Big 12 Burning Questions: Oklahoma Sooners

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 3rd, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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Big 12 Burning Questions: Texas Tech Red Raiders

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 31st, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Big 12 Burning Questions: Kansas State Wildcats

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 26th, 2017

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

Will Bruce Weber escape the hot seat yet again?

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

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

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

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

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Big 12 Burning Questions: Iowa State Cyclones

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 24th, 2017

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

Will the new-look Cyclones gel in Steve Prohm’s first season without any holdovers from the Hoiberg era?

Iowa State’s 2017 graduating class of Monte’ Morris, Naz Mitrou-Long, Matt Thomas and Deonte Burton was one of the most decorated in program history. There weren’t any surefire NBA players in the bunch, but together, they helped former coach Fred Hoiberg revitalize the program and made it possible for successor Steve Prohm to maintain that success in his first two seasons. Now that core is gone and it’s time to see what Prohm can do with a roster composed completely of his own recruits. The Cyclones return just three scholarship players from last season’s rotation, and of the group, only big man Solomon Young started. The freshman was inserted into the lineup during the stretch run, with the Cyclones going 10-2 during that period — the only two losses coming against West Virginia in the regular season finale and against Purdue in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32. Of course, all of that success isn’t fully attributable to the insertion of Young into the starting lineup, but he was a clear upgrade from the pair of Merrill Holden and Darrell Bowie and should bring the same stability to this season’s rotation.

Steve Prohm will forge his own path after Iowa State graduated the last remaining players from the Hoiberg regime. (USATSI)

Senior guard Donovan Jackson didn’t play much at the point guard slot with the workhorse Morris standing in front of him, but he showed some intriguing offensive potential off the bench, especially in league play. Jackson played just 41.9 percent of the available minutes against Big 12 opponents, but his offensive rating (120.5), turnover rate (9.5%) and three-point shooting (44.5%) during those opportunities were top-notch. If this year’s Iowa State offense is to have any hope of matching its benchmark from the last few seasons, Jackson will have to increase his production with more playing time. The Cyclones’ other returning scholarship player is Nick Weiler-Babb, a wing whose role is still a bit hazy, but a player who possesses some versatility with an ability to make athletic plays and move the ball. Read the rest of this entry »

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Big 12 Burning Questions: Oklahoma State Cowboys

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 19th, 2017

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

Will Mike Boynton follow the recent trend of first-year Big 12 coaches fielding competitive teams?

In spite of some recent March slip-ups, the Big 12 maintains its reputation as the most competitive, if not the best, basketball conference in America. It routinely sends at least half of its membership to the Big Dance, propels a number of top-flight prospects to the NBA Draft, and contributes experienced players to postseason All-America teams on a regular basis. One byproduct of all that competitiveness that isn’t discussed as much is that for a conference so small relative to the rest of the Power 5, the Big 12 has witnessed a staggering amount of coaching turnover in the past few years.

Jeffrey Carroll will be one of the most dynamic scorers in the country, but the Cowboys will struggle to stay competitive in the cutthroat Big 12. (Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman)

Five Big 12 teams have made six head coaching changes since the start of the 2016 offseason, with a handful of that group achieving success with their new teams in relatively short order. Last season Brad Underwood led Oklahoma State to its first .500 conference record since 2013. Similarly, buoyed by a more committed TCU administration, Jamie Dixon led the Horned Frogs to as many league wins in 2017 (6) as they had notched in the last three seasons combined — riding that wave all the way to the NIT title. Going back another year, Steve Prohm led Iowa State to just its second Sweet Sixteen of the last 18 years in 2016. The Chris Beard and Shaka Smart eras at Texas Tech and Texas, respectively, have been works in progress, but both of their teams should be better this year. No one knows what the FBI’s investigation of the Oklahoma State program will bring, but at least until then, Mike Boynton will have a team to coach. Still, given what he has at his disposal, it will be tough for the new head coach in Stillwater to match the strong campaigns from some of the league’s recent first-year coaches.

First, Boynton has never been a head coach, cutting his teeth as an assistant for Frank Martin at South Carolina and Brad Underwood at Stephen F. Austin in addition to last year at Oklahoma State. Apparently not learning the lesson in allowing Illinois to snatch Underwood from the program last March, the administration went cheap on his replacement. Maybe athletic director Mike Holder knows something we don’t, but seeing as how Boynton had never been linked to a major head coaching job prior to his promotion, it’s fair to question his acumen (although it could have been worse — among Oklahoma State’s other candidates was also former assistant Lamont Evans, who was charged in last month’s NCAA corruption scandal and fired shortly thereafter).

