Kansas’ Frontcourt Management Remains a Concern

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 30th, 2015

Last weekend’s win at Texas gave Kansas some daylight in the Big 12 standings, and, as I discussed on Monday, that little bit of separation may be all it needs to bring home an 11th straight Big 12 title. While the Jayhawks still have three games remaining against what are currently their two closest challengers (West Virginia and Iowa State), they are the clear favorite now that they have built a one-game lead. Expectations in Lawrence, however, don’t end with winning the conference; a deep run in the NCAA Tournament is part of the deal, too. Despite Kansas’ talented rotation and clear improvement over the last few weeks, there’s reason to be concerned with how Bill Self has handled his frontcourt and its ultimate impact on the Jayhawks’ long-term ceiling.

Bill Self (USA Today Images)

Bill Self’s Frontcourt Rotations Have Been Curious (USA Today Images)

That questionable management reared its ugly head in Wednesday’s 64-61 victory over TCU. The game started favorably for Kansas. Sensing a mismatch in the post, Kansas called Perry Ellis‘ number and the junior delivered on the team’s first two possessions, scoring the Jayhawks’ first five points. When Ellis quickly picked up two personal fouls within the game’s first two minutes, though, Self pulled his second-leading scorer and leading rebounder for the rest of the half. The move was confounding not only because Ellis entered the game averaging 16.3 points per contest over his last three outings, but also because he’s been by far the least foul-prone of Kansas’ four regular big men this season, according to KenPom’s data.

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Steady Improvement Puts Kansas in Big 12 Driver’s Seat Again

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 26th, 2015

For all the chaos and cannibalization taking place in the Big 12 this season, the top of the conference sure is in a familiar state after three weeks of play. With a 75-62 win that was as complete a performance as we’ve seen from Kansas all year long — and timed with Texas Tech’s upset of Iowa State — the Jayhawks on Saturday swung the odds of an 11th straight Big 12 title solidly back to their side. Bill Self’s teams always seem to make a significant leap around the holiday break, and this year’s group appears no different. In fact, you could take it one step further and argue that the Jayhawks have noticeably improved just in the last week since losing to Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum.

Cliff Alexander and the Jayhawks are ahead of the pack after a big win in Austin and some help from Texas Tech. (KUSports.com/Nick Krug)

Cliff Alexander and the Jayhawks are ahead of the pack after a big win in Austin and some help from Texas Tech. (KUSports.com/Nick Krug)

After getting benched for a lack of hustle, Cliff Alexander has burst forward with activity, averaging 14 points and 11 rebounds per game in last week’s outings on his way to Big 12 Newcomer Of The Week honors. He still doesn’t have much of a post arsenal, but he makes up for it with outstanding strength and athleticism. In Austin, he got the best of fellow blue-chipper Myles Turner, outworking him for rebounds and slipping by him for close looks. Alexander’s motor was on display on one defensive trip in particular, when he successfully keeping Turner out of the low post, making the big freshman receive the ball just off the elbow and forcing a bad shot.

Alexander’s frontcourt teammate, Perry Ellis, is also coming back around. Ellis had been benched two weeks ago after committing four early turnovers against Oklahoma State, exacerbating the limitations that made him a target of criticism both to Kansas fans and more objective observers. In the three games since, he’s averaged 16.3 points and eight rebounds per contest with just three total turnovers. Ellis’ turnaround has come predominantly from getting the ball in better spots and improved execution in his footwork near the basket. He may not be the classic Kansas power forward who can back down his man from 15 feet in, but his face-up game over the last two weeks has been effective enough to maintain his status as a weapon.

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Big 12 Saturday Preview

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 24th, 2015

This weekend’s slate of Big 12 action isn’t quite as loaded as last week’s in terms of games expected to have a significant impact on the league race, but with the conference being arguably the best one in the country, that’s all relative. The biggest match-up on Saturday’s schedule features league favorite Kansas traveling to Austin to take on the Longhorns, who are looking to reassert themselves in the conference race. 

