Big 12 Weekend In Review

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 19th, 2018

Another weekend of Big 12 action is in the books, and with it another dramatic set of games, each one carrying significant implications on both the league standings and the at-large picture for the NCAA Tournament. With Kansas and Texas Tech drawing back to even with four games remaining — including a crucial head-to-head match-up this coming Saturday — there’s still plenty of intrigue even if Saturday night’s events in Lawrence gave the impression that a 14th straight conference title for the Jayhawks is likelier than the standings suggest.

Bob Huggins became the latest visiting coach to show his frustration with the officiating at Allen Fieldhouse. (Nick Krug/Lawrence Journal-World)

  • Starting with the weekend’s marquee game between Kansas and West Virginia, Bob Huggins’ comments on the officiating, while valid, also left me ambivalent. Huggins certainly made a strong point when he pushed for referees to be made available to media after games in a fashion similar to that of coaches and players. The game as a whole would benefit, but as The Kansas City Star’s Sam Mellinger wrote in his postgame column, Huggins is probably not the right messenger for that idea when you consider his own team’s style of play. That said, while the 35-2 free throw disparity between the Jayhawks and Mountaineers drew the lion’s share of attention, caution should be exercised from draw sweeping conclusions. After all, the Mountaineers held a double-digit lead with fewer than 10 minutes to go despite the difference in free throw attempts, and West Virginia attempted just six shots at the rim all game long — compared with 13 by the Jayhawks. When a team fails to attack the tin, it will have a much harder time getting foul calls, especially on the road. Again, that isn’t to absolve John Higgins’ officiating crew from some responsibility here, but proper context is the name of the game when it comes to wide free throw disparities, even in extreme cases like this one.

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Big 12 Weekend Review

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 12th, 2018

The Big 12 had quite the shakeup over the weekend as Kansas‘ uncompetitive loss to Baylor and Texas Tech‘s easy road win over Kansas State gave the Red Raiders sole possession of first place with just three weeks to go in the regular season. Before the Jayhawk faithful hit the panic button, it’s worth remembering that Kansas has overcome similar deficits more than a few times over the course of its 13-year Big 12 regular season title streak (although not since 2013). This thing is far from over, but between the Jayhawks’ current struggles and the high stakes of breaking UCLA’s record of consecutive conference championships, there’s more intrigue down the stretch than there has been in several years.

The Red Raiders have a one-game lead on Kansas, but can they succeed where others have failed and end the Jayhawks’ conference title streak? (Jim Cowsert/USA Today)

  1. A look at Texas Tech and Kansas’ remaining schedules reveals that the Red Raiders have an edge for a couple reasons. The biggest is that they have already won at Allen Fieldhouse, meaning their remaining head-to-head match-up will take place in Lubbock. Additionally, Chris Beard‘s team is unbeaten against their other five opponents, while Kansas is just 3-2 against its remaining foes. While those facts are certainly not predictive of how the rest of the race will go, it should make Texas Tech fans feel fairly good about their chances, though a Kansas comeback is always something to keep in mind as long as Bill Self is patrolling the sideline. Read the rest of this entry »
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Take Me Home, Country Woes…

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 1st, 2018

Who knew that John Denver could predict the future? Fine, so West Virginia basketball probably wasn’t on the forefront of the late country star’s mind when he wrote his 1971 hit, but the title nonetheless aptly sums up the Mountaineers’ January performance. Bob Huggins‘ team had an absolutely dreadful month, illustrated by a 1-3 mark away from WVU Coliseum and punctuated by last night’s 93-77 defeat to eighth-place Iowa State — a loss as surprising as it was debilitating for West Virginia’s regular season Big 12 title chances. Throw in a second second-half meltdown against Kansas in as many years, and just like that, the team’s hopes of giving the conference a new champion for the first time in 14 years are dead and buried.

A 1-5 skid has Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers searching for answers. (Richard W. Rodriguez/AP)

We can point to a few factors when diagnosing the current skid. The first is a smattering of blown second-half leads. The Mountaineers held such advantages in their games against Texas Tech, Kansas and Kentucky, but let all three opponents overtake them and grab hold of the victory. On one hand, the abundance of high-quality competition in the Big 12 means that top teams aren’t fazed by their peers in any location, but on the other hand, perhaps the biggest distinction between the program that has a seemingly generational lock on the conference title and those that do not is a keen ability to close games out. A dip in effectiveness in West Virginia’s vaunted press has also betrayed the team, as the Mountaineers’ last six opponents have each posted turnover rates below the season-average 25.4 percent clip. As we saw against Kansas, when West Virginia’s opponents avoid mistakes, not only does their shot volume increase but the Mountaineers fail to score in transition. This correspondingly forces them to rely on their half-court offense, which has never been a particular strength.

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Trae Young Wasn’t Oklahoma’s Problem on Saturday

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 23rd, 2018

As the final horn sounded on Oklahoma’s 83-81 overtime loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday afternoon, the takes started flying nearly as frequently as Trae Young‘s three-pointers. The freshman phenom is too selfish. He doesn’t get his teammates involved. He turns the ball over too much. But as usually tends to be the case with instant reactions based on limited observation, most of the comments about the spectacular point guard were silly. While Young’s record-breaking afternoon — 48 points on 14-of-39 shooting and eight assists — wasn’t perfect, a closer inspection of the most common criticisms of his game renders them flat.

Trae Young drew more ire than he deserved following Oklahoma’s loss to Oklahoma State.
(Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman)

Young clearly struggled to get in a groove in the first half as the Cowboys made a priority of containing him, but it was clear early that Brady Manek and Christian James, the freshman guard’s two most reliable supporting cast members, might not have it either. In allowing Oklahoma State to jump out to an early 25-6 lead, the pair struggled to shoot a combined 1-of-6 from distance and failed to attack the Cowboys’ closeouts to find better looks.

As the Sooners went to work on a 12-point halftime deficit, Young realized that he was unlikely to get much more help. As a result, he did what most elite players do in that situation — he put on his blinders and tried to carry his team to a rivalry game victory. It nearly worked, as his offensive performance in the second half was flat-out remarkable. He gave the ball away just three times over the final 25 minutes (versus seven miscues in the first half) while scoring 34 points on 24 shots with a stellar 61.8 percent true shooting percentage, slightly above his season mark of 60.8 percent. By contrast, Young’s teammates shot a paltry 8-of-25 from the field after the break, and the takeaway was that Young should have been the one shooting less frequently?

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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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