16 Questions: Friday’s First Round Games

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on March 22nd, 2019

It’s time for another exciting day of 16 games. Here are the questions I have going into Friday’s action:

The Zion Show Moves to the NCAA Tournament (USA Today Images)
  • 1) Duke vs. 16) North Dakota State: Will Duke’s perimeter players begin the Tournament knocking down shots? Zion will be Zion, of course, but Duke will need its other players knocking down shots down the line if the Blue Devils are to cut down the nets in Minneapolis.
  • 1) North Carolina vs. 16) Iona: Can Iona make it to the half within closer range than last year against Duke? As a #15 seed against Duke last year, Iona trailed at the half by 14 points before going on to lose by 22. While the Gaels shot a sterling 58.3 percent from inside the arc, they were just 5-of-24 from beyond the stripe. Duke, on the other hand, shot 62.2 percent from two-point range and went 13-of-30 from behind the line.
  • 1) Virginia vs. 16) Garder-Webb: Will Virginia be quick to rid itself of last season’s nightmare? A 29-3 regular season was great, but memories of last year will surely still be on everyone’s minds as the Cavaliers’ postseason begins. Virginia scored just nine points during the opening 10 minutes against UMBC one year ago, so its first few segments of the game will be telling.
  • 2) Tennessee vs. 15) Colgate: Will Tennessee make quick work of Colgate? Colgate comes into this game with a defensive efficiency ranking of #202, and the Raiders will be tasked with stopping the nation’s third most efficient offense led by the force that is Grant Williams. Good luck.
  • 3) Houston vs. 14) Georgia State: Does Georgia State coach Ron Hunter have more Tournament magic up his sleeves? On the season, Houston has out-rebounded its opponents by an average of 7.7 rebounds per game, whereas Georgia State finds itself getting outmuscled by the tune of 5.3 rebounds per game. If the Panthers can survive on the glass, the duo of D’Marcus Simmonds and Devin Mitchell might be able to keep Georgia State within striking distance.
  • 3) Texas Tech vs. 14) Northern Kentucky: Will Texas Tech’s loss to West Virginia have any carry-over effects? While Texas Tech held the Mountaineers to just 38.8 percent shooting, the Red Raiders gave up 19 offensive rebounds and 20 points at the charity stripe.
  • 4) Kansas State vs. 13) UC Irvine: Will Kansas State be able to get any play and production out of Dean Wade? Wade did not play in the Big 12 Tournament and his status remains up in the air for today’s game. Without the big man inside, the Anteaters could be able to take advantage of its offensive rebounding prowess.
  • 4) Virginia Tech vs. 13) Saint Louis: How will Virginia Tech work Justin Robinson back into the lineup? After missing the last 12 games of the season, Robinson is set to return for the Hokies. The senior guard averages just under 14 points per game while shooting better than 40 percent from deep.
  • 5) Wisconsin vs. 12) Oregon: Can Wisconsin get D’Mitrik Trice and Brad Davison to knock down open shots? In Wisconsin’s five March games, the pair of Trice and Davison have gone a combined 11-of-48 from behind the three-point line. Without knocking down open shots, Oregon will be able to throw everything they have at slowing All-America center Ethan Happ.
  • 5) Mississippi State vs. 12) Liberty: Will Liberty be overwhelmed by the Mississippi State offense? The Flames played 14 games against an opponent with an offensive efficiency ranking of 260th or worse. The Bulldogs have an offensive efficiency ranking of 56th and are led by Quinndary Weatherspoon, who shot an SEC-best 44.9 percent on three-point attempts during league play.
  • 6) Buffalo vs. 11) Arizona State: Will Buffalo get the best of a school from Arizona again? Bobby Hurley and the Sun Devils won on Wednesday night in Dayton and are rewarded with a match-up against Hurley’s former squad. Arizona State will need more than 23 minutes of action from Remy Martin to get another victory.
  • 6) Iowa State vs. 11) Ohio State: With Kaleb Wesson back, can Ohio State pull off the upset? The Buckeyes lost two of their last three games with Wesson back before falling in his return to the Spartans. Ohio State averaged 10 fewer points per game on the road than they did at home.
  • 7) Cincinnati vs. 10) Iowa: Can Iowa change its late season misfortune? The Hawkeyes come into this game losers of five of their last six games. Throw in needing a pair of last second baskets to beat Northwestern and Rutgers and it’s clear Iowa is playing its worst basketball at the wrong time of the year.
  • 8) Ole Miss vs. 9) Oklahoma: Can Ole Miss knock down enough threes to beat the Sooners? The Rebels were just 2-8 when they failed to make a third of their three-point attempts this season. On the year, Oklahoma has held opponents to a three-point average of 33.3 percent.
  • 8) Utah State vs. 9) Washington: Can the Pac-12’s highest seed help the conference from its dismal 2018 showing in the NCAA Tournament? The Pac-12’s regular season champion scored fewer than 50 points in two of its final four games, both coming against Oregon. The Huskies’ defense does a terrific job of creating havoc, however, led by the wizardry of defensive ace Matisse Thybulle.
  • 8) VCU vs. 9) UCF: If VCU’s Marcus Evans is not at 100 percent, will the Rams have enough firepower? Evans suffered a bone bruise in VCU’s loss to Rhode Island in last week’s Atlantic 10 tournament. The starting guard averages a team-best 13.9 points per game and VCU could be tested greatly by UCF’s stout defense — which includes the towering presence of 7’6″ Tacko Fall.
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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big 12 Edition

