Red River Rising as Texas and Oklahoma Grab Early Resume Wins

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 12th, 2019

Both Oklahoma and Texas have had their moments in the Big 12, but it would be fair to call them wildcards in recent seasons. Under Lon Kruger‘s leadership, the Sooners have finished as high as second in the conference (2015) and as low as ninth (2017). Under Shaka Smart‘s direction, the Longhorns have finished as high as fourth (2016) and as poorly as last place (2017). While the small sample caveat applies here, the early going this season has given both teams’ fanbases some reason to buy in to 2020.

Lon Kruger (USA Today Images)

Beating one of the worst teams in the Big Ten isn’t going to turn heads on a national level (nor should it), but the Sooners answered the bell over the weekend with a 71-62 semi-road win over Minnesota in Sioux Falls. Like most games around this time of year, a sloppy first half ceded to a 23-4 rager midway through the second half. Oklahoma is hardly a young team, but with the squad graduating five seniors last spring, cohesion was going to be an early question. To their credit, Brady Manek (16.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG) and Kristian Doolittle (10 points, 10 rebounds in his debut against the Gophers) have given Kruger a pair of leaders to which to turn, while Wichita State transfer Austin Reaves (17 PPG, 6 RPG) and sophomore guard Jamal Bienemy should be rotation stalwarts all season long. More tests are on the way, starting with tonight’s matchup against an Oregon State team fresh off a win over Iowa State, but more often than not Kruger can be trusted to get the most out of his players.

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Big 12 Key Questions: Will Kansas Return to the Top?

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 4th, 2019

You didn’t have to look at the standings last season to know that the Jayhawks weren’t their usual selves. You could throw a dart and hit a valid reason for Kansas missing out on a Big 12 15-peat: A disappointing backcourt outside of Devon Dotson; Udoka Azubuike missing 75 percent of the team’s games with a hand injury, and the frontcourt rotation behind him being terribly ill-equipped to pick up the slack; or the fact that eventual conference champion Texas Tech was flat-out better and Kansas State far more cohesive. With the page turning to 2019-20, though, the Jayhawks will look to avenge last season with a cast of bona fide challengers waiting for the league’s flagship program to stumble.

Bill Self No Longer Has the Pressure of The Streak to Worry About (USA Today Images)

Bill Self‘s team will be much deeper this season. Dedric Lawson is gone, but the Jayhawks return nearly everyone else of consequence. Though the head coach may not say so publicly, it’s tough to ignore the feeling that he isn’t all that heartbroken over losing Charlie Moore and K.J. Lawson, even if Quentin Grimes left Lawrence with a substantial amount of potential that Kelvin Sampson may tap at Houston. In their place, Isaiah Moss and Jalen Wilson should bring the scoring punch Kansas needs to put together the kinds of runs they struggled to assemble a season ago. Defensively, the Jayhawks will be deep and versatile up front. Self could surround Azubuike with another defense-first big like David McCormack or Silvio De Sousa, but with the way basketball has trended over the last few years, a small-ball option emerging among Marcus Garrett or Ochai Agbaji could be what tips the scales, provided of course that Self can keep the noise surrounding the program’s current entanglement with the NCAA from becoming a mitigating factor.

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Texas Tech is The Best Parts Of College Basketball in 2019, Distilled

Posted by Brian Goodman on April 5th, 2019

The last 10-15 years of college basketball have witnessed a number of changes. The impact of the NBA’s one-and-done rule has been obvious, but think about what else has shaped the game. There has been an influx of international talent as well as a sharp increase in undergraduate and graduate transfers. In practice facilities, coaching staffs have access to more data and video than ever before, and on the sidelines, the best coaches find a way to marry all of that information with the traditional scouting and player development on which their careers have been built to get the best possible results on the court. Yes, there remains a variety of ways to skin the cat, but not many, and especially not when it comes to rising to the absolute top. Texas Tech may not be the objectively best team left, and whether they’re the most talented team left is debatable, but when I watch the Red Raiders play, I see college basketball in 2019 crystallized into one team.

Texas Tech is the Likeliest Unlikely Final Four Team (USA Today Images)

Sure, Jarrett Culver is a sophomore rather than a one-and-done, but he was already on many 2019 NBA Draft boards after playing a perfect complementary role to Zhaire Smith and Keenan Evans on last season’s Elite Eight squad. Last summer, the Red Raiders put Culver on a liberal eating regimen so that he could bulk up and carry the workload necessary to propel his team to a regular season Big 12 title. As a result, he earned Big 12 Player of the Year honors and has led Texas Tech to the sport’s final weekend as a prospective lottery pick two months from now. I guess you could say it’s worked.

