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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)

No. 15 Marquette beats Georgetown after Markus Howard leaves with injury

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Marquette got a career performance from Sam Hauser and won a Big East road game Tuesday, but the Golden Eagles’ 74-71 win against Georgetown came with a caveat.

Markus Howard, the nation’s fourth leading scorer, played just three minutes before bowing out with a back injury.

“He’s been experiencing some low back soreness,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said after the game, per The Associated Press. “I’m not going to put a guy out there unless he’s 100%.”

Hauser shined offensively for Marquette with Howard unable to carry the load. The sophomore scored 31 points in the victory. It was the Golden Eagles’ defense, though, that got them to the finish line. Marquette blocked two go-ahead attempts by Georgetown freshman guard James Akinjo in the final 15 seconds, with the first coming from Brendan Bailey and the second courtesy of Theo John.

Now, though, attention will turn to the health of Howard, who is averaging 25.8 points per game and is a week removed from dropping 53 points on Creighton. Marquette does have a pair of home games upcoming against Providence and DePaul, so the Golden Eagles do have some fortuitous timing in their favor, but if Howard is sidelined for an extended period of time or the back is an issue all season, that’s going to be a significant issue.

Little, No. 13 North Carolina hold off Notre Dame 75-69

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Once Nassir Little got rolling, No. 13 North Carolina didn’t have to worry much about yet another home loss.

Little scored all 11 of his points in the final 11 minutes, and the Tar Heels beat Notre Dame 75-69 on Tuesday night.

“It was just a matter of time,” Little said. “Everybody was just waiting for me to do what I do, to help the team be as good as we can be.”

Coby White had 17 points while Luke Maye added 14 points and 10 rebounds and Cameron Johnson finished with 11 points for the Tar Heels (13-4, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference). UNC used a late 12-1 run to bounce back from its most lopsided home loss under Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams.

“I got my wish — I wanted to win one ugly,” Williams said.

Prentiss Hubb scored 18 points, John Mooney had 16 points and 19 rebounds, and D.J. Harvey added 15 points for the Fighting Irish (11-6, 1-3). Hubb put Notre Dame up 58-57 with a layup with just under seven minutes remaining, but the Irish missed their next six shots while North Carolina took control.

“Everything was just right for us,” coach Mike Brey said. “We just needed a few more plays, and we probably needed another scorer.”

White started the key run with a 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down with 6½ minutes to play, and Little, a freshman, ended it with a twisting layup on the break that gave the Tar Heels their first double-figure lead, 69-59, with less than 90 seconds left.

The Irish didn’t get closer than seven until Hubb’s 3 with 4.7 seconds left made it 73-69.

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish have lost three of four to begin conference play and haven’t cracked the 70s in scoring in any of those games. They aren’t afraid to pull the trigger from 3-point range — no team in the ACC has taken more of them this season, and roughly half their shots in this one were from beyond the arc — but they didn’t quite hit enough of them to pull off the upset: Notre Dame was just 4 of 15 from long range in the second half.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels will hear less about that embarrassing 83-62 loss to Louisville. They also haven’t lost three straight home ACC games in nearly a decade. Perhaps the most encouraging sign: They had only two turnovers in the second half.

STAR WATCH

T.J. Gibbs, who averages a team-best 18.5 points for Notre Dame, was held to five points on 1-of-9 shooting in his return after an illness that forced him to miss a game for the first time in his career. “My trainer said, ‘You can’t play him as usual, 35 minutes, because he’s ill,'” Brey said. “And then I played him 35 minutes, because he was our only option. … We need to kind of get him back to 100 percent by Saturday.”

PLAY OF THE NIGHT

Seventh Woods earned some hustle points for his blocked shot that brought the crowd to its feet with about 12 minutes left. Nate Laszewski was headed for an easy open-court dunk after stealing the ball from Johnson. But Woods raced in to block the attempt at the rim.

BATTLE ON THE BOARDS

The ACC’s top two rebounders — Maye (10.1 rpg) and Mooney (9.8) — went at it in this one. Those two combined for 29 of the 83 total rebounds in the game.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: Plays host to No. 17 North Carolina State on Saturday.

