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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Not Every Big 12 Team Has Elevated Itself in Non-Conference Play

Posted by Drew Andrews on December 9th, 2016

The Big 12 has gotten off to a very good start in non-conference play, with several teams already notching important wins for Selection Sunday and the league sitting in the top spot in Ken Pomeroy’s conference ratings and second in the RPI. West Virginia beat Virginia in Charlottesville; Kansas knocked off Duke in the Champions Classic; and Baylor owns six top 100 wins including those over Louisville, Xavier and Oregon. As well as those three teams have represented the conference nationally, another trio of Big 12 schools — Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas Tech — are still looking for a signature win.

Oklahoma State's Best Win Came Against a Struggling Georgetown Program (USA Today Images)

Oklahoma State’s Best Win Came Against a Struggling Georgetown Program (USA Today Images)

Oklahoma State has started the season on a scoring tear. As expected, Jawun Evans leads the team in usage but he hasn’t had to go it alone. Phil Forte and Jeffrey Carroll are both top 100 offensive players nationally who can help Evans carry the scoring load. The concern for when the Cowboys get to conference play will be about how an already shaky defense can hold up against stronger competition. North Carolina scored 107 points in a blowout win in Maui, and, while the Cowboys rank fourth nationally in steal rate, that gambling style of defense has led to a surplus of open looks from three-point range (opponents are making 39.2 percent of their threes against the Pokes). A talent advantage has mostly masked these deficiencies to this point, but Big 12 play is likely to expose Oklahoma State if Brad Underwood doesn’t improve his defense.

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Big 12 M5: 11.16.16 Edition

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 16th, 2016

morning5_big12

  1. Another huge game from Frank Mason fueled Kansas’ 77-75 win over Duke last night. Even though the Blue Devils were without three of its star freshmen, the Jayhawks withstood plenty of their own challenges — from foul trouble to ineffectiveness beyond the arc (2-of-16 3FG) to a bad night at the charity stripe (9-of-19 FT). The Jayhawks also blew a late double-digit lead, but it ultimately did not matter as Mason cashed in a game-winning elbow jumper with 1.8 seconds remaining, the last of his 17 second-half points. Beating Duke in any environment is a big deal, but this victory should yield some real dividends come March if the Blue Devils play to their lofty expectations once healthy.
  2. Entering the season, one of the key questions for Baylor aside from point guard play was how the Bears would account for the loss of Rico Gathers. It’s a remarkably small sample size, but through two games including a top-five opponent in Oregon, Jo Lual-Acuil has answered the bell, averaging 15.0 rebounds and 7.2 blocks per 40 minutes  in the young season. The junior will be challenged next week when the Bears head to the Bahamas and again in December when they host Xavier, so stiffer competition should give way to a more confident read on Lual-Acuil, but in the meantime, he’s been one of the big surprises around the conference.
  3. Switching gears from a surprise to a known quantity, how great is it to have Oklahoma State‘s Phil Forte back? I suppose you could ask head coach Brad Underwood, but he was still working for Stephen F. Austin when the senior suffered a shoulder injury last November. He’s probably grateful nonetheless. The Big 12’s new elder statesman has stormed out of the gates, averaging 27.0 points per game and converting each of his first 17 attempts at the free throw line. The Cowboys are still looking for answers inside, but Forte and Jawun Evans (28.5 PPG, 5.5 APG, 4.0 SPG) are showing why they should be mentioned among the conference’s best perimeter tandems.
  4. I’ve thought a little more about Kansas State‘s lax non-conference schedule, and while I still think it has a chance to backfire, it’s worth mentioning the potential benefits as well. Given that Wesley Iwundu and D.J. Johnson are the team’s only scholarship upperclassmen who have been with the program all four years, there’s a big drop-off to the younger core of sophomores Dean WadeBarry BrownKamau Stokes and freshman Xavier Sneed. This isn’t the most analytical viewpoint, but building confidence matters for a relatively young team, especially when its league schedule starts with a road game at Kansas sandwiched between home games against Oklahoma and West Virginia. Steamrolling the likes of Hampton, Robert Morris and Boston College wouldn’t lead anyone to picking the Wildcats to win at Allen Fieldhouse, but it can be helpful in the overall scheme with the league being deeper than it usually is. While I’d be remiss if I didn’t think there was at least a sliver of self-preservation by head coach Bruce Weber at play here as well, the general approach makes sense for a team looking to build some experience and confidence during the non-conference slate.
  5. Texas Tech will be shorthanded for a while as the school revealed over the weekend that big man Norense Odiase broke a bone in his left foot. While the Red Raiders have started 2-0 in spite of Odiase’s absence, it’s still a tough blow since he missed 12 games just last season with a similar injury to his other foot. For what it’s worth, Chris Beard doesn’t anticipate Odiase missing as much time as he did last season, which would be nice. The Red Raiders don’t have much time to adjust, though, with Auburn and a potential game against Purdue’s twin towers looming in next week’s Cancun Challenge.
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Big 12 Opening Weekend in Review