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Rushed Reactions: Iowa State 78, Kansas 66

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 16th, 2019

Coming into Saturday’s Big 12 championship game, this had not been a tournament to remember for a small but important number of reasons. Most notably, this year’s edition didn’t include a team pushing for a #1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, and the conference’s two biggest NBA Draft prospects (Texas Tech‘s Jarrett Culver and TexasJaxson Hayes) were bounced in the quarterfinals. West Virginia‘s upset over Texas Tech was important at the moment, but it also birthed a laugher of a semifinal game against Kansas. In Friday’s other semifinal match-up, Kansas State couldn’t overcome the loss of Dean Wade, leaving fans with a title tilt between two very talented teams weighed with inconsistencies (and in Kansas’ case, roster limitations) that make them unlikely bets for deep NCAA Tournament runs.

Talen Horton-Tucker and Iowa State kept their lead over the Jayhawks at arm’s length, capturing the Big 12 Tournament crown and transforming Sprint Center into Hilton Coliseum South in the process. (Getty)

Still, the Kansas-Iowa State series has consistently generated juice throughout the decade and the last edition of the 2010s was no different. And if you can’t hold a conference tournament on campus, the next-best place is Kansas City, where both Kansas and Iowa State fanbases are more than happy to pack the joint and get loud. And the teams held up their end of the bargain too, delivering a fun, high-level championship game resulting in Steve Prohm‘s club coming out on top for its fourth Big 12 tournament crown in six seasons. Here are a few thoughts on tonight’s game.

  • Iowa State takes advantage of extra reps. I mentioned in this week’s preview that Iowa State had plenty for which to play this weekend. The Cyclones ended the regular season on a disastrous 1-5 skid and the intensity with which they played had started to get the best of them, embodied by confrontations among players and then between players and their head coach. This team is still very tough to predict, but its worst days appear to be behind them. The Cyclones were stellar offensively this week at the Sprint Center, but they were outstanding on defense, allowing 0.95 points per possession for the tournament (compared with 1.05 points per possession in Big 12 play). The most impressive part of their weekend came in Saturday’s final as the Cyclones’ bigs stymied Kansas’ Dedric Lawson into an inefficient 8-of-21 shooting night, even drawing a technical on the typically cool-headed big man. Better Iowa State teams have fallen early in the NCAA Tournament, so caution should be exercised before pegging the Cyclones for a deep run, but there’s no denying that they took complete advantage of the opportunity presented to them in Kansas City this week.
  • Kansas needs better production from its X-factors in order to reach its ceiling. The Jayhawks beat West Virginia on Friday evening thanks in large part to a terrific stretch from Quentin Grimes, but he couldn’t follow it up, finishing with only 10 points on 5-of-12 shooting on Saturday. Marcus Garrett pulled down some big rebounds, but otherwise experienced a horrible night on the offensive end, and Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack didn’t play the way they’re capable of playing. It’s not reasonable to expect those two freshman to produce on a consistent basis, but unexpected contributions from complementary players are what is necessary for a team like Kansas to make a run in next week’s bracket. You see it all the time. Lawson and Devin Dotson will get their numbers and impact the game more often than not, but who steps up to fill in the gaps is the question Kansas will have to answer if it’s going to end the season on high note.
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Rushed Reactions: Big 12 Semifinal Friday

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 15th, 2019

A heated series will be reignited Saturday night as Iowa State will square off against against Kansas. (Orlin Wagner/AP)

While West Virginia‘s quarterfinal upset of Texas Tech hammered home the Big 12’s lack of elite teams, it also highlighted the league’s parity and unpredictability when it comes to individual games. The conference figures to send something like seven teams to the Big Dance, but it’s tough to feel confident about any of them reaching the Elite Eight, much less the Final Four. All that said, there was something odd about one of the co-champions not being in the house for the semifinals, having been bounced by the league’s worst team. That didn’t stop the two semifinal bouts from giving us some drama, however. Here are some of the key takeaways from Friday night’s action.

