The Final Weekend
March 7, 2014 Stephen Howard, Big 12 Network - @Stephen_Speaks
The final week of the Big 12 conference season is upon us and from start to finish, Big 12 conference play was as billed. The No. 1 rated conference by RPI and Sagarin stayed that way in its entirety leading most to bill the Big 12 as the best in the land.
Let's take a look at some of the story lines of the last week of Big 12 play .....
Oklahoma State: This is one of the more amazing turnarounds that I have ever witnessed in college basketball. Basically left for dead (figuratively speaking) after an astounding seven-game losing streak and three-game suspension of their star Marcus Smart, the Cowboys amazingly turned it around with a now refocused Smart and an improbable four-game winning streak. With one of those wins coming against the top team in the Big 12 (Kansas), it's no surprise that OSU has now gone from a team that was struggling to get on the bubble to one that is now basically a "lock" to get in. A win at Iowa State and a strong showing in the Big 12 Championship in Kansas City would move them into that 6-7 seeding line for the Big Dance.
Kansas: The fact that the Jayhawks have won or shared in 10 straight Big 12 regular season championships is amazing in this age of college basketball. I compare them to the San Antonio Spurs in that every year the prognosticators say that the reign is over, and every year there they are...standing tall, still dominating. Bill Self doesn't get enough credit for the job that he has done at the helm of KU. It will be interesting to see what a rested Joel Embiid will be able to do. His health and production will be key to a Final Four run if that is in the cards.
Oklahoma: The Sooners have put themselves in the driver's seat holding on to the precious No. 2 seed for the Big12 Championship. The reason that this is a coveted spot is because they would avoid Kansas all the way to the championship game if both teams made it that far. As a current No. 5 seed in NCAA Tournament predictions, Oklahoma can play its way all the way to a No. 3 seed if they advance to the Big 12 Championship game. As long as they don't lose to TCU on Saturday, the No. 5 seed seems to be a pretty solid ceiling as to how low they will be seeded.
Texas: Rick Barnes, I believe is the front runner for Big 12 Coach of the Year honors. The way he retooled his Longhorns over the summer into a contender is commendable. With freshman point guard Isaiah Taylor leading the way, Texas will be a dark horse going into Big 12 Championship play and NCAA tournament play. They have a tough game in Lubbock this Saturday and I think it's fitting that the two teams that nobody wanted to play in the second half of Big 12 play close the season out playing each other.
Iowa State: March is all about guard play and Iowa State has a freshman point guard in Monte Morris who doesn't turn it over and an MVP candidate guard in DeAndre Kane who is a flat out winner. This game should have the most fireworks of the weekend when you mix the Hilton Magic with the confidence of the resurgent Oklahoma State Cowboys. The Cyclones are tough at home and Melvin Ejim, whom I would be shocked if he is not named Big 12 player of the year, will I'm sure have a field day with the lack of interior presence of the Cowboys.
Baylor: Another team that has caught fire in the latter part of Big 12 conference play is the Bears. This weekend will hold significance for them because BU wants to keep hold of the No. 6 seed for Big 12 Championship play which allows them a bye in the first round. If Baylor loses and Oklahoma State wins, then they would go from resting and watching to game planning and playing in the first round. Kansas State, with one of the better home courts in the Big 12, will make this a nail-biter to the end.
Kansas State: With an opportunity to move up to the third slot in the Big 12 Championship, the 'Cats of Kansas State are glad to have their perfect conference record at home backing them up this weekend versus the Baylor Bears. With the loss of almost 70 percent of the offense from last year, Coach Bruce Weber has again done a masterful job of coaching a team that blends the young and the old.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers are a team that is desperate and fighting to get an invite to the party. A squad that will no doubt be in consideration next year to dethrone the Jawhawks, WVU has the opportunity this weekend to make that statement early with Kansas visiting Morgantown. West Virginia will pretty much need to run the table and advance deep into the Big 12 Championship if it hopes to get an invite to the "Big Dance". The lack of an invite won't diminish the great turnaround this year, brought about by Coach Bob Huggins and his players.
Texas Tech: If you look at the state of Texas Tech before the season started going through four coaches in four years, I think it can honestly be argued that Tubby Smith has done his best job of coaching in his entire Hall of Fame career. Not only did he have to create a culture of winning where there was not any culture at all, he had to repair the fractured psyche of his players. This is one of those jobs where you come into it knowing that it will take at least three years until you see results - Smith had results in his first year, which is amazing. This team plays exceptionally well at home, and now it seems that they have a home court fan following as well. The Red Raiders can play spoiler versus Texas this weekend as well as in the Big 12 Championship. They are a team that I think is deserving of an NIT bid, but regardless of what happens, this season was a success for Red Raider Nation.
TCU: "The hungry dog gets the bone" There is no other way how I can describe how the Horned Frogs have to go about their game this Saturday against Oklahoma in their house. If you don't want to go down the road of being winless in Big 12 conference and have that 0-18 mark in the record books forever, than that is how you must operate for 40 minutes. Nobody will remember the multiple injuries to players that for sure would have accounted for at least three wins in Big 12 play or the close games lost by a couple of possessions. I've said this many times this year, and I'll say it again...teams better not get used to TCU being at the bottom of the Big 12 because Trent Johnson has already amassed some talent in Fort Worth. The fact that the Horned Frogs never gave up this year is testament to the character of all of the players involved in that program.
I've gotten myself so hyped up writing this blog that I can't wait until the buzzer sounds on Saturday. I'm sure it will be an action-packed day befitting of the best college basketball conference in the land.
Applause and Admiration
March 4, 2014 Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network, @mitchholthus
Discussion of college basketball the past four months has been dominated by a unique and talented group of freshman players. However, as the calendar turns to March, there needs to be some time devoted to honor the "SIOS" seniors of the Big 12 - the "Stuck It Out Seniors". This group of seniors has made great impact at their schools, having been at their institutions for four years of eligibility without transferring OUT of their programs when it would have been easier to leave their schools than to stay.
I have always had great respect for seniors who "stick it out" in any endeavor, but this group of student-athletes deserve some special attention.
Melvin Ejim, Iowa State
Ejim has been magnificent to watch the past two months. He has almost single-handedly salvaged Iowa State's run to the postseason. His 48-point, 18-rebound game versus TCU was the stuff of legend. Fred Hoiberg has received deserved accolades for handling transfer players to Iowa State. Yet, it is Ejim that has played four years for Hoiberg and came to Ames in Fred's first year as Cyclone head coach.
Markel Brown, Oklahoma State
Brown's outstanding career has been overshadowed by the talented Marcus Smart. However, Brown has been a four year contributor for Travis Ford and was a steadying influence for the Cowboys during Smart's three-game suspension. In addition, Brown had a remarkable game winning 3-point shot at West Virginia in January. Plus, Brown was big with a 27-point outburst versus Texas and contributed 21 points last Saturday in Oklahoma State's huge win over Kansas.
Will Spradling & Shane Southwell, Kansas State
These two Wildcat seniors could have transferred from the program when a coaching change occurred after their sophomore seasons. Spradling has survived a severe chest injury that could have ended his career and has thrived in the past three weeks. His 3-pointer in overtime to help beat Kansas was the biggest shot of K-State's season so far. Southwell has also had to deal with injuries, but rebounded for 13 points Saturday in an impact win over Iowa State.
Cory Jefferson, Baylor
Jefferson is one of the most underrated players in the Big 12 Conference. He too, has stuck it out for four years and has had some "monster" games his senior year. His three-game stretch of double-doubles against K-State, Baylor and at West Virginia might be the best stretch of games by ANY player in the league. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds versus K-State, 25 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots vs. Oklahoma State and 15 points and 12 rebounds in a win at West Virginia. All three games were important wins for the Bears postseason hopes.
