The Five Most Improved Players in the Big 12

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 14th, 2016

It’s been an exciting first month of hoops in the Big 12, with a few preconceived notions about teams evolving over the first four weeks. Kansas still appears to be alone at the head of the pack, but the gap between the Jayhawks and the rest of the league looks smaller than originally considered with Baylor storming out of the gate unbeaten and West Virginia showing no ill effects from their departed seniors. We’ve also seen a handful of Big 12 players take sizable steps in the progression of their careers. Some of the five breakout players listed below have simply produced at similar clips to their careers to this point, but with bigger workloads this season, while others have just become more well-rounded players. Still others have benefited from changes in their team’s style of play or coaching, and some improvements have been a result of some combination of the above.

Regardless of the reason, the thing to watch moving forward will be whether these players can carry their newfound success through league play. These are the Big 12’s five most improved players in order of who has the best chance to sustain his performance the rest of the way.

Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State

Look for Oklahoma State's Jawun Evans (left) to leave a few more opponents in his dust before the end of the 2016-17 season. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

Look for Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans to leave a few more opponents in his dust before the end of the 2016-17 season. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

  • 2016-17: 33.9% POSS, 23.9 PPG, 5.1 APG, 9.9% TO
  • 2015-16: 26.6% POSS, 12.9 PPG, 4.9 APG, 20.4% TO

The sophomore Evans was already a tremendous point guard, but Oklahoma State’s coaching transition from Travis Ford to Brad Underwood has unlocked something special in Stillwater. His huge increase in scoring has been heavily influenced by the breakneck pace with which the Cowboys are playing (~10 more possessions per game), but it also says a lot about Evans that he can maintain such a high rate of productivity while taking on more responsibility in a hectic environment.

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Carlton Bragg to Miss Time Following Battery Charge

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 10th, 2016

The disappointing nature of Kansas forward Carlton Bragg’s nascent career reached a new low on Friday following an arrest and subsequent battery charge of battery by the Douglas County (Kansas) District Attorney’s Office. Although the charge doesn’t specifically fall under the domestic violence statute because of how the state of Kansas defines it, a press release from the office explains that it is effectively the same thing. The statement also identified the alleged victim as Bragg’s girlfriend, whom he is accused of striking and pushing down the stairs. Kansas head coach Bill Self suspended the sophomore center indefinitely last night as the school continues to gather facts. With Bragg’s next court appearance set for December 27, it’s possible that he’ll miss more than just today’s game against Nebraska as the legal process unfolds.

Carlton Bragg's season took a turn for the worse following a domestic battery charge. (AP)

Carlton Bragg’s season took a turn for the worse following a domestic battery charge. (AP)

Unfortunately this is not the first time Self has had to handle players running afoul of the law on his watch. In 2006, for example, he dismissed C.J. Giles after a former girlfriend charged the player with battery. Four years later, he suspended Mario Little following charges of battery, criminal damage to property and criminal trespassing. Little missed six games in 2010 but finished the season in Lawrence before graduating. More recently, Thomas Robinson was cited in 2011 for striking and spitting on a Lawrence nightclub employee, but the victim in that incident ultimately chose not to file charges.

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A Rising TCU Tide Could Lift Big 12 Boats

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 8th, 2016

While TCU fell from the ranks of the unbeaten on Wednesday night with a 15-point loss at SMU, the Horned Frogs’ ascension under Jamie Dixon has been obvious as the remaining pieces from the Trent Johnson era have blended well with young talents like Jaylen Fisher and Alex RobinsonIntent on leveraging a renovated arena and talent-rich local recruiting base, Dixon has already shored up the long-term stability of the program with commitments from 2017 four-star recruits Kevin Samuel and R.J. Nembhard. As a result, TCU’s future looks quite a bit better than its short term, but unlike with most coaching transitions, its present doesn’t look too shabby either. Dixon obviously did not walk into a Steve Prohm-like situation at Iowa State where the new guy was under pressure to win right away, but his early results in Fort Worth give reason to believe, which bodes well for a program that has gone 8-64 in Big 12 play since joining the league in 2012. Even if this immensely deep conference keeps TCU from climbing out of the cellar in 2017, mere respectability at the bottom of a league with so many NCAA Tournament candidates can be an advantage other middling power conference teams lack.

