Big 12 Power Rankings: Oklahoma, Where Wins Come Sweeping Down the Plains Edition

Posted by Nate Kotisso on February 9th, 2015

The regular season can be a long, drawn out-proposition. Around 12 to 15 games are typically played during the pre-conference season, and even though it’s impossible to survey each team correctly, people like us try it anyway to avoid doing something else that’s actually mind-numbing. Case in point with Oklahoma. While some prognosticators pegged them as an early darkhorse to make the Final Four, no one told Creighton about that as the Bluejays beat the Sooners by two points in their second game of the season (RPI: #130). Lon Kruger’s team made up for that defeat by winning two of three out in its trip to the Bahamas, including a key neutral-court victory over a much-improved Butler team (RPI: #18). December resulted in another hiccup, though, with the Sooners losing to a ranked Washington group on a neutral court. The Huskies had started the year 11-0 with several nice victories before losing nine of their next 12 games. Now that loss is looking a lot more iffy (RPI: #80).

Don't be shy. Give it a try. (SoonerSports.com)

Don’t be shy. Give it a try. (SoonerSports.com)

Thank goodness for conference play, right? Every team welcomes the chance to start all over again. After beating Baylor and Texas by a combined 31 points to tip off Big 12 play, bad Oklahoma paid a return visit. Starting with a crushing home loss in the final seconds of overtime to Kansas State, the Sooners would move on to lose four of their next five contests. But in recent weeks, it now appears that good Oklahoma is back in action with a four-game winning streak. Through the ups and downs has been a talented crop of players but perhaps the best of this group is Big 12 Player of the Year candidate Buddy Hield. His game was far more perimeter-oriented last year, but Hield has become a dangerous offensive weapon from anywhere on the floor this season. So given all of these ups and downs, the Sooners are poise to leap into sole possession of second place in the Big 12 and become the newest challenger to Kansas’ throne. But they have to win tonight.

Power Rankings

  1. Kansas — 3 points (All voted 1st). Comment: “The Jayhawks control their own destiny despite Saturday’s loss in Stillwater, but the allocation of minutes across their frontcourt continues to baffle me. Cliff Alexander played 16 minutes and was fantastic around the rim while Jamari Traylor set a new career high in turnovers (six) in his 23 minutes of action. Meanwhile, Landen Lucas contributed a forgettable two rebounds and no points in 12 minutes.” – Brian Goodman (@BSGoodman)
  2. Iowa State — 7 points (Chris & Nate — 2nd, Brian — 3rd) Comment: “The Cyclones blasted Texas Tech 75-38 this week, as Jameel McKay found his way into the starting lineup due to Bryce Dejean-Jones’ tardiness. After finishing with 17 points and nine rebounds, McKay might be proving himself worthy of a permanent spot.” – Chris Stone (@cstonehoops) Read the rest of this entry »
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RTC Rewind: Celebrating the Life of a Legend, Duke-Kentucky, Arizona’s #1 Seed Hit…

Posted by Henry Bushnell on February 9th, 2015

One thousand. Two weeks ago, this column and many more around the country led with that number. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski had just become the first men’s college basketball coach to reach the 1,000-win plateau on an historic Sunday at Madison Square Garden, and in the aftermath, Coach K and that number were the talk of the sports world.

The Basketball World Paused on Sunday to Honor Dean Smith's Passing (USA Today Images)

The Basketball World Paused on Sunday to Honor Dean Smith’s Passing. (USA Today Images)

Today we celebrate another ACC legend. But we do so for a different reason, and in a different tenor. We’ll get to the basketball soon enough, but as you’ve probably heard by now, legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith — a former rival of Krzyzewski’s — passed away on Saturday. He was 83. Since the news broke Sunday morning, messages extolling Smith’s many virtues have come from far and wide. They’ve come from former players and adversaries, columnists and commentators, even from the President of the United States. Many of us have mourned college basketball’s loss, but even more have celebrated a life that so special to so many people. And that’s what this should be: a celebration.

Like Krzyzewski, Smith was obviously an outstanding basketball coach. He was innovative, sharp and bold — and, without question, driven by his competitiveness. He too set a number of records while at the helm in Chapel Hill, but those accomplishments are only the subtext to the discussion. That’s because Smith wasn’t defined by his numbers, as good as they were. Ask anybody who knew the man, and they’ll tell you the same thing: Dean Smith was defined by the way in which he impacted the lives of others. He was defined by stories of grace, loyalty and sincerity. Smith coached before my time. But it’s through those stories that I have gotten to know him, and it is those stories that allow everybody — well beyond the entire college hoops community — to recognize how truly wonderful a man he was. I can’t relate those anecdotes myself, but others — like ESPN‘s Dana O’Neil and The Washington Post‘s John Feinstein — have. And they’re beautiful.