Cameron Clark & Tyler Neal, Oklahoma
Again, a duo that had to survive a coaching change and could have left the OU program. Instead, both Sooners have had their best years as seniors. Clark had 50 points in two games against Kansas and was a big contributor in a win over K-State. Neal's two best games of the year came in the two Bedlam rivalry wins over Oklahoma State. Neal had 28 points in the two games and hit five 3-point field goals in the Bedlam sweep of the Cowboys.
Jaye Crockett, Texas Tech
Crockett survived FOUR coaches in FOUR years and also could have "bailed out" on Tech. Instead, he has been the leader of a Red Raider resurgence under Tubby Smith. Crockett's best year has been his senior year and his 21-point, 12-rebound performance in a win over Oklahoma State was one of the best in recent Red Raider history.
Jarvis Ray, TCU
Ray not only endured a coaching change at TCU, he had to withstand a conference change during his college career. Ray's best year has been his senior campaign. He has scored in double figures in three straight contests for the Frogs as he enters his final regular season week of his career.
I wish I could attend all of these players Senior Day games. They deserve the respect of all Big 12 fans for "sticking it out".
February 28, 2014 Brad Sham, Big 12 Network
As the Big 12 season comes careening to a thrill-a-minute conclusion, so do the Covering the Baseline blogs. The blogs, thoughts from those of us lucky enough to broadcast Big 12 games, run up to the sold-out conference tournament in two weeks in Kansas City. But this is my final one for the season, and I'm saying goodbye for now by looking ahead.
I've shared the opinion that sometimes we all get so caught up in chasing The Prize, whatever it is, that we forget to enjoy where we are on the journey. This year, that would really have been a shame, with the season Big 12 teams have been giving us.
But let's face it; we all know where the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is. In college basketball, that's the Final Four. I've been lucky enough to be at somewhere around a couple dozen, both working and as a spectator, and it's a grand pageant. And this year, the Final Four will truly be the culmination of the Big 12 season.
Wherever the venue, there's a host. Usually it's a conference or a school. The site of this year's Final Four is AT&T Stadium in Arlington, and the host is the Big 12. And frankly, there's no better, more fitting way for the 2013-14 season to bow out.
It's true that the NCAA owns the Final Four, and it is an international event, after all. But it's also true that the host institution or conference not only put their own stamp on it, they help make sure it runs the way it needs to in the given venue. That's how I know this one is going to be a success.
I was also fortunate enough to work national radio for the South Regional at AT&T Stadium a year ago, also managed by the Big 12. I've been going to Final Fours since they started playing them in football stadiums. They used to be a tucked into a corner of a giant building with most of the arena curtained off. Starting just a few years ago, they started configuring the games with the arena elevated in the middle of the floor, to allow greater access. And I am happy to personally attest that nowhere has this been done better than last year in Arlington by AT&T Stadium and the Big 12. I promise, when I first walked in for Friday interviews and practices last year, I saw the way the stadium had been configured and immediately thought, "Oh wow. This will look GREAT for the Final Four." Working the games in Arlington, I can also tell you, it felt more like a conventional basketball arena than any similar venue I'd seen.
But the best thing about the Big 12 hosting the Final Four is that it will cap off the season the league is having. I say is having, because nothing that's happened so far leads one away from the expectation that the last week of regular season play and the tournament in Kansas City will be anything short of exciting and dramatic. It would be stunning if nothing stunning happened.
I know we talk about it all the time, but this is the only league in America where every coach has guided a team into the NCAA Tournament, and it has showed. It has showed from Kansas' growth into its 10th straight league title, to the unexpected strengths of Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma, to the competitiveness of Texas Tech, TCU and West Virginia. Even to the way Oklahoma State and Baylor have overcome adversity and gotten off the mat.
The latest Bracketology suggests seven of the 10 league teams will be in the NCAA field. Personally, I think Kansas will be one of the four teams playing in Arlington the first week of April. And in any case, when the nation turns its eyes to the Final Four, it will be in the heart of Big 12 country. And that will lead to a lot more national conversation about what has arguably been the best conference in America this year.
Variety Of Style
February 25, 2014 Rich Zvosec, Big 12 Network - @CoachZZ
Every coach in the Big 12 has their own style. Some yell more than others. Others internalize their emotions, but believe me they are boiling inside. Just because Fred Hoiberg seems as calm as a cucumber, trust me that he is as competitive as the next guy. You don't have the success he has had without being hyper competitive.
Style can also apply to fashion on the bench. Most coaches will wear a suit, but others like Bob Huggins will don a sweatsuit for games. That is not the type of style I am talking about in this blog. I am talking about a style of play. We, as fans, are lucky to have so many styles in the same league. The following is a breakdown of styles in the Big 12.
Coach Scott Drew is noted for his amoeba type zone defense. A 1-1-3 that morphs into the shape of the offense. The Bears length on the back line gives teams trouble in the paint and forces them to shoot jump shots.
Oklahoma & Iowa State
Coach Lon Kruger and Fred Hoiberg are very similar in a lot of ways. They both were all-conference performers in their playing days. They carry themselves the same way in practice and on the bench. Very seldom if ever do you see them raising their voices. Sure they get their points across, but it is without a lot demonstrative actions. They both can be classified as "isolationists." They look for the mismatch on defense and attack it by isolating their players, thus giving their player the opportunity to exploit the mismatch. Whether it is big on small or quick on slow they are always probing for the advantage.
Coach Bill Self has run a high low offense dating back to his days as the head coach at Oral Roberts. He may show you one thing at the beginning of the offensive possession, but it usually is predicated on the high low set. He is constantly teaching his post players to be good passers out of the high post (foul line area) and good duck in guys when they are in the low post. He has refined it over the years, but hey, if it works why change it?
Coach Bruce Weber is most noted for his motion offense. His offense is predicated on the constant movement of his players. Watching Rodney McGruder operate within the offensive structure last year was a work of art. He would curl screens and fade when the defense overplayed. Marcus Foster is well on his way to becoming the reincarnation of McGruder and Coach Weber is molding him like a master sculptor.
Coach Bob Huggins is at his best as a coach when he has tough, hard-nosed players who will buy into his style of aggressive, in-your-face type defense. Offensively, it has always been a "shoot and go get it" mentality. Great rebounding teams have been his style throughout his career.
The teams of coach Rick Barnes have been noted for solid defense in the half court. They play what I would call containment defense that forces contested jump shots. There is a reason this Longhorn team leads the conference in field goal percentage defense. It is simply they do not give up easy shots. Back in transition and prevention of dribble penetration are the building blocks of this foundation.
The style of a Tubby Smith coached teams is fast-paced. They will press you when they have the personnel (depth), but more importantly they are always attacking on the offensive end. One of the things to watch for with his teams is the speed in which they convert from defense to offense. In an age when everyone talks about defensive conversion, he preaches and teaches offensive conversion. This attacking style has made them one of the most dangerous teams in the Big 12.
So when you are watching your next Big 12 team I hope you will watch it from a new perspective. Take a look and see if you can pick out the style of your favorite team and discuss it with your friends. They may even give you a whole new level of respect when it comes to your basketball knowledge and ability.
February 21, 2014 Stephen Howard, Big 12 Network - @Stephen_Speaks
Being successful in college basketball is all about taking advantage and exploiting matchups. I'm going to highlight some players in the Big 12 who are what we call "matchup nightmares". These guys are players who opposing players and coaches look at when they see their respective teams on the schedule and think to themselves ..."How in the world are we going to defend them?" or "How in the world are we going to score on them?".
