Big 12 Offseason Storylines to Follow

Posted by Brian Goodman on April 24th, 2017

The Big 12 had a decent but ultimately unimpressive showing in this year’s postseason. Of the league’s six NCAA Tournament teams, three advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, but only one advanced to the Elite Eight, and we all know what happened from there as Kansas flamed out to Jordan Bell and the Oregon Ducks. With the offseason now upon us and some time ahead to reflect, here are a few storylines worth following this summer and into the start of the 2017-18 season.

Frank Mason Takes His Hardware to the Next Level (USA Today Images)

  • How will Kansas retool? Frank Mason III leaves Lawrence as one of the most decorated players in program history. His wonderful four-year career won’t soon be forgotten, but it doesn’t change the fact that Kansas needs to figure out its point guard situation moving forward. Transfer Malik Newman can serve as the Jayhawks’ floor general in a pinch, but he’s more of a scoring guard than a facilitator and Bill Self has already said that he sees the redshirt sophomore manning the two. Barring a surprise commitment from elite point guard prospect Trevon Duval, the Jayhawks are looking at some combination of Devonte’ Graham and freshman Marcus Garrett handling the team’s ball-handling duties next season. Self also needs some frontcourt depth following the departures of Landen Lucas, Josh Jackson and Carlton Bragg, but the point guard position will be the most intriguing roster question as the Jayhawks begin their pursuit of a 14th consecutive regular season Big 12 title next fall.
  • A new era at Iowa State. Despite 47 wins and a Sweet Sixteen appearance in two seasons in Ames, Steve Prohm needs to show what he can do without the services of Monte’ Morris, Deonte Burton, Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas in the lineup. The job now becomes one of rebuilding for the Cyclone program, but there is somewhat of a foundation from which to work. Solomon Young, Donovan Jackson, transfer Ray Kasongo, Cameron Lard and highly-touted freshman Lindell Wigginton are interesting building blocks, but don’t appear to offer the ceiling of Hoiberg and Prohm’s best teams. The early going next season may be a little rocky as this group becomes accustomed to playing with each other, but a top-half finish in Big 12 play would be an admirable achievement. Fans should additionally keep an eye on Prohm’s pursuit of coveted JuCo forward Shakur Juiston.

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2016-17 RTC National Player of the Year: Frank Mason III

Posted by Walker Carey on March 31st, 2017

One of the coolest things about collegiate athletics is when a relatively unheralded recruit develops into one of the country’s best players. College basketball has experienced this a few times in recent years with the likes of Trey Burke at Michigan, Victor Oladipo at Indiana and Doug McDermott at Creighton, but the case of 2016-17 RTC National Player of the Year Frank Mason III, though, is particularly unique. The Kansas point guard from Petersburg, Virginia, originally signed with Towson before a failing grade in a state-mandated government class torpedoed that plan. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the young player, as his stock rose considerably during a post-graduate year at Massanutten Military Academy (VA). Kansas was looking at a variety of point guard options at the time, but it was not until Cat Barber signed with NC State, Chris Jones went to Louisville, Demetrius Jackson went to Notre Dame, and Jordan McLaughlin went to USC that head coach Bill Self was willing to pull the trigger on Mason. That stroke of good fortune resulted in the development of a standout player who became a three-time all-Big 12 player and an All-American during a very successful four-season run in Lawrence.

While Mason was already a very good starting point guard during his sophomore and junior seasons, he took a superstar turn this season. What the dynamic playmaker lacked in stature – he stands at just 5’11” – he made up for it with a knack for making big plays and coming through in the clutch. Not only did Mason lead the Big 12 in scoring at 20.9 points per game, but he also became one of the country’s most reliable three-point shooters at 47.1 percent mark behind the arc. The performance that perfectly highlights how dominant Mason was this year came in Kansas’ regular season finale at Oklahoma State — in a battle with Cowboys’ point guard Jawun Evans, Mason finished with 27 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in an all-around effort. The floor leader turned in another virtuoso performance last week during the Jayhawks’ run to the Elite Eight. In their dominating Sweet Sixteen victory over Big Ten regular season champion Purdue, Mason controlled the entire game to finish with 26 points (9-of-11 FG and 4-of-5 3FG), seven assists and seven rebounds.