  1. Marial Shayok carries Iowa State home. After a one-year layoff, the Cyclones are back in the Big 12 Tournament championship, marking the fourth time in six seasons that Iowa State has made it to Saturday night. This time around, they have the Virginia transfer to thank for some clutch play down the stretch. Trailing 55-52 with 2:38 remaining, Shayok bombed a pair of triples on consecutive trips to give the Cyclones the edge they needed to outlast the Big 12 regular season co-champions. Shayok wasn’t just a shooter on Friday night, however, routinely taking advantage of Dean Wade‘s absence to drive the lane and finish in transition. It was just a few weeks ago that the Iowa State roster looked fractured, but even though Kansas State wasn’t at full strength tonight, the Cyclones’ performance restored the notion that they’re a second weekend NCAA threat no matter what happens tomorrow in Kansas City.
  2. Shorthanded Kansas State effort affirms Wildcats’ offensive challenges. Without Wade in the lineup, Bruce Weber‘s team made scoring look like a trip to the dentist. Ugly as it was, Kansas State had plenty of chances to come out on top tonight, but a 1-of-14 stretch late in the first half put an end to that. The Wildcats only had to be passable down low to secure a victory, but they couldn’t even muster that much. The silver lining here may be that the Wildcats are certainly capable of better even if they don’t get Wade back at full strength in the NCAA Tournament, but they’ll have to lean even more heavily on their vaunted defense if they can’t cash in easy looks, and as excellent a defender as Barry Brown is, it’s unreasonable to ask him to carry that much.
  3. Is this closer to the real Quentin Grimes? Kansas‘ most highly-touted freshman has been an enigma all year, but he went nuclear on the Mountaineers in the first half this evening, burying all five of his threes on his way to 16 points before intermission. Grimes’ confidence picked up as his shots fell, eventually giving him enough to get inside, which he’s been hesitant to do for long stretches. The Jayhawks will never be as good as they could have been with Udoka Azubuike and Silvio De Sousa still playing, but the question now becomes how heavily Grimes can be counted on when Ochai Agbaji or Marcus Garrett sputter as they did in the first half Friday night. That’s probably not the difference between a trip to the Final Four and the Elite Eight, but every team that eyes a deep NCAA Tournament run needs a guy who can get hot for a stretch or two when the rest of the team is stuck in neutral, and Grimes can certainly provide that for Kansas.
  4. West Virginia bows out, but not before giving us something to remember it by. There were several times this season where you could tune into a Mountaineers’ game and see Bob Huggins‘ sideline demeanor or read snippets from his postgame press conferences and draw the conclusion that coaching this season’s team was the last thing on Earth he wanted to do. Despite being in the twilight of his career with a team littered with injuries, dismissals and transfers, the coaching lifer showed that his team still had something left in its shocking upset of Texas Tech on Thursday night. Unable to do the near-impossible and beat three clearly better teams in three days, West Virginia exited the tournament gracefully with a hard-fought loss to Kansas in a situation where they were simply outgunned. The Mountaineers will regroup next year without Esa Ahmad, Beetle Bolden and probably Sagaba Konate, but keep some intriguing pieces in Lamont West, Derek Culver, Jordan McCabe, Brandon Knapper and Jermaine Haley. Perhaps the most fascinating contributor of that bunch will be Culver, who was held out of his first 10 games this year due to academic issues, but went on to post the Big 12’s highest individual defensive rebound percentage in league play (30 percent) as a freshman while soaking up 73 percent of available minutes. Add McDonald’s All-American Oscar Tshiewbe down low and it’s not unreasonable to expect the Mountaineers to contend for a top-half finish in 2019-20.
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Big 12 Tournament Storylines To Follow

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 13th, 2019

This year’s Big 12 Tournament will have a different feel to it than those of recent memory. For the first time since 2005, Kansas will not enter the event as the regular season champion; and coincidentally enough, that year was also the last time that Texas Tech advanced to the championship game. The Red Raiders lost to Oklahoma State that year, but they are the clear favorite to cut down the nets in Kansas City this weekend. It’s easy to see The Streak ending as the biggest takeaway from this Big 12 season, but there’s still some conference intrigue left between now and Selection Sunday. Let’s get to it.

Jarrett Culver is licking his chops at the opportunity to deliver Texas Tech’s first Big 12 tournament championship. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Texas Tech looks to ride the wave. The Red Raiders are the clear favorite this week, and for plenty of reasons. Not only are they the conference’s best team with the nation’s best defense and the Big 12’s best player in Jarrett Culver, but they also have one of college basketball’s best coaches in Chris Beard. On top of all of that, they’ve won nine in a row and 11 of their last 12 with an offense that has significantly improved. Additionally, among the serious contenders to take home the trophy this weekend, Texas Tech is the only team that has its full complement of players healthy and available. So take your pick. Sure, anything can happen in a single-elimination setting on a neutral floor, but if you’re looking for a bold prediction about which team will cut down the Sprint Center nets, you won’t find it here.