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Big 12 M5: 02.06.15 Edition

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 6th, 2015

morning5_big12

  1. Texas‘ overtime loss to Oklahoma State on Wednesday dropped the Longhorns to a disappointing 3-6 in conference play and ignited some talk of the possibility of the Longhorns missing the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. I’m here to tell you that that chatter is very premature. While Texas doesn’t have any business being this bad with its formidable blend of talent and experience, it’s way too early to be bringing the Horns into the bubble conversation. They still own wins over Iowa at Madison Square Garden and UConn in Storrs, as well as a home win over West Virginia. On the other side of the ledger, their losses, while numerous, aren’t particularly egregious for their resume — every team they’ve lost to is currently ranked in the RPI top 35. Lastly, as is always the case with these kinds of conversations, in order to leave Texas out of the Big Dance, you have to find a team with a better resume, and the bubble right now is just too soft to make a convincing argument for the Longhorns to be left on the outside. There’s no doubt Texas has fallen well short of expectations, but they aren’t in any danger of missing the Tournament – yet. If they lose two or more of their next three games (at Kansas State, at home against TCU and Texas Tech), then we can talk.
  2. It’s been an up-and-down few years for Oklahoma State, so when a season highlight presents itself, I don’t have any problem if its fanbase wants to milk it for all its worth. Kyle Porter of Pistols Firing dissects Le’Bryan Nash’s rim-shaking throwdown from Wednesday night in great detail, all the way from how the play developed to the always-fun bench reactions and Travis Ford getting greedy and lobbying for a foul call. Looking around the conference, there isn’t a player who is more important to his team’s postseason chances than Nash is to the Cowboys due to his high usage and ability to create plays for himself, so when a play of his goes viral, it’s definitely worth passing along.
  3. Luke Winn’s power rankings at SI.com are always a great read, and this week’s edition includes an interesting blurb about Cliff Alexander‘s presence on the interior. We’ve talked before about Alexander’s offensive rawness in the post, but Winn illuminates how much Alexander lags behind his peers in this department. Jahlil Okafor, Myles Turner and Karl-Anthony Towns have all been considerably more productive on the blocks, but in fairness to Alexander, the other three players are taller and should be expected to post better numbers. Alexander has the potential to develop a true back-to-the-basket game over time, however, so we’ll see what the second half of conference play and the postseason brings out of the freshman.
  4. Tomorrow’s match-up between Baylor and West Virginia is one of the more interesting games of the weekend. A Baylor win would pull the Bears even with West Virginia, allowing them to keep a sliver of hope in ultimately catching Kansas in the league standings. The Mountaineers’ press will look to speed up Baylor’s deliberate tempo, which is currently ranked 300th in the country with an average possession length of 19.7 seconds. Additionally, neither team shoots particularly well, but both rank in the top five nationally in offensive rebounding. Unless Baylor gets white-hot from beyond the arc (as they can get sometimes), you can expect the winner of this one to be determined by second-chance points.
  5. We’ll wrap up by giving Oklahoma credit for fielding the conference’s most efficient defensive unit in the first half of Big 12 play. Kansas has owned that title in each of the last three full seasons and nine of the last 10, so while there’s still a lot of basketball to be played, it says a lot about the progress Lon Kruger‘s team has made from last year’s shaky defensive performance. Buddy Hield has slightly improved his steals rate from 2.4% last year to 2.6% this year while committing just 1.8 fouls per game in conference play. Those marks would be impressive for any player, but it’s especially noteworthy for Hield because of the high workload he’s asked to shoulder (he’s averaging 34 minutes per game in Big 12 play). The Sooners have held their last three opponents to an average of 48 points per game and could be a decent bet to do the same when they face TCU in Fort Worth tomorrow.
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RTC Weekly Primer: At Long Last, It’s Basketball Season

Posted by Henry Bushnell on February 3rd, 2015

It’s basketball season. At long last, it’s basketball season. It’s a shame that the general sports-loving public takes so long to realize that’s the case, but regardless of their failures and inadequacies, it’s time to look ahead. Football is finally and definitively over, and it’s time for the roundball and the hardwood floor to take center stage on the American sports landscape. The Super Bowl was awesome — one of the greatest of all-time, and a phenomenal advertisement for the competitiveness of the NFL — but as always, it was a bit anti-climactic. After two weeks of buildup, it’s all over; and just like that, there is a major void on the sports scene.

