Checking In On… The Big 12 Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 16th, 2012

Steve Fetch is the RTC correspondent for the Big 12. You can also find his musings online at Rock Chalk Talk or on Twitter @fetch9.

Reader’s Take


The Week That Was

  • Two Big 12 teams notched their first wins of the conference season this week with Oklahoma defeating Kansas State and Texas A&M downing Texas Tech. Andrew Fitzgerald had a season-high 21 points to key Oklahoma’s first win as the Sooners overcame a double-double from Rodney McGruder. A&M meanwhile overcame a poor day on the glass to beat Texas Tech with five players in double figures. It doesn’t get any easier for the Aggies, as they have Missouri and Kansas in their next three games.
  • The conference’s two top defenses will meet tonight in Allen Fieldhouse when unbeaten Baylor visits Kansas. The Bears are allowing 0.908 points per possession and a 44% eFG, each mark bested only by Kansas. The Jayhawks are allowing opponents only 0.839 points per trip and an eFG allowed of 38.2%. They both have been very accomplished in Big 12 play offensively as well, but I wouldn’t expect it to be a very high-scoring affair on Big Monday.
  • At roughly the halfway point, the Big 12 leader in both points per game and points per 40 minutes is Texas junior J’Covan Brown. Brown is scoring 19 points per game and 22.9 points per 40 minutes. Brown has grown into and embraced his role as a scorer, going from playing in 53% Texas’s minutes last year to over 80% this year, and from taking roughly a fourth of the shots available all the way up to nearly a third this season.

Monday's Showdown Pitting Perry Jones And The Bears Against Kansas In Allen Fieldhouse Could Be The Best Game Of Conference Play. (Aiken/Getty)

Power Rankings

  1. Baylor (17-0, 4-0): The Bears narrowly avoided their first loss of the year by surviving 75-73 at Kansas State. Lest you wonder about them getting caught looking ahead to the showdown with the Jayhawks on Monday, they thumped Oklahoma State 106-75 over the weekend. While NBA scouts must be drooling about seeing Perry Jones match-up with Thomas Robinson, I’m more interested in the guards: Pierre Jackson has gotten a lot of ink lately for his stellar play (and it’s warranted, as he’s shooting 49% from three and has the 24thbest assist rate in the country), but he’ll have to go up against some good defensive guards for the Jayhawks, and with Jackson turning it over at a rate of 30% that could provide some easy buckets for the Jayhawks.
  2. Kansas (14-3, 4-0): The Jayhawks trailed nearly all game on Saturday against Iowa State (looking ahead to the Baylor game perhaps?) before finally pulling away at the end to win 82-73. Tyshawn Taylor had a career-high 28 points, and chipped in six assists and four steals. After the game, Iowa State’s Chris Allen was none too complimentary, remarking “I honestly can say that we did what we had to do to win,” Allen said. “I don’t want to make any excuses, but you watched the game like we all watched the game. It’s our fault we let the refs keep them in the game and had a couple of (bad) calls that kind of made us sink down a little bit.” Not that this is the be all end-all method of determining referee favoritism, but the Cyclones actually attempted one more free throw than the Jayhawks, and that was even with the intentional fouling at the end as Iowa State tried to play catch-up late. Read the rest of this entry »
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Night Line: Missouri Plays Through Adversity in Rebound Victory

Posted by EJacoby on January 12th, 2012

Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist and contributor. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.

If Missouri is going to be a serious contender by the end of this season, they’re going to need to win several games in the fashion that they did on Wednesday night. Playing with just five available players in the final minutes and with their leading scorer having an off night, the No. 9 Tigers still found a way to pull out a road win over streaking Iowa State in Ames. Mizzou was coming off a 16-point loss in Kansas State’s raucous arena in their last game, so defeating ISU under adverse conditions was huge for this team’s confidence. “We had a tough loss at Kansas State, and when we came back the next day in practice, the whole week we focused on being mentally tough,” said senior Matt Pressey, and that toughness is exactly what carried the Tigers to the 76-69 victory. While tougher challenges lie ahead, Missouri found out on Wednesday that they can win on the road even when things don’t go their way, a great sign going forward.