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Big 12 Offseason Storylines to Follow

Posted by Brian Goodman on April 24th, 2017

The Big 12 had a decent but ultimately unimpressive showing in this year’s postseason. Of the league’s six NCAA Tournament teams, three advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, but only one advanced to the Elite Eight, and we all know what happened from there as Kansas flamed out to Jordan Bell and the Oregon Ducks. With the offseason now upon us and some time ahead to reflect, here are a few storylines worth following this summer and into the start of the 2017-18 season.

Frank Mason Takes His Hardware to the Next Level (USA Today Images)

  • How will Kansas retool? Frank Mason III leaves Lawrence as one of the most decorated players in program history. His wonderful four-year career won’t soon be forgotten, but it doesn’t change the fact that Kansas needs to figure out its point guard situation moving forward. Transfer Malik Newman can serve as the Jayhawks’ floor general in a pinch, but he’s more of a scoring guard than a facilitator and Bill Self has already said that he sees the redshirt sophomore manning the two. Barring a surprise commitment from elite point guard prospect Trevon Duval, the Jayhawks are looking at some combination of Devonte’ Graham and freshman Marcus Garrett handling the team’s ball-handling duties next season. Self also needs some frontcourt depth following the departures of Landen Lucas, Josh Jackson and Carlton Bragg, but the point guard position will be the most intriguing roster question as the Jayhawks begin their pursuit of a 14th consecutive regular season Big 12 title next fall.
  • A new era at Iowa State. Despite 47 wins and a Sweet Sixteen appearance in two seasons in Ames, Steve Prohm needs to show what he can do without the services of Monte’ Morris, Deonte Burton, Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas in the lineup. The job now becomes one of rebuilding for the Cyclone program, but there is somewhat of a foundation from which to work. Solomon Young, Donovan Jackson, transfer Ray Kasongo, Cameron Lard and highly-touted freshman Lindell Wigginton are interesting building blocks, but don’t appear to offer the ceiling of Hoiberg and Prohm’s best teams. The early going next season may be a little rocky as this group becomes accustomed to playing with each other, but a top-half finish in Big 12 play would be an admirable achievement. Fans should additionally keep an eye on Prohm’s pursuit of coveted JuCo forward Shakur Juiston.

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Big 12 Survival Guide: Keys to Each First Round Matchup

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 16th, 2017

Despite Oklahoma‘s Final Four run last season, the Big 12 continues to fight a public relations battle for reasons both earned and not when it comes to NCAA Tournament success. Kansas State‘s win over Wake Forest in Tuesday’s First Four started things off on a positive note, but the league still has plenty of work ahead. Here are the keys to each of the conference’s six games taking place over the next couple of days.

Frank Mason looks to end his career with a national title (Getty).

  • #1 Kansas – Show up. The Jayhawks have had plenty of rest over the last couple of weeks, so Friday’s game is about shaking off the rust. A handful of #15 and #16 seeds over the last decade have hung with Kansas for 20 or so minutes, but UC Davis wasn’t competitive in its only game against a Power 5 school this season — an 86-61 loss to California in November. Additionally, the Aggies have only won their last three games by a combined nine points, so they’ve beaten long odds to even get to this point. There’s no need to overthink this.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big 12 Teams

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 12th, 2017

The Big 12 will send six teams to the NCAA Tournament, down from seven in each of the last three seasons. Kansas State may have missed the cut if not for its win over Baylor on Thursday night, but the Wildcats took care of business and the committee rewarded them with a bid despite a soft non-conference schedule. In other relevant news, Kansas lost its grip on the #1 overall seed after its quarterfinal defeat to TCU, while Baylor slipped to a #3 seed due to a 5-6 stretch entering Selection Sunday. Below is a quick look at the Big 12’s lot, including best-case and worst-case scenarios for each team over the coming weeks.

Frank Mason gets one last shot to deliver a national title for Kansas. (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)

Kansas (#1 Midwest) – Bill Self‘s team opens on Friday against the winner of North Carolina Central and UC Davis. Assuming a win there, the Jayhawks will either face Miami (FL) or Michigan State, a familiar foe from the Champions Classic rotation.

