On What Bill Self Likes Most…

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 15th, 2017

Bill Self absolutely loves hustle plays and grind-it-out wins. A coach doesn’t simply roll out elite defensive units on the regular without emphasizing the little things. No matter how good his teams are offensively, or how many NBA prospects come through his program, or how many Big 12 titles he piles up, Self values few things more than a dive for a loose ball, a winning battle on the glass or an offensive angle denied. Conversely, there isn’t much that grinds Self’s gears settling for sub-optimal shots. The Jayhawks did plenty of the former in their 65-61 win over Kentucky on Tuesday night, but there was also too much of the latter, and that will have to improve for Kansas to ultimately reach its National Championship potential.

Kansas won a rock fight Tuesday night utilizing the kind of defensive intensity Bill Self loves. (AP)

The strength of this team coming into the season was in the explosiveness of its backcourt. That will continue for as long as Self has just three scholarship big men on his roster, and especially as long as he has just two scholarship big men while the school figures out exactly what is going on with Billy Preston’s car. That said, the talented guard corps didn’t fully show up against Kentucky. Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman made all the right plays down the stretch to secure the win, but the trio also shot just 30 percent from the field for the game. Lagerald Vick made some good contributions too, but not as many as he could have in stumbling to a 4-of-14 shooting mark. Even while playing small lineups against the Wildcats’ long and hyper-athletic roster, Kansas rebounded 38.0 percent of its own misses and generated turnovers on a staggering 25.7 percent of Kentucky’s trips down the floor. That resulted in 20 second-chance points, but Kansas still only tabulated 0.93 points per possession as a result of suspect shot selection and poor execution around the rim.

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Big 12 Notebook: Opening Weekend

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 13th, 2017

Most of the Big 12 started its season with resounding victories over the weekend, but the two exceptions were certainly glaring as they came in matchups that pitted teams against programs from other power conferences. After a solid start to the game, West Virginia completely fell apart against Texas A&M on Friday night in Germany. Back in America, Iowa State got much more than it bargained for when the Cyclones agreed to play a very different Missouri program a year ago as the Tigers soundly defeated their old conference foe in Columbia. Elsewhere around the league, two heralded recruits got their first tastes of Division I action and did not disappoint. Here are the three items that stuck out the most over the Big 12’s opening weekend.

1. West Virginia falls flat against Texas A&M.

Texas A&M handled West Virginia’s press with ease on Friday night. (Michael Probst/AP)

When the Mountaineer press is working and they’re crashing the offensive glass, West Virginia is incredibly tough to beat. This is not a new development, but it’s worth a reminder as the season tips off, because when they don’t do either of those things, it’s a very different story as we saw on Friday night. In an 88-65 blowout loss to Texas A&M, the Mountaineers generated turnovers on just 23 percent of the Aggies’ possessions and rebounded their own misses just 23 percent of the time. Disappointing results on those two fronts put the pressure on Bob Huggins‘ half-court offense to produce, but any chance of that was snuffed out by Billy Kennedy’s switch to a zone defense midway through the first half. Combine all of that with big shooting nights from the Aggies’ Admon Gilder (4-of-6 3FG) and JJ Hogg (4-of-5 3FG) and there was just too much to overcome. Huggins mentioned earlier this month that he may pull back on the press in spots, citing the team’s changing roster, and with the Mountaineers facing a relatively lax schedule over the next couple weeks, don’t be surprised if he utilizes those opportunities to do a little tinkering.

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Big 12 Burning Questions: Kansas Jayhawks

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 10th, 2017

This preview is part of RTC’s 2017-18 preseason coverage.

Burning Question: How much will Kansas’ small ball lineups compensate for another thin frontcourt?