Matt Pressey Showed Big Time Toughness in Mizzou's Win Over Iowa State (AP Photo)

Everything went right for Missouri during non-conference play, to the point where many pundits thought they were playing better than anyone in the country. The Tigers were dominant in victories over Cal, Notre Dame, and Villanova, and also defeated Illinois in the Braggin’ Rights game on way to a 13-0 start. But reality has quickly struck for Mizzou, who, in addition to getting spanked by K-State in its first conference road game, found out that freshman Kadeem Green requested to transfer out of the program. Though not a major contributor, Green was part of Frank Haith’s eight-man rotation as the third big man alongside star forward Ricardo Ratliffe and reserve Steve Moore that could bang inside and grab some boards (he averaged 3.4 rebounds in 10 games). Now, Haith plays just seven guys per night, only two of whom stand taller than 6’8”, so there will be plenty of times when the undersized Tigers have little margin for error against their opponents.

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Set Your TiVo: 01.11.12

Posted by EJacoby on January 11th, 2012

Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist and contributor. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.

Will the number one team in the land survive a rivalry road test? Can Missouri bounce back from its recent beatdown to win an away game? Here’s what to expect from two Top 10 teams in tough spots tonight:

#1 Syracuse at Villanova – 7:00 PM ET on ESPN2 (***)

Can Villanova Save Its Season Tonight by Beating #1 Syracuse? (AP Photo)

  • Undefeated Syracuse comes into this game playing as well as any team in the country, but their toughest away games of the season have been at NC State and Providence, so they’re not exactly road tested. The Orange will certainly have the advantage in this one, as their 2-3 zone defense has been incredibly effective this season at forcing turnovers and limiting paint opportunities. Nova’s a team that struggles in these two areas to begin with, and also a team that fires up a lot of threes (over 20 per game) at a low conversion rate (30%, ranked in the bottom 50 nationally). If Syracuse simply executes defensively and forces the Wildcats into a three-point barrage, they’ll have a huge advantage. Jim Boeheim’s team will come at Villanova with their deep array of weapons, where Kris Joseph (14.1 PPG) and Dion Waiters (12.5 PPG) should have opportunities to score in transition and on the wings against Villanova’s poor perimeter defense.
  • Villanova is in the midst of a year to forget, but they can change the outlook of the entire season with a win tonight. The Wildcats are dying for a victory of this caliber, and fans must be fired up in Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center for this rivalry home game against the number one team in the land. If the Wildcats are going to have a chance to win, they need to stop chucking up threes, especially in this game against a zone defense that will encourage them to shoot from the outside. Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek each attempt over four three-pointers per game and both are shooting under 30% from deep! Instead, these talented guards need to play off of each other. Wayns (17.4 PPG, 4.75 APG) is one of the quickest guards in America and can penetrate the teeth of a zone defense, and from there he must make good decisions and find teammates moving amongst the trees for good shot opportunities. Jay Wright’s team also must stay out of foul trouble and defend the perimeter if they want to have a chance.
  • This seems like an uneven matchup on paper, but it could be a serious trap game for Syracuse. They haven’t yet played a good conference team on the road, and Villanova is a rival who will be fired up for this one. If Nova can find early success against the Syracuse zone, then they could have a chance in this one.
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Big 12 Weekly Primer: Jan 9 – 11

Posted by dnspewak on January 9th, 2012

Kansas State has a rare opportunity this week to ruin two teams’ undefeated seasons in consecutive games. Just three days after handing Missouri its first loss at Bramlage Coliseum, the Wildcats will host 15-0 Baylor on Tuesday night in a battle of two of the Big 12’s top frontcourts. There are a few other games to keep an eye on this week, too: Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will meet tonight in a Bedlam game, though the series is hardly enticing right now with both programs struggling. And on Wednesday, MU will need to recover quickly from Saturday’s smackdown with Iowa State looming in Ames.


