NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big 12 Teams

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 11th, 2018

Every passing postseason where a Big 12 team gets bounced in embarrassing fashion or fails to maximize its potential by way of an otherwise-excusable loss becomes another pock mark on the conference’s reputation. Oklahoma got the Big 12 off the schneid with a Final Four Run in 2016, but it hasn’t been enough. There’s never been more pressure on the league to produce than there is this year, and seven teams will get a bite at the apple. Another Big 12 team has to break through eventually… right?

Kansas (#1 Midwest)

Behind senior guard Devonte’ Graham, Kansas will aim to cut down the nets in San Antonio. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

  • Best Case: The recent breakouts of Malik Newman and Silvio De Sousa continue into the NCAA Tournament, buying additional time for Udoka Azubuike to recover from his MCL injury. With the Jayhawks’ starting center at full strength for the second weekend, Bill Self makes his third Final Four as the Kansas head coach.
  • Worst Case: Foul trouble and a cold shooting night around the perimeter spell another early exit, this time in the Round of 32.

Texas Tech (#3 East)

  • Best Case: Keenan EvansZach Smith and Justin Gray take advantage of a nearly week-long break and get healthy, and the Red Raiders channel the best version of themselves to their first ever Elite Eight appearance.
  • Worst Case: The Red Raiders continue to slide and are defeated at the hands of Stephen F. Austin, a team that bears some striking similarities to the West Virginia team that bested Tech in two of their three meetings.

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Rushed Reactions: Kansas 83, Kansas State 67

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 9th, 2018

RTC’s Brian Goodman (@BSGoodman) is providing on-site coverage of the Big 12 Tournament.

Three Key Takeaways.

Kansas Cruised Past K-State in the Big 12 Tournament Semifinals (USA Today Images)

  1. Kansas’ bomb squad lifts team to victory. With center Udoka Azubuike recovering from an MCL sprain, the Jayhawks knew what they had to do to maintain control and they went out and did it. Twenty-eight of Kansas’ 60 attempts from the field came from beyond the arc, and they connected on 39.3 percent of their tries. Devonte’ Graham was relatively quiet (3-of-11 FG), but he still found a way to approach his season averages, scoring 15 points and dishing out eight assists against just three turnovers. It wasn’t always pretty, as Kansas State at one point cut a 16-point deficit down to two, but it was enough to move on to the championship game tomorrow night.
  2. Personnel issues set Kansas State back. Already without the services of first team All-Big 12 forward Dean Wade, Kansas State was further hampered just a minute into the game when guard Barry Brown took an inadvertent shot to the eye from Graham. Trainers quickly took Brown to the locker room for evaluation and he warmed up on the court prior to the start of the second half, but he never re-entered the contest. Without its two best playmakers, offense quickly became a chore for Bruce Weber‘s team. Forward Makol Mawien was incredibly efficient in the post on his way to a game-high 29 points, but his night was more of an indictment of Mitch Lightfoot‘s interior defense than it was an endorsement of his own game. The Wildcats’ jump shooters had trouble producing all night, which only underscores Wade’s importance to the team.
  3. Kansas needs Udoka Azuibuike healthy in order to make a deep NCAA Tournament run. Between Wade, Azubuike and Mohamed Bamba, Big 12 big men have been dropping like flies, but no team has as much at stake in the health of its frontcourt centerpiece as Kansas. While Silvio De Sousa pitched in with 11 rebounds in 19 minutes of action, he was frequently lost on offense, leading Bill Self to look down his bench knowing that it offered little in the way of solutions. Meanwhile, Lightfoot helped free up Kansas’ shooters and cleaned up a couple of misses, but couldn’t keep up defensively with an average post player in Mawien. With Azubuike, the Jayhawks have Final Four potential. Without him, their season could be over in the blink of an eye.

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On Kansas, a Quiet Contender Gelling at the Right Time

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 27th, 2018

On Monday night, Kansas brushed Texas aside to clinch another outright Big 12 title, send seniors Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk out with a bang, and stay ahead of the pack in the chase for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Around the college basketball landscape, many keystrokes have been dedicated to the historic and dominant nature of Kansas’ seemingly eternal grip on the Big 12, but while the 14-year streak is all those things and more, many Jayhawk fans would trade one or two of those regular season crowns for another Final Four run (Bill Self‘s two appearances were in 2008 and 2012). With the way his team is playing as March quickly approaches, however, this year may not be an either/or proposition.