  • Best Case: Powered by a deathly combination of hot three-point shooting, Josh Jackson‘s dynamic athleticism and Frank Mason‘s knack for closing games, the Jayhawks compartmentalize their off-court issues and cut down the nets in Glendale on April 3.
  • Worst Case: Foul trouble from Landen Lucas and a poor shooting night lead to the Jayhawks underperforming versus their seed for the fifth straight NCAA Tournament.

Baylor (#3 East) – Baylor’s sputtering finish definitely cost them. Not only did the Bears drop from a #2 to a #3 seed, but they received a very tough potential draw in the form of SMU in the second round. That match-up would neutralize (to some degree) the advantage the Bears gain by playing in nearby Tulsa.

  • Best Case: The Bears put the last two seasons of disappointing finishes in the rearview mirror, stifling offenses with their amoeba zone and riding Johnathan Motley‘s all-around game to the team’s third Elite Eight appearance under Scott Drew.
  • Worst Case: With Manu Lecomte compromised by ankle problems, Motley faces constant double-teams and the Bears once again fail to beat a double-digit seed in the opening round.

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Iowa State Riding High on Another Selection Sunday

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 12th, 2017

With just a few hours to go before the brackets are revealed, there are aren’t many programs around the country riding a bigger wave than Iowa StateSteve Prohm‘s team has elevated its play over the last several weeks and is clicking at precisely the right time, downing Oklahoma State, TCU and West Virginia in succession en route to its third Big 12 Tournament crown in four seasons. This isn’t the most talented Cyclones team since Fred Hoiberg resurrected the program, but it may be the most cohesive. Here are three key reasons why.

Iowa State has given its fans plenty to be excited about during their recent stretch of play. (Danny Medley/USA Today)

  • Veteran leadership: The is a cliche rooted in truth — the Cyclones’ core of Monte’ MorrisNaz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas comprise the winningest class in program history. Their run started as supporting players on the 2013-14 squad, the first Iowa State team to make the Sweet Sixteen since the Larry Eustachy era. Following their first-round NCAA Tournament loss to UAB a year later and Hoiberg’s subsequent departure to the NBA, a vocal subset of fans questioned the sustainability of the Iowa State program. While Prohm’s tenure hasn’t come without some speed bumps, his team is now in great position based on the combined strength and experience of his nucleus.

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Rushed Reactions: West Virginia 51, Kansas State 50

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 11th, 2017

RTC’s Brian Goodman (@BSGoodman) is providing on-site coverage of the Big 12 Tournament.

West Virginia Pulls Off the Comeback (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Offense was nowhere to be found in first-half slog. In their previous two meetings against the Mountaineers, Kansas State struggled to hold onto the ball, posting turnover rates above 20 percent. West Virginia’s press didn’t frustrate the Wildcats quite as much tonight, as Bob Huggins‘ team generated takeaways on just 18.3 percent of Kansas State’s possessions. Instead, it was poor half-court offense, inaccurate three-point shooting and a lack of offensive rebounds that set the Wildcats back early — scoring just 0.78 points per possession before halftime. Those struggles would have been a much bigger issue had West Virginia scored more than 0.50 points per trip itself.
  2. West Virginia’s defensive adjustment keys second-half rally. The Mountaineers’ defensive identity as a pressing team is firmly entrenched, but it’s tough to set it up if you don’t make shots. West Virginia shot an ice-cold 18.8 percent in the first half and failed to score a single point 0ff a Kansas State giveaway until the second half. Huggins switched things up down the stretch, deploying a 1-3-1 zone that worked all the way down to the final play, when Kamau Stokes picked up his dribble and had nowhere to go with his team needing a bucket to win. The Wildcats connected on just four shots over the final 13:26 of the game, buying just enough time for the Mountaineers to make up a 12-point deficit.
  3. Isaiah Maurice provides another big body. Two years into his career, Dean Wade is still mostly a one-way big man who struggles to defend similarly-sized players. D.J. Johnson can’t do it all down low, so Bruce Weber needs another option. Enter the unlikely Maurice, a redshirt freshman and former Old Dominion commitment. Maurice helped the Wildcats contain Johnathan Motley on Thursday and performed admirably on Friday in 20 minutes of action. West Virginia shot just 2-of-15 inside the arc in the first half, with Maurice holding down the paint and altering shots by Jevon Carter and Nathan Adrian. Until Wade becomes more assertive on the defensive end, expect Maurice to continue to play a key role in the Wildcats’ rotation.

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