  • Baylor at Kansas State, Tuesday, 7 p.m. CT (Big 12 Network)

Facing an undersized Missouri team this weekend, Kansas State frustrated Ricardo Ratliffe and punished the Tigers with a physical frontline. Jamar Samuels and Jordan Henriquez combined for seven blocked shots and Rodney McGruder attacked the basket at will as Frank Martin‘s team exposed MU’s main weakness in the paint. Unfortunately for KSU, it won’t be able to bully Baylor like that on Tuesday night. The Bears, who have been rebounding better lately, can throw any number of forwards at the Wildcats’ post defenders, including Big 12 Player of the Year candidate Perry Jones and starters Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller. They can’t play effectively unless their guards get them the basketball, though, so  it’s important for Pierre Jackson in particular to play well in a road environment. He has turned the ball over at a fairly alarming rate this year, but he has provided the missing piece for Baylor’s offense this year as a facilitator off the bench. Still, Kansas State’s half-court intensity on the defensive end may give the guards some problems, and this game could turn ugly if they can’t hold on to the basketball. In fact, for all of the talk about the forwards in this game, the guards will make the difference. Brady Heslip can provide BU with another element if his outside shots are falling, and starter A.J. Walton and reserve Gary Franklin cannot be outplayed by Will Spradling, Angel Rodriguez and the rest of KSU’s deep and balanced backcourt. When BU has looked shaky offensively this season (for example, in a two-point win over Mississippi State), turnovers and a lack of ball movement has held it back. Baylor may have been able to edge MSU on a neutral court during a cold shooting night, but it won’t be able to recover from an off game in Manhattan.

Rodney McGruder Is a Difficult Matchup For Baylor

The key individual matchup is… Perry Jones vs. Jordan Henriquez. Filling in for the struggling Thomas Gipson, Henriquez earned the start against Missouri on Saturday and did not disappoint. The seven-footer blocked four shots and played one of his most complete games of the season with 10 points and eight rebounds. Now a junior, Henriquez no longer plays like a project anymore. He has the size and defensive ability to frustrate Jones, who has struggled against elite big men like Arnett Moultrie (MSU) and Kevin Jones (West Virginia) this season.

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Big 12 Morning Five: 01.09.12 Edition

Posted by dnspewak on January 9th, 2012

  1. Royce White recorded a triple-double on Saturday, which earned him nationwide headlines and thrust him into the Big 12 spotlight. Interestingly, though, another milestone occurred during Iowa State‘s 74-50 victory at Texas A&M. Guard Chris Allen notched his 1,000th career point, and he now has 1,003 after a 10-point performance. The Thousand-Point Club is often the barometer for a solid collegiate career for a scorer, so congratulations to Allen. White’s triple-double was a little more rare, though, as he is just the fourth player in ISU history to ever record one.
  2. In a rebuilding year for Oklahoma, coach Lon Kruger is finding the positives in an 0-2 start to Big 12 play. It’s not easy to face Missouri and Kansas in back-to-back games to open the league season, but the Sooners recovered from a beatdown in Columbia to at least hang with Kansas at home for a bit. They led by a point at halftime thanks to stout defense and resiliency before the game came crashing down during a 29-6 Kansas run to open the second half. One of these days, Oklahoma fans won’t be lauding an 0-2 record and two blowout losses. But for now, the Sooners will have to live with small progress during the rebuilding process.
  3. Staying with the Oklahoma theme, the Sooners will face Oklahoma State in a rather subdued Bedlam series tonight. The game will air on ESPNU near the same time slot as the BCS Championship Game, and both teams look like Big 12 cellar-dwellars at this point. Still, it is Bedlam, and that’s at least worth changing the channel for during football pre-game coverage or early in the first quarter. We will have a full preview of this game later today, but it will be interesting to see what kind of crowd turns out at Gallagher-Iba. Traditionally one of the most intense arenas in college basketball, the OSU fan base has soured a bit lately and attendance hasn’t been stellar. That could change for Bedlam though.
  4. It is not hard to explain why Missouri lost to Kansas State on Saturday. The bigger, more physical Wildcats frustrated Ricardo Ratliffe, pressured them in the half-court, and fed off the energy of the home crowd. Here is a more analytical look at the loss for the Tigers, who dropped their first game of the season. One stat to note in particular is the turnovers. Without glancing at the box score, you might assume that Missouri lost that battle. After all, it did step on the inbounds line a few times and looked generally out of sorts on the offensive end. Turns out, that the two teams tied in that category, but here’s the kicker: Kansas State outscored Missouri 21-11 in points off turnovers. That was an overlooked aspect of this game for sure.
  5. Kansas State got the win it needed against Missouri after a blowout in Lawrence to Kansas on Wednesday, but it faces another tough task with Baylor this week. If you are keeping track, that means the Wildcats do in fact open their Big 12 season with the three clear-cut league contenders in consecutive match-ups. It would have been disastrous for Kansas State to lose all three, so at least it has one win under its belt. Now, go ahead and beat the Bears and maybe we are talking about Kansas State as a possible title contender. It is early, and the 18-game schedule means Kansas State must also prove it can win on the road. But a 2-1 start against Kansas, Missouri, and Baylor would have to put the Wildcats in that conversation.
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Big 12 Morning Five: 01.05.12 Edition

