Oklahoma State fans were asking this question following the Cowboys’ win over Kansas on Saturday: “Is it safe to come back out?” It appears to be, fans. After everything the team dealt with since the start of 2014, OSU notched a Paunch Burger-sized victory over the Big 12 leading Kansas Jayhawks 72-65. The three-headed monster of Marcus Smart, Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown combined to shoot 15-for-30 from the floor, 23-for-29 from the line, 58 points, seven steals and seven blocks. While this was a major boost to a tournament profile that sorely needed one, they aren’t out of the woods just yet. They have Kansas State coming into Gallagher-Iba Arena on Big Monday. One would think a win tonight locks up an at-large bid for good.
Should we/Kansas fans/NBA scouts begin worrying about the health of Joel Embiid? Last month, he missed a week and a game with nagging back and knee injuries suffered in the West Virginia win on February 8. Embiid left Saturday’s game holding his back and after some stretching checked back into the game. Bill Self addressed Embiid’s injury in his postgame press conference, saying he “only tweaked his back” and has “no idea” how it will affect him going forward. Ultimately Embiid’s back could be much ado about nothing but at the same token, it was a problem weeks ago and it’s a problem right now. Stay tuned. You know lottery teams will be.
While Kansas State’s tournament resume lacks any quality wins outside of Kansas state lines, you gotta hand it to them for taking care of business on their home court (and Wichita). Iowa State was the latest club to enter the “Octagon” and leave doomed, falling 80-73 on Saturday. The ISU win all but clinched an at-large bid for the Cats who now sport victories over George Washington, Gonzaga, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas. If anything, the 2013-14 Wildcats have proven that you can go home again. And again. And again. And again. But seriously, it would be a mistake if they were left out of the field of 68.
A great thing about this Big 12 season was the rekindling of the Red River Rivalry in hoops. Sorta. Oklahoma finished off Texas 77-65 in Norman. We knew going in that Texas had the height advantage so to combat this OU relied on what they do best: hit three-pointers. In fact the Sooners hit ten of them. With the win, Oklahoma became the only Big 12 team to sweep their season series against UT. In addition to that, this season marked the first time in the Big 12 era where the Sooners swept the Horns and the Oklahoma State Cowboys. How about the job Lon Kruger has done this season? He loses five of his top eight scorers from last year’s team and are somehow averaging 11 points more than a season ago.
Baylor fans: Your team may be on the brink of history! But it wouldn’t be anything to stick your chest out over. Baylor enters the final week of the regular season at 7-9 in conference play and still is in contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. With their strong RPI and strength of schedule numbers, there is a chance for the Bears to be the first-ever Big 12 team to make the tournament with a sub-.500 league record. The Bears have a winnable home game against Iowa State on Tuesday followed by the regular season finale versus K-State in the Little Apple. Assuming they win one of those two; grouped in with their quality wins over Kentucky, Colorado, Dayton, Kansas State and Oklahoma State (twice); BU would make a strong case to take up one of those coveted 37 at-large spots.
Eli Linton is a RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Saturday night’s game between Kansas and Oklahoma State.
Before Saturday night’s critical matchup between Kansas and Oklahoma State, the two teams were headed in opposite directions. Oklahoma State, which had been touted as a preseason favorite for both the Big 12 championship and a Final Four run, collapsed in February. A seven-game losing streak and the suspension of Marcus Smart threatened to make this season one of the biggest disasters in school history. Kansas, on the other hand, was once again riding its sensational talent to its 10th straight conference title. While the Cowboys were simply hoping to be find a way into the last four in the Big Dance, Kansas had its sights set on the Final Four. But on Saturday night, it was Marcus Smart’s team that found redemption, just when it seemed they had let the season slip away.
A big second half was the difference for Marcus Smart and the Cowboys. (AP)
A lot of deserving criticism has been leveled at Smart for the part he played in the Cowboys’ downfall, but on Saturday he was the best player on the floor, leading the Cowboys to a come-from-behind 72-65 win. After a one-point, 0-of-7 first half line, Smart put up 20 points, four assists, two steals and just a single turnover in the second stanza. “Our focus was different tonight,” said Smart. “Losing those seven straight games opened our eyes. We were extra-focused tonight.” It was the biggest win of the year in the most desperate time for the Cowboys. Already on the NCAA bubble, another loss would have been devastating, but this quality win over #5 Kansas will likely earn them a bid. I am sure bubble talk was a conversation they were hoping to avoid to start the year, but they will take it and move forward. In a stroke of irony, Kansas was still able to clinch the Big 12 title outright thanks to both Texas and Iowa State losing earlier, but according to Bill Self, there will be no celebration.