Here is my list of matchup "nightmares" in no particular order of importance or dominance:
DeAndre Kane, Iowa State - The first thing that strikes you about Kane is the fact that he is a big guard. At 6'4", 200 lbs., he is what you would call a "power guard". Because of this and his versatility, he has the ability to do many things for Iowa State. The one thing that makes him a matchup "nightmare" is not only his ability to post up but his effectiveness in doing so. When you have a guard that excels in the post-up games, it makes your offense so diverse because guards aren't normally as good post defenders. Head coach Fred Hoiberg knows this and uses it to his advantage with Kane. When you break down Kane's post possessions with the help of Synergy Sports Technology, he scores an impressive 1.05 points per play while shooting 41.4 percent. What really impresses me is that he shoots free throws on 36 percent of all post up plays and has a turnover rate of ZERO on those plays. A good post-up player will go to the free throw line on 20 percent of his plays, which makes Kane's 36 percent rate all the more impressive. Achieving that while not turning the ball over just makes it that much more special.
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas - At 6'8" with a wingspan of 6'11" - he would most likely play the power forward for most teams in the Big 12. Because Kansas has a true center in Joel Embiid and a true power forward in Perry Ellis, Wiggins is allowed to play his natural position and the position he will be playing in the NBA, small forward. The biggest challenge that NBA scouts look at when evaluating a player is what position a player can defend, but Wiggins can arguably defend four different positions. Offensively, his athleticism allows him to create space to get off his shot and if that doesn't work, he can just jump over you. In transition, where Wiggins is able to display his abundance of athleticism, he shoots an amazing 65 percent from the field on those plays.
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State - As a 6'4" 220-lb. combo guard, Marcus Smart can do things that no other point guard can do. He is bigger than most guards and plays like he is fully aware of that fact, which I love. He is an explosive scorer offensively and has shown the ability to get hot at the right time for his team. What really sets Smart apart from other players is his ability to defend and what stands out the most to me...his mentality. Marcus Smart has the ability to almost will his teams to win because of his competitive nature. Yes, I realize that same competitive nature got out of hand versus Texas Tech which caused him to be suspended, but this is also the same competitive nature that made OSU a Final Four contender before all of the injuries.
Coaching With A Week Fresh Legs & Fresh Minds
February 18, 2014 Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network, @mitchholthus
There has been a great deal of discussion about the quality of coaching in men's basketball in the Big 12 Conference. Six of the 10 coaches have led teams to the Final Four-a fact that separates the Big 12 from every other conference in America. All 10 men's basketball coaches in the Big 12 have impressive resumes.
This year a testimony to that quality of coaching is how the different coaches have handled the coveted "week off"-- the break in the conference schedule when a team has a rare six days off between Big 12 contests. There have been different approaches to that "week" by different coaches, but the results cannot be ignored.
IOWA STATE: Fred Hoiberg had six days to prepare for a home game with K-State on January 25. Moreover, the Cyclones were desperate - they had lost three straight Big 12 games before the matchup with the Wildcats. Simply put, Iowa State then played one of its best games of the year as Georges Niang re-discovered his shooting touch and Melvin Ejim recaptured his hunger to rebound and score. The Cyclones won, 81-75.
TEXAS: Rick Barnes prepared his team for six days to upset Kansas on February 1. Rick told me he didn't change much about the week, but that the extra days of work did help him with the upset of the Jayhawks. The Longhorns blocked 12 Kansas shots and bested KU in a stunning 81-69 victory in Austin. Texas captured its best win in two years.
KANSAS STATE: Texas found out what it was like to face a team that had six days to prepare for THEM when K-State had its best game of the year February 8, routing the Longhorns, 74-57. The Wildcats defense suffocated UT with fresh legs and a fresh approach. Bruce Weber told me the opposite of Rick Barnes in that he used the week to rest his team and it showed. Marcus Foster had a career-high 34 points in the contest.
OKLAHOMA STATE: The Cowboys have endured a lot in recent weeks but they used their six day period on January 25 to outlast a feisty West Virginia team, 81-75, in Stillwater. Le'Bryan Nash used the week to get rested and had one of the better games of his career with 29 points.
Now you, as an astute Big 12 basketball fan, can join me in tracking the results of the teams who have the "week" to prepare. Oklahoma and West Virginia have those six days to get ready for big games with K-State and Baylor, respectfully on February 22. Texas Tech has a week to get ready for a game at Baylor March 1. Kansas and Baylor actually had their "week off" the first weekend of January before they started Big 12 play and used it for non-conference games. TCU is the only team so far to lose a game following the "six days to prepare", falling in a close encounter at Texas Tech on February 1.
Living In The Moment
February 14, 2014 Brad Sham, Big 12 Network
We're faced with a small dilemma, those of us who love this time of year in college basketball and who also believe in a big-picture view of the world.
Many of us believe the NCAA tournament is the best sporting event in America. Personally, I'm one fan who feels that way because it never, ever disappoints. And it comes to us every year (That's for those of our number transfixed by luging and salkowing for the Red, White and Blue). I'm not talking about just the Final Four, which is great. I'm talking about the whole 68-team event.
Over the course of three weeks in March (and sometimes a teeny bit of April), you're going to have drama. You're going to have pathos. You'll have tears and elation and every aspect of the human condition. We'll celebrate the big programs who always seem to know how to be in the mix at the biggest times (I'm looking at you, Kansas), but we'll also have the success stories that beckon the spotlight to the North Dakota States and the Long Island Universities and we'll see that everyone can have a moment in the sun. It's the most egalitarian sporting event we've got, and it never lets us down. Ever. Oh, sure, there are some games that are a little hard to watch. But the tournament taken as a whole is the culmination of a year of sacrifice and hard work and it always pays off.
So what's the dilemma?
Maybe we'll call it a challenge instead, but here it is: as we get closer and closer to conference tournaments and Selection Sunday, our eyes are so fixed on that end game prize, we forget sometimes to appreciate the journey. And we shortchange ourselves when we do.
The Big 12 offered two excellent examples just this past Monday night.
Fans at West Virginia know what great basketball looks like. Heck, they were in the Final Four just four years ago, and that IS a statue of Jerry West outside their building.
Last year, their first in the Big 12, was a tough one on the Mountaineers. And their fans. And their coaches. But this year is different, and you could tell it from the reception they got Monday night when they handled nationally-ranked Iowa State. It was as though those fans knew THEY had a part to play in getting their team back to the NCAA Tournament, but they were also showing their appreciation to a hard working young team that has (to these eyes, anyway) proven itself thoroughly deserving of having its name called when invitations are handed out.
And there appeared to be an even better example a couple hours later at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Kansas.
I hope I don't offend any Wildcat fans when I predict that they won't win the national championship this year. Oh, they might. Who knows what MIGHT happen? But for one night in February, winning the national championship wasn't the point.
Like the Mountaineers, Kansas State is in a reloading season (you don't rebuild in college basketball any more - there isn't time). The Wildcats recent success had fans at a fever pitch for the visit of cross-state rival Kansas, and that is one of the best rivalries in the country.
All you had to do was watch the end of the thrilling game. Watch the way KU gamely, like a champion, fought back, never panicked. Watch the way the Wildcats took the 'Hawks best shot and kept coming. And then watch and listen to the outpouring of emotion from the fans, who were well behaved in their exuberance, and the players.
We love our championships in America, and we should. But if you were watching what went on in the Big 12 home gyms on Big Monday this week, you saw folks appreciating the moment too. We could do with a little more of that.
Already Strong ... And Continuing To Improve
February 11, 2014 Bryndon Manzer, Big 12 Network
Right or wrong, a basketball conference earns the majority of its perception nationally by what it does in the months of November and December. In most years, the Big 12 has benefited from what is has done in its out-of-conference work.
