Can West Virginia Keep It Together?

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 9th, 2018

For a touch over three years now, West Virginia has experienced consistent success playing one of the country’s most unmistakable brands of basketball. Lest you call the Mountaineers’ pressing style a gimmick, they’re 93-29 over a period that includes two Sweet Sixteen runs, a Big 12 Tournament crown and one other finals appearance. But just like every Big 12 team other than Kansas, a regular season title has eluded Bob Huggins. The ‘Eers have been right in the thick of the race over the last two seasons, finishing second in both, but while banking on the Jayhawks to cede the regular season league title remains a sucker’s bet, West Virginia absolutely has the pieces on hand to finish the job in 2018.

Jevon Carter (left) doesn’t care how quickly Trae Young is rising up the draft boards.
(Ben Queen/USA TODAY Sports)

Though their competition in the run-up to league play was not great, the Mountaineers are nonetheless are off to a 14-1 start with zero losses since Opening Night. Their resume includes an early December win over Virginia that has only escalated in value, and a victory over Oklahoma that doubled as a reminder that Trae Young — as talented and electrifying as he is — is also a human who occasionally has to share a court with the one-man defensive juggernaut that is Jevon Carter. As the unrelenting heartbeat of the Mountaineers, Carter has continued to improve despite the consensus that he first played for Huggins in the old Big East. As good as Carter already was — the senior guard was an All-Big 12 Second Team selection last season — he’s improved his game on both ends, increasing his steal rate, assist rate, ability to draw contact and free throw proficiency. Additionally, in a system that relies on non-stop activity, depth and fresh legs, Miles has played 83 percent of the available minutes during the young conference season.

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With Kansas’ Home Dominance Narrowing, It’s Game on in the Big 12…

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 4th, 2018

Texas Tech‘s victory at Allen Fieldhouse earlier this week was big for a few reasons. First, it announced to the college basketball world that Chis Beard‘s Red Raiders have arrived; it also established that Kansas‘ home loss to Arizona State last month was not a fluke; and it opened up meaningful discussion that the Jayhawks’ dominion over the rest of the Big 12 will be tested in a way that it hasn’t in the 13-year history of The Streak (TM). Let’s start with the Jayhawks’ newfound vulnerability, particularly at home. Prior to this year, Lawrence has been nothing short of a fortress for Bill Self’s team. You have to go all the way back to the 1975-76 season to find the last time when Kansas dropped two games at Allen by January 2. That isn’t to say that the storied gym won’t be a significant home court advantage for the Jayhawks more often than not, but the level of mystique that once led Baylor head coach Scott Drew to hold his team’s pregame huddle in the tunnel isn’t quite there this season — as evidenced by the Sun Devils and Red Raiders hanging 1.18 and 1.21 points per possession on the team, respectively.

With multiple home losses already on its resume, Kansas’ generational streak of conference dominance will be tested unlike another year. (Jamie Squire/Getty)

Of course, much of that has to do with Kansas’ ongoing depth issues that are feeding into the team’s shortfalls on both ends of the court. Self’s teams have always been leaned on activity and movement, and no one knows that more than senior Devonte’ Graham, the only player the head coach truly trusts at point guard. Graham has played fewer than 36 minutes just once in the Jayhawks’ last eight outings and his wear and tear is beginning to show. The lack of depth is also apparent down low, where 280-pound center Udoka Azubuike is admirably but not always effectively playing through back pain. Kansas figures to get some help with Silvio De Sousa reportedly nearing NCAA clearance and the Billy Preston investigation potentially ending soon, but as we noted last month, any reinforcements the team receives will only help but so much. This is still a top-notch offensive unit, but sustaining that level of performance will be dependent on diversifying an attack beyond three-pointers and lobs, which in turn will rely on keeping the current personnel healthy and fresh, mixed in with the occasional drive instead of a rushed jumper.

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A Quick Look at the Big 12’s Opening Weekend

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 29th, 2017

It’s not very often that the performance of a single conference as a whole is extensively discussed before the start of league play, but the manner in which the Big 12 asserted itself over the first six weeks of the 2017-18 season was nothing short of impressive. Nine of the conference’s 10 teams are ranked among the top 50 of KenPom‘s current rankings, and no team took more losses than Texas‘ three (of which two came in overtime against very good Duke and Gonzaga teams). In fact, the league finished non-conference play by ripping off 27 straight victories. Yes, there were some cupcakes in there, but there were also road and semi-road meetings against teams like Wichita State, Florida State and Nebraska. It’s gotten to the point where there’s been reasoned discussion on this site and others of the Big 12 sending 80 percent of its membership to the NCAA Tournament come March. Even if an underperforming team squelches that possibility, this conference will have meaningful games practically every night from now until March, beginning with tonight’s action. Here’s a quick look at each of the weekend’s five games.

