Big 12 Weekend In Review

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 19th, 2018

Another weekend of Big 12 action is in the books, and with it another dramatic set of games, each one carrying significant implications on both the league standings and the at-large picture for the NCAA Tournament. With Kansas and Texas Tech drawing back to even with four games remaining — including a crucial head-to-head match-up this coming Saturday — there’s still plenty of intrigue even if Saturday night’s events in Lawrence gave the impression that a 14th straight conference title for the Jayhawks is likelier than the standings suggest.

Bob Huggins became the latest visiting coach to show his frustration with the officiating at Allen Fieldhouse. (Nick Krug/Lawrence Journal-World)

  • Starting with the weekend’s marquee game between Kansas and West Virginia, Bob Huggins’ comments on the officiating, while valid, also left me ambivalent. Huggins certainly made a strong point when he pushed for referees to be made available to media after games in a fashion similar to that of coaches and players. The game as a whole would benefit, but as The Kansas City Star’s Sam Mellinger wrote in his postgame column, Huggins is probably not the right messenger for that idea when you consider his own team’s style of play. That said, while the 35-2 free throw disparity between the Jayhawks and Mountaineers drew the lion’s share of attention, caution should be exercised from draw sweeping conclusions. After all, the Mountaineers held a double-digit lead with fewer than 10 minutes to go despite the difference in free throw attempts, and West Virginia attempted just six shots at the rim all game long — compared with 13 by the Jayhawks. When a team fails to attack the tin, it will have a much harder time getting foul calls, especially on the road. Again, that isn’t to absolve John Higgins’ officiating crew from some responsibility here, but proper context is the name of the game when it comes to wide free throw disparities, even in extreme cases like this one.

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Friday Figures: Diving into the Big 12’s Freshmen Guards

Posted by Chris Stone on February 16th, 2018

Welcome back to Friday Figures, a weekly look at interesting and (occasionally) important statistical facts from the Big 12. This week, we’re diving into the big numbers surrounding some of the Big 12’s best freshmen guards.

Trae Young’s struggles aren’t Oklahoma’s only problem. (Photo Credit: Timothy J. Gonzelez, AP)

  • Trae Young’s struggles are real, but Oklahoma’s problems run deeper. By now, the Oklahoma freshman phenom’s recent troubles have been well-documented. Young has converted only one of his last 17 attempts from behind the arc, and 7-of-41 during the Sooners’ recent four-game losing streak. Dating back even further, the team has lost seven of its last nine games as its leading scorer has struggled to adjust to attention from quality opponents. Against KenPom’s Tier A group — the equivalent of games against the top 50 — Young is shooting just 33.1 percent from three-point range and his turnovers are up during conference play. Yet, it’s not clear if Oklahoma’s offense has any better options. With Young on the floor, the Sooners are still averaging 1.15 points per possession, per Hoop Lens — the equivalent of a top 20 offense. So what gives? It’s the defense. In Big 12 play, Oklahoma is conceding 110.1 points per 100 possessions, seventh in the league, per KenPom. There’s only so much the Sooners can do about opponents shooting 38.0 percent from three, but they rank dead last in tcreating turnovers with a lowly 14.5 percent turnover rate that would 347th nationally over the course of an entire season. While Young’s inefficiency has been a lightning rod for criticism, it’s arguably missing the bigger issue. Poor defense magnified by some bad three-point luck is swinging the pendulum against the Sooners.
  • Jarrett Culver’s emergence has been a boon for Texas Tech. At this point, everybody knows about the Red Raiders’ stifling defense but Culver’s development has turned them into a more well-rounded Final Four contender. Head coach Chris Beard inserted Culver into the starting lineup last month after a foot injury sidelined senior Zach Smith, but, since losing its first game without Smith, Tech has reeled off seven straight wins and taken sole possession of the top spot in the Big 12. Culver’s presence transforms the Red Raiders’ offense — they average 1.12 points per possession with him on the court compared to just 1.05 without him, per Hoop Lens. Culver has been Texas Tech’s most frequent three-point shooter this season, converting 38.4 percent of his chances and logging a sub-14.0 percent turnover rate. Once a sub-300 recruit nationally, Culver ascent has helped make the Red Raiders the favorite to win the Big 12 this season.

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Big 12 Weekend Review

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 12th, 2018

The Big 12 had quite the shakeup over the weekend as Kansas‘ uncompetitive loss to Baylor and Texas Tech‘s easy road win over Kansas State gave the Red Raiders sole possession of first place with just three weeks to go in the regular season. Before the Jayhawk faithful hit the panic button, it’s worth remembering that Kansas has overcome similar deficits more than a few times over the course of its 13-year Big 12 regular season title streak (although not since 2013). This thing is far from over, but between the Jayhawks’ current struggles and the high stakes of breaking UCLA’s record of consecutive conference championships, there’s more intrigue down the stretch than there has been in several years.