TCU may no longer be unbeaten, but their improvement can only help the rest of the Big 12. (AP/Bob Haynes)

Alex Robinson and TCU may no longer be unbeaten, but their improvement can only help the rest of the Big 12. (AP/Bob Haynes)

If you take a look around the nation’s Power 5 leagues, you’ll find a lot of flotsam among the dregs. In the ACC, Boston College and Georgia Tech’s seasons were pretty much dead on arrival (the Yellow Jackets’ win over VCU on Wednesday night notwithstanding). In the Big East, Georgetown, St. John’s and DePaul have a combined 1-8 record against the KenPom top 100. Rutgers and Penn State may eventually turn things around in the Big Ten, but neither figure to make much noise this season. And the bottom of the SEC rarely ever makes waves, either. Head west to the Pac-12 and you’ll see uphill battles ahead for Washington (which these Horned Frogs have already beaten twice), Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington State. TCU has its work cut out for it this season, but even if Dixon’s team winds up on the bottom rung of the Big 12 ladder yet again, there are certainly worse places to be. Read the rest of this entry »

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How Johnathan Motley’s Supporting Cast Has Elevated Baylor

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 1st, 2016

Three weeks into the new season, the best non-conference resume in college basketball belongs to Baylor. The Bears already have four wins against teams ranked among the KenPom top 50 thanks to a flawless run through the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, and they’ll have yet another chance to score a victory over a marquee opponent when they host Xavier on Saturday afternoon. November served as a national breakout party for Big 12 POY candidate Johnathan Motley, whose length, footwork and range have keyed Baylor’s hot start. But one player — even someone the caliber of the 6’10” junior — doesn’t result in a 7-0 start with wins over Oregon, VCU, Michigan State and Louisville. While there’s no doubt Motley is keeping opposing coaches up at night, the unheralded pieces around him have helped the team flourish as well.

Johnathan Motley Has Had a Lot to Celebrate This Season (USA Today Images)

Johnathan Motley Has Had a Lot to Celebrate This Season (USA Today Images)

Motley makes the whole thing go in the paint, but junior center Jo Lual-Acuil has also been a force. The JuCo transfer owns the nation’s third-best shot block rate (15.6%) and already has 29 rejections on the year. For most big men, there are two potential costs to chasing blocks: foul trouble and getting caught out of position for the rebound. But Lual-Acuil is the rare breed of player who has both avoided the whistle (2.3 fouls per 40 minutes) and remained a presence on the defensive glass (team-leading 25.1% defensive rebounding rate). Big 12 play may cause some regression when Lual-Acuil faces players willing to challenge him at the rim, but that doesn’t make him any less important. On the offensive end, the attention Motley commands opens a number of close looks that Lual-Acuil is converting at an incredibly high rate. Two-way threats at the five don’t come around very often, but Baylor has one of them.

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Feast Week Mission Briefing: West Virginia in the NIT Season Tip-Off

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 24th, 2016

Feast Week is here. To get you ready for the Big 12’s representation in the various holiday tournaments over the next week, our Feast Week Mission Briefings continue today with West Virginia in the NIT Season Tip-Off, which takes place at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Catching Up: Devin Williams, Jaysean Paige and Jonathan Holton are gone, but “Press Virginia” is alive and well in Morgantown. The 3-0 Mountaineers again lead the country in defensive turnover rate (34.2%) and are first in defensive steal rate (17.3%), steamrolling lesser competition by an average of 42.7 points per game. The demands of Bob Huggins‘ style and the big leads it has generated have given way to a deep, balanced attack in the early part of the season. A staggering 11 players have seen the floor for at least 10 minutes per game and five players are currently posting double-figure scoring averages, led by Nathan Adrian‘s 13.3 points per contest.