Kansas remains the Big 12 favorite, but its competition is tougher than ever. (AP)

  1. West Virginia at Oklahoma State (Friday 7:00 ET, ESPNU) – The Cowboys project as one of the league’s worst teams, but West Virginia is just a 3.5-point favorite, which should tell you something about the Big 12’s parity and the intense challenge that the road represents this season, no matter the gym. Since installing the press prior to the 2014-15 season, Bob Huggins has not lost in Stillwater, and I expect that to continue tonight. Oklahoma State’s 10-2 start in the wake of Brad Underwood’s unexpected departure is a nice story, but the Cowboys are lacking in the three key areas needed to get the best of the Mountaineers: Ball control (117th nationally), defensive rebounding (174th) and drawing fouls (291st). Those will have to change if the Cowboys are to pull the upset.
  2. Baylor at Texas Tech (Friday 8:00 ET, Fox Sports Regional) – The Red Raiders stunned the Bears in Lubbock last season to give then-first year head coach Chris Beard a big home win. Three Baylor players fouled out of that game, which saw Texas Tech head to the foul line 43 times over the course of the night. That probably won’t be the case this time around, as Baylor ranks second in the country in foul avoidance. It also means that Texas Tech will need to find a fallback plan quickly if Baylor’s zone keeps Keenan Evans, Zach Smith and Zhaire Smith from attacking the rim as effectively as they have to this point in the season. Read the rest of this entry »
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Iowa State on the Rise?

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 20th, 2017

Last Friday, our very own Chris Stone noted the Big 12’s supremacy in Ken Pomeroy’s conference rankings. You should click the link and read through the analysis regardless, but the long and short of it is that the conference has spent the first month-plus of the regular season running roughshod over the rest of college basketball even more than it has in previous seasons. Not much has changed since last weekend, but one of the more interesting implications of the league’s sterling performance to date is how it could impact Selection Sunday. The Big 12 has sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament in three of the last four seasons, but at this early juncture, it’s realistic to think that it could max out with eight bids because of the combination of several impressive victories in non-league play, a relative lack of head-scratching losses, and, unlike the other Power 6 conferences, the fact that the “worst loss” a Big 12 team will take in league play will not be horribly punitive from an overall resume standpoint.

Lindell Wigginton and Nick Weiler-Babb were supposed to take their lumps at the bottom of the Big 12, but a lengthy Iowa State winning streak could portend otherwise. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

If the Big 12 is going to outdo itself in terms of NCAA Tournament placement this season, the team to consider is Iowa State, which looked like an afterthought following early losses to Missouri and Milwaukee. The Cyclones will now almost assuredly enter league play with nine straight wins after tonight’s meeting with Maryland-Eastern Shore, and the biggest factor in their turnaround has been the emergence of Nick Weiler-Babb, one of the most improved players in the Big 12. After averaging just four points per game in a bench role last season, Weiler-Babb has remarkably produced at a similar level to his predecessor Monte’ Morris, averaging 13.5 points and 7.5 assists per game while playing a staggering 37.5 minutes each night. The junior transfer from Arkansas is also the team’s leading rebounder through 10 games, although that may change with the way freshman Cameron Lard has started his career.

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Reinforcements Can Help Kansas, But Not Where the Jayhawks Need It Most

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 12th, 2017

With the end of the semester approaching, 7-2 Kansas is due to receive some help with the addition of transfer wing Sam Cunliffe, and the possibility remains that some combination of big men Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa could also come on board as both work toward gaining eligibility. Though the Jayhawks could certainly use some additional frontcourt depth, any reinforcements they receive should not be mistaken for a cure-all as they look to bounce back from consecutive regular season losses for the first time since 2013.

Kansas’ perimeter-oriented approach has worked well, but not without some glaring weaknesses. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

As thin as Bill Self‘s team is down low, Kansas’ two-point defense remains among the very best in the country. Even after getting carved up by Arizona State on Sunday, the Jayhawks still rank among the top 30 nationally in two-point defense and 10 best in adjusted defensive efficiency. Although some help on the low blocks could keep Udoka Azubuike from worrying about foul trouble and prevent the head coach from turning to unusual measures like relying on a walk-on to play key minutes against power conference teams and dipping into the football roster for help, what would really make this defense whole is greater urgency from the backcourt in adequately defending the perimeter. Read the rest of this entry »

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TCU Looks To Solidify Itself With a Big Week

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 5th, 2017

When we last checked in on TCU, the Horned Frogs were entering the season looking to parlay last year’s NIT title into the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid in two decades. Three weeks into the campaign, not much has changed other than perhaps the notion that Jamie Dixon‘s team could be even more formidable than originally forecasted. TCU currently owns the longest active winning streak in college basketball (13), but with tough match-ups on tap this week against intrastate foe SMU and Mountain West contender Nevada, we’re about to find out exactly where the Horned Frogs stack up in the national conversation.