Devonte Graham’s current hot streak has Kansas on a tear with postseason play just around the corner. (Nick Krug/KUSports.com)

The biggest reason why the Jayhawks are peaking has been because of Graham’s outstanding recent play. He’s been terrific all season but is clicking on all cylinders right now, with averages of 18.6 points and 6.9 assists per game over his last nine contests. Additionally, he’s drilling 44 percent of his three-point attempts and taking care of the ball with just 2.5 turnovers per 40 minutes over that span, all while playing virtually every second of competitive games. For Kansas to reach San Antonio, Graham needs to remain on his game in March and not disappear like he did in last season’s Elite Eight loss. The good news is that it’s been nearly three months since the senior put up a dud. As long as he continues to be a linchpin of the Jayhawks’ attack, it’s going to be increasingly tough to think he’ll go AWOL when the team needs him the most.

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A Quick Look at the Big 12’s Opening Weekend

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 29th, 2017

It’s not very often that the performance of a single conference as a whole is extensively discussed before the start of league play, but the manner in which the Big 12 asserted itself over the first six weeks of the 2017-18 season was nothing short of impressive. Nine of the conference’s 10 teams are ranked among the top 50 of KenPom‘s current rankings, and no team took more losses than Texas‘ three (of which two came in overtime against very good Duke and Gonzaga teams). In fact, the league finished non-conference play by ripping off 27 straight victories. Yes, there were some cupcakes in there, but there were also road and semi-road meetings against teams like Wichita State, Florida State and Nebraska. It’s gotten to the point where there’s been reasoned discussion on this site and others of the Big 12 sending 80 percent of its membership to the NCAA Tournament come March. Even if an underperforming team squelches that possibility, this conference will have meaningful games practically every night from now until March, beginning with tonight’s action. Here’s a quick look at each of the weekend’s five games.

Kansas remains the Big 12 favorite, but its competition is tougher than ever. (AP)

  1. West Virginia at Oklahoma State (Friday 7:00 ET, ESPNU) – The Cowboys project as one of the league’s worst teams, but West Virginia is just a 3.5-point favorite, which should tell you something about the Big 12’s parity and the intense challenge that the road represents this season, no matter the gym. Since installing the press prior to the 2014-15 season, Bob Huggins has not lost in Stillwater, and I expect that to continue tonight. Oklahoma State’s 10-2 start in the wake of Brad Underwood’s unexpected departure is a nice story, but the Cowboys are lacking in the three key areas needed to get the best of the Mountaineers: Ball control (117th nationally), defensive rebounding (174th) and drawing fouls (291st). Those will have to change if the Cowboys are to pull the upset.
  2. Baylor at Texas Tech (Friday 8:00 ET, Fox Sports Regional) – The Red Raiders stunned the Bears in Lubbock last season to give then-first year head coach Chris Beard a big home win. Three Baylor players fouled out of that game, which saw Texas Tech head to the foul line 43 times over the course of the night. That probably won’t be the case this time around, as Baylor ranks second in the country in foul avoidance. It also means that Texas Tech will need to find a fallback plan quickly if Baylor’s zone keeps Keenan Evans, Zach Smith and Zhaire Smith from attacking the rim as effectively as they have to this point in the season. Read the rest of this entry »
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Reinforcements Can Help Kansas, But Not Where the Jayhawks Need It Most

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 12th, 2017

With the end of the semester approaching, 7-2 Kansas is due to receive some help with the addition of transfer wing Sam Cunliffe, and the possibility remains that some combination of big men Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa could also come on board as both work toward gaining eligibility. Though the Jayhawks could certainly use some additional frontcourt depth, any reinforcements they receive should not be mistaken for a cure-all as they look to bounce back from consecutive regular season losses for the first time since 2013.

Kansas’ perimeter-oriented approach has worked well, but not without some glaring weaknesses. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

As thin as Bill Self‘s team is down low, Kansas’ two-point defense remains among the very best in the country. Even after getting carved up by Arizona State on Sunday, the Jayhawks still rank among the top 30 nationally in two-point defense and 10 best in adjusted defensive efficiency. Although some help on the low blocks could keep Udoka Azubuike from worrying about foul trouble and prevent the head coach from turning to unusual measures like relying on a walk-on to play key minutes against power conference teams and dipping into the football roster for help, what would really make this defense whole is greater urgency from the backcourt in adequately defending the perimeter. Read the rest of this entry »

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On What Bill Self Likes Most…

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 15th, 2017

Bill Self absolutely loves hustle plays and grind-it-out wins. A coach doesn’t simply roll out elite defensive units on the regular without emphasizing the little things. No matter how good his teams are offensively, or how many NBA prospects come through his program, or how many Big 12 titles he piles up, Self values few things more than a dive for a loose ball, a winning battle on the glass or an offensive angle denied. Conversely, there isn’t much that grinds Self’s gears settling for sub-optimal shots. The Jayhawks did plenty of the former in their 65-61 win over Kentucky on Tuesday night, but there was also too much of the latter, and that will have to improve for Kansas to ultimately reach its National Championship potential.

