Big 12 Way-Too-Early Power Rankings

Posted by Brian Goodman on April 15th, 2015

Depending on how you judge such things, the Big 12 either had a great year in sending seven teams to the NCAA Tournament and finishing first in all the relevant computer rankings, or a miserable one, propelling just two teams to the Sweet Sixteen and missing out on the Elite Eight and beyond entirely for the third straight season. As we’ve said for some time now, it’s silly to let NCAA Tournament results determine your assessment, but the hive mind will continue to pick at the conference’s March shortcomings until the Big 12 breaks through. The good news for the league, though, is that the top teams appear to be retaining most of their best players, and Kansas, Iowa State, Texas and Baylor are still in the running for some of the nation’s top prep talents as well as a handful of graduate transfers who could step in and make immediate impacts. Add it all up and the league should be poised to take a step forward in 2015-16. Here’s how we see things shaking out next season.

1. Kansas

This is what a coach can get away with when you dominate the Big 12 like Bill Self has done at Kansas. (Denny Medley/USA Today Sports)

Al jokes aside, the Big 12’s postseason prospects have to start with Bill Self (Denny Medley/USA Today Sports)

  • Key Departures: Kelly Oubre, Cliff Alexander
  • Key Returnees: Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden, Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham, Landen Lucas, Brannen Greene, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk
  • New Arrivals: Carlton Bragg
  • Summer Storyline: The Jayhawks in a down year still won the Big 12, but last year illuminated how vulnerable they are when they don’t have an elite rim-protector inside. To that end, Kansas could really use the services of 6’10” Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne, a physical, productive post threat on both ends of the floor. Bill Self’s program also remains in the running for highly-touted recruits Cheick Diallo, Malik Newman and Jaylen Brown.

2. Iowa State

  • Key Departures: Bryce Dejean-Jones, Dustin Hogue
  • Key Returnees: Georges Niang, Monte’ Morris, Naz Long, Jameel McKay, Abdel Nader
  • New Arrivals: Hallice Cooke, Deonte Burton (transfer)
  • Summer Storyline: Between the annual rumors of Fred Hoiberg leaving for the NBA and Iowa State’s presence on the transfer market, the summer is always a busy time but this offseason has already been more dramatic than usual. St. John’s poaching of top Iowa State assistant Matt Abdelmassih could hurt the Cyclones more than many seem to be noticing. He already flipped former JuCo signee Darien Williams to the Red Storm, and Iowa State’s chances of landing Cheick Diallo, for whom Abdelmassih was the lead recruiter, also took a serious hit. Despite those recruiting challenges, the Cyclones will return most of their offensively gifted core, but questions will remain on defense. Read the rest of this entry »
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Texas Brings HAVOC to the Big 12

Posted by Brian Goodman on April 3rd, 2015

Less than a week after the firing of Rick Barnes, Texas has hired its next head basketball coach. And as we speculated on Monday, VCU’s Shaka Smart is packing his bags for the Lone Star State. Once he’s introduced, Smart will be expected to immediately breathe new life into a program that had fallen into a lull over the last four seasons. Given its resources and location, the Longhorns have no legitimate reason to not be a force in the Big 12 and nationally on an annual basis, and Smart’s track record, enthusiasm and unique style of play make him Texas’ best bet to restore and possibly exceed its basketball peak from a decade ago.

As the new head coach at Texas, Shaka Smart will look to bring postseason success back to Austin.

As the new head coach at Texas, Shaka Smart will look to bring deep postseason runs back to Austin.

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Smart is his vaunted “Havoc” defense. His Rams led the country in defensive turnover percentage every year between 2012-14 and turned in a top-10 performance again this season. Had Briante Weber stayed healthy, the Rams may have ended up leading the nation again in that category. Smart’s teams also excel on the other side of the turnover column, giving the ball away less than 18 percent of the time in every season under his watch.

