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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)

Miami lands Florida grad-transfer Keith Stone

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Keith Stone is leaving the SEC but not the state of Florida.

The former Gator will finish his career at Miami as a graduate transfer, he announced Monday via social media.

The 6-foot-8 Stone is from Deerfield, Fla., less than an hour’s ride from Miami Beach. He averaged 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season before tearing his ACL in January. With Dewan Hernandez, Ebuka Izundu, and Anthony Lawrence all gone from the Canes, Stone could be in line for a major role right from the jump if his knee gets back to full strength.

Miami went 14-18 last season to finish under .500 for the first time in Jim Larranaga’s eight seasons, and it was just the second time the Canes failed to win at least 20 games.

Kyle Guy says he’s staying in the draft, will not return to Virginia

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Kyle Guy is off to the professional ranks.

The Virginia junior had already declared for the NBA draft, but announced Monday that he plans to stay in the draft and not return to the Cavaliers next season, as he would be allowed to under NCAA rules.

“I am officially keeping my name in the draft. I know it’s the right step after much prayer and thought with my family,” Guy wrote on social media.

Players retain the option to return to school up until the end of next month, but Guy’s announcement makes it clear he has no intention of utilizing that avenue as he plows ahead toward a professional career after being named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player as Virginia won its first-ever national championship earlier this month in Minneapolis.

The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 15.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game in Virginia’s slow-paced offense while shooting 49.5 percent from 3-point range. Right now, Guy’s draft ceiling would appear to be in the second round with going undrafted a possibility as well. If he does make it at the next level, it’s pretty clear it’ll be the 3-point shooting that gets and keeps him there in a league that covets that skill now more than ever.

For Virginia, Guy’s decision simply crystalizes what was likely the reality already – they’re going to have a completely remade roster, which certainly isn’t uncommon for national championship winners. There’s a reason no one since Florida in 2006 and 2007 has repeated as champions. With Guy gone and Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Mamadi Diakite all having declared, Tony Bennett and Co. could be looking at more modest expectations following the greatest season in program history.

Duke adds to 2019 class with top-30 guard Cassius Stanley

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Duke’s already monster 2019 class got even stronger Monday.

Cassius Stanley, a four-star guard from California, pledged to the Blue Devils to give them their fifth recruit rated in the top-35 nationally in the class.

“I’ll be joining the brotherhood. Go Duke,” Stanley said in his announcement video posted to social media.

“He wants to come in and start or contribute as a starter on a highly competitive team,” Jerome Stanley, Cassius’ father, told 247Sports. “He’s used to winning and he plans to come in there and win. He doesn’t plan to be a project, he wants to step on the floor immediately and help them win.”

Stanley’s commitment only further reinforces how strong Duke is on the recruiting trail as it now has five-stars Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore signed along with top-40 Boogie Ellis of San Diego.

The Blue Devils may have lost their high-profile trio of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, but with these major additions along with Tre Jones, Marques Bolden and Alex O’Connell slated to return, they’ll be looking at another top-10 (and maybe higher) preseason ranking after a disappointing Elite Eight departure from the NCAA tournament last month.

Udoka Azubuike returning to Kansas for senior season

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Injuries have robbed Kansas center Udoka Azubuike of nearly two full seasons of college basketball. They also likely played a major part on while he’ll be back for his fourth year on campus.

The 7-footer will return to Lawrence and the Jayhawks for his senior season rather than declare for the NBA draft, the school announced Monday.

“We’re all very excited about Udoka making the decision not to enter the draft,” Kansas coach Bill Self said in a statement released by the school. “Unfortunately for him, injury is the reason as he still cannot participate (at) what would be the NBA combine or workouts for the NBA teams. We really anticipated that this would be the year he would enter the draft but that was also based on him having an injury-free year.”

Azubuike was averaging 13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 70.5 percent from the field before a wrist injury cut his season short in January after just nine games. He also played just 11 games as a freshman due to injury.

In his lone full healthy season, Azubuike averaged 13 points and 7 rebounds per game as he made 77 percent of his shots from the field, making him nearly an unstoppable force for teams across the Big 12. His return makes Kansas, the 10th-ranked team in our preseason Top 25, an even stronger favorite to regain its Big 12 crown after Texas Tech and Kansas State shared the league title last year to deprive Kansas of its spot atop the league for the first time in 14 years as it battled injuries, suspensions and lackluster play.