Oklahoma State at Kansas State (12:00 EST) – The 3-3 Cowboys have a win over Texas in their back pocket, but on the whole, their resume isn’t particularly impressive. If the NCAA Tournament started today, they would almost certainly be in, but a rough go of it on the road has prevented Travis Ford’s team from compiling a stronger case for seeding. They’ll look to reverse their fortunes when they shoot for just their second true road win of the season (the first being a convincing victory over a mediocre Memphis team) with an early afternoon tilt in Manhattan. The Wildcats, meanwhile, are still trying to prove their worth as a potential NCAA Tournament team, and a big component of that equation is holding serve on their home court against competitive teams. The battle between Marcus Foster and Phil Forte should be a fun one, and whether Nino Williams (20 points per game in his last two contests) continues to emerge as a dependable complement to Foster could play a decisive role. Prediction: Kansas State 66, Oklahoma State 63.

Everyone is Waiting on Kansas State to Regress (USA Today Images)

Everyone is Waiting on Kansas State to Regress (USA Today Images)

TCU at West Virginia (2:00 EST) – It’s still crazy to believe that after missing the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons, the Mountaineers are just a few bounces away from 16-1. Their offense hasn’t been pretty, with sub-200 rankings in both two-point shooting and three-point shooting, but it’s still been one of the most effective units in the country thanks to an aversion to turnovers. Of course, there’s also West Virginia’s stifling pressure defense, which has created barrels of extra possessions for Bob Huggins’ team. They’ll look to speed up a TCU offense that is much more deliberate at 62 possessions per game, so the Horned Frogs will have very small margin of error as they try to get their second league win. Prediction: West Virginia 70, TCU 59.

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Four Key Takeaways From a Wild Night In Lawrence

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 20th, 2015

It was a tale of two halves last night in Lawrence, as Kansas hit nine first half threes to sprint out to a commanding 51-32 halftime lead against Oklahoma, only to watch it disappear as the Sooners stormed back to take a four-point lead before collapsing at the end. Let’s consider four key takeaways from a game of several crazy swings.

Kansas and Oklahoma Took It Hard at Each Other Last Night (USA Today Images)

Kansas and Oklahoma Took It Hard at Each Other Last Night (USA Today Images)

  • Fiery start fuels Kansas’ first halfKelly Oubre got things going by connecting on a pair of early threes and the Jayhawks refused to let up on their way to 51 first half points. Although Oklahoma remained close for the first five minutes, Kansas would register a 16-0 perimeter barrage with nearly everyone contributing. This team is built to fire away from deep, but Bill Self has tried in vain to establish an inside presence even though he doesn’t have a true back-to-the-basket big man (however, Cliff Alexander may be developing into one, as we’ll discuss separately below). While Kansas’ scorching first half is a statistical outlier, it underscores the fact that the Jayhawks are at their best when they utilize their outside shooting prowess.
  • Don’t overlook Buddy Hield in the Big 12 POY race: This conference is filled with scorers from Marcus Foster to Phil Forte to Georges Niang, but the Sooners’ Buddy Hield may be the best of the bunch. His 26 points were a game-high and he’s now shooting a superb 60.5 percent on twos in league action in spite of his 6’4″ frame, along with a 44 percent clip from deep in Big 12 play. Hield isn’t without his warts, though, as he tends to rush shots (especially in transition) and he could stand to share the ball a little more often with talented and effective teammates like Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler. Still, the junior is an undeniable star, as evidenced not only by his huge game in arguably the most intimidating environment in college basketball, but his play all season to date.