This Thanksgiving, opposing teams will be thankful if they can hold onto the ball against West Virginia's swarming defense. (AP/Raymond Thompson)

This Thanksgiving, opposing teams should be thankful if they can hold onto the ball against West Virginia’s swarming defense. (AP/Raymond Thompson)

Opening Round Preview: Illinois will give West Virginia its first real test of the season today in Brooklyn. It feels like John Groce’s team has been snake-bitten from the minute he arrived in Champaign, but his team is off to a solid 4-1 start, although the loss, which came at the hands of Winthrop, shows that they aren’t out of the woods quite yet. Still, the Illini are shooting the ball well, hitting 39.8 percent of their threes, led by seniors Tracy Abrams (7-of-11, 63.6%) and Malcolm Hill (15-of-29, 51.7%). The team has also been extremely effective inside, converting 87.3 percent of its attempts at the rim, per hoop-math.com. The problem for Illinois is that it hasn’t valued the ball, turning it over on 20.2 percent of their possessions and winning the battle on the offensive glass only 23.3 percent of the time. Those are weaknesses that West Virginia is well-versed in exploiting, and Huggins’ team should be able to do just that. Read the rest of this entry »

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Kansas’ Backcourt Leads the Way But Questions Abound Inside

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 23rd, 2016

The biggest question facing Kansas as it entered this season centered around the team’s frontcourt. The loss of stalwart Perry Ellis was going to loom large until Bill Self could turn his rotation of big men into a serviceable enough unit to balance a supremely skilled backcourt. Now two weeks into the season and with the toughest part of the Jayhawds’ non-conference schedule in the books, that question remains unanswered. It may even be blurrier than it was in October. In addition to newcomers Dwight Coleby and Udoka Azubuike struggling to earn consistent minutes in Self’s rotation, veteran Landen Lucas has regressed and sophomore Carlton Bragg has yet to find a rhythm as well.

Kansas (USA Today Images)

Kansas Needs to Solve Its Interior Issues but the Backcourt is Excelling (USA Today Images)

Kansas’ frontcourt issues came to a head last night despite a 65-54 victory over Georgia at the CBE Classic in Kansas City. Bulldogs forward Yante Maten roasted every big man Kansas threw at him, dominating the back line with 30 points and 13 rebounds. Lucas, who expertly used his intelligence and size to pull away with the starting center spot last season, was saddled with foul trouble, his latest in a string of lackluster outings. Azubuike, a freshman who logged an inspiring performance against Duke just a week ago, played only five minutes. Collectively, the Jayhawks’ four big men were a mess: five points on 2-of-5 shooting, seven rebounds and 15 fouls, although Coleby gave admirable energy and effort in his first extended run of the season, blocking four shots and grabbing four rebounds. Kansas’ struggles to defend Georgia without fouling led to another rare sighting from a Self-coached team: the deployment of a 2-3 zone. To the team’s credit, the defensive maneuver keyed a decisive second-half run, but that may have had more to do with the fact that it wasn’t a look Georgia had prepared for. These were extenuating circumstances indeed.

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GW Learning That Defensive Versatility Only Goes So Far

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 22nd, 2016

Last season, George Washington used a balanced offensive attack led by multi-skilled big man Tyler Cavanaugh to finish fifth in a competitive Atlantic 10 and ultimately win the NIT. A volatile offseason brought change, however, as the school fired head coach Mike Lonergan amid allegations of player mistreatment and suffered significant roster turnover from graduations and player defections. This led to bearish expectations this preseason, as the Colonials were tabbed to finish eighth in the A-10 preseason poll. Through the first four games of the season, that prediction appears accurate. While Cavanaugh and another versatile forward in Yuta Watanabe remain the stalwarts of GW’s frontcourt, their collective athletic shortcomings were exposed in an 81-73 loss to Georgia Monday night in the semifinal round of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic.

