After cutting down the nets in the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City on Saturday night, Fred Hoiberg’s Iowa State team is riding high on confidence and momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament, as the Cyclones became the first Big 12 team to win the conference tournament while seeded fourth or lower. Travis Hines of the Ames Tribunetook a look at how teams that have been in a similar situation after winning their conference tournament as a lower seed have fared in the Big Dance, and found that in all five instances, those squads have fallen in either the first or second round. More recently, however, we’ve seen a pair of teams from the old Big East use their performance in their conference tournament to fuel a run in the NCAAs. Those two teams are the Kemba Walker-led Connecticut team that cut down the nets in 2011, and the Louisville team that challenged Kentucky in the 2012 Final Four. There’s certainly a case to be made for Iowa State building on last week’s success, but they’ll need to continue to shoot the ball with confidence if they intend on writing their own March story.
After a great start to the conference season which propelled them near the top of the league standings, Texas dropped four of its last six regular season games and were bounced in the second round of the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City. If Rick Barnes’ team wants to stick around a bit longer this week, they will be best served by leaning on their elite ability to rebound the basketball, which ranks fourth in the nation in large part because of big man Cameron Ridley. As the Dallas Morning News points out, Texas isn’t really elite at anything else, from a statistical standpoint, outside of crashing the glass. In a Thursday match-up against Arizona State, this could be a big factor against a Sun Devils team that ranks ninth in the Pac-12 in rebounding.
While our infatuation as a society with one-and-done college players seems to grow by the day, Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star points out that freshmen-led teams winning an NCAA title are still the exception, not the rule. Bill Self’s Kansas team has had freshmen play 55.6 percent of the available minutes this season, and only the Anthony Davis-led Kentucky team has won a national championship with freshmen contributing over half of their minutes. Last year’s Louisville championship team gave only 8.1 percent of its total minutes to freshmen, a number that resembles the allocation to this year’s Florida team. From an optimistic standpoint, you could argue that Kansas resembles the 2012 champs in the sense that two Jayhawks are also projected as the top two picks in June’s NBA Draft. But the obvious flaw to that argument is that one of those future lottery picks might not see the court for the rest of the season, as Joel Embiid continues to battle a stress fracture in his lower back.
When the NCAA Tournament brackets were released on Sunday evening, nearly everyone in the nation pointed to a potential third round match-up between Wichita State and Kentucky. The Shockers haven’t seen much of the type of athleticism that John Calipari puts out on the floor in what could be a very interesting showdown. What many failed to realize, however, is that the Wildcats have to survive a tough opening round game against a pesky Kansas State team which, by the way, finished fourth in what might have been the toughest conference in college basketball. The inherent urge to overlook K-State might be the best thing that could happen to Bruce Weber’s team this week, as he will have no problem motivating his team Friday night. While Kansas State won’t have the surplus of athletes of Kentucky, their disciplined approach and motion offense might be the perfect counter to what has been an undisciplined team for a majority of the season.
To say that this season hasn’t gone according to plan for Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State would be quite the understatement. Part of Smart’s motivation to return for his sophomore season in Stillwater was fueled by the Cowboys’ second round loss a season ago against a terribly underseeded Oregon team. Heading into Friday’s game against Gonzaga, Smart has a chance to leave one lasting impression on his short, often criticized career at Oklahoma State. Aside from his mediocre long range shooting ability, there’s no question that Smart is an outstanding talent who could carry a team through several rounds in March. Whether he can change our perception of his college career for the good, though, remains to be seen.
Yesterday, we went around the Big 12 and named an All-Conference First team and tabbed our Player Of The Year and Coach Of The Year selections. Today, we’ll narrow our focus to the best individual game of the conference season, both by team performance and by individual player performance, but we’ll also take a moment to recognize the league’s most improved player. For a nice cherry on top, we’ll also honor the single enduring play of the 2013-14 season.
Game Of The Year
Iowa State 98, Oklahoma State 97 (3OT), February 3 at Gallagher-Iba Arena
With such little difference in quality between the second-place team and the eighth-best team, we were treated to intense, close games on a regular basis. Big 12 microsite contributor Taylor Erickson (tc_erickson) breaks down why he went with this thriller.
