Big 12 Midseason Merits and Demerits

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 3rd, 2014

It’s crazy to think that the season is already nearly halfway over. Over the last two months, the Big 12 had a terrific non-conference run. The league notched wins over the likes of Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Memphis, Iowa, Michigan and Gonzaga; the conference proved that it has its share of individual stars beyond Marcus Smart and Andrew Wiggins, viewed as the toasts of the league back in November; and an argument can be made rather easily that the Big 12 is the best league in the country (or at least has had the best run to date). With league play tipping off tomorrow, it’s time for the Big 12 microsite contributors to take a look back and hand out some accolades, as well as shine a light on a some players and coaches from whom we expected a little more in the season’s first two months.

Player Of The Year

Marcus Smart headlines a long list of individual standouts in the Big 12. (Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY)

Marcus Smart headlines a deep roster of individual standouts in the Big 12. (Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA Today)

  • Kory CarpenterMelvin Ejim, Iowa State: Ejim is third in the conference in scoring with 17.2 points per game and is fifth in field goal percentage, making 52.5 percent of his shots. He nearly averages a double-double as well, grabbing 8.1 rebounds per game.
  • Taylor EricksonMarcus Smart, Oklahoma State – Smart has cooled off a bit recently after averaging over 31 points per game during a three-game stretch earlier in the season, but this award appears to be his to lose heading into Big 12 play. The conference slate should provide plenty of high-profile games that will undoubtedly deliver some great individual performances, allowing us to more confidently identify the league’s best player. Andrew Wiggins has been good, but for the time being, he hasn’t done enough to knock Smart from his perch.
  • Brian GoodmanMarcus Smart, Oklahoma State - Overall, Smart’s efficiency numbers have improved, and he’s still playing defense at a very high level. The Big 12 is as well-stocked with talent as any conference in the country, and Smart has produced the most for his team. That being said, the book on him is out. Whether he can score from outside when teams take away the paint could be the deciding factor for his POY candidacy.

Coach of The Year

  • BGFred Hoiberg – After the Cyclones outperformed expectations the last two years, Big 12 coaches vowed to stop sleeping on Iowa State, tabbing ISU to finish fourth in the annual preseason poll. As it turns out, even that may have been too low. Right now, the Cyclones are no worse than the third-best team in the conference, and Oklahoma State’s personnel issues could give ISU an opening to climb even higher.
  • TEFred Hoiberg – All Hoiberg has done is taken a team that lost several top scorers from a season ago and turned that into a 12-0 start to the college basketball season. Iowa State has three players averaging over 15 points per game, and it became the first school in league history to have five different players win player of the week honors.

Best Game Of Non-Conference Play

Duke could not stop Kansas down the stretch. (Photo: Getty images)

Duke could not stop Kansas down the stretch. (Photo: Getty images)

  • TE: Kansas vs. Duke – This one took place extremely early in the season at the Champions Classic, and for all the hype that was built up for this event, the play on the court lived up to the expectations. Jabari Parker was unreal, especially in the first half, but Andrew Wiggins was fantastic late, hitting a smooth step-back jumper and throwing down a break-away dunk late in the last few minutes to seal the win for Kansas.
  • NKIowa State at BYU - This is sort of an off-the-wall pick, but it was a major statement game for the Cyclones. They were coming off a win at home versus Michigan and had to fly to Provo to take on BYU three days later. Both teams went back and forth all night with very little defense being played. In crunch time, ISU lost DeAndre Kane to an ejection as well as Ejim and Hogue to foul trouble, but relied on Georges Niang to seal the win. It made for good TV, and proved Iowa State’s mettle.
  • BG: Kansas vs. Duke - Jabari Parker came to play, but Andrew Wiggins was the difference when the nation got its first long look at two of the game’s top freshmen. Honorable mentions in this category go to Iowa State handling Michigan in front of a frenzied Hilton Coliseum crowd and Baylor taking care of Kentucky in front of, well, the opposite in Dallas. Despite the contrasting environments, both victories exposed the questions surrounding a pair of preseason top-ten teams who have since fallen towards the middle of the pack.

Best Individual Player Performance

  • BG: Marcus Smart vs. Memphis – 39 points (11-21 FG), 4 REB, 4 AST, 2 BLK, 5 STL. The Cowboys earned the nation’s attention with a resounding blowout over the Tigers on their home floor. While Oklahoma State didn’t need all of Smart’s points to top Memphis, he sent an important message that he was not to be lost in the shuffle among the laundry list of high-ceiling individual talents.
  • TEMarcus Smart vs. Memphis – I’m not sure this one is really all that close. Yes, others in the league have had great games, but what Smart did against Memphis was about as impressive of a performance as you’ll see. While much of the of the nation was discussing the play of the top freshmen in college basketball, Smart took it upon himself to remind everyone that those freshmen weren’t the only ones who could put on a show.
  • NKMarkel Brown vs. USF: In the Cowboys’ win at South Florida, Brown shot 9-of-15 from the field (5-of-6 on threes) for 25 points, grabbed eight rebounds, collected seven assists, blocked three shots, had two steals and committed zero turnovers. That’s close to a perfect game in hoops, if there is such a thing.