As with any coach making the jump from a mid-major to power conference, though, Smart will face the challenge of competing with consistently good teams on a regular basis. The Rams famously beat #3 seed Purdue and #1 seed Kansas on their way to the 2011 Final Four, but in the four seasons that followed, VCU went just 16-19 against teams rated in the KenPom top 50 and failed to return to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. In fairness, many of those games came on the road or in neutral settings as the college landscape provides little incentive for power conference teams to travel to places like VCU, but Smart’s results against top-notch competition suggest that immediate success isn’t a given at Texas no matter how good a fit he is.

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Evaluating Texas’ Top Three Candidates

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 31st, 2015

The head coaching job at Texas hasn’t been vacant for two whole days, but the search is already sending shockwaves throughout the college basketball landscape. Now, the top candidates for the gig had been rumored as successors even before athletic director Steve Patterson let Rick Barnes go on Sunday, and nothing has really changed since then, so none of the names are exactly surprising. But now that the wheels are actually moving, things could get real in a hurry. Here’s a quick rundown of the three coaches most likely to take the reins in Austin.

Say, that orange tie looks pretty good on Shaka. (sportsillustrated.com)

Say, that orange tie looks pretty good on Shaka… (sportsillustrated.com)

  1. Shaka Smart, VCU – Smart’s teams at VCU have turned heads ever since he led the Rams to the Final Four in 2011. While Smart hasn’t returned to the second weekend, much less the third, since that memorable run, that doesn’t make the 37-year old any less viable of a candidate. While some have doubts about his lack of experience as a head coach at a high-major program, he spent time on Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida and has successfully leveraged his track record, youth and enthusiasm to land commitments from some of the top prospects in the country. And he’s done it at a school with a fraction of Texas’ recruiting budget. Smart has notoriously rejected offers from plenty of high-major programs to stay at VCU, but turning down a top-10 job in terms of resources and access would be much tougher for him to do. Read the rest of this entry »
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Texas and Rick Barnes Finally Part Ways

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 28th, 2015

Rick Barnes‘ last four seasons with Texas were a rollercoaster ride. After failing to win an NCAA Tournament game in consecutive seasons for the first time in his 17-year tenure, Barnes reformed the team in 2013 without once-promising recruits Sheldon McClellan, Myck Kabongo, Julien Lewis, Jaylen Bond and Ioannis Papapetrou. His remaining players took him off the hot seat, riding stifling interior defense to a surprise third-place finish in the Big 12 and a thrilling NCAA Tournament win over Arizona State before bowing out to Michigan in the Round of 32. You probably know what happened next, but to bring you up to speed, the Longhorns came into this season as the leading candidate to knock Kansas from its conference perch, but injuries, inconsistent offense and lax perimeter defense kept the team from meeting expectations.

Rick Barnes brought unprecedented levels of success to Texas, but rocky seasons and early NCAA Tournament flameouts finally caught up to him. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Rick Barnes brought unprecedented levels of success to Texas, but rocky seasons and early NCAA Tournament flameouts finally caught up to him. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Texas finished with a losing record in the Big 12 for the second time in three years, and while they had a chance to redeem themselves in the NCAA Tournament last week, they petered out in an uninspiring loss to Butler. On Thursday night reports emerged that athletic director Steve Patterson gave Barnes an ultimatum: Replace your staff or I’ll replace you. Barnes wouldn’t acquiesce to those demands, and now the two parties going their separate ways.

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Unlikely Yet Capable, Oklahoma and West Virginia Look to Carry Big 12 Flag

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 25th, 2015

RTC_NCAA15

Let’s rewind to last Thursday morning. If I had told you that the Big 12 would send just two of its seven NCAA Tournament teams to the Sweet Sixteen, you’d probably feel let down. Conference members have struggled to make many deep runs over the last 10 years, and while it didn’t appear that there was a national title contender among the group this season, there were plenty of teams that were good enough to survive the first weekend. A flawed Kansas team had scrapped and defended its way to an 11th straight conference crown. Iowa State had shown great resilience in erasing one double-figure lead after another on its way to a Big 12 Tournament title. Scott Drew’s Baylor team was arguably better than the one that went to the Sweet Sixteen last season.