Posted by dnspewak on January 5th, 2012

  1. You’re sick of hearing about Tyshawn Taylor‘s turnovers, and we’re all sick of writing about them. But after Kansas’s point guard turned the ball over eight times in a win over Kansas State last night, we simply cannot ignore the magnitude of the statistic. Sam Mellinger’s column provides the best analysis of Taylor’s situation. Instead of focusing solely on the turnovers, Mellinger argues that both “Good” Taylor and “Bad” Taylor go hand-in-hand at this point. You cannot separate the two identities — as Bill Self says, ““He makes plays you can’t coach, and he makes plays that look like he’s never been coached.” And that, folks, is how you sum up Tyshawn Taylor in 17 words.
  2. Four years ago, writers all across the nation put the spotlight on a young freshman named Kim English, a contributor for an Elite Eight team who was most famous for sleeping at Mizzou Arena in order to get shots up in the morning. But by his junior year, English had transformed from Lovable Kimmie to Frustrating Kimmie. He struggled through a tough 2010-11 campaign, but he’s back on everyone’s good side now. English, who scored 23 points against Oklahoma on Tuesday, is shooting 55% from three-point land and might be the most intriguing revitalization project in college basketball. Frank Haith‘s new coaching style is clearly having positive effects on English in particular, and he looks more energized and athletic this season. He’s throwing down dunks with ease this season, and most importantly, his smile is back.
  3. Speaking of Missouri, we’re a little late here with this news, but redshirt freshman forward Kadeem Green announced his decision to transfer earlier this week. No, Green was not a major contributor for Haith, but he had seen a little more playing time recently as a backup to Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore. Down the road, Green seemed to have a bright future as a shot-blocker with his long wingspan, but he’ll now take those talents elsewhere. Green says he’d like to be closer to his hometown of Toronto, and Columbia, Missouri, is certainly not anywhere near Canada. So although he leaves MU with just two scholarship forwards on the roster, the move is understandable. If Ratliffe or Moore find themselves in foul trouble at the same time, though, Frank is going to wish he had Green at the end of his bench.
  4. SI‘s Seth Davis included a few Big 12 squads in his Buy/Sell article this week, and here’s a big surprise: he’s buying Baylor. So are we. The Bears haven’t played particularly well yet this season, which sounds insane considering they are still undefeated. That’s probably why BU seems to have so much potential. Once Perry Jones finds his game, this team could be every bit as good as the 2009-10 team that reached the Elite Eight. As long as Pierre Jackson shows a little more consistency, BU has the guard play this year to win the Big 12.
  5. Finally, since we’re struggling to find a final piece of news for you, Big 12 country lost a fine man in Gene Bartow. No, Bartow did not coach at a Big 12 school, but he is a Missouri native who coached at several Midwestern schools such as Central Missouri, Valparaiso and Illinois. Bartow, most famous for succeeding John Wooden at UCLA in the late 1970s, is a graduate of Truman State University. He won more than 600 games during his career, and UAB‘s arena is named after him. Even if the Big 12 cannot claim him as its own, it would certainly like to.
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Big 12 Weekend Primer: New Years Weekend

