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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On What Bill Self Likes Most…

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 15th, 2017

Bill Self absolutely loves hustle plays and grind-it-out wins. A coach doesn’t simply roll out elite defensive units on the regular without emphasizing the little things. No matter how good his teams are offensively, or how many NBA prospects come through his program, or how many Big 12 titles he piles up, Self values few things more than a dive for a loose ball, a winning battle on the glass or an offensive angle denied. Conversely, there isn’t much that grinds Self’s gears settling for sub-optimal shots. The Jayhawks did plenty of the former in their 65-61 win over Kentucky on Tuesday night, but there was also too much of the latter, and that will have to improve for Kansas to ultimately reach its National Championship potential.

Kansas won a rock fight Tuesday night utilizing the kind of defensive intensity Bill Self loves. (AP)

The strength of this team coming into the season was in the explosiveness of its backcourt. That will continue for as long as Self has just three scholarship big men on his roster, and especially as long as he has just two scholarship big men while the school figures out exactly what is going on with Billy Preston’s car. That said, the talented guard corps didn’t fully show up against Kentucky. Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman made all the right plays down the stretch to secure the win, but the trio also shot just 30 percent from the field for the game. Lagerald Vick made some good contributions too, but not as many as he could have in stumbling to a 4-of-14 shooting mark. Even while playing small lineups against the Wildcats’ long and hyper-athletic roster, Kansas rebounded 38.0 percent of its own misses and generated turnovers on a staggering 25.7 percent of Kentucky’s trips down the floor. That resulted in 20 second-chance points, but Kansas still only tabulated 0.93 points per possession as a result of suspect shot selection and poor execution around the rim.

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Big 12 Notebook: Opening Weekend

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 13th, 2017

Most of the Big 12 started its season with resounding victories over the weekend, but the two exceptions were certainly glaring as they came in matchups that pitted teams against programs from other power conferences. After a solid start to the game, West Virginia completely fell apart against Texas A&M on Friday night in Germany. Back in America, Iowa State got much more than it bargained for when the Cyclones agreed to play a very different Missouri program a year ago as the Tigers soundly defeated their old conference foe in Columbia. Elsewhere around the league, two heralded recruits got their first tastes of Division I action and did not disappoint. Here are the three items that stuck out the most over the Big 12’s opening weekend.

1. West Virginia falls flat against Texas A&M.

Texas A&M handled West Virginia’s press with ease on Friday night. (Michael Probst/AP)

When the Mountaineer press is working and they’re crashing the offensive glass, West Virginia is incredibly tough to beat. This is not a new development, but it’s worth a reminder as the season tips off, because when they don’t do either of those things, it’s a very different story as we saw on Friday night. In an 88-65 blowout loss to Texas A&M, the Mountaineers generated turnovers on just 23 percent of the Aggies’ possessions and rebounded their own misses just 23 percent of the time. Disappointing results on those two fronts put the pressure on Bob Huggins‘ half-court offense to produce, but any chance of that was snuffed out by Billy Kennedy’s switch to a zone defense midway through the first half. Combine all of that with big shooting nights from the Aggies’ Admon Gilder (4-of-6 3FG) and JJ Hogg (4-of-5 3FG) and there was just too much to overcome. Huggins mentioned earlier this month that he may pull back on the press in spots, citing the team’s changing roster, and with the Mountaineers facing a relatively lax schedule over the next couple weeks, don’t be surprised if he utilizes those opportunities to do a little tinkering.

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Big 12 Burning Questions: Kansas Jayhawks

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 10th, 2017

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

Burning Question: How much will Kansas’ small ball lineups compensate for another thin frontcourt?

It took some time for Bill Self to embrace both his roster and basketball’s changing landscape in the era of pace and space, but he did just that in 2017, even if it took a season-ending injury to center Udoka Azubuike to fully make the leap. Three-pointers comprised 35.9 percent of Kansas’ shot attempts last season, the highest rate of any of Self’s teams during his illustrious career. The Jayhawks connected on 40 percent of those tries from distance, powering them to a highly successful season that included an 18-game winning streak, a 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title, and a run to the Elite Eight. With a National Player of the Year leading his backcourt, a lottery pick on the wing and a heady center like Landen Lucas patrolling the middle, Self once again succeeded without the services of a deep stable of big men. The question for this season is whether Kansas can continue playing that way without any of those three elements in place — because the pressure will certainly once again be on Kansas’ guards to convert from deep.

Devonte’ Graham knows what the 2017-18 Jayhawks will be all about. (Getty)

Kansas’ backourt shouldn’t regress significantly from last year despite the departure of NPOY Frank Mason. Devonte’ Graham will lead the charge as the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, but transfer guard Malik Newman could become the team’s leading scorer after sitting out last year. The redshirt sophomore averaged 32.5 points per 40 minutes during the Jayhawks’ August trip to Italy, and while those numbers aren’t fully indicative of how he will fare against better competition, they may provide a hint of what to expect. It feels like Svi Mykhailiuk has tested the waters every summer he’s been in Lawrence, but he’s back in a Kansas uniform for his senior year. The Ukrainian can get hot in a hurry and play some point guard in a pinch, but he’s also a defensive liability that clearly frustrates Self from time to time.

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Big 12 Burning Questions: West Virginia Mountaineers

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 9th, 2017

This preview is part of RTC’s Big 12 2017-18 preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Could Esa Ahmad’s lengthy suspension be a blessing in disguise?

One of the benefits of “Press Virginia” is that it’s difficult for the loss of any single player to cause the team to implode. There’s nothing that epitomizes “next man up” quite like having 10 players available who averaged at least 10 minutes per game as the Mountaineers had in 2017, so even if Bob Huggins‘ team drops a few non-conference games in the first half of this season while junior Esa Ahmad is sidelined with an eligibility suspension, the Mountaineers should be alright. But let’s take it one step further. While West Virginia would obviously prefer to have its second-leading scorer available to face the likes of Texas A&M and Virginia, it’s easy to envision a scenario where the Mountaineers ultimately benefit from his absence, as it gives the team a chance to develop a frontcourt that also lost stalwarts Nathan Adrian, Elijah Macon and Brandon Watkins.

West Virginia will search for depth while big man Esa Ahmad starts the season on the bench. (Kelsie LeRose/BGS)

Sophomore Sagaba Konate is a strong bet to start in Ahmad’s absence. The Mali native had a raw freshman season, but gained Huggins’ trust as the season played out, averaging 12.2 minutes per game in Big 12 play. The temperamental head coach even praised Konate’s improvement at Big 12 Media Day last month, noting that the big man has started to flash some range. Expect to also see more time from sophomores Maciej Bender and Logan Routt, though they are bigger mysteries. The pair combined to play just 179 minutes last season, with most of those minutes going to Bender. Aside from Konate, the Mountaineers’ most experienced big man wasn’t even on the roster a year ago. Assistant coach Ronnie Everhart is high on 6’8″ JuCo transfer Wesley Harris, a lefty who offers enough size and agility to play the four in West Virginia’s breakneck system. Harris has reportedly played well in practice and should be ready to become a key contributor both during and after Ahmad’s suspension. Lamont West will play on the wing and be counted on to stem the tide in the meantime.

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