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 17th, 2019

There’s no way around it: The Big 12 had a down year, propelling fewer than seven teams to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013 (five). Despite having a smaller presence than usual, the pressure will be on the league to have a team make a deep run — and all the better if that team is not Kansas. Compared to some of the other power conferences, the Big 12 may be light at the top, but the middle of the league is sufficiently meaty. Here are some quick thoughts on each team’s draw.

Is Texas Tech Ready for Another Run to the Second Weekend (USA Today Images)

Texas Tech (#3 Midwest)

  • Quick First Round Preview: Northern Kentucky is a spicy match-up for Texas Tech’s robust defense. The Norse move the ball extremely well, assisting on a higher percentage of all their shots than all but four teams in college basketball. Fortunately for the Red Raiders, Northern Kentucky’s defense isn’t much to write home about.
  • Intriguing Potential Match-up: Buffalo in the Round of 32. The Bulls have repeatedly shown that they aren’t afraid of major conference powers and are loaded with experience. Texas Tech won a share of the Big 12 this season by loading up on transfers and having one freshman make a big enough leap to turn himself into a lottery pick. There are more than one ways to skin a cat, but what’s the best way?
  • Final Word: It’s reassuring that last Thursday’s neutral court loss to West Virginia didn’t have a measurable effect on the Red Raiders’ seeding. Their region has the most manageable pair of top seeds (North Carolina and Kentucky), so I’ll be very curious to see if Chris Beard can deliver Lubbock its first Final Four.

Kansas (#4 Midwest)

  • Quick First Round Preview: Northeastern is a small team that isn’t shy about firing away from deep and is a very good defensive rebounding team despite its relative lack of size. If the Huskies get hot from long range, anything can happen, but they struggled mightily in earlier losses to Syracuse and Virginia Tech. Kansas fans shouldn’t be too concerned about this game.
  • Intriguing Potential Match-up: North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen. The Jayhawks have faced off against their previous coach multiple times over the last 10 years and could certainly be poised to do so again. From a match-up standpoint, however, a game with Auburn in the Round of 32 would be an interesting tilt. The Tigers, like Kansas, have experienced some head-scratching losses this season, but the their defense could cause problems for the inconsistent Jayhawks’ offense.
  • Final Word: The Jayhawks got a massive break by being placed in the Midwest Region despite finishing third in the Big 12, a testament to the staff’s savvy non-conference scheduling. This team is so tough to peg that it’s challenging to see them winning enough to earn a trip back to Kansas City, much less winning there and advancing to consecutive Final Fours.

Kansas State (#4 South)

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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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Ten Questions to Consider: A Statement Weekend

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on February 22nd, 2019

This weekend features a number of key match-ups at the top of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC. With the regular season quickly winding down, here are 10 questions I have about those contests as well as several other intriguing games across the country.

