man defense. Sometimes it was a box-and-one. Sometimes it was a triangle-and-two. But whatever they were running, they were doing everything in their power to keep Culver from touching the ball. That, combined with the fact that Culver picked up three first half fouls and was used in an offense-defense rotation by Chris Beard for the entire second half, limited him to just 22 minutes. On the night, Culver only had about 10 touches in halfcourt offense, and he still managed to score 18 points on 6-for-8 shooting.

Part of the reason for that was Culver is just a monster. Great offense can beat great defense, and you can see three examples of that here:

Culver also showcased his ability to read pick-and-rolls. Look at these two plays late in the second half. In the first, he recognizes that both defenders stayed with him and he found Davide Moretti for a three. In the second, he sees the switch and beats Esa Ahmad (and all of West Virginia’s help) for a bucket:

Credit should also be given to Chris Beard, who recognized what West Virginia was doing and designed a nice little back-screen counter that led to one tough bucket and a couple of examples of Culver’s ability to see the floor and make a pass:

He only finished with 18 points, but it was one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen from a player this year.

4. R.J. BARRETT, Duke

Barrett’s inefficiency against the best competition Duke has faced this season is starting to become noticeable. Since he put up 33 points and six assists against Kentucky on opening night, Barrett and the Blue Devils have played five high-major opponents — Auburn, Gonzaga, Indiana, Texas Tech and Clemson. In those five games, he has yet to crack 23 points, and outside of the win over Indiana — which came in Cameron — he has not played well in any of them.

In total in those five games, Barrett is shooting 37-for-99 (37.4%) from the floor and 6-for-28 (21.4%) from three and averaging just 18.4 points. In seven games against teams from outside the mid-major ranks, Barrett is averaging 24.7 points and shooting 64-for-122 (52.5%) from the floor and 14-for-39 (35.9%) from three.

I know I’m picking and choosing games here, and averaging 18.4 points against five NCAA tournament teams is hardly a bad thing, but this is a trend that will be worth tracking as we head into conference play.

5. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

Lawson was not all that good in Kansas loss to Iowa State on Saturday. He was, however, the player that changed the game in their win over Oklahoma last Wednesday. He’s going to be someone to keep an eye on as we move forward this season. Losing Udoka Azubuike is going to change the role he is asked to play and the style in which Kansas will run their offense.

6. SHAMORIE PONDS, St. John’s

7. MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette

Picking between Ponds and Howard for the Big East Player of the Year — and, thus, their spot on this ranking — is like picking between your favorite flavor of ice cream. I’m not sure there is a wrong answer. (Unless you are one of those freaks that eats that cake batter crap, then there is a wrong answer.) Howard is averaging 24.0 points, 4.2 assists and 3.9 boards while shoting 41.9 percent from three and putting up monster performances in the biggest games; he went for 45 points in wins over Buffalo and Kansas State, he had 27 points against Wisconsin. He’s popped off for at least 26 points in five of his last six games.

The one game he didn’t?

A 20 point loss at St. John’s when he finished 2-for-15 from the floor with just eight points. That night, Ponds had 26 points, including 20 in the first half. It was actually one of the first times this season where Ponds, who has always been known as a scorer first and foremost, took over early. The 6-foot-2 junior for the Johnnies is averaging 20.4 points, 6.0 assists and 4.7 boards while shooting 40.5 percent from three this season, but more impressive has been the fact that he’s made it a point to get his teammates involved.

“He is passing a lot more than he ever has, especially early, to get his teammates going,” one Big East coach told me. That said, Ponds has absolutely taken over games, but it tends to be when his team needs him to the most. St. John’s has played six games this season that were single-digit games. They are 5-1 in those games, and Ponds scored at least 32 points in four of those five wins — 37 points and six assists at Georgetown, 37 points vs. Georgia Tech, 35 points and seven assists vs. VCU, 32 points and five assists vs. Cal. That doesn’t include the 26 points and five dimes he had in the win over Marquette, their biggest win of the season.

It’s that willingness to be a passer — A newfound trust in his teammates? — that has changed things for the Johnnies this season. “We were more concerned with his paint touches, [keeping] the floor tight,” said another coach that scouted St. John’s last season.

You can’t play that way against them this season, and the result hasn’t just been a more efficient season for Ponds, it has meant that the Johnnies now look like the best team in the Big East.

And that’s why I have Ponds a tick above Howard as of today.

8. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

It’s hard to overlook a redshirt senior that is averaging 19.3 points, 10.3 boards, 4.7 assists and 1.3 blocks for a top 25 team. It’s also hard to ignore that the might be 4-0 in the Big Ten right now if it wasn’t for Happ’s 1-for-7 shooting from the free throw line last Thursday. As good as Happ is, that free throw shooting makes him a liability in close games.

9. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga

Like Lawson, it is going to be very interesting to see how Hachimura’s role changes with a change in roster status. Gonzaga got Killian Tillie back from injury last week, but he only played nine minutes in a home win over Santa Clara. Rui had 25 points in that game.

10. NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech

Alexander-Walker is the engine for one of college basketball’s elite offenses this season. He’s averaging 18.8 points, 4.2 boards, 3.4 assists and 2.4 steals while shooting 47.2 percent from three and playing as a secondary ball-handler and ball-screen initiator in a spread offense that creates mismatches all over the court. Virginia Tech is so much fun to watch when they get rolling, and Alexander-Walker’s development alongside Justin Robinson in the backcourt is the reason why they are so dangerous even without Chris Clarke and Landers Nolley.

IN THE MIX: Jordan Caroline (Nevada), Carsen Edwards (Purdue), De’Andre Hunter (Virginia), Charles Matthews (Michigan), Ja Morant (Murray State), Cassius Winston (Michigan State)

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.