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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2016-17 RTC Top 25: Week Ten

Posted by Walker Carey on January 23rd, 2017

It is that time in the college basketball season where one week can send a team into a downward spiral. This past week has given us two candidates for teams that can fall off the national landscape if there is no course correction. #15 West Virginia experienced a nightmare week. The Mountaineers first were stunningly upset Wednesday in Morgantown by a rebuilding Oklahoma team before becoming victims of the Octagon of Doom in a Saturday loss at #25 Kansas State. While West Virginia had a bad week, #19 Creighton definitely had a worse one. On paper, the Blue Jays winning at #24 Xavier on Monday looks like a quality victory, but in that win, the team lost star point guard Maurice Watson Jr. for the season due to a torn ACL. In Creighton’s first game without Watson’s services, it was upset at home Saturday by unranked Marquette. It will be worth keeping an eye on both West Virginia and Creighton moving forward to see if either team can overcome this past week and get back on course towards a fruitful finish to the regular season.

This week’s Quick N’ Dirty Analysis of the RTC25 is after the jump.

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Big 12 Power Rankings: It’s Happening Again Edition

Posted by Big 12 Team on January 20th, 2017

Kansas had a big night on Wednesday and the Jayhawks didn’t even play. Despite being favored by 17 points, West Virginia lost in stunning fashion to Oklahoma, done in by a few clutch plays from Jordan Woodard. The loss dropped the Mountaineers two games behind the Jayhawks in the Big 12 standings, and with Kansas set to play Texas at home on Saturday while West Virginia travels to Kansas State, the deficit could grow even deeper before the pair square off in Morgantown on Tuesday. Whether they beat the Wildcats or not, West Virginia could theoretically climb back into the race by notching wins against its peers in the upper third of the conference, but Wednesday’s loss underscores the importance of winning at home when it comes to contending for the Big 12 title. For now, the focus shifts back to Baylor, which is set to take on a tough TCU team in Fort Worth this weekend. The Bears will be favored, but not by more than a few points, which means the wheels could be in motion for Kansas to create some serious distance in its pursuit of consecutive regular season title #13. With comments on each team are Big 12 microsite writers Drew Andrews, Justin Fedich, Brian Goodman, Nate Kotisso, and Chris Stone.

1. Kansas: “The Jayhawks are unblemished in league play because they’re one of the best teams in America. They’re led by a National Player of the Year candidate, they have a likely one-and-done lottery pick who is asked to do a lot, but not too much, and they’re coached by one of the best in the profession. It’s tough to beat that combination. But another reason why Kansas is currently 6-0 in league play is because they’ve had the league’s second-easiest conference schedule to this point. That’s about to change very soon, however. After Saturday’s game against Texas, the Jayhawks travel to Morgantown, take a break from Big 12 play by playing Kentucky at Rupp Arena, then resume conference action with home games against Baylor and Iowa State. This team will ultimately be defined by what it does in March, but if they beat the odds to make it through the rest of January unscathed, it may be time to start thinking about this season as one of Bill Self‘s best ever.” -Brian Goodman

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Handicapping the Midseason Battle for the #1 Seeds

Posted by Shane McNichol on January 20th, 2017

The College Football Playoff has caught a lot of flak for a system that rewards four teams in an environment where five power conference champions all feel that they are deserving. The NCAA Tournament with its 68 teams is obviously a lot more inclusive, but the pursuit of the four top seeds shares some of the flaws of the football system. College basketball features a less defined definition of its power conferences, but depending on your opinion of the Big East and American, our landscape features a minimum of six power conference champions which presumably would have a shot at the top line. On top of that, there are always a handful of mid-majors capable of having a stake in selection of the #1 seeds. With the American sitting at eighth in the RPI this season, Cincinnati would likely need to run the table for a chance at a top seed, an unlikely outcome. That leaves seven entrants, loosely defined to include conferences, for only four spots. Let’s examine each in turn.

Are Wisconsin fans gearing up for a possible #1 seed? (Photo by David Stluka)

  • Big Ten. Thanks to a pair of unexpected swoons by Indiana and Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin seem to be the only Big Ten teams with a semi-realistic chance of making a run at a #1 seed. However, the margin of error is already thin for both. The Boilermakers have four reasonable losses with wins over Notre Dame and Wisconsin, while the Badgers’ likely best win came at Assembly Hall against a struggling group of Hoosiers. It would be difficult to imagine that these resumes could turn into top-seed material by March. The Big Ten’s best teams appear to have suffered too many hiccups before conference play and are now slowly cannibalizing themselves into the lower seed lines.