While Kansas’ season ended unexpectedly in a disappointing loss to #3 seed Oregon, it is difficult to characterize the Jayhawks’ season as a failure. Self’s team took home its 13th straight Big 12 regular season title – and considering its stark lack of depth, especially on the interior — this one was as difficult as any of the previous 12. The most important component of Kansas’s team success, though, was the steadying influence of Mason. The same Mason who was signed to play college basketball at Towson. The same Mason who ended up at an unknown military academy because of an academic misstep. The same Mason who needed several strokes of luck to wind up at Kansas, but made the most of the opportunity that he was given. College basketball success stories can be overblown and hyperbolic, but Mason’s rise to our 2016-17 RTC Player of the Year is truly one for the history books.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Oregon Ducks

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 27th, 2017

Now that we’re down to the Final Four, let’s take a deep dive into each of the four remaining teams. Today: Oregon.

How Oregon Got Here

Oregon hopes to continue riding high in Phoenix (Getty Images).

Midwest Region Champions. After receiving a lower-than-expected #3 seed on Selection Sunday, Oregon rolled past #13 Iona 83-67 in its NCAA Tournament opener. Two nights later, it required a pair of clutch Tyler Dorsey three-pointers for the Ducks to survive #11 Rhode Island, which led by as many as 10 points in the second half. Oregon’s late-game execution continued against #7 Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen, where it held the Wolverines scoreless over the game’s final two minutes en route to a 69-68 victory. Finally, despite facing #1 Kansas in Kansas City on Saturday—a road game by almost any standard—the Ducks drilled 11 three-pointers, held the Jayhawks to their worst offensive output of the season (0.94 points per possession), and advanced to their first Final Four since 1939.

The Coach

Dana Altman. The 58-year-old Nebraska native has quietly had one of the most successful careers among active Division I basketball coaches — a career now punctuated by his first Final Four appearance. Altman ranks 10th on the all-time wins list among working head men (597 wins), joining Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Bill Self and Tom Izzo as the only active coaches with 20+ consecutive winning seasons. After spending 16 years at Creighton (and becoming the Bluejays’ all-time winningest coach in the process), Altman has turned an inconsistent Oregon program into a perennial threat to win the Pac-12. Prior to his arrival, the Ducks had reached the Sweet Sixteen three times in program history, and won 30+ games only once; since Altman took the job in 2011, Oregon has doubled that number of Sweet Sixteen appearances and won 30+ games twice. He may well be a future Hall of Famer.

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NCAA Regional Reset: Midwest Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #1 Kansas (30-4). Despite receiving a 30-minute test from #9 Michigan State on Sunday, Kansas remains the favorite to win the Midwest Region. The Jayhawks smashed #16 UC Davis 100-62 before dominating the last 10 minutes against the Spartans in the Round of 32 — a hard-fought victory that should prepare them well for an even stronger Big Ten opponent, #4 Purdue, on Thursday. If you buy into advanced metrics, this appears to be a fairly even matchup: Kansas ranks seventh in KenPom, while the Boilermakers rank 13th. Unfortunately for Matt Painter’s group, the game will be played in Kansas City, where a sea of Jayhawk faithful is sure to outnumber Purdue fans several fold. Assuming Kansas prevails, it will be a similar story against #3 Oregon or #7 Michigan. Beating Kansas is one thing, but beating Kansas in a semi-road game is something entirely different.