Can the new-look Mountaineers help the Big 12 save face? (Greg Bartram/USA TODAY Sports)

Can the new-look Mountaineers help the Big 12 save face? (Greg Bartram/USA TODAY Sports)

As we all now know, none of those three promising teams are still standing, and the also-rans of the bunch — Oklahoma State and Texas — fizzled out as well. That leaves us with Oklahoma and West Virginia as the Big 12’s two survivors. While the Sooners and Mountaineers are very good teams led by two of the most experienced and successful coaches in the game, their presence in the Sweet Sixteen still feels like a bit of a surprise. Oklahoma’s ability to play great defense while utilizing an uptempo attack is impressive, but there were plenty of reasons to be suspicious of the Sooners. They played poorly in two losses to downtrodden Kansas State, struggled to find consistency against competitive teams away from Norman, and their composure fell under increased scrutiny after they coughed up a pair of big leads to the Cyclones. While similar criticisms can be made of other teams still playing (see: UCLA), you would have a good case if you wanted to remain skeptical on Lon Kruger‘s team. Read the rest of this entry »

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Big 12 Takes Three on the Chin, But Today is a New Day

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 20th, 2015

RTC_NCAA15

Well, that could’ve gone better.

 

In the Big 12’s latest opportunity to reverse its NCAA Tournament fortunes, the conference fell flat on its face, losing all three of its games on Thursday. Were this the regular season or the conference tournament, I’d say that Baylor and Iowa State both losing by a single point shouldn’t be huge a cause for concern, and analytically, that remains true. If the Bears and Cyclones played their games again today and every day after that, they’d come out on top in an overwhelming number of those games. But it’s a different game this time of year where variance trumps all, and this was the end of the road for two teams that, at minimum, were expected to make it through the weekend. The same can’t be said for Texas, but that’s only a reflection of the Longhorns’ massive letdown of a campaign.

Three favorites, three losses, all in time for Happy Hour.

The Cyclones knew going into Thursday’s game against UAB that they could no longer afford to fall into double-digit deficits if they wanted to survive. They lived up to one end of the bargain, as the biggest hole they faced was just three points. But that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) take away from the fact that the Blazers didn’t have much business hanging around with the Big 12 Tournament champs, let alone knocking them off. UAB has a tall, athletic lineup, but the Cyclones outscored the Blazers 36-32 in the paint. Instead, Iowa State’s undoing came down to poor rebounding and relying too heavily on jumpers, shots that head coach Fred Hoiberg has become famous for despising. More than one-third of their attempts were jump shots, and star forward Georges Niang was most responsible in that department, attempting 10 jumpers and connecting on just two. Read the rest of this entry »

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How the Big 12 Can Change the Conversation

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 18th, 2015

RTC_NCAA15

While the Big 12 went wire to wire this season as the top conference in America, according to KenPom and the RPI, its postseason results over the last decade continue to cast a shadow over the league’s legitimacy. Since 2005, the Big 12 is tied for fourth in NCAA Tournament wins, tied for fifth in Sweet Sixteen appearances and tied for fourth in Final Four berths. In the last 10 years, 17 Big 12 teams have underperformed relative to their seeds compared with just 12 teams that have overperformed. Although the season-long metrics are more reliable from an analytical perspective than chaotic NCAA Tournament results, the postseason is valued more heavily when it comes to both bar room debates and television contracts. Fortunately for the conference this season, it propelled seven teams into the Big Dance, so there are plenty of opportunities to quiet the skeptics. Here’s how each of those teams can help the conference flip the script.

Fred Hoiberg's Cyclones have a chance to save the Big 12 from more postseason criticism. (Eric Gay/AP).

The Mayor can rescue the Big 12 from years of tournament disappointment with a run to Indianapolis. (Eric Gay/AP)