There's No Better Environment That Those in College Basketball (USA Sports Images)

There’s No Better Environment That Those in College Basketball (USA Sports Images)

College basketball must fill that void. For the dedicated fans, it undoubtedly will. But a frequently posed question in recent years has been whether college basketball has become a “niche sport”? According to a recent Harris poll, the game has indeed declined in popularity. Currently only three percent of American sports fans identify college hoops as their go-to game — down from five percent in 2011, and 10 percent in 1989 — and only a seismic shift in popularity could see the sport return to its peak levels in the 1980s and 1990s. Does that matter? For those who attach themselves to the overall health and growth of the game, yeah, it does. But at least in the short run from now until April 6, no poll will inhibit the joy we derive from the on-court action of college basketball. “Niche” can be viewed as a demeaning word when it is used in this context, but niche is fine so long as it can produce compelling games like Duke-Virginia in Charlottesville on Saturday and atmospheres like Kansas-Iowa State in Allen Fieldhouse last night.

Three for the Money

  • West Virginia at Oklahoma | Tuesday, 8:00 PM EST, ESPN2. After an explosive Big Monday of important (if not competitive) games, it’s a rather slow work week in the world of college hoops. But before we jump ahead to the weekend’s action, let’s not lose sight of this one on Tuesday night in Norman. It’s time to focus on the season that West Virginia is putting together. All of a sudden, the Mountaineers at 6-2 appear to be the biggest threat to Kansas in the Big 12 race. Bob Huggins has done a spectacular job in rebuilding this team after a couple of down years. He has possibly the conference’s best player in senior Juwan Staten but his true value with this year’s group has been molding them into a new identity featuring pressure defense all over the floor. Four West Virginia players rank among the nation’s top 100 in steal percentage, and the team prides itself on turning opponents over and getting out in transition. Tonight’s game could go either way. Oklahoma could get sucked into West Virginia’s traps and come out on the wrong end of a helter-skelter contest; or the Sooners could constantly be in attack mode, using the fast tempo and a raucous home crowd to play right into their hands.

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Big 12 M5: 02.03.15 Edition

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 3rd, 2015

morning5_big12

  1. Kansas again has a stranglehold on the Big 12 race at the turn, but Bill Self’s defense is getting the job done in a slightly different manner than usual. One of the themes of this year’s team has been the lack of a classic rim-protector in the mold of Joel Embiid or Jeff Withey, but despite that fact, the Jayhawks have maintained a strong shot-blocking presence. Thanks to a collective effort from Cliff Alexander, Jamari Traylor and even Wayne Selden, the Jayhawks rank 37th nationally in block percentage. That mark is a departure from the top-20 groups of recent years, but for a team that rarely plays anyone taller than 6’8″ across the front line, it is impressive.
  2. After dropping a Big Monday game last night and potentially losing its only realistic shot at wresting away the conference crown from the Jayhawks, Iowa State has some reflecting to do. While winning in Allen Fieldhouse is without question one of the toughest tasks in college sports, the Cyclones will need to do a better job of holding onto the ball and diversifying their offense. Georges Niang is a terrific player, but he plays too big of an offensive role for a team that also boasts capable talents like Naz Long, Bryce Dejean-Jones and Dustin Hogue.
  3. Texas currently sits at a disappointing 3-5 in the Big 12, and since there are 18 games on the league’s schedule, the Longhorns are guaranteed to finish the first half of conference play with a losing record. As Jeff Haley of Burnt Orange Nation details, the main reason behind Texas’ struggles has been the poor play of the Longhorns’ defense. Haley correctly notes that, despite employing a zone defense for most of Big 12 play, Texas still allows way too many close shots. Correspondingly, opponents are also hitting 36.4 percent of their threes, but while vulnerability from distance is one of the risks of playing zone, it doesn’t make things any less frustrating for Rick Barnes. It was especially discouraging to see Texas in a zone on Saturday against an exceptional offensive rebounding and three-point shooting team in Baylor — in other words, the ideal zone-buster. Changing Texas’ defensive philosophy won’t transform the Longhorns into a top 10 team — they also struggle with ball-screen and transition defense — but it can definitely help them right the ship in time for a postseason run.
  4. If Texas’ struggles at the halfway point have been the league’s most disappointing result, the most impressive has to be the 6-2 start of West Virginia, thanks in large part to the leadership of Juwan Staten and Devin Williams. According to head coach Bob Huggins, the duo are responsible for getting the program back on track after the team had missed the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons for the first time in 15 years. It’s worth noting that the Mountaineers’ schedule has been heavily front-loaded by Big 12 standards — they’ve already played all four of their meetings against Texas Tech and TCU — but for the time being, West Virginia still has an outside shot of catching the Jayhawks, a concept completely unfathomable coming into the season.
  5. Ken Corbitt of The Topeka Capital-Journal writes that the classic Bill Parcells adage holds true when it comes to 5-4 Kansas State: “You are what your record says you are.” It’s tough to argue otherwise. The Wildcats’ conference season has been somewhat interesting with the stories of Marcus Foster‘s benching and the team rebounding nicely from a nightmarish trip through non-conference play, but all in all, Kansas State seems to define mediocrity this season. Better consistency is the goal for the second half of league action, but with four of the Wildcats’ next six meetings coming away from Bramlage Coliseum, that will be tough to realize.
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Big 12 M5: 01.28.15 Edition