Kansas Ran All Over Texas Tech in Their First Meeting (USA Today Images)
  1. Can Texas Tech find a way to slow down Kansas? (Kansas @ Texas Tech, Saturday 8 PM EST, ESPN) In the first match-up between these two teams — a resounding Jayhawks’ victory — Kansas’ scorching 56.8 percent effective field goal rate was the highest of any Texas Tech opponent on the season. Kansas enters Lubbock this weekend without Lagerald Vick, however, a player who went 3-of-4 from distance in the first game.
  2. Can LSU take advantage of a Tennessee weakness? (Tennessee @ LSU, Saturday Noon EST, ESPN) In Tennessee’s loss last weekend at Kentucky, Rick Barnes’ squad gave up 12 offensive rebounds, an area of which they have struggled this season. LSU, as it turns out, ranks among the 10 best offensive rebounding teams in college basketball.
  3. Can Michigan hold serve atop the Big Ten? (Michigan State @ Michigan, Sunday 3:45 PM EST, CBS) The Spartans and Wolverines are set to square off twice in the final three weeks of Big Ten play, and this weekend’s game, the first meeting, will take place in Ann Arbor. An efficient offensive display by John Beilein’s squad could be the difference, as Michigan State is just 3-5 when opponents crack an adjusted offensive efficiency total of 100.0 or better.
  4. Will Duke avenge its home loss to the Orange? (Duke @ Syracuse, Saturday 6 PM EST, ESPN) Duke shot 9-of-43 from beyond the three-point line in its overtime loss against Syracuse. The duo of R.J. Barrett and Jack White alone were a combined 4-of-27. Zion Williamson led Duke in that game with 35 points on 60 percent shooting, but will his sprained knee allow him to play?
  5. Which ACC defense will shine brightest? (Virginia @ Louisville, Saturday Noon EST, ACC Network) Virginia and Louisville have the best defensive units in ACC play, but the Cardinals have lost three of their last four games, including a 20-point defeat to Syracuse earlier this week. Last season, Virginia needed a miracle comeback to topple the Cardinals by a single point on the road — what’s in store this year?
  6. Can TCU cement its place in the NCAA Tournament? (Iowa State @ TCU, Saturday 2 PM EST, ESPN2) TCU is a mere 5-8 in Big 12 play with four games remaining against top-30 KenPom teams. In the Horned Frogs’ win over Iowa State earlier this month, they forced the Cyclones into a turnover rate much higher than their season average. That’s the key to success the second time around too.
  7. Can Florida State stay red hot? (Florida State @ North Carolina, Saturday 3:45 PM EST, CBS) Since losing three straight games in mid-January, Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles have rattled off eight straight victories. They will get a Tar Heels group that is clearly flying high after beating Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
  8. Will Furman’s SoCon best defense be what slips up Wofford? (Wofford @ Furman, Saturday 4 PM EST, ESPN+) Wofford begins the weekend with a perfect 15-0 record in the Southern Conference. The Terriers will battle a Furman defense that has been just one of four teams this season to hold Wofford under an adjusted offensive efficiency of 100.0.
  9. With Reid Travis out, can Auburn steal a win at Rupp? (Auburn @ Kentucky, Saturday 1:30 PM EST, CBS) Kentucky will be without injured Reid Travis, who scored 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting in Kentucky’s two-point road victory over Auburn last month. Keep in mind that the Tigers’ last win at Rupp Arena came on January 9, 1988.
  10. How will Ethan Happ respond to his benching in crunch time the previous game? (Wisconsin @ Northwestern, Saturday 8:30 PM EST, Big Ten Network) In Wisconsin’s win over Illinois on Monday night, Badgers’ head coach Greg Gard benched Ethan Happ down the stretch. The senior as a result scored a season-low six points and turned the ball over three times. Happ has committed a woeful 14 turnovers in his last three games.
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What’s Trending: The NCAA Tournament is Closer Than You Think

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on February 11th, 2019

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Matthew Eisenberg (@matteise) is your weekly host.

Saturday marked the initial release of the Selection Committee’s top 16 seeds for the upcoming NCAA Tournament. While the choices lacked much in the way of surprise, the release was followed by five of those teams losing later that day.

Earlier in the week, the college basketball world was reminded of the drama that comes along with NCAA violations, as Arizona decided to place assistant coach Mark Phelps on administrative leave. The Wildcats have struggled both on and off the court this season.

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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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Ten Questions To Consider: Conference Play Begins Across the Country

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on January 4th, 2019

With non-conference play all but over, it’s time to begin conference play in earnest. This weekend’s slate of games includes key road tests, match-ups among teams expected to battle for conference supremacy, and a chance to end a long losing streak.