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Big 12 M5: 01.16.15 Edition

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 16th, 2015

morning5_big12

 

  1. C.J. Moore of Bleacher Report wrote a great in-depth profile of Iowa State junior Georges Niang centered on how the big man developed the handles and arsenal that have made him a leader for the Cyclones. The new, slimmed-down version of Niang has been even more productive than last year’s and has been the central figure of Iowa State’s efficient offense. It was especially interesting to learn that Royce White, Iowa State’s last “hybrid,” was the one who pushed hardest for Fred Hoiberg to recruit Niang, whose “old man” game will be tested tomorrow night against an improving Kansas defense.
  2. Travis Ford‘s lengthy contract has drawn ire in recent years, but after a 12-4 start and a top-30 placement in the RPI, he isn’t sweating his job security. The Cowboys may not be in position to climb into the race among Kansas, Iowa State and West Virginia, but they’re more of a factor than they were anticipated, and they arguably have a better team than last year despite having less talent. As Jenni Carlson writes, Ford is in the midst of perhaps his best coaching job since he arrived on campus, and a lot of it is due to improved chemistry and a heightened belief in the greater good, particularly with Brian Williams and Kamari Murphy having transferred out.
  3. Bill Self spoke candidly about the struggles of Perry Ellis, which came to a head Tuesday when the junior had four early turnovers, leading to a prompt benching. Self suspects that the problem for Ellis is mental, as he still believes Ellis can be the Jayhawks’ go-to guy. Observers may counter that Frank Mason and Cliff Alexander fit that role better right now, and I agree, but in either case, it’s tough to picture Kansas making a deep run in March without Ellis playing a big part.
  4. The Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 List was released Thursday, and it included three of the Big 12’s best: Juwan Staten of West Virginia, Buddy Hield of Oklahoma and the aforementioned Niang. Oddly enough, the two leading scorers in the Big 12, Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte, were omitted.  It will take big second halves for Staten, Hield and Niang to rise into the elite tier that currently includes Jahlil Okafor, Frank Kaminsky, Delon Wright and Justin Anderson (in my opinion), but it’s always nice to see them get some recognition.
  5. The contrasting personnel of the athletic, fast-paced Mountaineers and the bulky, lengthy Longhorns will make for an interesting battle in Austin tomorrow. Texas is off to a slow start in conference play, but while they’re still formidable, it would be tough to imagine them getting back into the conference race with Kansas and Iowa State with a loss, which would run their conference record to 1-3. Isaiah Taylor has played a few games for Texas since coming back from a wrist injury, but his return hasn’t ignited the team as it was expected. On the other side of the ball, West Virginia will try to speed up Texas’ tempo with constant pressure, hoping that it will be another game before Taylor breaks out again.
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Silver Lining: Despite Loss, Iowa State Breaks Out of Offensive Funk

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 15th, 2015

The first two weeks of Big 12 play have given us no shortage of storylines: Kansas’ maturation; Marcus Foster’s benching; Oklahoma State possibly being better without Marcus Smart and Markel Brown; West Virginia’s reinvention; Oklahoma’s quantum leap on defense; and Texas’ early rut are getting most of the attention nationally. But there’s one plot line that, for whatever reason, wasn’t getting as much publicity over the first two week’s of January. Iowa State‘s offense, typically a paragon of innovation and efficiency, was struggling entering last night’s game against Baylor. While the Cyclones had found ways to win close games against Oklahoma State and West Virginia, they were doing so with uncharacteristically disappointing offensive production. In its previous three games against South Carolina, Oklahoma State and West Virginia, Iowa State scored 0.82, 0.94 and 1.03 points per possession, respectively. To put that in perspective, the last time Fred Hoiberg’s group failed to score at least 1.04 points per trip in three straight games was in 2011, when he inherited a team with few viable pieces and finished in last place. As last night’s game got underway in Waco, it looked like the hole would only get deeper.

The Cyclones may have come up short on Wednesday, but the vaunted Iowa State offense could be back in gear at just the right time after a three-game slump. (AP/Tony Gutierrez)

The Cyclones may have come up short on Wednesday, but the vaunted Iowa State offense could be back in gear at just the right time after a three-game slump. (AP/Tony Gutierrez)

Baylor started the game on a 22-5 run, as four different Bears connected on three-pointers and the Cyclones couldn’t get anything going. They finally started to dig out, though, closing the gap on the shoulders of their three transfers – Jameel McKay, Bryce Dejean-Jones and Abdel Nader – before another Baylor run provided some separation entering halftime. That separation would hold until midway through the second half, when Baylor’s Kenny Chery had to leave the game with a shoulder injury.

