Big 12 Freshmen Update: The Names You Know & The Names You Should

Posted by Nate Kotisso on December 2nd, 2016

Last season was like a dream for the Big 12, as junior and senior-laden teams produced some of the best basketball the conference has seen in its 20-year history. Seven teams made the NCAA Tournament, and unlike years past, multiple members other than Kansas made it to the second weekend and beyond. With much of that experience from those teams now gone, many Big 12 teams are looking to their freshmen to lead this season. There are a few schools with freshmen who did not make the cut for several reasons. Those particular teams either did not have compelling enough freshmen just yet (i.e., Baylor and West Virginia), have good contributors who haven’t played in every game (i.e., Iowa State’s Solomon Young) or don’t have any scholarship freshmen at all (Texas Tech). Let’s take a look at the top eight freshmen in the league to this point in the season.

I doubt a better picture of KU super freshman Josh Jackson in the known universe. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

I doubt a better photo of KU super freshman Josh Jackson exists in the known universe. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

  • Jarrett Allen, center, Texas (10.5 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.3 BPG in 29.7 MPG): Allen being on this list is both a blessing and a curse. The Round Rock, Texas, native currently ranks first in rebounds and blocked shots on the team and is third in scoring. However, Allen has to this point logged better field goal shooting (52.2%) than he has at the charity stripe (51.7%). Still, the season is young and this freshman is a rising star for the Longhorns.
  • Udoka Azubuike, center, Kansas (5.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.3 BPG in 13.7 MPG): Azubuike is the latest in Bill Self’s successful recruit-17-year-old-basketball-prodigies program. His measurements — an energetic 6’11” big man with a 7’5″ wingspan — are what get NBA scouts excited, but it is clear that the freshman has some game. Self clearly is buying in, given that Azubuike has started each of Kansas’ last two games. Prepare for more impressive numbers from this precocious big man after we ring in the New Year.

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Texas’ Slow Start Could be Sign of Things to Come

Posted by Justin Fedich on December 2nd, 2016

From a close call to Incarnate Word on opening night to a not-so-close upset at home this week by UT-Arlington, the first three weeks of this season have not gone how Texas had hoped. The pain that comes with a three-game losing streak (Northwestern and Colorado did the trick last week) is only exacerbated by the fact that Texas hasn’t yet played a single team most would consider an NCAA Tournament lock. Only six games into the season, Shaka Smart‘s team is struggling to find answers, perhaps still feeling the hangover from Paul Jesperson’s halfcourt buzzer-beating shot in last season’s Big Dance. Texas was 3-3 after an overtime win against UT-Arlington exactly one year ago, but a five-game winning streak that included a victory over North Carolina ensued. Texas is not on track for such a streak, or even a winning record, this time around, and these are the key reasons why.

Unfortunately, it hasn't been all smiles for Shaka Smart and Texas lately. (Texas Athletics)

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been all smiles for Shaka Smart and Texas this season. (Texas Athletics)

  • Loss of top three scorers: Replacing 3,446 combined career points doesn’t happen overnight. The realization that the Longhorns have lost last season’s top three scorers — Isaiah Taylor, Cameron Ridley, and Javan Felix — has taken a bigger toll than expected. Looking back two seasons ago, a starting five that also included one-and-done Myles Turner and Jonathan Holmes is completely gone. Instead, the burden has fallen on returnees Tevin Mack, Kerwin Roach, Jr. and Kendal Yancy, along with freshmen Jarrett Allen and Andrew Jones, to pick up the pieces. The Longhorns should certainly get better as the season progresses, but lack of an experienced playmaker who can settle roles and responsibilities has taken its toll in the early going.

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How Monte’ Morris & Iowa State’s Other Returnees Are Replacing Georges Niang

Posted by Chris Stone on December 1st, 2016

Georges Niang was an Iowa State staple over the last four seasons. The 6’7″ all-purpose forward provided the Cyclones with a level of offensive versatility as a facilitator and scorer that few teams in the country possessed. As a senior, Niang used 28.7 percent of the team’s possessions and assisted on another 19.2 percent when he was on the floor. Now with the two-time all-Big 12 first teamer no longer on the roster, head coach Steve Prohm has needed to adjust his offensive attack to make up for the void. Conventional wisdom was that point guard Monte’ Morris would take on much of Niang’s role.