This season, without a doubt the conference is deserving of being considered the country's No. 1 league. The only other conference that can be in the conversation with the Big 12 of who's best is the Big Ten. Currently, The Big 12 is the No. 1 conference in the latest overall RPI, strength of schedule, nonconference RPI, non-conference strength of schedule and the Sagarin Ratings.
As of Tuesday, six teams were in the top 36 and eight in the top 66 - tied for the most of any conference. Amazingly, that means 80 percent of the league is still on the NCAA tournament at-large radar in the middle of February! ......... .Ponder that for a moment.
So despite being roughly two-thirds through the conference slate and the depth of this league beating up on one another, the Big 12 has sustained its overall strength. In fact, you could argue it has gotten better since January as most of the teams have continued to improve.
Understandably, the casual viewer may only see improvement in wins. However, if you've watched closely, several well coached teams have gotten better. When you're part of the best league in America that plays a true round-robin schedule, wins will not come in bunches. Let's take a look at some examples of gradual improvement.
Texas - The Longhorns struggled to beat Mercer, South Alabama and Stephen F. Austin at home to begin the season. A win at North Carolina on December 1 was encouraging, but Texas dropped their first two conference games including one at home to Oklahoma. Then the 'Horns proceeded to reel off seven straight wins by playing unselfishly together, using excellent defense and board dominance to hang their hat on.
Kansas State - The Wildcats opened up with a loss to Northern Colorado at home and later in November played some very poor basketball at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. They did not look like a team that would eventually become one of the Big 12's best defensively. In addition, although not considered explosive offensively, they have become extremely efficient in controlling tempo and executing in the half-court set. (See Saturday's win over Texas and Monday's win over Kansas.)
Oklahoma -The Sooners lost to Louisiana Tech in Norman on December 3, 102-98 in overtime, creating doubt of how good this team would be in the Big 12. Five days later they went to Austin and beat the Longhorns in the league opener. Improved decision-making by a great group of guards who can make shots along with Ryan Spangler's glass dominance has made them a legitimate top 25 team.
Kansas - Yes, the Jayhawks have undeniable talent. However, they played a daunting nonconference schedule and are very, very inexperienced. Through the course of the season, every one of Bill Self's players has gotten better - translating to once again being the best team in the Big 12.
West Virginia - This year is not the typical Bob Huggins team in terms of great defense and rebounding. The Mountaineers started league play 2-0 but then lost four of five. Many teams would have continued to struggle after a stretch like that, however, led by better effort on defense, the leadership of Juwan Staten and two wing players that can score (Harris & Henderson), West Virginia is in reach of the NCAA Tournament after impressively winning four of its last five contests.
Texas Tech - Does any team really want to go to Lubbock and play this team? Tubby Smith doesn't have enough horses yet to go to an NCAA Tournament, but you cannot deny the Red Raiders' progression as a basketball team. Saturday's victory over Oklahoma State and the first sold out crowd in years is evidence enough.
A Remarkable First Half
February 7, 2014 Mark Neely, Big 12 Network
This week marks the beginning of the second half of the Big 12 conference season. Let's take a look back at what has been an extremely competitive first half, as well as look ahead to what promises to be a very entertaining conclusion.
The Nation's Top Conference (Big 12) It's been between the Big 12 and the Big Ten basically all season and right now the numbers favor the Big 12. The Big 12 is tops in the nation in overall RPI, strength of schedule, non-conference RPI and non-conference strength of schedule. You can make numbers say a lot of things but leading all the aforementioned categories makes it hard to argue against the Big 12.
Surprise Teams (Oklahoma, Texas, & West Virginia) Coaches usually don't like it when broadcasters use the word surprising to describe their team. But who really expected at the midway point that Texas would be sitting in second place with Oklahoma and West Virginia tied for third, respectively. The Longhorns dropped their first two conference games to OU and Oklahoma State, but have now won seven in a row. The preseason coaches poll had the Sooners picked tied for fifth with Kansas State, West Virginia selected seventh and the Longhorns were chosen to finish eighth. I kept OU on this list despite recent back-to-back road losses and had to include the Mountaineers after three straight wins - including one in overtime over the Sooners on Wednesday, breaking West Virginia's 16-game losing streak against ranked opponents. Its Lon Kruger's third season in Norman and OU's offense has become one of the better ones in the conference. The Sooners do a great job of finding mismatches on the floor and exploiting them, reflecting Kruger's time in the NBA. Iowa State is very similar to Oklahoma offensively, which is no coincidence with head coach Fred Hoiberg's time in the NBA as a player and in basketball operations with Minnesota. Rick Barnes did a gutsy thing after last year, basically saying he didn't like his team's makeup or competitiveness. A sizable roster adjustment in the off-season has helped Texas feature a style of play more to Barnes' liking. The Longhorns gave Kansas their first conference loss in a game that, while watching, you never got the feeling that Texas was in any danger of losing. Yes, it took place in Austin but winning in that fashion was a statement that this is a totally different season for UT. For West Virginia, point guard Juwan Staten has become the player Mountaineer fans were hoping for last season after transferring from Dayton. Give Eron Harris any kind of room from long range and he can burn you as OU found out. The tough part for West Virginia still lies ahead, though, with arguably the most difficult remaining schedule in the league including KU twice.
Game of the Season (ISU 98 OSU 97 in 3OT) - For now, it's the game of the first half of the season but it could very well end up as the year's overall most compelling game. The ESPN Big Monday matchup in Stillwater was a seismic shift for several reasons. It was ISU's first win in Stillwater since 1988, ending an 18-game losing streak there for the Cyclones. More telling for this season, though, is the loss for the Cowboys was their third in a row and second in a row at home. The team that was picked for first (tied with KU) in the preseason coaches' poll will now need a monster second half to come close to those expectations with road games at Texas, Baylor and Iowa State ahead, plus home tilts against Kansas and Oklahoma.
Newcomer of the Year (Ryan Spangler, OU) I am not including the impressive list of true freshman in this group so KU's Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and a host of others are not candidates for my version of this award. This is for the transfer player that has made the biggest difference for his team. ISU's DeAndre Kane also has the credentials, but for me Spangler is the guy who has made the greatest impact for one of the surprise teams in the conference. He plays bigger than the 6-8 he is listed at and his competitive fire has been contagious for the Sooners. One of the big concerns coming into the season for OU was rebounding because of their lack of overall length. Spangler has made it a non-issue while showing other undersized teammates how it's done. He leads the conference in double-doubles so far this season with nine and might end up becoming the first Sooner to lead the conference in rebounding since Blake Griffin in 2009.
The Light Bulb Is On Award (Le'Bryan Nash, OSU) - Indulge me on this one but I think it's awesome when the light comes on for a player and they finally let us all see their talent. It may seem odd that I am highlighting Nash. His scoring average is about the same this season as it has been his first two years at around 14 points per game. It's all about how he is getting it done now. Watching the former McDonald's All American in his first two seasons you could see his talent but he always left me wanting more. Too many times he settled for a long range jumper or 3-point shot. This season he has shown terrific low post moves and an ability to finish at the rim. OSU head coach Travis Ford told me earlier in this conference season that sometimes you just have to let certain players figure it out for themselves. Well, Nash has figured it out.
The second half of the season promises to be just as remarkable as the first half. Can KU make it 10 titles in a row? Seven Big 12 teams have been in the Top 25 this season - how many can make it to the NCAA Tournament? It's not crazy to think the conference could send seven to the tournament, with at least six looking like a pretty safe number. Those answers and more are ahead in this remarkable Big 12 season.