Chery’s exit gave Iowa State the opening it needed, as Georges Niang finally got going and sharpshooter Naz Long went on a tear while the Bears cooled off. The Cyclones clawed all the way back to take the lead on two separate occasions before Chery returned to the game and hit a game-winning jumper that allowed Baylor to escape with the win, but there’s a silver lining for Iowa State.

The Cyclones’ offense seems to finally be off the schneid, and the fact that they were able to dig out of that slump, even in a losing effort, should give them some confidence moving forward. In a loaded Big 12, they will certainly need that confidence and rediscovered efficiency when they take on Kansas at Hilton Coliseum on Saturday night. The frenzied competitiveness of the league this season means that it would be silly to describe one game in mid-January as having the biggest implications on the race for the league title, but with College Gameday in town and tickets starting at a small fortune, it’s definitely going to be among the most anticipated games of the weekend.

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Big 12 M5: 01.14.15 Edition

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 14th, 2015

morning5_big12

  1. Kansas beat Oklahoma State last night in a messy, foul-plagued affair in Allen Fieldhouse, running its conference record to a clean 3-0. The Cowboys started off fast, but a scuffle between the two teams injected some fire into the game, and while not all of Oklahoma State’s struggles can be traced back to the incident, they didn’t look the same for the remainder of the night. The Cowboys came into the game ranked ninth in the country in defensive free throw rate, but sent the Jayhawks parading to the free throw line 46 times. On defense, the key for Kansas was shuffling their defensive assignment on Phil Forte so frequently that he had to be subbed out twice due to cramps from running through so many screens against fresh legs in hopes of getting open looks. For Kansas, the win sets up a huge meeting with Iowa State on Saturday at Hilton Coliseum, an environment the Jayhawks have found anything but comfortable in recent years.
  2. While Kansas has been able to win in spite of it, Perry Ellis‘ disappointing performance this season has been the elephant in the room. The junior played well enough last year to earn a spot on the preseason All-Big 12 team, and while he’s had his moments, he hasn’t made the leap on either end of the court. He’s regressed on defense and his inconsistent shooting has been frustrating to the point where it now sticks out among his peers. Of the six forwards and centers from the 2012 McDonald’s All-American class who are still in college and not sitting out the season with injuries, Ellis ranks dead last in effective field goal percentage at 44.2 percent. The next-closest player is Texas’ Cameron Ridley at 52.4 percent. As with all stats, you have to consider the context, which in this case includes Kansas’ tough non-league schedule, their hyper-competitive conference and the absence of a consistent big man who can draw enough defense away from Ellis to allow him to operate. It’s also fair to point out that the Jayhawks would have more than two losses without Ellis, but the fact remains that he’s looked lost way more than he should for someone with as much experience as he has (Tuesday marked his 53rd career start). As someone who was rightfully expected to help lead the Jayhawks to their 11th straight conference title, there’s still time for Ellis to right the ship — he plays in the same program that developed the Morris twins and Thomas Robinson into first round draft picks, after all — but his production to this point has been very disconcerting.
  3. West Virginia used its unique brand of havoc to give Oklahoma their second straight loss as they hammered the Sooners by 21 points in Morgantown. The Mountaineers sped the Sooners’ offense up, forcing 22 turnovers, which is the one more than the number of shots Oklahoma made from the field. The win gives West Virginia by far its best victory of the season, and with their next four games coming against Texas, TCU, Kansas State and Texas Tech, they have a great opportunity to string even more wins together to keep pace at the top of the conference. What should scare those four teams the most is that the Mountaineers only got four points from Juwan Staten last night, though he did dish out eight assists against just one turnover.
  4. While they weren’t in action last night, it’s worth taking a deeper look at Kansas State‘s chances to get back to the NCAA Tournament. While they still don’t look very good in a vacuum, the relative lack of opportunities for the teams they’ll likely be compared to by the selection committee could give them an edge. A .500 trip through conference play, provided the Wildcats don’t get stung by TCU and Texas Tech (they’ve already taken care of TCU once), could be enough to put them in position to only need a single win in the Big 12 Tournament. Obviously, there’s plenty of room for improvement and we’re still eight weeks away from Selection Sunday, but whether the Wildcats make up the grounded needed to get back to the dance will be an interesting storyline.
  5. Iowa State faces an important game on the road against Baylor tonight, and while the Cyclones will have their hands full with the Bears’ overpowering interior, the lack of a traditional backup point guard could give them some trouble as well. As Travis Hines writes, Monte Morris has had to shoulder a big workload this year, and head coach Fred Hoiberg hasn’t been comfortable putting Clayton Custer into pressure situations. Until that changes, look for Georges Niang to continue to initiate offense when Morris needs to take a breather , but the emergence of another option to help conserve his minutes would serve the Cyclones well in the long term.
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Big 12 M5: 01.12.15 Edition