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Big 12 Weekend in Review: Leaders Stayed the Course With Kansas Hovering

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 4th, 2019

Concerns about Kansas remain, but all the Jayhawks needed to put the Silvio De Sousa news and Marcus Garrett‘s injury behind them was a home game. As it has for decades, a return to Allen Fieldhouse provided a respite as the Jayhawks blew out Texas Tech on Saturday. The Red Raiders missing 80 percent of their three-pointers accelerated the outcome, but yet again, Bill Self made the necessary adjustments to enable the Jayhawks to log their best three-point shooting performance in nearly three weeks. While Baylor, Kansas State and Iowa State also won their games to stay ahead of Kansas in the league standings, in my mind, the notion of The Streak coming to an end will not merit serious discussion until Self’s club is two or more games back of the leaders with five remaining.

Baylor’s 90-64 victory over TCU on Saturday was big for a few reasons. As former contributor and friend of RTC Kendall Kaut noted, it marked the biggest loss by final margin of Jamie Dixon‘s career as a head coach at either Pittsburgh or TCU. It also kept the Bears in first place, and a 40-point, 9-of-12 from distance showcase from Makai Mason in that game would make even former Brady Heslip turn red. Seriously. Look where some of these shots came from. The win pushed Baylor’s Big 12 winning streak to five games, marking just the third time the Bears have accomplished such a feat. Six league wins in a row has proven elusive for Scott Drew to this point (exempting a couple cases where the sixth win came in the Big 12 Tournament), but the Bears will have a good chance to reach that apex on Wednesday night against Texas. Looking forward, it remains anyone’s guess how long they can stay hot (40.2% 3FG) from distance. This season has been massive for Baylor in that an NCAA Tournament bid seems like a formality just a few months after being picked to finish ninth in the league, but don’t be surprised to see some regression as the schedule toughens on the Bears down the stretch.

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Breaking Down the Pileup at the Top of the Big 12 Standings

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 21st, 2019

Through three weeks of Big 12 play, we have a metaphorical clown car at the top of the standings with Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State and Kansas State all sitting at 4-2 and Baylor just a half-game back at 3-2. As I wrote earlier this month, a big reason why the Jayhawks have been able to maintain their extensive conference title streak has been the inability of their top challengers to cash in when opportunity knocks. Sure enough, on Saturday Kansas lost to arguably the worst team in the conference in West Virginia and just four hours later, Baylor dropped Texas Tech without the services of Tristan Clark, far and away the Bears’ best forward. Yes, winning on the road is hard, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Jayhawks and Red Raiders were four-point and three-point favorites, respectively, and that Texas Tech did not lead the Bears at any point in the second half. Despite Kansas’ struggles, betting on them to win the conference remains the safe pick, but based on how things are going, it might be awhile before we see much separation.

After a tepid start to the season, Kansas State may finally be rounding into form.
(Olivia Bergmeier/Collegian Media Group)

As up-and-down as conference play has been as a whole this season, Kansas’ Achilles’ heel remains the same as it has been all year: an inability to close games out. This problem goes back to the team’s guards, who, as electrifying and athletic as they are, don’t have the experience, poise and confidence that so many of Bill Self‘s previous floor generals have possessed. In past years, whenever the Jayhawks needed a late bucket, they could always turn to guys like Frank Mason or Devonte’ Graham make something good happen. This year, Devon Dotson, who is fantastic in the open floor, is also showing his inexperience by deferring a little too much in the clutch. In fairness to him, Quentin Grimes was expected to be further along at this point, so Dotson has been forced to take on a bigger role than Self would like, but the results have nonetheless made crunch time an adventure.

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Injury to Udoka Azubuike and Other Woes Not Enough to Pick Against Kansas in Big 12 Race

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 8th, 2019

Kansas was dealt a significant blow on Sunday when the program announced that center Udoka Azubuike will have season-ending surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right hand. It’s the latest trickle of bad news for a team that can never seem to avoid having something go sideways with its big men, whether it is Azubuike, Silvio De Sousa, Billy Preston, Carlton Bragg, Cliff Alexander or Cheick Diallo. There have been injuries, certain and potential NCAA violations, slow development and matches simply not working out the way both parties hoped for one reason or another. You name it and the Jayhawks have been through it, even if it can be argued that some of it the problems have been self-inflicted. But this weekend’s news was also a tough break for Azubuike directly, who over the last two years has shown tremendous dedication to improving his game and his body to the point where he was considered a possible first-round pick in last year’s NBA Draft despite an awful track record at the foul line and an inability to defend in space.