Posted by dnspewak on December 30th, 2011

With holiday bowl games and a national showdown between Louisville and Kentucky on New Year’s Eve, there’s not a whole lot of Big 12 basketball to talk about this weekend. But six league teams will still compete during the next two days, and most notably, undefeated Missouri will hit the road for the first time in 2011-12. And if you’re not interested in watching John Calipari and Rick Pitino scream at each other for 40 minutes on CBS this Saturday, Oklahoma State will host Virginia Tech on ESPN2 during the same time slot.

  • Missouri (12-0) at Old Dominion (6-6), Friday 6 PM CT (ESPN2)

Kim English and the Tigers Still Need to Prove They Can Win on the Road

Eight days ago, Missouri showed its human side for the first time this season. After obliterating the likes of Notre Dame, California and Villanova, the Tigers nearly blew a double-digit lead to Illinois in the second half before recovering for a 78-74 victory in the Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis. That second half stretch, which featured poor passing, forced shots and turnovers by every player on the floor, marked the first time Missouri had ever looked rattled in a basketball game this season. Though half of the arena was wearing black and gold, the Illinois crowd came alive late in that game, and it was the Tigers’ first experience in a hostile environment. For a team that finished 1-7 on the road in Big 12 play last year, this is the last major concern for Frank Haith to tackle: Can his team win on the road? Old Dominion may be 6-6, but don’t write this off as a down year for Blaine Taylor‘s program. For the uneducated basketball fan, losses to Northern Iowa, Vermont, Fairfield, UCF and Richmond may not look very good, but we know better than that. All six losses for ODU (also including Kentucky) have come against league front-runners with at least outside shots to win their respective conferences. Hosting one of its most important non-conference games in recent memory, Missouri will have to deal with a rowdy and electric crowd in Norfolk. Yes, the Tigers are much quicker, and they obviously have much better guards. There’s a reason Mizzou blasted an even stronger Old Dominion team in Columbia last season. It’s a new season, though, and again, Missouri has no reason to be confident in a road setting until it proves it is not the same team as 2010-11. The formula for an upset here is simple: The Monarchs need to slow the tempo and let their defense go to work. Kent Bazemore is arguably the best defender in college basketball, so expect him to hound Marcus Denmon all night, and ODU has a couple of decent shotblockers in Nick Wright and Chris Cooper. ODU isn’t nearly as big or physical as it was a year ago, but it is still a sound rebounding team that won’t let MU get many second chances. This is a Blaine Taylor team we’re talking about here, after all. If Missouri stays hot from the perimeter, it won’t need to dominate the boards to win. Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon need to initiate the offense like they did in the first half against Illinois, as opposed to that disastrous second-half stretch. If that happens, the looks will be there for Denmon, Kim English and Ricardo Ratliffe.

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Big 12 Morning Five: 12.29.11 Edition

