Three Schools Looking to End Tourney Droughts

Posted by Shane McNichol on January 30th, 2017

So much of this season’s focus has zeroed in on college basketball’s blue-blooded programs, both those holding true to their stature and those that are floundering. But although their names are not as sexy, this season’s early group of bubble teams features a handful of programs that have little to no recent experience in the NCAA Tournament. For coaches at these schools, climbing the mountain to March Madness can be a veritable game-changer. As we slowly turn the corner into February and the last six weeks before Selection Sunday, fans, coaches, alumni and general observers should all keep a close eye on Northwestern, Virginia Tech and TCU to see if they can end their long droughts by closing the deal.

Is Another Chicago Curse About to End? (USA Today Images)

  • Northwestern. With a 7-2 Big Ten record and its first AP Top 25 ranking in seven years, Northwestern is finally in position to end the other less-publicized Chicago area losing streak. Though there have been a few close calls over the course of the last decade, head coach Chris Collins seems to have the group of Wildcats that will break through. His team currently ranks 29th in the RPI, having gone 18-4 against a schedule that KenPom rates as the 67th toughest in college basketball. The selection committee values road wins and Northwestern has answered this season by winning four of its first five Big Ten away games. Hopes are high in Evanston, and with nine games left in the Big Ten season, it would take a fairly monumental collapse for Collins’ team to play its way out of the Big Dance.

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Big 12 Power Rankings: It’s Happening Again Edition

Posted by Big 12 Team on January 20th, 2017

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

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

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Big 12 Power Rankings: We Can See Clearly Now Edition

Posted by Big 12 Team on January 13th, 2017

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

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

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 5th, 2017

It didn’t take long for the Big 12 hierarchy to crystallize, at least at the top of the standings. Kansas took the early driver’s seat, as expected, and despite a few noticeable flaws that could ultimately snap The Streak if left uncorrected, the Jayhawks are still the team to beat. Just a notch under them, Baylor and West Virginia are both capable of chasing down the Jayhawks, but no other teams are in that camp. Below the Bears and Mountaineers but above Oklahoma State, Texas and Oklahoma is the murky middle, where the differences between teams at the top and bottom of this tier is tough to discern and could come down to a mere handful of possessions, if the first week of conference action is any indication. With two league games under each team’s belt, here’s how the race for fourth place in the Big 12 is shaping up.

Kansas State center Dean Wade gives the Wildcats an early edge on the middle of the Big 12 pack. (Statesman.com)

Kansas State center Dean Wade gives the Wildcats an early edge on the middle of the Big 12 pack. (Statesman.com)

  • Kansas State — Lost in the aftermath of all the traveling jokes and memes from Tuesday night’s game against Kansas is that the Wildcats came up with a truly impressive offensive performance. Bruce Weber’s team posted 1.22 points per trip at The Phog, marking one of the best outputs by a Jayhawk opponent in recent years. The Wildcats appear to be gelling, but one reason why the last couple seasons in Manhattan have been so disappointing is because they’ve had a tendency to play inspired ball in marquee games only to go flat in subsequent efforts, so consistency will be a key. Still, judging solely from the first six weeks of the season, nothing from this team’s resume suggests that Kansas State isn’t capable of pulling it off. Fourth-place probability: 40%.

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A Handy Preview of Big 12 Opening Friday

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 30th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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Finding a Path to the Madness for Big 12 Bubble Teams

Posted by Shane McNichol on December 29th, 2016

The top of the Big 12 is off to a hot start this season with Kansas, Baylor, and West Virginia all ranked among the top 12 of the AP poll and the current KenPom ratings. These three teams have a combined 34-2 record that includes wins over Duke, Virginia, Louisville and Xavier. The class of the league appears as strong as ever, but if the Big 12 has notions on putting seven teams back into the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year, trouble arises further down the standings. With a mix uninspiring victories and troubling losses, the middle of the pack is full of teams that will need to earn their chops in conference play to sufficiently impress the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Texas and Oklahoma appear in trouble, so let’s focus on the five teams with the best resumes to date.

Iowa State Hasn't Shined as Much as Hoped This Season (USA Today Images)

Iowa State Hasn’t Shined as Much as Hoped This Season (USA Today Images)

  • Iowa State. The Cyclones entered the season with high expectations given that head coach Steve Prohm returned four key contributors. To date the Cyclones have yet to really impress or disappoint. Iowa State’s three losses have all been understandable — dropping games to Gonzaga, Cincinnati and rival Iowa — but the rest of the schedule has consisted of mostly cupcakes save for a nice win over Miami (FL). The key for the Cyclones in Big 12 play will be their performance on the road. Hilton Magic should result in a minimum of six or seven home wins, but that means Iowa State will need to win three or four road games to feel confident about an NCAA Tournament berth. With no sign of a true bottom-feeder in the conference this year, that will be much easier said than done.
  • TCU. Despite sporting an 11-1 record, Jamie Dixon’s Horned Frogs have yet to create any real buzz in part because TCU’s best wins came in an odd scheduling quirk, beating Washington in back-to-back contests. Aside from those two victories, their next best win came against Illinois State — not exactly something to write to the Selection Committee about. Whereas Iowa State is more concerned with taking care of business and keeping the status quo, TCU needs a big win or two in conference play as well as a plus-.500 Big 12 record. Going 9-9 with six losses to Kansas, Baylor and West Virginia isn’t likely to be enough.