Posted by Chris Stone on January 28th, 2015

morning5_big12

  1. Texas once again struggled on Monday in an 89-86 loss at Iowa State. The Longhorns trailed by double digits for the majority of the game, but mounted a furious second half comeback that included hitting 10 three-pointers. The story of the game, though, was the failure of the Longhorns’ zone defense. Iowa State led by 11 at the end of the first half by using Georges Niang at the free throw line to consistently break down the zone. Texas has a massive front line, but when their bigs are slow in rotation, it creates open looks for opponents at the rim. Although the zone was effective in non-conference play, Big 12 opponents are scoring 100.9 points per 100 possessions against the Longhorns so far.
  2. TCU has only won a single conference game at this point in the season, but that hasn’t stopped opposing coaches from taking notice of the Horned Frogs’ improvements. Ahead of their matchup on Wednesday, Kansas coach Bill Self said, “We know this will be a much different team than we’ve seen in the last couple of years.” The numbers say he’s right. Jesse Newell of The Topeka Capital-Journal pointed out that TCU is the only team in the top 50 of Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings this year that ranked outside of the top 200 last season. The Horned Frogs’ 24th ranked adjusted defensive efficiency is a major factor in their improvement.
  3. One major criticism of college basketball this season has been the slow pace of games. Rush the Court’s Andrew Murawa wrote this fine piece on the subject recently. Tuesday night’s game between West Virginia and Kansas State did very little to silence the critics. The Mountaineers won a two-and-a-half hour marathon 65-59. The game featured 45 turnovers, 54 fouls, and 64 free throws. Bob Huggins called it “beautiful,” but reactions on Twitter painted a different picture. It took 14 minutes to finish the final 1:07 of the game. Perhaps it’s time for those in charge to listen to some of Andrew’s proposals.
  4. Oklahoma State picked up a big win over Baylor on Tuesday night. The Cowboys are fighting for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, and big man Michael Cobbins will be an integral piece of the puzzle. Although Cobbins only scored six points against Baylor, he grabbed 11 rebounds as Oklahoma State held the Bears below their conference average for offensive boards in the victory. Cowboys’ head coach Travis Ford is hopeful, saying, “We’re waiting for him to really hit his stride, and I think he has it in him and he will at some point.” Cobbins can provide Oklahoma State with an inside presence that they otherwise lack, so his continued improvement after returning from last season’s injury is something worth following.
  5. One final, somber note. Tuesday marked the anniversary of the January 27, 2001 plane crash that killed two members of Oklahoma State men’s basketball team, six members of the team’s traveling party, the pilot, and co-pilot. The team wore pregame shirts honoring those who lost their lives and Gallagher-Iba held a moment of silence prior to Tuesday’s game. The Cowboys’ athletic department spent the day remembering the victims of the accident. Consider this this author’s attempt to humbly do the same. Remember the 10.
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Big 12 Power Rankings: Bill Self is Smarter Than Me/You/Us Edition

Posted by Nate Kotisso on January 27th, 2015

Time to dust off a familiar narrative: Kansas is in control of the Big 12. The narrative doesn’t require much dusting off, really. The Jayhawks have won a share of the Big 12 regular season title in each of the last 10 seasons. Maybe the narrative needs a gentle wipe with a dry napkin. Or light tap-tap-taps with a clean towel. But it all starts at the top with Bill Self, the mastermind behind the operation. He’s certainly lauded in Lawrence and around the country as one of the top coaches but this season, Self has received criticism from some fans who question how he sends messages to his players. He, like few coaches do, has a good read on every player on his roster. Perry Ellis, the team’s current leading scorer, was inconsistent for much of the season. In advance of his team’s showdown with Iowa State, Self said that Ellis needed to be more aggressive and “believe that he’s the best player on the floor every night.” In the three games since, Ellis is averaging 16.3 points, eight rebounds and shooting 19-of-37 from the floor.