Posted by dnspewak on December 29th, 2011

  1. Though Missouri has appeared immortal during the first two months of the season, a second-half lapse against Illinois last week has at least one writer questioning whether the Tigers’ field goal percentages will hold up throughout the season. Kim English has rebounded from a tough junior season to shoot 53% from three-point range this season, and Ricardo Ratliffe‘s numbers are just absurd (76% from the field). As a team, Missouri has seen enormous jumps in both field goal percentage and three-point percentage, and yes, it would be silly to think that some of these numbers will hold up. Still, even in that swoon in the second half in the Braggin’ Rights game, the issue wasn’t necessarily that MU missed a bunch of open shots. That happened under Mike Anderson a lot, especially on the road. Instead, it seemed that things broke down because of poor passing, no ball movement and a lack of poise. When Frank Haith‘s pick-and-roll offense is really working and the ball is in Phil Pressey‘s hands, he will find guys like Ratliffe, English and Marcus Denmon for a lot of open looks. And that’s partly why these statistics have skyrocketed.
  2. In this era of realigning conferences with complete disregard for geography, it’s refreshing to see that TCU will save a lot of time and money by moving to the Big 12 next season. According to one example in the article, the men’s basketball team will save almost 4,000 miles in road trips next year, and the football and basketball programs (both men’s and women’s) will combine to save about 16,770 miles. That’s a lot of fuel money in the bank, and hey, it can’t be bad for the environment either. And although TCU officials won’t say how much money the school will make from the move, one spokesperson said “it’s no secret” that the university will make a good deal of money off the move.
  3. And if you’re interested in a recap of Texas A&M‘s move to the SEC, here’s a full rundown of the situation. As you can imagine, the sports media talk in College Station was dominated by the SEC during the past year, just as it was in Columbia, Missouri, and every other college town with realignment implications. The article also points out that the SEC stuff overshadowed success from several A&M athletic programs. In fact, the Aggies won three NCAA titles and seven Big 12 titles, but this particular website thought realignment news was more important in 2011.
  4. Oklahoma State needed two overtimes to defeat SMU last night, and the victory wasn’t exactly pretty. But the win is a sign that the Cowboys are not letting transfers dictate this season. Senior Keiton Page, who started at point guard after the defection of both Fred Gulley and Reger Dowell during the past eight days, said his teammates “have been great at keeping their heads up and their emotions high.” That cannot be easy to do amidst all the turmoil, but even freshman point guard Cezar Guerrero, whose playing time will increase dramatically now, says the team chants “1-2-3… family” after every huddle. That’s got to count for something, right?
  5. Residents of Kansas City love to talk about bragging rights between Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State, and that prompted one sports journalist with the Kansas City Star to dedicate a multimedia session to the topic. The Tigers look like the Big 12 favorite right now, and Kansas will certainly be in the mix for an eighth-straight title despite that loss to pesky Davidson. As for Kansas State, the Wildcats may be the most intriguing team in the league right now. After winning the Diamond Head Classic, it’s obvious that Frank Martin‘s team will once again find itself in position for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. As always, it’ll be a fight this winter to see which of the Kansas City-area programs will come out on top.
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The Transfer Effect: What the Statistics Say about Missouri and Iowa State’s Recruiting Methods

Posted by dnspewak on December 27th, 2011

No matter how established the program, every college basketball coach eventually takes a chance on a transfer. Jim Boeheim, for example, plucked Wesley Johnson from Iowa State and turned him into the Big East Player of the Year in 2009-10. Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski’s current rosters both include transfers with Brandon Wood (Valparaiso) and Seth Curry (Liberty), and in 1979, a former Indiana Hoosier named Larry Bird nearly won a title with Indiana State just a few years after quitting basketball (and Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers) altogether.

Hoiberg and Haith Are Recruiting Transfers Heavily to Their Programs

Normally, coaches take one or two transfers at a time to fill immediate holes, but that’s not everybody’s philosophy. Meet Missouri’s Frank Haith and Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg, a pair of coaches who have abandoned traditional recruiting methods at their new schools in favor of Division I transfers. Haith, hired in April to replace Mike Anderson, is using three open scholarships in 2011-12 on players who will not appear in a single basketball game this season by signing Keion Bell (Pepperdine), Earnest Ross (Auburn) and Jabari Brown (Oregon). Hoiberg, on the other hand, has four transfers on his roster in his second year with the Cyclones: Chris Allen (Michigan State), Chris Babb (Penn State), Royce White (Minnesota), and Anthony Booker (Southern Illinois). The two coaches have energized their fan bases by signing big names from major schools, but Haith and Hoiberg’s recruiting tactics cannot be accurately judged at this point. Iowa State’s Fab Four will begin Big 12 play next month, and Missouri’s three transfers will not all be eligible until December 2012.

Instead of speculating as to whether the two teams will suffer from dreaded chemistry problems with so many transfers, why not crunch the numbers to see if The Transfer Effect really exists? Although finding aggregate data for Division I transfers is virtually impossible, recent anecdotal evidence shows that the recruiting strategy is an enormous risk for both coaches. Seven teams from both the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons welcomed three or more transfers to their programs at the same time, and only two teams (San Diego State and UNLV) finished above .500 in league play. Seton Hall, the only power conference team in the group, missed the NCAA Tournament.