Posted by Drew Andrews on November 15th, 2016

Opening night of the college basketball season gave nine of the 10 Big 12 programs a chance to begin their seasons with easy wins. Those match-ups went according to plan, as only Kansas played a team inside KenPom’s top 250 and, as a result, took the only loss. However, there was another surprise that could ultimately spell trouble for one of the contenders to the conference title. Let’s take a look at one key takeaway from each team coming out of the opening weekend.

  • Kansas – The Jayhawks came into the season with questions about leadership, scoring in the post, and whether Josh Jackson could make the leap to superstardom. The loss to Indiana in the Armed Forces Classic on Friday night only provided a first piece of an answer to one of those questions. Frank Mason III exploded for 30 points and nine assists in the defeat, making it seem that he might be Bill Self‘s Option A for leadership and scoring this season. In the absence of the graduated Perry Ellis, Landon Lucas and Carlton Bragg will be asked to replace some of his frontcourt scoring load. Lucas proved that he could play the necessary minutes last year, but Bragg rarely saw the floor. After a meager 18-minute outing on opening night, it seems as if Self still has questions about the sophomore forward. Meanwhile, Jackson struggled to find a rhythm on both ends of the floor. Early foul trouble and questionable shot selection meant he saw more of the bench than expected, but it will be interesting to see how Self utilizes him in tonight’s clash with top-ranked Duke.
Josh Jackson struggled against Indiana. Can he break out against Duke in the Champions Classic? (Photo: Kansas City Star)

Josh Jackson struggled against Indiana. Can he break out against Duke in the Champions Classic? (Photo: Kansas City Star)

  • Iowa State  Monte’ Morris began his quest for conference and national honors with a bang against Savannah State (21 points and 11 assists), followed by a quieter but efficient outing (18 points and three assists) last night against Mount St. Mary’s. Steve Prohm started five seniors in both games, and if Iowa State hopes to again challenge Kansas for the Big 12 title, it will need every bit of experience and leadership from that group to get there.
  • TexasJarrett Allen certainly looked the part of star in the making in his debut for the Longhorns, but despite his 16 points and 12 boards, Texas was outrebounded on the offensive glass in its first two outings against Incarnate Word and Louisiana-Monroe. Shaka Smart‘s HAVOC defense certainly creates great energy and scoring opportunities via turnovers, but he has to be concerned that his players are giving up so many second chances to teams that were clearly overmatched in talent and size.

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Reviewing the Big 12’s Top 10 Non-Conference Matchups

Posted by Chris Stone on November 8th, 2016

Once again it looks like the Big 12 regular season title will remain in Kansas. Bill Self’s team enters this season as the prohibitive favorite to win a 13th straight championship, but the good news is that there is plenty of great non-conference basketball to sustain us until conference teams take turns trying to knock the Jayhawks from their perch. Most Big 12 teams will play tough November and December schedules featuring several preseason top 10 teams and tough mid-majors. Notably excluded from this list are games from January’s Big 12/SEC Challenge, but here’s a look at the league’s best 10 non-conference games through the first two months of the season.

Kansas is poised to win another Big 12 title, but the non-conference games come first. (USA Today Images)

Kansas is poised to win another Big 12 title, but the non-conference games come first. (USA Today Images)

  • 10. Oklahoma State vs. Connecticut, Monday November 21 – This is an opening round game at the Maui Invitational, and while the Cowboys may struggle to beat a ranked Connecticut team on the Valley Isle, the individual match-up between point guards Jawun Evans and Jalen Adams makes this must-see TV.
  • 9. Texas at Michigan, Tuesday December 6 – John Beilein’s Michigan teams play a beautiful brand of offensive basketball that the Longhorns will look to muck up by increasing tempo and using their athleticism to outrun the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.
  • 8. Oklahoma at Wisconsin, Saturday December 3 – The Badgers open the season as the Big Ten favorite so Oklahoma will have its hands full in Madison. Guard Jordan Woodard will need to deliver a Buddy Hield-esque performance for the Sooners to come away with an upset in this one.

