Big 12 Weekend Preview: Road Map to the Most Thrilling Finish Possible

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 27th, 2015

For roughly 46 hours between Kansas State’s upset over Kansas on Monday and Iowa State‘s deflating loss to Baylor on Wednesday, the Big 12 race had more intrigue than at any point in the season. But after the Bears took down the Cyclones at Hilton Coliseum thanks to some deadly shooting down the stretch, the standings returned to an all-too-familiar position: the Jayhawks all alone at the top with a logjam behind them. The race isn’t yet over, but Iowa State’s loss definitely removed some of the buzz surrounding the finish. As it stands, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Iowa State — each one game behind Kansas — all need to take care of business and get some unlikely help if any of the three wants to make history. The Sooners still have a game left against the 10-time defending conference champs — their home finale on March 7 — but they will likely have to win their next two games in order for that match-up to mean something. More on that in a minute.

It will take a home loss by Kansas for the Big 12 race to become a race again.

The Big 12 race isn’t over, but it will take a Kansas loss in this building to restore the chaos that has encapsulated the conference all year long.

West Virginia also has a game left against Kansas, but with two of its last three games coming on the road — including next Tuesday’s tilt against the Jayhawks — the Mountaineers are at a big disadvantage. Lastly, not only do the Cyclones not have any remaining games against the Jayhawks, but they’ll also play two of their last three games on the road. Meanwhile, Kansas plays two of its last three games in the cozy confines of Allen Fieldhouse, so the odds of Bill Self’s team winning that 11th straight Big 12 title in outright fashion look favorable.

As great a story as that would be, however, where’s the fun? As a die-hard college hoops fan, I want as much meaningful basketball as possible. Sure, if Kansas puts a bow on it by this time next week, everyone will still be playing for valuable postseason seeding; we’ll still watch; and then the postseason will be here. But throughout its relatively young history, the Big 12 has lacked a climactic final day of action in the truest definition.

I’m talking about one game to decide the conference race and the fate of the Jayhawks’ Big 12 title streak all wrapped up in one tidy package.

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On Court Rushes: In Need of Better Security, Not Regulation

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 24th, 2015

In the minutes following Kansas State‘s upset win last night over Kansas, the focus of the social media conversation wasn’t on the reeling Jayhawks, which have now dropped their last three road games to reopen the Big 12 race. It wasn’t on the Wildcats, who — at least for one night — overcame maddening inconsistency and team chemistry issues to beat a team seven spots ahead of them in the league standings. Instead, it was about the tired topic of court-rushing. However, now that our own Chris Stone has addressed the storylines that are far more interesting (at least in my opinion) from the game itself and its impact on the Big 12 race, we can move on to the matter of what made last night’s postgame celebration tricky and what should be done to help keep everyone — players, coaches, team staffers and fans alike — safe in the fracas.

The answer to the court-storming question is simpler t

The answer to the court-rushing question is simpler than many are making it out to be.

Fundamentally, I love everything that court-rushings represent to a student community. When executed without harm, they embody the close relationship between college athletes and the students who support them. In the constant news cycle of glorifying teams (or picking them apart) and evaluating individual players’ skill sets, it’s easy to forget that they’re also young adults who attend the same classes, eat at the same restaurants, hang out at the same bars and go to the same parties as many of the non-athletes in the student sections. There are tons of things that make college sports different than pro sports, and many of those things are problematic, to say the least, but the physical unification and celebration that takes place in the jubilant moments following a big win is one that is much simpler and easier to get behind.