The Red Raiders have a one-game lead on Kansas, but can they succeed where others have failed and end the Jayhawks’ conference title streak? (Jim Cowsert/USA Today)

  1. A look at Texas Tech and Kansas’ remaining schedules reveals that the Red Raiders have an edge for a couple reasons. The biggest is that they have already won at Allen Fieldhouse, meaning their remaining head-to-head match-up will take place in Lubbock. Additionally, Chris Beard‘s team is unbeaten against their other five opponents, while Kansas is just 3-2 against its remaining foes. While those facts are certainly not predictive of how the rest of the race will go, it should make Texas Tech fans feel fairly good about their chances, though a Kansas comeback is always something to keep in mind as long as Bill Self is patrolling the sideline. Read the rest of this entry »
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Friday Figures: TCU’s Efficient Offense, Mitch Lightfoot & Kerwin Roach’s Big Year

Posted by Chris Stone on February 9th, 2018

Friday Figures is back this week with a look at TCU’s successful offense, Kansas’ new starting lineup and Kerwin Roach’s impressive season.

  • Jamie Dixon has TCU’s offense humming. The best offense in the Big 12 doesn’t reside in Lawrence, Kansas or Norman, Oklahoma. Instead, it sits squarely in Fort Worth, Texas, where Jamie Dixon has already brought his history of offensive excellence to bear. The Horned Frogs lead the league with an offensive efficiency of 112.5, two points clear of the Jayhawks. Central to TCU’s success is a commitment to moving the ball to find better shots, and as a result, the Horned Frogs have assisted on 63.9 percent of their made field goals this season (10th nationally, per KenPom). It’s also probably part of the reason the team has been able to weather the loss of sophomore point guard Jaylen Fisher.

Mitch Lightfoot is Kansas’ newest starter. (Image credit: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

  • The Big 12’s unlikely block rate leader. Ask anyone to name the Big 12’s best rim-protectors this season and you’ll get the expected answers. There’s Texas’ Mohamed Bamba and his 7’9″ wingspan or Sagaba Konate, West Virginia’s dunk eating center. Oklahoma’s Khadeem Lattin or Baylor’s Jo Acuil might even get a shout-out. Yet none of them leads the Big 12 in block rate during conference play. Rather, that honor belongs to Kansas’ newly minted starter, Mitch Lightfoot, who edges out Bamba by one-tenth of a percentage point. Obviously Lightfoot hasn’t played as many minutes as anyone else on this list, but his block rate is an interesting jumping-off point for discussing his value to the Jayhawks. The former 3-star recruit has developed into a decent rotation piece in Bill Self’s lineup, but the numbers suggest that Kansas needs Lagerald Vick to bust out of his slump and back into the starting lineup for the team to be at its best. According to data from Hoop Lens, the Jayhawks are 14 points per 100 possessions better with Lightfoot on the bench this season. The sophomore might be a great answer to a silly trivia question, but he’s probably not the piece to help Kansas make a legitimate run this March.

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Friday Figures: WVU’s True Problem, Mo Bamba’s Crazy Block Rate, More…

Posted by Chris Stone on February 2nd, 2018

Friday Figures is back after a brief hiatus to run down some of the most interesting statistics from the Big 12 conference. This week we’ll focus on West Virginia’s recent struggles, Keenan Evans’ outlier season and Mo Bamba’s soon-to-be record setting rim-protection.

West Virginia’s shot volume problem. Way back in November, this column made reference to the importance of shot volume for the Mountaineers. Simply put, Bob Huggins‘ squad shores up its lack of shot-making by taking more true shot attempts [FGAs + (0.44*FTAs)] than its opponents. Over the last three-plus seasons of the Press Virginia era, tracking the difference in true shot attempts for the Mountaineers and their opponents has become a seemingly reliable indicator for success. Take 12 or more than the opponent (demarcated by the grey line below) and West Virginia wins nearly 90 percent of the time. Dip below that number and it’s just 43 percent.

Source: Sports-Reference

Offensive rebounds and opponents’ turnovers are critical to creating the differential, but they’ve dipped below that magic number in all five of the team’s recent losses. Why? Iowa State, Kansas, TCU and Texas Tech all protected the ball. Those four games represent the lowest opponent turnover rates for West Virginia’s foes this season. Kentucky, meanwhile, rebounded 55.3 percent of its own misses, creating plenty of true shooting attempts of its own. If the Mountaineers are going to get right over the next six weeks, this is the issue they need to figure out.