TE: In a year where arguably the most difficult conference in all of college basketball provided a handful of memorable contests, none was more compelling than the triple-overtime thriller that took place in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in early February between Iowa State and Oklahoma State. This one was back-and-forth for most of the night, and looked for a brief moment that it would end in double-overtime with an Oklahoma State victory before a DeAndre Kane rebound and kick-out to Naz Long led to a game-tying three-pointer with 1.4 seconds left. In the third overtime, Marcus Smart missed a fadeaway jumper in the final seconds that could have pushed the Cowboys in front, but instead saw the visiting Cyclones celebrate with a win in Gallagher Iba Area for the first time since 1988. The individual performances were equally as impressive as the game itself with Kane finishing just one assist shy of a triple double with 26 points, ten rebounds, and nine assists. Iowa State’s big three of Kane, Melvin Ejim, and Georges Niang combined to score 65 points in the winning effort. Oklahoma State was lead by the trio of Smart, Markel Brown, and Le’Bryan Nash who also dropped in 65 points. This setback for Travis Ford and company was the third straight loss in a streak that eventually stretched to seven games, and took place five days before the infamous Marcus Smart shoving incident at Texas Tech. And as if this wasn’t all enough, when these two teams hooked up again this past weekend in Ames, Iowa, they left us one hell of an encore that featured another Naz Long three-pointer as time expired to send the game to overtime. This conference has delivered so many awesome performances this season, and you can bet we’re likely to see more of the same later this week at the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City.
It was a lot more than Senior Night on Wednesday for Kansas center Tarik Black. In his final game at Allen Fieldhouse, the senior scored 19 points on 9-of-9 shooting, grabbed six rebounds and had two blocks in Kansas’ 82-57 blowout of Texas Tech. It was a huge effort from Black, who will also start in their regular season finale Saturday at West Virginia as Joel Embiid continues to rest his sore back. If Embiid returns for the NCAA Tournament and doesn’t play as many minutes as he was, having Black make this kind of impact would result in the Jayhawks becoming more dangerous than they already are.
I’m not sure what the allure is between NFL personalities and Kansas basketball, but Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers stopped by to watch the Jayhawks and gave a pep talk after practice in January. Yesterday San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh was there to do pretty much the same thing and then this happened. Harbaugh hit a half-court shot during practice because… why not? But I’m not so sure he would have made the shot if he wore anything other than his trademark sweater and khakis. I’m a little curious to see what kind of person Harbaugh is when he wears something else, if he wears something else. We may never know.
Oklahoma’s Je’lon Hornbeakhad a breakout game in the Sooners’ season home finale. In 22 bench minutes, Hornbeak contributed 11 points, five rebounds, three dimes and two steals in the team’s 72-62 win over West Virginia. The performance comes on the heels of his nine points and five dimes in 18 minutes against Texas on Saturday. A win Saturday at TCU would lock the Sooners into the No. 2 seed in next week’s Big 12 Tournament, and meanwhile, WVU’s road to an at-large bid appears to have reached a dead end. They’ll have to win the conference tournament to force their way into this season’s Dance.
It was Senior Night at the Frank Erwin Center as Texas hosted TCU on Wednesday. The problem was that the Horns don’t have any seniors… but they still had a good night anyway! Rick Barnes rested leading scorer Jonathan Holmesdue to a sore right knee, but his squad was able to get by the Horned Frogs, 66-54. Isaiah Taylor led the team with 21 points while Cameron Ridley (my vote for the Big 12 Most Improved Player award that I just made up in my head) posted 14 points and 10 rebounds. Texas needs to beat Texas Tech Saturday coupled with an Oklahoma loss at TCU to clinch the second seed in the Big 12 Tournament next week in Kansas City. Hang on, folks, the Madness draws nigh.
A difficult season for TCU basketball got worse with head coach Trent Johnson announcing Monday that Amric Fields is out for the rest of the year because of a recurring knee injury. According to TCU360, only four of 16 total players have suited up in every game this season, which just stinks. To make matters worse, a loss to Oklahoma Saturday would result in TCU becoming the first Big 12 team to go winless in conference play since Texas A&M in 2003-04. Stash the season away and never look at it again, TCU fans. Here’s to a better 2014-15.