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Big 12 Thursday Night Preview: Braggin’ Rights and Tricky Road Games

Posted by dnspewak on December 22nd, 2011


  • Missouri vs. Illinois, 8 p.m. CST in St. Louis (ESPN2)
From 2000 to 2008, Illinois owned Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights series. Year after year, the Tigers found new ways to lose by mishandling a potential game-tying attempt (2006), slipping on watery residue from the Scottrade Center’s hockey rink on the final possession (2007), and shooting 11% from three-point range (2008). One winter, embarrassed MU fans even dumped popcorn on Quin Snyder‘s head. Yes, the series was that ugly. But two years ago, fate shifted to the Tigers’ side. Missouri dominated from start to finish in 2009, and last season, the Tigers edged Illinois thanks to a late-game collapse by Bruce Weber‘s team. The losing streak is a distant memory and the Tigers own this series now.

That brings us to 2011. No matter how confident MU fans may be with their top-10 ranking, undefeated record and two consecutive series victories, the 24th-ranked Illini will provide Frank Haith with his stiffest test of the season. Missouri has not seen size like this before, and it will need to be creative in guarding 7’1” center Meyers Leonard. The Tigers have handled players like Harper Kamp (California) and Mouphtaou Yarou (Villanova), but Leonard is one of the better forwards the Tigers will see all year. He commands respect in the paint, and he’s also a decent passer with the ability to burn Missouri’s double-teams. As usual, Haith’s team will need to use its speed to burn a slower Illinois team. Against one of the fastest rosters in the country, the Illini have to slow the tempo and let Leonard go to work. Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco, no stranger to Scottrade after visiting the arena four years in a row for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, will also need to settle this young team down as the point guard. He’s been a difference-maker this season as one of the most experienced players on Weber’s team, and it is imperative for him to lead by example.

Phil Pressey Will Lead Missouri Against The Illini Tonight

On Missouri’s side, Phil Pressey will have to serve as the catalyst. He’ll never have a strength advantage against any point guard, but he could run into some trouble with Maniscalco (6’0” but strong), Brandon Paul (6’4”) and D.J. Richardson (6’3”). Again, though, his quickness is unmatched by just about everybody in college basketball, and as the Big 12’s assists leader, he can control the game without scoring a point. That’s what Marcus Denmon is for. The senior All-American candidate struggled against William and Mary over the weekend, but he’s allowed an off night every once in awhile. When he’s set, he almost never misses from three-point land, and if he’s on his game, he will be the best player on the floor tonight.

Unless you’ve attended a Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis, you have no idea how intense the environment is. Haith may have watched last year’s game on tape, but not even he is ready for this atmosphere. There is no non-conference matchup quite like it — the arena is evenly split between Missouri and Illinois fans, and on each basket, one side erupts as if it has won the National Championship. Luckily for the Tigers, they have a more grizzled roster with five seniors, four of whom are now playing in their fourth Braggin’ Rights game.

The key individual matchup is… Meyers Leonard vs. Ricardo Ratliffe. Leonard is the key to this entire contest. Although St. Louis native Tyler Griffey is a starter and key contributor, Leonard is the centerpiece of this team — especially against a smaller opponent in Missouri. If he gets into early foul trouble, Illinois will have a lot of problems since it lacks depth in the frontcourt. Leonard will see double-teams all night when he touches the ball, and Ratliffe will be at least one of those defenders tugging on his jersey for 40 minutes. When Ratliffe has the ball, it will also be interesting to watch how he handles the match-up with Leonard. He scores a lot of his buckets on layups, putbacks and turnaround hook shots off the backboard, but he’s not the kind of player that can always take a 7’1” defender off the dribble and create his own shot. Ratliffe must find a way to utilize his quickness against Leonard, and Phil Pressey must find him on screen-and-rolls since Haith’s offense calls for that play on almost every possession.