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Take Me Home, Country Woes…

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 1st, 2018

Who knew that John Denver could predict the future? Fine, so West Virginia basketball probably wasn’t on the forefront of the late country star’s mind when he wrote his 1971 hit, but the title nonetheless aptly sums up the Mountaineers’ January performance. Bob Huggins‘ team had an absolutely dreadful month, illustrated by a 1-3 mark away from WVU Coliseum and punctuated by last night’s 93-77 defeat to eighth-place Iowa State — a loss as surprising as it was debilitating for West Virginia’s regular season Big 12 title chances. Throw in a second second-half meltdown against Kansas in as many years, and just like that, the team’s hopes of giving the conference a new champion for the first time in 14 years are dead and buried.

A 1-5 skid has Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers searching for answers. (Richard W. Rodriguez/AP)

We can point to a few factors when diagnosing the current skid. The first is a smattering of blown second-half leads. The Mountaineers held such advantages in their games against Texas Tech, Kansas and Kentucky, but let all three opponents overtake them and grab hold of the victory. On one hand, the abundance of high-quality competition in the Big 12 means that top teams aren’t fazed by their peers in any location, but on the other hand, perhaps the biggest distinction between the program that has a seemingly generational lock on the conference title and those that do not is a keen ability to close games out. A dip in effectiveness in West Virginia’s vaunted press has also betrayed the team, as the Mountaineers’ last six opponents have each posted turnover rates below the season-average 25.4 percent clip. As we saw against Kansas, when West Virginia’s opponents avoid mistakes, not only does their shot volume increase but the Mountaineers fail to score in transition. This correspondingly forces them to rely on their half-court offense, which has never been a particular strength.

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Trae Young Wasn’t Oklahoma’s Problem on Saturday

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 23rd, 2018

As the final horn sounded on Oklahoma’s 83-81 overtime loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday afternoon, the takes started flying nearly as frequently as Trae Young‘s three-pointers. The freshman phenom is too selfish. He doesn’t get his teammates involved. He turns the ball over too much. But as usually tends to be the case with instant reactions based on limited observation, most of the comments about the spectacular point guard were silly. While Young’s record-breaking afternoon — 48 points on 14-of-39 shooting and eight assists — wasn’t perfect, a closer inspection of the most common criticisms of his game renders them flat.

Trae Young drew more ire than he deserved following Oklahoma’s loss to Oklahoma State.
(Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman)

Young clearly struggled to get in a groove in the first half as the Cowboys made a priority of containing him, but it was clear early that Brady Manek and Christian James, the freshman guard’s two most reliable supporting cast members, might not have it either. In allowing Oklahoma State to jump out to an early 25-6 lead, the pair struggled to shoot a combined 1-of-6 from distance and failed to attack the Cowboys’ closeouts to find better looks.

As the Sooners went to work on a 12-point halftime deficit, Young realized that he was unlikely to get much more help. As a result, he did what most elite players do in that situation — he put on his blinders and tried to carry his team to a rivalry game victory. It nearly worked, as his offensive performance in the second half was flat-out remarkable. He gave the ball away just three times over the final 25 minutes (versus seven miscues in the first half) while scoring 34 points on 24 shots with a stellar 61.8 percent true shooting percentage, slightly above his season mark of 60.8 percent. By contrast, Young’s teammates shot a paltry 8-of-25 from the field after the break, and the takeaway was that Young should have been the one shooting less frequently?

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Friday Figures: Big 12 NCAA Tournament Chances, TCU’s Rough Start & Texas Goes Big

Posted by Chris Stone on January 12th, 2018

Friday Figures is back with a look at some of the various statistical trends in the Big 12. This week we’ll dive into how many teams can make the NCAA Tournament with a losing conference record, TCU’s disparate start on offense and defense, and Texas’ move to a super-sized lineup.

The Big 12 is going to put the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee in a strange spot. As the calendar ticks towards March and bracketology posts populate the web, the question of how many Big 12 teams will make the field of 68 should be a fun one. The safest bet is on six teams in, while the most ambitious estimate suggests eight entrants. Either way, the league could put the committee in a weird position if KenPom’s conference projections hold in place. Right now, just four teams — Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and West Virginia — are projected to finish the regular season with Big 12 winning percentage of .500 or above. Four additional schools — Baylor, Kansas State, TCU and Texas — are lumped together at 8-10. Why’s that interesting? Since the Big 12 took on its current incarnation in the 2012-13 season, just five teams from the country’s top six conferences have made the NCAA Tournament with a losing league record. Three of those have come from the Big 12 and two hailed from the Big Ten. No ACC, Big East, SEC or Pac-12 teams have made the Dance with a losing record in that time frame. If these projections hold, the Selection Committee could be forced the push that number quite a bit higher.