Tyler Cavanaugh is a great start for GW, but more production is needed. (USA TODAY Sports)

Tyler Cavanaugh is a great start for GW, but more production is needed. (USA Today Sports)

Cavanuagh and Watanabe’s defensive strengths lay in their ability to defend smaller players on the perimeter, but they can struggle against similar or superior size. When the Colonials backcourt failed to contain Georgia guard J.J. Frazier in the early stages of Monday night’s game, head coach Maurice Joseph switched the 6’8″ Watanabe onto the 5’11” Frazier. Watanabe got the better of that match-up from that point on, displaying impressive lateral mobility in preventing dribble penetration. Unfortunately, the defensive maneuver turned out to be a net loss, though, as Georgia exploited George Washington’s lack of reinforcements in the lane to build a 40-18 advantage in points in the paint. Read the rest of this entry »

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Feast Week Mission Briefing: Kansas at the CBE Hall of Fame Classic

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 21st, 2016

Feast Week is here. To get you ready for the Big 12’s representation in the various holiday tournaments over the next week, our Feast Week Mission Briefings continue today with Kansas in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic.

What They’ve Done So Far: In a break from the norm for traditional powers, Kansas has already played the toughest part of its non-conference schedule. The Jayhawks fell in overtime to Indiana on the first night of the season before edging Duke at the Champions Classic, both in neutral settings. Frank Mason has been fantastic to open the year; Not only did he bury a clutch jumper to sink the Blue Devils last Tuesday, but he has led the Jayhawks in scoring in each of their first three games and has taken advantage of the new officiating directives to make 30 trips to the free throw line (converting 76.6 percent of his attempts). Perhaps feeling tired legs from their trips to Hawaii and New York, the Jayhawks had some trouble shaking Siena for most of their home opener on Friday night, but pulled away late for an 86-65 win.

Frank Mason has come up big early for Kansas. Will the Jayhawks need to rely on him again this week in Kansas City? (Nick Krug/Lawrence Journal-World)

Opening Round Preview: Kansas opens against UAB in what would have been a reunion for former Jayhawks guard Jerod Haase, but Haase left the Blazers’ post over the summer to take the head coaching job at Stanford. UAB hasn’t played a very tough schedule to date, but they’ve held opponents to 36.3 percent shooting inside the arc, largely on the prowess of big man William Lee (13 rejections through three games). Kansas has meanwhile been very dependent on its inside game, ranking among the bottom 30 nationally in 3PA/FGA and shooting a miserable 23.1 percent from beyond the arc. A strong performance from Carlton Bragg to follow up a career game against Siena (15 points and 11 rebounds) would go a long way toward avoiding an upset tonight, especially if his teammates have another cold outside shooting night. Read the rest of this entry »

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College Hoops Luminaries Take Center Stage at Hall of Fame Inductions

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 19th, 2016

To some degree, the National Collegiate Basketball Hall Of Fame will always live in the shadow of the Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, which celebrates the game at every level around the world. If you were a great pro, chances are you were also great in college, so why not just cover it all in one fell swoop? That thinking ignores the reality that there will always be highly accomplished college players who, for one reason or another, couldn’t replicate their success at the next level, but that doesn’t mean those NCAA careers shouldn’t get their due somewhere. This Hall of Fame serves those players and coaches as well as the lucky few who were fortunate enough to reach the pinnacle of the game at both levels. On Friday night, eight storied inductees joined the ranks among the best collegians ever. Let’s take a look at each.