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Big 12 Power Rankings: We Can See Clearly Now Edition

Posted by Big 12 Team on January 13th, 2017

With four games of conference action now in the books, we have good clarity on the league’s pecking order. The unblemished Jayhawks maintain their perch at the top of the standings, followed by West Virginia after its demolition of Baylor in front of a national audience. The middle is typically where things get jumbled, but Iowa State’s 3-1 start and Texas Tech’s head-to-head win over Kansas State this week made #4-#6 a fairly easy call. Rounding out the list of NCAA Tournament-caliber teams is TCU, followed by a trio of teams with just one combined win between them. Below is how our five Big 12 microsite writers — Drew Andrews, Justin Fedich, Brian Goodman, Nate Kotisso, and Chris Stone — see the conference stacking up entering the weekend.

  1. Kansas – “Roughly halfway through the regular season, Frank Mason is shooting better on three-pointers (54.9%) than he is on two-pointers (52.3%). Combine that staggering level of shooting efficiency with his flair for the dramatic against Duke and Oklahoma (not to mention his team’s status as the likely #1 team in America on Monday afternoon) and you have a recipe for a first-team All-American. Mason will have two chances to add to his legend when he goes toe-to-toe with Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans and Iowa State’s Monte’ Morris over the next few days.” -Brian Goodman Read the rest of this entry »
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Quick Reactions to Tuesday Night’s Big 12 Action

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 11th, 2017

With college football season officially in the books, hoops took the baton last night with five of the Big 12’s best teams on display. Though only one contest came down to the last few minutes, there were several key takeaways from Tuesday’s three league battles. Here’s what we learned.

Jevon Carter put an early end to Baylor’s reign as the #1 team in America. (Ben Queen/USA Today Sports)

  • The battle for second place is officially on. It’s worth noting that top-ranked Baylor entered last night’s game against West Virginia as a six-point underdog, but the Bears were woefully unprepared for the Mountaineers’ press, turning the ball over on 35.7 percent of their possessions en route to their first loss of the season. Baylor’s resume still shows a tremendous set of wins, but the one thing Scott Drew‘s team lacks — and West Virginia does not — is a true road win against an NCAA Tournament-caliber team. In dominating the nation’s #1 team from start to finish, the Mountaineers effectively neutralized their close loss against a Texas Tech team that may end up on the bubble. Nathan Adrian and the rest of “Press Virginia” have a good chance to keep things rolling over the next week with upcoming games against the league’s two worst teams in Texas and Oklahoma, which is about as much of a breather as it gets in this conference.
  • These aren’t (exactly) last year’s Mountaineers. In the first two seasons of Bob Huggins‘ retooled running and pressing system, the Mountaineers paid a price for their intense defense by finishing dead last nationally in defensive free throw rate. Year Three of the experiment has revealed a slightly different story, as the Mountaineers rank a more respectable 273rd (40.5%) this time around. There’s a natural ceiling to how much a team can limit fouls while playing such aggressive defense, but West Virginia may be finding it. The team’s depth is still an asset that can prevent foul trouble from becoming an issue, but it always helps to be able to keep guys like Adrian, Esa Ahmad and Tarik Phillip on the floor as much as possible. Another area where the Mountaineers have improved is in three-point shooting, burying 36.7 percent of their attempts from distance — up from 32.5 percent last season, and 31.6 percent in 2014-15. While West Virginia will continue to rely heavily on points in transition, the long ball gives them a weapon on night when they either don’t generate turnovers or when a considerable ratio of the turnovers are of the dead-ball variety.

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A Handy Preview of Big 12 Opening Friday

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 30th, 2016

Thought to be headed for a down year, the Big 12 opened the 2016-17 campaign by notching several high-profile victories in neutral-site events across the country and in the Bahamas. With a handful of exceptions, it’s been quiet since as teams have taken advantage of buy-game opponents to firm up their rotations and find their identities. Activity slowed even more over the Christmas weekend, but the season is finally back from its slumber with the first full slate of conference match-ups tipping off today. Here’s a breakdown of the five best angles and storylines to follow as you settle in for the New Year’s Eve-Eve Big 12 feast.

Jawun Evans and Oklahoma State have a chance to make a statement against #11 WVU. (Alonzo Adams/USA TODAY Sports)

Jawun Evans and Oklahoma State have a chance to make an early statement in Big 12 play against #11 West Virginia. (Alonzo Adams/USA TODAY Sports)

  • West Virginia at Oklahoma State (4:00 ET, ESPN2) – In this afternoon’s opener, Bob Huggins gets a chance to exact revenge on former assistant Brad Underwood after the latter’s Lumberjacks bounced the Mountaineers from last season’s NCAA Tournament. West Virginia and Oklahoma State both feature aggressive defenses, with Press Virginia still thriving and Underwood installing more of a half-court press-and-trap look. Both teams rank among the top five nationally in offensive rebounding and in the bottom 50 in defensive rebounding, so the team that makes the most of its second chances could be the difference here.
  • Texas Tech at Iowa State (6:00 ET, ESPNEWS) – The Red Raider defense has shown an interesting indifference to the deep ball this season, ranking 345th in opponent three-point field goal attempt rate and allowing a greater percentage of their opponents’ scoring to come from beyond the arc than all but three other teams. It hasn’t cost 11-1 Texas Tech to this point, but that record came against the country’s third-easiest non-conference schedule, so take it with a grain of salt. While Iowa State doesn’t let it fly under Steve Prohm like it did under Fred Hoiberg, the experienced core of Monte’ MorrisDeonte Burton, Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas are all shooting 35 percent or better from beyond the arc. An improved showing on the perimeter defensively will be crucial if Texas Tech is to notch an impressive road win in Ames.

