With Kansas’ Home Dominance Narrowing, It’s Game on in the Big 12…

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 4th, 2018

Texas Tech‘s victory at Allen Fieldhouse earlier this week was big for a few reasons. First, it announced to the college basketball world that Chis Beard‘s Red Raiders have arrived; it also established that Kansas‘ home loss to Arizona State last month was not a fluke; and it opened up meaningful discussion that the Jayhawks’ dominion over the rest of the Big 12 will be tested in a way that it hasn’t in the 13-year history of The Streak (TM). Let’s start with the Jayhawks’ newfound vulnerability, particularly at home. Prior to this year, Lawrence has been nothing short of a fortress for Bill Self’s team. You have to go all the way back to the 1975-76 season to find the last time when Kansas dropped two games at Allen by January 2. That isn’t to say that the storied gym won’t be a significant home court advantage for the Jayhawks more often than not, but the level of mystique that once led Baylor head coach Scott Drew to hold his team’s pregame huddle in the tunnel isn’t quite there this season — as evidenced by the Sun Devils and Red Raiders hanging 1.18 and 1.21 points per possession on the team, respectively.

With multiple home losses already on its resume, Kansas’ generational streak of conference dominance will be tested unlike another year. (Jamie Squire/Getty)

Of course, much of that has to do with Kansas’ ongoing depth issues that are feeding into the team’s shortfalls on both ends of the court. Self’s teams have always been leaned on activity and movement, and no one knows that more than senior Devonte’ Graham, the only player the head coach truly trusts at point guard. Graham has played fewer than 36 minutes just once in the Jayhawks’ last eight outings and his wear and tear is beginning to show. The lack of depth is also apparent down low, where 280-pound center Udoka Azubuike is admirably but not always effectively playing through back pain. Kansas figures to get some help with Silvio De Sousa reportedly nearing NCAA clearance and the Billy Preston investigation potentially ending soon, but as we noted last month, any reinforcements the team receives will only help but so much. This is still a top-notch offensive unit, but sustaining that level of performance will be dependent on diversifying an attack beyond three-pointers and lobs, which in turn will rely on keeping the current personnel healthy and fresh, mixed in with the occasional drive instead of a rushed jumper.

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A Quick Look at the Big 12’s Opening Weekend

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 29th, 2017

It’s not very often that the performance of a single conference as a whole is extensively discussed before the start of league play, but the manner in which the Big 12 asserted itself over the first six weeks of the 2017-18 season was nothing short of impressive. Nine of the conference’s 10 teams are ranked among the top 50 of KenPom‘s current rankings, and no team took more losses than Texas‘ three (of which two came in overtime against very good Duke and Gonzaga teams). In fact, the league finished non-conference play by ripping off 27 straight victories. Yes, there were some cupcakes in there, but there were also road and semi-road meetings against teams like Wichita State, Florida State and Nebraska. It’s gotten to the point where there’s been reasoned discussion on this site and others of the Big 12 sending 80 percent of its membership to the NCAA Tournament come March. Even if an underperforming team squelches that possibility, this conference will have meaningful games practically every night from now until March, beginning with tonight’s action. Here’s a quick look at each of the weekend’s five games.

Kansas remains the Big 12 favorite, but its competition is tougher than ever. (AP)

  1. West Virginia at Oklahoma State (Friday 7:00 ET, ESPNU) – The Cowboys project as one of the league’s worst teams, but West Virginia is just a 3.5-point favorite, which should tell you something about the Big 12’s parity and the intense challenge that the road represents this season, no matter the gym. Since installing the press prior to the 2014-15 season, Bob Huggins has not lost in Stillwater, and I expect that to continue tonight. Oklahoma State’s 10-2 start in the wake of Brad Underwood’s unexpected departure is a nice story, but the Cowboys are lacking in the three key areas needed to get the best of the Mountaineers: Ball control (117th nationally), defensive rebounding (174th) and drawing fouls (291st). Those will have to change if the Cowboys are to pull the upset.
  2. Baylor at Texas Tech (Friday 8:00 ET, Fox Sports Regional) – The Red Raiders stunned the Bears in Lubbock last season to give then-first year head coach Chris Beard a big home win. Three Baylor players fouled out of that game, which saw Texas Tech head to the foul line 43 times over the course of the night. That probably won’t be the case this time around, as Baylor ranks second in the country in foul avoidance. It also means that Texas Tech will need to find a fallback plan quickly if Baylor’s zone keeps Keenan Evans, Zach Smith and Zhaire Smith from attacking the rim as effectively as they have to this point in the season. Read the rest of this entry »
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Iowa State on the Rise?