Posted by Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) on February 28th, 2014
Who Won the Week? is a regular column that outlines and discusses three winners and losers from the previous week of hoops. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), a Spokane-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game.
We’ve got more to get to here than usual, so we’ve got a special extended-yet-abbreviated edition of WWTW on tap today.
Russ Smith won Louisville’s game over Cincinnati on Saturday with a late jumper. (AP)
Your defending national champions – remember them? – are rolling at just the right time in the season. They went into Cincinnati and handed the Bearcats their first home loss of the season Saturday, 58-57, with a Russ Smith dagger – remember him? – then followed that up by blowing out woebegone Temple 88-66 on Thursday.
Sophomore Cardinals forward Montrezl Harrell thrived this past week, as he has since the dismissal of Chane Behanan, scoring 21 points in both games. Going forward, the Cardinals have games left at Memphis and SMU, followed by a home game against Connecticut. Though they’re tied with Cincinnati at the top of the American and on a seven-game winning streak, we’ll know much more about Louisville by the time the conference tournament rolls around.
(Related winners: Smith; Harrell. Related losers: Cincinnati, which squandered its chance at an outright AAC championship by losing at home; Temple, which had its first 20-loss season in school history thanks to Louisville.)
LOSER: Saint Louis
The Billikens, which had been one of America’s last four teams undefeated in conference, took one of the most befuddling losses of the whole season, falling 71-64 on Thursday to a Duquesne team that had won four Atlantic 10 games in Jim Ferry’s two seasons in Pittsburgh. What had been one of the nation’s top 10 shooting defenses gave up an effective field goal rate of 50.7 percent, including 14-0f-18 shooting and 7-of-9 three-pointers by Dukes guards Micah Mason and Jerry Jones. And against one of the nation’s 10 worst defenses vs. three-point shooting, Saint Louis only made 4-of-23 shots from beyond the arc. The Billikens have a top-five defense nationally according to KenPom.com, but their offense ranks 169th in efficiency. Then again, defense wins championships, right?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 36 hours, you’ve heard by now that Kansas‘ win over Oklahoma on Monday night extended their streak of regular season conference titles to a remarkable ten in a row. During that streak, three times Kansas has replaced all five starters from the previous season in 2005-06, 2008-09, and 2013-14 and still managed to capture the league crown. Brian Hamilton at Sports Illustratedtook a look at those three seasons in particular and ranked them in order of which is most impressive. Sooner or perhaps later, the streak will come to an end, just not this season.
When the NCAA Tournament rolls around, you can bet Iowa State will be a sleeper team many people around the country like to advance deep because of their ability to score the ball. While point guard DeAndre Kane and forward Melvin Ejim receive most of the attention, forward Georges Niangmay be the most important piece to Fred Hoiberg’s Cyclones. Niang has been a model of consistency as of late, scoring at least 17 points in nine of his last 10 games. Niang’s ability to stretch opposing defenses away from the basket creates a difficult matchup, especially for a team having to potentially prepare for Iowa State in just one day in the NCAA tournament format.
Speaking of NCAA tournament play, the Oklahoma Sooners and head coach Lon Kruger have proven during conference play that they can score points with any team in the country, but for Oklahoma moving forward, the key is being able to get stops on the defensive end of the floor. As NBCSports.com points out, in six of the Sooner’s eight losses, their opponents scored over 80 points. Part of the problem for Oklahoma is that while their ability to score from so many different places on the floor, that versatility resulting from a smaller lineup leaves them vulnerable to taller frontcourts, especially when forward Ryan Spangler gets in foul trouble.
This season we’ve learned quite a bit about Marcus Smart, both good and bad. On Monday night, Smart showed that superstition wasn’t a concern for him after a student manager left his jersey back in Stillwater, forcing Smart to wear number 43 instead of his usual 33. In all seriousness, as bad as things have been for Smart this year, he still has an opportunity in front of him to make a meaningful and positive impact on college basketball. That opportunity starts on Saturday night, when the Cowboys host league leading Kansas with ESPN’s College Gameday in attendance.