This is what a coach can get away with when you dominate the Big 12 like Bill Self has done at Kansas. (Denny Medley/USA Today Sports)

This is what a coach can get away with when he dominates the Big 12 like Bill Self has done at Kansas. (Denny Medley/USA Today Sports)

In the Iowa State loss, fans didn’t understand why Self sat freshman Cliff Alexander for the final 14 minutes-plus of the second half. Self explained his reasoning for the move was Alexander’s lack of motor on a couple of plays early in the second half. In an important game with Big 12 title implications, it’s understandable for fans to wonder why that had to be done and at that particular time. But Self has no problem benching players if they’re not giving the effort he requires (see: Andrew Wiggins). In the two games since, Alexander recorded a double-double including a career-high in rebounds against Oklahoma (13) and scored a career-high 15 in a road win at Texas. Another season, another chance for Self to prove his worth as a future Hall of Fame coach. He’d have to stay away from videoboards, though. I think the Hall of Fame frowns on videoboard abuse.

Power Rankings

  1. Kansas — 3 points (All voted 1st). Comment: “Our Brian Goodman nailed KU’s gradual rise back into the driver’s seat (with bonus “Candy Shop” mention). They’re the number one team in the latest RPI in the number one ranked RPI conference with the strongest non-conference schedule among Big Five teams according to KenPom. Yes, they are in good shape. Thanks for asking!” – Nate Kotisso (@natekotisso)
  2. Iowa State — 6 points (All voted 2nd). Comment: “Last night’s win was closer than it should have been, but a bounce-back effort from the Texas Tech debacle keeps the Cyclones in second for another week. We’ll find out if they’re out of their offensive slump for good over their next two games when they take on TCU and Kansas, a pair of teams currently in the top half of the conference in defensive efficiency during Big 12 play.” – Brian Goodman (@BSGoodman)
  3. West Virginia — 11 points (Chris — 3rd, Brian & Nate — 4th) Comment: “The Mountaineers are an interesting case. They’ve got the worst effective defensive field goal percentage in the league, but they’re turning opponents over on 27 percent of their possessions. This week, they managed to hold serve at home by beating TCU in overtime.” – Chris Stone (@cstonehoops)
  4. Kansas State — 12 points (Nate — 3rd, Chris — 4th, Brian — 5th) Comment: “Although the Wildcats lost at Iowa State, they picked up a nice home win against Oklahoma State on Saturday. Bruce Weber’s team continues to improve their resume for March, but we’ll get a better sense of where his squad stands after games against West Virginia and Kansas this week.” – CS
  5. Texas — 16 points (Brian — 3rd, Chris — 6th, Nate — 7th) Comment: “If they were able to pull off the comeback shocker in Ames last night, they’re definitely in my personal top five. Beyond that, they blew a big opportunity by failing to beat Kansas in Austin on Saturday. Here was a team that most saw as the biggest challenger to Kansas to start the year but now are nearing the halfway point in league play with a sub .500 record.” – NK
  6. Baylor — 17 points (Chris & Nate — 5th, Brian — 7th) Comment: “Last Saturday, the Bears did something no Big 12 team has been able to do: Contain Buddy Hield. Five days after bringing the Sooners back from the dead against Kansas, Hield was held without a three-pointer for the first time all season on his way to a frustrating 6-17 outing and five turnovers. Kudos, Baylor defense.” – BG
  7. Oklahoma — 19 points (Brian & Nate — 6th, Chris — 7th) Comment: “Somehow, the Sooners maintained an AP top 25 ranking this week despite losing four of their last five. It will be interesting to see what Lon Kruger does with Isaiah Cousins who injured his wrist in Saturday’s game against Baylor. X-rays were negative and he is day-to-day but the OU coach should be careful about rushing an important piece back especially when they’re losing.” – NK
  8. Oklahoma State — 24 points (All voted 8th). Comment: “Although the Cowboys have the best defensive efficiency numbers in Big 12 play, they’re just 3-4 so far. They’ve got two big home games this week against Baylor and Oklahoma.” – CS
  9. TCU — 27 points (All voted 9th). Comment: “No longer a laughingstock, Trent Johnson’s team is playing hard and keeping things competitive to the point where they’re only one-point underdogs in Wednesday’s game against Kansas.” – BG
  10. Texas Tech — 30 points (All voted 10th). Comment: “Texas Tech is making a habit of winning games against teams they have no business beating. It happened again Saturday as the last-place Red Raiders beat the-then first-place Iowa State Cyclones in Lubbock. Next up on their schedule is a road game at Oklahoma on Wednesday night. TTU’s last road conference win was — you guessed it — Oklahoma last season.” – NK

Big 12 Video/GIF of the Week 

In a world where conference games have been sullied by realignment, it was nice to see two fans from two fan bases come together for absolute nonsense on national television. While there was a break in the action of Texas-Iowa State last night, ESPN went to a liveshot of Brent Musburger and Fran Fraschilla doing their thing. Behind them, a fan wearing an Iowa State logo (on the left) and a Texas fan (on the right, presumably) tried to have a little fun while they were on camera. (h/t Erin Sorensen)

https://vine.co/v/OTHm0XWX15p

This Vine leaves us with so many questions. Why is the Iowa State fan flashing Hook ‘em Horns? Why are they all of a sudden fist-bumping? Did these guys properly map out a plan of what they’ll do when they’re on camera? Of course they didn’t. That’s why this is great. Go Big 12, indeed.

