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

Posted by Chris Stone on January 3rd, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Kansas’ Backcourt Leads the Way But Questions Abound Inside

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 23rd, 2016

The biggest question facing Kansas as it entered this season centered around the team’s frontcourt. The loss of stalwart Perry Ellis was going to loom large until Bill Self could turn his rotation of big men into a serviceable enough unit to balance a supremely skilled backcourt. Now two weeks into the season and with the toughest part of the Jayhawds’ non-conference schedule in the books, that question remains unanswered. It may even be blurrier than it was in October. In addition to newcomers Dwight Coleby and Udoka Azubuike struggling to earn consistent minutes in Self’s rotation, veteran Landen Lucas has regressed and sophomore Carlton Bragg has yet to find a rhythm as well.

Kansas (USA Today Images)

Kansas Needs to Solve Its Interior Issues but the Backcourt is Excelling (USA Today Images)

Kansas’ frontcourt issues came to a head last night despite a 65-54 victory over Georgia at the CBE Classic in Kansas City. Bulldogs forward Yante Maten roasted every big man Kansas threw at him, dominating the back line with 30 points and 13 rebounds. Lucas, who expertly used his intelligence and size to pull away with the starting center spot last season, was saddled with foul trouble, his latest in a string of lackluster outings. Azubuike, a freshman who logged an inspiring performance against Duke just a week ago, played only five minutes. Collectively, the Jayhawks’ four big men were a mess: five points on 2-of-5 shooting, seven rebounds and 15 fouls, although Coleby gave admirable energy and effort in his first extended run of the season, blocking four shots and grabbing four rebounds. Kansas’ struggles to defend Georgia without fouling led to another rare sighting from a Self-coached team: the deployment of a 2-3 zone. To the team’s credit, the defensive maneuver keyed a decisive second-half run, but that may have had more to do with the fact that it wasn’t a look Georgia had prepared for. These were extenuating circumstances indeed.

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RTC Gametime: Key Questions in Duke vs. Kansas

Posted by Chris Stone & Brad Jenkins on November 15th, 2016

College basketball got underway with a pair of hotly contested Top 25 match-ups on Friday night. The heat will rise tonight as the ESPN Tip-off Marathon reaches its climax with the Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden. Because we’re so excited about what tonight’s headliner has to offer, we’ve gotten the ACC and Big 12 microsites together to preview the event’s evening contest between Duke and Kansas. Questions and answers were provided by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) and Chris Stone (@cstonehoops).

Questions for Kansas

Frank Mason looks like Bill Self's man at point guard. (USATSI)

Bill Self and Frank Mason against a talented Duke team? Sign us up. (USATSI)

The Blue Devils look vulnerable in the paint given all their current injuries. Bill Self teams have traditionally been dominant in the post, but is Kansas equipped to take advantage of Duke’s depleted frontcourt?

Unless something surprising happens, probably not. This game should ultimately be a battle of the backcourts. Although the Jayhawks have historically feasted on the interior by utilizing Self’s high-low offense to find open looks near the rim, Kansas doesn’t have the frontcourt players required to do that this season. Big men accounted for just 19.7 percent of Kansas’ total field goal attempts against Indiana last week, even as starters Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg shot a combined 9-of-11 from the field. Don’t expect that pair to suddenly become high usage players tonight. Lucas is fundamentally sound and more than capable of sealing off defenders for easy looks, but he lacks the post game necessary to be a go-to option. Bragg’s repertoire of post moves is considerably more complete, but his best offense is still played in the mid-range. With a full complement of talented perimeter players, look for Self to base his offense tonight around the likes of Frank Mason and Devonte Graham rather than Lucas and Bragg. Read the rest of this entry »

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One Burning Question: Will Kansas Really Play Small?

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 4th, 2016

Perry Ellis was one of the most recognizable players in college basketball over the last two seasons. This isn’t news, but anyone who has ever played in a pickup game could empathize with Ellis’s opponents in how they struggled to contain his lethal combination of footwork, soft touch and accuracy. The jokes about Ellis’s age were every bit as much about what he did with the ball in his hands as they were about his status as a college mainstay in the one-and-done era. As the curtains open on the 2016-17 season, Kansas will miss the All-American’s scoring ability, but something people haven’t mentioned nearly as much is that Ellis’s rebounding ability, while not as prolific, will need to be replaced as well. While the Wichita native was no Thomas Robinson, he did average 6.4 rebounds per game over his final three seasons and finished among the top ten in the conference in that category in each of his last two. The degree to which Kansas’ frontcourt helps Landen Lucas replace that production will strongly impact Bill Self’s efforts to deliver his second National Championship to Lawrence.