It took some time for Bill Self to embrace both his roster and basketball’s changing landscape in the era of pace and space, but he did just that in 2017, even if it took a season-ending injury to center Udoka Azubuike to fully make the leap. Three-pointers comprised 35.9 percent of Kansas’ shot attempts last season, the highest rate of any of Self’s teams during his illustrious career. The Jayhawks connected on 40 percent of those tries from distance, powering them to a highly successful season that included an 18-game winning streak, a 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title, and a run to the Elite Eight. With a National Player of the Year leading his backcourt, a lottery pick on the wing and a heady center like Landen Lucas patrolling the middle, Self once again succeeded without the services of a deep stable of big men. The question for this season is whether Kansas can continue playing that way without any of those three elements in place — because the pressure will certainly once again be on Kansas’ guards to convert from deep.

Devonte’ Graham knows what the 2017-18 Jayhawks will be all about. (Getty)

Kansas’ backourt shouldn’t regress significantly from last year despite the departure of NPOY Frank Mason. Devonte’ Graham will lead the charge as the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, but transfer guard Malik Newman could become the team’s leading scorer after sitting out last year. The redshirt sophomore averaged 32.5 points per 40 minutes during the Jayhawks’ August trip to Italy, and while those numbers aren’t fully indicative of how he will fare against better competition, they may provide a hint of what to expect. It feels like Svi Mykhailiuk has tested the waters every summer he’s been in Lawrence, but he’s back in a Kansas uniform for his senior year. The Ukrainian can get hot in a hurry and play some point guard in a pinch, but he’s also a defensive liability that clearly frustrates Self from time to time.

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Big 12 Burning Questions: West Virginia Mountaineers

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 9th, 2017

This preview is part of RTC’s Big 12 2017-18 preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Could Esa Ahmad’s lengthy suspension be a blessing in disguise?

One of the benefits of “Press Virginia” is that it’s difficult for the loss of any single player to cause the team to implode. There’s nothing that epitomizes “next man up” quite like having 10 players available who averaged at least 10 minutes per game as the Mountaineers had in 2017, so even if Bob Huggins‘ team drops a few non-conference games in the first half of this season while junior Esa Ahmad is sidelined with an eligibility suspension, the Mountaineers should be alright. But let’s take it one step further. While West Virginia would obviously prefer to have its second-leading scorer available to face the likes of Texas A&M and Virginia, it’s easy to envision a scenario where the Mountaineers ultimately benefit from his absence, as it gives the team a chance to develop a frontcourt that also lost stalwarts Nathan Adrian, Elijah Macon and Brandon Watkins.

West Virginia will search for depth while big man Esa Ahmad starts the season on the bench. (Kelsie LeRose/BGS)

Sophomore Sagaba Konate is a strong bet to start in Ahmad’s absence. The Mali native had a raw freshman season, but gained Huggins’ trust as the season played out, averaging 12.2 minutes per game in Big 12 play. The temperamental head coach even praised Konate’s improvement at Big 12 Media Day last month, noting that the big man has started to flash some range. Expect to also see more time from sophomores Maciej Bender and Logan Routt, though they are bigger mysteries. The pair combined to play just 179 minutes last season, with most of those minutes going to Bender. Aside from Konate, the Mountaineers’ most experienced big man wasn’t even on the roster a year ago. Assistant coach Ronnie Everhart is high on 6’8″ JuCo transfer Wesley Harris, a lefty who offers enough size and agility to play the four in West Virginia’s breakneck system. Harris has reportedly played well in practice and should be ready to become a key contributor both during and after Ahmad’s suspension. Lamont West will play on the wing and be counted on to stem the tide in the meantime.

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Big 12 Burning Questions: TCU Horned Frogs

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 8th, 2017

This team preview is part of the RTC Big 12 microsite’s preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Will TCU live up to its bullish expectations?