The 21 most important ‘stay-or-go’ NBA draft early entry decisions

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This single most important and influential decision when if came to this year’s NBA draft belonged to Cassius Winston.

The Grand Maester of the Michigan State offense, Winston put together an All-American season as he led Michigan State to the 2019 Big Ten regular season title, tournament title and a trip to the Final Four. Over the weekend, the 6-foot point guard announced that he will be returning to school for his senior season, immediately ensuring that the Spartans will be the No. 1 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25 and locking them in as favorites to win next year’s national title.

But he is far from the only important decision that is left to be made in this year’s NBA draft process. At 11:59 p.m. on April 21st, the deadline to declare for the NBA draft came and went. The players who put there name into the mix — more than 130 that we know of — will have until May 29th to pull their names out of the draft.

Here are 21 decisions that will have the biggest impact on the 2019-2020 college basketball season.

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KERRY BLACKSHEAR

Blackshear might be the single-most influential player in all of college basketball, but to figure out where he is going to have influence, the 6-foot-10, 250 pound forward has a couple of decisions to make. For starters, he has declared for the NBA draft, and given that he is 22 years old and more or less fully developed as a player, now may be the best time for him to make the jump to the professional ranks. If he does decide to return to school, he’s going to have to decide where to play: He’s a redshirt junior and a graduate transfer, which means that the Virginia Tech big man may end up being a former Virginia Tech big man. Every school in college basketball will want to get involved. We’ll see where he ends up.

IGNAS BRAZDEIKIS and JORDAN POOLE, Michigan

Michigan essentially had two players on their roster last season that you could trust to be threats on the offensive end of the floor night in and night out: Poole and Brazdeikis. Now it looks like there is a real chance that both of them to could end following Charles Matthews lead and remain in the NBA draft despite the fact that neither look like they will be a first round pick.

That’s a major concern for John Beilein, because with Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers all back, Michigan will have a case to be the preseason No. 1 team in the country if both Iggy and Swaggy Poole return. If both end up gone, the Wolverines may never break 60 points in a game next year.

DEVON DOTSON, QUENTIN GRIMES and UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas

This one is tricky because we have yet to get official word on whether or not Azubuike has actually declared for the draft*; he did last season and ultimately opted to return to school. Of the three, I think Dotson is probably the most important, as the Jayhawks don’t have anyone nearly as good as he is at the point. If Azubuike opts to enter the draft, Bill Self does still have David McCormack on his roster, who will be an adequate replacement. Grimes is the x-factor here. A former top ten recruit, I think he’s probably the most likely to keep his name in the draft this year even if it’s as a second round pick. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the best plan of action — I do think there is still a chance that he could come back to Kansas and play his way into the first round with a big sophomore year — but I get it. If he’s gone, the Jayhawks do have some perimeter pieces that will be able to fill the void in Ochai Agbaji and Marcus Garrett.

With all three back, we’re talking about Kansas as the surefire best team in the Big 12 and potentially as a top five team. If they’re all gone, then it is going to be a long, long season in Lawrence.

*(Since this posting, Azubuike has announced that he is returning to school.)

Grant Williams (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

GRANT WILLIAMS and JORDAN BONE, Tennessee

This may sound counterintuitive, but I think that it is true: Bone is the more likely of the two to leave school this year, but Williams would have a much bigger impact on the Tennessee program if he opts to return. Bone was a bit inconsistent as a junior, but when he was at his best, he was the best guard in the SEC. Losing that hurts, but the truth is that with Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden and Josiah James in the mix, there is enough backcourt talent in Knoxville to withstand his departure.

I’m not sure that is true with Williams. Tennessee does have some big bodies on their roster, but Williams would be in the conversation with Cassius Winston for preseason National Player of the Year if he opts to come back to Tennessee for another run at a national title. And with Williams back, they would very much be in that conversation. As it stands, Tennessee is No. 22 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

A source close to the situation told NBC Sports that they think there’s a “50-50” chance that Williams is back.

KYLE GUY and MAMADI DIAKITE, Virginia

I fully expect that both Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter will remain in the NBA draft for good. That leaves Guy and Diakite as the players who are up in the air. Everyone should know about Guy by now. The reigning Final Four MOP, Guy led Virginia in scoring last season and is one of the best shooters in all of college basketball. For a program that lacks perimeter depth, Guy’s return would obviously be enormous.