  • Iowa State: Fred Hoiberg has turned the Iowa State program around and then some in his five years running the team, but the time is ripe for him to raise the status even higher by adding a trip to the Final Four — which would be Iowa State’s first since 1944 — to his already-impressive resume. The Cyclones are among the hottest teams in the country but they’ll need to keep up their hot shooting and not rely on their proven ability to mount comebacks in order to capitalize on the good favor they’ve curried.
  • Kansas: The Jayhawks limp into the Big Dance with Perry EllisLanden Lucas and Frank Mason at less than 100 percent. If that weren’t bad enough, they’re planning to be without Cliff Alexander and have notched just three wins in their last eight games away from Allen Fieldhouse (and one of those road wins was in Lubbock). Oh, and they received by far the worst Tournament draw of any #2 seed, facing a potential Elite Eight game against juggernaut Kentucky. As terrific a coach as Bill Self is, the odds of him extracting a 2012 type of run to the championship game from this team are long. A ride to the regional final would be impressive, though, especially if the Jayhawks can knock off local rival Wichita State in the process.
  • Oklahoma: The Sooners have been snake-bitten in the Lon Kruger years, assuming the role of first round upset victim in their last two NCAA Tournament appearances. While Oklahoma needs to get over that hump, this team is Kruger’s best one yet so the expectations don’t stop at simply winning one game. A pilgrimage to the Sweet Sixteen would give Kruger the distinction of taking four different programs that deep, but Oklahoma’s excellent defense and Buddy Hield‘s scoring ability make the Sooners a threat to play even deeper, possibly slaying two monsters in Virginia and Villanova on the way there.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big 12 Teams

Posted by Brian Goodman, Chris Stone & Nate Kotisso on March 16th, 2015

For the second consecutive season, the Big 12 sent seven teams to the Big Dance. Before considering those schools’ seedings, let’s first acknowledge that sending 70 percent of the conference’s membership is an outstanding achievement and that assessment will surely be echoed by its leadership, coaches and players over the coming days. Additionally, top-four seeds went to four teams – Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Baylor – more than any other conference except the ACC, which yielded five, but also has nine teams that didn’t crack the field at all. Skeptics of the Big 12 will point out that the most talented teams in the conference (Kansas and Texas) haven’t lived up to expectations, and another team expected to return to the NCAA Tournament in Kansas State fell completely flat. Those criticisms can be countered, though, with success stories in Baylor and West Virginia, who weren’t taken seriously as NCAA Tournament teams until after the calendar turned to 2015. Here’s our early outlook at the seven Big 12 teams in this year’s field.

Kansas (Chris Stone)

Just how far can a healthy Perry Ellis carry the Jayhawks?

Just how far can a healthy Perry Ellis carry the Jayhawks?

  • Seed: #2 Midwest
  • Quick First Round Preview: Kansas drew the WAC’s automatic bid winner, New Mexico State (23-10, 13-1 WAC), in its opening game, and the Aggies are the 88th-best team in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings. To put that into some perspective, Big 12 foe Kansas State finished the season ranked 81st. NMSU features a balanced offensive attack with four players averaging double-figures. Defensively, the Aggies will look to run Kansas off the three-point line with their strong (seventh nationally) three-point defense, which has allowed opponents to hit just 29.5 percent of their attempts from behind the arc on the season. It’s a tough matchup, but the Jayhawks should get through.
  • Intriguing Potential Future Matchup: This one seems rather obvious. While Wichita State won’t get the home-and-home that coach Gregg Marshall has campaigned for, the Shockers will finally have their chance at their in-state foe if the Jayhawks get past New Mexico State and they take care of business against Indiana. The contest would pit two of the game’s best coaching minds against one another and allow the state of Kansas to settle who the better team is this season once and for all.
  • Final Word: Kansas drew undoubtedly the toughest region. According to KenPom, the Jayhawks’ road to the Final Four includes the highest-ranked #15 seed in New Mexico State, the top #7 seed in Wichita State, the second-best #3 seed in Notre Dame, and the overall #1 seed, Kentucky. The Jayhawks will need to return to their January form when they started Big 12 play 9-0 with a healthy Perry Ellis to pull off a Final Four run.

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Rushed Reactions: #13 Iowa State 70, #9 Kansas 66

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 14th, 2015

rushedreactions

In a Big 12 Tournament final for the ages, Iowa State wiped away yet *another* double-figure deficit to beat Kansas, 70-66, becoming the first non-Kansas team to repeat at the event since Oklahoma State in 2004-05.

Three Key Takeaways.