The paint could be a lonely place for Landen Lucas in 2016-17. (KUSports.com/Nick Krug)

Kansas opens the 2016-17 season without a clear-cut complement to Landen Lucas down low. (KUSports.com/Nick Krug)

As our Chris Stone wrote last month, sophomore Carlton Bragg will get the first crack at filling Ellis’ void. At 6’10”, he still needs to prove that he can get into position to retrieve caroms off the glass and initiate Self’s lethal transition attack. Bragg didn’t do a very good job of that in Tuesday’s exhibition, but we’ll find out very quickly against Duke and Indiana if this was just a matter of adjusting to a new role or if it’s something to be more concerned about. If Bragg gets exposed early, don’t be surprised to see transfer Dwight Coleby get the next shot down low. A transfer from Mississippi, Coleby has good experience and, at 240 pounds, a bigger frame than Bragg. The potential drawback with the redshirt junior, though, is that he has been slow to recover from ACL surgery last year. As a coach who values players who make defensive hustle plays and aren’t shy about mixing things up in the post, Self likely won’t have much patience if he senses that Coleby isn’t completely recovered or that he’s not as comfortable testing his body as much as Self thinks he could.

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Three Big 12 Storylines to Follow this Season

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 11th, 2016

Whether you’ve noticed or not, college basketball is almost here. The league schedules have been released, public practices like Kansas’ Late Night in the Phog and Iowa State’s Hilton Madness have either come and gone or are on the horizon, blurbs are emerging of players losing weight or adding muscle, and coaches are talking about how they want to play faster and take pages from NBA teams’ playbooks. Even though college football, the NFL and baseball’s playoffs tend to dominate the national sports conversation this time of year, it’s nevertheless a good opportunity to start looking at the hoops season ahead (and let’s be honest, any time is a good time to talk hoops around here). We’ll have much, much more to come over the next month as the season draws near, but in the interest of keeping things simple at the opening tip, here are three storylines that will define one of the nation’s top conferences in 2016-17.

Bill Self's Jayhawks are well-positioned for yet another conference title in 2017. (John Rieger/USA TODAY Sports)

Bill Self’s Jayhawks are well-positioned for yet another conference title in 2017. (John Rieger/USA TODAY Sports)

  1. Kansas goes for #13 – The Jayhawks lost one of the Big 12’s elder statesmen in Perry Ellis as well as two other mainstays in Wayne Selden and Jamari Traylor, but Bill Self‘s team is going to be loaded once again. Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham are back as the two-headed monster in the backcourt, Landen Lucas will hold own the center spot after running away with the job last season and Svi Mykhailiuk returns to provide an X-factor opposing coaches will have to respect, even if he only sees 10-15 minutes per game. Oh, and the potential #1 overall pick in next June’s draft in Josh Jackson will slide easily into Selden’s old spot, bringing versatility, rebounding and that #motor to the wing that Self loves so much. This team isn’t without questions — particularly how effective Carlton Bragg will be as a sophomore — but while there’s usually a token competitor who contrarians pick to upend the Jayhawks in the Big 12, the reality is that there’s no good reason to bet against Kansas matching both Gonzaga and the John Wooden-era UCLA teams with 13 consecutive regular season conference titles. Read the rest of this entry »
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Rushed Reactions: #1 Kansas 79, #3 Maryland 63

Posted by Will Tucker on March 24th, 2016

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCEastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCSouthregion and @RTCWestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Perry Ellis delivered another big performance against Texas. (KU Sports/Nick Krug)

Perry Ellis carried Kansas to the Elite Eight past a scrappy Maryland team. (KU Sports/Nick Krug)

  1. Maryland’s guards took care of business, but got little help down low. The final box score tells a different story, but for a long stretch of the game, the Terps’ backcourt of Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon got the best of counterparts Frank Mason III, Wayne Selden, Jr., and Devonte Graham. That Jayhawks unit combined for 13 points on 5-of-16 shooting in the first half, while Sulaimon and Trimble guided their team to a six-point lead. What happened after halftime? The wheels came off in the rebounding department, where Kansas dominated 21-8 on the boards and claim a 43-28 advantage for the game.
  2. Kansas is winning without production from beyond the arc. Despite ranking fourth in the nation in three-point percentage at 41.8 percent, the Jayhawks have only shot a combined 15-of-42 (36%) through tonight’s game. That’s a double-edged sword: While overreliance on the three-point shot never bodes well for championship prospects, they need to be prepared to keep up with Villanova on Saturday should the Wildcats’ streak of lightning-hot shooting continue from behind the arc.
  3. Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon was unfazed by his sentimental ties to Kansas. One of the central storylines in the week heading up to this matchup was Turgeon’s deep connection to the Kansas program, for whom he played and coached in his youth. That didn’t stop him from giving his alma mater all it could handle, in the process reaffirming that he’s serious about again making Maryland a powerhouse program. In his postgame press conference, Turgeon was dismissive when asked if this one hurt more because it came at the hands of Kansas. Instead, he focused on the fact that this was Maryland’s first Sweet Sixteen in 13 long years.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Kansas 73, #9 Connecticut 61

Posted by Walker Carey on March 19th, 2016

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCEastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCSouthregion and @RTCWestregion.