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 12th, 2015

morning5_big12

  1. Saturday marked the first of what will be many wild weekends in the Big 12, as home teams actually had a losing record (2-3) in the day’s five match-ups. Perhaps the most interesting development about the conference so far is that with Texas and Oklahoma both suffering surprising losses, we may already be moving onto Iowa State as the team with the best chance to end Kansas’ stranglehold on the league (at least for now), as the Cyclones are already the only other undefeated team left in conference play. The frenetic movement near the top of the conference speaks to just how competitive it is and how important it will be for the contenders to beat the teams they’re supposed to beat in order to keep pace.
  2. We started off talking about the race to join Kansas at the top because the Jayhawks are unblemished through the first week of Big 12 play, and they could be getting even better. Bill Self’s team dismantled Texas Tech 86-54, and the most important takeaway was the return of Devonte’ Graham. The freshman isn’t fully healed from the toe injury that sidelined him for the previous month, but it was easy to see how much pressure his return took off the shoulders of Frank Mason, who Self could rarely afford to rest during the Jayhawks’ most competitive games. While the Red Raiders were hardly a threat on Saturday, a healthy Graham will allow Kansas do some things on both sides of the ball that they didn’t have the flexibility to do over the last few weeks.
  3. On Friday, I mentioned that Kansas State needed to start stringing together some quality wins to get back in the hunt for an at-large bid, and lo and behold, they knocked off Oklahoma in Norman thanks to a pair of clutch shots by Marcus Foster. In addition to the sophomore’s heroics, the Wildcats got the kind of rebounding performance and ball control that earned them a share of the 2013 conference title, and they received the contributions from Stephen Hurt (15 points and eight rebounds) and Justin Edwards (nine points, nine rebounds and two blocks) that Bruce Weber was counting on when he brought them to Manhattan. The Wildcats are 2-1 in league play with four of their next five games coming at home, which is about as big a break as a team can catch in a conference this deep. Kansas State has their work cut out for them, but don’t write them off just yet.
  4. For the second straight game, the story of Iowa State was its bench. Abdel Nader had a career night against West Virginia’s high-pressure attack, leading his team with 19 points to go with seven rebounds. The Cyclones’ usual contributors were riddled by foul trouble, which, combined with the game’s fast pace, created an opportunity for Nader to come in and make an impact. As a team, Iowa State still isn’t where they should be offensively, but to their credit, they’ve won a pair of close games despite that shortcoming. Still, with games at Baylor and a huge Hilton Coliseum tilt against Kansas this week, they need to get back to where we’re used to seeing them.
  5. Texas’ offensive struggles continued as they shot just 35 percent on twos in a 69-58 loss at Oklahoma State. The Longhorns just never got into a rhythm and were flustered by the Cowboys’ 52.9 percent performance from beyond the arc. Jonathan Holmes has looked uncharacteristically lost over the last few outings, and Isaiah Taylor had a rough day as well. If there’s any solace Longhorns fans can take, it’s that Myles Turner finally looked like he belonged against a legit opponent. The blue-chip freshman put up 18 points, including a perfect 4-of-4 mark from distance and swatted five shots. A 1-2 mark in conference play isn’t the death knell that it’s been in previous years, but suddenly, Texas’ resume isn’t looking so hot for a team once considered to be among the nation’s best.
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Big 12 Weekend Look-Ahead