Five Big 12 Games You Better Watch This Week

  1. Tuesday: West Virginia at Kansas State (6:00 PM CT, ESPN2)
  2. Tuesday: Baylor at Oklahoma State (8:00 PM CT, ESPNEWS)
  3. Wednesday: Kansas at TCU (8:00 PM CT, ESPNU)
  4. Saturday: Kansas State at Kansas (1:00 PM CT, ESPN)
  5. Saturday: Texas at Baylor (5:00 PM CT, ESPN2)
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RTC Rewind: No. 1,000, Kansas Bill Selfing, Crazy Endings at WVU, Maryland…

Posted by Henry Bushnell on January 26th, 2015

One thousand wins. One, zero, zero, zero. It was a busy weekend in college basketball, but everything else was overshadowed by that number. We’ll start by stating the obvious. In a career full of them, what a truly remarkable accomplishment for Mike Krzyzewski. It’s one thing to coach for a long time and break records and reach milestones based on longevity, but what makes Coach K so special is that he’s combined all those years with such consistent winning. His teams are perennial contenders. He’s established a tradition of greatness, and built a distinct culture over 30 years in Durham that has not eroded in the least.

Coach 1K Was the Story of the Weekend (USA Today Images)

Coach 1K Was the Story of the Weekend (USA Today Images)

One of the things that made win No. 1,000 so awesome was the way in which Krzyzewski and Duke achieved it. Their Sunday afternoon performance in the World’s Most Famous Arena was evocative of the culture and recipe for sustained success that he has crafted. Trailing by as many as 10 points in the second half, the Blue Devils fought back with a 26-7 run to end the game. The players, of course, knew what was on the line, taking it upon themselves to come through for their coach — playing with incredible passion, emotion and commitment. They slapped the floor. They punched the air. They were determined and focused. Afterward, when his team hugged Krzyzewski and his wife and donned shirts and hats to commemorate the milestone, their love for their leader was crystal clear. And in the end, that is exactly why Coach K has been able to achieve what he has achieved. And has he ever achieved a lot! Afterward, Krzyzewski was insistent that the focus remain on the present as opposed to the past. As big of a win it was for him personally, it was also a huge one for Duke. St. John’s — seeing the resume-enhancing possibility with Duke in its building — came to play on Sunday, and made things very difficult for the Blue Devils for most of the game. But in crunch time, Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook and Jahlil Okafor all found another gear, and it pushed Duke to a dominant finish that the Johnnies just couldn’t match.

And That Sets Up…

An ACC showdown on Wednesday in South Bend, because Notre Dame pulled out a massive comeback win of its own at NC State on Sunday. The Wolfpack jumped out to an 18-point first half lead, but the Fighting Irish’s consistent scoring allowed them to claw back into the game so that Jerian Grant and his supporting cast could showcase their ‘clutch genes’ down the stretch. Notre Dame is now 19-2 and will welcome Duke to the Joyce Center on Wednesday. What a game that will be.

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Steady Improvement Puts Kansas in Big 12 Driver’s Seat Again

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 26th, 2015

For all the chaos and cannibalization taking place in the Big 12 this season, the top of the conference sure is in a familiar state after three weeks of play. With a 75-62 win that was as complete a performance as we’ve seen from Kansas all year long — and timed with Texas Tech’s upset of Iowa State — the Jayhawks on Saturday swung the odds of an 11th straight Big 12 title solidly back to their side. Bill Self’s teams always seem to make a significant leap around the holiday break, and this year’s group appears no different. In fact, you could take it one step further and argue that the Jayhawks have noticeably improved just in the last week since losing to Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum.

Cliff Alexander and the Jayhawks are ahead of the pack after a big win in Austin and some help from Texas Tech. (KUSports.com/Nick Krug)

Cliff Alexander and the Jayhawks are ahead of the pack after a big win in Austin and some help from Texas Tech. (KUSports.com/Nick Krug)

After getting benched for a lack of hustle, Cliff Alexander has burst forward with activity, averaging 14 points and 11 rebounds per game in last week’s outings on his way to Big 12 Newcomer Of The Week honors. He still doesn’t have much of a post arsenal, but he makes up for it with outstanding strength and athleticism. In Austin, he got the best of fellow blue-chipper Myles Turner, outworking him for rebounds and slipping by him for close looks. Alexander’s motor was on display on one defensive trip in particular, when he successfully keeping Turner out of the low post, making the big freshman receive the ball just off the elbow and forcing a bad shot.