With five double-doubles in eight games, wing Kenrich Williams has been a steady force for the Horned Frogs (AP/Ralph Laurer).

TCU’s 8-0 start, while impressive, isn’t a true indicator of its talent level because the team’s competition to this point has left something to be desired. Their best win to date is a neutral court victory over St. Bonaventure, but while the Bonnies look to be a contender in the Atlantic-10, they pale in comparison to stronger teams like SMU, who already boasts wins over Arizona and USC, and the Wolf Pack, one of college basketball’s 12 other remaining undefeated teams. That’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate reasons to believe TCU can tangle with the Big 12’s best this season, because Dixon’s club certainly can. The Horned Frogs enter tonight’s game with a top-20 offense and a top-35 defense, headlined by their current standing as the nation’s top defensive rebounding team, collecting over 80 percent of their opponents’ misses. Significant improvement from Vladimir Brodziansky, J.D. Miller and Kenrich Williams have provided the spark, while additional support from VCU transfer Ahmed Hamdy and redshirt freshman Kouat Noi round out the corps.

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Trae Young Leads Salty Sooners Back on to the National Radar

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 28th, 2017

When Oklahoma lost Buddy Hield, Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins after their trip to the 2016 Final Four, the Sooners predictably dropped off. They were better than their 11-20 overall record last year suggested, but you couldn’t fault anyone for tuning them out as it quickly became clear that a return to the postseason wasn’t in the cards. Just one season later, though, Lon Kruger‘s team is right back to putting up explosive numbers with one of the country’s best guards leading the way. To be clear, freshman point guard Trae Young and the former NPOY Hield are vastly different players, even aside from their different track records. Whereas Hield made most of his hay off the ball, Young is a more balanced offensive threat possessing savvy court vision to boot. In the early going, though, Young is showing that he could have a similarly memorable campaign in Norman.

After an off-year in 2016-17, Oklahoma is back among the most exciting teams in college basketball. (AP Photo/Troy Wayrynen)

Facing legitimate competition for the first time this season, Young balled out at the PK80 event in Portland, averaging 34.7 points per game across three tilts against Arkansas, Portland, and Oregon, while putting up a hyper-efficient 70.8 percent true shooting percentage. The freshman has excelled everywhere on the floor — shooting 38.6 percent from three-point range, 57.1 percent inside the arc, and 89.4 percent at the free throw line. For greater context, his 8.0 fouls drawn per 40 minutes dwarf Frank Mason’s clip of 5.5 per 40 last season, and he’s making his opponents pay at the stripe. Young’s aggression while leading the third-fastest offense in the country occasionally backfires in the form of a bad pass or ill-advised shot, but those miscues haven’t yet been detrimental to the Sooners, nor are they currently keeping him from occupying the top spot in KenPom’s National Player of the Year rankings.

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Rushed Reactions: #22 Baylor 65, Creighton 59

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 22nd, 2017

RTC is providing coverage of The Hall Of Fame Classic in Kansas City.

Three Key Takeaways.

Baylor Showed Impressive Poise in Winning the HOF Classic Tonight (USA Today Images)

  1. Jo-Lual Acuil brought the intensity on the defensive glass. Creighton wasn’t known as a gifted rebounding team coming into tonight’s championship game and Baylor’s Jo Lual-Acuil ensured that would remain the case tonight. While the senior’s extreme length gives him an inherent advantage nearly every night out, his lack of bulk in the form of a 225-pound body on a 7’0″ frame and corresponding effort isn’t always there. This means that he can be too easily moved off the blocks by other high-level forwards like Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ. For at least one night, however, Lual-Acuil flipped the script in pulling down 15 of his team’s 38 total rebounds to deny Creighton a number of opportunities for second chance points.
  2. Both teams turned up the defense. After allowing 1.06 points per possession to UCLA on Monday night, Creighton head coach Greg McDermott stressed the need for his team to improve its defense. As a result, the Bluejays put the clamps on Baylor’s offense by hard-hedging screens at the point of attack, preventing the smallish Manu Lecomte from locating defenders over the top. On the other end of the floor, Baylor tightened things up after giving up several Creighton drives in the first half. The Bears were much more active defensively down the stretch, holding the Bluejays to just 29 percent shooting after the half.
  3. Marcus Foster is going to want tonight’s effort back. Creighton needed a spark in the second half but the senior guard hurt his team more than he helped in shooting a frosty 5-of-17 from the floor, including a ghastly 1-of-9 dud from the three-point line. Foster’s last two misfires, a pair of corner threes during the final minute, sealed Creighton’s fate and allowed the Bears to leave town with the Hall of Fame Classic title.