After dropping two disappointing games in a row, Bob Huggins’ West Virginia team is in need of a great end to conference play to really make a push to the NCAA tournament. The Mountaineers will have three opportunities against RPI Top 25 teams in their last four games which could drastically help improve their tournament resume. It will be important for Huggins’ squad to tighten up on the defensive end, and hope that point guard Juwan Staten can continue his impressive play that jump-started the Mountaineers in league play.
With his recent three game suspension behind him, Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart now has an opportunity to make one last impression on how we will remember his college career in Stillwater. At 5-9 in league play, the Cowboys are are the perfect example of a bubble team heading into the last few weeks of the season with games against Kansas, Kansas State, and Iowa State remaining. Given the talent on Travis Ford’s roster, it’s not a stretch to think this team could get on roll throughout both the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments and pose an incredibly difficult match-up for most teams.
Heading into this Big 12 season, most anticipated the aforementioned Oklahoma State would be the biggest challenge to end Kansas’ streak of nine regular season league titles, but with just four games remaining, Kansas holds a three-game lead on all other teams in the conference, and needs just one win to guarantee at least a tie for the league crown. As Mike DeCourcy writes, the streak by Bill Self and company is much more of a dynasty given just how dominant the Jayhawks have been for the last decade.
For Kansas State this season, there has certainly been no place like home. On Saturday, Bruce Weber’s team continued to experience road woes in their blowout loss at Oklahoma. Wildcat forward Thomas Gipson said after the game that he didn’t know what they can do to win a game away from home. Kansas State has a difficult finish to their season and while their doesn’t appear to be a threat to their NCAA Tournament status just yet, they could vastly improve their seeding come Selection Sunday if they were able to show their ability to win away from home.
Two of the most bubblicious teams in the Big 12 squared off on Saturday when Baylor visited West Virginia, and for the time being, it looks like they may be headed in different directions come Selection Sunday. Scott Drew’s Baylor team has now won four straight league games after topping the Mountaineers 88-75 in Morgantown. Baylor is now 6-8 in league play in their quest to finish .500 in the conference, which should be enough to get them into the dance given the strength of their non conference play. In the first meeting between these two teams, Baylor guard Royce O’Neale played just seven minutes in the Bears’ loss at home in Waco, but scored 22 on Saturday and has been valuable in the resurgence of Baylor as of late.
While the spot at the top of the conference seems all but settled, the race for second place will come down to the last few weeks of the season between Iowa State, Texas, and perhaps Oklahoma, all of whom currently sit at 9-5 in league play. For the Cyclones, finding a way to position themselves second in the Big 12 would allow them to avoid a potential rematch with Kansas until the championship game, and would pair Fred Hoiberg’s squad in the second round with a team that played the previous day. Regardless of how the seedings play out, you can bet the competition in Kansas City will be highly entertaining.
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.
Gary Parrish over at CBSSports.com has a good piece about coaches on the hot seat and Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford is rightfully mentioned. Ford’s job might have been saved after Marcus Smart decided to return for his junior season, but Smart’s implosion and the Cowboy’s fall from grace might leave Ford in the unemployment line.
ESPN’s bracketologist Joe Lunardi updated his lates bracket yesterday and the Big 12 had several representatives. Kansas led the way as a #2 seed in the Midwest region, followed by Iowa State as a #4, Oklahoma and Texas as #6’s, and Kansas State as a #7. The Jayhawks probably have the easiest path with Wichita State as their #1, but don’t count out Texas in this bracket. The Longhorns would have a size advantage over every potential opponent until the Elite Eight.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone, but Joel Embiid is about to break the freshman block record at Kansas. The 7’0” center from Cameroon is one block shy of the school’s freshman record of 63 blocks set by Eric Chenowith in the 1997-98 season. Embiid transformed from a two- or three-year project into the projected No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft, in large part to his ability to block shots.