Alexander’s frontcourt teammate, Perry Ellis, is also coming back around. Ellis had been benched two weeks ago after committing four early turnovers against Oklahoma State, exacerbating the limitations that made him a target of criticism both to Kansas fans and more objective observers. In the three games since, he’s averaged 16.3 points and eight rebounds per contest with just three total turnovers. Ellis’ turnaround has come predominantly from getting the ball in better spots and improved execution in his footwork near the basket. He may not be the classic Kansas power forward who can back down his man from 15 feet in, but his face-up game over the last two weeks has been effective enough to maintain his status as a weapon.

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Big 12 M5: 01.26.15 Edition

Posted by Chris Stone on January 26th, 2015

morning5_big12

  1. Coming into the season, Texas looked like the team that would finally end Kansas’ streak of 10 straight Big 12 titles. The Longhorns’ roster combines NBA talent like Myles Turner with hardened veterans like Jonathan Holmes, but in the teams’ first meeting on Saturday, Kansas bullied the Longhorns in a 75-62 win at the Erwin Center. Rustin Dodd of The Kansas City Star called it, “Kansas’ most complete victory in a season-long hunt for an unprecedented 11th straight Big 12 title.” The Jayhawks only turned the ball over three times in the entire game; Cliff Alexander (15 points and nine rebounds) was the best player on the floor; and Jamari Traylor made the best play Bill Self’s seen in his time at Kansas. Perhaps we all made a mistake in underestimating the Jayhawks.
  2. The most surprising game of the weekend happened in Lubbock where Texas Tech knocked off Iowa State, 78-73. The Red Raiders entered the contest as the only team without a win in the Big 12 and had spent most of the conference season looking like they’d finish that way, but a hot start allowed them to jump out to big lead against the Cyclones. Now, the calls for change are coming. Jameel McKay has been a revelation for Fred Hoiberg, and his energy levels are causing some to wonder whether he should be inserted into the starting lineup. It’s a reasonable consideration given McKay’s play, but the timing makes this feel like a bit of an overreaction. McKay is a very good player and perhaps he deserves a chance to start, but basing those decisions off of one loss doesn’t seem like the Hoiberg way.
  3. After a rough ride during their non-conference schedule, Kansas State now sits just a half game back of the top spot in the Big 12 standings after a 63-53 win over Oklahoma State. The Wildcats have been playing much better defense in conference play, as Bruce Weber’s squad currently has the fourth best defensive efficiency rating in the Big 12. Phil Forte spoke of Kansas State’s aggressiveness and physicality saying, “Any time you play K-State, you know you’re playing against one of the best defensive teams not just in the league but in the country.” We should get a better sense of where the Wildcats stand in relation to the rest of the league this week when they take on West Virginia and Kansas.
  4. Oklahoma is now just 3-4 in Big 12 play after losing at Baylor on Saturday, having now lost four of their last five including their two most recent games. Although Oklahoma’s defense has slipped in league play — now allowing 100.4 points per 100 possessions — it’s not time to panic just yet. The Sooners played a good non-conference schedule and picked up some nice wins before Big 12 play began. They have also played their conference road games at Texas, West Virginia, Kansas, and Baylor already, and have yet to play a game against either Texas Tech or TCU. Oklahoma will surely find its way into the NCAA Tournament and Lon Kruger’s team has the talent to make a run once it gets there.
  5. Tonight gives us another fantastic matchup in the Big 12 as Texas travels to Ames to take on Iowa State. Both teams are coming off of a loss and will need a win to stay in the race for the regular season title. It’s a fantastic contrast of styles with the Cyclones’ high tempo offense and the Longhorns’ stout defense anchored by their massive front line. Be sure to tune into ESPN at 9:00 PM ET to catch the action — just another loaded week of games in the best basketball conference in America this season.
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Big 12 Saturday Preview

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 24th, 2015

This weekend’s slate of Big 12 action isn’t quite as loaded as last week’s in terms of games expected to have a significant impact on the league race, but with the conference being arguably the best one in the country, that’s all relative. The biggest match-up on Saturday’s schedule features league favorite Kansas traveling to Austin to take on the Longhorns, who are looking to reassert themselves in the conference race. 