Expectations are funny things in that they can mean very different things to very different teams. Though the odds are inherently long, a small handful of teams like Duke and Kansas are generally expected to be in the conversation for a Final Four berth each and every year. For others, expectations can mean contending for a conference title and playing into the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend. Further down the pecking order, some schools will be satisfied with receiving at-large bids and still others simply aim to stay competitive against their best competition and let the chips fall where they may. The Horned Frogs accomplished the latter in Jamie Dixon‘s first season in the Metroplex, going 6-12 in Big 12 play with good wins over Iowa State and a Josh Jackson-less Jayhawks team in the Big 12 Tournament, but they also showed their mettle in close losses to that same Kansas team at full strength and defeats at the hands of West Virginia and Oklahoma State. With their top six scorers returning, the Horned Frogs are set to move up in the ranks with legitimate aspirations for an NCAA Tournament berth for the first time in 20 years.

Led by experienced contributors like Alex Robinson and Vladimir Brodziansky, TCU has college basketball’s attention for the first time in a generation. (Ray Carlin/USA TODAY)

To quickly recap last season, Dixon’s arrival in Fort Worth instantly transformed TCU from a 2-16 team in league play to a group exhibiting many of the traits of the coach’s best Pittsburgh teams: a hunger for offensive rebounds; a methodical half-court approach centered around point guards setting up teammates for high-percentage looks; and defenders who know how to force bad shots without fouling. While the Frogs modestly improved to a 6-12 record in Big 12 play, they gathered themselves in time to go on an NIT championship run in March. This year’s rotation will have a familiar look. Jaylen Fisher and Alex Robinson will share point guard duties; Desmond Bane will hold down the off-guard spot; Kenrich Williams will man the wing; and JD Miller will patrol the paint alongside the underrated Vladimir Brodziansky. Read the rest of this entry »

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Big 12 Burning Questions: Baylor Bears

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 7th, 2017

This preview is part of RTC’s Big 12 2017-18 preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Will the Bears’ starting backcourt be good enough to mask its lack of depth?

Baylor is coming off one of its best seasons ever. The Bears started the 2016-17 campaign unranked, but a torrid run through the Battle 4 Atlantis elevated Scott Drew‘s group into the Top 10 by late November. After an unbeaten run through non-conference play followed by a 3-0 Big 12 start, Baylor notched its first-ever #1 ranking by mid-January. The Bears eventually slowed down, but still tied West Virginia and Iowa State for second place in the final Big 12 standings and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament before getting bounced by the South Carolina buzzsaw. It was a tremendously effective mixture of players and style — All-America forward Johnathan Motley provided terrific production inside; Drew’s zone defense excelled at forcing bad shots (24th nationally in effective field goal percentage defense); and a steady supply of backcourt depth featured versatile components like Manu Lecomte, Al Freeman, Jake Lindsey, King McClure and Ish Wainright. Motley is a very tough talent to replace, but even if his departure causes the Bears to take a step back, they should still be strong up front with the returning trio of Jo Lual-AcuilTerry Maston and Nuni Omot leading the way.

Led by Manu Lecomte, the Bears backcourt will be relied upon more than it was in 2017. (Tom Pennington/Getty)

The main question with this year’s group of Bears pertains to its backcourt. Freeman and Wainright are gone, as is former reserve guard Wendell Mitchell, meaning that McClure and Lindsey will be thrust into starting roles. Lindsey projects as someone who will split the ball-handling duties with Lecomte, but moving the latter off the ball for stretches could ultimately maximize his talents, not to mention his energy and health. What may be problematic, rather, is that there isn’t much depth behind the three probable starters.

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Big 12 Burning Questions: Texas Longhorns

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 6th, 2017

This preview is part of RTC’s Big 12 2017-18 preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Will Texas ride the additions of Mo Bamba and Matt Coleman to an at-large bid?