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One Burning Question: Will Jawun Evans and Phil Forte Get Enough Help Inside?

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 28th, 2016

After several years of underperformance, Oklahoma State finally parted ways with Travis Ford and made the splashiest move of the offseason in hiring Brad Underwood. A former Kansas State assistant, Underwood arrives in Stillwater with a shiny 89-14 record over three seasons at Stephen F. Austin, including an upset of his mentor Bob Huggins’ program, West Virginia, in the first round of last season’s NCAA Tournament. The returns of Phil Forte and Jawun Evans should provide Underwood with an excellent base to his first season. The sharpshooting Forte is an underrated Big 12 veteran who owns a career 38.9 percent three-point shooting clip and is an automatic 86.6 percent at the free throw line. Evans’ corresponding emergence as an NBA prospect on the strength of his advanced vision and handle gives the Cowboys a lift they badly need. The question this team faces, though, is a familiar one despite a new head coach at the helm: Will the Cowboys’ frontcourt be effective enough to keep opposing defenses from overloading on their two potent guards?

Phil Forte's return gives the Cowboys an instant boost. (Mic Smith/AP)

Phil Forte’s return gives the Cowboys an instant boost. (Mic Smith/AP)

The Cowboys under Ford were never known for stout frontcourts, and last season may have been their low point, especially on the offensive end. Oklahoma State shot a league-worst 55.2 percent at the rim, per hoop-math.com, relying on free throws and, without Forte, shaky three-point shooting to carry the load. It went about as poorly as you’d imagine, as the team finished last in the conference in offensive efficiency. Fortunately, Underwood could be the right guy to reverse the Pokes’ fortunes. His last two Lumberjack teams ranked 15th and sixth nationally in converting twos and were especially effective at the rim, shooting 67.7 percent on close looks last season and 63.3 percent the year before. The defenses that Underwood will see in the Big 12 will be more imposing than the ones he faced in the Southland, but the standard he’ll have to meet is mere respectability rather than elite production.

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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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Morning Five: 07.26.16 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on July 26th, 2016

morning5

  1. We post stories of college basketball players dying way too often on this site. The latest one is Tyrek Coger, a recent transfer to Oklahoma State, who died on Thursday while participating in an outdoor team workout. Coger, a 6’8″ forward who had transferred from Cape Fear Community College, had gained some notoriety back in high school for challenging John Wall to a pick-up game, which became a popular YouTube video. Coger had struggled for a while to show his potential, but he appeared to be realizing some of it recently. Details regarding Coger’s death will not be released, but it appears to be related to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a not infrequent cause of death in men’s college basketball players which we discussed in a post in 2011. Currently, there is no recommendation to proceed with more aggressive screening in athletes, but we do wonder how many times this will need to happen before schools decide that they need to screen even if the financial numbers don’t work on a bigger scale.
  2. On Thursday ESPN formally announced its plans for the ACC Network, but to us the more interesting news was that the ACC would be expanding its conference schedule from 18 to 20 games beginning with the 2019-20 season. The obvious motive behind this is to help fill their network with original content and for some of the lower-tier ACC programs it will also bring in extra revenue by increasing the chances that they will get one of the marquee programs to visit even with an unbalanced schedule. The real question will be how schools will compensate for this on non-conference schedule. We suspect that most programs will react by scheduling even fewer tough non-conference opponents, which is unfortunate, but the reality of the business of college basketball.
  3. When videos of Mike Rice verbally and physically abusing his basketball players at Rutgers came out three years ago the media widely condemned his actions. Now with reports coming out of George Washington that Mike Lonergan may have been verbally abusing his players we have been interested to see a much more muted response. The obvious differences are the lack of video/audio evidence and the absence of physical abuse, but we also suspect that some of this is the expectation that players at a certain level will have to deal with some verbal abuse (this is also true in some workplaces). To be fair to Lonergan, several of his former players have come out to defend him against the reports from anonymous former players. We still haven’t heard anything about how the George Washington administration is dealing with this and we doubt that anything significant will happen although we do suspect that Lonergan’s relationship with athletic director Patrick Nero will probably be more strained.
  4. Many media members noted that the NCAA’s announcement that it would require future championship host cities to submit an outline of how they will prevent discrimination came out just a day after the NBA decided to change the site of its 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte due to North Carolina’s controversial HB2 law, but it seems pretty clear that the NCAA has been working on this for some time. The questionnaire (PDF here) requires the host cities to provide the NCAA with assurances that both participants and spectators will not be discriminated against. We have never delved into politics on this site, but it will be interesting to see how strict the NCAA is in its interpretation of discrimination and if/how it could influence legislation since getting to host a NCAA championship can mean millions in dollars in revenue for some cities.
  5. If you are still waiting on the NCAA to drop the proverbial hammer on North Carolina for its academic fraud we might be getting one step closer (ok, we can’t say that with a straight face). UNC has announced that will submit its response to the NCAA regarding its amended Notice of Allegations on August 1 with the response being made public the following day. We won’t go into the details of the academic fraud because at this point we almost as sick of it as UNC fans are, but we will point out that this is unlikely to be anywhere close to the end and as Andrew Carter notes in the article it is unlikely that the case will end this year.
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Big 12 Offseason Burning Questions, Part II