Kansas Rolls Into KC as the Clear Midwest Region Favorite (USA Today Images)

Horse of Darkness: #7 Michigan (26-11). The Wolverines have not lost since that epic defeat at Northwestern on March 1, a nearly three-week stretch which has included a near-plane crash, a Big Ten Tournament championship, and a pair of gutsy NCAA Tournament victories over Oklahoma State and Louisville. Michigan now boasts the third-most efficient offense in college basketball, thanks in large part to blistering performances like the one Moritz Wagner (26 points on 11-of-14 FT) put on against the Cardinals on Sunday. If John Beilein’s group can get past shorthanded Oregon on Thursday, there’s no reason to think it can’t win this region. Heck, the Wolverines have already beaten Purdue twice since February 25, and the last time they played Kansas in the Big Dance, this happened. Look out.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #11 Rhode Island (25-10). Rhode Island entered the NCAA Tournament on an eight-game winning streak, so its victory over #6 Creighton in the Round of 64 was not that surprising. The fashion in which it whipped the Bluejays, though — winning by 14 points and trailing for exactly zero seconds in game time — was quite unexpected. So too was the Rams’ effort against #3 Oregon on Sunday night, a game in which they led by double-figures in the second half before falling victim to a cold-blooded Tyler Dorsey three-pointer in the closing seconds. For a program that had not gone dancing since 1999, Rhode Island was certainly ready for prime time.

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Big 12 Power Rankings: The Big 12 isn’t the Best Conference, You Guys Edition

Posted by Big 12 Team on February 20th, 2017

We are now fewer than three weeks away from Selection Sunday and the committee has already had real conversations about which teams should be in, which teams should be out, where they should be seeded and where they will eat after the bracket is announced. The strength of each of the six power conferences is no doubt another topic the committee has discussed, which is why we need to have an honest talk with ourselves about where the Big 12 currently sits. The league has something of a body image problem. One year ago, the Big 12 was in the best shape of its life. It actually looked forward to leg day, but it’s been a different story ever since. Needless to say the league gained a few pounds during the holidays — just enough to notice it cannot fit into its favorite clothes anymore and needs to find a few good pairs of sweatpants. That’s all it is. Because the ACC is the best game going in 2017. The Big 12 is a little puffier in the midsection and its legs are hardly recognizable. But it’s great that we were able to talk this out. The power rankings are up next.

Kansas Celebrates What Appears to be an Insurmountable Lead for Another Big 12 Title (USA Today Images)

1. Kansas — all voted 1st – “This team is good.” – Nate Kotisso (@natekotisso)

2. Baylor — average: 2.2 – “The Bears’ odds of becoming a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament took a major hit with back-to-back losses to Texas Tech and Kansas. While Baylor isn’t likely to win the Big 12 regular season championship, the Bears are still firmly in position to challenge Kansas in the upcoming Big 12 Tournament and make some serious noise into late March.” – Justin Fedich (@jfedich)

3. West Virginia — average: 3.0 (not unanimous) – “There nothing more to say about the 14-point collapse at Allen Fieldhouse other than, ‘It is what it is.’ The Mountaineers held Kansas to 50 points and under 30 percent shooting for over 37 minutes before allowing 34 points over the final eight minutes of the game. It is exceptionally rare to see Bob Huggins teams lose intensity like that, but the one thing that is holding this team back has been a propensity to blow big leads.” – Drew Andrews (@DrewAndrews24)

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Kansas’ Kryptonite: Five Teams That Can Cause Problems for the Jayhawks

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 16th, 2017

Monday night’s memorable comeback win over West Virginia effectively sealed Kansas’ record-tying 13th straight Big 12 title — if not mathematically, then symbolically. Yes, Baylor could topple the Jayhawks on Saturday in Waco to pull within a single game in the standings with two weeks left, but the Bears also must face the same Mountaineers team that steamrolled them last month and travel to Hilton Coliseum. Even if Baylor were to beat the odds and win out, Kansas’ finale in Stillwater represents the only other remaining game it could foreseeably lose, as its other three match-ups are home tilts against TCU and Oklahoma and a road game against Texas. And even if the improbable occurs and Kansas drops its final game along with Baylor winning its last five, the Jayhawks would still be in possession of a share of the conference title. So while the confetti may not officially fly in Lawrence for a couple more weeks, the gameday crew can start stocking up on cannons and CO2 without much apprehension. As far as March is concerned, Kansas’ status as the champion of the nation’s toughest conference may cement its standing as a #1 seed no matter what happens at the Big 12 Tournament.