Kansas won a rock fight Tuesday night utilizing the kind of defensive intensity Bill Self loves. (AP)

The strength of this team coming into the season was in the explosiveness of its backcourt. That will continue for as long as Self has just three scholarship big men on his roster, and especially as long as he has just two scholarship big men while the school figures out exactly what is going on with Billy Preston’s car. That said, the talented guard corps didn’t fully show up against Kentucky. Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman made all the right plays down the stretch to secure the win, but the trio also shot just 30 percent from the field for the game. Lagerald Vick made some good contributions too, but not as many as he could have in stumbling to a 4-of-14 shooting mark. Even while playing small lineups against the Wildcats’ long and hyper-athletic roster, Kansas rebounded 38.0 percent of its own misses and generated turnovers on a staggering 25.7 percent of Kentucky’s trips down the floor. That resulted in 20 second-chance points, but Kansas still only tabulated 0.93 points per possession as a result of suspect shot selection and poor execution around the rim.

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Rushed Reactions: #4 Kansas 65, #7 Kentucky 61

Posted by Walker Carey on November 15th, 2017

RTC is providing coverage of the Champions Classic in Chicago.

Three Key Takeaways.

Kansas and Kentucky Battled It Out in Chicago Tonight (USA Today Images)

  1. This was the very definition of an early season college basketball game. After the first game of the Champions Classic exhibited two elite teams duking it out to the end in very exciting fashion, the second game between Kansas and Kentucky — while also close — left something to be desired. The Jayhawks earned the 65-61 victory despite shooting just 35.3 percent from the field, 28.6 percent from the three-point line, and 56.3 percent from the charity stripe. The starting backcourt was even worse — Devonte’ Graham, LaGerald Vick and Malik Newman shot just 11-of-41 for the game. Kentucky shot the ball somewhat better –finishing at 41.8 percent from the field — but torpedoed its chance to win with 18 turnovers. These ugly performances certainly make sense when you consider Kansas is clearly still adjusting to life without Frank Mason II and Josh Jackson, and Kentucky is once again breaking in an entirely new rotation. There are more growing pains coming for both teams as they maneuver through the regular season, but the talent is definitely there for each team to be a factor in both its conference and the national landscape.
  2. Hamidou Diallo and Kevin Knox gave Kentucky fans a glimpse of the future. While several Kentucky freshmen struggled on the big stage in Chicago tonight, Diallo and Knox showed flashes of what made them such highly-sought recruits in the first place. Diallo’s speed and athleticism were on full display, as his tenacious defense bothered the Kansas backcourt all night and led to several difficult shots. The Wildcats, on the other hand, needed someone to step up offensively and Knox provided that boost. The freshman scored a game-high 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting (3-of-6 from the three-point line). Freshman growth is not linear, but both Diallo and Knox took substantial steps in the right direction in tonight’s defeat.
  3. Kansas needs to find a way to get Udoka Azubuike more touches. In a game where Kansas struggled to get normal production from its backcourt, it instead found great success in pounding the ball inside to sophomore seven-footer Azubuike. The big man finished the game with 13 points and eight rebounds while making all five of his shots from the field. It was baffling to understand how he only got five shot attempts in 34 minutes — especially considering how poorly Kansas shot from the perimeter — but Bill Self made it known in his postgame remarks that his guards need to do a better job of getting the ball to Azubuike.

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Big 12 Burning Questions: Kansas Jayhawks

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 10th, 2017

This preview is part of RTC’s 2017-18 preseason coverage.

Burning Question: How much will Kansas’ small ball lineups compensate for another thin frontcourt?

It took some time for Bill Self to embrace both his roster and basketball’s changing landscape in the era of pace and space, but he did just that in 2017, even if it took a season-ending injury to center Udoka Azubuike to fully make the leap. Three-pointers comprised 35.9 percent of Kansas’ shot attempts last season, the highest rate of any of Self’s teams during his illustrious career. The Jayhawks connected on 40 percent of those tries from distance, powering them to a highly successful season that included an 18-game winning streak, a 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title, and a run to the Elite Eight. With a National Player of the Year leading his backcourt, a lottery pick on the wing and a heady center like Landen Lucas patrolling the middle, Self once again succeeded without the services of a deep stable of big men. The question for this season is whether Kansas can continue playing that way without any of those three elements in place — because the pressure will certainly once again be on Kansas’ guards to convert from deep.