Kansas Jayhawks Basketball Big 12
The Jayhawks may be down and out, but picking against them to win the Big 12 remains a trap. (AP)

Despite losing Azubuike, the road to the Big 12 title still goes through Lawrence even though personnel issues are poised to force Bill Self into playing a smaller but more modern brand of basketball for yet another season. Skeptics may point to the team’s current three-point shooting woes (27.9 percent over its last eight games), but those struggles are not any more indicative of the team’s proficiency than its white-hot start (43.9 percent over its first six games). As tends to be the case, the answer is somewhere in the middle, and for all the deserved talk of the league’s defenses being terrific this year, just two Big 12 teams (TCU and West Virginia) rank among the top 100 in defensive 3PA/FGA, and none in the top 50. It stands to reason, then, that Kansas will be just fine once its accuracy trends back up. Freshman Quentin Grimes is already starting to bounce back, with the highly-touted guard averaging 16.3 points and shooting at a 37.5 percent clip from distance over his last three games. Even if this unit doesn’t showcase the pinpoint accuracy of last year’s group, it has a better all-around five in Dedric Lawson, who can defend away from the hoop and terrorize opposing defenses with his above-average handle, passing ability and range. When combined with a strong arsenal of post moves, the transfer forward is a walking double-double and Player of the Year candidate.

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Key Stretch for Surprising Oklahoma Begins Tonight

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 21st, 2018

One of these days, people will learn to stop doubting Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger. Full disclosure: that includes me, but in my defense, my skepticism of the Sooners coming into this year was justified. They struggled horrifically on defense all last season, and it wasn’t just Trae Young. The Sooners routinely got outhustled on the glass, and at a time when spacing and three-point shooting skyrocketed, Oklahoma didn’t apply enough pressure to consistently force turnovers or lock down the three-point line. They memorably beat Kansas by hacking Udoka Azubuike instead of defending him straight-up, and while it was a savvy and winning move, it also highlighted the team’s serious half-court weaknesses. On offense, we all saw how lost the Sooners were on the few possessions where Young wasn’t involved, and Kruger didn’t do himself any favors by pulling in the Big 12’s worst recruiting class. While players can get better, the league’s coaches pegged Oklahoma to finish eighth in the Big 12 during the preseason. All the Sooners have done since is go 10-1 against one of the country’s best non-league slates, with highlights like neutral-court wins over Florida and Notre Dame with a healthy Rex Pflueger and some solid if not overwhelming wins in true road environments.

Overlook Lon Kruger’s Team at Your Peril (USA Today Images)

The key to Oklahoma’s fast start has been its defense. The Sooners aren’t guarding the perimeter especially well or forcing a bunch of turnovers, but what they have done is make every shot a chore. Oklahoma’s defense ranks 15th nationally in eFG% (43.3%), fourth in field-goal percentage on shots at the rim (48.3%), and seventh in free throw rate (22.8%). To lead the way, Jamuni McNeace has developed into one of the Big 12’s best rim protectors, and sophomore Brady Manek has made some big strides as well. On top of their contributions, Christian James has crashed the glass like a man possessed, averaging 12.5 rebounds over his last four games (after averaging just 3.4 over his first seven). Though some of that can be tied to McNeace missing two games with a right ankle sprain from which he still hasn’t fully recovered, James has elevated his defense to complement his offensive improvement, making make him more of a two-way threat.

While OU’s improved defense has paced the team’s fast start, its offense hasn’t always been as good. Quality three-point shooting and ball control have carried the flag on its best nights, but consistency has been fleeting. Tonight’s game at Northwestern (7:00 PM, BTN) begins an insanely tough stretch for this group. Following a 12-day break, the Sooners will go back on the road to face #1 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. A visit from Oklahoma State should bring a reprieve, but next comes a January 8 date with Texas Tech in Lubbock. That’s three tilts against top-30 defenses, including two of the top six, and none of those matchups will take place in the warm confines of the Lloyd Noble Center.

A look at last month’s Battle 4 Atlantis provides something of a benchmark for how Oklahoma has fared against top-flight defenses, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. Against Florida (ninth nationally), Oklahoma scored just 0.94 points per possession even though it won 65-60 by tightening up even more than the Gators did. They weren’t so fortunate the next day against the 11th-ranked Wisconsin defense, though, losing by 20. Even if the Sooners come up short in their upcoming stretch of difficult games, they’ll be in much better shape than the industry predicted at the start of the season. Bag a couple more big wins, though, and the college basketball world will have to start thinking about Oklahoma as more than a run-of-the-mill at-large team.

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