It’s Always Fun When Kansas Visits Hilton Coliseum (USA Today Images)
  1. Will Toledo’s offense continue to shine as they take on Ball State in a “Best of the West” MAC opener? (Ball State @ Toledo, Friday 7 PM EST, CBS Sports Network) The MAC’s Western Division is led by KenPom top 100 teams Toledo and Ball State. The Rockets’ Nate Navigato has scored 14 or more points in six of the team’s last seven games while shooting 27-of-48 from distance.
  2. Can Iowa State make enough threes to beat Kansas? (Kansas @ Iowa State, Saturday 5 PM EST, ESPN2) On the season, 41 percent of Cyclone field goal attempts have been three-pointers. Iowa State will be dealing with a Kansas defense, on the other hand, that has forced opponents to miss 126 of their last 168 three-point attempts.
  3. Will Michigan State’s defense show up this year against Ohio State? (Michigan State @ Ohio State, Saturday Noon EST, FOX) Last season, Ohio State was one of four teams to score 80 or more points against Michigan State. The Buckeyes have managed to score at least one point per possession in each of their last five home games against the Spartans.
  4. Is beating Butler as easy as slowing Paul Jorgensen? (Creighton @ Butler, Saturday Noon EST, Fox Sports 1) Butler’s senior guard Paul Jorgensen began the year scoring in double-figures in each of the team’s first six games. Since then, Butler has gone just 1-4 when its backcourt star does not reach 10 points — in those games he is shooting just 3-of-21 from beyond the arc.
  5. Will Kentucky be able to get to the free throw line at its usual high rate in the Wildcats’ SEC opener? (Kentucky @ Alabama, 1 PM EST, ESPN) John Calipari’s squad has marched to the free throw line at a rate that ranks just outside of the top 10 nationally. Kentucky begins SEC play on the road against an Alabama team that has sent teams to the line at a rate better than the national average.
  6. Does this Florida State team have enough offense to beat Virginia if the Cavaliers continue to shut down Terrence Mann? (Florida State @ Virginia, Saturday 3 PM EST, ESPN2) Terrance Mann’s 13.1 points per game leads the Seminoles in scoring on the season, but in three career games against Virginia, he has logged only 11 points in 64 minutes of action.
  7. Will Oregon State’s fortunes change at Matthew Knight Arena this season? (Oregon State @ Oregon, Saturday 8 PM EST, Pac-12 Networks) Oregon State has lost six straight and 23 of its past 25 games at Oregon. In the current losing streak, the Beavers have lost by double-figures five times, including a 42-point embarassment in 2016. In order for Oregon State to come out on top, they will need Tres Tinkle to turn around his shooting woes as he has gone just 8-of-39 from distance over his last seven games.
  8. Will Duke’s freshman play like freshman in their first taste of ACC conference play? (Clemson @ Duke, Saturday 8 PM EST, ESPN) Duke begins ACC play hosting a Clemson team that has done a tremendous job in limiting second-chance opportunities all season long. If Clemson is able to limit easy buckets for Duke, might the pressure of their first ACC game be enough to keep it close?
  9. Is Michigan’s defense beginning to leak some air or is there nothing to worry about? (Indiana @ Michigan, Sunday 4:30 PM EST, CBS) While Michigan’s defense has been among the best in the nation to date, opponents have begun to see great improvement in shooting the ball from inside the arc against the Wolverines. In their first eight games, only one opponent shot better than 40 percent on two-point attempts. Since then, four of Michigan’s last five opponents have shot better than 50 percent in that range.
  10. How much better is Gonzaga about to get? (Santa Clara @ Gonzaga, Saturday 9 PM EST, ROOT Sports) Matt Norlander of CBS Sports tweeted that Mark Few believes Gonzaga could have both Geno Crandall and Killian Tillie available for its game this weekend against Santa Clara. Adding those two stalwarts back in the Bulldogs’ lineup will only make the nation’s most efficient offense that much more lethal.