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 9th, 2015

It’s a full Saturday in the Big 12 this weekend, with five games on the schedule spaced throughout the day. Let’s take a look at each, digging into what’s on the line during conference play’s second weekend.

  • Iowa State at West Virginia (8:00 ET) – The last time the Cyclones met the Mountaineers in Morgantown, an otherwise disappointing West Virginia team blew the doors off of Iowa State with a 25-point win. In the closing minutes, if you recall, Dustin Hogue let emotions get the best of him as he karate-kicked Nathan Adrian, causing former Mountaineer Eron Harris to respond by punching Monte’ Morris in the neck. This year, Bob Huggins’ team is fueled by a more controlled brand of chaos (not that scuffles like last year’s were regular occurrences), and it just so happens that Iowa State is in a mini-funk, having scored just 0.86 points per possession over its last two games. West Virginia has already brushed off Texas Tech and TCU, so this will mark the reinvented Mountaineers’ first game against a Big 12 team on their level both in overall effectiveness and pace. The best game of the day should make for a fun nightcap.
Bryce Dejean-Jones will try to dig Iowa State out of an offensive slump Saturday. (Cyclones.com)

Bryce Dejean-Jones will try to dig Iowa State out of an offensive slump Saturday. (Cyclones.com)

  • Texas at Oklahoma State (5:00 ET) – The Longhorns are talented and cohesive enough this season that Monday’s drubbing by Oklahoma should probably just be chalked up as a fluke, but it did underscore some questions about Rick Barnes’ roster. Isaiah Taylor is getting re-acclimated to the team (and vice versa) after returning from his wrist injury, and while the frontcourt is very deep it is also penetrable, at least until Myles Turner becomes a stronger defensive presence in the low post. I wrote in last week’s conference catch-up that Oklahoma State didn’t make much progress in its non-conference slate, but the Cowboys have since easily handled Kansas State at home and limited Iowa State’s offense at Hilton Coliseum (despite a loss). It’s therefore safe to stay that they’ve taken some steps in the right direction. Will they keep it up and notch what would be — to this point — their best win of the season? Tune in Saturday evening to find out.
  • Kansas State at Oklahoma (7:00 ET) – After a brief stay, Marcus Foster is out of Bruce Weber’s doghouse and it couldn’t come at a more important time. A win at Oklahoma, while impressive, wouldn’t undo all the harm the Wildcats have brought on themselves so far, but they need to get moving if they want to get back in the picture for an at-large bid. Wednesday’s win over TCU started a stretch when five of their next seven games will be played at home, so there will be plenty of opportunities to start making waves before desperation hits. Meanwhile, Oklahoma has clearly surged ahead of Texas as the top challenger to end Kansas’ reign of dominance with a decisive win over the Longhorns on Monday, so this is a game they should win decisively if they’re the dark horse Final Four contender some are claiming.

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Three Things to Watch in Tonight’s Kansas-Baylor Game

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 7th, 2015

It’s only the Big 12’s first full week of conference play, but without a runaway favorite and as many as six teams with hopes to win the conference, nearly every Big 12 game is going to have an impact. Tonight’s headliner pits Baylor against Kansas at the Ferrell Center in Waco. The Jayhawks were the last team to beat the Bears at home nearly a year ago (February 4, 2014), so Baylor is looking to avoid a repeat performance. In this preview, Brian Goodman breaks down the elements most likely to decide the outcome of tonight’s important battle.