Star-Studded Studio Lineup
February 4, 2014 Doug Bell, Big 12 Network - @DougBellESPN
Forgive me for being sentimental, but as the Big 12 season roars past the halfway point, I can't help but look ahead to our Studio 66 setup in Kansas City, and look back at 18 memorable years of covering what has become the best basketball league in America.
It has been an honor and distinct pleasure to be the host of Studio 66 both during the season and in Championship play and the list of Hall of Fame coaches and players (many current NBA stars) that we've talked to is impressive. Dare I say, no other league can boast a "who's who" quite like the Big 12.
Here are the headliners from each school we've interviewed live on Studio 66, starting with my analysts:
Studio 66 analysts
Rolando Blackmon, Chris Piper, Stacey King, Reid Gettys, Bryndon Manzer.
Roy Williams, Bill Self, Raef LaFentz, Jacque Vaughn, Scott Pollard, Paul Pierce, Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich, Drew Gooden, Mario Chalmers
Kelvin Sampson, Corey Brewer, Hollis Price, Eduardo Najera, Blake Griffin
Rick Barnes, Chris Mihm, T.J. Ford, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin
Eddie Sutton, Desmond Mason, Joey Graham, Mario Boggan, James Anderson, Marcus Smart
Bob Knight, Cory Carr, Andre Emmett
Frank Martin, Michael Beasley
Scott Drew, LaceDarius Dunn, Perry Jones III, Ekpe Udoh, Quincy Acy, Pierre Jackson
Tim Floyd, Fred Hoiberg, Marcus Fizer, Dedric Willoughby, Jamaal Tinsley, Royce White
We've also interviewed some championship coaches on the ladies side like Jody Conradt at Texas and Kim Mulkey from Baylor. And let's not forget legendary announcer Brent Musburger, who has stopped by each of the last four years.
It's been an absolute blast and as we head to Kansas City to interview more players and coaches at this year's Big 12 Championship. Let me simply say, thanks for the memories!
January 31, 2014 - Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network - @davearmstrong12
I read with great interest Stephen Howard's blog a week ago about "Forgotten Freshmen". It got me to thinking about the sophomore class that has been largely ignored. And what a class!
I'd love to see a game played between the best freshmen in the Big 12 vs. the best sophomores. Let's put 12 players on a team. What would that look like? I'm sure we could argue a bit on who belongs on each squad, but for what it's worth, here's what I've got. And these are listed in no particular order.
Ish Wainright - Baylor
Montι Morris - Iowa State
Matt Thomas - Iowa State
Joel Embiid - Kansas
Wayne Selden - Kansas
Andrew Wiggins - Kansas
Marcus Foster - Kansas State
Wesley Iwundu - Kansas State
Jordan Woodard - Oklahoma
Karviar Shepherd - TCU
Isaiah Taylor - Texas
Devin Williams - West Virginia
Isaiah Austin - Baylor
Rico Gathers - Baylor
Georges Niang - Iowa State
Perry Ellis - Kansas
Buddy Hield - Oklahoma
Ryan Spangler - Oklahoma
Phil Forte - Oklahoma State
Marcus Smart - Oklahoma State
Javan Felix - Texas
Cameron Ridley - Texas
Eron Harris - West Virginia
Terry Henderson - West Virginia
Wow! That's a ton of young talent! No question, the freshmen class has lived up to its preseason billing. And they're getting better every game. But as good as they are, I think I would take my chances with this sophomore class. There are so many ways the sophomores could score, from both inside and out. I'm not certain which team would win, but I would love to call this game. There just might be a Wow! or two in the broadcast.
January 28, 2014 Rich Zvosec, Big 12 Network - @CoachZZ
Putting together a team capable of competing for a championship in the Big 12 takes many forms. Many coaches prefer to recruit primarily high school student athletes; others look to the junior college ranks for players. However, just about all of the coaches in the conference are willing to take a transfer if they can help them win a Big 12 crown.
A quick look would see that Fred Hoiberg has rebuilt Iowa State quickly with a number of transfers over the past couple of years. However, he is not the only coach to take a chance on a player on the rebound. This year is no different.
Taking a look at the rosters and conference statistics and you will find transfers dotting the rosters of just about every team in the conference.
Baylor has bolstered its depth with the addition of Denver transfer Royce O'Neal. Two other transfers have made an impact on the Bears - Gary Franklin (California) and sharpshooter Brady Heslip (Boston College), who is among the league leaders in 3-point field goals made.
Kansas had a great run with a pair of transfers on last year's roster. Jeff Withey (Arizona) and Kevin Young (Loyola Marymount) were stalwarts the last couple of years for the Jayhawks. This year, Tarik Black (Memphis) has performed well and has already won a player of the week honor. Hunter Mickelson, a 7-foot Arkansas transfer, is sitting out hoping to be the next Withey.
Over in Manhattan, Omari Lawrence (St. John's) has been a consistent player for Coach Bruce Weber. Georgetown transfer Brandon Bolden is sitting out this year, but the 6-11 player will have an impact on the Wildcats next season.
Devonta Aaron (Arkansas) made an impression for the Horned Frogs before getting injured in the preseason. Next year will look even brighter when the TCU gets Pittsburgh transfer, Trey Ziegler and former UTEP player Chris Washburn eligible.
Two of the top point guards in the conference are both transfers. DeAndre Kane (Marshall) has led Iowa State to its best start in years. He has shared the top two spots in the conference for assists with Dayton transfer Juwan Staten, who is leading the West Virginia Mountaineers in field goal percentage and steals.
Perhaps the transfer who has made the biggest impact this year is Ryan Spangler of Oklahoma. The former Gonzaga Bulldog wanted to get closer to home and no one could be happier than Coach Lon Kruger. Spangler brings toughness and production to the Sooners. He leads the conference in rebounding and is in the top 10 in blocked shots.
As you can see there is more than one way to build a roster. The key is finding the right fit for you. If that means a transfer, well, a coach's door is always open for a good player.
The Forgotten Freshmen
January 24, 2014 Stephen Howard, Big 12 Network - @Stephen_Speaks
This year has been dubbed the "Year of the Freshmen" because of all of the hype this incoming class of freshmen has garnered. Four fabulous freshmen were given the distinction of being part of the "Freshmen Focus" by ESPN as the top freshmen of the bunch Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Aaron Gordon (Arizona), Jabari Parker (Duke) and Julius Randle (Kentucky). Lately, Joel Embiid of Kansas seems to have repositioned that focus squarely on to his overly athletic 7-foot frame, but after watching the first few weeks of Big 12 action I started to focus on the "Forgotten Freshman" of the Big 12.
It would be easy for Wayne Selden, Jr. to get lost in the shadow of Wiggins and Embiid, but at 6'5" and 230 lbs, his body is probably the most physically ready of all of the Big 12 freshmen to take that next jump to the NBA. When I spoke with former Jayhawk Jeff Withey, who is now roaming the paint for the New Orleans Pelicans, the only player he wanted to talk about was Selden. Because of his size, he has shown the ability to get his shot off anywhere on the court and has elevated his offensive game during Big 12 conference play and is scoring 15 points per game, five points more than his scoring production before conference play started. Having the second-most 3-pointers and assists on a team that has scouts lining up to just watch players get off the bus is no small feat.
Marcus Foster has done a great job in the "Little Apple" of helping K-State fans forget about Rodney McGruder, last year's leader of the Wildcats. Although his 6'2" frame might be small for a two-guard at a top division school, you wouldn't know it by looking at his production. Talking to coach Bruce Weber about Foster and anyone else that you ask, you will hear words like "focus" and "work ethic" to describe the young man. One thing I have already seen from Foster is his evolution from a volume scorer to a more efficient scorer in Big 12 play - even though in his last game in a loss to Texas, he only had eight points. That still makes it only the fourth time in 19 games he has not reached double-digits. This is pretty impressive for even a senior in college.