Source: KenPom

TCU’s Big 12 start is awfully unique. The Horned Frogs are out to an inauspicious 1-3 start in league play with their lone win coming over Baylor in overtime. The optimist among us will point out that their three losses came by a combined six points. The pessimist will instead point to the above chart, which plots every Big 12 teams’ offensive and defensive efficiency from conference play dating back to 2012-13. The two circled points? On the right, 2017-18 TCU. On the left, the 2013-14 TCU squad that went 0-18 in conference play. The link between them? Poor defense. These Horned Frogs would rank as the second worst defense in the Big 12 of the last six seasons, second — by just 0.1 points per 100 possessions — to the group that won a grand total zero games in league play. While it appears head coach Jamie Dixon has resolved the offensive issues that plagued the 2013-14 team, he’ll need to work some magic on the defensive end for TCU to live up to its new expectations.

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Can West Virginia Keep It Together?

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 9th, 2018

For a touch over three years now, West Virginia has experienced consistent success playing one of the country’s most unmistakable brands of basketball. Lest you call the Mountaineers’ pressing style a gimmick, they’re 93-29 over a period that includes two Sweet Sixteen runs, a Big 12 Tournament crown and one other finals appearance. But just like every Big 12 team other than Kansas, a regular season title has eluded Bob Huggins. The ‘Eers have been right in the thick of the race over the last two seasons, finishing second in both, but while banking on the Jayhawks to cede the regular season league title remains a sucker’s bet, West Virginia absolutely has the pieces on hand to finish the job in 2018.

Jevon Carter (left) doesn’t care how quickly Trae Young is rising up the draft boards.
(Ben Queen/USA TODAY Sports)

Though their competition in the run-up to league play was not great, the Mountaineers are nonetheless are off to a 14-1 start with zero losses since Opening Night. Their resume includes an early December win over Virginia that has only escalated in value, and a victory over Oklahoma that doubled as a reminder that Trae Young — as talented and electrifying as he is — is also a human who occasionally has to share a court with the one-man defensive juggernaut that is Jevon Carter. As the unrelenting heartbeat of the Mountaineers, Carter has continued to improve despite the consensus that he first played for Huggins in the old Big East. As good as Carter already was — the senior guard was an All-Big 12 Second Team selection last season — he’s improved his game on both ends, increasing his steal rate, assist rate, ability to draw contact and free throw proficiency. Additionally, in a system that relies on non-stop activity, depth and fresh legs, Miles has played 83 percent of the available minutes during the young conference season.

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Friday Figures: Home Court Advantage, West Virginia’s Press & Baylor’s Offensive Woes

Posted by Chris Stone on January 5th, 2018

Friday Figures is a (somewhat) weekly feature where we look at some of the most intriguing statistics from the Big 12. This week, we’re diving into the Big 12’s home court advantage (or lack thereof), Bob Huggins’ preseason fib and what’s ailing Baylor.

Home-court advantage ain’t what it used to be. That home teams in the Big 12 have only won two of their 12 contests so far is one of the more startling figures to come out of early conference play. Obviously the first 12 games have been dramatic, but maybe it should not be a big surprise that visiting teams are winning more often. Over the past two seasons, the league registered the first- and third-worst conference home win percentages for the Big 12 of the KenPom era, as the graph below shows.

Source: KenPom

This phenomenon isn’t unique to the Big 12, though. Across the spectrum, home teams are winning conference games less often. Over the summer, Ken Pomeroy put in some work trying to figure out why exactly such a decline exists. His conclusion was that home teams are increasingly losing out on their foul advantage which coincides very well with their decline in home court advantage. So, although it’s unlikely that Big 12 home teams will continue to post a .200 win percentage over the course of the season, it is certainly possible that we’ll see more unexpected road wins like the one Texas Tech pulled off at Kansas.

Bob Huggins is a fibber. Before the start of the season, Huggins suggested that West Virginia may not use its fabled press quite as often this season because of depth issues. “We might be better served to do something else,” he said at the time. “We’re going to keep doing it and see. I’m more convinced we can’t than we can right now.” So far the lack of a deep bench has played out just as Huggins expected, with a Press Virginia low of 34.6 percent of the team’s total minutes coming from the bench, per KenPom. Despite that, West Virginia continues to press just as much and just as well as ever before, holding teams to 0.745 points per possession and a 31.5 percent turnover rate on those possessions.

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