Missouri will win if… It scores in transition and forces turnovers. That sounds like a key to the game for a Mike Anderson team, but it’s true for Haith’s team as well. MU is actually converting better in transition than it did a year ago, and that’s what it has to do against Illinois. In his first three wins against Mike Anderson, Bruce Weber did a great job of controlling the tempo and letting his team go to work in the halfcourt. The Tigers don’t utilize full-court pressure anymore, but the basic principles remain: they want to get out and run, and they want to disrupt the opponent defensively. That’s how they dismantled Notre Dame, California and Villanova, and it’s how they must beat Illinois.

Illinois will win if… It makes this game a Big Ten fist fight and stays level-headed. Illinois is bigger and stronger than Missouri at almost every position. It has more physical guards, and it has a more physical frontcourt. If Weber can concoct another game plan to use the shot clock and limit turnovers, the Illini should be able to score at will in the paint and win the rebounding battle. That all hinges on this team’s ability to keep its cool. MU’s defenders will fly all over the place with active hands, trying to deflect every pass in their vicinity. These Illinois guards can counter that by staying poised, and Maniscalco needs to be especially steady here. He’s the guy that everything depends on, even though he’s in his first season playing for Weber. At Bradley, he earned a reputation as a leader and a winner, and he cannot get rattled in the spotlight tonight.

  • Texas Tech at Oral Roberts, 7:05 PM CST
Fresh off a blowout victory at Xavier, Oral Roberts is flying high and should be favored in this game against Tech tonight. ORU is used to knocking off Big 12 foes: in the last decade, it has beaten both Missouri and Kansas. Scott Sutton’s program is the class of the Summit League, and it looks like a contender once against this season at 8-4. Billy Gillispie is still trying to figure things out with this Texas Tech team, as it has failed every test presented to it. Without consistent point guard play and a slump from senior Robert Lewandowski, the Red Raiders must find a way to execute better offensively. Otherwise, it could be a long night in Tulsa.
  • St. Mary’s at Baylor, 9 PM CST in Las Vegas
After winning at BYU, we’re pretty sure Baylor is an elite basketball team. There’s a lot of time for that to change, of course, but Pierre Jackson and A.J. Walton have been lifesavers at the point guard position. This team is finally playing the kind of selfless basketball Scott Drew has been waiting for, and Perry Jones III has lived up to expectations after returning from a suspension. In five games, Jones is averaging more than 16 per game in the scoring department, and he’s shooting nearly 70 percent from the field. If only the Bears could rebound better– BYU’s forwards embarrassed Jones, Quincy Miller and the rest of the crew by grabbing 16 offensive boards. On paper, a team with this size should not allow that to happen. Baylor can redeem itself by keeping Rob Jones off the glass, as he’s averaging 11 rebounds per game for 10-1 St. Mary’s. Jones, the former transfer from San Diego, is undersized at 6’6” but still tenacious on the court. He has grabbed at least 10 boards in all but one game this season, but it’s important to remember that the Gaels’ schedule has not been challenging. They have played only a handful of decent teams: Northern Iowa (win), Denver (loss) and Weber State (win). That’s why this game may actually be more of a test for St. Mary’s than for Baylor.
  • Kansas at USC, 10 PM CST
In a relatively surprising result, USC actually knocked off an improved TCU team by 24 points on Monday, thanks in large part to a 25-point, seven-assist effort by point guard Maurice Jones. With Jio Fontan out for the season, Jones is the most important player on Kevin O’Neill’s roster. Jones is a 5’7” sparkplug with a lot of quickness, so Tyshawn Taylor and his recovering knee better watch out. Still, this Kansas team is too good to lose this game. And the Jayhawks should have a newfound focus after the debacle against Davidson earlier this week. Taylor gets a lot of grief for his high turnover rate this season, but he wasn’t the only problem against the Wildcats. This team just does not execute like most Bill Self teams do, and that has to improve in a Pac-12 road environment tonight. USC does not have a ton of offensive firepower, and it hardly has any threats from beyond the arc. Still, O’Neill’s a good coach who can gameplan against anybody, and his team will have the home crowd in its favor. This won’t be a cakewalk for Kansas.
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