The Cyclones raise another Big 12 Tournament trophy. (Charlie Litchfield/Des Moines Register)

The Cyclones raise another Big 12 Tournament trophy. (Charlie Litchfield/Des Moines Register)

  1. Iowa State takes over in the second half: The Cyclones were flat-out dominant after halftime. After Kansas point guard Frank Mason buried three free throws to put Kansas up 17 early in the second stanza, the Cyclones went on a 32-11 run to take the lead with 7:04 remaining and eventually closed the game out. The absence of Cliff Alexander, the limited mobility of Perry Ellis in his second game back from a knee injury, and the inexperience of Hunter Mickelson and Landen Lucascaught up with the Jayhawks. The anatomy of the Cyclones’ comeback included a complete takeover of the paint by Georges Niang, Abdel Nader and Jameel McKay and numerous stops of Kansas’ guard-led attack. The most jarring angle of Iowa State’s comeback was the fact that they made only one three-pointer in the second half yet were able to erase their biggest deficit of the game in under 10 minutes. The Jayhawks had a chance to tie the game late, but Iowa State easily identified “Chop,” Kansas’ go-to play when they need a late three-pointer, and Dustin Hogue snuffed it out. The Cyclones have been the target of some light criticism for failing to end Kansas’ regular season Big 12 domination over the last several years, but they ultimately got the last laugh.
  2. Kansas’ defensive interior was exposed.  As mentioned, the Cyclones worked over Kansas in the paint without mercy. Iowa State’s movement was fantastic, leading to tons of close looks without the benefit of post touches. Whether it was MonteMorris or Niang bringing the rock down the court, their ball-handlers didn’t encounter any pressure, finishing the game with one of its lowest turnover rates all season (8.8%). Additionally, only one shot attempt was blocked by the Jayhawks. Torching them on the pick-and-roll, the Cyclones had no trouble getting into the lane. Self shook out his entire toolbox onto the Sprint Center floor, throwing a 3-2 zone, a 1-2-2 look and even a lineup featuring two centers in Lucas and Mickelson, but none of those defensive schemes were able to generate the stops necessary for Kansas to pull out the win today.
  3. Wayne Selden played another terrific game. Perhaps the biggest reason Kansas was able to build a significant lead in the first half was the tremendous effort and production from the second-year guard. On Friday, Selden mostly used his strength and aggressiveness to get things done, but tonight it was his jumper. The shots he attempted weren’t always smart, but he poured in a career-high 25 points on an efficient 12 shots (one of them being this tantalizing lob from Frank Mason). A deep tournament run may not ultimately be in the cards for the Jayhawks this month, but Selden’s effectiveness adds a wrinkle to Kansas’ attack and makes it reasonable to entertain the possibility of Kansas playing into the second weekend and, with a few breaks, beyond.

Quotable.

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Rushed Reactions: #13 Iowa State 67, #15 Oklahoma 65

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 13th, 2015

rushedreactions

Iowa State found itself mired in yet another early deficit, only to come back and squeak out a thrilling 67-65 win over Oklahoma to advance to the Big 12 championship game on Saturday.

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Iowa State survives another thrilling finish: Up two with nine seconds to go, Iowa State suffered a major defensive breakdown that allowed Oklahoma guard Jordan Woodard to feed a cutting Ryan Spangler underneath on the team’s final possession. To the shock of everyone, Spangler’s bunny wouldn’t fall and the Cyclones survived yet another close game in front of a raucous semi-home crowd at the Sprint Center. Spangler will be the goat for missing such a close shot, but terrible outside shooting (25%) and a 22 percent turnover rate also helped do the Sooners in tonight.
  2. Rough night for the Big 12 Player of the Year: Buddy Hield is the most dynamic player in the conference due to his ability to tear into defenses at will and carry the Sooners when needed, but there are times like tonight when he tries to do a little too much. Hield tied a season-high with 20 shot attempts, but converted only six of them. Even with Jameel McKay patrolling the paint, the Cyclones have been vulnerable inside, so it stands to reason that Oklahoma wouldn’t have come up short in this one if it had leaned a bit more on TaShawn Thomas or Spangler more than it did.
  3. Cyclones dig out of a big hole… again: Friday’s victory marked the fourth straight time that Iowa State allowed its opponent to build a significant lead before the Cyclones’ offense woke up and its defense forced just enough stops to get back into the game. Hoiberg and his players have repeatedly expressed the need to avoid those situations to begin with, but they are making a habit of needing big runs to squeak out these wins. Credit is due to Iowa State for having the poise and perseverance to get the job done, but it’s not a sustainable way for a program to do business in March, especially when your head coach and athletic director have significant heart conditions.