Posted by Chris Stone on April 12th, 2016

Yesterday, Brian Goodman opened our examination of the offseason’s burning questions facing Big 12 teams by reviewing challenges facing Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma and TCU. Our series continues today with consideration of the questions plaguing the remainder of the league: Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech and West Virginia.

Iowa State (23-12, 10-8)

For the first time in a long time, Iowa State will be without Georges Niang. (Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in a long time, Iowa State will be without Georges Niang. (Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports)

Who will step up in the Cyclones’ frontcourt? A lack of depth at Iowa State was a persistent problem last season and it leads to the bigger question about who will fill the gaping frontcourt holes in Ames next year. With both Georges Niang and Jameel McKay no longer around, the Cyclones return no players 6’8″ or taller who played greater than five percent of the available minutes last season. Iowa State will need to rely on a big debut from Emmanuel Malou, one of the best junior college transfers in the country, and dramatic improvement from rising sophomore Simeon Carter, the Cyclones’ best returning big man.

Oklahoma State (12-20, 3-15)

What can new head coach Brad Underwood do with one of the Big 12’s best backcourts? Underwood consistently produced efficient offenses at Stephen F. Austin and he’ll have the chance to do likewise in Stillwater. The first-year head coach will inherit one of the conference’s best backcourts, as both Jawun Evans and Phil Forte appear set to return to school, with Evans showcasing his potential in the Cowboys’ upset of Kansas and Forte likely the best outside shooter in the Big 12. How Evans and Forte develop their chemistry with Underwood this offseason will go a long way toward determining whether Oklahoma State can regain conference relevance next season. Read the rest of this entry »

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Oklahoma State Tabs Brad Underwood To Reinvigorate Program

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 22nd, 2016

One of the most attractive jobs in the conference opened up on Friday when Oklahoma State parted ways with Travis Ford. While five bottom-half finishes in six seasons may not suggest much allure to the gig, strong facilities, access to the lush recruiting hotbed of Texas, a winning tradition and avid fan and donor support (when the team performs) were enough to sway former Stephen F. Austin head coach Brad Underwood to come aboard just one day after his Lumberjacks exited the NCAA Tournament.

With little (if anything) left to prove on the mid-major level, Brad Underwood jumped to Oklahoma State. (USA TODAY Sports)

With little (if anything) left to prove on the mid-major level, Brad Underwood jumped to Oklahoma State. (USA TODAY Sports)

Much like a baseball prospect who’s mashed his way through the minor leagues, there was simply nothing left for Underwood to prove at the mid-major level. His Stephen F. Austin teams went 59-1 in conference play over three seasons, winning the Southland Conference tournament each year he was there and bringing that same fire to the NCAA Tournament, winning two games as a double-digit seed and pushing a good Notre Dame team to the final second over the weekend. Underwood’s resume was overwhelming even before this season’s Second Round run, but the postseason certainly elevated the demand for his services, making it clear that the time had come for him to find a bigger challenge.

Underwood will find just that in the Big 12, whose coaches have a combined 43 Sweet Sixteen trips and eight Final Fours to their names. The biggest hurdle he’ll have to clear will be the demanding task of recruiting in Stillwater’s backyard, but his ties to the area as a McPherson (Kan.) native and as a two-year player at Kansas State and assistant under Bob Huggins and Frank Martin suggest he’s more than capable of doing the job.

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