Four Storylines Heading into the Big 12 Tournament

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 8th, 2017

While the Big 12 figures to take a step back from 2016 in terms of NCAA Tournament participation, the league has once again enjoyed a stellar season. You could certainly look at Kansas winning the regular season championship by four games and conclude that it wasn’t all that great, but a look under the hood reveals a different stance. Of the 90 league games that were played this season, 43 were decided by five points or fewer (or in overtime) and just two were decided by 20 points or more. Although the majority of the league’s NCAA Tournament fates are already sealed, we should be in for more several more exciting finishes over the next four days. Here are the four biggest storylines worth following this week in Kansas City.

Frank Mason takes his POY campaign to Kansas City for the Big 12 Tournament (Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images)

  1. Kansas State has everything to play for. After losing eight of 10 games, the Wildcats rejoined the bubble conversation by closing its regular season with victories in must-win games against TCU and Texas Tech. Bruce Weber also appears to have received a temporary reprieve from the hot seat with athletic director John Currie stepping down, so things are trending in the right direction in Manhattan. A win over Baylor in Thursday’s quarterfinals should remove any lingering doubts over an NCAA Tournament bid, and senior D.J. Johnson is the most important piece of that puzzle. The injury-prone big man was healthy and, more importantly, productive in the team’s regular season finale, scoring 19 points on an efficient 8-of-11 shooting against the Red Raiders. He also helped contain standout Bears forward Johnathan Motley to 6-of-17 shooting in the Wildcats’ win over Baylor in early February.
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What Makes #13 Different For Kansas

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 23rd, 2017

Kansas‘ 13th consecutive regular season Big 12 title became a formality after its comeback win over Baylor last weekend, but it’s felt like an inevitability in practical terms since February 4 when the Jayhawks’ closest challengers failed to capitalize on a rare loss at Allen Fieldhouse. That doesn’t make The Streak (TM) any less impressive, however. In fact, this season’s run to the regular season title — a share of which was clinched in Wednesday’s 87-68 win over TCU — represents Bill Self‘s best coaching job since taking the reins at Kansas in 2003. Here are three reasons why.

Josh Jackson and Kansas battled challenged both internal and external on its way to a record-tying 13th consecutive regular season Big 12 title. (Orlin Wagner/AP Photo)

  • Conference Strength – The Big 12 has been the nation’s best conference for several years now, but it’s never been as deep as this year even if it only sends six teams to the NCAA Tournament this time. The residents of the conference’s cellar help tell the story, too. Oklahoma at 3-12 is the worst team in the league, but the Sooners still rank among KenPom’s top 75 with a resume that includes a win at West Virginia and close losses to Baylor, Oklahoma State (twice), TCU and Wichita State. All five of those opponents are either safe bets to make the NCAA Tournament or right on the periphery, which goes to show that the also-rans of the other power leagues simply can’t compare. With just two league losses to date, Kansas leads the Big 12 by three games and could add even more padding before the regular season ends.

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Kansas’ Kryptonite: Five Teams That Can Cause Problems for the Jayhawks

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 16th, 2017

Monday night’s memorable comeback win over West Virginia effectively sealed Kansas’ record-tying 13th straight Big 12 title — if not mathematically, then symbolically. Yes, Baylor could topple the Jayhawks on Saturday in Waco to pull within a single game in the standings with two weeks left, but the Bears also must face the same Mountaineers team that steamrolled them last month and travel to Hilton Coliseum. Even if Baylor were to beat the odds and win out, Kansas’ finale in Stillwater represents the only other remaining game it could foreseeably lose, as its other three match-ups are home tilts against TCU and Oklahoma and a road game against Texas. And even if the improbable occurs and Kansas drops its final game along with Baylor winning its last five, the Jayhawks would still be in possession of a share of the conference title. So while the confetti may not officially fly in Lawrence for a couple more weeks, the gameday crew can start stocking up on cannons and CO2 without much apprehension. As far as March is concerned, Kansas’ status as the champion of the nation’s toughest conference may cement its standing as a #1 seed no matter what happens at the Big 12 Tournament.

Devonte’ Graham and the Jayhawks are on the cusp of yet another Big 12 title. (AP Photo)

We know that Kansas has a National Championship ceiling because it boasts three-point shooters all over the floor, one of the game’s best coaches, a one-and-done wing who is becoming more impressive by the day, and a penchant for closing out tight games in preparation for single-elimination basketball. On the other hand, though, those close games have revealed some weaknesses that opponents can exploit to send the Jayhawks home early. With their fate as a top-two NCAA Tournament seed all but assured, it’s not too early to look around the rest of the field and identify a handful of teams that could give Kansas some serious headaches when the brackets are revealed 24 days from today.