Ish Wainright for the Bears is a player who has yet to show the fans and the viewing public the same skill set that he had shown behind closed doors. During one of the closed door "secret scrimmages" that go on across the country before the season starts, one Big 12 official called me and told me that he thought Wainright was the best player on the team and would be the difference maker for Baylor during the season. Standing at 6'5" and weighing 245 is pretty impressive for a freshman. When you consider that he is also a point guard who can guard any position from 1-4 and score from ease in the paint, you can see why the Baylor coaching staff is just waiting for Wainright to find his "groove".
Isaiah Taylor, a 6'1" point guard for Texas, has helped to lead a resurgence of the Longhorns that has to be the surprise of Big 12 play. Taylor's ability to manage UT, as well put up consistent scoring numbers at 10.8 points per game, is one of the reasons Texas has four wins with only two losses in Big 12 action (tied for second place). He has a quick first step that makes it hard for defenders to stay in front of him, but at heart he is still a pass-first guard that leads his team in assists and is the catalyst for the high-scoring Longhorn transition attack.
Karviar Shepard is 6'10" tall with a wingspan over seven feet. As the highest rated recruit ever to sign with the Horned Frogs, much was expected and much has been delivered. For the year, he has started every game this season and has provided the rim protection every team desires by averaging 2.1 blocks - currently fourth in the Big 12. In addition to his ability to block shots, Shepard is also showing some impressive ability on the rebounding front averaging 7.6 boards, good for fifth in the league. The sky's the limit for this tall talented freshmen.
Jordan Woodard, a point guard for the Sooners, might not be known much outside of Norman, but you can believe he's a favorite of his teammates averaging 4.5 assists. That mark puts him ahead of all other freshmen and sophomores in the category and is good enough for fifth overall in the Big 12. Everyone loves playing with a point guard who will get you the ball, but what I like most about Jordan is his ability and willingness to get to the free throw line. He currently leads the Big 12 with 104 free throws out of 134 attempts. This shows me not only a willingness to put your body into harm's way, but also the mentality to do whatever it takes for your team to be successful.
Monte Morris who comes off the bench for the Cyclones and plays point guard is already playing with maturity beyond his years, boasting the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the Big 12 (5.3). He has committed just three turnovers in the last 298 minutes played. Wow! Coach Fred Hoiberg has commented that, at times, Morris is one of the most poised players on the court for the Cyclones. It all makes sense when you hear about how Morris practiced with the high school varsity ever since he was in 7th grade - even though he wasn't allowed to play games. Impressive indeed!
Devin Williams, standing at 6'9" and weighing at an impressive 255-pounds, is a player who quickly passes the eye test. After posting five double-double performances, already fifth all-time among WVU freshman, the eye test and the physical skills test quickly match up. Williams has a motor and a knack for the ball that is something that you cannot teach. Once his offensive game catches up to his ability to locate and secure the basketball...watch out Big 12.
A Sad Time For A Cowboy
January 21, 2014 Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network, @mitchholthus
Oklahoma State has had to deal with tragedy before. Every time I visit Gallagher-Iba Arena I always spend a little time at the Memorial for the 10 members of the OSU men's basketball program who lost their lives in a 2001 plane crash in Colorado. Similarly, I always look at the banner above the arena that remembers the late OSU women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and three others from the Cowgirl basketball family who perished in a 2011 plane crash in Arkansas.
Now another Cowboy and his family are hurting. Barry Hinson loves Oklahoma State. He was part of the OSU men's basketball teams of the early 1980's that brought winning back to the Stillwater campus. Barry and his wife, Angie both went to Oklahoma State after being high school sweethearts at Marlow, Oklahoma. Also, it was at OSU that Barry met his good friend Bill Self, a guard on the OSU basketball team.
Barry and Angie's daughter, Tiffany, also attended Oklahoma State where she met veterinary student Niles Thomason. The two married in 2004 making another union of OSU Cowboy and Cowgirl just like Barry and Angie Hinson. Plus, Barry and Angie have a two year old grandson, Carter Hinson Thomason, who has the spirit of the OSU Pistol Pete mascot.
Barry is now the head basketball coach at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois after spending four years on Bill Self's staff at the University of Kansas. Barry and Angie were looking forward to a Christmas visit from Niles, Tiffany and Carter who were coming to Carbondale from their Colorado home.
Then the unthinkable happened. On Christmas Eve, shortly after Niles arrived, he became violently ill and had to be taken to a Carbondale hospital. Niles, a vibrant, successful 31 year old proud graduate of Oklahoma State's School of Veterinary Medicine died on Christmas morning. No one is sure why or how Niles became so sick and died so suddenly.
Barry Hinson and his family are devastated. He told me, "I fix things, but I can't fix this". The OSU community has reached out to help Barry, Angie, Tiffany, Carter and the rest of the Hinson and Thomason families.
The family is not sure what to do now, but the long and difficult road ahead - especially for Tiffany and Carter - will probably center around the Orange and Black spirit of Oklahoma State.
There is a trust fund established for Carter. I'll send a check today and say a prayer for a friend and his family-a friend who is hurting.
Carter Hinson Thomason Trust Fund
FBO Carter Hinson Thomason
c/o Steve Streeter
4111 South Darlington Suite 120
Tulsa, OK 74135
Any Given Wednesday
January 17, 2014 Brad Sham, Big 12 Network
It's only been two weeks since brother Dave Armstrong pointed out in this year's first edition of CTB how competitive the Big 12 race could be. Just two weeks into a two-month-plus season, only 19 out of 90 games played. Nearly two more months for teams to evolve and improve. And apparently, knock each other off.
We look at rosters and evaluate teams in October and make predictions. Heck, we guess is what we do, but everyone does. Part of the fun of being a fan. Then we have preseason commence, we have Texas beat North Carolina and Baylor knock off Kentucky and Kansas beat Duke and then lose to San Diego State, and then we get to the New Year and we guess again. We re-evaluate and say, well, maybe THIS is what will happen.
And nothing prepares us for a start to the season like this. I left a meeting at my place of worship Wednesday night and checked my phone and found out I better get home to catch the end of that Texas Tech-Baylor game quick.
We have already had more twists and turns in the first two weeks than we might have expected. Tech had lost three straight and five of six before that win Wednesday. With the confidence that comes from a performance like that against a team like Baylor, who knows what the Red Raiders have done for their season. And while we're near the bottom of the two-week league standings, if you saw TCU or West Virginia play last year, you know how much improved those teams are. They're just not who they were when 2013 was an infant. They are tough outs.
But even those of us who expected a good race wouldn't have predicted this. Not the No. 1 RPI in America. Three in the top 15 in average scoring. Three in the top 11 of the ESPN power index. Ten of 19 league games heading into the weekend have been settled by seven points or fewer. Seven of the 10 league schools have received top 25 votes.
Just look at what the last week has wrought - the first full one of league play. Oklahoma put itself in position for its first national ranking in years with last Saturday's upset (or was it?) of Iowa State, and followed that up with a Tuesday loss at Kansas State. Come to think of it, maybe that was no surprise, since the thought-to-be-rebuilding Wildcats started the conference schedule by beating Oklahoma State, the preseason co-champion pick with Kansas, which enters the weekend the only unbeaten team in the Big 12. The Jayhawks looked like a Final Four team in their Big Monday dismantling of Iowa State, which had been one of the nation's few remaining unbeatens until their loss at Oklahoma, which is where we started. And we haven't even mentioned Baylor, which was up to No. 7 in the country before losing two of three, sandwiched around a 26-point mugging of TCU, before falling to Tech Wednesday night, which is where we REALLY started.