For a Kansas team hoping to push for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, finishing the remainder of the season without another loss looks like it’ll be a necessity, and even that might not be enough to earn a spot on the top line on Selection Sunday. One of the teams that appears to be poised for a #1 seed ahead of Kansas is, of course, Wichita State. On Thursday, Kansas head coach Bill Selfsaid that he believes the Shockers should earn a #1 seed if they finish the season unbeaten, given how hard it is to consistently win on the road regardless of strength of schedule. If things play out like they could, we might find a situation where Wichita State and Kansas are in the same region as the #1 and #2 seeds. That would certainly be all the Sunflower State could handle.
Competition in the Big 12 has been nothing short of stellar for most of the season, but as Dave Skretta of the Associated Press points out, we might be reaching a point where the league is cannibalizing itself. Because there are so many quality teams from top to bottom, beating each other could potentially have a negative impact on the number of berths that the league receives to the NCAA Tournament. The last two weeks of the season are sure to have several games that will have a significant impact on the postseason, let’s just hope the selection committee is aware of just how tough it is to win in the Big 12 this season.
In a sport like college basketball where so much of the talk is centered around underclassmen, it’s refreshing to hear some of the senior night stories that will take place in the next few weeks — such as this one about Oklahoma seniorsCam Clark and Tyler Neal. While Neal has the luxury of welcoming his parents to every home game, Clark will for once have his parents in attendance as he plays his final game in Norman.
Speaking of postseason play, Bob Huggins’ West Virginia team is currently in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid, but will need some big wins down the stretch to get there. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, they will continue to be without the services of Terry Henderson, who has been out of action with an undisclosed illness since a game against Kansas on February 8. While West Virginia officials couldn’t get into the details of exactly what is wrong with Henderson, they believe he is appearing to come out of whatever is bothering him. It looks like superbly talented point guard Juwan Staten will continue to shoulder most of the load for the Mountaineers.
The Big 12 may be one of the most competitive conferences in the country, but this week hasn’t been the most glowing endorsement for the league’s case as the best conference in the country. Monday’s game between Baylor and Oklahoma State was supposed to be a battle of teams in the top half of the conference (if we go by preseason expectations), but instead was a fight for ninth place that only went to overtime because of a sequence that was, well, very fitting of a ninth-place battle:
The next day, Texas squared off against Iowa State in a game with major implications for the Longhorns’ Big 12 title chances, but they were able to lead only within the first five minutes. While Texas kept the game interesting with a run early in the second half, the Cyclones pulled away to hold serve at home.
Meanwhile, 925 miles south, Kansas needed another miracle from Andrew Wiggins at the end of regulation to get past a salty but mediocre Texas Tech team in Lubbock:
The only other game this week saw Kansas State quietly beat TCU by 12. The Wildcats’ two best players, Marcus Foster and Thomas Gipson, paired up for 29 points, 14 rebounds and six assists, but they also combined to shoot 34.6 percent from the floor and turned the ball over nine times. As a team, Kansas State had a staggering 18 turnovers at home against the worst power conference team in the country, needing a second half run to get away for good.
In the weekly Big 12 coaches teleconference on Monday, Texas head coach Rick Barnes emphasized his team’s chemistry and his players’ focus on the current mission at hand (rather than looking to the next level) as the reason for the Longhorns’ improved play this season. Coming into Tuesday night’s game at Iowa State, Texas was just one game behind Kansas in the loss column in the Big 12 standings, with Barnes’ preseason hot seat having cooled significantly.
Melvin Ejim Dominated Texas Last Night (Austin American-Statesman)
Iowa State is another team that prides itself on making its pieces fit together well rather than relying on future lottery picks. While opinions of mock drafts are certainly worth your scrutiny, it’s also worth pointing out that the first round of DraftExpress.com‘s latest mock draft doesn’t include a single player from either Texas or Iowa State. But yet, here’s where we are: Both teams are challenging for a top-three finish in the Big 12. Earlier this season, Texas knocked off four ranked teams in a row; and Iowa State trails only Kansas in top-50 RPI wins. With NCAA Tournament bids now down to a matter of formality for both teams, how could we not have been in for an entertaining battle between the Longhorns and Cyclones on Tuesday night?