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Big 12 Feast Week Catch-Up

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 21st, 2018

We’re halfway through Feast Week and even though much of the conference has faced strong competition for the first time this season, we aren’t that much closer to determining a pecking order than we were on Sunday. That’s a credit to the league’s performance rather than a detriment, though, with strong impressions being made throughout. Idle until later today, Kansas still has the inside track, but whereas before the season when Kansas State was thought to be the sole challenger, the battle for second is a jumbled mess at this juncture with not only the Wildcats but also Texas Tech, Texas and even Iowa State joining the fray. Further down, even Oklahoma isn’t looking like an easy out, which is another good sign for the league’s overall strength

Udoka Azubuike and the Jayhawks stare down their next challenge in New York City. (Getty)

  • Kansas (NIT Season Tip-Off) – The Jayhawks look to collect more marquee wins in their second neutral-court event of the season. Tonight’s semifinal pits Bill Self’s team against a Marquette squad eager to make a splash after finishing seventh in the Big East a season ago. While the Jayhawks are deservedly favored, they’ve been getting cooked from beyond the arc, ranking 331st in defensive 3PA/FGA and allowing opponents to hit 46.9 percent of their tries. Their weakness for going over screens and over-helping hasn’t cost them yet, but although the Golden Eagles haven’t truly heated up, they have the firepower to make the Jayhawks pay with an arsenal of shooters led by Markus Howard, Sam Hauser and Joey Hauser. If they don’t connect, there won’t be much to fall back on with Kansas having the skill and bodies down low to keep Marquette honest on the blocks. Offense hasn’t been much of a problem for the Jayhawks, but it could be against the Volunteers if that matchup materializes Friday night. Rick Barnes has always fielded stingy defensive teams as long as his players have bought in, and it’s been no different this year. Tennessee hasn’t forced turnovers or blocked a ton of shots, but they’ve been forcing tough attempts, which is almost as beneficial. Louisville’s no slouch, either, but the jury’s still out with Chris Mack working to establish the habits that made him a must-have to the Cardinals’ administration and donor base.
  • Kansas State (Paradise Jam) – For Wildcat fans, watching this team in its first four games was kind of like eating Chinese food for dinner. It achieved the desired result, but it was never anything to write home about and you were hungry for something better just a short time later. A decisive 20-2 run against Missouri en route to the Paradise Jam title in Game 5 doesn’t mean that Kansas State’s offense is fixed, but it’s certainly a start. Dean Wade and Barry Brown leading the way with strong support from Xavier Sneed and Cartier Diarra putting in yeoman’s work off the bench is exactly what Bruce Weber needs from his squad to sufficiently complement its heady, efficient defensive play. Now comes the hard part of sustaining it against the rest of a solid non-con slate and into league play.
  • Texas Tech (Hall Of Fame Classic) – The Red Raiders had a successful week in Kansas City, using big second halves to defeat USC and Nebraska on their way to the Hall of Fame Classic championship. Chris Beard made frequent substitutions in search of a rotation that could get the best of Tech’s opponents, but the constant was Jarrett Culver, who averaged 22 points and 7.5 rebounds in the event. Culver struggled to get going early in both games, but made increasingly better decisions as the individual games wore on. By the end of the event, he cemented his role as the team’s leader with Matt Mooney, Tariq Owens and Davide Moretti making for a solid supporting cast. I maintain that Tech’s drop-off from 2018 won’t be as steep as many around the landscape feel, but one thing that gives me pause relates to the way the offense stagnated when Culver wasn’t fully engaged, so while it’s still early and trusting Beard feels like a safe bet, I do worry a bit about the team being able to pick up the slack against better opponents when Culver isn’t at his best.
  • Iowa State (Maui Invitational) – Beating superior competition when you’re short-handed is challenging enough in a normal setting, but when you’re slated to play three games in three days with just eight scholarship players, you just want to have a decent showing and not return to the mainland any worse off than you were when you arrived. A fully healthy Cyclone team might have have been able to finish the job against Arizona on Monday night, but they’re certainly making the best of it in the consolation bracket. Steve Prohm had Brad Underwood’s number in the latter’s lone season at Oklahoma State with the Cyclones sweeping all three meetings in 2017, and that continued Tuesday afternoon with an 84-68 trouncing. Iowa State’s effort epitomized basketball in 2018, with 47 of their 53 shot attempts coming on dunks, layups or three-pointers. With Marial Shayok and Talen Horton-Tucker showing out and the team playing free-flowing, efficient basketball, re-working Lindell Wigginton, Cameron Lard and Solomon Young into the rotation will make for a fascinating storyline they get closer to returning.
  • Oklahoma (Battle 4 Atlantis) – Picked to finish eighth in the league, the Sooners have shown some moxie, undefeated with three of their four wins coming away from Norman and a chance to make the week a big one assuming they meet favored Wisconsin in Friday’s semifinal. As I discussed last week, the calling card of Oklahoma’s defense has been their ability to defend without fouling, but that risk-averse nature hasn’t yielded many turnovers. That may need to change against a Wisconsin team that really values the ball and has largely made the most of their possessions. Jamuni McNeace was highly effective defending the Gators, but stopping Ethan Happ will be one of the biggest challenges he’ll face all year if the matchup comes to fruition. Continuing to get standout offensive play from Christian James (21.5 PPG, 2.5 TO/40) will be vital as well.
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Big 12 Observations After One Week