In every telecast we do, at some point we put up a graphic with the upcoming schedule for each team for the next half-dozen games or so. I have yet to see a game where every one of those schedules looked like the proverbial Murderers' Row.
What this means down the road a couple months is that the six or eight Big 12 teams who make postseason play are going to be well tested and prepared. But in our society, we spend way too much time looking down the road and not enough enjoying what's right in front of us. As Big 12 basketball fans, what's in front of us is one of the best seasons in recent memory. Two weeks in, we have seen that any team can beat any other on any given Wednesday.
14 Wins A Potential Magic Number
January 14, 2014 Bryndon Manzer, Big 12 Network
14-4! That would be an excellent conference regular-season record in this league. It would be in any year. However, just like last year, chances are that 14 wins will give one lucky team the Big 12 regular season title. In typical years past that wouldn't be enough W's percentage-wise. Will it be the Kansas Jayhawks winning a 10th consecutive title or will it be an Oklahoma State, a Baylor or an Iowa State who finally dethrones the dominance of KU? Too early to tell only four games in, but this conference has already shown every night is a war as 10 of the 16 games played thus far have been decided by 7 points or less.
I have followed this league since my youth. I watched Oklahoma's Alvan Adams and Wayman Tisdale, Missouri's Steve Stipanovich and Jon Sunvold as well as greats like Rolando Blackmon and Ed Nealy of Kansas State. In addition, I was fortunate to play in the old Big 8 and have been closely covering Big 12 basketball the last 10 years. Never has the league been tougher. In fact, this could turn out to be the most challenging and grueling Big 12 title for whomever the eventual champion becomes.
As we suspected, Kansas' young basketball team is rapidly improving. With their impressive win in Ames on Monday night the Jayhawks are 3-0 and the only unbeaten team in the league! We are barely 1/6th through the conference slate and Kansas is the lone team without a loss? Think about that.
The traditional nationally known quality at the top of the league is there just as it is every year. The Big 12 currently boasts the No. 1 RPI in the country. Five teams are in the AP top 25, and three conference teams rank among the top 12 in the ESPN Basketball Power Index (BPI). Only the Big Ten can say that as well. However, what separates the Big 12 from everyone else in 2014 is the tremendous strength that's provided by its depth.
The Big 12 looks headed for having at least 60 percent of the league participating in the NCAA Tournament and maybe a seventh team if things fall right. There is not one road game this year where teams can chalk up a win. Not in Lubbock. Not in Fort Worth. Not anywhere. That makes for an extremely enjoyable year of Big 12 basketball for its fans ... but not so much for its coaches.
So as you follow your team and they struggle for stretches or even lay an egg in your mind, remember that the grind of the Big 12 Conference is a marathon and not a sprint. More so this year than maybe any other year ever. And if your team has the talent and capability to potentially win the Championship, relax, be patient and remember the number 14!
Another Marcus In The Neighborhood
January 10, 2014 Mark Neely, Big 12 Network
As I settled in to my seat at the broadcast table this past Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum it felt, as Yogi Berra once said, like dιjΰ vu all over again. For the second consecutive season, Kansas State and Oklahoma State were beginning conference play against one another in Manhattan. Last year's meeting commenced a conference season that would end with the Wildcats owning a share of their first regular-season title in 36 years with the Cowboys falling a game short. Also like last year's game the spotlight fell on OSU's Marcus Smart.
Smart deservedly was the unanimous pick as the 2013 Big 12 Player of the Year. When he took the floor in Manhattan a season ago, though, the question was how he would handle his first Big 12 conference game. He answered that by scoring a then career-high 25 points - officially beginning a run that would conclude with Smart winning all the conference's major awards at the end of the season. His impressive conference debut wasn't enough to take down K-State, however, as senior Rodney McGruder scored 26 of his game-high 28 points in the second half for a 73-67 Wildcats win. I know you can say this about a number of games in an 18-game conference season, but a different outcome that day would have given the Cowboys a share of the conference title with Kansas instead of Kansas State.
Last season, the Wildcats were picked to finish fifth in the preseason coaches' poll and we know how that played out. This year they are again picked to finish fifth. Some Wildcat fans may feel a lack of respect for a team that is coming off its first title since 1977 but I think that it's more a statement of the conference's strength than a knock on K-State. The Wildcats lost their two top scorers from last year's squad (Rodney McGruder, Angel Rodriguez). Before the season began the teams picked ahead of the Wildcats (KU, OSU, Baylor, and Iowa State) all had more talented rosters on paper. The Wildcats 2-3 start this season, including a head-scratching loss in their home opener to Northern Colorado, didn't quiet the naysayers. But the measurement of talent is a fluid thing and after the ending of this season's Wildcats-Cowboys conference opener I believe the talent gap between K-State and the teams picked above them is closing. Here's why.
This past Saturday, Marcus Smart wasn't the only Marcus on the court. Kansas State true freshman Marcus Foster, like Smart a year earlier, faced the prospect of his first conference game head on. His numbers coming in suggested he was ready for the challenge - leading the team in scoring at nearly 14 points per game. What he did lack coming in was the notoriety. Unlike Smart last year and a host of other highly-publicized freshman this season, Foster has been flying under the radar. Against the Cowboys, he scored a team high 17 points with eight rebounds in K-State's 74-71 win. Foster played with a confidence and poise beyond his experience level. attacking the rim and also draining a couple of 3-pointers. A few days later he was chosen the Big 12 Newcomer of the Week.
My respect level for Foster and his game grew after watching him at practice and during the game versus OSU. Two primary things jumped out at me. One is his maturity. It's not only his steady decision-making that's impressive but also how he handles himself on the court. Foster keeps his emotions under control. He will show some emotion after a teammate makes a nice play but he isn't the chest thumping screaming in the opponent's face guy that has become too commonplace in college basketball. He lets his game do the talking for him.
The other trait Foster has that I learned more about is his loyalty. He was a Parade All-American last year as a senior at Hirschi High School in Wichita Falls, Texas, so it's not like his credentials went unnoticed by schools other than Kansas State. So why did he choose to come to Manhattan? Foster was recruited heavily by a host of schools, but he had a subpar AAU summer season before his senior year of high school. Many schools witnessed that and cooled down their courting of Foster but not Kansas State. Bruce Weber's staff, lead by Texas native Alvin Brooks III, stayed with Foster and when he rebounded his senior year he decided he would stick with a school that stuck with him.
There are many tests ahead for Foster and the Wildcats including this weekend as they take their 10-game winning streak into Allen Fieldhouse. If you're just getting up to speed with the basketball season now that college football is over pay close attention to Foster. There's another Marcus in the Big 12 neighborhood. He doesn't ask for your respect but he deserves it.
18 Reason To Watch Big 12 Hoops
January 7, 2014 Doug Bell, Big 12 Network - @DougBellESPN
This is the 18th year of the Big 12, which means I've been a lucky man watching this incredible league take shape from my seat at Studio 66. In honor of all the great players, coaches, colleagues and fans I've encountered over the years, let me say thank you for all the great memories. It's time to create more, and here are 18 reasons we should all get excited about the Big 12 in 2014.
18 - STUDIO 66 BACKCOURT
My partners in the studio (Big 12 Network, Saturday's at 1:30 pm ET/12:30 pm CT) both played for Hall of Fame coaches and were part of outstanding teams. Bryndon Manzer played for Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State and Reid Gettys suited up for Guy Lewis at Houston. Both Bryndon and Reid are among the best analysts in the business at breaking down a game from start-to-finish. Watch and listen and your basketball IQ will increase almost as quickly as Hakeem Olajuwan would stuff a Gettys lob pass.