Oklahoma State at Kansas State (12:00 EST) – The 3-3 Cowboys have a win over Texas in their back pocket, but on the whole, their resume isn’t particularly impressive. If the NCAA Tournament started today, they would almost certainly be in, but a rough go of it on the road has prevented Travis Ford’s team from compiling a stronger case for seeding. They’ll look to reverse their fortunes when they shoot for just their second true road win of the season (the first being a convincing victory over a mediocre Memphis team) with an early afternoon tilt in Manhattan. The Wildcats, meanwhile, are still trying to prove their worth as a potential NCAA Tournament team, and a big component of that equation is holding serve on their home court against competitive teams. The battle between Marcus Foster and Phil Forte should be a fun one, and whether Nino Williams (20 points per game in his last two contests) continues to emerge as a dependable complement to Foster could play a decisive role. Prediction: Kansas State 66, Oklahoma State 63.

Everyone is Waiting on Kansas State to Regress (USA Today Images)

Everyone is Waiting on Kansas State to Regress (USA Today Images)

TCU at West Virginia (2:00 EST) – It’s still crazy to believe that after missing the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons, the Mountaineers are just a few bounces away from 16-1. Their offense hasn’t been pretty, with sub-200 rankings in both two-point shooting and three-point shooting, but it’s still been one of the most effective units in the country thanks to an aversion to turnovers. Of course, there’s also West Virginia’s stifling pressure defense, which has created barrels of extra possessions for Bob Huggins’ team. They’ll look to speed up a TCU offense that is much more deliberate at 62 possessions per game, so the Horned Frogs will have very small margin of error as they try to get their second league win. Prediction: West Virginia 70, TCU 59.

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RTC Weekly Primer: SEC Squishy Middle, Love for Big 12, Coach 1K, More…

Posted by Henry Bushnell on January 20th, 2015

Okay, okay, we get it… the Big 12 is awesome. I’ve made that pretty clear in past columns, and you probably don’t need me to tell you something so obvious. Monday night offered up yet another prominent example, when a “Kansas is back to its dominant self” narrative in the first half against Oklahoma turned into one of the best games of conference play this season. But rather than raving about it, let’s think big picture: What do we make of the Big 12 race? A few teams will definitely be involved. One is Kansas, of course, which hasn’t missed out on at least a share of the regular season crown since Bill Self’s first year in Lawrence. Two more are Texas, which seems to have found its footing, and Iowa State, which finally cleared the Kansas hurdle over the weekend. Oklahoma should be in the running too, despite losing three of its last four. What other teams could have a say in the matter? How about Kansas State, which is tied for the conference lead at 4-1? What about West Virginia, currently 15-3 and a top-15 KenPom team? Or Baylor? Or Oklahoma State?

The Big 12 Will Remain a War Zone For Most of the Season (USA Today Images)

The Big 12 Will Remain a War Zone For Most of the Season (USA Today Images)

It’s probably safe to rule out those last two teams even though both are ranked among KenPom’s top 25, but neither is likely to beat the teams above them on a consistent basis. It’s also fair to exclude Kansas State from the discussion. The Wildcats are clearly much better than their non-conference performance suggested, but recent wins over Baylor and at Oklahoma don’t tell the full story either. They have some flaws. However, it’s probably a tad premature to rule out West Virginia. The Mountaineers play such a distinctly effective style this season, forcing turnovers on over 30 percent of opponents’ possessions, that will remain a problem to solve for all nine conference foes. They’re a possession away from a 4-1 Big 12 record and the upcoming schedule suggests that we shouldn’t be surprised if Bob Huggins has his team sitting at 6-2 when this column runs two weeks from now. It appears to be a five-team race. But whether you think the Big 12 has four, five, or even six or seven teams capable of winning the league crown, the takeaway here is that the race is wide open. And with Kansas’ astounding decade-long run in jeopardy, the next two months in Middle America are must-watch sports television.

Three for the Money

  • Iowa at Wisconsin | Tuesday, 9:00 PM EST, ESPN. Around this time last year, Iowa sat at 13-3 on the season and waltzed into Value City Arena to take on 15-1 Ohio State. The Buckeyes at the time were KenPom’s second-ranked team and their only loss had come earlier in the week at Michigan State. They also hadn’t given up more than 70 points in a game. The Hawkeyes delivered one of the more impressive Big Ten performances last season, winning by 10 points and vaulting themselves from seemingly out of nowhere into KenPom’s top five. They are presented with a similar opportunity tonight against Wisconsin. With the memory of last year’s collapse still fresh, many people remain unsure of what to make of Fran McCaffery’s team – the Hawkeyes have defeated a questionable Ohio State team twice and won at North Carolina, but the rest of their résumé is dubious. A win in Madison would force the nation to take notice. For Wisconsin, this is its first real test since the loss of senior point guard Traevon Jackson. It could provide a platform for replacement Bronson Koenig to step up his game, but it also could reveal a major midterm problem for Bo Ryan. Tonight’s game will tell us a lot about which it will be.

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