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Kansas’ New-Look Defense Faces Biggest Test Yet

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 1st, 2017

Last Saturday, more than three million people tuned in to watch Kansas beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena, marking just the Wildcats’ third non-conference home loss in the John Calipari era. Bill Self‘s team completed the upset in part because it rolled up 52 second-half points, but also because it adequately defended the post thanks to a a mixture of zone looks limiting Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo to a mere 10 points while committing four turnovers –despite Carlton Bragg‘s suspension. While it would be silly to expect the Jayhawks to exclusively use zone defenses moving forward, Self’s thin rotation makes it reasonable to think it will continue to incorporate them to varying degrees, particularly against teams with legitimate post scorers. With Kansas ready to face one of the most versatile big men in the country tonight in Baylor‘s Johnathan Motley, we should get a litmus test of just how far the Jayhawks are willing to go to limit their opponents inside.

Kansas escaped Rupp Arena with a win, but Johnathan Motley presents a unique challenge tonight in Lawrence. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Motley’s ability to confidently operate in the mid-range as well as down low separates him from Adebayo and, for that matter, nearly every big man in college basketball. Per hoop-math.com, Motley has converted a steady 67.4 percent of his shots at the rim this season, but just 37 percent of his field goal attempts are considered close looks (compared to 67.3 percent for Adebayo). Farther from the hoop, Motley’s accuracy on two-point jumpers is an impressive 43 percent, and he attempts those more than half the time (55.2 percent FGA). Additionally, Motley’s 14.3 percent offensive rebounding rate ranks second in the conference, which means that Kansas’ zone will be even more vulnerable to putbacks than it would be against an average Big 12 team. Add it all up and you have a big dilemma for the Jayhawk defense: Collapse on Motley when the ball enters the post and become susceptible to backdoor cuts and clean looks from deep, or take your chances with Josh JacksonLanden Lucas or Dwight Coleby guarding Motley one-on-one and risk foul trouble and second-chance buckets?

With Kansas’ frontcourt rotation so depleted, there’s no easy answer for the Jayhawks to handle a zone-buster like Motley. To keep control of the Big 12 race, Kansas may have to simply outscore its shortcomings the way it has since losing Udoka Azubuike to a season-ending wrist injury. Self’s team will also have home court and history on its side, as Baylor has never won at Allen Fieldhouse and has especially struggled in recent years, losing its last five meetings in Lawrence by an average of 16.6 points per game. But if any one player can expose the Jayhawks’ lack of depth down low, it’s Motley.

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Big 12 Power Rankings: It’s Happening Again Edition

Posted by Big 12 Team on January 20th, 2017

Kansas had a big night on Wednesday and the Jayhawks didn’t even play. Despite being favored by 17 points, West Virginia lost in stunning fashion to Oklahoma, done in by a few clutch plays from Jordan Woodard. The loss dropped the Mountaineers two games behind the Jayhawks in the Big 12 standings, and with Kansas set to play Texas at home on Saturday while West Virginia travels to Kansas State, the deficit could grow even deeper before the pair square off in Morgantown on Tuesday. Whether they beat the Wildcats or not, West Virginia could theoretically climb back into the race by notching wins against its peers in the upper third of the conference, but Wednesday’s loss underscores the importance of winning at home when it comes to contending for the Big 12 title. For now, the focus shifts back to Baylor, which is set to take on a tough TCU team in Fort Worth this weekend. The Bears will be favored, but not by more than a few points, which means the wheels could be in motion for Kansas to create some serious distance in its pursuit of consecutive regular season title #13. With comments on each team are Big 12 microsite writers Drew Andrews, Justin Fedich, Brian Goodman, Nate Kotisso, and Chris Stone.

1. Kansas: “The Jayhawks are unblemished in league play because they’re one of the best teams in America. They’re led by a National Player of the Year candidate, they have a likely one-and-done lottery pick who is asked to do a lot, but not too much, and they’re coached by one of the best in the profession. It’s tough to beat that combination. But another reason why Kansas is currently 6-0 in league play is because they’ve had the league’s second-easiest conference schedule to this point. That’s about to change very soon, however. After Saturday’s game against Texas, the Jayhawks travel to Morgantown, take a break from Big 12 play by playing Kentucky at Rupp Arena, then resume conference action with home games against Baylor and Iowa State. This team will ultimately be defined by what it does in March, but if they beat the odds to make it through the rest of January unscathed, it may be time to start thinking about this season as one of Bill Self‘s best ever.” -Brian Goodman

