Breaking Down the Pileup at the Top of the Big 12 Standings

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 21st, 2019

Through three weeks of Big 12 play, we have a metaphorical clown car at the top of the standings with Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State and Kansas State all sitting at 4-2 and Baylor just a half-game back at 3-2. As I wrote earlier this month, a big reason why the Jayhawks have been able to maintain their extensive conference title streak has been the inability of their top challengers to cash in when opportunity knocks. Sure enough, on Saturday Kansas lost to arguably the worst team in the conference in West Virginia and just four hours later, Baylor dropped Texas Tech without the services of Tristan Clark, far and away the Bears’ best forward. Yes, winning on the road is hard, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Jayhawks and Red Raiders were four-point and three-point favorites, respectively, and that Texas Tech did not lead the Bears at any point in the second half. Despite Kansas’ struggles, betting on them to win the conference remains the safe pick, but based on how things are going, it might be awhile before we see much separation.

After a tepid start to the season, Kansas State may finally be rounding into form.
(Olivia Bergmeier/Collegian Media Group)

As up-and-down as conference play has been as a whole this season, Kansas’ Achilles’ heel remains the same as it has been all year: an inability to close games out. This problem goes back to the team’s guards, who, as electrifying and athletic as they are, don’t have the experience, poise and confidence that so many of Bill Self‘s previous floor generals have possessed. In past years, whenever the Jayhawks needed a late bucket, they could always turn to guys like Frank Mason or Devonte’ Graham make something good happen. This year, Devon Dotson, who is fantastic in the open floor, is also showing his inexperience by deferring a little too much in the clutch. In fairness to him, Quentin Grimes was expected to be further along at this point, so Dotson has been forced to take on a bigger role than Self would like, but the results have nonetheless made crunch time an adventure.

You can’t tell the story of conference play thus far without acknowledging the turnaround Kansas State has orchestrated lately. A little over a month ago, the Wildcats were flirting with their second disastrous loss in three games as they struggled to fend off Southern Mississippi, but they’ve now enjoyed two fairly easy victories in a row against Big 12 competition. Of course, Barry Brown taking command has been a boon, and getting Dean Wade back from injury has made a difference too, but in my mind, the key has been the offensive contributions of more than just those two seniors. On Saturday against TCU, it was Xavier Sneed carving up the Horned Frogs’ perimeter defenders for 18 points and just one turnover in 35 minutes. Brown and Wade led the team last Wednesday at Oklahoma, but Sneed, Kamau Stokes and Makol Mawien made solid contributions as well and the result was the Wildcats scoring 74 points against a Big 12 opponent for the first time all year. On the other end, Kansas State’s defense hasn’t let up one bit, but with offenses struggling throughout the conference, the Wildcats can really put themselves in a great position with more consistency from the supporting cast.

Speaking of dormant offenses coming to life, the top offensive unit in league play hasn’t been Kansas or the free-flowing and versatile lineup at Iowa State. It’s been Baylor. The Bears became the first team to score more than one point per possession against Texas Tech, doing so in easy fashion with 73 points on 65 trips Saturday night. After shooting just 28 percent from distance in its first 11 games, the Bears are now up to 38 percent over their last six match-ups, with an 11-of-29 mark against Chris Beard‘s team over the weekend. Baylor would rather have Tristan Clark than not, but his absence has led Scott Drew to tinker with smaller lineups that can thrive more in transition with an additional shooter. Overall, the Big 12’s defenses have been very tough to solve, so we’re seeing how trying something different, even when your hand is forced, can yield big dividends.

Brian Goodman (987 Posts)

Brian Goodman a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.

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