(Source: sports-reference.com)

(Source: sports-reference.com)

Although his numbers do not match those of former Prohm point guards such as Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne, Morris is certainly much more involved this season. As the table above shows, he is taking 5.8 more field goal attempts per 40 minutes this year and has raised his points per 40 minutes average from 14.5 to 21.9 on the back of a hot start from three-point range. Morris is now also the team’s only consistent distributor. He has increased his already impressive assists per 40 minutes rate from 7.2 to 8.9 and raised his assist rate to 34.9 percent, a full six percent higher than last season. All of this has occurred while Morris has simultaneously reduced his turnover rate by nearly four percent. Simply put, the preseason All-American has been one of the best offensive players in college basketball through the first few weeks of the season. Read the rest of this entry »

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How Johnathan Motley’s Supporting Cast Has Elevated Baylor

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 1st, 2016

Three weeks into the new season, the best non-conference resume in college basketball belongs to Baylor. The Bears already have four wins against teams ranked among the KenPom top 50 thanks to a flawless run through the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, and they’ll have yet another chance to score a victory over a marquee opponent when they host Xavier on Saturday afternoon. November served as a national breakout party for Big 12 POY candidate Johnathan Motley, whose length, footwork and range have keyed Baylor’s hot start. But one player — even someone the caliber of the 6’10” junior — doesn’t result in a 7-0 start with wins over Oregon, VCU, Michigan State and Louisville. While there’s no doubt Motley is keeping opposing coaches up at night, the unheralded pieces around him have helped the team flourish as well.

Johnathan Motley Has Had a Lot to Celebrate This Season (USA Today Images)

Johnathan Motley Has Had a Lot to Celebrate This Season (USA Today Images)

Motley makes the whole thing go in the paint, but junior center Jo Lual-Acuil has also been a force. The JuCo transfer owns the nation’s third-best shot block rate (15.6%) and already has 29 rejections on the year. For most big men, there are two potential costs to chasing blocks: foul trouble and getting caught out of position for the rebound. But Lual-Acuil is the rare breed of player who has both avoided the whistle (2.3 fouls per 40 minutes) and remained a presence on the defensive glass (team-leading 25.1% defensive rebounding rate). Big 12 play may cause some regression when Lual-Acuil faces players willing to challenge him at the rim, but that doesn’t make him any less important. On the offensive end, the attention Motley commands opens a number of close looks that Lual-Acuil is converting at an incredibly high rate. Two-way threats at the five don’t come around very often, but Baylor has one of them.

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TCU Slowly Making a Case For Legitimacy

Posted by Justin Fedich on November 30th, 2016

Few pegged TCU as an NCAA Tournament team coming into this season, but after starting 6-0 for only the second time since joining the Big 12 four years ago, Jamie Dixon’s rebuilding process appears to be moving more quickly than expected. The Horned Frogs took a big step forward in last weekend’s Global Sports Classic, dispatching UNLV by four points on its home court and following it up with a 13-point win against Washington to claim the title. In a weird scheduling quirk, TCU will host Washington again tonight in Fort Worth. If the second game goes anything like the first — where the Frogs jumped out to a quick 24-8 lead and never looked back — Dixon’s group should be well on its way to a 7-0 start.

TCU brought their man home. Is Big 12 relevance next for the Horned Frogs?. (Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

Considering his track record, it’s not a huge surprise that Jamie Dixon has TCU playing better than pundit expectations. (Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

TCU lost its top scorer from a season ago, Chauncey Collins, but has replaced him with standout freshman Jaylen Fisher. Although Fisher has endured some early growing pains — turning the ball over at a higher rate than anyone else on the team (2.7 miscues per game) — he’s also exhibiting an ability to find open teammates, leading the Horned Frogs with 5.3 assists per game and a nationally-ranked 34.6 percent assist rate. Fisher isn’t the only newcomer making an early impact, as Desmond Bane is averaging 10.3 points per game on 56.1 shooting from the field. During the UNLV game, Bane contributed 15 points and six rebounds, while Fisher gave 10 points and five assists against Washington. Fisher is likely to be the more consistent player this season, but both have already made their marks on a TCU team needing to replace Collins’ production. Read the rest of this entry »

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Feast Week Mission Preview: Kansas State in the Barclays Center Classic

Posted by Justin Fedich on November 25th, 2016

Kansas State is off to a strong start, going 4-0 with an average margin of victory of 21 points per contest. However, Bruce Weber’s team has neither faced a Power 5 opponent, nor played a game outside Manhattan yet. That changes tonight, when the Wildcats travel to Brooklyn for the Barclays Center Classic.