Frank Mason leads the Jayhawks on the road, where they'll have to neutralize Baylor's advantage inside. (Denny Medley/USA Today)

Frank Mason leads the Jayhawks on the road, where they’ll have to neutralize Baylor’s advantage inside. (Denny Medley/USA Today)

  1. Kansas’ lineups and rotations. Over the last five games, the lineup of Frank Mason, Wayne Selden, Kelly Oubre, Perry Ellis and Cliff Alexander has been the Jayhawks’ most effective one, but it hasn’t been the one Bill Self has most frequently deployed. Rather, Self has preferred a lineup with Jamari Traylor taking Alexander’s place, despite being an average rebounder and mediocre finisher (shooting just 41.5 percent from the floor). Thanks to his athleticism, Traylor can be an effective energy guy in spurts, but the Jayhawks have been at their best with the more efficient Alexander manning the paint alongside Ellis. This was the case during Kansas’ game-finishing run to put UNLV away on Sunday.
  2. Baylor’s bruisers. It’s no surprise that the Bears rank fourth nationally in offensive rebounding rate, corralling 43.7 percent of their misses on the season. That consistency is due in large part to the effort of Rico Gathers, who grabbed 15 rebounds over 39 minutes in Baylor’s two meetings against Kansas last season, and makes it easy for Baylor to generate offense despite suspect interior shooting. The Jayhawks had trouble creating separation against UNLV’s athletic core of big men until the last 10 minutes of Sunday’s contest and will struggle to leave Waco with a win if Gathers and freshman Johnathan Motley deprive Alexander, Ellis and Traylor of those opportunities.
  3. The battle of perimeter attacks. Sharpshooter Brady Heslip isn’t around to haunt Big 12 teams anymore, but the Bears still have some serious long-range bombers on their roster. Scott Drew’s rotation currently features five players who shoot at least 34 percent or better from beyond the arc, led by a 53.8 percent clip from Taurean Prince, perhaps the conference’s most improved player. On the other end of the floor, Kansas’ shooters have been streaky. One of the main reasons why Frank Mason has been such a huge asset this season has been his 51.4 percent three-point shooting, forcing defenses to guard him and in turn opening passing lanes. Kelly Oubre‘s smooth shot (48.1%) has been effective as well, and after a disappointing start to the season, Wayne Selden has embraced his role as a shooter (36.7%) who will occasionally attack off the bounce. Despite all of that shooting firepower, one of the things keeping Kansas’ offense from higher productivity has been a relative team-wide passivity from distance. The Jayhawks are the best three-point shooting team in the conference at 39.2 percent, but they take only 29 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, a level of frequency that ranks a dispiriting ninth in the Big 12 (and 292nd in the country). It therefore stands to reason that Kansas would benefit from centering its offensive attack on perimeter shooting rather than depending on Ellis and Alexander to generate most of the offense inside.
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Big 12 Conference Catch-Up: Kansas, Texas and Iowa State

Posted by Brian Goodman & Chris Stone on January 2nd, 2015

As the Big 12 schools conclude their non-conference schedules, it’s a great time to catch up on where the league’s 10 teams stand entering conference play. Once again, Kansas has navigated an arduous schedule, but enough questions remain that we can at least consider the possibility that another team wins the conference. The Jayhawks’ closest challengers are a Texas team that has kept pace despite losing one of the best point guards in the country for an extended period of time, while Iowa State has another high-powered team with a newly-eligible big man who Cyclones fans hope will provide a needed lift on defense.