One of the biggest stories around the Big 12 this season has been the revitalization of Texas basketball. The Longhorns came into this season with their coach on the hot seat, but now they’re 16-4 with wins over North Carolina, Iowa State, Kansas State and Baylor, and are currently on a five-game winning streak. That stretch includes consecutive victories over three ranked teams, but even if you discount that qualification with a more realistic evaluation of the then-overrated Bears, there’s still no doubt that Texas has played better than pretty much everyone predicted coming into the season. They were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 back in October, so naturally, their performance has led some to consider throwing Rick Barnes’ name into the hat when it comes to Big 12 Coach Of The Year honors. But the more interesting debate here is what Barnes’ case says about what we believe the award should be about.
The intrigue over Rick Barnes’ COY prospects is just as philosophical as it is practical. (Getty Images)
The discussion has raised two camps. One contends that Barnes has done a fantastic job so far, given his limitations, and as such he should definitely be given consideration for the end-of-year honor. The Longhorns, along with Oklahoma, lead the pack trailing Kansas despite losing their top four scorers from last season. Barnes has rebuilt Texas in a style that emphasizes chemistry and is having success without the services of one-and-done talents like Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson. After a disappointing freshman season, Cameron Ridley is on the short list of the most improved players in the conference; Jonathan Holmes has turned the corner when Texas desperately needed him to do so; and Isaiah Taylor is third in scoring among Big 12 freshmen despite some ups and downs.
This week has been highly entertaining for Big 12 fans. Whether it’s Kansas winning in a return to Hilton Coliseum, Kansas State putting the clamps on Oklahoma‘s high-energy offense, or the most recent development — Texas Tech springing the biggest upset of league play by beating Baylor on Wednesday night — storylines have emerged with each passing game. No school has played more than four games yet, but the Jayhawks are the only team still unscathed in conference play. After a quiet Thursday and Friday, the action resumes tomorrow with four match-ups that will have big implications on the conference race as well as teams’ NCAA Tournament resumes going forward.
It’s been a long time since a visiting player won two games in Allen Fieldhouse. Will Marcus Smart pull it off? (Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY)
Oklahoma State at Kansas (4:00 EST, CBS) – Remember way back in October when Marcus Smart had some interesting — if correct — things to say about Andrew Wiggins? It feels like ages ago, but two of the conference’s best players will finally get a chance to battle it out on the court. Most recently on Wednesday, Smart continued to make his case as the Big 12 POY with a great night against TCU (20 points, eight rebounds, five assists) as the Cowboys rolled the Horned Frogs, while Wiggins posted 17 points and 19 rebounds against Iowa State in a performance that still left some wanting more. Kansas will have its massive homecourt advantage behind it in this one, and the Jayhawks’ frontcourt has to be licking its chops at the idea of battling the Michael Cobbins-less Oklahoma State forwards on the glass. If Brian Williams and Kamari Murphy can’t get comfortable inside, the Cowboys will need to make up for the shortfall in other ways, whether through Smart rising to the occasion, Phil Forte raining threes, Le’Bryan Nash putting up one of his patented hyper-efficient scoring nights, or some combination of the three.
On Wednesday night, Texas will head to the Dean Dome for a showdown with what suddenly looks like one of the better teams in the nation in North Carolina. North Carolina has had its struggles early this season with losses to UAB and Belmont, but has righted the ship with perhaps the best collection of wins in the country after knocking off Louisville, Michigan State, and Kentucky – the top three teams in the preseason AP rankings. Texas has opened the season with a 9-1 record itself, but has yet to see the type of talent that the Tar Heels will roll out. ACC correspondent Lathan Wells and the Big 12′s Taylor Erickson decided to discuss some key topics heading into the contest in the hopes of providing some insights to watch for as the game plays out.
Can Marcus Paige continue his hot streak against Texas on Wednesday? (Scott Muthersbaugh / The Times News)
Taylor: So I have to start with the obvious question: North Carolina has three of the best wins in non-conference play, but also has puzzling losses to UAB and Belmont. Which Tar Heels team are we going to see on Wednesday night?