North Carolina: Visits Miami on Saturday.

Tuesday’s Three Things To Know: It was a surprisingly wild night in college hoops

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While Golden State was busy putting up 50 points in a quarter, the college basketball world had themselves a wild night that featured a pair of top 25 teams winning in the final seconds, some big dogs rolling and a couple of trendy teams taking ugly losses.

Here is what you need to know from Tuesday night:

1. THE BIG BOYS ROLLED

The biggest game of the night ended up being one of the most boring games of the night, as No. 4 Virginia put away No. 9 Virginia Tech before we reached the under eight media timeout. The Wahoos hit nine of their first 11 threes, finished 13-for-24 from beyond the arc on the evening and took a 44-22 lead into halftime, eventually knocking off the Hokies, 81-59. It was an utterly dominant performance from Tony Bennett’s club, and one that had our Travis Hines convincing himself that this is the year for UVA.

The Cavs weren’t the only big dog to handle their business in impressive fashion on Tuesday. No. 3 Tennessee jumped out to a 23-6 lead on Arkansas and never looked back, beating the Razorbacks 106-87 in a game where the Vols never seemed to get out of third gear. While that was happening, No. 12 Kentucky was in the midst of going into Stegeman Coliseum and dropping a hammer on Georgia, 69-49. Ashton Hagans — who was previously committed to the Bulldogs — put a career-high 23 points on the board.

And lastly, while the Tar Heels didn’t run away with this win, they did manage to hold off Notre Dame, 75-69. This win was notable because of the second half performance from Nassir Little. He scored just 11 points, but all of them came in the final 11 minutes, and he had nine in a 14-6 run that turned a deficit into a 65-58 lead.

2. SAM HAUSER SAVES No. 15 MARQUETTE, No. 17 N.C. STATE IS NOT SO LUCKY

Hauser put up a career-high 31 points to go along with eight boards in a 74-71 win at Georgetown as he was forced into point guard duties as Markus Howard was dealing with a lower back issue and Joseph Chartouny has apparently forgotten how to be a point guard. The Hoyas are not exactly a powerhouse these days, but they are a dangerous team offensively that has won some games we did not expect them to win, and going into Washington D.C. and winning this game without the Big East Player of the Year is, frankly, really impressive.

And important.

The Golden Eagles remain the only team that is one game behind Villanova in the Big East regular season title race.

N.C. State was not as fortunate. Playing without starting point guard Markell Johnson, the Wolf Pack found themselves down by 15 points at the half and by as many as 22 points in the second half at Wake Forest. A 29-7 run tied the game at 58 with about seven minutes left in the game, but Wake Forest did enough down the stretch to get the win, 71-67.

This is not a great loss for N.C. State, who has now lost two of their last three games and no longer looks like a top 25 basketball team.

3. THE OLE MISS HYPE TRAIN DERAILS

The trendy team this week was Ole Miss, and deservedly so — in the span of 96 hours, they beat No. 11 Auburn by 15 points and went into Starkville and picked off No. 14 Mississippi State. They were 13-2 on the season and 3-0 in the SEC at that point. They deserved to be trendy.

And it all came crashing down with a visit from LSU. Tremont Waters scored 20 points and added nine assists as the Tigers knocked off No. 18 Ole Miss, 83-69, in Oxford. Now 3-0 in the league, it may be time that we start looking at LSU as the new Ole Miss.

AND I NEED TO MENTION …

That a pair of top 25 teams survived at the last second. In Starkville, Mississippi State survived Florida, 71-68, thanks to a three-point play from Quinndary Weatherspoon with 3.6 seconds left on the clock. And out in Boise, No. 10 Nevada knocked off Boise State, 72-71, thanks to a three with 4.5 seconds left from Cody Martin, who had not made a three since Dec. 15th and was shooting 19.5 percent from beyond the arc entering the night.