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 14th, 2018

Eight of the 10 Big 12 teams have played at least two games (Oklahoma State squares off at Texas-San Antonio tonight and West Virginia meets Monmouth tomorrow), so while it’s still too early to draw sweeping conclusions, it is a good time to take a look at some early revelations with Feast Week just around the corner.

Two games has been enough for Kansas fans to be treated to the full Dedric Lawson experience. (Nick Krug/Lawrence Journal-World)

  • Dedric Lawson’s been just okay. Just one week in and we’ve already seen some of the inconsistency for which the preseason All-American became known during his two years at Memphis. Even though Lawson struggled to a 5-of-18 shooting night against Michigan State, he was good enough to contribute 20 points along with 14 rebounds, two blocks and a pair of steals. In his Allen Fieldhouse debut against Vermont on Monday, however, he was a total non-factor from start to finish as the Catamounts pushed him around and held him scoreless for the first time in his career. Among his many skills, Lawson is a tremendous passer out of the paint, but Kansas’ insistence on running so much of its offense through Udoka Azubuike presents challenges in terms of fit and strategy when they’re both on the floor. The junior shouldn’t have any problems on Friday against Louisiana, whose rotation includes just one player taller than 6’6″, but it’s fair to have expected a little more from the big man in his first two games in Lawrence.
  • It might be a while before we know how good West Virginia is. There isn’t much shame in losing to mid-major darling Buffalo in overtime, but the fact that the Mountaineers put up a defensive turnover rate of just 12.8 percent at home and were fairly mediocre on the offensive glass in allowing a 13-point second half comeback should dispel any notions that this season will be business as usual in Morgantown. Bob Huggins‘ team will have opportunities to clean things up, but with this weekend’s Myrtle Beach Invitational lacking top-end competition and just one meeting against a KenPom top-50 team remaining (Florida in Madison Square Garden) before conference play, determining where this team belongs in both the Big 12 and national picture might take some time.

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Previewing Opening Week in the Big 12

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 6th, 2018

It’s been a long offseason, but we made it, everyone. Tonight is the night the 2018-19 season gets under way. As per usual, preseason #1 Kansas will own the marquee as one of the four elite teams competing in the Champions Classic, but half the conference will be in action this evening with Texas, Iowa State, Texas Tech and Baylor beginning their seasons as well. TCU will tip its season off on Wednesday, and following an idle Thursday, Kansas State, West Virginia and Oklahoma open the weekend with Friday jumps while Oklahoma State takes the caboose on Saturday afternoon. KenPom likes all 10 Big 12 teams to win their openers, with only the Jayhawks favored by fewer than 10 points (vs. Michigan State) and just one other game (West Virginia vs. Buffalo) coming in at fewer than 15 points. Still, you never know when a team might unleash a surprise, and even if not, there’s always something to keep an eye on as the curtains open. Here’s what to watch for around the Big 12 over the next few days.

Tuesday

Look for Dedric Lawson to make a strong first impression in Indianapolis tonight. (Orlin Wagner/AP)

  • Kansas vs. Michigan State – As mentioned in last week’s team preview, Kansas will feature two bigs in Dedric Lawson and Udoka Azubuike one year after going very guard-heavy. On the other side of this specific frontcourt match-up, Michigan State lost Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson to the draft and Gavin Schilling to graduation, so the Spartans will counter with junior Nick Ward and sophomore Xavier Tillman, who aren’t bad, but don’t hold a candle to a pair of lottery picks and a useful program guy. While I like Kansas to win this one in large part because of the mismatches up front, don’t be surprised to see Michigan State’s Cassius Winston expose the Jayhawks’ new-look backcourt on more than one occasion.
  • Texas vs. Eastern Illinois – Watching the Longhorns try to run offense last season was the ultimate test of will, as they finished dead last in the Big 12 in offensive efficiency. With four starters back this season, they absolutely have to get better. Their non-conference slate includes a neutral site date with Arkansas in addition to tilts against North Carolina, Purdue and Providence, so improved offensive cohesion will be important in the early going.