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Big 12 M5: 02.20.15 Edition

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 20th, 2015

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  1. Kansas coach Bill Self revealed on Thursday that big man Cliff Alexander has been banged up, but that nagging back and chest problems shouldn’t keep him from playing at a high level as the Jayhawks enter the home stretch. While Alexander has started the last few games, Self has felt more comfortable with the more experienced Landen Lucas for most of the game and the redshirt freshman affirmed his coach’s faith with solid production against Baylor and West Virginia. How Self manages his frontcourt rotation is likely to continue to be newsworthy tomorrow when the Jayhawks square off against TCU.
  2. Burnt Orange Nation has a thorough preview of the best match-up of the weekend, which pits Texas against visiting Iowa State. The Cyclones, known for converting most every close shot they get, will face a Texas frontcourt that has improved since struggling in December and January. Despite a disappointing campaign to this point, there isn’t much reason to fret over the Longhorns’ chances of making the NCAA Tournament quite yet, but a loss would spark a heightened level of debate, so a win would definitely keep their heads above water.
  3. Meanwhile, the Cyclones, who had struggled on the road before beating Oklahoma State earlier in the week, will try to keep the good vibes going. With five games remaining to make up one game on conference-leading Kansas, history is still in Iowa State’s sights. They will need some help, but any help they get will be moot if they don’t take care of business themselves. As for Iowa State’s gameplan, the Longhorns have the ninth-best transition defense in the country according to hoop-math.comso if Fred Hoiberg’s team is going to pull off another upset, it will probably have to be on the efficiency of its half-court offense.
  4. Thursday afternoon saw craziness ensue during the NBA trade deadline, and there were a couple interesting developments for former Big 12 standouts. The headline-grabber is a mini-reunion of the memorable 2006-07 Texas Longhorns with D.J. Augustin and Kevin Durant once again joining forces as Augustin was dealt from the Pistons to Durant’s Thunder. On a less pleasant note, former Jayhawk Thomas Robinson, who has struggled to find a permanent home at the next level, is on the move again after he was dealt from the Trail Blazers to the Nuggets. Robinson has already reportedly agreed to a buyout with Denver, though, so it looks like he’ll be on the move again as he searches for a role more befitting of a former #5 overall draft pick.
  5. Lastly, it’s been a very up-and-down month for Oklahoma State, which rode a wave of stellar victories before running into bumps in the road against TCU and Iowa State. Refusing to let the inconsistent play be a source of frustration, the Cowboy blog Pistols Firing brought some levity to the situation with some good old-fashioned satire at the expense of the team’s coaching staff. The post re-imagines coach Travis Ford as a “Breakfast Club”-type principal with assistant coach James Dickey playing the good cop role. It’s definitely worth a read.
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Kansas State’s Season Takes Another Disappointing Turn

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 19th, 2015

To say that it’s been a down year for Kansas State would be a big understatement. The Wildcats, picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 by the conference’s coaches back in last fall’s Media Day, experienced an awful trip through non-league play with losses to the likes of Texas Southern and Long Beach State. Bruce Weber was hoping for a reset in league play, but it hasn’t come; if anything, things in Manhattan have only gotten worse. Last night’s loss at TCU dropped Kansas State to 6-8 in Big 12 play and 13-14 overall, making the Wildcats the only conference team other than Texas Tech to have a sub-.500 record. There were few signs of emotion or energy from the Wildcats in Fort Worth, as they allowed an early 19-0 Horned Frogs’ run and trailed by 20 points at halftime. Kansas State regrouped to make a brief second half run, but never got closer than six points the rest of the way and ultimately lost by 14. This problem isn’t just about wins and losses in a very competitive league, though.

In a disastrous season, Bruce Weber has struggled to get what he's needed out of his team.

In a disastrous season, Bruce Weber has struggled to get what he’s needed out of his team. (Raymond Thompson/AP)

Weber is struggling to keep his team focused and motivated. Star guard Marcus Foster has hit some game-winning shots, but he’s also been benched, suspended, benched again and, most recently, muzzled. After a 1-of-6 shooting performance in a reserve role last night, it doesn’t look like he and his head coach have come particularly close to mending their fences. Those issues have kept Kansas State from maximizing its potential, and there are varying levels of responsibility with both parties. No matter how you slice it, the best solution may be for the two to simply part ways, whether that involves Foster transferring or going pro. It isn’t just Foster who has struggled to find Weber’s good graces, though. Wesley Iwundu played 18 minutes on Wednesday, the least he has logged in any conference game this season. He hoisted 11 shots during those minutes, misfiring on all but two of his attempts. The Wildcats’ lethargy was on full display in Wednesday’s defeat, and Weber’s postgame comments revealed that his frustration with the team’s lack of consistent energy may have reached a tipping point.