Dominique Wilkins, Georgia

Dominique Wilkins put Georgia basketball on the map in the early 80's with his relentless athleticism and thunderous dunks. (SI)

Dominique Wilkins put Georgia basketball on the map in the early 1980s with his relentless athleticism and thunderous dunks. (SI)

The Bulldogs aren’t exactly relevant right now, but they were even less so until the early 1980s when The Human Highlight Film arrived in Athens and changed everything, if only for a short time. In just three seasons, Wilkins scored 1,688 points — including many in intense, dazzling, electrifying fashion — and won SEC Player of the Year in 1981. Alhough the Bulldogs didn’t make the NCAA Tournament in any of ‘Nique’s three seasons, he brought enough attention to the program in the eyes of recruits for Georgia to make three appearances by the end of the decade, including a surprising run to the Final Four in 1983.
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Big 12 M5: 11.16.16 Edition

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 16th, 2016

morning5_big12

  1. Another huge game from Frank Mason fueled Kansas’ 77-75 win over Duke last night. Even though the Blue Devils were without three of its star freshmen, the Jayhawks withstood plenty of their own challenges — from foul trouble to ineffectiveness beyond the arc (2-of-16 3FG) to a bad night at the charity stripe (9-of-19 FT). The Jayhawks also blew a late double-digit lead, but it ultimately did not matter as Mason cashed in a game-winning elbow jumper with 1.8 seconds remaining, the last of his 17 second-half points. Beating Duke in any environment is a big deal, but this victory should yield some real dividends come March if the Blue Devils play to their lofty expectations once healthy.
  2. Entering the season, one of the key questions for Baylor aside from point guard play was how the Bears would account for the loss of Rico Gathers. It’s a remarkably small sample size, but through two games including a top-five opponent in Oregon, Jo Lual-Acuil has answered the bell, averaging 15.0 rebounds and 7.2 blocks per 40 minutes  in the young season. The junior will be challenged next week when the Bears head to the Bahamas and again in December when they host Xavier, so stiffer competition should give way to a more confident read on Lual-Acuil, but in the meantime, he’s been one of the big surprises around the conference.
  3. Switching gears from a surprise to a known quantity, how great is it to have Oklahoma State‘s Phil Forte back? I suppose you could ask head coach Brad Underwood, but he was still working for Stephen F. Austin when the senior suffered a shoulder injury last November. He’s probably grateful nonetheless. The Big 12’s new elder statesman has stormed out of the gates, averaging 27.0 points per game and converting each of his first 17 attempts at the free throw line. The Cowboys are still looking for answers inside, but Forte and Jawun Evans (28.5 PPG, 5.5 APG, 4.0 SPG) are showing why they should be mentioned among the conference’s best perimeter tandems.
  4. I’ve thought a little more about Kansas State‘s lax non-conference schedule, and while I still think it has a chance to backfire, it’s worth mentioning the potential benefits as well. Given that Wesley Iwundu and D.J. Johnson are the team’s only scholarship upperclassmen who have been with the program all four years, there’s a big drop-off to the younger core of sophomores Dean WadeBarry BrownKamau Stokes and freshman Xavier Sneed. This isn’t the most analytical viewpoint, but building confidence matters for a relatively young team, especially when its league schedule starts with a road game at Kansas sandwiched between home games against Oklahoma and West Virginia. Steamrolling the likes of Hampton, Robert Morris and Boston College wouldn’t lead anyone to picking the Wildcats to win at Allen Fieldhouse, but it can be helpful in the overall scheme with the league being deeper than it usually is. While I’d be remiss if I didn’t think there was at least a sliver of self-preservation by head coach Bruce Weber at play here as well, the general approach makes sense for a team looking to build some experience and confidence during the non-conference slate.
  5. Texas Tech will be shorthanded for a while as the school revealed over the weekend that big man Norense Odiase broke a bone in his left foot. While the Red Raiders have started 2-0 in spite of Odiase’s absence, it’s still a tough blow since he missed 12 games just last season with a similar injury to his other foot. For what it’s worth, Chris Beard doesn’t anticipate Odiase missing as much time as he did last season, which would be nice. The Red Raiders don’t have much time to adjust, though, with Auburn and a potential game against Purdue’s twin towers looming in next week’s Cancun Challenge.
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