Last Thanksgiving had barely passed when it became clear that something wasn’t right with Texas basketball. The young Longhorns were supposed to get back on track after losing two games to Northwestern and Colorado in the Legends Classic, but instead of licking their wounds and coming out with fire in their next home outing, they were embarrassed by Texas-Arlington. Bad games happen, certainly, and the Mavericks went on to win the Sun Belt last season, but considering the resources at Texas’ disposal and its accomplished coach patrolling the sideline, there was no excuse for such an effort. We all know how things went from there: The Longhorns tried unsuccessfully to play the entire season without a legitimate point guard, ultimately finishing dead last in the Big 12 standings despite having a first-round pick on the blocks in Jarrett Allen. Shaka Smart certainly isn’t on the hot seat in Austin on the heels of one forgettable season, but now that his team has been restocked with a level of talent that he didn’t have in his first two campaigns, it’s time for him to produce.

All eyes will be on Mo Bamba, but Texas needs more than just him to avenge a woeful 2017. (Brian Spurlock/USA Today)

Freshman center Mo Bamba will definitely help, perhaps as much as a one-and-done player can to change the direction of a program. There’s no player in the Big 12 who can match Bamba’s physical gifts of a 7’9″ wingspan on a 6’11” frame, and with great agility to match. He can block shots, run the floor, finish down low and face up his man in space. Allen and Cameron Ridley before him had their legitimate big man strengths, but Bamba provides a completely different skill set. In high school, he was able to produce offensively with his sheer athleticism, but how he develops his game in the face of more physical Division I competition will be worth monitoring. Additionally, Bamba’s presence on the roster may lead Smart to revive his patented “Havoc” defensive system now that he has a center who can get up and down the court. Read the rest of this entry »

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Big 12 Burning Questions: Oklahoma Sooners

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 3rd, 2017

This preview is part of RTC’s 2017-18 preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Trae Young will make a difference, but will the Sooner offense be good enough?

Everyone knew Oklahoma would regress after losing National Player of the Year Buddy Hield and his terrific supporting cast from the Sooners’ 2016 Final Four run, but you’d still be hard-pressed to find someone who predicted an 11-20 overall campaign. Reprising his role at point guard but expected to do more, senior Jordan Woodard started out strongly before sustaining a leg injury midway through the season, followed by a career-ending ACL injury in February. The team’s defense was plenty good (0.96 PPP allowed), but the offense was far cry from the BuddyBall era, plummeting from 16th nationally to 118th. Head coach Lon Kruger landed top-flight point guard Trae Young to replace Woodard, but Kruger will need significant contributions from more than just the precocious freshman to return to the postseason. Young is considered more of a scorer than a facilitator, and the Sooners need offense any way they can get it this season — they were especially woeful on close looks, shooting just 55 percent on attempts at the rim, per hoop-math.com. Young isn’t a burner, but while he lacks the elite quickness of someone like Jawun Evans, his developing frame should allow him to withstand contact and create dump-off opportunities for his teammates.

Trae Young gives Oklahoma the point guard it sorely needs, but the backcourt as a unit needs to take a big step forward in 2017-18 (Patrick Gorski/Sportswire).

One Sooner who didn’t have any issues finishing down low was 6’10” center Khadeem Lattin. Now a senior, Lattin will be one of the best big men in the Big 12. His defense will continue to be his calling card, but if Young is the real deal on the perimeter, Lattin should also be able to contribute more offensively than he did in his first three seasons. He’ll also have some help down low with the rotation of freshman Brady Manek, a Euro-style stretch four who impressed in the Sooners’ summer trip to New Zealand, and 6’7″ Kristian Doolittle, who averaged 11.2 PPG in Big 12 play as a freshman. Unfortunately for Kruger, Doolittle won’t make his debut until mid-December after being suspended for academic reasons, but it should present Manek with some opportunities to develop and find a place in the rotation. Junior Jamuni McNeace and sophomore Matt Freeman will give Oklahoma additional depth in the post.

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Big 12 Burning Questions: Texas Tech Red Raiders

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 31st, 2017

This preview is part of RTC’s 2017-18 preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Will the Red Raiders cash in on an athletic and experienced roster in 2018?