17 - GOLDEN PIPES
The Big 12 television audiences are lucky to have a stable of announcers which includes veterans Dave Armstrong, Mitch Holthus and Brad Sham. Armstrong is the dean of Big 12, while Holthus and Sham are the radio voices of the Chiefs and Cowboys (respectively) of the NFL. No league in the country can boast a talent crop like this.
16 - BRENT IS BACK
Let's be honest, if you're sitting on the couch watching the Big 12 on Big Monday, it doesn't get any better than when Hall of Fame announcer Brent Musburger says "You are looking live.....". He still has the pipes and works well with Fran Fraschilla and Holly Rowe. The Big 12 deserves a Hall of Famer for its highly rated Monday extravaganza.
15 - TUBBY TIME
Tubby Smith has done wonders at stops in Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky and Minnesota, taking all of those schools to the NCAA tourney. He won a National Championship in Lexington and figures to turn things around in Lubbock.
14 - " LA FIESTA" TIME IN FORT WORTH
I'm so looking forward to another trip to TCU which means a stop at Joe T. Garcia's ,one of the best Mexican restaurants in the state of Texas. There are no menus .... which makes the choices very easy and the service spectacular.
13 - ONLY IF YOU'RE HUNGRY
I also can't wait to call a game in Ames this season. Not just because the Cyclones are championship caliber, but so is the smoked beef at Battle's Barbeque.
12 - A REAL HANG OUT
Kite's Grille and Bar in Manhattan is where K-State fans hang out before and after the Wildcats play. The big screen televisions are everywhere and I enjoy meeting and greeting the K-State nation.
11 - NEW FACES
TCU features a roster of several new faces which no longer makes them an easy mark for most of the league. Old reliable Kyan Anderson returns and the Horned Frogs' leading scorer from a year ago is off to a terrific start.
10 - MOUNTAINEER POINT MAN
Eron Harris logged major minutes as a freshman for Bob Huggins and has teamed with Juwan Staten to form an impressive backcourt for WVU. Harris is one of the Big 12's most underrated players. He won't be flying under the radar for long.
9 - GALLAGHER IBA AND A WHO'S WHO
The excitement has returned to the historic building and be sure to bring a sharpie. I did a game there last season and shook hands with Eddie Sutton, Boone Pickens and St. Louis Cardinals slugger Matt Holliday. Forgive me for name dropping.
8 - IN THE PHOG
There's no place quite like Phog Allen Fieldhouse. This is the same floor where Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain, Jo Jo White, and Danny Manning played, just to name a few. The fans are loud and proud.
7 - PURPLE PEOPLE EATERS
The K-State Wildcats pride themselves on making life miserable for offensive minded opponents. They currently lead the league in scoring defense. Bruce Weber's first team won 27 games and a share of the Big 12 championship. Matching those totals may be a challenge, but this team is off to a good start after winning its conference opener.
6 - SENIOR SOONER
Cameron Clark came off the bench every game last season and never complained because he knew eventually his time would come in Norman. The senior has arrived and is currently in the top 10 in four different offensive categories in the Big 12. Patience is a virtue.
5 - BREAKING GOOD IN AUSTIN
It's an even better conference when Texas is good, and Rick Barnes has gone into the lab and created a nice mix of young and old. In other words, the chemistry that was missing last season has suddenly re-appeared. He's gone from an episode of "Breaking Bad" to "Breaking Good".
4 - BEAR TRACKS
Baylor started wearing those bright uniforms two years ago at the Big 12 Championship and the wild colors seem to fit a program that continues to shine. Big men Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson make them a must-see. The Bears reached the Elite Eight in 2010 and 2012 and this team has the talent to return.
3 - HALE TO HOIBERG
The Mayor has off-the-chart approval ratings since his return to Ames. Fred Hoiberg coaches just like he played. He has Melvin Ejim, Georges Niang and DeAndre Kane, who will challenge anyone else's top three in the nation.
2 - WIGGINS AND HIS BAND OF BROTHERS
Andrew Wiggins has been under the spotlight ever since he arrived in Lawrence and so far the reviews have been good. Throw in names like Embiid, Ellis and Black, and this Jayhawk team has the talent to win a Big 12 regular season title for the 10th year in a row. Hats off to Bill Self, one of the top five coaches in the country. KU is aiming for 30-plus victories for the fifth year in a row .... amazing!
1 - GET SMART
Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart may be the No. 1 reason to watch the Big 12 this season. This kid is special and we all need to sit back and enjoy as he takes the Cowboys on a wild ride through the Big 12 ... and hopefully to North Texas and the Final Four near his hometown where friends and family will await.
Fasten Your Seat Belts
January 3, 2014 - Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network - @davearmstrong12
This year's Big 12 race looks to be the most spirited and competitive we've ever seen. Kansas and Oklahoma State were picked as the co-favorites to win the title before the first tip of the season. Those two schools are certainly more than viable candidates to do just that. But they have company. Lots of company.
The Big 12 is ranked as the number one conference in the land according to the latest RPI. The league's squads have gone 33-5 since December 13. So as we head into conference play, it seems everyone is rounding into form. Who will win the crown? Your guess is as good as mine...but let's take a look at the top contenders.
We have to start with Kansas. The Jayhawks have won or shared nine straight titles, so until someone knocks them off their perch, KU is as good a pick as anyone. Bill Self's team is young, but loaded with talent. Three McDonald's All Americans, led by Andrew Wiggins, give Kansas as much firepower as anyone in the Big 12. They've played the toughest schedule in the nation, and have the best RPI ranking. Plus, they are getting better each game. Joel Embiid is definitely a player to watch, and Perry Ellis has been solid in his sophomore campaign. If this team lives up to it's full potential, they could be hanging more banners at Allen Fieldhouse.
Oklahoma State, led by player of the year candidate Marcus Smart, is up to the challenge. The Cowboys got some tough news this week when Michael Cobbins suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. Kamari Murphy has improved greatly in his second season, and OSU now needs him to plug a hole in the middle of the line-up. The Cowboys are also loaded with talent, and it's not just Smart. Markel Brown, Le'Bryan Nash and Phil Forte give OSU plenty of scoring punch. The big question in Stillwater is depth, especially with the loss of Cobbins.
Iowa State has been perfect so far. The Cyclones have started 12-0, which is a school record. They've beaten the likes of Michigan, Iowa and BYU in the Cougars' den. ISU has had five different players selected as the Big 12 Player of the Week. That's never happened before! Need I say more about the depth of Fred Hoiberg's team and how he takes advantage of certain matchups in each game? This is the top scoring team in the Big 12, and the magic is certainly back at Hilton. The man who first made the magic in Ames was Johnny Orr. He passed away this week, and I join all of Cyclone Nation in mourning his loss. Coach Orr was always one of my favorites, and I miss him a great deal.
Baylor rounds out our top four. The Bears have been very impressive. Wins against Colorado and Kentucky highlight their 11-1 start, and a loss to second-ranked Syracuse is the only thing standing in the way of an unblemished start. Scott Drew's team has the size with Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin. They also have the ability to knock down the outside shot with Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin. Kenny Chery has been a great addition at the point.
Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas State have made some noise so far and any of these teams could get into the mix. The Longhorns have an impressive win at North Carolina on their resume, and the Wildcats have rattled off eight straight wins. OU is 11-2 so far, including wins in seven of their last eight.
TCU is much improved, as is West Virginia. Tubby Smith is still getting settled in at Lubbock, but the Red Raiders have been tough at home winning seven of eight games.
So fasten your seatbelts everyone, we are in for a great ride! I can't wait!