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Big 12 M5: 02.18.15 Edition

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 18th, 2015

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  1. The road has not been kind to Iowa State in Big 12 play this season. The Cylcones are just 1-4 away from Hilton Coliseum and are about to embark on a stretch where three of their next four games will be in opponents’ gyms. As Travis Hines writes, should the Cyclones fall behind in tonight’s game against Oklahoma State, the key will be to stay loose and avoid the mindset of needing to make up the entire deficit in one play. Fred Hoiberg’s team should also feel some ease in the fact that their porous defense doesn’t figure to be a large issue against the Cowboys, a team that ranks seventh in the conference in offensive efficiency.
  2. On the other sideline, the Cowboys will look to play with the chip on their shoulder that was missing in Saturday’s loss to TCU. Facing Iowa State, Oklahoma State’s attack will have to be much more potent than the 0.89 points per possession it posted against the Horned Frogs. The hot stretch that propelled the Pokes to three straight wins over ranked teams has the team safely on the right side of the bubble, but another two or three wins in the regular season would do a lot to remove any remaining pressure.
  3. Kansas coach Bill Self‘s handling of Cliff Alexander has been a lightning rod for discussion all season, but the fervor on both sides reached a new point when Alexander played just six minutes (and none in the second half) in Kansas’ loss to West Virginia on Monday night. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal‘s Jesse Newell, the Jayhawks had their worst night on the defensive glass since 2009, and it stands to reason that the blue-chip Alexander, despite his shortcomings, could have helped significantly in that department. In a one-point game, it’s tough to isolate the outcome to any one decision, but regardless of what you think of Alexander’s pro prospects, it’s tough to see Kansas making a deep postseason run without him playing a significant role, and in order to do that, he needs reps.
  4. After spending a week and a half beating up on the lower third of the conference, Texas took a tough loss to Oklahoma in Norman Tuesday night. Myles Turner continued his stellar play, posting 16 points and 10 rebounds off the bench to go along with six blocks, but rough shooting nights from Isaiah Taylor (1-of-10) and Jonathan Holmes (2-of-9) made it challenging for the Longhorns to pull off the upset (though it was within reach). I still maintain that Texas’ NCAA Tournament hopes aren’t in any serious jeopardy, but their inability to beat good teams away from Austin (their only conference road wins have come against Texas Tech, TCU and Kansas State) doesn’t bode well for their postseason future.
  5. In the only other Big 12 action last night, Baylor edged Texas Tech by five in Lubbock to get back above .500 in league play. On a night when the Bears’ offense looked otherwise listless, Taurean Prince provided a spark with 18 first half points on his way to 22 overall. Kenny Chery recovered from a horrendous shooting night, closing out the game with four clutch free throws to seal the win.
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Big 12 M5: 02.16.15 Edition