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Rushed Reactions: #9 Kansas 62, #16 Baylor 52

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 13th, 2015

rushedreactions

Here are some key takeaways from Kansas’ 62-52 semifinal win over Baylor in another game marked by shaky offense but highlighted by the return of Perry Ellis and a breakout effort from Wayne Selden.

Kansas (USA Today Images)

Kansas Comfortably Moved On to the Championship Game Tonight (USA Today Images)

  1. Perry Ellis showed his rust but found ways to be productive: Sporting a surplus of padding that would make Barry Bonds nod in great approval, Ellis showed some lingering signs of the knee sprain he suffered two weeks ago but he was still effective in contributing 11 points and six rebounds. It wasn’t the most efficient outing for the junior, but by hitting a three-pointer shortly after the opening tip, his return appeared to set the tone for the night. Ellis was confident in his shot, but as Baylor struggled to put points on the board, he could stay in the flow of the offense without taking many risks. In the second half, the Jayhawks maintained a big enough lead to allow head coach Bill Self to be cautious with his all-conference player, sitting him for the last 7:50 of action.
  2. Baylor’s three-point shooting failed them. The Bears have been a very good three-point shooting team all year, helping their offense stay above water in spite of making two-point shots look like a trip to the dentist. It seemed as though Kansas transmitted their three-point struggles to the Bears on Friday night, as they made just one of 10 tries from deep in the first half and finished the game an ugly 4-of-22 from distance. While head coach Scott Drew has had a fantastic year on the sideline, his fanilure to coax a positive adjustment from his team against a vulnerable Kansas frontcourt may have cost the Bears this game and and an appearance in the Big 12 Tournament final for the third time in the last four years.
  3. Wayne Selden broke out with a huge second half. When Wayne Selden arrived in Lawrence a year and a half ago, he was seen by many as a one-and-done type of talent. Between injuries and significant struggles on the court, however, the sophomore has had a tough time consistently producing. Tonight was a different story, as he stepped up with 16 second half points on his way to 20 overall to go along with a team-high eight rebounds against Baylor’s physical front line. The Massachusetts native was active all night, which couldn’t always be said for his career to this point. Effectiveness from Kansas’ backcourt can be difficult to find this year, so if Selden can continue produce, only good things can come of it.

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Kansas’ Three-Point Shooting Woes Continue to Mount

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 13th, 2015

At one of the most important times of the season, Kansas continues to go cold from deep. The Jayhawks pulled out an ugly, foul-plagued, over-officiated win versus an improved TCU team on Thursday, but their prolonged slump from beyond the arc also hit a new level of futility. For the second time in 10 days, the Jayhawks failed to hit a single three-pointer, making Bill Self’s club the only power conference team this season to go without a long ball in two separate games. Kansas’ dip hasn’t been confined to just those two outings, though. Over the Jayhawks’ last five contests, they’ve converted just 8-of-56 attempts for a ice-cold clip of 14 percent. With all due respect to Division I’s low-majors, you’re practically guaranteed to see eight threes find nylon if you flip on one of their games.

A return to normalcy from deep would put Bill Self more at ease.

A return to normalcy from deep would put Bill Self at ease with Selection Sunday two days away. (USA Today)

What’s especially confounding is that Kansas is supposed to be a team stacked with shooters. Even amid its current streak of ineffectiveness, Self has six players who are hitting 35 percent or better on the season from distance. In the press conference following yesterday’s quarterfinal win, the head coach tried to spin another tough shooting day however he could, saying that this kind of a stretch can lead to sharper focus on defense and rebounding. To the Jayhawks’ credit, they defended well against the TCU offense and won the rebounding battle for the first time in three games against the Horned Frogs. Read the rest of this entry »

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