Oklahoma Already Looking Bubbly Going into Last Pre-Conference Game

Posted by Justin Fedich on December 21st, 2016

If college basketball games ended after the first 20 minutes, Oklahoma would be one of seven remaining unbeaten teams in Division I and presumably ranked among the top 10 or 15 teams in the nation. Unfortunately for the Sooners, which currently stand at 6-4 and have led at halftime in all four of their losses this season, there are still two 20-minute halves in college basketball. Unless Lon Kruger‘s team can figure out how to be as successful in the second halves of games as they are in the first, Oklahoma is likely to miss its first NCAA Tournament since 2012. In its four defeats this season to Northern Iowa, Wisconsin, Wichita State and Memphis, all but one of those contests came down to the wire. The excuse of the loss of NPOY Buddy Hield, who could knock down big shots late in the game, is no longer an excuse as Jordan Woodard has proven more than capable. Rather, it has been the inconsistency among Woodard’s supporting cast that has caused Oklahoma’s struggles in putting together a complete performance against good competition.

Lon Kruger has a built a serious Final Four contender in his fifth season with Oklahoma. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

Lon Kruger’s squad is still trying to find its groove. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

The Sooners have fielded a different starting lineup in all four losses as Kruger has searched to find a formula that will work for his young, inexperienced team. This is evidenced most recently by the inclusion of freshman guard Jordan Shepherd into the lineup. Shepherd played eight combined minutes in Oklahoma’s first three losses but he led the team with 37 minutes and contributed 18 points in last Saturday’s overtime loss against Memphis. If his emergence in the backcourt is a sign of things to come, the Sooners may have finally found a workable rotation that includes Woodard, Christian James and Rashard Odomes. The frontcourt, however, is holding Oklahoma back. Khadeem Lattin, the only returning starter other than Woodard from last season’s Final Four team, has scored in single digits in five of his last six games including an anemic four points against Memphis and three points against Wichita State. While Lattin hasn’t been a consistent scoring threat at any point in his career, Oklahoma needs to find more scoring from the post. Khristian Doolittle and Jamuni McNeace are promising young frontcourt prospects, but Lattin as the more experienced player needs to provide more than the 6.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game he contributed in the four defeats.  Read the rest of this entry »

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A Coaching Tree Grows in Stillwater…

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 21st, 2016

West Virginia’s renaissance under Bob Huggins is by now a familiar story — perennially relevant hoops brand endures an uncharacteristic drought of postseason success, only to right itself with an overhaul of the team’s identity focused on frenzied defense, relentless offensive rebounding, a rare degree of unselfishness and staggering depth. Some 1,100 miles away, though, Brad Underwood – a former disciple of Huggins — is hard at work resurrecting Oklahoma State in a similar fashion.

Brad Underwood is Up to Plenty of Good in Stillwater (USA Today Images)

Brad Underwood is Up to Plenty of Good in Stillwater (USA Today Images)

Last Saturday, Underwood’s Cowboys dominated Wichita State 93-76 at Intrust Bank Arena to move to 9-2 on the season. The result didn’t get much national attention because of a surplus of good games that afternoon, but Oklahoma State dismantled a team that had gone 116 home games without allowing so much as 80 points to an opponent. The victory gave a significant boost to Oklahoma State’s non-conference resume in the wake of missed opportunities against North Carolina and Maryland, and come Big 12 play, opponents would be ill-advised to overlook the Cowboys in much the same way they overlooked the Mountaineers two seasons ago.

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Texas Won’t Make the NCAAs This Year and That’s Probably a Good Thing…

Posted by Nate Kotisso on December 19th, 2016

The Texas men’s basketball head coaching job is one of the most visible in all of college athletics and Shaka Smart certainly embraced that aspect of the position when he accepted it. After then signing the nation’s fifth best recruiting class, expectations in Austin quickly became that these recruits would walk in to the Erwin Center and take the country by storm. Through the first 10 games of this season, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that the “take the country by storm” part was at best an incorrect forecast. It’s looking a lot more like day-long cloud cover with periods of heavy rain shifting to light precipitation after dark.

Texas freshman Andrew Jones had his best all-around game (17 points, seven assists) in the team's losing effort. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

Texas freshman Andrew Jones had his best all-around game (17 points, seven assists) in the team’s losing effort. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

While it is true that the Longhorns are getting better, spotting that improvement has been difficult to identify. The last time Texas stepped on to a neutral floor — at the Legends Classic in Brooklyn — Smart’s team was run off the floor in embarrassing double-figure defeats to Northwestern and Colorado. Fast forward to Saturday afternoon’s game against Arkansas and the Longhorns arguably played their best game of the year despite the loss. Jarrett Allen (11 points, 10 rebounds), Andrew Jones (17 points, seven assists) and Tevin Mack (20 points, 12 rebounds) provided Smart with a diversity of scoring options for a team that has often struggled to both find good shots and make them.