Get to know Lindell Wigginton before the rest of the country catches up. (Andrew Dieb/USA Today Sports)

  • Iowa State vs. Alabama State – There ought to be plenty of reps at the point guard position for both Nick Weiler-Babb and Lindell Wigginton. The Cyclones will be thin up front to start the season, though, with Solomon Young (injury) and Cameron Lard (suspension) both expected to miss tonight’s game. As a result, newcomers Michael Jacobson and George Conditt will be thrust into major minutes earlier than Steve Prohm would have liked. I don’t think that will be enough for the Hornets to make this game interesting, but it could make for a rockier ride than expected.
  • Texas Tech vs. Incarnate Word – Chris Beard faces off against one of his former employers tonight and it will be next man up with Keenan Evans, Zhaire Smith, Zach Smith and Niem Stevenson all having moved on to the next stages of their careers. A game against one of the 30 worst teams in the sport won’t decide whether Jarrett Culver is ready for the spotlight, but how he starts the season will tell us a lot about the Red Raiders’ fortunes in 2018-19.
  • Baylor vs. Texas Southern – The Bears will start the season as any rebuilding team of their caliber should, with four straight cupcakes. The first two weeks will be a great opportunity for Scott Drew’s squad to sharpen its defense after losing two of its best frontcourt defenders in Nuni Omot and Jo Lual-Acuil as well as an underrated perimeter defender in Manu LecomteBaylor’s going to feature smaller looks this year than what many are used to, which shouldn’t present any significant hurdles against the Tigers tonight, but is noteworthy going forward.

Wednesday

  • TCU vs. Cal State Bakersfield – The Horned Frogs’ backcourt doesn’t get a lot of headlines, but that could change soon, because there’s a lot to like about the trio of Alex Robinson, Jaylen Fisher and Desmond Bane. They’re experienced, they can create for themselves as well as others, and they can shoot it from deep. Their defensive chops aren’t where you’d like them to be, but there’s some untapped potential that will show itself this time around. Keep an eye on TCU’s frontcourt too, as it picks up the pieces from Vladimir Brodziansky and Kenrich Williams’s departures.

Friday

  • West Virginia vs. Buffalo – Aside from the Champions Classic, this is the only game of Opening Week whose outcome isn’t completely foregone, so it should be an interesting watch for those waiting to get back into the swing of things after the short Thursday break. You have a Mountaineer team that should be plenty good but not as good as last year’s edition facing the Bulls, who won the MAC by a country mile, embarrassed Arizona in last season’s NCAA Round of 64 and return nearly everyone, making themselves a strong favorite to repeat in conference. Will Bob Huggins‘ team be ready?
  • Kansas State vs. Kennesaw State – The Wildcats have a strong non-conference schedule that they’ll hope to parlay into a favorable seed come March, but their first two weeks will be more manageable and should offer Bruce Weber opportunities to explore the limits of his rotation. Dean Wade and Barry Brown are the names everyone knows and will be excited to see, but JuCo transfer Austin Trice will look to make his case for minutes as a strong rebounder off the bench.
  • Oklahoma at UT Rio Grande Valley – The Sooners are doing something a little different by starting the season on the road against two mid-majors. It’s admirable on Lon Kruger‘s part, but there isn’t much more to be said. Oklahoma will be among the league’s dregs despite being one of the oldest teams in the league, and they’re scheduled to play just two home games over the season’s first five weeks and won’t play their fifth home game until January 5. It’s setting up to be a long year in Norman.

Saturday

  • Oklahoma State at Charlotte – The Pokes also start the year on the road against a mid-major and aren’t projected to be very good this season. There’s not a lot returning on this team, so Mike Boynton will look to Cameron McGriffLindy Waters and Thomas Dziagwa to keep the ship from sinking early.
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