Here’s another good article regarding the return of Marcus Smart, this time by Sports Illustrated writer Brian Hamilton. “The jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament altogether is very real,” writes Hamilton. And he is write. The Cowboys were struggling before Smart’s suspension and they face an uphill battle when he returns this weekend.
Iowa State is preparing to face lowly TCU tomorrow and head coach Fred Hoiberg had trouble finding bad clips to show his team from their win against Texas on Monday. Understandable. The Cyclones knocked off the Longhorns 85-76 and will probably be the second most dangerous Big 12 team in the NCAA Tournament.
Jimmy Burch is correct in that Oklahoma State will get a boost when Marcus Smart returns from his three-game suspension this weekend against Texas Tech. He is also correct in that the Cowboys have a slim chance to still gain an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament with Smart’s return. But he forgets that Oklahoma State lost four straight games before Smart’s suspension. Could Smart return and be “even better,” as head coach Travis Ford predicts? Sure. But will that lead to an NCAA Tournament bid? Don’t count on it.
Lon Kruger won 15 games two seasons ago in his first campaign at Oklahoma. He won 20 games last season and made the NCAA Tournament. The Sooners are currently 18-6, and barring a surprising collapse, will finish with more wins than last season and reach the NCAA Tournament once again. As Guerin Emig of the Tulsa World reports, Kruger said before the season that he hoped to be in a position this time of year to make a run to the postseason. The Sooners aren’t locks for the Big Dance yet, but they are getting closer to that goal with every passing win.
Kansas State is in virtually the same spot as Oklahoma. The Wildcats are 18-8 and have at least a few winnable games left on the schedule. It’s certainly a far cry from November when they started the season 2-3, including embarrassing losses to Northern Colorado and Charlotte. Freshman guard Marcus Foster has in the interim emerged as one of the best freshmen in the country, and the Wildcats are close to locking up a bid for the NCAA Tournament.
As Mike Hlas states, Iowa State isn’t a great team, “but ISU is very good a lot of days, very entertaining almost every game, and is 20-5.” That, among other things, are the reasons the Cyclones might be the second most dangerous Big 12 team in March. They are entertaining because they shoot, shoot, and then shoot some more. And when they are hitting their jumpers they are tough to beat. It sounds clichéd (because it usually is), but the Cyclones could shoot themselves out of the NCAA Tournament on the first day or wind up in Dallas in the Final Four. Either way, we will know the reason.
Kansas freshman center Joel Embiid came back from a one-game hiatus and was close to dominant in the Jayhawks’ overtime win against Texas Tech Tuesday, finishing with 18 points (a career high) and eight rebounds. Embiid told Tom Keegan of the Lawrence Journal-World that he was at “about 90 percent.” He looked much better than he did against Kansas State, and if he was truly back to that level already, Kansas fans should feel hopeful for March.
Jim Weber at LostLettermen.com has an interesting proposal about fixing Oklahoma State basketball: T. Boone Pickens should offer Kansas coach Bill Self $10 million a year to leave Lawrence for Stillwater. And while he makes the comparison to Roy Williams leaving Kansas for North Carolina in 2003, the situations are apples and oranges. Williams went home to Chapel Hill, but he was moving (slightly) up the coaching ladder. Not down. Winning at Kansas is easy. Winning at North Carolina is easier. And after failing to win a national title in 15 years at Kansas, Williams probably wanted easier. Self wouldn’t be able to avoid returning to Lawrence like Williams can. And while it would be a challenge at Oklahoma State, I’m sure Self’s Big 12 title streak and search for another national title (or two) are challenging enough. At least until a serious NBA offer comes along.
Gregg Doyel argues that Marcus Smart isn’t the sole reason Oklahoma State has been melting down the last month, and he is right. The loss of Michael Cobbins with an Achilles tear killed this team more than losing Smart for three games. Smart’s antics, Doyel says, will shoulder the blame for the collapse of a team that was supposed to overthrow Kansas for the Big 12 championship. But Doyel seems to forget that Smart has done plenty to bring this heat on himself. He made himself a sideshow with his endless flopping. He kicked a chair during a rough game against West Virginia and left the court during play, even though his team eventually won. And Monday night while watching his team lose at Baylor, he took to twitter to criticize a blogger for being too negative. It wasn’t just Smart’s suspension that doomed the Cowboys. He was leading them in that direction long before that happened.
Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger has been in the game for a few seasons, so he knows a thing or two about handling a team late in the season. And with the Sooners (19-7) preparing for a late-season push for the NCAA Tournament and a favorable seed, he gave his players two days off this week instead of one. They will rest today as they prepare to face Kansas State on Saturday. While you always have to stay sharp, staying fresh in late February and March can be just as important.
It’s refreshing to know at least one coach talks to his team about their NCAA Tournament chances as Selection Sunday draws closer. Bob Huggins told Cam Huffman of the Register-Herald that “We talk about RPI. I would just as soon them know instead of at the end of the year them coming in and saying, ‘Coach, I wish we would have known.’” I’m sure a lot of coaches in Huggins’ position have the same discussions with their players, but Huggins doesn’t mind letting the World know. And if you can get just a little more out of a few players by them knowing exactly what they need to reach the Dance, why not?
When new NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he is in favor of changing the age limit from 19 to 20, Bill Self said he liked the idea. The only thing better than landing players like Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid is having those players around for two seasons. From the NBA’s perspective, another year of evaluation makes perfect sense. The college game would benefit as well. There would be more talent and it would be spread out more evenly around the country. And while 18-year olds shouldn’t be protected from themselves, it’s easy to see how both the NBA and NCAA would benefit from this change.
With a healthy Joel Embiid in the lineup, Kansas is a national title contender. Without their 7’0” freshman center from Cameroon, however, the Jayhawks would be fortunate to make the Elite Eight. Embiid has become the most important player on Bill Self’s team this season. So when a few nagging injuries finally caught up with him in last week’s loss to Kansas State, it was wise of Self to sit his big man against TCU on Saturday. He looks to be back in the lineup for tonight’s game versus Texas Tech, so it’s safe to say that his recent knee and back problems were nothing a little time off couldn’t fix. At least that’s what Jayhawks fans everywhere are hoping.
As Ken Corbitt points out here, Bruce Weber doesn’t generally like to foul when down three points late in the game. And whether he was a proponent of that strategy or not, Corbitt correctly points out that Kansas State’s double-overtime loss Saturday to Baylor wasn’t a good time to foul anyway. Baylor was down three but shot the ball too soon for Kansas State to foul. The Bears kept grabbing offensive rebounds, though, and in the confusion, Brady Heslip ended up with the ball and drained a three-pointer to send the game to its first overtime. If you’re going to foul, its best to do so with under six seconds remaining. There is no game-planning strategy available for an early three-point attempt followed by multiple offensive rebounds and a kick-out three.
If you watched last night’s Baylor vs. Oklahoma State game on ESPN, you might recall that they showed a Big 12 Tournament bracket if the season had ended today. Last night’s opponents would be the #8/#9 match-up while Texas Tech — yes, Texas Tech — would be the No. 7 seed. The Red Raiders are currently 5-7 in league play and KenPom has the team as just five-point underdogs tonight against Kansas. A lot of that has to do with two people: head coach Tubby Smith and senior forward Jaye Crockett. Smith admits that he felt the need to win Crockett over after he was hired last year. It seems to have worked, as Texas Tech sits at 13-12 overall and should manage to win enough games to play in some sort of postseason tournament next month.
Speaking of Baylor and Oklahoma State, last night’s game prompted both teams to appear on CBSSports.com’s most recent “Poppin’ Bubbles” segment. As Jeff Borzello points out, Baylor now has five top-50 wins this season and is riding a three-game winning streak. The Bears are 17-9 and could realistically get to 20 wins if we include the Big 12 Tournament. Oklahoma State, on the other hand, has lost seven straight games with and without Marcus Smart in the lineup. They have two winnable games coming up against Texas Tech and TCU, but end the season against Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State. The Cowboys might be NIT-bound.
Like every other Big 12 team has experienced at some point, Oklahoma is entering a brutal stretch of games, beginning this weekend. The Sooners will face Kansas State, travel to Kansas and play host to Texas in a span of eight days. At 19-7 overall, the Sooners look to be on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, but a late-season losing streak (no matter how much the committee claims recent performances don’t carry more weight) could hurt their chances next month. They end the season at TCU, but the aforementioned trio of games followed by West Virginia should keep Sooners fans on their toes for now.