Catching Up: Kansas State’s undefeated record is in large part the result of a weak non-conference schedule. The four opponents the Wildcats have faced have combined to go 5-14 this season, with each one sitting below .500. Poor schedule notwithstanding, Weber has to be happy with a number of developments. Sophomore guard Barry Brown has made the biggest jump since last season, leading the Wildcats in scoring with 15.3 points per game. Brown was sixth on the team in scoring last year. The Wildcats have also enjoyed the return of versatile senior forward Wesley Iwundu, who is averaging 14 points, five rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. Sophomore Dean Wade has increased his scoring in each of the last three games, and totaled 13 points and nine rebounds in the most recent contest against Robert Morris. Kansas State will not be the most talented team in the Big 12 this season, but the fact that all five starters were on the Wildcats’ roster last season provides an unusual degree of continuity. Oh, and the other nice part of the weak early slate: Kansas State has been able to get its bench heavily involved. Against Robert Morris, 15 players saw action for the Wildcats.

Wesley Iwundu (25) And Barry Brown (5) Will Look To Help Kansas State Remain Perfect in Brooklyn (Photo: Wichita Eagle)

Wesley Iwundu (25) And Barry Brown (5) Will Look To Help Kansas State Remain Perfect in Brooklyn (Photo: Wichita Eagle)

Opening Round Preview: While Boston College will be Kansas State’s first Power 5 opponent this season, the Eagles don’t exactly fall under the quality opponent category. BC began its season with a home loss to Nicholls State, which sits at 317 in the KenPom rankings. The Eagles, like Kansas State, has yet to leave its home court all season. But while the Wildcat starters are all returning players, Boston College starts two sophomores, two graduate transfers and a freshman. The Eagles’ lack of proven talent gives the Wildcats a great chance to move to 5-0. The Wildcats, who rank 30th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, should be able to bottle up the Eagles, whose are just 201st nationally in offensive efficiency. Still, this will be the toughest opponent the Wildcats have faced all season. Read the rest of this entry »

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Feast Week Mission Briefing: West Virginia in the NIT Season Tip-Off

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 24th, 2016

Feast Week is here. To get you ready for the Big 12’s representation in the various holiday tournaments over the next week, our Feast Week Mission Briefings continue today with West Virginia in the NIT Season Tip-Off, which takes place at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Catching Up: Devin Williams, Jaysean Paige and Jonathan Holton are gone, but “Press Virginia” is alive and well in Morgantown. The 3-0 Mountaineers again lead the country in defensive turnover rate (34.2%) and are first in defensive steal rate (17.3%), steamrolling lesser competition by an average of 42.7 points per game. The demands of Bob Huggins‘ style and the big leads it has generated have given way to a deep, balanced attack in the early part of the season. A staggering 11 players have seen the floor for at least 10 minutes per game and five players are currently posting double-figure scoring averages, led by Nathan Adrian‘s 13.3 points per contest.

This Thanksgiving, opposing teams will be thankful if they can hold onto the ball against West Virginia's swarming defense. (AP/Raymond Thompson)

This Thanksgiving, opposing teams should be thankful if they can hold onto the ball against West Virginia’s swarming defense. (AP/Raymond Thompson)

Opening Round Preview: Illinois will give West Virginia its first real test of the season today in Brooklyn. It feels like John Groce’s team has been snake-bitten from the minute he arrived in Champaign, but his team is off to a solid 4-1 start, although the loss, which came at the hands of Winthrop, shows that they aren’t out of the woods quite yet. Still, the Illini are shooting the ball well, hitting 39.8 percent of their threes, led by seniors Tracy Abrams (7-of-11, 63.6%) and Malcolm Hill (15-of-29, 51.7%). The team has also been extremely effective inside, converting 87.3 percent of its attempts at the rim, per hoop-math.com. The problem for Illinois is that it hasn’t valued the ball, turning it over on 20.2 percent of their possessions and winning the battle on the offensive glass only 23.3 percent of the time. Those are weaknesses that West Virginia is well-versed in exploiting, and Huggins’ team should be able to do just that. Read the rest of this entry »

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Feast Week Mission Briefing: Iowa State in the Advocare Invitational

Posted by Chris Stone on November 24th, 2016

Feast Week is here. To get you ready for the Big 12’s representation in the various holiday tournaments this week, our Feast Week Mission Briefings continue today with Iowa State in the Advocare Invitational.

Catching Up: With longtime staple Georges Niang graduating last spring, this was always going to be a transition year at Iowa State. Much of the preseason focus fell on point guard Monte’ Morris taking on a more significant scoring role this season. That hasn’t really happened. Although Morris is averaging about five more points per game to this point, his usage of offensive possessions is only up by about one percent. Most of Niang’s shots have instead actually gone to senior Naz Mitrou-Long, who is averaging nearly 10 more field goal attempts per 40 minutes than he did in a shortened season a year ago. Morris, though, has taken on nearly all of Niang’s play-making duties, as his assists per 40 minutes have increased by five full assists and his assist rate has increased from 28.9 percent to 39.4 percent. The Cyclones enter the Advocare Invitational at 3-0 with a trio of victories over teams ranked 275th or worse, according to KenPom.