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Big 12 Power Rankings: We Can See Clearly Now Edition

Posted by Big 12 Team on January 13th, 2017

With four games of conference action now in the books, we have good clarity on the league’s pecking order. The unblemished Jayhawks maintain their perch at the top of the standings, followed by West Virginia after its demolition of Baylor in front of a national audience. The middle is typically where things get jumbled, but Iowa State’s 3-1 start and Texas Tech’s head-to-head win over Kansas State this week made #4-#6 a fairly easy call. Rounding out the list of NCAA Tournament-caliber teams is TCU, followed by a trio of teams with just one combined win between them. Below is how our five Big 12 microsite writers — Drew Andrews, Justin Fedich, Brian Goodman, Nate Kotisso, and Chris Stone — see the conference stacking up entering the weekend.

  1. Kansas – “Roughly halfway through the regular season, Frank Mason is shooting better on three-pointers (54.9%) than he is on two-pointers (52.3%). Combine that staggering level of shooting efficiency with his flair for the dramatic against Duke and Oklahoma (not to mention his team’s status as the likely #1 team in America on Monday afternoon) and you have a recipe for a first-team All-American. Mason will have two chances to add to his legend when he goes toe-to-toe with Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans and Iowa State’s Monte’ Morris over the next few days.” -Brian Goodman Read the rest of this entry »
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Quick Reactions to Tuesday Night’s Big 12 Action

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 11th, 2017

With college football season officially in the books, hoops took the baton last night with five of the Big 12’s best teams on display. Though only one contest came down to the last few minutes, there were several key takeaways from Tuesday’s three league battles. Here’s what we learned.

Jevon Carter put an early end to Baylor’s reign as the #1 team in America. (Ben Queen/USA Today Sports)

  • The battle for second place is officially on. It’s worth noting that top-ranked Baylor entered last night’s game against West Virginia as a six-point underdog, but the Bears were woefully unprepared for the Mountaineers’ press, turning the ball over on 35.7 percent of their possessions en route to their first loss of the season. Baylor’s resume still shows a tremendous set of wins, but the one thing Scott Drew‘s team lacks — and West Virginia does not — is a true road win against an NCAA Tournament-caliber team. In dominating the nation’s #1 team from start to finish, the Mountaineers effectively neutralized their close loss against a Texas Tech team that may end up on the bubble. Nathan Adrian and the rest of “Press Virginia” have a good chance to keep things rolling over the next week with upcoming games against the league’s two worst teams in Texas and Oklahoma, which is about as much of a breather as it gets in this conference.
  • These aren’t (exactly) last year’s Mountaineers. In the first two seasons of Bob Huggins‘ retooled running and pressing system, the Mountaineers paid a price for their intense defense by finishing dead last nationally in defensive free throw rate. Year Three of the experiment has revealed a slightly different story, as the Mountaineers rank a more respectable 273rd (40.5%) this time around. There’s a natural ceiling to how much a team can limit fouls while playing such aggressive defense, but West Virginia may be finding it. The team’s depth is still an asset that can prevent foul trouble from becoming an issue, but it always helps to be able to keep guys like Adrian, Esa Ahmad and Tarik Phillip on the floor as much as possible. Another area where the Mountaineers have improved is in three-point shooting, burying 36.7 percent of their attempts from distance — up from 32.5 percent last season, and 31.6 percent in 2014-15. While West Virginia will continue to rely heavily on points in transition, the long ball gives them a weapon on night when they either don’t generate turnovers or when a considerable ratio of the turnovers are of the dead-ball variety.

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Who is the Big 12’s Fourth-Best Team?

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 5th, 2017

It didn’t take long for the Big 12 hierarchy to crystallize, at least at the top of the standings. Kansas took the early driver’s seat, as expected, and despite a few noticeable flaws that could ultimately snap The Streak if left uncorrected, the Jayhawks are still the team to beat. Just a notch under them, Baylor and West Virginia are both capable of chasing down the Jayhawks, but no other teams are in that camp. Below the Bears and Mountaineers but above Oklahoma State, Texas and Oklahoma is the murky middle, where the differences between teams at the top and bottom of this tier is tough to discern and could come down to a mere handful of possessions, if the first week of conference action is any indication. With two league games under each team’s belt, here’s how the race for fourth place in the Big 12 is shaping up.