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 16th, 2015

morning5_big12

  1. In the marquee game of Saturday’s Big 12 schedule, Kansas brushed Baylor aside to keep Scott Drew winless in Allen Fieldhouse and, more importantly, keep Iowa State and Oklahoma at bay in the standings. The Bears hit a ton of jump shots and threes in the early going, but they fell back down to Earth over the final thirty minutes. The Jayhawk defense played a big part in Baylor’s offensive regression in the second half, as the Bears shot just 5-16 on two-pointers and turned the ball over on roughly 24 percent of their possessions after intermission. Baylor is still a very good team, though, and I look for them to remain in contention for a five seed all the way up to Selection Sunday, which is now less than a month away.
  2. The takeaway for the Jayhawks, according to Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger, is that in spite of some of the things that make this Kansas team different from previous ones — the lack of a dominant interior presence on either end of the floor, the absence of a clear-cut first team all-conference selection, a defense that has been effective but not suffocating like in years past — the Jayhawks are getting better with each passing game. About a month ago, their national perception wasn’t looking too hot; Now, enough time has passed and enough things have changed since the big Kentucky and Temple losses that the Jayhawks should no longer get overlooked in the national picture. Same as it ever was, right?
  3. While most of the country was watching the NBA All-Star Saturday festivities, Kansas State benefited from a curious rule on their way to a 59-56 win over #17 Oklahoma. Midway through the second half, Wildcat Justin Edwards hit a three-pointer, but television replays clearly showed that the ball didn’t leave his hand until after the shot clock expired. However, the shot counted because the officials couldn’t go to the monitors. Per the NCAA rule book, shot clock violations can only be reviewed inside the final two minutes of a game or during overtime, unless the issue is rooted in whether the shot clock started or reset on time (which was not the case here). While excessive monitor reviews have been a big issue in college basketball, it would probably be worthwhile to make plays like this reviewable since they can have a much bigger impact than many calls that are already reviewable. As it was, the inability of the officials to take Edwards’ three-pointer away was a monumental break for a Kansas State team that needs as many of them as it can get, and the shot set up Marcus Foster‘s heroics at the end of the game. On the other side of the coin, the loss makes the Sooners a long-shot to even share the Big 12 title with Kansas.
  4. The other major upset in the conference saw TCU beat what had been the league’s hottest team in Oklahoma State. While the Horned Frogs are much better than they were in their first two years of Big 12 membership, the Cowboys were still favored in this one. Trent Johnson’s team had a huge second half on Saturday, scoring 44 points without the benefit of a made three-pointer. All season, Oklahoma State’s success has depended on how much help they get from their bench, and they got just five points from their reserves in Fort Worth, but on the other hand, that wasn’t their only issue on Saturday. Le’Bryan Nash scored 17 points, but he also turned the ball over seven times, and the Horned Frogs locked Phil Forte into a rough 3-10 performance from the field. After TCU took many of its conference opponents to the brink before falling short, it was nice to see them get their first Big 12 victory since “Harlem Shake” topped the Billboard Hot 100.
  5. It’s been a frustrating year for those who expected Texas freshman Myles Turner to flourish from the get-go, but the big man played perhaps his best game of the season in a 56-41 win over Texas Tech in Austin. Turner scored a game-high 25 points (no other Longhorn scored more than six) on just 13 shots, pulled down 12 rebounds and swatted three shots. After losing four in a row, Texas has rattled off three straight wins against the dregs of the league, but now comes a stretch where they’ll play three of their next four on the road including meetings in Norman, Morgantown and Lawrence. Buckle up.
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Big 12 Weekend Preview

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 13th, 2015

As we move into mid-February, the dust in the Big 12 race may finally be starting to settle. Kansas at the head of the pack isn’t anything new, but recent games have brought us a little more clarity behind them after several weeks of volatility. Oklahoma has built a sliver of separation on Iowa State and Baylor while West Virginia‘s backloaded schedule looks like it’s starting to catch up to them. Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Oklahoma State, which has done more in the last week to change its NCAA Tournament status than perhaps any other team in the country. Weekend #7 of conference play should continue to provide resolution, but you never know when things will get chaotic again.

Wayne Selden (left) and Brannen Greene (center) have made a living torching Big 12 opponents from deep. (Jamie Squire/Getty)

Is a reliable back-to-the-basket threat really that important when Wayne Selden (left) and Brannen Greene (center) are torching all comers from deep? (Jamie Squire/Getty)

  • Baylor at Kansas (1:00 ET) – Bill Self wants his team to shoot fewer threes, but the data suggests that it shouldn’t as Kansas ranks seventh in the country in three-point percentage (40.9%). In addition, the Jayhawks make post scoring look like pulling teeth at times, so a game against Baylor’s zone should dictate more long-range bombing. Also of note here is the development that Cliff Alexander will start consecutive games for the first time all season, so keep an eye on how he responds to the challenge of keeping the glass-eating Rico Gathers off the boards.
  • West Virginia at Iowa State (4:00 ET) – Losers of two of their last three, the Mountaineers are about to enter a scheduling gauntlet that starts tomorrow at less than full strength — sophomore Brandon Watkins availability is in question after he sprained his MCL against Kansas State. Iowa State is in a little bit of a rut themselves lately, having also lost two of their last three games. As welcome an addition as Jameel McKay has been for the Cyclones, their recent efforts on defense have been horrific, so perhaps a home game against the league’s seventh-ranked will cure what ails them.