Monte Morris is delivering for Iowa State early. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Monte Morris is delivering early for Iowa State. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Opening Round Preview: Iowa State opens the Advocare Invitational with a match-up against Indiana State. The Sycamores, picked to finish among the bottom half of the Missouri Valley Conference, are 2-1 on the season but shouldn’t pose much of a threat. The player to watch is guard Brenton Scott, who is averaging 22.3 points per contest over three games. The junior guard has taken 35.0 percent of the Sycamores’ shots but he’s not an efficient scorer, which is probably why Indiana State ranks 243rd in Division I in adjusted offensive efficiency. While this might be a fun point guard battle to watch, Iowa State should win its first round game comfortably.

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Lost in Transition: Texas Basketball Needs Time for Defense to Arrive

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 23rd, 2016

Longtime Shaka Smart followers wouldn’t even recognize this year’s Texas team. His patented HAVOC system, designed to produce chaos by pressuring opposing ball-handlers, appears to be in place in name only. His best teams at VCU were never particularly effective in the half-court, winning instead by continually forcing turnovers and converting those miscues into points on the other end. At its peak, the Rams produced turnovers on over 23 percent of opponents’ possessions for four consecutive seasons. However, last season’s Texas team was the slowest that Smart has ever coached, and while possessions this season have ticked up, the Longhorns’ version of HAVOC is still a far cry from the VCU heyday.

Texas (USA Today Images)

Texas is still trying to figure it all out. (USA TODAY Images)

The overarching sentiment when it comes to rebuilding programs is that it takes a few years for a new coach to recruit and develop players that fit his system. That’s certainly been the case for Smart in Austin so far, but the playing field is remarkably different at a Big 12 school with a longstanding athletic history and gravitational pull in recruiting. The program-oriented, four-year players that Smart was formerly coaxing into to the VCU basketball philosophy are now being replaced by highly-touted prep stars whose names are plastered on mock NBA Draft boards before setting foot on campus. This of course does not mean Smart won’t be successful at Texas, but it does mean some of his players won’t be sticking around for an entire collegiate career. Elite defense the way HAVOC is played isn’t simply a byproduct of having excellent talent — it requires a certain degree of roster continuity to run a complicated system where players incessantly communicate and work together to establish their traps. So when should we expect to see an effective version of the assault-style defense that made Smart’s VCU teams so imposing? The answer might be never. Read the rest of this entry »

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Kansas’ Backcourt Leads the Way But Questions Abound Inside

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 23rd, 2016

The biggest question facing Kansas as it entered this season centered around the team’s frontcourt. The loss of stalwart Perry Ellis was going to loom large until Bill Self could turn his rotation of big men into a serviceable enough unit to balance a supremely skilled backcourt. Now two weeks into the season and with the toughest part of the Jayhawds’ non-conference schedule in the books, that question remains unanswered. It may even be blurrier than it was in October. In addition to newcomers Dwight Coleby and Udoka Azubuike struggling to earn consistent minutes in Self’s rotation, veteran Landen Lucas has regressed and sophomore Carlton Bragg has yet to find a rhythm as well.

Kansas (USA Today Images)

Kansas Needs to Solve Its Interior Issues but the Backcourt is Excelling (USA Today Images)

Kansas’ frontcourt issues came to a head last night despite a 65-54 victory over Georgia at the CBE Classic in Kansas City. Bulldogs forward Yante Maten roasted every big man Kansas threw at him, dominating the back line with 30 points and 13 rebounds. Lucas, who expertly used his intelligence and size to pull away with the starting center spot last season, was saddled with foul trouble, his latest in a string of lackluster outings. Azubuike, a freshman who logged an inspiring performance against Duke just a week ago, played only five minutes. Collectively, the Jayhawks’ four big men were a mess: five points on 2-of-5 shooting, seven rebounds and 15 fouls, although Coleby gave admirable energy and effort in his first extended run of the season, blocking four shots and grabbing four rebounds. Kansas’ struggles to defend Georgia without fouling led to another rare sighting from a Self-coached team: the deployment of a 2-3 zone. To the team’s credit, the defensive maneuver keyed a decisive second-half run, but that may have had more to do with the fact that it wasn’t a look Georgia had prepared for. These were extenuating circumstances indeed.

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