Kansas State center Dean Wade gives the Wildcats an early edge on the middle of the Big 12 pack. (Statesman.com)

Kansas State center Dean Wade gives the Wildcats an early edge on the middle of the Big 12 pack. (Statesman.com)

  • Kansas State — Lost in the aftermath of all the traveling jokes and memes from Tuesday night’s game against Kansas is that the Wildcats came up with a truly impressive offensive performance. Bruce Weber’s team posted 1.22 points per trip at The Phog, marking one of the best outputs by a Jayhawk opponent in recent years. The Wildcats appear to be gelling, but one reason why the last couple seasons in Manhattan have been so disappointing is because they’ve had a tendency to play inspired ball in marquee games only to go flat in subsequent efforts, so consistency will be a key. Still, judging solely from the first six weeks of the season, nothing from this team’s resume suggests that Kansas State isn’t capable of pulling it off. Fourth-place probability: 40%.

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A Handy Preview of Big 12 Opening Friday

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 30th, 2016

Thought to be headed for a down year, the Big 12 opened the 2016-17 campaign by notching several high-profile victories in neutral-site events across the country and in the Bahamas. With a handful of exceptions, it’s been quiet since as teams have taken advantage of buy-game opponents to firm up their rotations and find their identities. Activity slowed even more over the Christmas weekend, but the season is finally back from its slumber with the first full slate of conference match-ups tipping off today. Here’s a breakdown of the five best angles and storylines to follow as you settle in for the New Year’s Eve-Eve Big 12 feast.

Jawun Evans and Oklahoma State have a chance to make a statement against #11 WVU. (Alonzo Adams/USA TODAY Sports)

Jawun Evans and Oklahoma State have a chance to make an early statement in Big 12 play against #11 West Virginia. (Alonzo Adams/USA TODAY Sports)

  • West Virginia at Oklahoma State (4:00 ET, ESPN2) – In this afternoon’s opener, Bob Huggins gets a chance to exact revenge on former assistant Brad Underwood after the latter’s Lumberjacks bounced the Mountaineers from last season’s NCAA Tournament. West Virginia and Oklahoma State both feature aggressive defenses, with Press Virginia still thriving and Underwood installing more of a half-court press-and-trap look. Both teams rank among the top five nationally in offensive rebounding and in the bottom 50 in defensive rebounding, so the team that makes the most of its second chances could be the difference here.
  • Texas Tech at Iowa State (6:00 ET, ESPNEWS) – The Red Raider defense has shown an interesting indifference to the deep ball this season, ranking 345th in opponent three-point field goal attempt rate and allowing a greater percentage of their opponents’ scoring to come from beyond the arc than all but three other teams. It hasn’t cost 11-1 Texas Tech to this point, but that record came against the country’s third-easiest non-conference schedule, so take it with a grain of salt. While Iowa State doesn’t let it fly under Steve Prohm like it did under Fred Hoiberg, the experienced core of Monte’ MorrisDeonte Burton, Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas are all shooting 35 percent or better from beyond the arc. An improved showing on the perimeter defensively will be crucial if Texas Tech is to notch an impressive road win in Ames.

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Kansas Remains a Contender Even Without Udoka Azubuike

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 22nd, 2016

Kansas‘ transition to small-ball this season was a product of three primary factors: 1) the Jayhawks’ surplus of quality shooters and ball-handlers; 2) Josh Jackson‘s versatility; 3) a collection of big men who each brought something different to the table but none of whom possesses a well-rounded game. The Jayhawks have been getting by inside with centers Landen Lucas and Udoka Azubuike sharing the workload, but while a season-ending wrist injury to the freshman Azubuike is a clear setback, it doesn’t dispel Kansas’ status as a legitimate national title contender.

Kansas will miss Udoka Azubuike, but the Jayhawks' championship aspirations remain intact. (Michael Reaves/Getty)

Kansas will miss Udoka Azubuike, but the Jayhawks’ championship aspirations remain intact. (Michael Reaves/Getty)

For all of Azubuike’s upside as a five-star recruit with an NBA-ready body, he’ll end this season averaging a fairly modest 5.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in just under 13 minutes per game. That’s not to say that he’s been a disappointment in his first season, or that Kansas won’t drop a game or two that it otherwise wouldn’t have, but it is to say that a team as talented and efficient as Kansas can replace his level of production. Recall that in the preseason, Azubuike wasn’t projected to play a major role this season, but it didn’t stop many in the national media from tabbing the Jayhawks to win the national title. Yes, Azubuike miss out on chances to develop in the throes of Big 12 play, and his presence in the pain will be missed against bigger teams like Baylor and West Virginia, but his rawness also made him prone to turnovers (26.6% TO), fouls (8.7 fouls per 40 minutes) and struggles at the stripe (38% FT).

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