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 20th, 2017

Last Friday, our very own Chris Stone noted the Big 12’s supremacy in Ken Pomeroy’s conference rankings. You should click the link and read through the analysis regardless, but the long and short of it is that the conference has spent the first month-plus of the regular season running roughshod over the rest of college basketball even more than it has in previous seasons. Not much has changed since last weekend, but one of the more interesting implications of the league’s sterling performance to date is how it could impact Selection Sunday. The Big 12 has sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament in three of the last four seasons, but at this early juncture, it’s realistic to think that it could max out with eight bids because of the combination of several impressive victories in non-league play, a relative lack of head-scratching losses, and, unlike the other Power 6 conferences, the fact that the “worst loss” a Big 12 team will take in league play will not be horribly punitive from an overall resume standpoint.

Lindell Wigginton and Nick Weiler-Babb were supposed to take their lumps at the bottom of the Big 12, but a lengthy Iowa State winning streak could portend otherwise. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

If the Big 12 is going to outdo itself in terms of NCAA Tournament placement this season, the team to consider is Iowa State, which looked like an afterthought following early losses to Missouri and Milwaukee. The Cyclones will now almost assuredly enter league play with nine straight wins after tonight’s meeting with Maryland-Eastern Shore, and the biggest factor in their turnaround has been the emergence of Nick Weiler-Babb, one of the most improved players in the Big 12. After averaging just four points per game in a bench role last season, Weiler-Babb has remarkably produced at a similar level to his predecessor Monte’ Morris, averaging 13.5 points and 7.5 assists per game while playing a staggering 37.5 minutes each night. The junior transfer from Arkansas is also the team’s leading rebounder through 10 games, although that may change with the way freshman Cameron Lard has started his career.

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Friday Figures: Big 12’s Strength, Andrew Jones’ Injury & Nick Weiler-Babb’s Excellence

Posted by Chris Stone on December 15th, 2017

Friday Figures is a weekly feature where we look at some of the most intriguing statistics from the Big 12. This week, we’ll focus on the league as a whole, what losing Andrew Jones means for Texas and the breakout season of Iowa State‘s Nick Weiler-Babb.

The Big 12 is as good as ever. Despite plenty of turnover last offseason, the league once again looks like by far the best — read: deepest — conference in college basketball. According to KenPom, a team expected to finish .500 in the Big 12 would have an adjusted efficiency margin of +18.14, a full two points higher than the next best league. That mark would also be the third-highest margin for a conference in the KenPom era behind the 2003-04 ACC and last season’s Big 12. There are certainly valid criticisms of this year’s Big 12 centered around the Final Four potential at the top of the league, but there are also feasible arguments that every team in the league could be on the NCAA Tournament bubble this March if things fall their way. It appears that the fears of the Big 12’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

Andrew Jones is expected to miss significant time for Texas. (Image source: Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

What life without Andrew Jones means for Texas. The Longhorns’ sophomore guard is out indefinitely after suffering a broken wrist against VCU, which is concerning given how poorly the team performed offensively without him in a loss to Michigan earlier this week. Jones was the lone player shooting well for Texas this season, connecting on 43.2 percent of his three-point attempts. Only one other player on the roster is shooting better than 30.0 percent from deep and the team made just 5-of-20 threes against the Wolverines. While poor shooting is a concern, the Texas offense over the last two seasons actually hasn’t been any worse without Jones on the floor on a points per possession (PPP) basis:

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Reinforcements Can Help Kansas, But Not Where the Jayhawks Need It Most

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 12th, 2017

With the end of the semester approaching, 7-2 Kansas is due to receive some help with the addition of transfer wing Sam Cunliffe, and the possibility remains that some combination of big men Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa could also come on board as both work toward gaining eligibility. Though the Jayhawks could certainly use some additional frontcourt depth, any reinforcements they receive should not be mistaken for a cure-all as they look to bounce back from consecutive regular season losses for the first time since 2013.