Kansas (via Chris Stone)

  • Key wins: at Georgetown, Utah (in Kansas City)
  • Key losses: Kentucky (in Indianapolis), at Temple
With two good outings recently, the game finally appears to be slowing down for Kelly Oubre, and that could be bad news for the rest of the Big 12. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

With two good outings recently, is the game finally slowing down for hyped Kansas freshman Kelly Oubre? (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

It’s very easy to watch Kansas’s blowout losses to Kentucky and Temple and write off the Jayhawks as a Big 12 title contender. To do so, however, would ignore the rest of their resume. Kansas has five wins over teams ranked in the top 50 of KenPom’s efficiency rankings; Only Kentucky can match that total. Sophomore Frank Mason is providing Bill Self with his best point guard play since Sherron Collins left Lawrence five years ago. Mason is averaging 11.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. Freshman Kelly Oubre is finally emerging as the potential lottery pick he was billed as before the season, having scored 20 points in two of the last three games. Still, those two losses linger. Kentucky dominated the Jayhawks in Indianapolis. Temple rocked Kansas at the Wells Fargo Center. The typical refrain surrounding Kansas has been to trust in Bill Self, the man who has won 10 straight conference titles, but Self is still tinkering with his starting lineup while trying to play through a frontcourt that has struggled to score inside. Kansas is shooting just 52.3 percent on shots at the rim, a number that is nearly 15 percent worse than last season’s mark, according to data from hoop-math.com. In particular, junior Perry Ellis has seen his shooting percentage decline by over 10 percent as he’s had a difficult time scoring against the size of teams like Kentucky, Georgetown, and Utah. The Jayhawks have their limitations and the losses to Kentucky and Temple showcased them. They’ve also had their triumphs that suggest an ability to compete for another Big 12 championship. Much depends on the consistency of Mason, the continued emergence of Oubre, and the play of bigs like Ellis and Cliff Alexander, but to write off Kansas is to also write off Self’s history and the quality of their non-conference resume. Big 12 coaches won’t make that mistake, and you shouldn’t, either.

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Big 12 Conference Catch-Up: Baylor and Oklahoma State

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 31st, 2014

We continue our breakdown of the Big 12 with the part of the league that will likely determine whether the conference matches its high water mark from last season, when it sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament. If you missed it yesterday, you can find our thoughts on the bottom rung of the conference here.

Baylor

  • Key wins: at South Carolina, vs. Memphis (in Las Vegas), at Vanderbilt
  • Key losses: vs. Illinois (in Las Vegas)
Rico Gathers leads a Baylor rotation that dominates the glass.

Rico Gathers leads a Baylor rotation that dominates the glass.

People love to hate on Scott Drew, but the dirty secret is that the Bears have been one of the country’s most consistent offenses, finishing among the top 20 in adjusted offense in six of the last seven seasons. They’re trending that way again this year, which is especially impressive when you recall that they lost over half of their offensive production due to the departures of Isaiah Austin, Brady Heslip and Cory Jefferson. The strange thing is that despite their performance so far, the Bears have not been a good shooting team, with an effective field goal percentage of just 50.7 percent, but they have the nation’s best offensive rebounder in Rico Gathers leading a core of strong, athletic players who are just relentless on the glass and get tons of second-chance opportunities. Throw in a stingy defense and four regulars that shoot at least 34 percent from deep and the result is a team that will be able to hang with the best teams in the conference.

I wrote earlier this month that it’d be wise to buy in on Baylor to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, and I still believe that, but there are a couple of things keeping the Bears from breaking into the top tier of the Big 12. Their free throw shooting has been horrific, and in a conference as competitive as the Big 12, I worry about that flaw impacting their ability to close out games. I also think that when the Bears get into conference play, their rebounding, while still strong, will regress some and force the team to get more creative on offense, which will be tough to do on the fly. I don’t think the Bears are as good as their #12 KenPom ranking suggests, but they’re definitely no slouch either.

The Bears haven’t made consecutive NCAA Tournaments at any point in their history and have been on an every-other-year pattern since 2008, but I like their chances to break that routine and go dancing as a #7 seed this year. Their ceiling will be closer to a #5 f they can shore up their free throw shooting and withstand the other rigorous frontcourts the Big 12 has to offer.

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