Devonte’ Graham and the Jayhawks are on the cusp of yet another Big 12 title. (AP Photo)

We know that Kansas has a National Championship ceiling because it boasts three-point shooters all over the floor, one of the game’s best coaches, a one-and-done wing who is becoming more impressive by the day, and a penchant for closing out tight games in preparation for single-elimination basketball. On the other hand, though, those close games have revealed some weaknesses that opponents can exploit to send the Jayhawks home early. With their fate as a top-two NCAA Tournament seed all but assured, it’s not too early to look around the rest of the field and identify a handful of teams that could give Kansas some serious headaches when the brackets are revealed 24 days from today.

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Big 12 Power Rankings: Big 12/SEC Challenge Edition

Posted by Big 12 Team on January 31st, 2017

College basketball’s several interconference challenges are largely the same, but the Big 12 and SEC’s decision to turn theirs into a one-day event smack dab in the middle of conference play is a great way of differentiating itself. Most fans and pundits seem to agree with this opinion, unless, of course, you believe that the Big 12/SEC Challenge should move to December for carefully researched reasons like “just because.” What instead might lead to the challenge’s demise is not when the games are played during the season, but the lack of watchable games provided to the viewers. For example, there is no good explanation for 17-4 South Carolina to be left off this year’s schedule in favor of 10 other SEC teams. And even if it’s understandable that the challenge wants to avoid a number of potential conflicts  — such as Baylor‘s Scott Drew not wanting to play his brother Bryce Drew‘s team at Vanderbilt; Frank Martin having no interest in taking his Gamecocks to Kansas State; Texas tussling with Texas A&M; or Rick Barnes squaring off with the Longhorns — the fans want to see the most compelling match-ups. In any case, a fresh batch of power rankings is ready for your consumption. (caution: do not eat them all at once)

Maybe it was the Yeezys. Whatever it was, Bill Self and Kansas were able to hand Kentucky its second home loss of the season. (Mark Zerof/USA Today Sports)

1. Kansas — all voted 1st – The Jayhawks had not lost back-to-back games since December 10, 2014. The last time Kentucky, on the other hand, had lost consecutive games was just last season, when it fell to Kansas and Tennessee in succession. This year the order was reversed, but the Jayhawks delivered the Wildcats the same fate. If there was any concern about Kansas after its Tuesday night loss to West Virginia, that quickly evaporated with the win at Rupp Arena, where Frank Mason continued to make his case for National Player of the Year.” – Justin Fedich (@jfedich)

2. Baylor — all voted 2nd – “The Bears seem to have lost some steam in the national conversation but they still have one of the five best defenses in the country and the best of the Big 12. Their length inside has held opponents to 43.2 percent shooting on two-pointers in conference play. That’s a recipe for success in this league.” – Chris Stone (@cstonehoops)

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Is Kansas Ready For the Gauntlet Ahead?

Posted by Justin Fedich on January 24th, 2017

Starting tonight in Morgantown, the owner of the nation’s second-longest winning streak (18) in college basketball begins as tough of an eight-day stretch of games as we can remember with West Virginia, Kentucky and Baylor on the menu. To this point, Kansas appears destined for another No. 1 seed — perhaps the No. 1 overall seed — in this year’s NCAA Tournament, but Big 12 play has revealed some blemishes. In fact, only two of the Jayhawks’ seven Big 12 games to this point — against Texas Tech and Texas — have been wire-to-wire blowouts. With games pending against KenPom‘s #2, #4 and #5 ranked teams (Kansas is #8), the next week of basketball should determine just how prepared Bill Self‘s team is to be considered a National Championship favorite. While Kansas hasn’t shown the overall consistency of a team poised to leapfrog the field, it has all the tools necessary to win these three upcoming games and catapult itself to the mantle as the team to beat. Let’s take a snapshot look at each game heading into tonight’s battle with West Virginia.