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Kansas Remains a Contender Even Without Udoka Azubuike

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 22nd, 2016

Kansas‘ transition to small-ball this season was a product of three primary factors: 1) the Jayhawks’ surplus of quality shooters and ball-handlers; 2) Josh Jackson‘s versatility; 3) a collection of big men who each brought something different to the table but none of whom possesses a well-rounded game. The Jayhawks have been getting by inside with centers Landen Lucas and Udoka Azubuike sharing the workload, but while a season-ending wrist injury to the freshman Azubuike is a clear setback, it doesn’t dispel Kansas’ status as a legitimate national title contender.

Kansas will miss Udoka Azubuike, but the Jayhawks' championship aspirations remain intact. (Michael Reaves/Getty)

Kansas will miss Udoka Azubuike, but the Jayhawks’ championship aspirations remain intact. (Michael Reaves/Getty)

For all of Azubuike’s upside as a five-star recruit with an NBA-ready body, he’ll end this season averaging a fairly modest 5.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in just under 13 minutes per game. That’s not to say that he’s been a disappointment in his first season, or that Kansas won’t drop a game or two that it otherwise wouldn’t have, but it is to say that a team as talented and efficient as Kansas can replace his level of production. Recall that in the preseason, Azubuike wasn’t projected to play a major role this season, but it didn’t stop many in the national media from tabbing the Jayhawks to win the national title. Yes, Azubuike miss out on chances to develop in the throes of Big 12 play, and his presence in the pain will be missed against bigger teams like Baylor and West Virginia, but his rawness also made him prone to turnovers (26.6% TO), fouls (8.7 fouls per 40 minutes) and struggles at the stripe (38% FT).

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In Hoops We Trust: Blue-Blooded Season

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on December 15th, 2016

One of the biggest changes in college hoops over the last 10 years has been the rise of several consistently strong mid-major programs to the status of legitimate national title contenders. George Mason first crashed the Final Four party in 2006 with a gutsy, emotional Elite Eight win over #1 seed Connecticut. That paved the way for the rise of Butler (2010, 2011), VCU (2011), and Wichita State (2013), each of which were led by dynamic young coaches building winning programs. Throw in the likes of Gonzaga, San Diego State and Xavier, and the growing parity brought with it added competitiveness and a widening of the NCAA hoops pie. But this year is all about the blue-bloods. Kentucky, Duke, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina and UCLA are all in the AP top 10 for the first time since 1994. While some of those schools have maintained relevance over the intervening seasons, the simultaneous rise of the Hoosiers and Bruins augurs a shift back to the traditional power programs.

College Basketball Benefits When the Elite Programs Are Elite (USA Today Images)

College Basketball Benefits When the Elite Programs Are Elite (USA Today Images)

The “why” for this trend could very well be recruiting. Kentucky’s John Calipari was the first coach to truly embrace the one-and-done model of recruiting. The theory is basically that if you can gather the most talented players in the country — regardless whether all of them will be headed to the NBA after just one season — you should. Yes, there are challenges with youth, inexperience and with program continuity, but he proved with the 2012 National Championship and four Final Fours in five years that if you recruit the best players, challenge them in practice, and preach selflessness and defense, you can win. Mike Krzyzewski noticed and Duke jumped on board. Roy Williams also has a slew of McDonald’s All-Americans, and Bill Self has never shied away from recruiting one-year talents regardless of whether he plays them. UCLA this season joined the party with a pair of freshman All-Americans in Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf. So far, Steve Alford‘s accumulation of talent has helped transform a formerly teetering program into the current #2 team in the country.

Conventional wisdom once held that experience trumps talent in the NCAA Tournament. This was the rationale for the VCUs, Butlers and Wichita States of the game. But as major programs blend experienced returnees with those talented NBA prospects, they often overwhelm their less athletic, overachieving rivals. So, does this early trend hold? That remains to be seen. Perhaps those talented freshmen will revert to traditional norms or hit the rookie wall as the long season works its way into spring. Or perhaps injuries will take a toll. Or maybe some of those power programs in smaller conferences will again crash the party. It wouldn’t be a shock. But so far this season, it’s been a feast for the rich. How fat they get we shall know in good time.

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The Five Most Improved Players in the Big 12

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 14th, 2016

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

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

Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State

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

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

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

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

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