Lathan: Prior to the Kentucky game, that would continue to be the prevailing question. But after their third marquee non-conference win of the season, it appears that UNC is starting to find some consistency. The players appear to be more comfortable in their roles. The fact that Texas has taken four of the last five since Roy Williams took over in Chapel Hill may be motivation enough. Speaking of adapting to roles, how has Texas been able to have such a solid start with a team that entered the season in the midst of major transition?
Taylor: The 9-1 start for Texas has certainly been refreshing to Longhorns fans, but when dissecting the schedule in more detail, it becomes apparent that most of those wins have come against clearly inferior teams. According to CBSSports.com, Texas’ strength of schedule to this point ranks 100th in the nation, 91 spots behind what North Carolina (ninth) has faced. If Rick Barnes’ squad is truly improved, it will have a chance to prove it with tonight’s game followed by one against Michigan State in a span of three days this week. That said, Texas has gotten solid contributions from big man Cameron Ridley, who went for 22 points and 10 rebounds in his last outing. After the way North Carolina handled the talented front line of Kentucky, is there any reason to believe the Heels will struggle to do the same with the Longhorns’ frontcourt?
Kansas State has seen better Novembers. So far the Wildcats have lost their home opener to Northern Colorado, got one win in three games at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off and two of their four wins came against one team: Long Beach State. The month of December gives the Wildcats a chance to turn the page starting with Thursday night’s tilt against Marshall Henderson and Ole Miss. The Rebels are a perfect 6-0 after sweeping Georgia Tech and Penn State at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn over the weekend. K-State doesn’t need this game just to say they have a “signature win” — Bruce Weber’s team simply can’t afford three losses in a month, especially with conference play lurking in the distance.
Are we watching Fred Hoiberg’s best team at Iowa State? The contributions have been numerous and frequent for the Cyclones and perhaps the most surprising contribution has come from JuCo transfer Dustin Hogue. When Melvin Ejim was supposed to be out a significant amount of time with an injury, Hogue was thrown into the fire to replace the double-double machine. Since then Ejim has returned and Hogue’s play of late has earned him regular minutes; in fact, Hogue is nearly averaging a double-double himself at 12 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. He is one of six Cyclones averaging double-figure scoring for a team that averages a robust 91.8 points per game (good for fourth in all of college basketball). It might be a long shot but I would love to see them put 90 burgers on Kansas or Oklahoma State in conference play.
The 2014 Battle 4 Atlantis field was officially announced yesterday and it reveals yet another stacked field. The poor teams that have to make the sad trip to the sunny, tropical Bahamas are North Carolina, UCLA, UAB, Georgetown, Florida, Butler, Wisconsin and Oklahoma representing the Big 12 next November. Putting things in unnecessary but mind-blowing perspective, the eight teams in next year’s field have combined for 20 national championships and 33 national title games (!!!). Um… is it November yet?
Here’s Bill Self again, continuing his Gloomy Gus routine about his Jayhawks. One quote: “I thought we would have errors of trying too hard, rather than errors of casualness. And that’s the thing that’s really frustrating to me.” Another beauty: “As a coach, you should be judged on basically three things. Do they play together — are they unselfish? Do they play extremely hard, and are they tough? And I’d say we went Oh-for-three. So that’s frustrating to me when you go oh-for-three.” Self is a master at motivating his team after a loss and whomever is next up to face KU is usually in for a heap of trouble. (To bring balance, it’s only fair that I show the contrast in personalities for Self. Here he is: doing riverdance or something.)
There wasn’t a lot of good from the aftermath of Monday’s Vanderbilt-Texas game in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. But it did bring us this GIF of Texas center Cameron Ridley startled by a bat roaming the Frank Erwin Center. He’s officially listed at 6’9″ and 285 pounds but to see Ridley react the way he did made me feel a lot better about my slightly shorter stature. Plus it’s a GIF, so you know it’s good.