Devonte’ Graham knows what the 2017-18 Jayhawks will be all about. (Getty)

Kansas’ backourt shouldn’t regress significantly from last year despite the departure of NPOY Frank Mason. Devonte’ Graham will lead the charge as the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, but transfer guard Malik Newman could become the team’s leading scorer after sitting out last year. The redshirt sophomore averaged 32.5 points per 40 minutes during the Jayhawks’ August trip to Italy, and while those numbers aren’t fully indicative of how he will fare against better competition, they may provide a hint of what to expect. It feels like Svi Mykhailiuk has tested the waters every summer he’s been in Lawrence, but he’s back in a Kansas uniform for his senior year. The Ukrainian can get hot in a hurry and play some point guard in a pinch, but he’s also a defensive liability that clearly frustrates Self from time to time.

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Kansas Remains a Contender Even Without Udoka Azubuike

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 22nd, 2016

Kansas‘ transition to small-ball this season was a product of three primary factors: 1) the Jayhawks’ surplus of quality shooters and ball-handlers; 2) Josh Jackson‘s versatility; 3) a collection of big men who each brought something different to the table but none of whom possesses a well-rounded game. The Jayhawks have been getting by inside with centers Landen Lucas and Udoka Azubuike sharing the workload, but while a season-ending wrist injury to the freshman Azubuike is a clear setback, it doesn’t dispel Kansas’ status as a legitimate national title contender.

Kansas will miss Udoka Azubuike, but the Jayhawks' championship aspirations remain intact. (Michael Reaves/Getty)

Kansas will miss Udoka Azubuike, but the Jayhawks’ championship aspirations remain intact. (Michael Reaves/Getty)

For all of Azubuike’s upside as a five-star recruit with an NBA-ready body, he’ll end this season averaging a fairly modest 5.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in just under 13 minutes per game. That’s not to say that he’s been a disappointment in his first season, or that Kansas won’t drop a game or two that it otherwise wouldn’t have, but it is to say that a team as talented and efficient as Kansas can replace his level of production. Recall that in the preseason, Azubuike wasn’t projected to play a major role this season, but it didn’t stop many in the national media from tabbing the Jayhawks to win the national title. Yes, Azubuike miss out on chances to develop in the throes of Big 12 play, and his presence in the pain will be missed against bigger teams like Baylor and West Virginia, but his rawness also made him prone to turnovers (26.6% TO), fouls (8.7 fouls per 40 minutes) and struggles at the stripe (38% FT).

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Big 12 Freshmen Update: The Names You Know & The Names You Should

Posted by Nate Kotisso on December 2nd, 2016

Last season was like a dream for the Big 12, as junior and senior-laden teams produced some of the best basketball the conference has seen in its 20-year history. Seven teams made the NCAA Tournament, and unlike years past, multiple members other than Kansas made it to the second weekend and beyond. With much of that experience from those teams now gone, many Big 12 teams are looking to their freshmen to lead this season. There are a few schools with freshmen who did not make the cut for several reasons. Those particular teams either did not have compelling enough freshmen just yet (i.e., Baylor and West Virginia), have good contributors who haven’t played in every game (i.e., Iowa State’s Solomon Young) or don’t have any scholarship freshmen at all (Texas Tech). Let’s take a look at the top eight freshmen in the league to this point in the season.

I doubt a better picture of KU super freshman Josh Jackson in the known universe. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

I doubt a better photo of KU super freshman Josh Jackson exists in the known universe. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

  • Jarrett Allen, center, Texas (10.5 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.3 BPG in 29.7 MPG): Allen being on this list is both a blessing and a curse. The Round Rock, Texas, native currently ranks first in rebounds and blocked shots on the team and is third in scoring. However, Allen has to this point logged better field goal shooting (52.2%) than he has at the charity stripe (51.7%). Still, the season is young and this freshman is a rising star for the Longhorns.
  • Udoka Azubuike, center, Kansas (5.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.3 BPG in 13.7 MPG): Azubuike is the latest in Bill Self’s successful recruit-17-year-old-basketball-prodigies program. His measurements — an energetic 6’11” big man with a 7’5″ wingspan — are what get NBA scouts excited, but it is clear that the freshman has some game. Self clearly is buying in, given that Azubuike has started each of Kansas’ last two games. Prepare for more impressive numbers from this precocious big man after we ring in the New Year.

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