Kansas’ perimeter-oriented approach has worked well, but not without some glaring weaknesses. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

As thin as Bill Self‘s team is down low, Kansas’ two-point defense remains among the very best in the country. Even after getting carved up by Arizona State on Sunday, the Jayhawks still rank among the top 30 nationally in two-point defense and 10 best in adjusted defensive efficiency. Although some help on the low blocks could keep Udoka Azubuike from worrying about foul trouble and prevent the head coach from turning to unusual measures like relying on a walk-on to play key minutes against power conference teams and dipping into the football roster for help, what would really make this defense whole is greater urgency from the backcourt in adequately defending the perimeter. Read the rest of this entry »

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Friday Figures: Kansas’ Zone O, Baylor’s Rebounding Woes & Texas Tech’s Defense

Posted by Chris Stone on December 8th, 2017

After a couple of weeks off, Friday Figures is back to dive into some of the most interesting statistical notes from around the Big 12 with a look at issues surrounding Kansas, Baylor and Texas Tech.

A smart game plan can make a big difference. It’s rare to see a team play against the same iteration of a zone defense in back-to-back non-conference games like Kansas did last week, but since Washington hired former Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins in March, the Jayhawks faced Jim Boeheim’s notorious 2-3 zone twice in five days with wildly different results. Kansas rather easily handled the Orange behind 35 points from Devonte’ Graham on Saturday before stumbling against a much worse Huskies squad in Kansas City on Wednesday night. So, what changed?

The Kansas offense couldn’t find success against Washington’s zone. (Image credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s all about shot selection. Hopkins brought the wings of his 2-3 zone all the way out to the perimeter to deny the Jayhawks’ three-point attempts in the half-court, effectively creating a 4-1 zone. He wanted to deny a potent Kansas offense its most efficient shot, and it worked like a charm. According to Hoop-Math, just 17.4 percent of the Jayhawks’ half-court attempts were threes against the Huskies compared with a wild 57.1 percent against Syracuse. Add in Kansas shooting just 3-of-12 on quickly taken threes and there is the anatomy for an upset.

Given that opposing defenses have more control over three-point attempts than actual three-point percentage, it’ll be interesting to observe if other teams try something similar against Kansas this season.

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TCU Looks To Solidify Itself With a Big Week

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 5th, 2017

When we last checked in on TCU, the Horned Frogs were entering the season looking to parlay last year’s NIT title into the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid in two decades. Three weeks into the campaign, not much has changed other than perhaps the notion that Jamie Dixon‘s team could be even more formidable than originally forecasted. TCU currently owns the longest active winning streak in college basketball (13), but with tough match-ups on tap this week against intrastate foe SMU and Mountain West contender Nevada, we’re about to find out exactly where the Horned Frogs stack up in the national conversation.

With five double-doubles in eight games, wing Kenrich Williams has been a steady force for the Horned Frogs (AP/Ralph Laurer).

TCU’s 8-0 start, while impressive, isn’t a true indicator of its talent level because the team’s competition to this point has left something to be desired. Their best win to date is a neutral court victory over St. Bonaventure, but while the Bonnies look to be a contender in the Atlantic-10, they pale in comparison to stronger teams like SMU, who already boasts wins over Arizona and USC, and the Wolf Pack, one of college basketball’s 12 other remaining undefeated teams. That’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate reasons to believe TCU can tangle with the Big 12’s best this season, because Dixon’s club certainly can. The Horned Frogs enter tonight’s game with a top-20 offense and a top-35 defense, headlined by their current standing as the nation’s top defensive rebounding team, collecting over 80 percent of their opponents’ misses. Significant improvement from Vladimir Brodziansky, J.D. Miller and Kenrich Williams have provided the spark, while additional support from VCU transfer Ahmed Hamdy and redshirt freshman Kouat Noi round out the corps.

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Trae Young Leads Salty Sooners Back on to the National Radar

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 28th, 2017

When Oklahoma lost Buddy Hield, Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins after their trip to the 2016 Final Four, the Sooners predictably dropped off. They were better than their 11-20 overall record last year suggested, but you couldn’t fault anyone for tuning them out as it quickly became clear that a return to the postseason wasn’t in the cards. Just one season later, though, Lon Kruger‘s team is right back to putting up explosive numbers with one of the country’s best guards leading the way. To be clear, freshman point guard Trae Young and the former NPOY Hield are vastly different players, even aside from their different track records. Whereas Hield made most of his hay off the ball, Young is a more balanced offensive threat possessing savvy court vision to boot. In the early going, though, Young is showing that he could have a similarly memorable campaign in Norman.