The cohort of long range bombers, led by Frank Mason, is a big reason why Kansas is red hot. (KU Sports)

  • West Virginia (Morgantown) – Tuesday, January 24. West Virginia’s defensive success is well-documented, and a hot Kansas team will face a hungry unit at home ready to end a two-game losing skid. While it’s easy to see Kansas falling at the same arena that produced Baylor’s first loss of the season, the Jayhawks’ strengths match up well against West Virginia’s weaknesses. The most vulnerable part of West Virginia’s defense is in preventing offensive rebounds, where the Mountaineers rank 327th nationally in that metric. Kansas, meanwhile, is a very good offensive rebounding team. The Jayhawks have three players — Landen Lucas, Josh Jackson and Carlton Bragg, Jr. — who average more than five rebounds a game, while Nathan Adrian is the only player from West Virginia with that distinction. If Kansas can dominate West Virginia on the offensive glass, it will counteract much of the pressure brought on by the pesky Mountaineers’ defense.

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Carlton Bragg vs. Landen Lucas: Who Deserves More Minutes?

Posted by Chris Stone on January 3rd, 2017

After freshman center Udoka Azubuike suffered a wrist injury that will force him to miss the remainder of the season, the logical replacement in Kansas’ four-guard lineup was senior big man Landen Lucas. Defaulting back to the 6’10” center made good sense as he had been the Jayhawks’ starter during conference play last year and at the beginning of this season. Lucas has also performed admirably in his first two games without Azubuike, averaging a near double-double of 9.5 points and and 14.5 rebounds per game against lowly UNLV and rising conference foe TCU. Those are undoubtedly great numbers, but what if Kansas head coach Bill Self has an even better option sitting on his bench?

Carlton Bragg could help Kansas if he replaces Landen Lucas' minutes. (Photo Credit: Nick Krug/KUSports)

Carlton Bragg could help Kansas if he replaces Landen Lucas’ minutes. (Photo Credit: Nick Krug/KUSports)

Sophomore forward Carlton Bragg was expected to step in as a reasonable replacement for departed senior Perry Ellis this season. As a freshman, Bragg had shown an ability to operate from the high post in Self’s offense, capable of knocking down mid-range jumpers with potential to expand his range beyond the three-point arc. It hasn’t exactly turned out that way. With Kansas playing four guards to maximize its backcourt strength, Bragg’s time on the floor has increased but not spiked. He played just 15 and 16 minutes, respectively, in recent games against UNLV and TCU, finding himself behind Lucas in the frontcourt pecking order.

That move is understandable on its face. With four guards surrounding the post, Self needs a big-bodied center who can bang with opponents’ size, clean up the boards and provide a modicum of rim protection. The head coach at this point clearly favors the upperclassman experience of Lucas for that role. The problem is that Bragg has been better than Lucas this season in most relevant metrics. Using their respective statistics per 40 minutes in order to adjust for time spent on the court, here’s a look at how the two big men compare.

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Which is Easier to Maintain: Offense or Defense?

Posted by William Ezekowitz on December 27th, 2016

There are certain teams you can count on to have specific strengths seemingly every college basketball season. The high-flying athletes of North Carolina, Duke and Kentucky will score in bunches, while the rigid defensive systems of Virginia and Louisville will keep their opponents offensively flummoxed. The coaches in nearly every instance are who get credit for this year-to-year consistency, but which skill is more reliable? Is it easier to be a really good offensive team every year or a really good defensive one? In order to find out, we turned to KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings to actually determine if the same teams — or, more accurately, the same coaches — always finish at the top of their respective area of strength. We defined this as being among the top 25 offensive or defensive efficiency teams for five years in a row. Here are the results.

Every year, it seems like Roy Williams has a fleet of athletes ready to score points at a breakneck pace. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Every year, it seems like Roy Williams has a fleet of athletes ready to score points at a breakneck pace. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Offensive Efficiency (Top 25)

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Defensive Efficiency (Top 25)

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Florida’s Mike White and Wisconsin’s Greg Gard are only second-year coaches at their programs, but both have already shown such an aptitude for defensively-effective basketball that it seems appropriate to include them. With or without those two, though, it seems that it is much easier to produce a great defense year in and year out than it is for offense.

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