Texas Tech finished last season with a modest 18-14 overall record and no postseason appearance. The Red Raiders were expected to fare considerably worse in the wake of Tubby Smith’s departure to Memphis, but not only were they better than many anticipated, a fair argument could be made that their record undersold how good they actually were last season. Texas Tech finished just outside of KenPom‘s top 40 and were clearly snake-bitten down the stretch, losing six tough games in a row that were decided by five points or fewer or in overtime. Of course, it also lost six more Big 12 games, so it wasn’t all attributable to bad luck. Despite the disappointing finish, it looks like the program made the right hire in second-year man Chris Beard, who will turn to an experienced rotation that wants nothing more than to follow up last year’s disappointment with an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2018.

Keenan Evans is ready to lead the Red Raiders in a bounceback campaign. (John Weast/Getty)

When looking at the Red Raiders’ roster, athleticism, especially in the backcourt, is what jumps out. Keenan Evans was one of the better all-around guards in the Big 12 last season, dishing out 3.0 assists per game while limiting turnovers and frequenting the foul line (where he converted 85 percent of his tries). Wing Justin Gray led all Texas Tech regulars with a 54.7 percent eFG last season, propped up by a tremendous ability to finish at the rim (82.1%, per hoop-math.com) despite standing just 6’6″. Both players are back, as is Niem Stevenson, who averaged 8.6 PPG a year ago.

Similar to last season, the Red Raiders will also have a flood of transfers ready to go. This year’s additions are headlined by Deshawn Corprew, a 6’5″ stat sheet-stuffer from the junior college ranks, and Brandone Francis, an attacking guard who sat out last year after transferring from Florida. Hyron Edwards will provide depth and athleticism at the point guard slot after transferring over from Trinity Valley (TX) Community College, and Josh Webster will look to fill a role as well. It should be noted that Tech wasn’t a very good offensive team during Big 12 play last year (1.03 PPP, ranking seventh in the conference), so that aspect of Beard’s attack will need to improve if it wants to turn things around.

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Big 12 Burning Questions: Kansas State Wildcats

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 26th, 2017

This preview is part of RTC’s Big 12 preseason coverage.

Will Bruce Weber escape the hot seat yet again?

It’s been a strange eight months for Kansas State basketball. In late February, with the Wildcats in the midst of a 5-9 slump, former athletic director John Currie abruptly left Manhattan to take the same position at Tennessee. The Wildcats righted the ship down the stretch just enough to limp into the NCAA Tournament, however, where it beat Wake Forest in the First Four before bowing out to Cincinnati in the next round. Despite the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014, it wasn’t considered a successful year in the eyes of a fan base weary of repeated mediocre seasons under Weber.

Bruce Weber will look to a veteran core to shake off his critics. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

The university didn’t hire a new athletic director until mid-April, well after the best time to strike for a new head coach. That’s not to say that Currie would have fired Weber had he stuck around, but it’s clear that Weber benefited from the sudden change. A few months later, new athletic director Gene Taylor gave Weber a two-year contract extension, and while Taylor can spin it however he wants, the financials and length indicate that he did so more out of an obligation to give his coach cover on the recruiting trail than as an affirmative gesture endorsing his recent performance. With three straight sub-.500 finishes in Big 12 play, a knack for wearing fans out with inconsistency and a penchant for taking things from bad to worse with regrettable postgame comments, Weber finds himself in the odd situation of being under the microscope in Year One of a contract extension.

Wesley Iwundu and D.J. Johnson are assuredly big losses, but the Wildcats have an identifiable and skilled core returning in juniors Dean Wade, Kamau Stokes and Barry Brown. Together, the trio accounted for 45 percent of Kansas State’s offense last year and will need to contribute more as upperclassmen — especially Wade, one of the conference’s most efficient scorers and three-point shooters. The key issues for this team are that Wade hasn’t yet proven he can be more consistent on a game-to-game basis and that the drop-off from that trio to the rest of the roster may be too steep to overcome.

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