But Diakite’s return is just as impactful. He’s such a monster on the defensive end of the floor, and I’m not sure people realize just how good he is. His offensive game is coming along, but the value is that he would be a perfect pairing next to Jay Huff if Virginia wants to play big and that he is versatile enough to defend on the perimeter if needed when Virginia plays small. It’s not a coincidence that the most productive six-game stretch of Diakite’s career came during the run to the NCAA title, when he averaged 10.5 points, 8.2 boards and 2.7 blocks.

Kyle Guy (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

JORDAN NWORA, Louisville

There are a few Louisville players that have declared for the NBA draft, but for my money, Nwora is the one that matters the most, and it is not close. One of college basketball’s most improved players, Nwora is will be a first-team All-ACC player and a potential All-American if he comes back. He will be the veteran scorer that the Cardinals need as Chris Mack brings in a loaded, six-man recruiting class. With Nwora back, the Cards will be a top ten team.

KILLIAN TILLIE and ZACH NORVELL, Gonzaga

Assuming that Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke are both gone, Tillie becomes the most important player on Gonzaga’s frontcourt if he opts to return to school. And Norvell slides right in as the projected leading scorer. Frankly, with those two and Corey Kispert on the roster, I think the Zags will have more than enough scoring to keep things rolling as their talented six-man recruiting class gets some experience.

The reason they are as low on this list as they are is that I still think there is a ceiling to what Gonzaga can be because of their point guard situation. Right now, they are in a position where they’ll have to decide between freshman Brock Ravet and sophomores Greg Foster Jr. and Joel Ayayi. I would not be surprised if there was a grad transfer that was in the mix here at some point.

ANTHONY COWAN, Maryland

The Terps already got word that they are getting Jalen Smith back for his sophomore season. With the rest of last year’s promising recruiting class in the mix — Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala, Ricky Lindo — the only thing they need to ensure that they are a preseason top ten team is their star point guard. Cowan, if he returns, will be in the mix for preseason All-American honors.

MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall

This one isn’t difficult. Seton Hall returns basically everyone from last season if Powell comes back. They should still be relevant in the Big East if he doesn’t, but he was arguably the most dangerous scorer in college basketball this side of Markus Howard last year, and assuming he’s back in the fold, we have the Pirates at No. 12 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

Myles Powell (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

PAYTON PRITCHARD and KENNY WOOTEN, Oregon

Assuming that Louis King ends up staying in the draft, Pritchard and Wooten are the two guys that will matter for Oregon next season. They are the two pieces that allow Dana Altman’s system to work the way that it is supposed to work — a high-scoring lead guard and an uber-athletic five that can protect the rim and finish lobs. With both of them back, I think Oregon is a top 10-15 team and the best team in the Pac-12.

E.J. MONTGOMERY, Kentucky

Montgomery is interesting here. He’s super-talented, and he plays a position for Kentucky where the Wildcats are going to really lack some depth this season, but we’ve yet to see him prove that he is anything more than ‘loaded with potential’ at the SEC level. I think Kentucky needs him because they need to keep bodies in their frontcourt, but I’m on a wait-and-see mode before I decide just how much of an impact I think that he is going to make.

CHUMA OKEKE and JARED HARPER, Auburn

I would make the argument that these two were the two most important players on Auburn’s team this past season. If I had to guess, I would say that Okeke is probably gone. He proved just how good he is this past season, and his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered in the NCAA tournament likely won’t be complete until December. If he returns to school, it might end up being a two-year decision, but if he comes back and is fully healthy, he is miles better than Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore and the other options the Tigers have in their frontcourt.

Harper is a bit more up in the air, and while he was terrific this past season, especially in March, I do think that J’Von McCormick’s emergence has given Bruce Pearl some breathing room. He can do a lot of the things that Harper does, just not quite as well.

NEEMIAS QUETA, Utah State

Utah State is currently the No. 16 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25, and much of that has to do with the fact that we are assuming Queta ends up returning to school. His size, his ability to protect the rim and how well he finishes makes him extremely valuable in the Mountain West and helps the Aggies matchup with teams from bigger conferences.