Most Surprising Player

Kenny Chery Has Been a Nice Surprise This Season

Kenny Chery Has Been a Nice Surprise This Season

  • KC: Cameron Clark, Oklahoma – The senior guard has never averaged double-figure scoring, but he is averaging 18.5 points per game through 13 contests. His efficiency has dropped even though his minutes and scoring have increased. He is shooting 49.7 percent from the floor and 1.6 turnovers per game, right at his career averages.
  • BGJoel Embiid, Kansas  – Even before the season, Embiid’s draft stock was rising, but what most of us didn’t know was just how quickly he would pick things up. While Bill Self is famous for developing big men to flourish in his system, it’s tough to recall many freshman centers who have turned heads the way Embiid already has. There are times when his creativity gets the best of him and he’ll need to cut down on fouling, but if someone told you that they could see him averaging nearly 11 points on 67 percent shooting to go with seven rebounds and more than two blocks per contest by the new year, they were either crazy or lying.
  • NKKenny Chery, Baylor – Chery had huge shoes to fill after Pierre Jackson graduated. Jackson was one of the most electrifying players in college basketball during his tenure in Waco, but one of his flaws was a penchant for turnovers (1.85 A:TO ratio). At this point in the year, Chery is averaging more assists (5.3 vs 4.1) and fewer turnovers (2.2 vs 2.9) than Marcus Smart. Guess those shoes fit Chery quite nicely.

Most Surprising Team

  • BGIowa State – When I picked the Cyclones to finish fourth in the conference back in November, I didn’t think I was being all that bearish. I thought they might take a loss or two before the calendar turned, but not much else, so even though I liked them at the beginning of the season, I wasn’t expecting an unblemished mark through 12 games. Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang have been terrific, but when I look at Iowa State, I can’t help but focus on their newcomers. DeAndre Kane bought in immediately and Dustin Hogue emerged quickly to add some much-needed muscle down low, allowing Ejim and Niang to thrive in transition where they’re better suited.
  • NKTexas - They have an 11-2 record entering conference play in a season where Rick Barnes is facing the most pressure  he has experienced as a head coach in Austin. Other than a quality road win over North Carolina, one could poke holes through their non-conference victories, but the most important thing is having those victories to poke holes through to begin with. Conference play will separate the wheat from the chaff. We’ll see where Texas stands then.

Most Disappointing Player

We Were Expecting More From Southwell at This Point

We Were Expecting More From Southwell at This Point

  • BGShane Southwell, Kansas State - While I didn’t have Southwell on my preseason all-conference team (nor was I expecting much from the Wildcats in general), I thought he was capable of building on a solid junior season. So far, however, all he’s done is provide ammo to the Bruce Weber cynics with a 40.7 percent shooting clip and regression from the free throw line for the third consecutive season. He can still impact the game positively when his shot isn’t falling, but he needs to be more consistent if Kansas State is to break into the upper half of the league standings.
  • TEStevie Clark, Oklahoma State – This might be a bit of a stretch, but for Oklahoma State fans, Clark’s behavior this season has to be disappointing. The freshman guard served a four-game suspension earlier in the season, reportedly for a drug-related offense, and was arrested Wednesday morning for possession of marijuana. With Marcus Smart running the show in Stillwater, Clark’s absence hasn’t had a huge impact, but there’s certain to be a time in league play when his contributions are needed and whether he’ll be available remains to be seen.
  • NKTarik Black, Kansas – Consistency has been a problem for Black dating back to his days at Memphis. He transferred to Kansas in hopes of starting at center on a national title contender, but eventually lost the job to Joel Embiid, who continues to improve. His 17 points in 20 minutes against Georgetown made it seem like the big man was turning the page, but he only played seven minutes the next time out against Toledo.

Most Disappointing Team

  • BG: West Virginia – Coming into the season, the Mountaineers weren’t a lock to return to the NCAA Tournament, but it wasn’t too hard to picture them having a bounceback season. Fast forward eight weeks, and while they still look like a decent team on paper, they whiffed on all their biggest resume-building opportunities. As a result, they’ll open conference play without a single top-200 victory and will need to win a few games they will be underdogs in if they want to go dancing.
  • TE: West Virginia – This one is tough, because as a whole the Big 12 conference is much better than anticipated, but West Virginia appears to be headed down a similar path to what they experienced a season ago. It’s still too early to hit the fire alarm in Morgantown with Bob Huggins at the helm, but the Mountaineers will need to make some big changes in league play if they have any intentions of playing meaningful postseason basketball.

Biggest Question Facing A League Contender

Michael Cobbins' Achilles injury throws a wrench into Oklahoma State's aspirations. How will the Pokes respond? (Michael Wyke/Tulsa World)

Michael Cobbins’ Achilles injury throws a wrench into Oklahoma State’s aspirations. How will the Pokes respond? (Michael Wyke/Tulsa World)

  • KC: It’s been the same question since the end of last season for Kansas. Will the Jayhawks get enough production from the point guard spot to win a national championship? With Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid in the fold, the roster is talented enough to win it all this season, but we’ve also seen what happens when junior point guard Naadir Tharpe struggles. It’s hard to imagine Kansas winning six straight games in March and April without consistent point guard play.
  • TE: Up until a few days ago, I think I would have said the biggest question was whether Kansas could get consistent, solid play for the point guard position, but given the developments this week in Stillwater, I think seeing how the Cowboys respond to losing Michael Cobbins and possibly Stevie Clark will be the most interesting topic heading into league play. The Cowboys already had a small and thin front line, and losing Cobbins certainly doesn’t help that problem.
  • BG: I’m intrigued by how the Cowboys will respond to Cobbins’ injury, but I’m more interested in learning whether the light will stay on for Naadir Tharpe the way it did for Tyshawn Taylor two years ago. With Joel Embiid having developed so much, he’ll need to get the ball more often so the Jayhawks can exploit the advantage he provides inside. I’m also curious as to how big a role Andrew Wiggins will play in Kansas’ halfcourt offense; while he can create for himself, Tharpe’s play will also be a factor there. 
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