Player of the Game. King McClure, Baylor. The Bears were offensively starved for most of the night, but the junior stepped up in an impressive manner, scoring 15 of his game-high 19 points after the intermission. Mixing several tough drives with a pair of three-pointers, McClure showed the ability that has made him such a valued part of Scott Drew‘s unit over the last two seasons.

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Rushed Reactions: #22 Baylor 70, Wisconsin 65

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 21st, 2017

RTC is providing coverage of The Hall Of Fame Classic in Kansas City.

Three Key Takeaways.

Baylor Was Just Too Much For Wisconsin Tonight (USA Today Images)

  1. Baylor survived a scare. Baylor asserted its experience, athleticism and range in the early going over Wisconsin tonight, leading by as many as 19 points before letting up in the second half and allowing the Badgers’ Ethan HappBrad Davison and Brevin Pritzl to get loose. While the Bears ultimately prevailed and will advance to the Hall of Fame Classic championship game, it felt more like Wisconsin simply ran out of time in its comeback attempt. Baylor is a highly formidable team and is fortunate to have one of the country’s best free throw shooters in Manu Lecomte (93.9% this season) to put close games on ice the way he did Monday night, but the Bears might not be so lucky the next time they take their foot off the gas.
  2. Wisconsin had the right game plan, but a lack of early execution early did them in. Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard had the right idea in how to attack Baylor’s aggressive 1-3-1 zone, running side pick-and-roll actions to open up backdoor passing lanes and baseline drives. The problem was that the Badgers couldn’t get a number of close looks to go down early. As Baylor built up its lead, the Badgers fell out of sorts and started to panic. Wisconsin certainly didn’t give up after a difficult start, though, narrowing that 19-point gap to just two in the final two minutes, but its early mistakes were just too much to overcome. Still, as the new core develops and Gard learns who he can trust, it became increasingly clear that Wisconsin will return to Big Ten contention before long.
  3. Jo Lual-Acuil flashed some seldom-seen range. To this point in his career, the Australian senior’s game has been all about defense and low post play. But tonight, Lual-Acuil nailed a couple threes and showed a comfort level with the shot that you don’t often see from a seven-footer. He’ll never be mistaken for a sharpshooter, but he’ll certainly be an increasingly frustrating big man to guard if he continues to show a serviceable face-up game.

Player Of The Game. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin. Though his team came up short tonight, Happ led by example, pacing his team in points (23), rebounds (13), assists (4) and blocks (3). The junior All-America candidate utilized an impressive array of back cuts and post moves in frustrating Baylor’s more athletic frontcourt, almost single-handedly willing the Badgers back into the contest.

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Rushed Reactions: Creighton 100, #23 UCLA 89

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 20th, 2017

RTC is providing coverage of The Hall Of Fame Classic in Kansas City.

Three Key Takeaways.

Creighton Fans Had Some Fun at the Expense of UCLA Monday Night (USA Today Images)

  1. Creighton played with pace but also with intelligence. The Bluejays are known for their frenetic pace but every movement tonight had a purpose, and that purpose was to find smart shots. Greg McDermott‘s team attacked the paint relentlessly, resulting in easy buckets and numerous trips to the free throw line (31 FTA). Creighton also turned the ball over on only 9.4 percent of their possessions, meaning that they got at least one shot up on practically every trip down the floor. The Bluejays’ defense wasn’t always at its best tonight, but Big East teams should be terrified by their potent combination of fearlessness and efficiency.
  2. UCLA’s lack of frontcourt depth was exposed. The Bruins had trouble containing Creighton down low all night, whether it was in the form of Marcus Foster, Ty-Shon Alexander or Khyri Thomas barging through the lane. As a result, UCLA big man Thomas Welsh picked up three personal fouls in the first half alone, and frustration set in throughout the remainder of the game as UCLA gave several hard fouls which only resulted in more easy points. A greater amount of production from Gyorgy Goloman and Alex Olesinski would have helped significantly, but both fell short tonight (four points and six rebounds combined in 35 minutes of action).
  3. Ronnie Harrell did the dirty work down low. With starting big man Toby Hegner still missing time with an ankle injury, McDermott gave the junior forward Harrell his first career start this evening. Harrell put in an effort reminiscent of Creighton alumnus and 2017 College Basketball Hall Of Fame inductee Paul Silas, pulling down 15 rebounds and denying a number of second chances to UCLA’s talented offense.

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