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The Five Most Improved Players in the Big 12

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 14th, 2016

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

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

Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State

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

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

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

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

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Big 12 Resumes at the Quarter Pole of the Season

Posted by Justin Fedich on December 9th, 2016

The Big 12 has contributed seven of its 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament in each of the past three seasons, but the conference will be challenged to reach 70 percent representation this year. When TCU lost to SMU on Wednesday and Iowa State fell to Iowa on Thursday, it went to show that the middle tier of the league behind Kansas, Baylor and West Virginia probably isn’t as strong as it typically has been. By way of comparison, it was abundantly clear at this time last season that at least six Big 12 teams would make the NCAA Tournament field. Inexperience and a lack of quality wins beyond those three leave a bunch of teams with many questions to be answered. Let’s briefly take a look at the resume of each at the quarter pole of the season.

Locks

Kansas is Looking for More Smiles in March (USA Today Images)

Kansas is Looking for More Smiles in March (USA Today Images)

  • Kansas (99.8% chance of making NCAA Tournament, according to teamrankings.com): No justification is needed to explain why Kansas will be in the NCAA Tournament for the 28th straight season. The bigger question should be whether Bill Self’s Jayhawks can finish the season as the No. 1 overall seed.
  • West Virginia (99%): Aside from a strange slip-up against Temple, the non-conference season has been impressive for the Mountaineers. A huge road win at Virginia and a nearly 50-point win over Manhattan — a game in which West Virginia forced a whopping 40 turnovers — provides enough assurance that Bob Huggins’ squad will make the Big Dance, and likely as a top-four protected seed.
  • Baylor (97.8%): Arguably no team in college basketball has a stronger non-conference resume than Baylor to this point. The Bears have been one of the most pleasant surprises of the young season and would need to seriously falter in Big 12 play to lose its grasp on an NCAA Tournament bid.

Jury Is Still Out 

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A Rising TCU Tide Could Lift Big 12 Boats

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 8th, 2016

While TCU fell from the ranks of the unbeaten on Wednesday night with a 15-point loss at SMU, the Horned Frogs’ ascension under Jamie Dixon has been obvious as the remaining pieces from the Trent Johnson era have blended well with young talents like Jaylen Fisher and Alex RobinsonIntent on leveraging a renovated arena and talent-rich local recruiting base, Dixon has already shored up the long-term stability of the program with commitments from 2017 four-star recruits Kevin Samuel and R.J. Nembhard. As a result, TCU’s future looks quite a bit better than its short term, but unlike with most coaching transitions, its present doesn’t look too shabby either. Dixon obviously did not walk into a Steve Prohm-like situation at Iowa State where the new guy was under pressure to win right away, but his early results in Fort Worth give reason to believe, which bodes well for a program that has gone 8-64 in Big 12 play since joining the league in 2012. Even if this immensely deep conference keeps TCU from climbing out of the cellar in 2017, mere respectability at the bottom of a league with so many NCAA Tournament candidates can be an advantage other middling power conference teams lack.

TCU may no longer be unbeaten, but their improvement can only help the rest of the Big 12. (AP/Bob Haynes)

Alex Robinson and TCU may no longer be unbeaten, but their improvement can only help the rest of the Big 12. (AP/Bob Haynes)

If you take a look around the nation’s Power 5 leagues, you’ll find a lot of flotsam among the dregs. In the ACC, Boston College and Georgia Tech’s seasons were pretty much dead on arrival (the Yellow Jackets’ win over VCU on Wednesday night notwithstanding). In the Big East, Georgetown, St. John’s and DePaul have a combined 1-8 record against the KenPom top 100. Rutgers and Penn State may eventually turn things around in the Big Ten, but neither figure to make much noise this season. And the bottom of the SEC rarely ever makes waves, either. Head west to the Pac-12 and you’ll see uphill battles ahead for Washington (which these Horned Frogs have already beaten twice), Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington State. TCU has its work cut out for it this season, but even if Dixon’s team winds up on the bottom rung of the Big 12 ladder yet again, there are certainly worse places to be. Read the rest of this entry »

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TCU Slowly Making a Case For Legitimacy

Posted by Justin Fedich on November 30th, 2016

Few pegged TCU as an NCAA Tournament team coming into this season, but after starting 6-0 for only the second time since joining the Big 12 four years ago, Jamie Dixon’s rebuilding process appears to be moving more quickly than expected. The Horned Frogs took a big step forward in last weekend’s Global Sports Classic, dispatching UNLV by four points on its home court and following it up with a 13-point win against Washington to claim the title. In a weird scheduling quirk, TCU will host Washington again tonight in Fort Worth. If the second game goes anything like the first — where the Frogs jumped out to a quick 24-8 lead and never looked back — Dixon’s group should be well on its way to a 7-0 start.

TCU brought their man home. Is Big 12 relevance next for the Horned Frogs?. (Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

Considering his track record, it’s not a huge surprise that Jamie Dixon has TCU playing better than pundit expectations. (Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

TCU lost its top scorer from a season ago, Chauncey Collins, but has replaced him with standout freshman Jaylen Fisher. Although Fisher has endured some early growing pains — turning the ball over at a higher rate than anyone else on the team (2.7 miscues per game) — he’s also exhibiting an ability to find open teammates, leading the Horned Frogs with 5.3 assists per game and a nationally-ranked 34.6 percent assist rate. Fisher isn’t the only newcomer making an early impact, as Desmond Bane is averaging 10.3 points per game on 56.1 shooting from the field. During the UNLV game, Bane contributed 15 points and six rebounds, while Fisher gave 10 points and five assists against Washington. Fisher is likely to be the more consistent player this season, but both have already made their marks on a TCU team needing to replace Collins’ production. Read the rest of this entry »

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