After an off-year in 2016-17, Oklahoma is back among the most exciting teams in college basketball. (AP Photo/Troy Wayrynen)

Facing legitimate competition for the first time this season, Young balled out at the PK80 event in Portland, averaging 34.7 points per game across three tilts against Arkansas, Portland, and Oregon, while putting up a hyper-efficient 70.8 percent true shooting percentage. The freshman has excelled everywhere on the floor — shooting 38.6 percent from three-point range, 57.1 percent inside the arc, and 89.4 percent at the free throw line. For greater context, his 8.0 fouls drawn per 40 minutes dwarf Frank Mason’s clip of 5.5 per 40 last season, and he’s making his opponents pay at the stripe. Young’s aggression while leading the third-fastest offense in the country occasionally backfires in the form of a bad pass or ill-advised shot, but those miscues haven’t yet been detrimental to the Sooners, nor are they currently keeping him from occupying the top spot in KenPom’s National Player of the Year rankings.

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Five Big 12 Feast Week Storylines to Watch

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 20th, 2017

Feast Week is here, and with it comes the first chance for many Big 12 teams to see how they stack up against legitimate competition. The storylines around the league haven’t evolved significantly over the season’s first two weeks, but in case you need a primer, here’s a quick breakdown on what to watch for as you gorge yourself on college hoops and turkey this week.

Baylor will need Jo Lual-Acuil’s intensity this week in Kansas City. (Tom Pennington/Getty)

  1. Will Baylor assert its will on the offensive glass against Wisconsin? The Bears were the third-best team in college basketball at rebounding their own misses last season and are off to a strong start again this year — logging an offensive rebounding rate of 41.3 percent through their first three wins. Wisconsin, however, is a different animal than the likes of Central Arkansas, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Alcorn State, rebounding 83.5 percent of its opponents’ tries. Baylor’s offense has been very efficient in the first week-plus, but the Bears’ big men have effectively gone unchallenged inside. Ethan Happ and Andy Van Vliet bring an element of size that Baylor has yet to face, so outlasting the Badgers on the glass will be vital in this rematch from the 2014 Sweet Sixteen.
  2. How will Matt Coleman fare in facilitating Texas’ offense? The freshman point guard has brought some much-needed stability to Texas’ backcourt, dishing out 10 assists against just one turnover over 74 minutes across the Longhorns’ first three games. Still, Shaka Smart’s club ranks among the bottom 25 schools nationally in assists per field goal. Coleman’s distributing ability wasn’t needed in Saturday’s blowout win over Lipscomb, but it’s going to be a different story in Portland this week when the Longhorns face Butler and potentially Duke. Read the rest of this entry »
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Friday Figures: Big 12 Trends Worth Watching

Posted by Chris Stone on November 17th, 2017

Welcome to Friday Figures, a new weekly column where we’ll look at some interesting statistics from around the Big 12. There will be charts, graphs and plenty of references to KenPom. Obviously it’s still early, so this week we’re going to dive into a trio of numbers worth tracking as the season progresses.

West Virginia’s true shooting attempts differential always looms large. Under the “Press Virginia” system, the Mountaineers’ offense has never been the most efficient from a shot-making perspective. Dating back to the 2014-15 season, West Virginia has ranked 292nd, 177th and 139th nationally in effective field goal percentage (per KenPom). So far this season, they rank 185th. But what West Virginia lacks in accuracy, it makes up for in sheer volume by creating extra shots with offensive rebounds and opponents’ turnovers. Last season, the gap between the Mountaineers’ true shooting attempts (TSAs), a formula which accounts for free throws as well as field goal attempts, and their opponents’ attempts, was the largest in the country at 11.3 per game.

Data source: Sports-Reference

Tracking that differential in TSAs on a game-by-game basis has been a pretty good way to figure out West Virginia’s chances of winning. The chart above plots every game the team has played since 2014-15 with losses marked in red. Notice how the presence of that color increases significantly when the differential falls below 10.0? In two games so far this season, the Mountaineers have experienced wildly different results. Against Texas A&M, they only took 1.2 more TSAs than the Aggies, but in a blowout win against American, that gap was 25.4. One was a 23-point loss while the other a 34-point win. If you’re tracking West Virginia’s box scores this season, simply observe the gap in field goal attempts and free throws versus the opponent and you will likely be able to figure out how the game is going.

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