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A Serious Analysis of Bob Huggins’ Comments on Playground Basketball

Posted by Nate Kotisso on December 14th, 2016

For as long as there has been college basketball, we have heard coaches across the country complain about youth sports. The correlation between those complaints and a head coach’s advancing age appears to be scientifically sound, but that doesn’t mean they don’t sometimes have a point. Last week Louisville women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz took time out of his postgame press conference to lament that “everybody gets a damn trophy” in today’s youth sports.

Bob Huggins believes playground basketball produced players who knew how to win. (Ben Queen/USA Today Sports)

Bob Huggins believes playground basketball produced players who knew how to win. (Ben Queen/USA Today Sports)

CBSSports.com’s Matt Norlander then did us a service by highlighting a series of quotes made by West Virginia coach Bob Huggins last weekend. The irascible head coach’s commentary centers on how playground and AAU basketball are different animals, but he prefers the former on how it teaches young players to learn the game. A few of his most illustrative lines:

  • “I don’t think they know how to play.”
  • “I think they play all of the time but they don’t. It’s kind of long and complicated and I’m not trying to kill AAU because I think it has some good. But I think when you used to have to go to the playground to play, you had to win, or you sat for four or five games.”
  • “You learn how to win.”
  • “You drive by courts now, you don’t see anyone out there playing. It’s just a different culture, I think. And in fairness, the athletes now are bigger, stronger, faster. They’re better. It’s just their idea of how to play sometimes baffles me.”

It goes without saying that Huggins and his peers typically try their best to avoid undermining the AAU programs because they know they will need those players to keep their programs nationally relevant. But some of Huggins’ comments ring true. AAU tournaments can take up the majority of a given day and teams often play for consecutive days at a time. Indeed, participating teams receive shoes and other apparel regardless of how they finish. And criss-crossing the country to play basketball can take a toll on these kids’ developing bodies. But these weren’t Huggins’ main points. Rather, he believes that the drying up of playground basketball around the country has produced a wave of prospects who don’t know how to play the game.

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The Five Most Improved Players in the Big 12

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 14th, 2016

It’s been an exciting first month of hoops in the Big 12, with a few preconceived notions about teams evolving over the first four weeks. Kansas still appears to be alone at the head of the pack, but the gap between the Jayhawks and the rest of the league looks smaller than originally considered with Baylor storming out of the gate unbeaten and West Virginia showing no ill effects from their departed seniors. We’ve also seen a handful of Big 12 players take sizable steps in the progression of their careers. Some of the five breakout players listed below have simply produced at similar clips to their careers to this point, but with bigger workloads this season, while others have just become more well-rounded players. Still others have benefited from changes in their team’s style of play or coaching, and some improvements have been a result of some combination of the above.

Regardless of the reason, the thing to watch moving forward will be whether these players can carry their newfound success through league play. These are the Big 12’s five most improved players in order of who has the best chance to sustain his performance the rest of the way.

Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State

Look for Oklahoma State's Jawun Evans (left) to leave a few more opponents in his dust before the end of the 2016-17 season. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

Look for Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans to leave a few more opponents in his dust before the end of the 2016-17 season. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

  • 2016-17: 33.9% POSS, 23.9 PPG, 5.1 APG, 9.9% TO
  • 2015-16: 26.6% POSS, 12.9 PPG, 4.9 APG, 20.4% TO

The sophomore Evans was already a tremendous point guard, but Oklahoma State’s coaching transition from Travis Ford to Brad Underwood has unlocked something special in Stillwater. His huge increase in scoring has been heavily influenced by the breakneck pace with which the Cowboys are playing (~10 more possessions per game), but it also says a lot about Evans that he can maintain such a high rate of productivity while taking on more responsibility in a hectic environment.

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Carlton Bragg to Miss Time Following Battery Charge

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 10th, 2016

The disappointing nature of Kansas forward Carlton Bragg’s nascent career reached a new low on Friday following an arrest and subsequent battery charge of battery by the Douglas County (Kansas) District Attorney’s Office. Although the charge doesn’t specifically fall under the domestic violence statute because of how the state of Kansas defines it, a press release from the office explains that it is effectively the same thing. The statement also identified the alleged victim as Bragg’s girlfriend, whom he is accused of striking and pushing down the stairs. Kansas head coach Bill Self suspended the sophomore center indefinitely last night as the school continues to gather facts. With Bragg’s next court appearance set for December 27, it’s possible that he’ll miss more than just today’s game against Nebraska as the legal process unfolds.