The conclusion of last week’s barrage of holiday tournaments is as good a checkpoint as any to take stock of the Big 12. Overall, it wasn’t a good week for the conference, as its membership failed to pick up a single exempt-event crown despite some great opportunities. The league’s heavyweight contenders sputtered out while teams in the conference’s mid-pack seemed to come away with the biggest boosts going forward. There’s a lot to go over, so let’s take a look at the week that was.
Kansas - The Jayhawks had a frustrating time in the Battle 4 Atlantis, as they failed to make the championship round of the event. Kansas hit some timely shots as it came back against Villanova in the semifinals, but the Jayhawks were done in by a Ryan Arcidiacano three in the final minute. They left the island with a pair of wins, but victories over Wake Forest and UTEP weren’t what Bill Self was counting on as the highlights of the trip; and lukewarm performances by Andrew Wiggins will only fuel the skeptics even though his overall numbers are still very good. The Jayhawks have a high ceiling, but they’re still a ways from reaching it. Kansas buried just 10 three-pointers over three games in the tournament, or, put another way, as many as Chaminade’s Christophe Varidel canned on Monday night alone. The Jayhawks are also allowing far more two-point buckets than even the flimsiest of Bill Self’s defenses have let up. It doesn’t help that KU’s defensive rebounding fell back to earth after an otherworldly start in that category. It isn’t time to panic in Lawrence, but it doesn’t get any easier as Kansas will square off with even higher-profile teams (including Florida and Georgetown) before conference play tips off in January.
Michael Cobbins (right) and Oklahoma State had a tough week in Orlando. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)
Oklahoma State - The Old Spice Classic was one long wake-up call for the Cowboys, a team that hadn’t been seriously tested coming into the event. Sunday’s loss to Memphis, underscored by Marcus Smart‘s inauspicious night, is still fresh in everyone’s mind, but it’s worth pointing out that Oklahoma State had trouble in the first two rounds as well. The Cowboys struggled to put Purdue away, giving up 58 second-half points to the Boilermakers, and on Saturday they had to hold on for dear life against Butler while both teams lit their final possessions on fire. Like their biggest challengers to the Big 12 title, Oklahoma State came home with a pair of wins, but they didn’t do much to inspire confidence going forward.
With Feast Week kicking into high gear, we’re outlining the roads ahead for prominent Big 12 teams involved in neutral site events this week.
What They’ve Done SoFar: The Longhorns haven’t garnered many headlines this season, but as we mentioned in Friday’s M5, that’s probably a good thing, given that their schedule has consisted of four games against teams outside Ken Pomeroy’s top 100. After a couple of close calls against Mercer and South Alabama, Rick Barnes‘ team finally got the lead out last Monday, thrashing Houston Baptist in Austin. It may still be early, but things could be looking up, as the Texas offense is already more promising than it was at this time a year ago. Jonathan Holmes and Connor Lammert have made great strides, and a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio from Javan Felix has made scoring easier to come by. The Longhorns are still trying to get Cameron Ridley out of neutral, free throw shooting has been awful, and the team’s shot selection has been questionable at times, so there’s still a lot of improvement to be made. Defensively, kinks are still being ironed out, especially on the perimeter. Texas has allowed four nondescript opponents to shoot over 40 percent from beyond the arc, the result of fielding a young team and showing a zone defense that hasn’t done a good job of closing out on shooters.
The 4-0 Longhorns look to keep the good times rolling in Kansas City. (Brendan Maloney/USA Today)
First Round Preview:Texas’ defensive three-point percentage will be an area of concern right off the bat as the Longhorns draw sweet-shooting BYU tonight in Kansas City. Even though the Cougars hit only 4-of-14 attempts from outside the arc against Iowa State, the Longhorns need to keep a close eye on Matt Carlino, Tyler Haws and Anson Winer, each of whom can do damage from the perimeter in a hurry. Inside, the match-up should work slightly more in Texas’ favor, especially if Cougars forward Erik Mika has trouble adjusting to the eye injury he suffered at the hands of DeAndre Kane. Any time would be a great time for the Longhorns to get Ridley going, but with such a distinct size advantage down low, this is an especially good opportunity for him. Still, none of it will matter if Texas doesn’t keep up with BYU’s quick-strike offense, as the Cougars’ possessions last an average of just 12.6 seconds.