LSU cruises past No. 18 Ole Miss 83-69; 3-0 in SEC

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OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Tremont Waters scored 20 points, Kavell Bigby-Williams had 14 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, and LSU beat No. 18 Mississippi 83-69 on Tuesday night.

LSU (13-3, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) used an early 8-0 run in the second half to take a 48-39 lead. The Tigers maintained a healthy advantage from that point, playing tight defense and forcing several turnovers.

Waters also had nine assists, and Skylar Mays scored 14 points. LSU has won six straight.

Ole Miss (13-3, 3-1) had its 10-game winning streak snapped. The Rebels hadn’t lost since Nov. 24, when they fell 71-57 to Cincinnati. Terence Davis led the Rebels with 21 points and 10 rebounds. K.J. Buffen added 13 points.

Neither team played particularly well in the first half, with LSU and Ole Miss both shooting 36 percent from the field. Tyree had 12 points before the break, and the teams went into halftime tied at 31.

BIG PICTURE

LSU: It’s another good win for LSU, which has quietly established itself as one of the SEC’s elite teams. The Tigers are extremely athletic in the post and should cause problems for plenty of teams around the league.

Ole Miss: The Rebels were probably due for some sort of regression and struggled in their return to the national rankings for the first time since 2013. They didn’t play very well offensively, and their 16 turnovers were particularly costly. Ole Miss will still take its 3-1 league start, but a big home game against Arkansas looms on Saturday.

UP NEXT

LSU returns home and hosts South Carolina on Saturday.

Ole Miss hosts Arkansas on Saturday.

Quinndary Weatherspoon lifts No. 24 Mississippi St over Florida 71-68

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STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — In need of a key bucket, No. 24 Mississippi State went to old reliable — Quinndary Weatherspoon in crunch time.

Weatherspoon converted a three-point play with 3.4 seconds left to lift the Bulldogs over Florida 71-68 on Tuesday night.

It was the sixth time in his career that Weatherspoon sank the winning shot. He drove the lane and was fouled by Kevarrius Hayes while dropping in the winning layup. Weatherspoon finished with nine points.

“We were supposed to get the ball in, and then me and Lamar (Peters) go back and forth with it,” Weatherspoon said. “Lamar broke off the play and got out of the way, and that left me an open lane. I thought it went good, and it gets our confidence back to get back on the right track.”

Peters scored all 16 of his points in the first half, and Tyson Carter added 12 for Mississippi State (13-3, 1-2 Southeastern Conference).

“That was obviously a huge win over a very good team that is very well-coached,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said. “I was very proud of our guys, and I thought we kept our composure so much better in this game than we did last Saturday (against Ole Miss). And Q (Weatherspoon) just seems to have that rare, rare ability to make that play.”

KeVaughn Allen had 17 points for Florida (9-7, 1-3), and Andrew Nembhard had 13 points. Noah Locke had 12 points for the Gators, who had won eight straight against Mississippi State.

Mississippi State shot 53.1 percent from the floor and made 10 of 17 beyond the arc. Florida shot 42.4 percent from the field and made just 10 of 31 shots from deep.

“Our tempo press was effective for 39 and a half minutes,” Florida coach Mike White said. “Q made a good play, and we didn’t keep him in front. We rotated a little bit late and he finished and made a big play.”

The Bulldogs led 36-34 at halftime and the teams played close throughout the second half. Allen’s 3-pointer with 2:55 remaining put the Gators ahead 66-61, but Aric Holman answered with a 3 on the next possession, and Weatherspoon tied it at 66 with a layup with 1:27 left.

Holman and Locke exchanged baskets in the final 24 seconds before Weatherspoon won it with his three-point play.

BIG PICTURE

Florida: The Gators have dropped three of their first four SEC games. The road doesn’t get easier with a road trip to Georgia this weekend.

Mississippi State: After losing two closes games to open SEC play, the Bulldogs finally closed out a game thanks to Weatherspoon’s heroics.

UP NEXT

Florida travels to Georgia on Saturday.

Mississippi State travels to Vanderbilt on Saturday.