Carlton Bragg's season took a turn for the worse following a domestic battery charge. (AP)

Carlton Bragg’s season took a turn for the worse following a domestic battery charge. (AP)

Unfortunately this is not the first time Self has had to handle players running afoul of the law on his watch. In 2006, for example, he dismissed C.J. Giles after a former girlfriend charged the player with battery. Four years later, he suspended Mario Little following charges of battery, criminal damage to property and criminal trespassing. Little missed six games in 2010 but finished the season in Lawrence before graduating. More recently, Thomas Robinson was cited in 2011 for striking and spitting on a Lawrence nightclub employee, but the victim in that incident ultimately chose not to file charges.

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Big 12 Resumes at the Quarter Pole of the Season

Posted by Justin Fedich on December 9th, 2016

The Big 12 has contributed seven of its 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament in each of the past three seasons, but the conference will be challenged to reach 70 percent representation this year. When TCU lost to SMU on Wednesday and Iowa State fell to Iowa on Thursday, it went to show that the middle tier of the league behind Kansas, Baylor and West Virginia probably isn’t as strong as it typically has been. By way of comparison, it was abundantly clear at this time last season that at least six Big 12 teams would make the NCAA Tournament field. Inexperience and a lack of quality wins beyond those three leave a bunch of teams with many questions to be answered. Let’s briefly take a look at the resume of each at the quarter pole of the season.

Locks

Kansas is Looking for More Smiles in March (USA Today Images)

Kansas is Looking for More Smiles in March (USA Today Images)

  • Kansas (99.8% chance of making NCAA Tournament, according to teamrankings.com): No justification is needed to explain why Kansas will be in the NCAA Tournament for the 28th straight season. The bigger question should be whether Bill Self’s Jayhawks can finish the season as the No. 1 overall seed.
  • West Virginia (99%): Aside from a strange slip-up against Temple, the non-conference season has been impressive for the Mountaineers. A huge road win at Virginia and a nearly 50-point win over Manhattan — a game in which West Virginia forced a whopping 40 turnovers — provides enough assurance that Bob Huggins’ squad will make the Big Dance, and likely as a top-four protected seed.
  • Baylor (97.8%): Arguably no team in college basketball has a stronger non-conference resume than Baylor to this point. The Bears have been one of the most pleasant surprises of the young season and would need to seriously falter in Big 12 play to lose its grasp on an NCAA Tournament bid.

Jury Is Still Out 

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A Rising TCU Tide Could Lift Big 12 Boats

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 8th, 2016

While TCU fell from the ranks of the unbeaten on Wednesday night with a 15-point loss at SMU, the Horned Frogs’ ascension under Jamie Dixon has been obvious as the remaining pieces from the Trent Johnson era have blended well with young talents like Jaylen Fisher and Alex RobinsonIntent on leveraging a renovated arena and talent-rich local recruiting base, Dixon has already shored up the long-term stability of the program with commitments from 2017 four-star recruits Kevin Samuel and R.J. Nembhard. As a result, TCU’s future looks quite a bit better than its short term, but unlike with most coaching transitions, its present doesn’t look too shabby either. Dixon obviously did not walk into a Steve Prohm-like situation at Iowa State where the new guy was under pressure to win right away, but his early results in Fort Worth give reason to believe, which bodes well for a program that has gone 8-64 in Big 12 play since joining the league in 2012. Even if this immensely deep conference keeps TCU from climbing out of the cellar in 2017, mere respectability at the bottom of a league with so many NCAA Tournament candidates can be an advantage other middling power conference teams lack.

TCU may no longer be unbeaten, but their improvement can only help the rest of the Big 12. (AP/Bob Haynes)

Alex Robinson and TCU may no longer be unbeaten, but their improvement can only help the rest of the Big 12. (AP/Bob Haynes)

If you take a look around the nation’s Power 5 leagues, you’ll find a lot of flotsam among the dregs. In the ACC, Boston College and Georgia Tech’s seasons were pretty much dead on arrival (the Yellow Jackets’ win over VCU on Wednesday night notwithstanding). In the Big East, Georgetown, St. John’s and DePaul have a combined 1-8 record against the KenPom top 100. Rutgers and Penn State may eventually turn things around in the Big Ten, but neither figure to make much noise this season. And the bottom of the SEC rarely ever makes waves, either. Head west to the Pac-12 and you’ll see uphill battles ahead for Washington (which these Horned Frogs have already beaten twice), Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington State. TCU has its work cut out for it this season, but even if Dixon’s team winds up on the bottom rung of the Big 12 ladder yet again, there are certainly worse places to be. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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