Three Key Takeaways: 

Kansas Seniors Frank Mason and Perry Ellis Made Sure UConn's March Run Came To An End Saturday (Photo: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports)

Kansas Seniors Frank Mason and Perry Ellis Made Sure UConn’s March Run Came To An End Saturday (Photo: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports)

  1. Kansas was excellent in the first half. The Jayhawks started tonight’s game with a considerable surge. Offensively, Bill Self’s group shot 55.6 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from beyond the arc en route to scoring 44 first half points. In building a 20-point halftime lead, Kansas also had to be fantastic on the other end of the court. The aggressive Jayhawks’ defense forced Connecticut into shooting an anemic 25.8 percent from the field in the opening stanza. Kansas is fortunate it did turn in such a dominant first half, because the Jayhawks were a bit sloppy in the second half and allowed Connecticut to hang around longer than they should have.
  2. Landen Lucas’ emergence has solidified the Kansas frontline. National pundits have been in agreement all season that this Kansas team does not have a “star.” It has many “good” players, but no star. While that may be true, Kansas guard Wayne Selden and forward Perry Ellis have both shown on many occasions that they are capable of delivering their team a marquee performance. One member of the Jayhawks who has quietly turned in several tremendous performances during the back half of the season is junior forward Landen Lucas. Lucas is never going to be a guy who is going to dominate a game offensively, but his rugged defense and knack for making things happen on the glass have been crucial in Kansas’ emergence as national title favorites. It was a quintessential Lucas effort tonight: six points, 12 rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots.
  3. Kevin Ollie is no longer undefeated in the NCAA Tournament. A national title run in 2014 and a victory over Colorado in the first round had Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie’s NCAA Tournament record at 7-0. That hot start came to a screeching halt tonight. Ollie figures to have a great opportunity to get back on the winning track next March, as the Huskies return dynamic guards Daniel Hamilton, Rodney Purvis, and Jalen Adams. The future remains bright for Connecticut. Tonight’s loss should just be seen as a small bump in the road.

Player of the Game. Perry Ellis, Kansas. The senior big man was the portrait of efficiency tonight, finishing with 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting. He also grabbed eight rebounds and played great interior defense all evening. When Connecticut cut the lead to nine at the 9:32 mark of the second half, it was Ellis who made a couple of key baskets to keep the Huskies from making a substantial comeback.

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NCAA Bound Big 12 Teams Have Plenty Still to Play For

Posted by Chris Stone on March 9th, 2016

The Big 12 is in a bit of a unique position heading into the conference tournament. The league already appears poised to send seven teams to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season, so unless something completely unexpected happens, the Big 12 Tournament will have very few, if any, bubble implications this week. The conference’s bottom three teams seem to have their futures largely set in stone as well. Kansas State looks poised for an NIT berth while both Oklahoma State and TCU are largely playing for pride. There will still be plenty on the line in Kansas City this week, as all seven NCAA-bound teams are playing for seeding and geographic considerations. Let’s examine what each of those top seven seeds has to gain over the next five days.

big 12 bracket 2016

The 2016 Big 12 Tournament bracket. (Credit: Big 12 Conference)

1. Kansas – Although Kansas already owns 14 wins against the RPI top 50, the Jayhawks are still in a battle to be the overall #1 seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament. If they can knock off the winner of Kansas State-Oklahoma State in Thursday’s quarterfinals, they’ll have a chance to pick up a couple more impressive victories on Friday and Saturday. In order to get there, head coach Bill Self will hope for continued consistency from center Landen Lucas, someone who has provided the Jayhawks with quality inside minutes late this season.

2. West Virginia – The Mountaineers are currently slated as a #3 seed according to most bracket projections, but assuming Texas Tech defeats TCU in their play-in game, they could pick up as many as three additional RPI top 50 wins to support a #2 seed. West Virginia enters the Big 12 Tournament on a four-game winning streak during which it has made 38.2 percent of its three-pointers. If the Mountaineers can keep up that pace, they’re a very dangerous team.

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