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Thanks to Recent Hot Stretch, Oklahoma State Appears Tourney-Bound

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 10th, 2015

Coming into the season, the recipe for Travis Ford to get Oklahoma State back to the NCAA Tournament was tough, but doable: Coax solid performances from the core of Le’Bryan NashPhil Forte and Michael Cobbins; ask transfer Anthony Hickey to pick up some of the slack from Marcus Smart’s departure and hope for good years from his capable but unproven role players. While Smart, Markel Brown and two other players left last year’s disappointing team, the remaining core has allowed for a somewhat smooth transition. Still, the Cowboys’ prospects in a loaded Big 12 this season were considered modest at best. Conference coaches certainly didn’t make much of their chances, voting them eighth in the preseason poll. Now, a few months later and with only six games remaining in the regular season, Oklahoma State is nearing lock status for an unlikely NCAA Tournament bid bid thanks to a recent stretch of high-quality basketball.

There's plenty of reason to smile in Stillwater (Mark D. Smith/USA Today Sports)

There’s plenty of reason to smile in Stillwater (Mark D. Smith/USA Today Sports)

Since suffering its worst loss of the season at Kansas State on January 24, Ford’s team has reeled off three straight wins against ranked teams and four of five overall, highlighted by last weekend’s comeback triumph over first-place Kansas and punctuated by a Monday night sweep of a very good Baylor team. The win over the Bears was especially noteworthy as it marked the Cowboys’ first sweep of Baylor since 2006, back when Baylor was barred from playing non-league games in the fallout from the Dave Bliss-Patrick Dennehy scandal. The Cowboys’ recently excellent play couldn’t have come at a better time. They had a successful if not overly impressive non-conference season with neutral court wins against Oregon State and Tulsa accompanied by a nice road win at Memphis, but they lost their two toughest tests before the new year — dropping a game at South Carolina and another to a resurgent Maryland team. The team appeared to have the potential to outperform the meager preseason expectations, but it was unclear whether they would pick up enough wins to make the necessary push for the Dance. Now that they’ve played seven games against the conference’s best teams, though, most of the grunt work is behind them.

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Big 12 M5: 02.06.15 Edition

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 6th, 2015

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  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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Big 12 M5: 02.03.15 Edition

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 3rd, 2015

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  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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Kansas’ Frontcourt Management Remains a Concern

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 30th, 2015

Last weekend’s win at Texas gave Kansas some daylight in the Big 12 standings, and, as I discussed on Monday, that little bit of separation may be all it needs to bring home an 11th straight Big 12 title. While the Jayhawks still have three games remaining against what are currently their two closest challengers (West Virginia and Iowa State), they are the clear favorite now that they have built a one-game lead. Expectations in Lawrence, however, don’t end with winning the conference; a deep run in the NCAA Tournament is part of the deal, too. Despite Kansas’ talented rotation and clear improvement over the last few weeks, there’s reason to be concerned with how Bill Self has handled his frontcourt and its ultimate impact on the Jayhawks’ long-term ceiling.

Bill Self (USA Today Images)

Bill Self’s Frontcourt Rotations Have Been Curious (USA Today Images)

That questionable management reared its ugly head in Wednesday’s 64-61 victory over TCU. The game started favorably for Kansas. Sensing a mismatch in the post, Kansas called Perry Ellis‘ number and the junior delivered on the team’s first two possessions, scoring the Jayhawks’ first five points. When Ellis quickly picked up two personal fouls within the game’s first two minutes, though, Self pulled his second-leading scorer and leading rebounder for the rest of the half. The move was confounding not only because Ellis entered the game averaging 16.3 points per contest over his last three outings, but also because he’s been by far the least foul-prone of Kansas’ four regular big men this season, according to KenPom’s data.

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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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